The Most Iconic and Creative World War One Posters

This year is a landmark year, as we reach a century since the end of World War One. From 1914 to 1918, this conflict embroiled most of Europe — along with Russia, the US and the Middle East — and is considered one of the bloodiest ever, with approximately 35 million casualties.

The sense of community was evident in the UK, as people from all occupational backgrounds pooled together to contribute towards the war effort, from fighting on the frontline to working in munitions factories. But with communications far less efficient and slower than what we know today, advertisements became an essential component of mobilising morale and letting everyone know how they could help.

With the expert assistance from Where The Trade Buys, a UK outdoor banner printing company, have this guide features some of the most creative and iconic World War I posters — including how successful or unsuccessful they were! See if you know any…

The Women’s Land Army

Some of the most recognisable wartime memorabilia from World War I and II come from the Women’s Land Army (WLA) recruitment posters. By the end of the first year of World War I, more than one million men had been recruited to the British Army. This number hit around five million by the end of the conflict. As a result, the country was suffering from a significant workforce shortage and needed to employ the help of women to feed the people left at home.

What made it do so well?

The intention of this advert, launched in World War I, was to encourage young women to begin work in agriculture. Often referred to as ‘Land Girls’, some farmers were hesitant or even completely against using female workers, despite the dire situation. Others even felt that the choice of WLA uniform was too masculine.

What made this advert so powerful then? Its biggest attraction was to someone who was deemed unsuitable to participate in front-line combat for her country and who perhaps wanted to break free of the domesticated lifestyle and dress code that she was compelled to follow. The image of a woman dressed in loose dungarees and working in a field showed that this was the time to prove how equally capable female manual labourers were to their male counterparts.

Just two years after its launch in 1915, there were over a quarter of a million women working on British farms. Approximately of these 23,000 in the Women’s Land Army.

Keep Calm and Carry On

The legacy of this most iconic of world war one posters still lives on to this day, the Keep Calm and Carry On poster was part of a motivational campaign. It included ads featuring the slogans: ‘Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might’ and ‘Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory’ — that was launched by the government in 1939.

The punchy phrase and crown image of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster were designed to quell hysteria and instil a collective feeling of togetherness and community spirit. And most importantly, ‘Britishness’, designed to help people cope with the tragedies of war.

What made it do so well?

Surprisingly, this poster never reached it’s intended potential. Around 2.45 million posters for this campaign were printed. Yet ‘Keep calm and carry on’ was never authorised for display and the other two designs had a very limited showing before being scrapped. But why?

This poster was actually negatively received by a large group. The slogans were an issue, with many finding them patronising, ambiguous and inappropriate. They were designed under the misconception that the nation would be hit by bombing after bombing. This, it was thought, would result in massive destruction and countless casualties immediately following the declaration of war.

So, when the war was declared, and this didn’t happen, these dramatic mottos just didn’t make much sense. Many also interpreted the ‘your courage will bring us victory’ as soldiers and the general public must make sacrifices on behalf of the upper classes and high-ranking army officials, which added to their lack of appeal.

Luckily, for the sake of preserving an otherwise archaic piece of history, an original copy of the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ poster was rediscovered in Alnwick in 2000. The saying has been reused on mugs, pens, t-shirts and other merchandise with much success ever since!

Britons Join Your Country’s Army

Probably the most recognisable, due to its ‘less is more’ approach, this WW1 poster was designed by Alfred Leete. It features the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, pointing at the reader above the slogan ‘wants you’. At the time, Lord Horatio Kitchener was a well-known and very respected military leader and statesman to the public. Even though this opinion not necessarily shared by all of his cabinet peers!

Proving the critics wrong, however, this poster went on to do very well. The government were able to encourage millions of men to enlist. Reportedly, there was a significant spike in volunteers putting themselves forward to join the army immediately after the poster’s launch in September 1914.

What made it do so well?

