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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

French World War I Posters

A guide to the collection of French, World War I posters that were digitized from the University of Illinois Archives.

French World War I Posters banner

The Poilu

Poilu, literally meaning “shaggy” or “hairy,” quickly became the common term for the French soldier at the front. The German equivalent was Frontschwein: “pig at the front” or “Pig in the trenches.” In "Day of the French Soldier," a poilu, about to throw a grenade, towers over the viewer like a modern idol. He is obviously a posed figure, but the poster did not attempt to glorify trench warfare.

Images such as Gericault's Louvre painting,"l’officier de la garde chargent," linked to the epics of the Napoleonic army in 1812, initiated the device of the isolated soldier acting as a representation for the grand army as a whole.

View all posters treating the theme of the Poilu.

Subscribe for VictoryDay of the African ArmyWe'll have themDay of the French soldierThey shall not pass!Liberty

Disease and Wartime

Tuberculosis, or "consumption" as it was commonly known, caused the most widespread public concern in the 19th and early 20th centuries as a disease endemic to the urban poor. Due to the high prevalence of tuberculosis in the pre-antibiotic era, many people died from the condition that could strike at any age. By 1918 one in six deaths in France was caused by TB.

Considered a major threat to the people of France, disease often took anthropomorphic form in poster art, depicted alongside the German eagle or directly represented as a venomous snake that must be killed off.

Other posters, like "Please don't spit on the ground" and "The most harmful reptile," instructed the viewer in hygiene and disease prevention.

Combat tuberculosisPlease don't spitTwo arrowsFollow this adviceThe most harmful reptile

The Image of the German

Some scholars have observed that French poster artists chose to represent the image of the enemy with restraint compared with other nations. Germany often was represented by the traditional symbol of the eagle, embattled or vanquished, or as the stereotypical German soldier with the pointed helmet (this image was used long after the German army ended the use of the headgear).

The Gallic cock or rooster is a traditional symbol of French courage and aggressiveness, and commonly appears as a symbol of France. In the poster "For France!...", the coq gallois appeared in one of the first illustrated war posters fighting down a German soldier. The German eagle gets pushed into the darkness by the French coq on a later poster soliciting war loans.

Day of the HeraldLiberation LoanPour out your goldFor the supreme effortLiberation LoanSubscribe

Bank Loans

War loan posters were almost certainly the largest category of posters produced between 1914 and 1919. They appealed to civilians' desire to aid the war effort rather than to any monetary value to be gained. Following the approach of other propaganda campaigns, such as enlistment and production drives, war loan posters appealed to patriotism and historical identity, raised sexual themes, played on the sense of guilt that might be experienced by those who did not fight, and, in the later stages of the war, claimed that supporting the French army through war bonds would help to speed the end of the war.

Subscribe for victoryFor the last quarter hourYou are doing your dutyFor France which is fightingThird national defense loanSubscribe to hasten his returnFourth national defense loanFor the returnLiberation Loan

The Marianne: Symbol of Victory

Marianne is the most famous of the various figures representing the French Republic, and she generally maintains her Phrygian cap, or cap of liberty. She is depicted by the artist Daumier as a mother nursing two children and by the sculptor Francois Rude as an angry warrior singing the Marseillaise on the Arc de Triomphe. Marianne holds a place of honor in French town halls and law courts, symbolizing the "Triumph of the Republic."

Scott’s “For the flag! for victory!” idealizes combat as a patriotic ceremony. The mythic figure of the vengeful Marianne, with Gallic headgear, sword, and belt buckle, and waving a tattered tricolor in front of banked rows of flag-bearers and drummers, exhorts the French public to do its duty and buy war bonds.

Subscribe for victoryHasten peace through victorySecond National Defense LoanWinged RepublicSubscribe for victorySubscribe for Victory

Alliance with the U.S.

After the the United States allied with France, many posters were produced to express pride in the connection. These typically appealed to the French citizen to do his or her part to support the fight.

Some posters showed American and French soldiers together, as in "The victors of the Marne," commemorating a battle fought by the allies.

Others promoted American war aid efforts, such as those sponsored by the Red Cross.

They are fightingFriendshipVictors of the MarneTo finish the crusadeThe beautiful land of FranceFor liberty

The Ghost Army

A common feature of wartime mythology, the trope of the ghost army in French posters represented the victorious spirit of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic past and its ongoing influence on the present. 

In the poster "For triumph...", Francois Rude's sculpture, the Marsellaise, comes alive on the Arc de Triomphe to lead the Grande Armee of the Napoleonic era and inspire French soldiers to victory.

Subscribe for victoryStand up! Our dead for the homelandFor triumphSo that France may be victoriousThird national defense loan

Posters by Children

Since no war countries were economically prepared for the massive drain on resources, all had to create new agencies to produce and distribute food and supplies. The posters for these agencies were augmented by posters sponsored by local groups, institutions, municipalities, and industries, admonishing the public to produce and conserve.

Conserving food and fuel was a constant preoccupation for civilian and military authorities. In France, the National Committee for Foresight and Thrift sponsored a competition among school children for conservation posters, which are remarkably modern and sophisticated in their use of design and clear, simple images.

Let's grow our vegetable gardensLet's save breadSave gasSave tobaccoLet silver currency circulateTo not waste breadSave wine for our soldiersSow wheatI am a good little war hen

Women and Children

Women and children were a common motif of the wartime poster, both in an appeal to support the troops through war loans and as a symbol of home and family. The message to the public was to support the war through any means possible and to safeguard the social fabric.

Images of children were used to raise awareness of childhood illness, and the importance of proper hygiene. The deliberately provocative poster "Save your baby!" depicts the skeleton of death entering a nursery, deciding which baby to take away.

You are doing your dutyIn order to hasten victoryTwo faithful heartsChildren's expositionThe return to home and familyThe babies' demandsSo that your children...Save your baby!