As ever, dear readers, welcome.
As Gondor musters to defend itself, we can see that Gondor is a feudal state:
“And so the companies came and were hailed and cheered and passed through the Gate…The men of Ringlo Vale behind the son of their lord…a long line of men of many sorts…scantily equipped save for the household of Golasgil their lord…Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth…and a company of knights in full harness…” (The Return of the King, Book Five, Chapter 1, “Minas Tirith”)
In the early feudal system, a lord got his land from a king and, in return, he owed that king military service, meaning that, not only did he have to show up upon royal command, but he had to bring his own men with him.
In the 20th century, such a system was long gone, replaced in most of Europe in the mid-19th century by a system called conscription. In this system, laws were passed so that men from about 18 and at least into their early 30s were to be graded as to their suitability to become soldiers, the youngest being selected to serve a certain number of years of active duty
before going into various stages of reserves, who could then be called up in case of war.
The purpose of this was to swell armies, as each increasingly-industrialized state sought to keep its position of power and influence in pre-Great War Europe.
The exception was Britain, which relied entirely upon willing recruits to fill the ranks of its much smaller regular army.
(You can see, by the way, by the wording of this poster, that, even though their army was much smaller, the plan was still to build up reserves.)
Thus, when war actually came in August, 1914, although the other European countries involved called in masses of reservists,
the British government had to depend initially upon volunteers.
This worked surprisingly well in 1914 and into 1915, in part because of native patriotism, but also because of a view of the German enemy projected in popular literature and the popular press. Here’s the Kaiser, the German emperor Wilhelm II, about to take a big bite out of the world, for example.
Unfortunately, the Germans themselves provided a good deal of ammunition for such a view with their march through neutral Belgium in 1914
and their subsequent occupation. During their last war with France, in 1870-71, Prussian and their allied troops had occasionally found themselves the victims of what we would call “partisans” or guerrillas, but the French—and the Germans—called them “francs tireurs”, meaning armed men not belonging to a recognized military unit who would try to sabotage Prussian war efforts by everything from train derailments to ambushing individual soldiers.
In 1914, the Germans were convinced that they would face the same thing in Belgium and northern France, and so behaved mercilessly to civilians of those two countries, murdering, by some reports, over 7000 of them as well as destroying public buildings, including the priceless medieval library in Louvain/Leuven.
The destruction of Louvain/Leuven is well documented, but some of the stories about atrocities were undoubtedly simply exaggerations or even complete fictions, but, as we’ve seen in the internet age, rumors are sometimes more powerful than truth and Britain, in need of soldiers, was certainly willing to use any reports, as distorted as they might be, as a recruiting stimulus. And so the Germans became everything from uniformed, bloated vampires (the caption reads: “The ferocious beast feels hunger coming on”)
to maddened gorillas,
the Kaiser an ally of the Devil,
and all civilians and their homes everywhere would be endangered by them.
Although the British themselves instituted conscription in early 1916,
the grotesque propaganda continued, as the war ground into 1917 and then through most of 1918.
And the Germans, from the war’s start, projected their own image of the enemy. A favorite was Britain as a blood-sucking spider, planning to bring all of Europe—
and perhaps beyond–
into its web. Often in posters and on postcards, German soldiers are depicted as bigger than their enemies, as if they were adults and their adversaries were only little boys in uniform.
(The verses read: “Strike, Michael/strike strongly/so that the sparks fly/so they have dread and gloom before the German blows”—it’s catchier auf deutsch)
I can never look at such artwork without thinking just how much at least of the English variety Tolkien must have seen. It’s clear that, although he would have been 21 and over in 1914,
he wasn’t one to rush to a recruiting station as so many did,
so that I can imagine he would have had a skeptical reaction to such stuff, at best.
But, in a “what if” moment, I imagine a Gondor much more like 1914 Britain, where the feudal system has gone and there is general literacy: can we imagine the posters Denethor’s administration would have turned out? Orcs looting Osgiliath, Orcs burning the Pelennor, a mounted Nazgul in the ruined gateway of Minas Tirith with the words, “Will You Wait Till You See This?”
And, of course, there would be the other side’s propaganda, too—big red, staring eyes everywhere,
like that painted on the replacement for the fallen head of the unnamed king at the crossroads in South Ithilien,
and perhaps posters (to be read aloud by the few literate among the Orcs to the masses of others) like this,
with a slight revision of the words: “If You Were a Horse Boy Aged 18-50, YOU Would Be Fighting for Theoden! What Are You Doing for the Eye!”
Thanks for reading, as ever.
Don’t believe all you read,
And know that, as always, there’s