Thursday, April 21, 2011

Conscripting Youth: Children and the Posters of the Great War

Advertisers know that children can sell just about anything.  A grinning cherub armed with an endearing catch-phrase is often used to melt our hearts and open our pocketbooks.  It is no surprise, then, that during the Great War, images of children were conscripted to promote the war effort in many Allied countries.  It was not just the cute appeal of the innocent child, however, that was used to drum up money for war bonds or recruit men to the regiments. In many cases, the strong social bonds of family expectations were used to put pressure on citizens as family members.

As this British poster of the melancholy man shows, fathers were targeted by posters which hoped to recruit men to to the ranks.  Here it is the social pressure of participating in the major event of the generation that is used to coerce fathers into enlistment.  The girl on his knee points to a history book and inquires what her father's role was in this epic adventure.  One can only imagine the shame that the son may have endured in learning his father had stayed at home, missing out on the derring-do of the living-room floor campaigns of his heroic toy soldiers.

Compassion for children as family members was often used to attempt to convince citizens to contribute to war bonds.  A poster sponsored by Curtiss Airplanes has a child praying for a brother overseas.  The consoling mother in this domestic scene helps the youth send hopeful prayers for their soldier's safe return.  The strong coloured vertical lines from the American flag's bars are contrasted with the soft oval portrait.  In a case of patriotic product placement, in lieu of the flag's stars, the Curtis company has inserted its own biplanes.  If only the reader contributes to war savings stamps, the idyllic family will be reunited.
Children were also used symbolically as the youth of a nation. The national siblings of Australia and England are here portrayed as innocent friends with hands clasped.  The clean-handed childhood chums, clad in angelic white over the vibrant yellow seem to suggest that by contributing to the war effort, one would be on the side of purity and right.  Again it is the family member away at war that is used to implore contributions from the public.  Here the message is more explicitly aggressive.  Instead of focussing on bringing the family together again, in this case War loan bonds will help "daddy" win the war.

Children as targets themselves were used by the Red Cross to encourage contributions to their humanitarian efforts.  Here a stoic yet compassionate nurse looms over the destitute French orphans.  The drab outfits of the French citizens and the deep orange of the fire-wracked city are offset by the vulnerability of the infant's pink attire. Again the concept of family is used in the emphasis of motherless and fatherless suffering.

Library and Archives Canada has a vast online archive of war posters, from which all the above images came.

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