Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Punch Goes to War: World War I

The British humorous and satirical magazine Punch began its long and influential run of publication in 1841. Among other things Punch helped give the word "cartoon" its modern meaning as a humorous picture. Cartoons were a mainstay of Punch as it commented on the events of the day. Some may not seem funny today. Some were racist or xenophobic. But the cartoons were generally designed to raise laughter among the magazine's readers.

As Europe moved towards what would become a world war just before and during 1914, however, its cartoons became increasingly serious in tone and message. As the war unfolded, Punch would become an important tool of British propaganda. 

The cartoon below, "The Boiling Point," appeared in Punch in October 1912.  It was reacting to the dangerous situation created by the first of two Balkan Wars in 1912-13. The wars were related to the long decline of Ottoman Turkish power in the region. Several countries, including Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Greece, had won their independence from the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century. They were intent on expanding their new states at the expense of the Ottomans, and then each other.

The cartoon reflects fears, correct as it turned out, that the Balkan conflict might spill over and ignite a wider war. In the foreground, left to right, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary strive to keep the lid on the boiling pot. Behind them, Britain and France look on anxiously. 

Within less than two years these fears had materialized. As is well known, the spark that ignited what became The Great War was the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz -Ferdinand, in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, on August 28, 1914. The assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a Bosnian Serb with links to an extremist Serbian nationalist organization. 

Serbian nationalists had long sought to unite the South Slavs or Yugoslavs into a Greater Serbia. The territory they craved included Bosnia-Herzogovina, Slovenia, and Croatia, all currently part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Austrian leaders sought to use the assassination as a pretext to destroy the Serbian nationalist movement. They issued an ultimatum to Serbia that led to war at the end of July, a war that quickly engulfed all the great European powers. The cartoon below, "The Power Behind" shows the Austrian double-headed eagle about to pounce on the defiant Serbian cock, while the Russian bear emerges from behind a rock. 

Russian determination to protect Serbia brought Germany into the war on behalf of its Austrian ally. Germany also declared war on Russia's ally France, a move dictated by the war plan of the German High Command, the Schlieffen PlanMeanwhile, Germany virtually assured Britain's entry into the war by invading France through neutral Belgium on August 4. 

The German government had asked Belgium permission to cross their country. Belgium refused. The German Army, committed to its war plan, marched into Belgium. Britain demanded an immediate withdrawal, then declared war on Germany when the demand was ignored. 

Punch applauded Belgium for its defiance in the cartoon, "Bravo Belgium," published on August 12. The farm boy represents "Little Belgium" protecting his farm from the German brigand, identified by the sausages hanging from his pocket.

In order to whip up British support for the war, the British government and media reported many instances of German "atrocities" in Belgium. Some were real; others invented. 

Punch contributed numerous cartoons to the patriotic effort, including the two below. In the first, from August 23, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II stands over Belgian civilians he has just shot, holding the German Imperial flag. His revolver is still smoking. The illustrator, Bernard Partridge, had long produced unflattering images of the Kaiser and that would continue throughout the war.

The second cartoon portrays Germany as a barbaric ogre who has torn Belgian neutrality to shreds, protesting he had to attack Belgium in self-defense. The sign behind him says: "World Power or Decline," reflecting the view of Germany's leaders that they were encircled by enemies intent on their destruction. Both cartoons feature burning and destroyed buildings in the background. 

Though the Belgians put up stiff resistance, the German Army overwhelmed them. Within days, the small British Expeditionary Force had arrived to aid the Belgians and French. They fought their first engagement at Mons in Belgium on August 23. During the next two weeks, they and their French allies were 
pushed back by superior German numbers to the outskirts of Paris. 

Reinforced by additional French troops, the allies counterattacked along the River Marne on September 6. Over the next week they pushed the German Army back about 40 miles (65km). The Battle of the Marne was a major victory for the Allies, but the Germans reformed their lines along the River Aisne and began to dig trenches. The Allies followed suit. The line of battle would soon stretch from the Belgian coast to the Alps and would not shift significantly for the next four years. A war of movement became a war of stalemate and attrition, with millions of casualties.  

Punch seemingly made light of the horrors of the war in "The Incorrigibles," by Frederick Henry Townshend. A new soldier arrving at the British trench line is greeted by an "Old Hand" in a waterlogged trench, who assures him that he will have a jolly good time at the front. 

This cartoon (and others) show Punch retained some of its old sense of humor. But the humor was becoming darker. Was Townshend simply trying to boost morale in a dire situation? Or was he cynically poking fun at the British stiff upper lip syndrome? Despite the soldiers' words and smiles, it seems hard to believe anyone would consider their situation enjoyable. As the realities of trench warfare sank in over the next four years, the soldiers themselves would produce much dark and cynical humor of their own. 

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