What did print do in the Great War?

Caroline Archer
Monday, December 8, 2014

It’s unlikely to have escaped many people’s attention that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, and across the country many events are taking place to commemorate the occasion.

It is therefore timely to remember the contributions made by the British printing industry to that conflict and to commemorate all those printers and compositors, apprentices and journeymen who joined the armed forces ready to fight in the war to end all wars. 

Like many sectors, the outbreak of war had a serious impact on the printing industy. At first there was panic: newspapers reduced in size, many publications were suspended, general printing was depressed, and the book trade halted. As a result, by the end of August 1914, in the Typographical Association alone, there were 1,645 unemployed members and 7,600 on short time. By 1917 the number of men employed in the industry had been reduced by nearly 50% and there was such an acute labour shortage, particularly of machine minders and keyboard operators, that many firms had machines standing idle (40% of Monotype keyboards were reportedly unmanned) while some had to close down altogether. So serious was unemployment in the printing trade that the government had to make emergency grants at the end of 1916. However, with members of the trade joining up in large numbers (by 1917, nearly 7,000 memebrs of the Typographical Association, out of a total of 23,000, had enlisted) and many others being redeployed to munition works, engineering firms, and other essential trades, unemployment in the printing trade practically disappeared and even gave way to a labour shortage. 

The British printing industry had a patriotic attitude towards the First World War, with thousands volunteering and some utilising their skills in the battlefield where they found roles as ‘field printers’. 

Although commercial printers at home produced much printed matter for the military under contract, armies in the field used their own on-the-spot printing services to provide a large range of literature and soldiers printed battle-area material under direct military control using army presses housed on the backs of lorries.

While these printer-soldiers may have found the civilian printing industry challenging with its long hours, expedited deliveries, tight budgets, demanding clients and evolving technologies, on the battlefield, such concerns were swept away and replaced by greater problems caused by the uncomfortable and treacherous conditions in which they had to work. Army field printers had to conduct their business in cramped environments, working in all weathers, while moving through mud-logged battle zones as heavy artillery rained down all around. 

But despite these tough working conditions they were expected to deliver essential work at speed, because lives, rather than profits, depended upon it. Army field printing started in July 1915 when the British Expeditionary Force established a ‘Base Stationery Unit’ at Le Harvre. The unit formed the basis of the Army Printing and Stationery Services (APPS); an additional unit was opened in Boulogne in January 1916 and another printing unit was established in Italy in 1917. The main work of the APPS was printing and distributing manuals, regulations and orders, in addition the APPS produced field service postcards, telephone books, and translations of captured German documents. Runs varied widely; some secret publications were produced only in tens; others appeared in tens of thousands and a total of between 400 and 500 titles appeared. By the Second World War field printing was more concerned with the immediate needs of battle and when the Psychological Warfare Branch was established the APSS issued vast quantities of propaganda leaflets, sabotage instructions, surrender passes and newspapers that were dropped by air behind enemy lines. 

But in the First World War, one of the most famous publications to emerge from the trenches was the Wipers Times, which began in January 1916 when Captain Roberts of the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters discovered the remains of a shell-shattered old printing works just off the main square in Ypres. Parts of the building remained standing; the rest was on top of the printing press and the type was scattered across the countryside. A sergeant of the Sherwood Foresters, a printer in civilian life, repaired the machine, brought a sample of his work to Roberts who started publishing the Wipers Times as his own divisional magazine, the first edition of which appeared on 12 February 1916. Only one of its 12 pages could be printed at a time as there were no ‘y’s or ‘e’s left in the case after one page was set up. One hundred copies were printed and priced at 20 francs: it was an immediate success with the troops. Shortly after publication of Number 2, a German shell hit the works and damaged the press beyond repair; fortunately the type and blocks were unharmed. Another press was discovered a few miles away in the aptly named Hell Fire Corner; this was secured and brought back to Ypres. As the Division moved along the battlefront so did the press and editions of Wipers Times were produced from various locations along the Western Front until December 1918. The paper is an evocative insight into the grim and comic life of the trenches. It is also a tribute to the ingenuity and tenacity of the Tommy printers.

At home, the nation’s printing presses had assisted in the call for arms when the then Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, appointed Lord Kitchner as Secretary of War. Kitchener was given the task of recruiting a large army to fight Germany, which he did with the help of printed posters. Undoubtedly the most successful of these posters was the Kitchener ‘wants you!’ design, which inspired over three million men to volunteer in the first two years of the war. An English illustrator Alfred Leete (1882-1933) designed this famous poster. Born in Northampton Leete began life as a printer at the age of 15 but switched to illustrating when, in 1905, Punch magazine used one of his drawings. His Lord Kitchener illustration first appeared on the cover of the weekly magazine London Opinion in September 1914; it was spotted by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee who changed the wording and turned it into a poster. It is probably the best-known and enduring of all the First World War posters and an extraordinary example of the power of advertising. Many of the posters were printed by David Allens & Sons, Harrow, for the Parliamentary Recruiting Committees and were produced in runs from 20,000 to in excess of 100,000.

For those printers who survived the trenches and who returned to areas of the country with a significant printing industry, there was generally an official welcome home given by their respective towns and trades associations. The contributions made by individual printers to the War was often commemorated on war memorials, observed on civic monuments or recorded on placques hung with pride in municipal halls. Many still survive and serve to remind us of the printing industry’s contribution to the Great War. 

But not all men returned home, and a determined attempt was made by printing employers and employees alike to assist the children of printers killed in the War. A fund was instituted by the Printers’ Pension Corporation in 1918, and 1,200 orphans received weekly grants amounting to a total of £10,000 per year. For the first four years the fund was very largely supported from London, but by 1923 there was a serious falling off of contributions; so serious had the position become that the Printers’ Pension Corporation was faced with the possibility of having to close the fund. 

The Federation of Master Printers and the Newspaper Society took steps to bring the matter to the notice of printing employers throughout the UK and at a meeting of the Joint Industrial Council of the Printing Trade various suggestions were made for putting the fund on a sound footing. One union invited its members to make a voluntary levy to guarantee assistance to the orphans of those men who had been members of that union, and out of over 5,000 members only about a dozen did not respond to the appeal, demonstrating the generosity of printers towards their own.

The printing industry’s return to normality was marked by Ipex 1921. It was a patriotic affair, and the organisers announced that German exhibitors were “as rare as emperors and for the first time in the 20th century Britain and her allies, America and France, have the Exhibition to themselves filling up every foot of space in the exhibition halls”. The exhibition was seen as a testimony to British business vitality for despite the war years, British manufacturing had energetically “prepared for the future era of increased profitable output”. 

It is perhaps worth remembering, that 100 years after the start of the Great War, the world remains an unstable place and the need for printed material in war-torn parts of the world remains. Today the responsibility for British Army field printing falls to the 42 Engineer Regiment (Geographic) based at Denison Barracks, Berkshire. The 42 Engineers have taken part in all recent operations including those in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Falklands and the Gulf and wherever the Regiment is deployed, so are its printers – in many instances producing material in conditions as dangerous as those experienced during the First World War. So it is as well we remember these contemporary printer-soldiers, who alongside their predecessors print during wars fought in the quest for peace. 


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