GENDERED PROPAGANDA AND AMERICAN REACTIONS TO THE GREAT WAR: SHEET MUSIC COVERS FROM THE WOLFSONIAN-FIU LIBRARY

Yesterday marked the hundred year anniversary that Europeans commemorate as the start of the Great War. In fact, hostilities on the continent had already begun. Following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo  on June 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire issued an ultimatum and afterwards declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia on July 28. The Austro-Hungarians had backed up that first declaration of war by bombarding Belgrade on July 29, which in turn triggered Serbia’s protector, the Russian Empire, to begin mobilizing troop along the Austrian border. With the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian Empires mobilizing their armies on July 29 and July 31 respectively, the German Kaiser’s diplomats queried whether France would remain neutral and delivered an ultimatum to his cousin, Czar Nicholas on August 1, demanding that Russia either demobilize or else find herself in a state of war with Germany. The web of entangling alliances between the European powers then combined with desperate mobilization timetables and inflexible military attack plans to turn this regional dispute into a continental (and then global) tragedy. The United States remained neutral and kept out of the “European war” until 1917.

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In the wake of the declarations of war and the actual outbreak of hostilities on the European continent in August, 1914, most Americans adopted an isolationist attitude, relieved that the Atlantic Ocean separated them from the winds of war. President Woodrow Wilson pursued a course of neutrality, and although there was a sizable German-American minority in the United States, linguistic, cultural, and economic affinities tied the United States more closely to Great Britain than to her German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman adversaries.

Just hours after war was declared in August, 1914, the British severed the German undersea cable to North America. This move effectively prevented the enemy from communicating directly with the United States and forced the Germans to route their transatlantic telegrams through England where they could be screened and censored. This gave England a distinct advantage in being able to slant the news and direct propaganda aimed at manipulating American public opinion in their favor.

The war news that did reach American shores was certainly far more hostile to Germany and her allies. The initial war plans designed by Schlieffen called for the German Army to sweep across neutral Belgium en route to Paris. Consequently, editorial cartoons castigated the German Kaiser and his army for their violation of international law and for perpetrating what was luridly referred to as the “Rape of Belgium.” Images like the one below were intended to shame young men into enlisting to heroically defend female virtue from the threat of actual rape.

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LOUIS RAEMAEKERS’ CARTOON, “SEDUCTION”

As the war dragged on and degenerated into a bloody stalemate, most Americans felt vindicated in having stayed out of the “European War.” Even as Belgian atrocity stories (many fabricated or exaggerated) and incidents like the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat were seized upon by propagandists, popular American sentiment was reflected in sheet music covers that lauded President Wilson’s “too proud to fight” commitment to neutrality.

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Other songs, with titles like “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to be a Soldier” and “Don’t Take My Darling Boy Away!” reflected the fears of American mothers that their sons would be sent off to senseless slaughter overseas.

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The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans once again put the United States and Germany on a collision course, and ultimately brought America into the war in 1917. Sheet music covers printed after America’s entry into the war illustrate a complete about face. Cover illustrations from sheet music published between 1917 and 1918—(some claiming to reflect “the sentiment of every American mother”)—depict American mothers proudly and patriotically offering up their uniformed sons to fight for Uncle Sam.

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Other sheet music covers used images of “sweet hearts” giving a romantic stamp of approval to their soldier boy’s decision to serve, linking the love of a good woman to love of country and the desire to prove one’s manhood by fighting and returning home a hero. 

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Some of the illustrated song sheets were designed to reassure loved ones that they would not be forgotten while they were serving abroad.

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One song even aimed to allay servicemen’s fears that the girls they left behind might find love in another man’s arms. With a title that declared her lips to be “No man’s land” but his own, the illustrated cover depicted a soldier defending his girl (or his country) at the point of his bayonet!

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Still other sheet music covers and lyrics held out the promise of romantic encounters that American doughboys might have while serving in France.

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At least one song and sheet music cover reversed traditional gender roles, by picturing an American girl in a chaste white dress—(perhaps serving as a Red Cross nurse)—courting a heroic French soldier. While the playful lyrics having her tolerating his flirting with other women, she enjoins and expects him to love only her.

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~ by "The Chief" on August 2, 2014.

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