ILN’s unique World War 1 archive – Advertising on the Home Front

With the centenary of WW1 in 2014, I’ve spent the past few weeks immersed in the ILN archives. In doing so, I’ve discovered that the Illustrated London News and her sister publications are, perhaps, the source of the most complete journalistic, photographic and illustrative WW1 news archives in the world.

The reason for this is simple: when the war started in 1914, the ILN published a collection of eight titles that appealed to such a broad demographic that just about  all groups were represented.

“I was surprised as I flicked through these wartime issues by the amount of advertising, which seemed somehow out of place with so much war news.”

I was surprised as I flicked through these wartime issues by the amount of advertising, which seemed somehow out of place with so much war news. But as I looked closer, I realised that many of the ads were directed at the families of soldiers serving in the trenches. Thinking about it, I suppose it was not so odd because, by 1918, 74% of our national resource was diverted to the war effort and almost everyone had a family member serving in the armed forces. Then, as now, if you wanted commercial success, you had to target your audience carefully and appeal to your readership’s needs and desires.

In 1917, Fortnum and Mason were offering “Christmas Cheer” hampers for delivery to troops in the trenches of Passchendaele, in northern France.  Meanwhile, the intended recipients were enduring terrifying artillery bombardments that turned the fields into apocalyptic cratered landscapes eight miles wide. The craters filled with mud so deep that it was not uncommon for soldiers (and their horses) to lose their footing and sink beneath the mud, never to be seen again.

I can imagine that a soldier receiving such a treat would share the goodies with his mates and between them, for a short time at least, escape the horrors that surrounded them. However, I find it incongruous to think of these splendid hampers being delivered to such a wasteland on Christmas Day—but only if ordered by 14 December. It’s curious to think that that last date for dispatch would be much the same today if you wanted to send a Christmas hamper to northern France.

But advertising to the families of combatants was not just about providing a distraction, it also enabled them to overcome their sense of impotence and to provide some assistance to their young men in the line of fire.

As a child I imagined that if I went to war I’d wear a bullet-proof jacket to protect me, so it was to my great surprise that I discovered an advert from The Wilkinson Sword Co selling their bullet-proof jacket which they claimed would “resist a 455 Government revolver bullet. No longer an experiment, but of proved effectiveness and utility. They constitute a precaution that should be taken by every officer.”

As a junior officer in the Great War you were required not simply to order your men “over the top” from behind, but to lead them from the front. With their son’s  life expectancy at around six weeks, families would do anything they could to extend that. These jackets were fitted with pockets into which were set small square steel plates.  In reality, subalterns seldom came up against 455 rounds from a revolver at 20 yards, but stepped up into a maelstrom of shrapnel and machine-gun fire at 400 rounds per minute.

Some adverts for war-related products might seem a little strange when viewed from a 21st-century perspective: after the armistice, a Sanatogen advert—with the tagline “Nerves won the War”— appeared, apparently directed at sufferers of what would now be referred to as “post-traumatic stress disorder”.

Others were rather cuter: the ad for the Decca Portable Gramophone, which was probably aimed at fiancées and sweethearts, asks the question,  “Can you think of a more delightful gift to send to your soldier friend?” and features images of men in the trenches enjoying a tune or two, no doubt while the maelstrom continued unabated overhead. It seems that commercialism thrives in wartime as in peace, and that there is a degree of truth in the saying “Wars are good for business”.

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