Angels, Monsters, and Zombies: Defining Us and Them in First World War Poetry and Art

Angela Smith, University of Sunderland

Revolution in the Dead: The Cultural Evolution of the Zombie. Guest Editor Anthony Anderson (with special thanks to Colin Younger). Pages 44 – 68 Download as PDF


This article will explore how images were used to define ‘us’ and ‘them’ by other sides during the First World War. I begin with a discussion of how the figure of the angel is found in both side’s propaganda, both embodying and protecting the fighting forces. The way the ‘other’ comes to be defined in hyper-real terms as being monstrous will be explored using Cohen’s (2002) discussion of ‘folk devils’ whose deviance from righteousness must be repelled. In addition, the ‘other’ that is found in the poetry of this time often draws upon images that emphasise the subhuman acts of warfare through tropes that we would later refer to as ‘zombie’. In this way, I contend the First World War draws on traditional images of angels and monsters, but for the first time employs the image of the zombie to articulate the horror of the first mechanised mass conflict.



The First World War is commonly regarded as the first mechanised war of the modern age. Advances in technology meant that not only were the machines of war more violent and powerful than in previous conflicts, but communication technology meant that the war itself was fought in a public gaze not seen in earlier conflicts. At the same time, the social world was still one in which poetry was highly regarded across society, and visual art was still primarily hand-drawn in its origins. This paper will draw on both these mediums – poetry and art – to explore how the unparalleled carnage of the war itself came to be represented across the belligerent nations.

As I will show, the war is one that is highly literate, with a whole genre of poetry arising out of the Georgian tradition to make this what Paul Fussell (1975) famously called the most literary of wars. The poetry of the First World War has continued to be much studied and the period remains part of the curriculum for children across the UK where the war is recorded in a way and to an extent that is different from any other conflict before or since. However, it is also a war that occurred at a time when advertising posters were coming into their own in terms of artistic merit. Printing, particularly colour printing, had developed in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and by the start of the First World War, was ready to be exploited by the belligerent nations as they sought to engage their citizens in the war. Film was in its infancy, and radio was yet to arrive, therefore the most prevalent visual images of war for mass circulation in colour were these posters. Some, such as the pointing-fingered Lord Kitchener declaring ‘Your Country Needs You!’, became an iconic image that has spread throughout society and is still firmly embedded in popular culture.[1]

As would be expected in times of conflict, the themes in these poems and posters reflect a heightened sense of binary oppositions, ‘We’ are the good guys, and ‘they’ are the bad guys. As this paper will explore, the social context of the time, with its deep-rooted Christianity amongst the Westernised belligerent nations, meant that the good guys were often represented as fighting with God on their side. This links with the subculture of spirituality that had emerged in the late nineteenth century, where doubts about the modern world were ameliorated with imagined certainties of a higher spiritual world.

On the other hand, there were problems in creating an enemy who had long been seen as a friend, or at least as having a high level of civilisation. In the case of Britain’s relationship with Germany, this was tied into the marriage of several of Queen Victoria’s children to several Germanic princes or princesses. The two royal families were closely entwined, as they were with the Russian royal family. In addition, German culture was highly regarded, particularly its music and art. Even for children, one of the most popular books was Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter (1845), a book of bedtime stories that had been translated into English. Large metropolitan districts were populated with German coffee shops, and German waiters were in demand to serve in high-class restaurants. With little to grasp that could be seen to be negative in an enemy, the main strategy to ‘other’ the Germans in the Anglophone nations was to create a subhuman, monstrous enemy.

Thus, we have the creation of opposing forces: the angels on our side, and the monsters we must fight. Between the two, we also find the zombie. As I will illustrate, the zombie is a more ambiguous presence in the art and poetry of this war. This will be discussed in more detail later, but as will become clear, the zombie is not the clear-cut monster of current popular imagination. I will begin, though, with the clearly defined ‘us’ in the form of the angel.



