Women and Wartime Propaganda

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German AtrocitiesAs illustrated in the ‘Doing their Bit: Irish women and the First World War’ exhibition, women played a central role in the British wartime propaganda campaign, which aimed to both engage the public with the war effort and to persuade volunteers to join the forces. News of German atrocities against Belgian and French civilians were widely reported in the press, with the treatment of women often being emphasised, as this example from the Freeman’s Journal in December 1914 shows.

The case of Edith Cavell provided the British government with a propaganda coup which was exploited heavily. Born in December 1865, Cavell was the matron of a nursing school in Brussels when the First World War broke out. Following the German occupation of the city in November 1914, Cavell became involved in providing refuge for escaping Allied prisoners of war and often aided their flight. She was arrested by the German forces in August 1915 and charged with treason; tried by a military court-martial, she was found guilty and, despite the international community pressurising Berlin to commute her death sentence, she was shot by firing squad on 12 October 1915. The execution of Cavell, as well as the press reports of German violence against civilians and the sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in May 1915, featured extensively in Allied propaganda. The below postcard from the Monica Roberts collection in Dublin City Library and Archives is typical of the time: Cavell’s status as a martyr is highlighted by the fact that she is depicted still wearing her nurses uniform when executed.

Edith Cavell

Image. Postcard from Monica Roberts Collection, ref RDFA 1.09.135

Such propaganda filtered through to the frontline and was often quite effective. Private Joseph Elley, 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers wrote in a letter home in November 1915 that the execution of Cavell was a ‘brutal affair’ and that ‘All the boys will never forget things like that if they get the chance.’

Pte Elley's letter to Monica Roberts, 20/11/15 (pg.5) |Pte Elley letter to Monica Roberts 20/11/1915

Letter DCLA/RDFA1.03.038 from Pte Joseph Elley to Monica Roberts ref RDFA 1.03.038 (page 5 and 6 of letter)


Bernard Kelly, Historian in Residence, Dublin City Library and Archive.

Dublin City Council Historians in Residence are available to meet groups and schools, give talks, walks etc, run history book clubs and advise on historical research.


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