I was Lord Kitchener’s Thing

Exhibit A today is an ad from our local paper.

newspaper ad with Lord Kitchener From World War One Poster

It’s here, clearly, to illustrate the after-life of posters.  The slogan and image derive, after all, from a poster which will be a hundred years old next year, and yet is still part of our mental furniture.  What’s going on?

The original is of course this design by Alfred Leete.

Alfred Leete Lord Kitchener poster as we all remember it

Except it isn’t what you might think.  Despite the images that we all carry around in our heads, this drawing almost certainly never existed as a poster.  It was designed as a front cover for the mass market magazine  London Opinion, and was so popular that it was turned into a postcard and also a print.

There were certainly lots of pictures of Lord Kitchener plastered out on the streets in 1914.

Lord Kitchener says WW1 recruiting poster

Not just in Britain, either.  Here he is being forceful in New Zealand.

Kitchener banner in New Zealand

There were also lots of posters using the slogan ‘Your Country Needs You’.

Your Country Needs You anonymous World War One recruiting poster

Your Country Needs You anonymous World War One recruiting poster

But they never existed together on the same poster.  This – as sold at Onslows earlier this summer – is as close as they got to being in the same place.

Alfred Leete (1882-1933) Britons (Kitchener) "Wants You" Join Your Country's Army ! God Save the King, original recruiting poster printed by the Victoria House Printing Company Co. Ltd. September 1914

Plus there is also this number, which does at least combine the wording at the image.

Lord Kitchener world war one recruiting poster leete

Neither of which, however, are the poster of our popular imaginations, though.  That’s this one, isn’t it?

Another Lod Kitchener poster

Except this is in fact a mock-up, produced quite recently.   Aaargh.  So how did this poster, which didn’t exist, end up in my newspaper?

The argument about the exact form and origin of the poster has raged all over the internet and newspapers in this centenary year.  I mentioned it before, when the Britons poster came up for sale at Onslows, and I don’t pretend to understand the precise ins and outs of it.  But that’s OK, because this isn’t really what interests me the most.  What I find intriguing is why this particular version – which may or may not have been pasted on walls in 1914 – still haunts us today.  I’m not sure I have a definitive answer, but the search does take us along a few interesting byways.

The first of these does, however,  involve going back to the argument.  An entire book has been written about Lord Kitchener and his pointing finger, Your Country Needs You, which I have read so that you don’t have to.  The conclusion is that there may have been a very few privately printed versions out there, although these were few in comparison with the millions of government posters that rolled off the presses, and researchers have yet to find a photograph of one glued to a wall.

But old soldiers being interviewed in the years after the war, when asked about why they volunteered, reply with some regularity that it was because of the poster of Lord Kitchener pointing his finger and saying ‘Your Country Needs You’, which they tend to remember as being plastered on every available surface.  So what’s going on?  It’s easy to see how people might conflate the slogan and the pictures of Kitchener, and maybe even mix those up with the London Opinion cover.  But it seems unlikely that everyone performed exactly the same trick of memory on their own.

The book argues convincingly that this is all the Imperial War Museum’s fault.  The museum was founded in 1917 specifically to record the events of the Great War and as a commemoration of all of those who died.  As part of this, it collected the recruitment posters of the time  (there were quite a few out there to be collected, warehouses full of them in fact, left over after conscription had been introduced).  It also managed to collect the London Opinion print, and mis-catalogued it as a poster.  Thus categorised, the iconic image was displayed as a poster in a number of post-war exhibitions.  And by these means the memories of returning soldiers were collectively constructed.

Imperial war museum poster exhibition poster graft on galleries

All of which is interesting and starts to explain why a non-existent image has entered the collective consciousness in the first place.  But why did it persist, and for so long?

One reason that the book suggests is that pictures of a person looking directly at you while pointing their finger are very effective.  Which is true.  (There’s a good selection on the Wikipedia page on the poster if you want to test this theory out.)  Which is probably why the U.S.A copied the Kitchener image for its own recruitment purposes in 1916.

Uncle Sam wants you original poster

Once this has happened, the two posters probably start feeding off each other.  The Uncle Sam poster is, if anything, an even greater icon in America than the Kitchener poster is over here.  It has been reproduced and parodied in an almost infinite number of ways since 1918, particularly where wars and governments are concerned.

Time magazine cover Bush as Uncle Sam

Some of which, I am sure, travels over here and makes us remember our own iconic pointing finger in the form of Kitchener.

Uncle Sam and Kitchener parody

But there’s more to it than that.  Because one of the interesting things about the Kitchener image is that it isn’t always there.  Once all the soldiers have returned, and the patriotic lies of the propaganda have been dismissed, the poster seems to have been mostly forgotten about for a good forty-odd years.  People have looked, but not found any visual references in the inter-war period and then for another decade or two after World War Two has ended.

So what happens to change this?  The answer is the 1960s, or to be more precise 1963-4, when two specific things happen.

One is a boutique on Portobello Road.

I was Lord KItchener's Valet shop sign v&A

This first shop was such a roaring success that they expanded to Carnaby Street and, later, the Kings Road, where the shop had the even better name of ‘I Was Lord Kitchener’s Thing’.

I was Lord Kitchener's Thing Kings Road

I have very nearly written this entire blog post just so that I can post that photo, but never mind.

But why, why Lord Kitchener?  The answer, I think, lies in both the specifics of the early 1960s and the almost universal adolescent urge to get up your parents noses.

I’ve written about the early 1960s before.  It’s the moment when the first generation comes of age who didn’t live through the war, not even a little tiny bit of it.  They’re bored of hearing about the deprivations and the community spirit, they’re bored of self-sacrifice and drab.  And most of all they are bored of hearing about the army.  Because what does Lord Kitchener’s Valet sell at first?  Surplus army uniforms.