There is a long-standing tradition in Western art of representing angels as agents of God, carrying messages from the divine to the mortal. In almost two thousand years of Christian art, this has been a common theme, and in common reference, we have phrases such as having a ‘guardian angel’ and being ‘on the side of the angels’ to express favourable positions. One of the first major battles of the war, the Battle of Mons, on 25th August 1918, saw the tactical engagement of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF hereafter) with the Germans. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the BEF was successful in their objective to hold the line and protect the flank of the French army (albeit temporarily). Amongst the eyewitness reports that followed, a story appeared as a fictional account of the battle by journalist Arthur Machen in London’s Evening News. In this story, he wrote of the ghosts of Agincourt’s bowmen, guided by St George and protecting the BEF. Machen’s fictional account was somewhat blurred by his more regular articles as a fact-reporting journalist in the same newspaper. As David Clarke has explored, despite Machen’s protestations, the story started to be treated as fact, with reports of German soldiers’ bodies being found with arrow wounds (Clarke 2005). The story was reprinted, including in The Spiritualist magazine, where it caught the attention of readers who were willing to believe in the miraculous intervention of supernatural forces. The story itself morphed into retelling where the ghostly bowmen were replaced by angels, with apparently first-hand testimonies from soldiers who had seen these heavenly bodies helping them in their battle, appearing most readily in The Spiritualist magazine, but also in more general publications. The legend of the Angel of Mons was quickly established and proved incredibly popular amongst the British as it appeared to show their war was approved of by a Holy Spirit. Whilst it is widely thought that these reports are at best the result of sleep-deprived hallucination, the story of the Angel of Mons continues to be referenced in popular culture into the twenty-first century.

Yet, during the war, the image of the angel was seized upon by the belligerent nations on all sides, and there are many recruitment posters from this time that show troops being urged into battle with a winged angel towering over them. In France, this angel was often depicted with the iconic clothing of Marianne, complete with a tricolour neck scarf (see Eugène Delacroix’s “La Liberté guidant le people” as an early example of this). The figure of the angel served the purpose of demonstrating that this was a just war and was embraced by the government propaganda departments of all nations. Whilst the war itself would destabilise the Christian faith of many, certainly, in the early years, it was extensively used in official material. As Hodge and Kress have pointed out:


Anyone trying to persuade others to a common action that is not obviously in everyone’s interests will need both to acknowledge and to resolve difference. For representatives of a political organisation, the requirement is especially acute. The power of a political agent necessarily rests on the consent and support of many individuals, their sense of solidarity with the aims and methods of the leading group. (Hodge & Kress, 1993:157)


By emphasising age-old religious themes, the war is thus rendered more acceptable. As with Machen’s story of the Agincourt bowmen being led by St George, the noble notion of the quest is evoked through such imagery and goes some way to masking the brutal horrors of war.

Religious iconography is not restricted to the use of angels. For example, one British poster from 1915, when voluntary recruitment was trailing off, particularly in Ireland, shows a farmer at his plough (itself a religious metaphor), against the backdrop of a ruined cathedral (recognisable as the medieval Rheims Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the early months of the war). The farmer looks up from his plough to see the ruin with the spectral figure of St Patrick emanating light and carrying a shepherd’s crook. The use of recognisable saints, along with angels, is found in many posters produced early in the war.


Unknown artist (1915). Image courtesy Imperial War Museum. Art.IWM PST 13637


It is not only in the materials produced to encourage men to join up that we find the figure of the angel. At the same time as the Angel of Mons myth was being formed, middle-class women were being encouraged to volunteer as nurses, drivers, and other menial roles. The reason for this being aimed at middle-class women is complex. The women themselves would be able to be supported by their families, and thus not require payment, but also the moral fortitude of these women was regarded as highly desirable as they would be working in largely masculine company. To emphasise their moral fortitude, their uniforms were designed around those of nuns. The Voluntary Aid Detachment of the British Red Cross (nearly always referred to as VADs), had a standard uniform of a blue dress with a white apron, cuffs, collar, and hat for nursing, emblazoned with the red cross of the organisation. The uniform for other roles was distinguished only by the variation in muted dress colour. A famous poster by Joyce Dennys, herself a VAD nurse, shows three young women who stare innocently and inspirationally outward, with the central woman’s gaze directed heaven-ward.

