Initially expected to be over by Christmas, World War I became a massive war of rival imperialisms that continued through four years of carnage and attrition. During much of that time, the front lines of trenches moved hardly more than ten miles. To sustain this unexpected kind of war, the poster was enlisted to raise money: to provide aid and comfort for the troops, to create sympathy for the relief of the victims of war, to maintain the morale of the populace, and to promote productivity and rationing to feed the war machine.
Posters that were printed before war was declared focused on recruitment and mobilization, but as the fighting in the west froze into a war of position, governments began to search for ways to maintain popular enthusiasm. New programs were organized to send food and warm clothing to the troops, help the wounded, and give whatever aid possible. It also soon became essential to appeal to the population to help finance the war, producing a more sober resolve to back the soldiers in a conflict that was not likely to end in quick victory.
While posters from other countries sought to deepen fear and the essential division between “us” and “them,” French posters stressed the determination, heroism and suffering of their troops.
The end of 1914 saw the beginning of trench warfare…
While Great Britain and the United States resorted to atrocity posters showing their own as victims of German aggression, the French tended to treat the enemy impersonally or with ridicule, with many posters resorting to the trope of the pointed German helmet, a style that was abandoned long before the start of the war.
In December of 1915, the French parliament organized a series of posters by French artists on the theme of the Journée du Poilu (The Day of the Soldier) in which all posters shared a common theme and layout. From that time, illustrated posters accompanied the eight war loans which gave the production of posters its tempo, and which dramatized the national mood over the course of the war.
As the war continued, posters increasingly depicted combat realistically, demonstrating to the French public that the hardships of life at home could not compare with the harsh conditions that their soldiers endured.
While posters generally used abstract types and glossed over the messiness of combat, some managed to convey a portion of the truth: wounded and dead soldiers, what a trench looked like, and, perhaps most impressive, the impact of the war on those who survived.
French posters often emphasized traits that for generations had been part of the French self image: individualism, esprit, and enthusiasm.
Many Allied posters treated combat symbolically, as a setting for national symbols such as patron saints, heraldic beasts, or female representations such as Marianne storming toward victory.
George Scott’s “For the flag, for victory!” idealizes combat as a patriotic ceremony. The mythic figure of the Marianne, with Galllic headgear, sword, and belt-buckle, 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.
Neumont’s “They shall not pass!” was designed in 1917 but not issued until the German spring offensive of 1918 had been halted. It warns the French public against making peace with the Germans. “The poilu, who has again stopped the Germans on the Marne as he had in 1914, is by now an almost inhuman figure. He has become a part of the debris of the war around his feet and of the French soil out of which he grows and to which he may return at any moment” (Paret 48).
As the war drew to a close and in the first months after the armistice, posters continued earlier appeals for money to help prisoners that were in enemy hands and care for the wounded and the sick. Other posters celebrate victory, welcome the returning troops, and call for days of prayer and remembrance.