"DON'T STAND LOOKING AT THIS": World War 1 recruitment posters and the art of war

Fifty recruitment and war effort posters held by State Records give us a unique insight into the mind of the South Australian home front during the First World War. Collected by the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia these posters, along with broadsheets, handbills and stamps, now make up State Records’ series GRG32/16 World War I recruitment and war effort posters – State War Council.

By February 1915 recruitment for the war within Australia was dropping. This led to the establishment of state based recruiting campaigns and a change in methods of attracting men to enlist. Britain was already producing recruitment posters, and a number of these were sent as examples to Australia. Soon it was realised that the Australian governments would also need to engage a poster artist and advertising writer to “decorate stations, streets and hotels with similar bold productions, appealing for more men in the fighting line.” The Advertiser, 5/02/1915). The South Australian Government introduced plans to print posters after examples from the Victorian Parliamentary Recruiting Committee were obtained. These were copied, and even “improved on” by the South Australian Government photolithographic and printing departments through the use of “more striking tones”. (Daily Herald, 27/07/1915) An original poster was also commissioned, showing a soldier pointing over Turkish sand hills stating “South Australians, Coo-ee! Fall in! We want YOU at the Front. Come and Help. Enlist at Once”. Copies of this poster were posted at all railway stations in the state, and one copy can now be found within State Records’ collection as GRG32/16 item 7. In ten days 9,800 copies of the new posters were printed and soon were seen throughout the city and country.

The posters called on all South Australians to support the war effort. Many posters encourage men to enlist their services, urging action with slogans such as “Don’t stand looking at this GO and HELP” (item 1) and the ubiquitous “Your country needs YOU” (items 4 and 12). Women were also targeted by these posters. Their responsibility to keep the home front operating effectively is stressed in item 2. This poster is directed to the Women of Australia, asking them what they were doing to help the effort and urging the, to think of the safety of their children should Australia fail. Women were asked to let their husbands and sons “GO” to war, so they wouldn’t have to face the shame of not being allowed to fight for King and Country.

In July 1915 J.R.G. Adams, the General Secretary of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia, wrote to the Secretary of the State Recruiting Campaign (V.H. Ryan, also the Director of the Intelligence and Tourist Bureau at the time) to request copies of any recruitment posters used in South Australia. In his letter Adams stated:

Will you add to your past kindnesses to the National Collections of the State and help us in this matter, by sending a copy of every poster you can spare. Our desire is to preserve them for future reference, and as an historical souvenir of what must always be designated in the future as the great war, the first War in which Australia’s National Independence has been threatened, and in which our countrymen have so gloriously upheld the traditions of the British Nation. (GRG7/24/139/1915)

Adams followed the letter with a phone call to Ryan’s office to add to his request “anything in connection with the Recruiting Campaign which will prove of historic interest”. (GRG7/24/139/1915)

One aspect of how South Australians experienced the First World War is preserved for posterity within this series. The images and messages contained within the posters urged everyone to take part in the war effort and played upon basic human fears of danger, insecurity and shame to encourage people to take action. Although almost 100 years has passed since their initial production and we now have a very different perspective on the conflict, these records evoke in us emotions that must have been felt throughout South Australia at that time.

Recruitment and war effort posters from GRG32/16 can now be viewed on State Records’ Flickr.

A note on the author:  When she has not been busy answering reference enquiries and fronting our research centres, Helen has been a regular on "Who Do You Think You Are" and a major contributor to the public programmes of State Records.  Helen's commitment to the archives along with her unparalleled enthusiasm have earned her the honour of writing our first blog post.



Long time twitter follower first time blogger, I commend the efforts of state archival staff in recent months on taking the Archives online - keep it going.

Thanks, Dave! We appreciate this feedback :) We're looking forward to this blog as a place where we can explore our archives and subjects in greater detail than on our microblogging platforms.

Having seen all of the posters in this series, I was also struck with the difference between the early Government initiatives in poster printing, and the later efforts, like the posters for Butler's 500, which seemed comparatively amateur compared to the earlier, elaborate posters.

This is a really good observation. We're really keen for researchers to look at the series and make analyses as you have done. What were the reasons for that change in tactic? Was it an economic factor? A general slide in the fervor by the recruiters themselves? A new strategy?

Congrats to the Author Helen on this first blog. A very interesting incite into the mind of recruits at the time. I hope to read more blogs in the future.

Thanks for your feedback, Lynda! We certainly look forward to releasing more blog posts down the track.

Hi Helen, thanks for your work! I was wondering if you have any information on the illustrator behind the "South Australians, Coo-ee! Fall in!" poster? Or any more info on the poster itself, like its dimension size or exact year of creation? Thank you so much!

We’re glad you like it! The illustrator appears to have been someone called C Wall of the Photolithographer’s Department within the Surveyor-General's Office. The commissioning of the poster in mid-1915 is described in this newspaper article: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article59417612. Correspondence about the recruitment campaign is able to be found in GRG32/1 (State War Council correspondence), and there may be some other records in GRG42/1 (Railways Commissioner) or GRG35/2 (Surveyor-General's Office) regarding the commissioning of the posters. The original poster housed in our collection is 60cm wide by 90 cm tall.

Wow, thanks for your speedy response. Very helpful! THANK YOU for being so committed to preserving this awesome history.
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