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

Thursday, September 5, 2019

What Was Going on at Wellington House?

Last month, when we celebrated our 2,300th article on Roads to the Great War, I asked our readers to use our search engine to point out any gaps in our coverage of the war. I also promised to provide information on those topics. This article is the first response.  Reader Connie R.  rightly pointed out that we had been a little neglectful of the British propaganda ministry run out of Wellington House in London.  MH

The Origins of Wellington House

Chancellor of the Exchequer
David Lloyd George 
At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Germans poured out propaganda in the form of posters, leaflets, and pamphlets, in an attempt to explain Germany's entry into the war and discredit the motives of the Allies. The British government was greatly disturbed by the virulence of the German campaign, which was specially directed toward influencing the United States of America. At the end of August 1914, the matter was raised in the Cabinet: "Mr Lloyd George urged the importance of setting on foot an organization to inform and influence public opinion abroad and to confute German misstatements and sophistries." On 5 September the Cabinet decided that steps were to be taken without delay to counteract the dissemination by Germany of false news abroad. Though there had been no peacetime precedent, the Cabinet accepted the need for an organization to co-ordinate propaganda directed at foreign opinion for the duration of the war.

Source: Wellington House and British Propaganda during the First World WarM. L. Sanders


When war broke out in 1914, the British showed they understood the power of thought and communication. The British ship Telconia cut the cable links between Germany and the USA. This allowed Britain a free hand in the early days of the war in gaining U.S. support.

In 1914 the British government set up its propaganda bureau in Wellington House— headquarters of the National Insurance Commission—under Charles Masterman. Located between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, it was so secret that most MPs did not know it existed. It worked behind the offices of the National Insurance Department, which was used as a front.

Charles Masterman
The main aim of the bureau in the early stages was to control information. This meant censorship and it was strictly enforced. At the same time, the government carefully chose the facts that it gave to the newspapers. The end result was that government propaganda was all facts, it was just that the facts were very carefully chosen—especially the facts that were left out! 

The Bureau began its propaganda campaign on 2 September 1914 when Masterman invited 25 leading British authors to Wellington House to discuss ways of best promoting Britain's interests during the war. Those who attended included William Archer, Hall Caine, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, G. K. Chesterton, Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Gilbert Parker, G. M. Trevelyan, and H. G. Wells. Rudyard Kipling had been invited to the meeting but was unable to attend.

All the writers who attended agreed to maintain the utmost secrecy, and it was not until 1935 that the activities of the War Propaganda Bureau became public knowledge. Several of the writers agreed to write pamphlets and books that would promote the government's point of view.

Good examples of this were the way the propaganda section made use of the German invasion of Belgium and the German sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania. One of the first significant publications to be produced by the Bureau was the Report on Alleged German Outrages, in early 1915. This pamphlet documented atrocities both actual and alleged committed by the German army against Belgian civilians. A Dutch illustrator, Louis Raemaekers, provided highly emotional drawings which appeared in the pamphlet. In June 1915, the first report on the work carried out by Wellington House stated that it had published 2.5 million copies of pamphlets, books, and other means of propaganda in 17 languages since the beginning of the war.

A Propaganda Masterpiece

Masterman also recruited artist Muirhead Bone. He was sent to France and by October had produced 150 drawings. After Bone returned to England he was replaced by his brother-in-law, Francis Dodd, who had been working for the Manchester Guardian. In 1917, arrangements were made to send other artists to France including Eric Kennington, William Orpen, Paul Nash, Christopher R. W. Nevinson, and William Rothenstein.   

Getting More Organized

It soon became obvious that the ever-growing effort was becoming badly uncoordinated. After January 1916 the Bureau's activities were subsumed under the office of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In February 1917 the government established a Department of Information. John Buchan was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and put in charge of it at an annual salary of £1,000.  

John Buchan
In early 1918 it was decided that a senior government figure should take over responsibility for a more centrally controlled propaganda effort, and on 4 March Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express newspaper, was made Minister of Information. Masterman was placed beneath him as Director of Publications, and John Buchan was Director of Intelligence. Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Times and the Daily Mail, was put in charge of propaganda aimed at enemy nations, while Robert Donald, editor of the Daily Chronicle, was made director of propaganda aimed at neutral nations. Following the announcement, in February 1918, Lloyd George was accused of creating this new system to gain control over Fleet Street's leading figures.

Working the U.S.

By 1915, Sir Gilbert Parker (1862–1932), head of the American department at Wellington House, maintained a mailing list of 13,000 names, reaching 160,000 in 1917.

Sir Gilbert Parker
In addition, Parker supplied 512 newspapers with propaganda material. This was distributed without mentioning Wellington House or any other government office. Until near the end of the war, only a handful of persons knew that the British government had a propaganda apparatus working in the USA.

How much this effort contributed to America's eventual entry into the war has been a matter of speculation for over a century.  Wellington House's sponsors and agents, however, almost certainly went to their graves believing they had succeeded in their most important mission.

The ministry was dissolved on 31 December 1918.  The building itself has since been demolished, and its former site is now occupied by a block of flats. Wellington House not only succeeded in influencing public opinion all over the world in favor of the Allied cause, it also managed to obscure its links to British authorities.

Other Sources:  The British National Archives, Wikipedia, and 1914-1918 Online.

1 comment:

  1. Very useful post! An oft-neglected topic.

    And it still seems strange to see John Buchan doing prop/censor work, in between bouts of writing thrillers.