Joyce Dennys (1915). Image courtesy of Imperial War Museum. Art.IWM PST 3268


The women calmly gaze out from the poster into the middle distance, not engaging us as viewers. Behind their heads are the lists of glamorous locations around Europe and the Mediterranean, offering locations that their brothers might have taken in during their Grand Tour. Under their feet, the patriotically coloured red, white, and blue text gives the more menial, mundane tasks that the women would be expected to fulfil, mostly roles that their middle-class culture would expect working-class women to fulfil. Suspicion of working-class morality – very much seen as not ‘us’ – led to middle-class women being recruited to these roles, as their morality was assumed to be more trustworthy, even if the roles they were allocated were menial and would more usually have been undertaken by lowly-paid, working-class women. The mistrust of working-class women’s morality is thus rendered visible in this poster. To emphasise the point, the women stand against the background of a vivid red cross. The women, in effect, are acting as angels in this just fight (see Smith 2008).

We find that this women-as-angels trope is one that the women themselves embraced in poetry. For example, in Alberta Vickridge’s ‘In a V.A.D. Pantry’, we find this description of the nursing assistants:


Pots in piles of blue and white,

Old in service, cracked and chipped –

While the bare-armed girls tonight

Rinse and dry, with trivial-lipped

Mirth, and jests, and giggling chatter,

In this maze of curls and clatter

Is there no one sees in you

More than common white and blue? […]

(in Riley 1981)


The white and blue of the uniform echoes that of the Virgin Mary’s roles in religious imagery, here mixed with youthful merriment tinged with the sincerity they felt at fulfilling this virtuous role. In highlighting the contrast between the external appearance of girlish triviality with a hint of deeper sincerity, the poem provides a link with a more sacred theme.

The image of the Virgin Mary as a nurse is also found in fund-raising and recruitment posters throughout the duration of the war in all belligerent nations. Even in the last months of the war, the Red Cross produced a poster of a nurse caring for a soldier that echoes Michael Angelo’s Pieta. The nurse’s uniform, rendered in sepia shades, has morphed into the unstructured drapery commonly found in religious art and, in her arms, she cradles a tiny, injured solider, still on a stretcher. Other poems written by women during the war drew on this image of Mary tending the wounded. Mary Henderson’s ‘An Incident’, for example, includes the following:


He was just a boy, as I could see,

For he sat in the tent there close to me.

I held a lamp with its flickering light,

And felt the hot tears blur my sight

As the doctor took the blood-stained bands

From both his brave, shell-shattered hands –

His boy hands, wounded more pitifully

Than Thine, O Christ, on Calvary. […]

(in Riley 1981)


Thus, the story of Christ on Calvary is one that is seen through the eyes of the nursing assistant, where the wounded hands of the soldier become the hands of Christ. Henderson’s speaker addresses Christ directly in this poem, forming an even closer link between the nurse and religion (for a longer discussion of the representation of women in First World War recruitment posters, see Smith (2009)). The success of this ‘just war’ metaphor can thus be seen across art and poetry throughout the war, although the use of the angel metaphor had more longevity in relation to the role of women than as a recruitment tool for men after the introduction of conscription in 1916.



If we have religious metaphors to show us that this is a just war, and the angels are on ‘our’ side, then how is the ‘other’ depicted? In the case of one German fund-raising poster from 1917, the heroic German solider is instead dressed as a Teutonic hero, complete with gaitered leggings and battle-ragged tunic. He stands with his club raised with both hands as he tackles a multi-headed viper or hydra. In representing the German soldier in this way, the poster is evoking a sense of continuity with a much older combatant, aided by using the hydra which comes from Greek mythology. Here, the German soldier is the folk hero image fighting a mythical beast that is not directly linked to a specific belligerent nation. The mythical beast symbolizes the anti-German propaganda that this poster is using to raise funds to counter through the publication of pro-German newspapers[2]. Many such images of the folk hero exist across the belligerent nations, often with the heroic soldier guarding vulnerable women and children against an unseen threat. This fascination with monsters ‘is born of the twin desire to name that which is difficult to apprehend and to domesticate (and therefore disempower) that which threatens’ (J. Cohen 1996: viii).

