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The Foreign Office and British Propaganda during the First World War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Philip M. Taylor
University of Leeds


In July 1918 it was the considered opinion of Lord Northcliffe that propaganda and diplomacy were incompatible. When, only five months earlier, Northcliffe had accepted Lloyd George's invitation to take charge of the newly created department of enemy propaganda, his appointment, coupled with that of Lord Beaverbrook as Britain's first minister of information, had held out the promise of a new phase in the efficiency and co-ordination of Britain's conduct of official propaganda in foreign countries. It was then, in February 1918, that the Foreign Office had finally been forced to relinquish its control over such work. However, the creation of the two new departments had produced an intolerable situation. After three years of inter-departmental rivalry and squabbling over the conduct of propaganda overseas, Whitehall closed ranks on Beaverbrook and Northcliffe and united behind the Foreign Office in opposition to any further transference of related duties into their hands. Now, after five months of continued obstruction, Northcliffe expressed the view that:

As a people we do not understand propaganda ways…Propaganda is advertising and diplomacy is no more likely to understand advertising than advertising is likely to understand diplomacy.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1980

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1 Northcliffe to C. J. Phillips, 12 July 1918. Cited in Harmsworth, G. and Pound, R., Northcliffe (London, 1959), p. 653Google Scholar.

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5 H. O. Lee, ‘British propaganda during the great war, 1914–18’, PRO, INF 4/4A. The exact dates remain vague and even this document, the ‘official’ history written shortly after the war but before the papers relating to First World War propaganda were destroyed in 1920, fails to throw light on the early chronological developments. For a detailed study of the news department see Taylor, Philip M., ‘“The projection of Britain”; British overseas publicity and propaganda, 1914–39, with particular reference to the news department of the foreign office’, Leeds University Ph.D. thesis, 1978Google Scholar.

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7 The work of the Press Bureau has been described by SirCook, Edward in his The press in wartime (London, 1920)Google Scholar but awaits a modern study.

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19 It was later noted that ‘in the early days of propaganda, even Westminster was found to be too far from Fleet Street’ General notes on propaganda, undated, unsigned. INF 4/1B.

20 Cecil, then responsible for the news department's work in his capacity as parliamentary under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, had insisted that ‘the Foreign Office could allow very considerable latitude to journalists, and would even go so far as to abandon any preliminary submission of matter connected with foreign policy at all’. Memorandum by J. A. Simon, 27 Oct. 1915. CAB 37/136/34.

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42 Ibid. This statement reveals an important point. In the first half of the war, any reference to the ‘Foreign Office attitude’ concerning propaganda really means a small group of officials centred on Montgomery and Cecil. Grey and Nicolson rarely played an active role in the work. Their successors, however, Balfour and Hardinge, were more prepared to involve themselves, although perhaps more by force of circumstance than through personal choice.

43 Samuel had succeeded Simon following the latter's resignation overthe issue of conscription on New Year's Day 1916. It appears that he was more amenable than Simon on the transference of Mair to the Foreign Office. Cecil to Samuel, 21 Jan. 1916. FO 371/2835, 17981.

44 Lord Onslow had been permanent private secretary to Sir Edward Grey andSir Arthur Nicolson, 1911–13, but was at this time a member of M.I.7.

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59 Charteris, diary entry for 2 Aug. 1916. Miles Lampson, commenting upon the ‘incredible and discreditable’ lack of public interest in war films, informed Charteris that ‘all the people want to see is Charlie Chaplin’. Ibid. p. 166.

60 Ibid. diary for 19 Sept. 1916.

61 Lamson to Montgomery, 28 July 1916. FO 371/2835, 184995.

62 Minute by Montgomery, undated. FO 371/2835, 184995. See also the undated War Office memorandum enclosed in Macdonagh to Newton, 14 Sept. 1916, and Newton's reply (not sent) of 18 Sept. FO 371/2835, 193134.

63 CAB 23/1, 1(4). 9 Dec. 1916.

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