The recruitment poster featuring the British minister Lord Kitchener is a defining image of the first World War. His provocative finger aimed directly at the viewer remains recognisable and imitated, 100 years after its design.
Most people assume the image owes its fame to a government campaign, but as few as 10,000 copies were printed and only a handful of original copies survive today.
It was in fact initially created as a front cover design for the London Opinion magazine on 5 September 1914, by professional illustrator Alfred Leete. In response to requests for reproductions, the magazine offered postcard-sized copies. The design was produced as a poster shortly afterwards with the headline amended to (Kitchener) “Wants You”.
The authorities had anticipated that an image of the popular Lord Kitchener would be good for recruiting. But the official Parliamentary Recruitment Committee poster used an uninspiring long-winded quote and a far less dramatic image of the field marshal. Although it received a print-run 15 times greater than Leete’s design, it’s now largely forgotten.
Leete was a renowned cartoonist who understood the importance of simplicity in communicating with the public.
His illustration carefully manipulated Kitchener’s appearance, correcting his squint, fixing a stern gaze and enlarging and darkening his moustache making him younger. The pointing finger singles out the individual, placing you under an obligation to respond.
Horatio Kitchener was born in Ireland 1850 and educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He took part in the operation to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum and went on to be appointed governor general of eastern Sudan, commander in chief of India and proconsul of Egypt. When war broke out, he reluctantly accepted the appointment of secretary of state for war. He was credited with great foresight in recognising that WW1 would last several years and require a large army, but his disputes with political and military figures of the time are now obscured by Leete’s evocative caricature.
The Statesman was uneasy about his image use in recruitment campaigns. He believed it should be the monarch inspiring people to sign up and insisted that the words “God Save the King” were included.
Lord Kitchener was killed 5 June 1916 in the sinking of HMS Hampshire, as he journeyed to Russia.
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