War of Words

Learn how propaganda was used to sway public opinion during the First World War.

Written by Brooke Campbell

September 27, 2018

“Send more men.” “Back him up.” “This is your flag. Fight for it.”

Over a century ago, posters with these messages plastered the streets of Canadian towns and cities, rallying support for the war effort.

During the First World War, propaganda was an effective tool to inspire, inform, and persuade the public. Canadian posters were mostly text-based with simple images. They provided clear and direct messages, whether it be to purchase victory bonds, ration food, or join your local battalion.

For the first two years of the war, the Canadian military consisted entirely of volunteers. Evoking feelings of pride and honour, propaganda posters encouraged young men to enlist, suggesting that it was their duty to do so.

Some posters cited specific battles where Canadians were recognized for their bravery, such as St. Julien (Ypres) and Festubert, as a way of boosting morale. Since recruitment was carried out locally, propaganda was often personalized. Posters targeted specific groups, such as French Canadians and Irish Canadians, by including recognizable imagery, references, and slogans.

As the war dragged on, enlistment waned. Propaganda posters became increasingly important to try to fill this gap. Earlier in the war, posters were more enthusiastic in tone. Now they displayed a sense of urgency. Featuring images of exploding shells, trenches, and wounded soldiers, it was clear that the situation was grave.

Propaganda also became more aggressive. Political cartoons, posters, and editorials questioned men’s loyalty and masculinity. Those who refused to volunteer were labelled shirkers and described as cowards and weak. Propaganda posters also urged women to use their influence to sway men into enlisting. Some women even handed out white feathers, a symbol of cowardice, to shame men into service.

Despite the massive propaganda effort, by 1917, the Canadian government was forced to enact conscription to fill the ranks.

This article originally appeared in the October-November 2018 issue of Canada’s History magazine. 

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