War Bonds Explained

Wars are expensive, world wars doubly so, and that meant governments were fighting for every penny. They raised taxes, introduced rationing, and took on loans. But after all that, they still had to borrow money from their own citizens in the form of War Bonds. So what is a War Bond and how did states their citizens, including children, to pay up?

These are posters advertising war bonds, public saving schemes that allow ordinary people to chip in for the war effort. As you can see there are a lot of them in our collection. This one says 'lend to defend the right to be free' and shows a female factory worker whose shadow takes the form of a Red Cross nurse. In this image we see that same poster behind four-year-old Heather Scott, she's sticking one of those saving stamps into her booklet so she can save up for a war bond. It was savings day at her school in Oxfordshire and this week Heather and her classmates managed to raise two pounds six shillings and five pence. But these images raise an important question why were children paying for the war effort?

Well, wars are really, really expensive.

That's Alan Wakefield head of the First World War team at Imperial War Museums.

In the First World War a single tank in 1918 cost about half a million pounds in today's money and the same for Spitfire in 1940 half a million million pounds and that's just for one aircraft and you got to remember you don't need one Spitfire you need hundreds, possibly thousands of them to actually fight a war.

In order to pay these exorbitant costs governments did many things. They raised taxes, they introduced rationing and other personal restrictions, and most importantly they borrowed heavily from other countries. But after all of that, they still had to raise yet more money and they did that through war bonds.

Well a war bond is just individual citizens lending the government money. You know, you give your money to the government and in six to ten years time they pay you back plus interest.

That six to ten year term was really important it meant that governments could shift these huge costs of war further down the line, when the war hopefully was over.

The main condition of course you're investing in the government, you'll get your money back, but you really only get your money back if your side wins a war. If your nation happens to be on the losing side there's really little chance of you getting your money back.

But wait a minute, how did the government get away with that? With increased taxes, reduced personal freedoms, and constant shortages people were really suffering. So how did they get citizens to give what little they have left to the government?

The main way they actually got people t put their hand in their pocket and buy war bonds was by using propaganda. It's for you.

Archive Clip: "This is a personal call to everyone in this theatre. To remember to keep on saving through your group."

The propaganda they used here was really twofold. One is to show that this is an a national effort. People on the home front are standing side by side with the people at the front actually doing the fighting. The other way is to basically vilify the enemy. You know if we lose
this war it's going to be terrible our country's going to be destroyed civilization is going to be destroyed. And it really gets in people's minds after two or three years of this everybody really believes.

Archive Clip: "That's right, keep on saving."

If we go back to those war bond posters in the IWM collection we can see these efforts very clearly. During the First World War 'feed the the guns' was a popular refrain. The advertising made a direct connection between your cash and the bullets and bombs that would win the war. Another tactic was the use of national iconography to evoke a feeling of patriotism. Sir Lancelot, William Wallace, and Uncle Sam were used amongst many other nationalistic icons to sell war bonds. Meanwhile this German poster from 1917 makes an appeal direct from the frontline trenches 'help us to gain victory'. This imagery is typical of German and Austro-Hungarian poster design, where the soldier, sailor, or airman is depicted as a hero who those at home should be proud to support. In complete contrast countries like Britain and the USA whipped up fear by demonizing those very same servicemen. By making the enemy seem ghastly they tried to depict the war as a fight between civilization and barbarism, this poster shows the illegal sinking of hospital ship Llandovery Castle by a German U-Boat.

But buying one war bond wasn't enough, governments needed citizens to keep investing in the war and to do that they had to show the public the impact of their investments.

The Battle of the Somme film, which is in the IWM collection, for example, has a lot of emphasis on the artillery bombardment at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. And a lot of the audience would have been people who worked in munitions factories or bought war bonds so they could see the direct link between their contribution and the contribution of the fighting soldier. Yeah, they also used iconic weapons, so weapons have captured the public imagination. So a tank would turn up in a town in Britain for a week, it would drive into the town square, crush some obstacles. Thousands of people would gather to get a close look at this tank and of course once you've got close to it somebody would pop out of the hatch and say 'would you like to buy a war bond?' and of course there's a lot of peer pressure on you to buy a war bond and
they raise millions.

And it wasn't just on the British Isles. During the Second World War the Commonwealth played a huge part in something called the Spitfire fund, so much so that some Commonwealth nations had entire squadrons named after them. The Spitfires were broken down by constituent parts, from a tail fin down to a single rivet and that meant that anyone could contribute. These standardized posters were altered to thank each Commonwealth nation for their contribution.

If you capture somebody's imagination like this and get them very excited they're more likely to put their hand in their pocket and give the government some money.

Fast-forward to today and we don't get asked to pay for wars in the same ways, taxes don't go up and I don't remember ever having to save my pennies for the war in Iraq. But that's because war is different now, the First and the Second World Wars were threats to many countries very existence and thus governments were able to ask far more of their citizens.

The other problem is, of course, there is no national consensus. Modern wars are quite contentious, there's a lot of politics in modern wars and it's very hard to message them as you could message the First and Second World War which was a fight for civilization.

And that's why despite everything thrown at her, four-year-old Heather Scott was still willing to save her pennies. Because it was expected of her

Thanks for watching there's a lot of good posters in this episode, please let us know which is your favourite by entering a comment below. As you're aware the museum is closed at the moment, but we still have lots of great stories to share like this one. We need your help to do this, so after you've liked and subscribed, please consider donating to IWM there's a link in the description below.

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