By Judith Phillips and Jo Angell
The autumn season of First World War-related talks got off to a fine start on Sunday 18th September. Professor Fox began by reading letters from an Army officer, Cecil, and his sweetheart Dora. They did not want to rush into marriage as he was very aware that he might not return from the war. Letters in wartime often have a much deeper meaning, even if censorship ensured there were no references in letters from the front to locations and specific battles.
Quite soon after the war began state propaganda programmes as well as private and patriotic organisations looked at ways to encourage men to enlist and women to support them. Hatred and anger played a significant part in propaganda but so did love and sex – nothing seemed out of bounds. Professor Fox illustrated her point by showing slides of government-approved postcards showing the importance of patriotism and faithfulness.
The idea of possible infidelity could be a distraction from ‘service’. Even popular songs showed an awareness of this: “Keep your eyes on the girl you love” and implying that to earn a right to happiness after the war, men had to enlist: “I am going to pin a medal on the girl I left behind”. Women were encouraged to persuade the men they knew to enlist and men’s consciences were prodded by the need to protect their women from the horrors of war.
In propaganda conscientious objectors were considered outcasts with the notorious white-feather campaigns castigating them as cowards and thus unworthy of women’s love, and the same attitude was taken to deserters. Professor Fox showed a short film produced to discourage desertion. A working-class woman with a new baby hears a rumour that her husband has been killed. She dreams that in fact he deserted and she rejects him. But when she wakes up, she finds he is actually home on leave.
In war, separation of couples is inevitable, and the possibilities of new sexual relationships caused tensions in society. Some girls were considered no better than amateur prostitutes in their willingness to provide sex for soldiers, while others wanted a ‘soldier-lover’ in the hope of feeding into the ‘soldier as hero’. The war also provided an opportunity for women to formulate and state their sexual needs which were used in formulating propaganda. Abstinence, if well-directed, was also seen as a propaganda tool, particularly to combat a rapid growth in venereal disease which hampered military operations.
Sensationalist propaganda used reports of sex crimes by enemy forces against civilian populations to justify war and to present the enemy as monsters. The nation was frequently represented by a female figure, so ideas of violence against nations and women became intertwined.
Professor Fox ended with a photograph of the wedding of Cecil and Dora.
The next talk will be on Saturday 15th October at 2.30 in the Jubilee Room in the Museum when Andrew Marriott will talk about WWI North East Trench Art. Tickets cost £3.00 (FREE with museum admission and for Friends of the Museum) which includes tea/coffee and biscuits. You can book your tickets through the website www.thebowesmuseumww1.org.uk or by telephoning 01833 690606.