First ‘Digitizing the War Illustrated’ Workshop Roundup

Our next workshop on the World War I magazine The War Illustrated will take place on Wednesday the 24th of July. (More details will be posted in due course, please keep checking this blog!) It is not necessary for people to participate in all three workshops, but I thought it might be helpful to those thinking of attending the next to summarise some of the interesting areas we covered in the first. We began by casual discussion over coffee and biscuits, with this followed by a short introduction to us at NoRMMA and our National Lottery Heritage Funded ‘Digitizing the War Illustrated’ project.  Advice on navigating the collection on the Internet Archive was provided. I then spoke about some of the ‘Kent’ searches I undertook on the August to December 1914 section of the magazines on the Internet Archive last week, and which I have written up as blog posts. We then talked about some general research advice, which is provided in more detail in a workshop handout (a version of this will be added to the blog later on). Several participants chose to focus on aspects key to themselves – nationality and family history (searching for surnames, family members), but well-know individuals were also popular. Other interests included Christmas, animals, and the magazine itself – a few of us found it interesting just browsing through issues rather than performing targeted searches.

Countries researched included Belgium, Poland, and Wales. The latter especially brought up the matter of Britain as a nation comprised of several countries.  In a previous post on my ‘Kent’ searches I looked at propaganda (   and noted that ‘England’ rather than Britain was named as Germany’s ‘deadliest enemy’. The workshop participant researching Wales similarly noticed a focus on England, thinking that Wales was mentioned less than other countries. Furthermore, many of the references to Wales related to the ‘Prince of Wales’ – an English individual who serves a shorthand for Britain’s entitled imperialism.  Other workshop participants offered suggestions to broaden out the search for Wales, such as also searching for the term ‘Welsh’ as well as specific Welsh regiments.  Some also helped by searching specific Welsh locations such as Cardiff and Swansea. The latter brought up a photograph and caption mentioning of the ‘great chanteuse’ Madame Patti visiting injured men in a Swansea hospital ward named in her honour (in the 19th of December 1914 issue).Internet research revealed that Adelina Patti was an Italian-French 19th century opera singer who owned a castle in Wales.  Her connection to World War I was commented on by internet sources as her final public appearance was at a Red Cross concert at the Royal Albert Hall.  We also thought it might be useful to search for Madame Patti, perhaps just through the term ‘Patti’ in other sections of The War Illustrated archive.

Other individuals specifically looked for in the archive included Mata Hari. Some of us had recently watched  MGM’s 1931 film of the spy and archetypal femme fatale’s life, directed by George Fitzmaurice and starring Greta Garbo. We were curious as to whether, and how, The War Illustrated mentioned Mata Hari. The photograph in the 17th of November 1917 issue of The War Illustrated pictured her exotically dressed with her midriff visible, and with a large snake wound around her body. The caption gives her real name as Marguerite Gertrud Zelle, but acknowledged that she was ‘better known as “the celebrated Hindu dancer Mata Hari”’. It also relates the news that she has been executed after being proved to be ‘one of Germany’s most skilful women spies’. Comparing the photograph of Mata Hari to the other photographs of individuals on the page headed ‘Agents of Prussia’s World-Wide Espionage’ is illuminating.  In contrast to the scantily clad Mata Hari, the photographs of the two men present, Bolo Pasha and Dr. Karl Graves, picture them smartly-dressed, in a suit and a sober overcoat respectively. The other woman on the page, Regina Diane, a Swiss singer, is also outlandishly dressed – in what appears to be a version of national costume with eye-catching headgear. While the women are labelled as entertainers, Pasha is credited as being the ‘head’ of ‘German intrigue’ (i.e. a highly placed spymaster rather than simply a spy) in France and Graves possesses the title Dr.