Another form of mythical monster, or folk devil, is found in Nancy Cunard’s poem, ‘Zepplins’, which hints at the horror felt by civilians living in Britain’s coastal towns during the war as they were subjected to the first air raids in history. The menacing airships were used extensively by the Germans in a period where human flight was in its infancy. At the beginning of the war, none of the belligerent nations had an air force, and so the sight of an airship was unusual enough to bring people out of their houses to stare in wonder. The danger the airships brought was in the forms of bombs that killed about five hundred people in Britain over the course of the war. Cunard’s poem relates to the anger and fear that such raids produced, but there is the personification of Death that this is the dominant presence, rather than the Germans:


Zeppelins – Nancy Cunard

I saw the people climbing up the street

Maddened with war and strength and thought to kill;

And after followed Death, who held with skill

His torn rags royally, and stamped his feet.


The fires flamed up and burnt the serried town,

Most where the sadder, poorer houses were;

Death followed with proud feet and smiling stare,

And the mad crowds ran madly up and down.


And many died and hid in unfound places

In the black ruins of the frenzied night;

And Death still followed in his surplice, white

And streaked in imitation of their faces.


But in the morning men began again

To mock Death following in bitter pain.

(in Riley, 1981)


Cunard refers to the anger engendered by the raids as a form of insanity, and the personified Death looms over them with malevolent satisfaction at the destruction. This monstrous creature appears as a false friend who is merely an imitation of the grief and pain of the human victims. He is defeated by reason and restraint once daylight arrives, where he is mocked. Thus, for Cunard, the enemy is not a person but, in a similar way to the hydra in the German poster, is a well-established monstrous trope.

However, most of the images we find in recruitment and fund-raising posters that explicitly dehumanise the enemy come from the United States. If the folk hero soldier is seen to be on ‘our’ side, then as Stanley Cohen points out, the emphasis on ‘otherness’ reimagines former allies as ‘folk devils’) whose deviance from righteousness must be repelled. In this way, we find posters where the enemy is dehumanized (S. Cohen, 2002).

This use of monsters in the Allied nations has several different but related representations.  For example, the poster below (designed by F. Strothmann in 1918) shows a recognisably human German soldier, whose humanity has been rendered monstrous.

  1. Strothmann (1918). Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum Art.IWM PST 0235.


In a mostly greyscale characterisation, the man’s eyes glow green from beneath his hat, and his fingers are dripping with red blood, as is his brandished dagger. The man appears to be a giant, crawling through the debris of Europe towards an ocean. The American public is exhorted to buy ‘liberty bonds’ to ‘beat back the Hun’. Here, the Germans are renamed after the 5th century nomadic tribe that was characterised in myth as being of short stature and barbaric intent that is often aligned with subhuman monstrous beasts. One of the challenges faced in recruiting was just how to make the German’s ‘other’. The ties between Britain and Germany, and particularly America and Germany with its strong tradition of immigration from that country, had to be violently broken. This poster below, also American (designed by R. Hopps in 1917), shows a similar strategy but with the German soldier completely dehumanised.


H.R. Hopps (1917). Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum. Art.IWM PST 0243.


