World War I Propaganda Medallion
Contributed by Adam Moriarty, Assistant Curator Heraldry
Amongst the many exciting items held in the stores of the National Army Museum there is a small medallion that represents the powerful effect that propaganda art can play on the mind set of a population at war: the Lusitania Medallion.
In May of 1915, on a clear Friday morning, 1,959 civilian passengers and crew of the ocean liner Lusitania were nearing Ireland after a long passage from New York. Little did they know that U-20 (a German submarine) was patrolling the area and, believing them to be transporting military munitions, had marked them as a threat. At 2.10 that afternoon the Lusitania was struck by a torpedo. A mere 18 minutes later she was resting on the ocean floor along with 1,198 souls.
Later that year a German political satire artist depicted the event on a propaganda medallion for the amusement of the German public. The artist portrayed the tragedy as a gross oversight of the British Government for allowing a civilian liner to transport military contra-band in an advertised militarised zone. German officials in the USA had warned the passengers of the risk.
On the medallion passengers line up to buy tickets for the ship’s crossing. The ticket booth is manned by a skeleton representing impending death. An inscription above pokes fun at British attitudes. It reads “GESCHAFT UBER ALLES” which means “Business Above All”. In the crowd a man is reading a newspaper with a headline that translates to “U-boat danger” with the German Ambassador beside him raising a warning finger. The other side shows the Lusitania sinking with weapons falling overboard.
The celebration of a civilian tragedy outraged the Allied Forces and its design was replicated and distributed in England to remind the public of the cruel enemy that they were fighting. The British replicas were sold at a shilling each for charity and have since found their way to New Zealand and into our Heraldry Collection. Its box of issue is decorated with an illustration of the liner and the words: ‘R.M.S LUSITANIA: CUNARD LINE. 32000 TONS: SUNK ON HER RETURN JOURNEY FROM THE UNITED STATES BY A GERMAN SUBMARINE MAY 7TH 1915.’
This story is a reminder of how artistry can be used and even flipped on its head to rouse a nation. This is just one of the many forgotten memories behind the military objects in the care of the National Army Museum.
Take a look at some of our recent military artefact acquisitions.
Check out our Blog for the stories behind some of our other interesting museum artefacts.