Humor during World War 1: French Propaganda in the archive of Richard Norris Williams

The Special Collections Processing Center is pleased to welcome Aleth Tisseau des Escotais.  Aleth, a student at École Nationale Superiéure des Sciences de l’Information et des Bibliothèques in France, is working with us from February to April, as part of her training in libraries.  She will be working on a number of collections during her time with us, and will be reporting on her collections and her experiences working with archival collections in the United States.  Her first post follows:

World War 1 is well-known for its over 16 million deaths, 20 million wounded, and 7 million imprisoned, along with the dramatic living conditions of the soldiers in the trenches. It should have been a short-lived war, but eventually it turned out to be a long-lasting and stalemated conflict. More than ever, it was important to keep one’s chin up. This is the goal of the propaganda found within the R. Norris Williams collection of World War I material.  R. Norris Williams, a soldier in World War I and General Harbord’s aide de camp, collected an excellent group of humorous French propaganda documents, a few of which will be highlighted below.

2014-02-25 13-56-17On the one hand, they laugh at their enemies. The French propaganda describes the German soldiers as ogres or monsters. Their chief, Kaiser Wilhelm II, is its main target, nothing is spared from him. Many jokes lack subtlety, as you can see on the following picture. On this toilet paper, a “Boche” sticks his tongue out in order to catch his food. The inscription says: “Donnez-moi mon dessert du 11 août S.V.P.”, that is “Please give me my August 11 dessert”.

2014-02-25 13-57-52On the other hand, they can also use self-mockery. Making fun of themselves and their tragic situation allow them to put things into perspective and accept them more easily. In the newspaper L’Exilé written in the prisoner-of-war camp of Hammelburg, in January 1917, we can read this comic article where one of the prisoners gives a funny portrayal of himself and his fellow inmates. The author, Crapouillot, describes in a scientific way the “Françousse”, an unknown red, blue and khaki only-male animal who appeared in the Hammelburg area, in Bavaria, Germany, about two years ago, who lives inside a wire enclosure and feeds himself mainly with potatoes. On the left is an excerpt from this article.

croppedHumor is not a French prerogative. I will end this post by showing you an extract from an American “confidential and secret” leaflet, “for distribution by aeroplane”, entitled “Summary of Unintelligence”:

The R. Norris Williams collection of World War I material is now available for research.

You can see more World War I propaganda in the World War I Printed Media and Art Collection (to which R. Norris Williams material has been added).

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