This poster is more than it appears to the eye, as it underwent quite a strategic process when getting designed. This recruitment design uses a selection of tactics to evoke the response it wants from its audience. The emboldened ‘BRITONS’ text and insertion of ‘God save the king’ were hugely influential in inspiring patriotism. The image of the pointing Lord Kitchener made the poster seem personal to each viewer as an individual. The call-to-action — ‘Join your country’s army!’ — is also clear and concise, while the use of red is an excellent choice to grab attention.

It was important for the men to take immediate action following seeing this poster and enlisted to fight, and this urgency is clear from its strong, stirring and succinct design.  

world war one posters

Dig for Victory

The demand for homegrown produce was skyrocketing during the war effort. And in 2018, most people still recognise the slogan ‘Dig for victory’ and associate it with this agricultural push. During the 1939-1945 conflict, feeding those left at home became a great concern and something needed to be done to reduce the country’s reliance on imported produce.

So, around a month prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Ministry of Agriculture launched the ‘Dig for victory’ poster. Its effect was to encourage the public to grow their own food to ease the pressure on rationing. This campaign was international, with ‘victory gardens’ proving just as popular in countries like Canada, Australia and the US.

What made it do so well?

Before long, the urban landscape underwent a serious transformation, with many parks, sports fields and back gardens used in cities as makeshift allotments. Even the lawn next to the Tower of London was used to grow vegetables!

Simplicity was the secret ingredient to this world war one posters success. The slogan ‘Dig for victory’ has all the tools to inspire a response: a simple action (dig) to secure an essential outcome (victory). Utilising the eye-catching quality of bold red and a simple close-up of a ‘Brit at work’, the poster grabs the viewer’s attention and implants a sense of ‘taking action’ to make a difference. Reportedly, the number of allotments across the country reached around 1.75 million following the launch of the ‘Dig for victory’!

world war one posters

Air Raid Shelter warning poster

Ground warfare wasn’t the only risk during the war, attacks were coming from the skies too. Aircraft would bomb entire cities in one sweep should preparations not be carried out. It became essential that the public protected itself as best it could in an air raid shelter. As you can imagine, this was a new concept and there were many of these temporary places of safety all over cities. In fact, up to 300,000 people used underground stations from 1915 onwards!

You would see one of these posters on or near to any nearby air raid shelters to make it clear where these sanctuaries were. In addition, it would tell you what you could take in with you.

What made it do so well?

Despite the lack of visuals on this poster, adopting a more text-based instructional layout, it was placed outside of London’s tube stations. It had a specific purpose and it served it. Using different-sized fonts, it separates each piece of information into a level of importance. The first is that a location is a place for shelter, the second that any injury here is not the fault of anyone but the wounded person, and the last that certain creatures and objects are forbidden.

Around double the number of people used tube stations to shelter from bombings between May 1917 and May 1918 than during The Blitz attacks of 1940.

world war one posters

Are You in This?

Created by Scouts founder, Robert Baden Powell, this poster was first produced in 1915 and features a mix of people carrying out various war-related jobs, with the slogan ‘Are you in this?’.

The simple use of the rhetorical allowed for a big impact. The ad in effect asked you to evaluate your personal war effort — are you helping the wounded, working in munitions, building vital machinery, fighting in the armed forces, or simply strolling around with your hands in your pockets?

What made it do so well?

The use of less is more plays another part in this, one of the great world war one posters poster, with it perfectly symbolising the saying: ‘a picture speaks a thousand words’. In marketing, you have a very small timeframe to make an impact — and a strong image that tells a story can sometimes help you achieve that quicker than text.

Due to the fact that this ad was not targeted at any particular gender or worker, rather more an open net, it ended up being largely successful. The use of multiple war roles helps to widen the scope of potential jobs that someone who is not ‘doing their duty’ could be doing if they took action. Relegated to the edge of the poster with his hands idly in his pockets, few viewers would feel a positive connection with the man who is not contributing.

What are your thoughts on these iconic world war one posters?

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