Unlike the rest of the country, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, did not believe that it would all be over by Christmas. In fact he believed that it would be all be over for Britain in a way it hadn’t bargained for if something wasn’t done fast to expand the size of the army. So, having persuaded the Cabinet and Parliament to enlarge it by 100,000 men immediately, he launched a recruiting drive.
Kitchener’s first recruiting poster appeared on 11 August. We’ve all seen it, Lord Kitchener, his finger pointing straight out fixing the reader with his gaze and the famous words “Your country needs you” printed underneath. It is widely believed to be the most successful, influential and imitated recruiting poster of all time. It was certainly the most imitated but as for the rest, it’s just not true, whilst the image and the words did exist the poster as such did not.
Both words and image appeared on the front cover of the 5 September 1914 edition of London Opinion, a magazine with a circulation of about 300,000. The image of Kitchener, with the squint in his left eye corrected, was the work of the graphic designer Alfred Leete. The following week, the magazine offered readers the opportunity to buy postcards of the image at 1s 4d per 100, although no one ever appears to have seen one of these postcards. The magazine also sold copies of this front cover, which could be framed as prints. Alfred Leete donated the original artwork to the Imperial War Museum in 1917 and they miscatalogued it as a poster, which that particular image with that slogan had never been.
Leete’s image of Kitchener was used on recruiting posters. The poster on the left was not an official poster produced by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee but apparently Lord Kitchener suggested that the words under his pointing finger read, “WANTS YOU”, and insisted that the words ‘God Save the King’ appeared along the bottom. A copy of this poster appears in a photograph of an advertising hoarding taken at a station along the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway line in December 1914.
The image and the words ‘Your country needs you’ appeared on a poster privately printed in November 1914. Both are almost lost among the flags of the allied nations – Belgium, Russia, Great Britain, France and Japan – and information about rates of pay and separation allowances for wives, depending on the number of children they had, and even for the families of unmarried men “within reason”, if he “does his share”. “Don’t imagine that you are not wanted. EVERY MAN between 19 and 38 is WANTED! Ex-soldiers up to 45 years of age.”
However, none of these were the poster that launched Lord Kitchener’s appeal, his ‘call to arms’ on 11 August. There was no populism in this poster, no image of Kitchener the hero of Khartoum, just the plain facts – in the present grave national emergency YOUR KING & COUNTRY NEED YOU, 100,000 men immediately. The poster gave details of the terms of service and information on how to join. Within ten days Kitchener had his 100,000 men – and immediately launched an appeal for 100,000 more.
What this first official recruiting poster lacked in visual impact it made up for in the resonance of its language. By the time conscription was introduced in January 1916 hundreds of thousands of men had answered the ‘call to arms’, the call of King and country, and among the hundreds of thousands who died many families made a point of acknowledging the fact so that references to answering the call, and to King and country, appear frequently in headstone inscriptions.
Your Country Needs You, James Taylor, Saraband 2013
The book looks at the history of recruiting posters