There is a backdrop of destroyed cities, similar to the skeletal outline of Rheims cathedral depicted earlier.  This is presented impossibly close to the shores of America, as the land in the forefront of the poster is helpfully labelled. Instead of a Hun or other humanistic figure, we now have the figure of an ape. We are shown that this is a German monster ape by the style of helmet, but in addition, this is embellished with ‘Militarism’ on its band to remind Americans that this Prussian militarism was one of the causes of the war in the first place. The monster ape carries a club in one hand, labelled with the German spelling ‘Kultur’. This rough wooden club is dripping with blood in a similar way to the Hun’s dagger discussed earlier. In the ape’s other arm is the ravaged and writhing body of a young woman, whose dress has been torn and reveals her breasts. The ape is, therefore, being used to represent a culture that threatens the chastity of women and is marked as a victim of brutal insanity in the text on the poster. The ape is further dehumanised by the implicit labelling of it as a ‘mad brute’, where brutishness is set against civilisation, with the ape’s roaring mouth open and slobbering in a menacing, uncivilised, irrational way. This image became so famous that, in 1933, it was referred to in advertising for the first of the highly successful King Kong movies.




So far, we have two very traditional cases of Us and Them. ‘We’ are on the side of the angels; ‘they’ are monsters who must be destroyed. But there is a third category that appears in the literature of the First World War that deserves our attention, the zombie.

Kevin Boon defines the zombie’s common characteristic as ‘the absence of some metaphysical quality of their essential selves’ (2011a: 7). He points out that this is the ‘philosophical foundation of the zombie […] when introduced to Western culture in the early twentieth century’ (2011b: 54). This can be any aspect of humanity (e.g., soul, mind, personality, will), but its absence renders the character as not being human. The first recorded use of ‘zombi’ comes in 1819 when poet laureate Robert Southey published his work on Brazil. In that text, the zombi is a form of deity (see Kee, 2011). Closer to the modern use of the term, the OED claims that this is of West African origin and is found in a Kimbundu- Portuguese dictionary of 1903 where the word nzombi is described as a spirit that walks the earth tormenting the living. However, it is not until 1929 that W.B. Seabrook’s The Magic Island connects the zombie with Haitian voodoo. Boon (2011b, 54) credits the aggressive policies of Woodrow Wilson during the period 1914-1918 as bringing American and Haitian culture into dialogue. However, as the US didn’t actually enter the First World War until 1917, and Wilson’s policies were still not quite fully realised by that point, the presence of zombies in the context of the First World War might be said to be unlikely. Nevertheless, in looking at the poetry and images in more detail, the ‘other’ is often presented by drawing on images that emphasise the subhuman acts of warfare. Although we have no use of the word ‘zombie’, we do have imagery that is very clearly linked to elements that we would describe as being zombie characteristics in Boon’s terms. They are not alive, but also, they are not dead. Still in human form, but clearly not human. As such, the undead are very present, although not at this point called ‘zombies’, missing their essential metaphysical qualities.

Boon suggests a list of nine different ‘types’ of zombie (2011: 8), all of them linked by the dehumanised aspect of their undeadness, but also all featuring an underlying malevolence. By looking at the context of the First World War, a tenth type can be added to this list: the zombie of conscience.

To begin with, consider one of the poems written at the time of the war. Robert Graves is one of the best-known poets and writers of the First World War and interwar years. His collected poems were published in the decade immediately after the war and include this one, dated July 1915:


‘A Dead Boche’. Robert Graves (13 July 1915)

To you who’d read my songs of War

And only hear of blood and fame,

I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)

‘War’s Hell!’ and if you doubt the same,

To-day I found in Mametz Wood

A certain cure for lust of blood:

Where, propped against a shattered trunk,

In a great mess of things unclean,

Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk

With clothes and face of sodden green,

Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.

(in Martin, 1993)


The title places the poem in the same dehumanisation of Germans as the Huns mentioned earlier, with Boche being another label associated with uncivilised Germanic tribes of pre-history. As is typical of many of Grave’s poems, this is an anti-war poem with a direct address to the reader who, in 1915 at least, was still tub-thumping for heroic warfare. This is a reader Graves returns to many times in his poetry and is also found in his autobiography of this time, Goodbye to All That (1929). What he goes on to do, is point to the inhumanity of war, not of the enemy. The ‘cure for lust of blood’ is a visceral horror of human flesh decaying when left in the open. If we look at this description in more detail, we will see Graves is expressing this inhumanity through a list of characteristics that we would associate with the undead zombies of popular imagining: green flesh; black not red blood dripping from orifices; an angry stench. The corpse is re-animated through a description of an expression (scowling) that requires muscular effort, and the blood is ‘dripping’ rather than ‘dripped’, implying a process of continuous bleeding. In this way, the image that is recognisably zombie is not being used as a threat to the life of the writer or being used to create a monster who deserved to die as we saw in the posters earlier, but as a signifier of war as Hell for all concerned. This departs markedly from the threatening imagery of the zombie that Boon (2011b) identifies but is certainly linked to the concept of the ‘folk devil’ that Cohen (2002) explores in terms of a warning against the perceived ills of society.

