Patriotism and Propaganda in First World War Britain: The National War Aims Committee and Civilian Morale

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Patriotism and Propaganda in First World War Britain: The National War Aims Committee and Civilian Morale. By David Monger. Liverpool University Press. 310pp, Pounds 70.00. ISBN 9781846318306. Published 21 August 2012

Gradually, much of the scaffolding of the influential, but historically inaccurate, depiction of British opinion during the First World War, reflected in countless novels as well as older historical studies, is being dismantled. The disillusionment of the war poets is no longer seen as typical of soldiers' attitudes and the fortitude of British society is increasingly recognised. The view of public opinion in 1914 as overwhelmed by war hysteria and unthinking jingoism has been replaced by one of a reluctant but resolute nation convinced of the justice of the war. But the question remains as to how morale was maintained as the conflict dragged on and the casualties and deaths mounted. David Monger addresses this question in a detailed examination of the role of the hitherto unexplored history of the National War Aims Committee (NWAC), a semi-official parliamentary organisation set up with cross-party support in the summer of 1917.

Monger argues that earlier in the war, censorship had been limited, the press was relatively free and despite the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, powers to suppress unwelcome publications were sparingly used. Meanwhile, encouragement of support for the war had been left to a hotchpotch of voluntary organisations and branches of the Foreign Office and the Directorate of Military Intelligence.

Even the NWAC's "semi-official" status points to government ambivalence about propaganda and, Monger suggests, a desire to keep it at arm's length. It was only in the most testing year of the war that the new prime minister, David Lloyd George (who had worried as early as 1915 about how long morale could be maintained in the face of mounting casualties and no sign of victory), encouraged the creation of an organisation responsible for propaganda to combat war-weariness and pacifism.

Until 1917, governments had been relatively sanguine about support for the war effort. …