In September 1914 the British foreign office authorised a War Propaganda Bureau under Charles Masterman at that point, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a minor position in Asquith’s government. Asquith’s prime objective appears to have been to keep his paramour, Venetia Stanley fully informed of events, often secret events, while keeping the British public in dutiful ignorance.

Asquith and his beloved Venetia

After the Cabinet meeting was informed that the War Propaganda Bureau would be set up in secret, he wrote on 5 September to his beloved Venetia Stanley: ‘The papers I see are crying out (not without reason) for news, of which they have had precious little all this week. I am just going to tell Winston to repeat his feat of last Sunday, and to dish up for them with all his best journalistic condiments the military history of the week. K (Kitchener) is absolutely no use for this kind of thing and has an undisguised contempt for the “public” in all its moods and manifestations.’ [1]

So much for the steady stream of trustworthy information which Asquith’s government had promised. How many of the young men who answered Kitchener’s call would have done so had they known the contempt he bore for the general public?

In advance of the announcement of his appointment, Masterman held two conferences on 2 September and 7 September 1914 to organise and co-ordinate the official propaganda directed at foreign opinion. The first was with prominent literary figures, the second with journalists and publicists. Masterman took over possession of the Buckingham Gate premises occupied by the National Insurance Commission, better known as Wellington House. Work was conducted in absolute secrecy. Masterman was convinced that his target opinion leaders would be unwilling to commit themselves wholeheartedly if they knew the source of their information. [2]

Even members of the Cabinet did not know about his department The most famous literary figures of the day signed up to what amounted to the paid publication of their novels and short stories. It was little more than a free lunch for the well-fed. Distinguished writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, Sir Edward Cook and Hilaire Belloc were amongst the literati who penned articles, tales and stories specifically aimed at spreading British propaganda, especially in America. Naval Intelligence, for the two were often kept apart, called on the additional services of Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad and Alfred Noyes. [3] The master-craftsman of this literary propaganda was none other than Alfred Milner’s private secretary from the Kindergarten years in South Africa, John Buchan. His career in propaganda and military intelligence blossomed magnificently from 1916 onwards when, as Milner’s trusted appointee, John Buchan a member of the Secret Elite [4] linked them to the heart of the British intelligence community. [5] More on this later.

Charles Masterman

Masterman’s task was neither straightforward nor easy. Conflicting views between allies, and military criticism of and from French High Command was somewhat fraught at times. It all had to be handled with great care and the whole business of propaganda moved swiftly into the new media of pictures, photographs, film and newsreels. Propaganda grew from a cottage industry into an international business in its own right. Its aims remained intact; promote the great cause of the allies and damn the evil actions or intentions of the enemy. Its reach expanded into new quarters of the globe. By 1916, Masterman had to open a department of Muslim affairs, such was the growing importance of India, Persia, Egypt, Turkey and the Middle East. [6]

Part of the problem lay in the long-term rivalries that beset various departments of state. Despite Haldane’s stalwart work of reorganisation at the War Office, and to a lesser extent Churchill’s modernisation at the Admiralty, both pursued propaganda and intelligence with almost childish self-interest. The Home Office and Foreign Office, insisted on working within their own jealously guarded jurisdiction. Thus on 23 September 1914 a Neutral Press Committee was set up at Whitehall House as part of the Home Office.  G H Mair left the Daily Chronicle to head the new committee which was involved in expanding the transmission of news by wireless stations, amassing a foreign news summary each day and safeguarding visiting foreign journalists. Not to be outdone, the Foreign Office created a news department of its own and, as the fighting became bogged down in the mud of Flanders, organised visits for foreign journalists to the western front. Grey’s officials also sent daily messages to legations and embassies in foreign capitals. They liaised with Reuters, sent official messages by wireless and cable to all parts of the Empire and kept a watchful eye on the movement of ordinary citizens in and out of the UK.

Too many organisations, departments, sometimes even individuals became involved in propaganda, to the extent that no-one seemed to have clear control of what had grown into a monstrous beast. Duplication of effort and inter-departmental jealousies became debilitating. Effective propaganda requires continuity, creativity and speed of action. [7] This was what the Secret Elite wanted. Lord Robert Cecil, as parliamentary under-secretary at the Foreign Office, and a member of the Secret Elite, [8] represented them at a crucial inter- departmental conference on 26 January held at the Home Office. Matters degenerated into a bitter row between the War and Foreign Offices, but it was Cecil who triumphed. The Foreign Office assumed the lead role in a wholesale reorganisation of propaganda which saw all the other departments ( the War Office, the Board of Trade, the Admiralty, The Press bureau and the Neutral Press Commission ) bend the knee and appoint a liaison officer to supply the Foreign Office with relevant information. But Lord Robert Cecil’s victory was temporary for the Foreign Office proved inflexible in a theatre of war where flexibility and creativity were invaluable pre-requisites.

