Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Were Propaganda Leaflets Effective in the War?

By Jared Tracy, U.S. Army

There was no significant operational precedent for leaflet drops before the First World War. For all belligerents, the practice of dropping printed messages was one of trial and error. Countries on both sides organized propaganda units to design and print leaflets, which were then dropped from balloons and airplanes or shot from artillery pieces in hollowed shells. If a letter written by Sergeant Morris Pigman (28th Division, American Expeditionary Force) provided any indication of the effectiveness of German leaflet operations, it is that they were largely negligible. He wrote, "I am sending to you a little sheet of German propaganda that has been dropped to our men on the front line by the Hun aeroplanes. They are trying to weaken the morale of our men. What a feeble appeal for us to give ourselves up to them. Our boys only laugh at it and gather them up for souvenirs. They come down every morning like rain and the ground is covered but no one bothers them." Using leaflets, Germany had even tried to convince the British that "England will sink to the position of a second-rate power" if the United States won the war. "America won't be satisfied with Germany's downfall," one leaflet stated, "but aims at controlling world commerce. World domination—that is what America is after."  Sowing rifts within the alliance was the only viable option for German psychological operations (PSYOP).  

An American Leaflet Distributed in 1918

The Aim of the Entente Powers and Growth of the
American Army in Europe to September 1918

In contrast, the United States conducted its PSYOP from a position of military advantage. For its own leaflet operations, the U.S. Army established the Psychological Warfare Subsection in the War Department and the Propaganda Section within the General Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces. While accurate information concerning total leaflet output is unknown, some have estimated that by the end of the war, the United States and the Allies had disseminated some 50 million leaflets urging capitulation. 

Colonels Frank Goldstein and Daniel Jacobowitz postulated that in the final months of the war "surrenders occurred with a positive correlation to PSYOP activities." Indeed, dropping massive amounts of surrender leaflets also established an important precedent for future conflicts. Though the practice of aerial leaflet drops was in its infancy, many Allied and enemy observers noted its effectiveness after the war. German Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff both conceded later that Allied leaflets played "a major part in destroying the morale of their troops."



  1. and cigarette papers- plus helped in starting up small fires for coffee boiling.