This is also evinced in one of the best-known poems of the First World War, Wilfred Owen’s ‘The Show’ (in Martin, 1993). This is a poem written from the perspective of one who has been blown up into the sky above the battlefield. The land, as soon from above, is:


Grey, cratered like the moon with hollow woe,

And pitted with great pocks and scabs of plagues (lines 5-6).


The earth itself is anthropomorphised, with a beard of barbed wire, with the pitted surface of its face riddled with maggots in the form of the humans who are fighting on it.


Across its beard, that horror of harsh wire,

There moved thin caterpillars, slowly uncoiled.

It seemed they pushed themselves to be at plugs

Of ditches, where they writhed and shrivelled, killed (7-10).


The soldiers themselves are dehumanised further with similarly visceral metaphors as Graves used in respect of pestilence and stench, with the subhuman maggot image returning.


From gloom’s last dregs those long-strung creatures crept,

And vanished out of dawn down hidden holes.


(And smell came up from those foul openings

As out of mouths, or deep wounds deepening1(3-16).


In the next stanza, the soldiers are once more rising up out of the earth as the undead, not human but ‘brown strings’ and ‘strings of grey’:


On dithering feet upgathered, more and more,

Brown strings, towards strings of grey, with bristling spines,

All migrants from green fields, intent on mire (17-19).


As with Graves, Owen’s vision is not one of the glamour of war, but of the visceral horror of it. Additionally, as with Graves, there is no demonization of the enemy. Instead, the British and the Germans are both ‘strings’, who appear out of the earth intent on returning to it. They appear as the undead, dragging their feet in the semi-animated gait of the undead (Boon 2011); in other words, these undead are early depictions of what would become zombies.

The idea of the undead returning is one that has its origins in the New Testament. As we have seen in the case of the angels, religious metaphors are common in texts from the time of the First World War. In Revelation 20-11, 22-21:


And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.


However, in the day of judgement, the dead are judged on their own merits. This image would have been very familiar to the poets and artists of the early twentieth century, but apart from the image of the rising up from the ground, the link is less confident. Instead, we have the dead who are acting as judges of the living in various ways.

The most famous example of the zombie in First Word War art is likely found in the 1919 French film, J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919). The plot of this film is a reasonably standard romance with betrayal and retribution all set against the backdrop of the First World War. However, the film is also regarded as being anti-war because of its most famous scene in a climactic sequence known as ‘the return of the dead’. The film was shot at the end of the war but before the Armistice, and many of the hundreds of extras who took part in the ‘return of the dead’ scene were still serving soldiers who returned to the battlefield in real life after the filming (Abel, 1984). In fact, as W. Scott Pool (2018) has pointed out, many of these ‘extras’ were recuperating soldiers with genuine injuries and disfigurements, needing very little in terms of make-up and prosthetics to make them monstrous. The ‘return of the dead’ scene shows the film’s main protagonist in a state of manic shellshock, seeing his dead comrades rise up from the ground and start their slow march home. Visually, the dead are human but decaying, their faces expressionless with hollowed-out eyes and lips drawn back across gaping mouths.



J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919)


Their role, however, is not to kill others in the film, but to add another dimension to the title: they demand to know whether they have died in vain. Are the living worthy of their sacrifice? It is only on receiving this assurance that they return to their grave. In other words, these zombies are not flesh-seeking monsters (Boon 2011): they are effectively our conscience.