Propaganda Poster citing British author, Rider Haggard

The Central Committee for National Patriotic Organisations was yet another organ of the mass investment in propaganda. The two men responsible for this were directly linked to the Secret Elite. George W Prothero was closely associated with the Cecil family and Alfred Milner [9] while Henry Cust was a protégé of William Waldorf Astor, a member of the inner-circle of the Secret Elite. [10] He had edited the Pall Mall Gazette and was associated with Arthur Balfour, George Curzon, Margot Asquith and Alfred Lyttelton, often referred to as The Souls.  With prime minister Asquith as their honorary president, they organised lectures, patriotic clubs, rallies in the major cities and in country towns to counter-act any opposition to the war. In addition they targeted individuals from neutral countries, using a tactic of direct personal approach to enlist sympathy and support for the war. Distinguished men and women agreed to play their part in this with the result that foreign acquaintances, colleagues, business associates and fellow workers across the globe were sent propaganda material directly to their homes and work-places. More than 250,000 books, pamphlets and other publications were sent abroad through this agency during the war. [11] By 1916, they had used 250 speakers to conduct 15,000 meetings. Students from neutral countries and British nationals abroad were exploited in a similar manner [12] They flooded the libraries in industrial districts with 900,000 leaflets and distributed a similar number to schools. Children too were also a frequent target for Masterman’s people at Wellington House. [13] Propaganda is no respecter of age.

Secrecy was demanded from all who served in Wellington House. In the first two years of the war some of the civil servants initially transferred from their posts at the national insurance commission to propaganda work, left. They were replaced at the higher levels with Milner’s men, James Headlam-Morley and Arnold J Toynbee, both members of the Secret Elite, [14] and a new Balliol man, Lewis Namier. Wellington House was well organised in its international set-up with sections based on a geographic or linguistic basis like Scandinavia, Italy and Switzerland. Masterman worked in tandem with the Belgian legation on propaganda, and his office generally acted as the ministry of propaganda for Belgium in the early months of the war. [15] The foreign press was studied in detail on a daily basis, and the department kept files on public opinion in all neutral countries. Specific ‘stories’, most of which was concocted nonsense, were directed to the appropriate country to maximise impact. The greatest priority was always the United States [16] and it continued to be so at every level, until America joined the war.

Americans were welcomed with open arms. Press correspondents and distinguished visitors were courted shamelessly to express support for Asquith’s government or changes in government policy. Special correspondents were sent to America to glean first hand information about public opinion in the United States, and, when necessary, counter opposition to British policy. They liked to keep it personal, person to person, using banking, business, academic, journalistic and even family ties to bolster support for Britain and the Allies. Few were better connected through all of the above-mentioned agencies, than the Secret Elite.

J P Morgan jnr. Anglo-phile American Banker

The Anglo-American bond proved to be an unassailable asset to the British and allied cause, and did much to help spread the propaganda. In Washington, the German military attaché, Franz von Papen claimed that a conference was held in the New York offices of JP Morgan as early as 23 August 1914 to seek ways to promote and endorse British propaganda in America. Von Papen wrote that they adopted a policy to colour the American press and duly appointed English editorial writers on forty U.S. newspapers. [17] Naturally Morgan and his powerful companies supported the allies. He was after all closely associated with the Rothschilds and the Secret Elite, and had been chosen as their sole nominated representative for buying munitions and organising loans for Britain, from which he was literally making a fortune.

Sir Gilbert Parker, head of the American department at Wellington House, explained [18] how the British government went about its business in America to promote the allied cause. Three hundred and sixty newspapers in the smaller states were supplied with an English newspaper which gave them a weekly review of the war from the British and French perspective. Important Americans were encouraged, he did not say how, to write articles for the local press, and eminent professional Americans received personal correspondence from their British counterparts, ‘beginning with university and college professors’. [19]   His mailing list contained the names of over 260,000 prominent Americans.

The French historian and politician, Gabriel Hanotaux wrote an illustrated history of the war of 1914 in which he interviewed Robert Bacon, a former US Ambassador to France and ex-Morgan partner.  Bacon stated: ‘In America …there are 50,000 people who understand the necessity of the United States entering the war immediately on your side. But there are 100,000,000 Americans who have not even thought of it. Our task is to see that the figures are reversed and that the 50,000 become the 100,000,000. We will accomplish this.’ [20] It proved to be no idle boast. News reel propaganda in cinemas became increasingly common as the war progressed. Every possible method was used to connect the man in the street; cinema, pamphlets, advertising, photographs, illustrated news, novels and interviews. The mass media had become a weapon of war, [21] and America was its prime target.

[1] HH Asquith, Letters to Venetia Stanley, p.221.
[2] Gary Messinger, British Propaganda and the State in the First World War, p. 38.
[3] H C Peterson, Propaganda for War, p. 18.
[4] Carroll Quigley, The Anglo-American Establishment, p. 313.
[5] John Buchan, Memory Hold The Door, pp. 169-70 and pp 205-8.
[6] M L Sanders, Wellington House and British Propaganda in the First World War,  The Historical Journal, vol. 18, No1. (March 1975), pp. 120-1.
[7] Phillip Taylor, British Propaganda in the 20th Century: Selling Democracy, p. 11.
[8] Quigley, Anglo-American, p. 313.
[9] Ibid., p. 27.
[10] Ibid., p. 312.
[11] Gareth S Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion, p. 218.
[12] Report of the Central Committee for National Patriotic Organisations, (London 1916) p. 18 ff.
[13] Peterson, Propaganda for War, p. 19.
[14] Quigley, Anglo-American Establishment, p. 313.
[15] Messinger, British Propaganda and the State in the First World War, p. 40.
[16] First Report of the Work of Wellington House, 7 June, 1915, Inf. 4/5 (PRO) p.1.
[17] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Official German Documents relating to the World War, vol. II, p.1315.
[18] Printed in Harper’s Magazine in 1917.
[19] Bertrand Russell, These Eventful Years, Vol. 1. p.381.
[20] Gabriel Hanotaux, Historie Illustre de la Guerre de 1914, vol. 9, p. 56.
[21] Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, p. 212.