And was this meant to irritate the grown-ups?  Of course it was.  A contemporary magazine article makes this clear.

Lord Kitchener of Khartoum would undoubtedly turn in his grave if he knew he was giving his name to a “with-it” boutique in London’s Portobello Road, and he would probably be even more horrified if he knew the boutique was selling the uniform of the British Army as the latest ‘mod’ gear.

The goading worked, too.  In 1966 a ‘Muswell Hill youth’ received a conditional discharge after being stopped for wearing a Scots Guards tunic.  But by  then it was far too late: John Lennon, Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger all bought uniforms there and the red tunics and gold braid were everywhere.  ‘I think it looked fashionable and smart,’ said Muswell Hill Youth, and it almost certainly did.

So the overwhelming urge to stick two fingers up at the British establishment, at their parents’ generation and the war is clear, but why did Lord Kitchener have to be brought into it all?  Why wasn’t he old hat, so to speak?

The answer is, I think, that there was still a problem with attacking the Second World War, even for these bolshie youths.  This was because those who had fought in World War Two had been very, very Right.  They had vanquished Hitler, brought peace and prosperity, liberated the concentration camps. No one could argue with that.  So instead the children of the 1960s had to skip back twenty five years, and pick their enemies from a much more equivocal war, where the generals had made mistakes, where little had been achieved and one in which those soldiers who had returned lamented the futility of the whole thing.  In short, you wouldn’t dare say a word against Montgomery, not for a long time yet, and so it is Lord Kitchener instead who acts as proxy for that entire wartime generation.

All of which makes even more sense in the light of the other early 1960s appearance of Kitchener.  This was 1963, and it happens in Oh What A Lovely War!  He was on stage.

Murray-Melvin-in-Oh-What--A Lovely War

And more importantly, he was all over the publicity and posters.

Exterior of Theatre Royal during the original production of Oh What a Lovely war

Joan Littlewood’s entire career sprang from the urge to go against established opinion.  And by turning her fire on the army, this also allowed her to take aim at various other previously sacrosanct institutions like the Empire and the upper classes.  But even for an iconoclast like her, picking a fight with the most recent war would have been a step too far.  And so, once again, it is Lord Kitchener’s image, with all that this represents, which takes the flak.

By this point, the meaning of the poster has gone through several transformations.  At first – for most people, there were of course always dissenters – this was a simple appeal from a national hero.  After the war, returning soldiers revolted against the high-flown patriotic rhetoric that had brought them into the basest hell of the trenches, and the posters became a prime exhibit of how they had been lied to, Kitchener included.

But by the time it returns in the 1960s, the posters now stand for even more than this, representing upper class twittery and the follies of the gold-braided, Empire ruling establishment.  For a long time, the poster gets parodied (and this is true of the American version too) when someone wants to point out that our rulers are taking us on the wrong path.  This is true even today.

Cameron Kitchener poster

But now the image is so much part of our mental equipment that it can be used for almost anything.  Including, it seems advertising storage.  Which is where we came in.

This is such a complicated issue that I’ve left out lots of relevant things, including the repeated rise and fall of Kitchener’s own reputation.  I’ve also been forced well out of my normal range, and so owe particular thanks to a couple of other internet sites, including this great post about I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and this long but very expert discussion of the Kitchener poster.  It’s also become clear that I would like to know a lot more about Joan Littlewood and the reception of Oh What A Lovely War! but then I have to stop somewhere, at least for now.  So if you do have any thoughts to add to this, I’d love to hear them.

  • Excellent! There’s one thing I’d like to add: as well as being ‘anti-establishment’ and fashionable, army surplus clothing was cheap and well made. For a while as a student in the mid-70s I had an RAF great coat bought for a few pounds at Laurence Corner near Warren Street station in London.

  • Thank you. And yes, I too shopped at Laurence Corner back in the day. But I do wonder how practical those Guards tunics were with all that gold braid. And whether they ever got washed…

  • Looking at this and the Keep Calm one, can’t help but think it’s funny how the poster images that have since become the most copied/parodied are the ones that were never mass-distributed as posters in the first place. I’m sure that must say something in itself…

    I used to shop in Laurence Corner as well, but about 7-8 years ago it became a chemist (which still calls itself Laurence Corner).

  • Yes, I hadn’t made that connection but you are absolutely right. But in the end, we are all continually constructing and reconstructing history for our own modern purposes, and the posters are just a very visible and extreme example of that.

    I’ve recently been reading a book which has pointed out that changing interpretations of archaeological evidence are often connected to current-day concerns. So right now, archaeology is all about immigration and societies being made up of a mix of peoples. Etc.

  • I have heard it said, or seen it written (give me time to look into it) that Orwell got the idea for the Big Brother is Watching You posters in Nineteen Eighty-Four from the Kitchener ‘poster’.

  • It is possible to follow some rather wonderful tracks through British culture; there is a whole other book that could be written about the Kitchener poster , isn’t there.

    Thank you for the Dukes of Stratosphear link. Mr Crownfolio is a big fan, so he was particularly pleased.

    And yes, that does ring a bell and I have heard that, although it does seem odd that he alone would have remembered it at that point. But Orwell was also reacting to the sheer volume of government posters during and after the war too.

  • I hope you’re planning a book on this subject. I have a couple of small volumes, but they seem mere appetite whetters.

  • Thank you very much – there is in fact a book proposal out there and now all I need is a publisher to say yes. So if there are any publishers out there, do get in touch…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.