The 1931 film also focused on the more titillating aspects of Mata Hari, especially the romance between her and Russian Lieutenant Alexis Rosanoff played by Mexican star Ramon Novarro. This was even the case despite the copy in circulation today being an edited one; the film was censored when it was re-released after the implementation of the Production Code which outlawed certain behaviours on-screen. While the 1931 film’s grasp of the facts seem shaky, this is perhaps in view of what is deemed to be fact now – including the question of whether Mata Hari was a spy or a scapegoat. The film was quite sympathetic towards Mata Hari (perhaps partly because she was played by Greta Garbo) but certainly considered her to have put the Allies in danger. We also have to consider that the 1931 film has influenced our current view of Mata Hari, probably more so than the silent 1927 German silent film directed by Friedrich Feher and starring Magda Sonja.

As the views of individuals change over time, so does our understanding of historical events. This emerged as Christmas was researched. The retrospectively famous Christmas truce of 1914, which in popular myth included soldiers from both sides suspending hostilities to play football, seems to first be mentioned as a ‘truce’ in The War Illustrated the next Christmas (the 25th of December 1915 issue). This contained few details, however, of what the Christmas truce of 1914 consisted of. Reportage of Christmas 1915 (in the 22nd of January 1916 issue) merely mentioned the exchange of a few Christmas greetings. Other aspects related to Christmas included a mention of the ‘Something to Smoke’ campaign (see my initial blog post on this here: and the importance of sending home comforts to our boys at the front. The magazine also suggested sending overseas friends the gift of a subscription to the magazine for Christmas (on the 21st of November 1914), further enlightening us as to its marketing strategies and raising the matter of non-UK based readers of The War Illustrated.

Workshop attendees’ interest in animals also proved to be a fruitful area.  Mentions of the contribution from, and the treatment of, animals such as horses, dogs and pigeons were found. Some of the group suggested that considering the way horses were portrayed in Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel War Horse, Nick Stafford’s play (first staged in 2007) and Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film might be interesting in terms of comparison. The matter of class, already brought up in terms of nationality (the privileged Prince of Wales far more likely to be present than Welsh rank and file soldiers) returned. A page in the 3rd of April 1915 issue was headed ‘Sports and Pastimes’ near the Firing Line. A photograph pictures two men or horses, surrounded by dogs. The caption adds that one of these is an ‘officer’ and that he is engaging in some ‘fox-hunting behind the firing line’. Although the caption goes on to state that this practice has since been forbidden, it offers an interesting comment on entitlement. Today, we thought this was indulgent. We were surprised that fox-hunting occurred near the front during wartime,  and that it was reported in the magazine. The very fact it was covered suggests that it was not viewed in this way by the magazine or intended to be interpreted as such by its readers.

Some participants preferred to get a feel for The War Illustrated’s coverage of the war and its marketing strategies by browsing its issues. In terms of what the magazine said about conflict, some noted the especially emotive language. The magazine’s own assertion of its ‘plan and purpose’ in its very first issue was deemed particularly helpful. A later editorial (from the 6th of February 1915)  was also thought to be significant in promoting the binding of issue for prosperity, mentioning the fact the ‘Something to Smoke’ campaign will be less prominent in the future, and the upcoming removal of advertisements from the publication. The advertisements for
Bovril (appearing on the 14th of November 1914) and Liptons tea (present in the 29th of August 1914 issue) were much commented on. These comforting hot drinks were both related to matters of the national as their British brand identity was emphasised. The fact that Bovril ‘always has been British’, and indeed is ‘British to the Backbone’ appears in the largest and boldest type in its half-page advertisement. Meanwhile Lipton’s tea is also connected to class as its full-page advertisement is headed by the royal family’s coat of arms signalling that it holds a royal warrant of appointment. In modern times a similar position is held by the Twinings brand – after all, what could be more British than a nice cup of tea?!

If you attended the workshop and would like to add to the above, please leave a comment or email us on

Please also email us if you are curious to find out what else The War Illustrated covered and would like to book one of the 12 spaces at our next workshop on the 24th of July. It is not necessary to have attended the first workshop.  Indeed, all are welcome – including those with little or no knowledge of research or the internet as well as more experienced researchers. Join us to swap ideas and build your own project if you wish.

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