Hanging on my kitchen wall is an old wartime poster. Set in an upper case ‘Keep Calm’ font against a red background it advises ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.
This morale raising poster was first published by the Government in 1939 when the nation was on the brink of war with Germany and threatened with mass air attacks and invasion. About 2.45 million copies of the poster were printed but it was not widely displayed. The campaign was soon forgotten until 2000 when a copy of the poster was rediscovered in a bookshop in Alnwick. Since then this example of wartime ‘stiff upper lip’ has caught the public imagination and the slogan has been reproduced as a decorative theme for a wide range of products from tea towels to coffee mugs. It has also appeared in assorted variants from ‘Keep Calm and Drink Tea’, ‘Don’t Panic and Fake a British Accent’ to ‘Stay Alive and Avoid Zombies’.
By early summer in 1940, with the British Expeditionary Force only recently evacuated off the beaches at Dunkirk and the German Army lined up on the shores of France, air attack and invasion were extremely likely. Realising that the stoical ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ approach would not be enough to reassure an anxious nation on June 19th 1940 the Government issued a guide as to what to do should an invasion occur. Under the by-line ‘Obey These Orders in Invasion’ there were 7 rules that had to be obeyed by all civilians. They were:-
If the Germans come by parachute, aeroplane or ship you must remain where you are. The order is ‘stay put’.
Do not believe rumours, and do not spread them. When you receive an order, make sure that it is a true order and not a faked one.
Keep watch. If you see anything suspicious note it carefully and go at once to the nearest police officer or station, or to the nearest military officer - not your neighbors.
Do not give any German anything. Do not tell him anything. Hide your food and your bicycles. Hide your maps. See that the enemy get no petrol.
Be ready to help the military in any way. But do not block roads until ordered to do so by the military or Local Defence Volunteers.
In factories and shops all managers and workmen should organise some system now by which a sudden attack can be resisted.
Think before you act. But think of your country first.
The government had experience in writing such documents. In 1797, when the nation expected to be invaded at any moment by Napoleon Bonaparte, the official advisory at the time began…
Fellow Citizens! Bonaparte threatens to invade us: He promises to enrich his soldiers with our property: to glut their lust with our Wives and Daughters: To incite his Hell-Hounds to execute his vengeance he has sworn to permit anything!…
In retrospect June 19th 1940 was as good a day as any to prepare the population for possible invasion. The night before Prime Minister Churchill had addressed the nation:
“Let us brave ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say - This was their finest hour.”
On the morning of the 19th newspaper headlines roused the nation with - ‘Battle of Britain’, ‘RAF on Offensive’ and ‘Premier on Empire’s Finest Hour’… and encouraged by all this Britain rose to the occasion.
More than 70 years on from those desperate days that old wartime poster ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ still has a resonance not just as a pleasing example of 1940’s graphics but because of the message it carries. Some of its appeal rests in the design of the original font, hand drawn and created specially for the occasion…
“The draughtsman was balancing intuitive, human qualities, and the pure pleasure of drawing elegant contemporary letters, against an underlying geometry of ruled lines, perfect circles, 45° terminals, and a requirement for no-nonsense clarity.”
…and perhaps the words remind us of a time when in the face of death, dictators and possible devastation we all stood together and really did ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Somewhere along the line we seemed to have lost those qualities.
– from Martyn Day