British World War I Recruitment
poster by Savile Lumley
(1915). The scene: a middle aged man is seated on a lounge
chair, with his son playing with toy soldier
s by his side and his daughter
reading a book on his lap. She asks him this question, and from the look on his worried face you can tell he was probably a yellow shirker
who never was waist-deep in mud dodging shrapnel
The question later became a catch-phrase, modified for different wars and/or family relations. James Coburn and Dick Shawn starred in the 1966 film What did you do in the War, Daddy, where the pair did nothing more arduous than get drunk and fornicate in a village in Sicily during World War II.
The British military was obviously guilt tripping England's male youth into active service. In an age where the role of men as protectors of the fairer sex and children was more defined than today, the poster was a potent message. Especially when accompanied with Wilfred Owen's Parable poem, where the last lines imply that if the father didn't serve, his son would later have to do the dirty work which history shows he had to do anyway :
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and strops,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Not that it would work today. If I was asked Daddy, what did you do in the Gulf War?, without hesitation I would say I was studying architecture, playing the first version of Sim City and watching videos of Twin Peaks