This conscience is also evident in Graves’ poem, and in Owens’, it is the futility of the exercise that is the driving force for the imaging of the landscape as being a zombie of sorts. In sum, the zombie image is neither one of them (a monster) nor one of us (an angel), it links the two.




In setting up the war as a ‘just war’, the belligerent nations were commonly using Christian imagery to show that God was on their side.  This traditional form of appeal is one that offers no surprises in its use, although the extent to which the myth of the Angel of Mons came to be used in British culture is perhaps worthy of note.  The fact that women were being recruited to take part in the war for the first time is also worth commenting on, as part of the strategies to do this comes in the form of Christian imagery.  The women themselves seem to have found this appealing and accepted their role, as found in some of their poetry.

If the use of positive images for ‘us’ is not surprising, then neither is the use of demonisation of the ‘other’ when it comes to the opponents. What comes to be relevant in the case of the First World War is that the monster imagery for the opposition arises out of a need to dehumanise the enemy in the face of a long-standing friendship between the belligerent nations.  In Cohen’s terms, these folk devils appear across all the belligerent nations’ recruitment and fund-raising materials. This fascination with monsters thus serves to provide a demonisation of the enemy whilst also ridiculing it by making it subhuman. Thus, the drastic shift in previously civil relations between the belligerent nations had resulted in a heightened sense of otherness to the point of dehumanising the Other as monstrous.

The appearance of the zombie figure in First World War materials can be interpreted as the trigger to link with a zeitgeist in the following decade, where the arrival of pulp fiction in the US found a ready market for such thrills (Luckhurst, 2015).  The early horror films of the 1930s saw the figure of the zombie spread further into popular culture as one that is a monstrous threat to civilization. The representation of the enemy as monstrous was not new in 1914, but the development of this as a zombie character is one that would become more commonplace in the Second World War.  However, in the period of the First World War, we can find much earlier traces of these characters. We find that the poets are explicitly avoiding making zombies monstrous enemies. They are very much finding a connection with them and treating them as consciousness-raisers. This is similar to the way in which Prospero acknowledges Caliban in The Tempest, ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’ (The Tempest, Act 5 Sc 1, 272-273). Unlike the zombies of later popular imagination, these zombies are not just one of us, but a warning sign or conscience form of us.  How the zombie becomes a threat to civilization is only something that occurs later and is driven by the technological developments of the cinema in a more secular world where the traces of the Christian references to the undead in Revelations are largely lost on audiences. Instead, what I have argued here, is that there is another version of the zombie to add to Boom’s 2011 list: the zombie as consciousness-raiser.




Works Cited


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Boon, Kevin (2011b). ‘The zombie as other: morality and the monstrous in the post-nuclear age’, in Deborah Christie, Sarah Juliet Lauro, eds. (2011). Better Off Dead: The Evolution of the Zombie as Post-Human. New York: Fordham University Press. Pp 50–60)


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Scott Poole W. (2018) Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror. Counterpoint: Berkley


Smith, Angela (2008). ‘The girl behind the man behind the gun: women as carers in recruitment posters of the First World War’. Journal of War and Culture Studies, 1:3, pp. 223–241



[1] A brief note about the posters produced during the First World War: the coloured inks used in them had, pre-war, been extensively produced in Germany. On the outbreak of war, this supply vanished, and replacement suppliers were gradually turned over to other more pressing aspects of the war effort. Just as clothing became less colourful as the war progressed, so did the posters. By 1916, the finely coloured images of the early months of the war were less commonly found in the European nations. It is only in the American posters that we continue to see vivid colours, which stand in contrast to the sepia and binary coloured printing that was increasing across Europe.

[2] The full text, translated, reads: The truth abroad! We ship in conjunction with the German Archive of World Literature EV a newspaper in 10 languages to the press of the neutral states at a costless reprint. Help us with donations and foreign relations!




About the author

Angela Smith, University of Sunderland

Angela Smith is Professor of Language and Culture at the University of Sunderland.