I’ve never written about the Keep Calm and Carry On poster on here until now, mainly because the internet is already thoroughly pock-marked with its image and the story done to death, so I was bored of the whole thing before this blog had even begun (and rather assumed that everyone else was too). But I’ve been delving into the history of World War Two posters recently, and rather to my surprise have discovered that a whole chunk of its history – and to my mind the most interesting part – never gets told.
Here it is then, exhibit A, Keep Calm and Carry On.
This is actually the original poster, as produced by the Ministry of Information in 1939. Most of the copies that are around today, not only on posters but also on everything from soap to golf balls (does the world really need this, I am forced to ask) have in fact been reversioned from the original and thus look slightly different.
And if you go and look on eBay (which I wouldn’t actually advise) you can find versions where the type has been bastardised even further from the original, but I don’t want to give these ones the oxygen of publicity.
The backstory, as repeated all over the interweb in very similar terms, goes like this. In 1939, with war looming, the Ministry of Information commissioned three posters with the aim of reassuring the British public when the inevitable came. They were meant to be messages from the King to his people, and the three slogans were Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory, Freedom Is In Peril and, of course, Keep Calm and Carry On. Hundreds of thousands were printed, and the first two were plastered all over the country in their hundreds and thousands as soon as war was declared. But the third – Keep Calm – was held back in the case of invasion. This never came, and the poster was eventually pulped and forgotten. Until in 2000 a single copy turned up in a box of books at Barter Books in Alnwick. The owners framed it, and then were asked about it so much that they reprinted a few copies. The rest I think you know.
Now were I to be picky (which I’m going to be, because it’s fun) there are a couple of holes in this story. To start with, the posters weren’t designed by the Ministry of Information, because that didn’t exist until the day after war was declared. The government was in a tricky situation as war became inevitable. Although they knew that propaganda would be a vital part of the war, particularly as they would be fighting an enemy with a slick and established propaganda machine of its own, they were equally aware that any Ministry of Information would be very unpopular with the public. So the plans for the MoI were set up in complete secrecy, and the posters were commissioned by the Home Publicity Committee of a department which didn’t actually exist yet.
What’s more, Keep Calm and Carry On wasn’t designed in case of invasion – when it was commissioned the Germans were hundreds of miles across Europe, and few people imagined that they would be on the coast of the English Channel at any point in the future. What they did predict was that the start of the war would lead to a massive bombing campaign that would destabilise the country and shatter national morale. That’s why people would need to Keep Calm and Carry On, and that’s the real story behind this poster – and why it was never used.
Because although people know that Keep Calm and Carry On was created as part of a campaign of posters, what is never said (and I find it intriguing that it isn’t) is that this was a massive and thundering turkey of a failure. The two posters which were displayed – Your Courage and Freedom Is In Peril – were ridiculed by the press, criticised in the House of Commons and mostly disregarded by the public on the ground that they didn’t really know what they were meant to do. All of which makes Keep Calm’s success, fifty years on, even more remarkable.
So what was wrong with these posters ? Most of the criticism was of the Your Courage slogan, which people didn’t really understand (one complaint being that most people associated resolutions only with the New Year) and which wasn’t catchy enough to be memorable. More worryingly, some people (like Mass Observation) saw the idea that Your Courage would bring Us Victory meant that the general mass of the people would be making a sacrifice on behalf of the upper classes, who would reap the real benefits. This evoked memories of the last war, where many people felt that ordinary soldiers had suffered while the generals had got off scot free, which wasn’t a particularly good set of associations to be revisiting at the start of another conflict.
One of the other facts about these posters which is often repeated is that the phrase Your Courage was thought up by a career civil servant called Sydney Waterfield. The implied story here is that the poster was the creation of exactly what people had perceived in the slogan, an out of touch ruling class who had no idea what ordinary British people thought or felt (with the further implication that one of the good results of World War Two was that, as a democratising force, it put a stop to This Kind of Posh Thing). There is a grain of truth in all this, as the MoI floundered for a couple of years before it began to work well and at one point, amusingly, its Home Publicity was co-ordinated by Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery and Nigel Nicholson, husband of Vita Sackville-West. It’s hard to imagine two people further removed from ordinary life. But in the case of Your Courage, it may have been thought up by a civil servant, but it had also been approved by a committee which included representatives from two of the big advertising agencies of the time, S H Benson and Odhams, so someone should probably have known better.
But that’s applying hindsight to the problem, because the real flaw with the posters was that they were designed for a situation which never actually happened. Almost all the planning for World War Two worked from one key assumption, which was that the start of war would immediately lead to wave after wave of bombing hitting the United Kingdom. This would not only cause destruction and casualties on a massive scale, but also hysteria and panic in the general public. Planners worked on the assumption that for every physical injury there would be three psychiatric cases, leading to three or four million cases in the first six months of the war. But when war was declared, the bombers never came. (Nor, as it turned out did the neurosis; in fact psychiatric admissions actually decreased during the Blitz). So the posters were designed to soothe the shattered nerves of a terrified population. Unfortunately, when they were displayed in the calm of the Phoney War, they just ended up looking a bit silly.
So Keep Calm and Carry On is not, as I’ve seen it described, “an inspiring poster which speaks to us across the ages”; instead it’s the forgotten remnant of a rather spectacular failure, a failure of planning, of understanding, but mainly just a failure caused by events. Although its modern success has lead to some versions which inadvertently bring up that history.
I think that’s a much more interesting story than the anodyne set of facts which tends to be repeated on the internet. What’s more there is no reason why the story shouldn’t be told – almost all the histories reference Dr Bex Lewis’s thorough thesis on World War Two posters, which contains pretty much all of the information I’ve put in up there (and plenty more besides, including a blog of all of the misguided uses to which it has subsequently been put). So why don’t people want to tell this story? I wonder whether, just as there is a myth of the Blitz, which is that everyone kept calm and carried on, there is also a myth of the Home Front Poster, which is that they were all uplifting and inspiring from the very start, and so people were always uplifted and inspired rather than bored and cross and irritated with them (as they were). And we wouldn’t want the facts to get in the way of that.