Illustrating the First World War. The year 1915 in Le Petit Journal’s illustrated supplement

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“New Year’s Day in the trenches. Little gifts maintain the friendship between officers and soldiers.” Le Petit Journal, Supplément illustré, Sunday 9 January 1915. Source: Gallica/BnF

In January 1915 Colette talked about her visit to the front over Christmas in her column for Le Matin. She described her horror at seeing the soldiers receiving all sorts of presents and luxuries while the children and villagers of the region were left without homes, food and clothes.[1]

Le Petit Journal took a different approach to the soldiers and their holiday gifts. The January cover of their illustrated supplement from 1915 (see above) shows officers sharing gifts with ordinary soldiers on New Year’s Day: friendship among the ranks. It is a scene that is obviously meant to boost moral and offer some holiday spirit and relief. I am not an expert on the First World War – the topic falls outside of the period I usually look at and certainly my expertise – but Colette’s articles led me to some other representations of war in the press around the same period. I decided to take a look at Le Petit Journal‘s illustrated supplement, a newspaper whose covers -like those of Le Petit Parisien – are always a visual treat. Even when reporting on an event that was horrible enough as it was – the war – Le Petit Journal managed to turn it into what they did best: sentimental and brutal melodrama.

 The intimate prose of Colette’s newspaper columns tended to focus very much on the devastating impact of war on ordinary people.[2] By comparison Le Petit Journal’s illustrations are less than subtle and revel in sentimentality, glory, heroism, patriotic flag waving, dramatic scenes of (modern) warfare, royalty and lots of evil Germans. For those familiar with Le Petit Journal’s sensationalist depictions of crime , the lack of subtlety in the paper’s representations of war in the year 1915 should hardly come as a surprise. I’ve made a selection of the ones that struck me the most. Let’s take a look. Covers with evil Germans. EvilGermans

Flag waving everywhere. Even wounded soldiers keep holding on to the flag.

Flag waving

Modern air warfare makes its debut in the war and in the illustrated press.

Modern air warfare

Heroic battle scenes, both on land and at sea. Including singing the Marseillaise while attacking.

Heroicbattle

And if that isn’t heroic enough, there is always this soldier who keeps on playing the trumpet even though one of his arms has just been blown off. 

Playing the trumpet with one arm

Heart-breaking scenes at home, patriotism, remembrance, courageous dogs and horses. 

Sentiment

Brave royals doing their bit for the war effort. And for the press.

Royalty1

And just look at how bad things are in Germany. They even have to resort to fake news. BadinGermany I always wonder to what extent contemporary readers believed these dramatised images. How did these covers – if they did at all – influence public opinion? Was the average reader able to look at these a bit critically? Did they bring some comfort? Did people even care when there were so many other things to worry about? The propaganda war was fought on both sides. Covers like these in the popular press were – and had to be – all about rallying support,  a government-backed press machine to keep French citizens supportive of a war that was turning into a disaster. If you wanted to know a little bit about what was going on in everyday life or behind the scenes, it was probably better to read Colette’s articles as well.    Notes

[1‘L’automobile emporte, avec nous, des paniers de cadeaux de Noël. Pour les soldats? Non. Les soldats ont tout ce qu’il faut et davantage.’ (Le Matin, ‘Le journal de Colette’, 6 January 1915). See also my previous post on Colette.

[2] Which I discuss in my article in French Cultural Studies. You can find it here as well as draft version here.

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The many faces of a spy. The death of Mata Hari in French newspapers.


Mata Hari 16 oktober 1917

Mata Hari detail

‘She abused our country’s hospitality for years only to betray us’, Le Petit Parisien, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

On Monday the 15th of October 1917 at six in the morning Margaretha-Geertruida Zelle-Macleod, better known as Mata Hari, faced a firing squad in Vincennes. She was 41 years old. Earlier that year she had been sentenced to death for espionage by French military court. Newspaper Le Petit Parisien, which loved a bit of melodrama, describes how the first shots just wounded her after which a sergeant fired the lethal shot from close range. When her body dropped to the ground ‘her eyes’, according to Le Petit Parisien, ‘seemed to look up to the sky as if asking for forgiveness.’ OK then.

Much has been said and written about the Dutch-Frisian woman who reinvented herself in Paris as a mysterious, Asian dancer/courtesan, who captivated audiences at the Olympia and the Folies-Bergères. Today the consensus is that she was never really the master spy – or double agent – the authorities claimed she was. However, she was a good scapegoat. The execution of an alleged traitor, a foreigner no less, a performance artist with questionable morals, offered a small, symbolic victory at a time when France was facing tremendous losses in the war. This was quite clear in the way her death was reported in most national newspapers on the 16th of October. The papers managed to get her real name more or less right, but she is described as either German or simply ‘foreign’.

Mata Hari fusillée Le Matin 16-10-1917

Le Matin detail Fake Hindu dancer, traitor and ‘choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’, Le Matin, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica.

Le Petit Journal 16 10 1917

Le Petit Journal 16-10-1917 ‘The dancer of German origin’ according to Le Petit Journal, 16 October 1917. The woman in the photo does not really look like her, but who cares, the spy is dead. Source: BnF/Gallica

Le Journal 16-10-1917

Le Journal, 16 October 1917: ‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in several European capitals’. The newspaper uses a detail of a photo of Mata Hari that had already appeared in fashion magazine Les Modes in February 1908 (see below). Source: BnF/Gallica

Mata Hari Les Modes February 1908

The press did not seem too interested in the actual person behind the myth. No journalist bothered to investigate her background or the facts of her case. Instead the papers regurgitated official press releases and old pictures, showing the many faces – literally – of the glamorous, but treacherous Mata Hari.

Newspaper La Croix cared even less and put the news of Mata Hari’s execution on page 4, next to advertising and the weather.

La Croix p4 16 10 1917

‘Choreographic artist of foreign origin who lived in…’ Wait, we’ve seen this sentence before. La Croix, 16 October 1917. Source: BnF/Gallica