1917, defending womanhood, enlistment, invasion of Belgium, propaganda, rape, sex, white as purity, World War I
Building on last week’s post about the Seattle parade, here’s more historical background for my forthcoming novel, Lonely Are the Brave.
In the parade, the white horses, white flower petals, and young women in white dresses all played to symbolism of feminine purity. Why?
Not for the first time in history, but in a context particular to the First World War, belligerents sought to persuade their able-bodied male citizens that they must fight to save womanhood. The idea pervaded recruitment propaganda in Britain and the United States, likely because neither country had been invaded, and so had no self-evident reason to fight.
When Congress declared war in April 1917, American recruiters had to rouse a nation comfortably at peace. To do so, they evoked wartime events that had not budged neutrality one inch when they happened but were now recast to prompt every man to do his duty or risk being called less than a man. A key reference point was the German invasion of Belgium in 1914.
While the invasion was happening, the press failed to convey its true horror and went for the sensational. Though the invaders executed thousands of Belgian civilians, committing arson and pillage, alleged rapes and mutilations of nuns, women, and young girls were what made headlines. Even as American newspapers exploited these lurid stories for the shock value, most reserved judgment, doubting that the disciplined German Army could have permitted such outrages.
Then, in May 1915, a German submarine sank the liner Lusitania, killing almost 1200 people, including 128 Americans. In what amounted to a publicist’s perfect storm, a week later, the British government published an official account of the Belgian invasion atrocities, mentioning the firing squads, burning, and looting but once again playing up accusations of rapes and mutilation, which rested on hearsay evidence from unsworn witnesses.
That lapse went largely unnoticed, and the report electrified American opinion. If the Germans could sink the Lusitania, mightn’t they have committed sexual atrocities in Belgium? Isolationists could argue that was still none of America’s business, but the perceived outrages would not go away. For instance, the New York Tribune, a pro-Allied paper, printed a drawing of a Belgian widow comforting a weeping Miss Columbia. The caption suggests attitudes common to the time: “At Least They Only Drown Your Women.”
Come 1917, then, American recruiters had no trouble tapping into beliefs about German sexual atrocities and, tacitly or explicitly, using them to goad to action any man who called himself a man. This poster, promoted by the Hollywood film industry, employs blatant sexual imagery, with a half-clad Miss Columbia–in white, of course.
But the propagandists were just getting started.