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Empire calling: First World War recruitment posters

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Empire calling: First World War recruitment posters

At the start of the First World War, recruitment posters were produced to encourage people of the British Empire to volunteer for war services. These posters were initially quite simple, but evolved into more emotive communications as the war progressed.

This poster, designed by E. V. Kealey in 1915, shows how the women of the British Empire were expected to encourage their husbands, brothers, and sons to enlist for the war. At the same time, the message attempts to shame those men who had not yet enlisted, and were therefore not protecting their loved ones at home.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. EPH-PW-1-39

Empire calling

The Parliamentary Recruiting Committee was established in London at the outbreak of the First World War. Tasked with promoting the war effort, the committee's aim was to inspire the people of the British Empire to enlist for war services.

As a result, the production of recruitment propaganda - primarily in the form of posters - commenced. Before the advent of radio and television, posters were an effective means of mass communication.

Initially the posters featured simple designs, before bolder marketing methods were employed. Visually striking art was created in a bid to glorify the war effort and appeal to the public's sense of duty.

As the major contributor of these posters, the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee produced 164 typescript and lithographic designs over the course of the war.

This form of recruiting campaign would be one of the driving forces behind the enlistment of troops during the early years of the war.

Waste not, want not

Poster produced during the First World War by the Ministry of Food, United Kingdom.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. EPH-PW-1-63, PW1(63)
During the war, the Germans engaged in submarine warfare, referred to by the allies as 'the U-boat campaign'. The German U-boats hit between 5000-7000 merchant vessels in the hopes of cutting off food imports, such as wheat, to England.

The loss of these vessels crippled the supply of staple foods, which made rationing necessary. To promote rationing, the Ministry of Food (London) produced a series of illustrative posters urging all households to reduce their consumption of bread, eat conservatively and waste nothing.

Aotearoa answers the call

The desire to support the Empire was strong in New Zealand, with almost 70,000 men volunteering for service during the First World War. From a population of just one million people, a staggering 120,000 served in the New Zealand forces.

With the workforce diminished, the New Zealand Government Printing Office was short on staff and resources.

Recruitment material was therefore sourced from the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, London, and from Australian recruiting committees. These were affixed to recruiting stations, as well as shop fronts and post offices.

Although censorship was imposed on the communications between soldiers and their loved ones, the true horrors of war would soon filter home to New Zealand. News of the events at Gallipoli in 1915 further contributed to the decline in patriotic sentiment.

In August 1916, with volunteer numbers waning, conscription was introduced in the form of the Military Service Act. This required all non-Māori men aged between 20 and 46 to register for enlistment. Names were drawn from a monthly ballot, however only 32,000 of the 135,000 conscripted men would in fact serve. In 1917, the Act was revised and conscription was broadened to include Māori men from the Waikato region. Around 2200 Māori served overseas with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, although no conscripts were among them.


Cite this article

Howitt, Monique. Empire calling: First World War recruitment posters. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 May 2015. Updated: 19 January 2016.

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