Perfidious Albion

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2009, at 8:51 pm, by Cadwalader Crabtree.

Aware of my professional interest in unsavory things of this kind, Dr. Hurlbutt has kindly lent me his copy of Das perfide Albion, a German propaganda pamphlet from the First World War. Written by a minor pan-German activist named Alfred Geiser (1868-1937), this work dates from approximately 1915 and includes a number of fiercely anti-British cartoons, some of which seem worth reproducing here for their historical and artistic interest.

One must surely begin with the striking illustration on the cover (alas, uncredited), which depicts a stereotypically sharp-featured, straw-haired Anglo-Saxon, grimly wading up to his ankles in a sea of blood (with warships of the mighty British navy visible in the background). Although undoubtedly intended to be English, he is attired in a Scottish kilt, jacket, glengarry, and argyle socks, presumably because these garments are so visually distinctive and — to the German eye at least — preposterous (though the German tendency to reduce all Britons indiscriminately to Engländer is probably also at play). To symbolize Britain’s preeminence in business and finance, the artist has the alarming figure clutching a large moneybag labeled “Albion G.m.b.H.” (Albion, being the Ancient Greek name for Britain and “G.m.b.H.” being the German abbreviation equivalent to the English “Ltd.”). Tucked under his arm is a swagger stick in the shape of a caduceus, the symbol of Hermes, god of commerce and trickery.

Cover of Alfred Geiser, Das perfide Albion (1915).

Fortunately for Geiser, there was a long history of rivalry and distrust between the British and the French. (Indeed, the stock phrase “perfidious Albion” was coined by a Frenchman in 1793.) As a consequence, there was an ample supply of French cartoons directed against the British to choose from. The earliest cartoon Geiser selected was this one, by J. J. Grandville (Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard, 1803-47), which appeared in the French humor magazine Le Charivari in 1840, during the First Opium War.

Cartoon by J. J. Grandville from Le Charivari, 1840.

Translation: “I say, you must buy this poison immediately. We want you to really poison yourselves, so that we will have enough tea to comfortably digest our beefsteaks!”

A key component of the humor — inevitably lost in translation — is the speaker’s outlandish English accent (e.g., “Yè vo dis” for “Je vous dis”). Note also that French bemusement at the British preference for indigestibly overcooked beef appears to be of long standing.

Caran D’Ache (Emmanuel Poiré, 1857-1909), a major French cartoonist of a later generation, attacked British misrule in India with this undated drawing from the Parisian daily Le Figaro. The cartoon features the stock figure of “John Bull,” the British equivalent of the American “Uncle Sam.”

Cartoon by Caran D'Ache, from Le Figaro.

Translation: “Don’t throw away the crumbs, Kitty. They’re quite good enough for the Indians.”

Adolphe Willette (1857-1926) addressed the same subject with this biting, uncaptioned cartoon, which appeared in the popular humor magazine Le Rire, in a number entitled “V’la les English!..” (Behold the English!) in 1899.

Cartoon by Adolphe Willette in Le Rire, 1899.

Willette made no attempt at subtlety in this cartoon for the same anti-British issue of Le Rire. The feminine personification in the awkward embrace with Death is Britannia, who is holding Poseidon’s trident, symbol of her naval power.

Cartoon by Adolphe Willette in Le Rire, 1899.

Translation: The day perfidious Albion kicks the bucket will be a day of universal rejoicing.

The Boer War (1899-1902) did considerable harm to Britain’s international reputation, not only because a great power was seen to have uncommon difficulty defeating a small, poorly equipped insurgency, but also because in its growing frustration the British Army resorted to brutal tactics.

This undated cartoon, “On the border of Transvaal,” by René Georges Hermann-Paul (1864-1940), from Le Figaro, merely impunes Britain’s motives for going to war.

Cartoon by René George Hermann-Paul from Le Figaro.

Translation: “The gold mines are down there!”

The following three cartoons quote ironically from British official communiques as a device to focus on Britain’s treatment of the Boers. All three are by Jean Veber (1868-1928) and appeared in the French humor weekly L’Assiette au beurre in 1901.

Cartoon by Jean Veber from L'Assiette au beurre, 1901.

Translation: Official report from Lord Roberts to the London War Office concerning the Boer War: “I must gratefully and approvingly emphasize the proverbial chivalry of the English soldier. I am convinced of this daily by numerous and moving examples. It is moving to witness the consideration and solicitude with which the Boer women are treated . . .”

Cartoon by Jean Veber from L'Assiette au beurre, 1901.

Translation: Official report to the London War Office concerning the Boer War: “. . . Thanks to our good organization of the concentration camps, health and plenty prevail there. It is truly satisfying to watch the children jumping around and playing playing harmlessly among the tents, while their mothers look on smilingly and thus forget for a moment the sadness of their situation. . . . The precautions we have taken have reduced child mortality to 380 per thousand.”

Cartoon by Jean Veber from L'Assiette au beurre, 1901.

Translation: Official report to the London War Office concerning the Boer War: “. . . The captured Boers are confined in large enclosures, and there they have found peace and quiet for the last 18 months. An electrically charged wire lattice constitutes both the most healthful and the most secure fencing. This permits the prisoners a free view outside and they thus enjoy the illusion of freedom.”

This unidentified French cartoon dates from the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5).

French cartoon from the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5.

The Japanese: “If you weren’t my friend, John Bull, I would think you were selling coal to my enemy; but since you are my friend . . .”
John Bull: “. . . I could sell it to you for the same price.”

With the outbreak of the First World War, of course, Geiser had to fall back upon German cartoons to abuse the British. This one, depicting an ominous Englishman ministering to French premier Raymond Poincaré, was drawn by the Norwegian-born Olaf Gulbransson (1873-1958). It appeared in a war leaflet published by the German humor magazine Simplicissimus.

Cartoon by Olaf Gulbransson from Simplicissimus.

Translation: “You’ve lost a certain amount of blood recently, Monsieur Poincaré, but I will bring you along so well that you will be able to lead the last of your country’s children to the slaughter for us.”

This cartoon from the Munich journal Jugend purports to depict a conversation in South Africa. The less said about it, the better.

Cartoon from Jugend (Munich).

“Let me fight the Germans! I’ll pelt them with stones!”
“My boy, that’s a heathen way of fighting. I will initiate you into the mysteries of the Christian dum-dum bullet.”

The final cartoon in Geiser’s thirty-four-page pamphlet is good evidence of how completely the German propaganda apparatus could turn the world upside down. Drawn by Julius Diez (1870-1957) for Jugend, it depicts France and Belgium as victims caught in the web of the fearsome English spider. Although undated, it was almost certainly published at a time when Belgium and part of northeastern France were under German military occupation.

Cartoon by Julius Diez from Jugend (Munich).

Comments (closed):

Bruce Crabtree wrote on March 23, 2010, at 1:05 pm:

Cadwallader? What an interesting Crabtree name! Welsh or Cornish perhaps? May I inquire as to your locale?


Robert Bruce Crabtree

Cadwalader Crabtree wrote on March 24, 2010, at 12:59 pm:

Yes, the origin of the name is Welsh (anglicized from Cadwaladr, meaning “battle leader”).