This powerful nightmare vision of a weapon of mass destruction is by the Quaker artist Joseph Southall who lived and worked in Edgbaston. 'The Obliterator' appeared in his anti-war pamphlet 'Fables and Illustrations' opposite a mock sales promotion advertising the Obliterator’s record of leaving ‘nothing standing and nothing breathing’ while making ‘a clean sweep of civilisation’. Southall's woodcuts and satirical fables were published when most of his wartime energies were consumed by pacifist activism in Birmingham and print caricature provided him a convenient alternative artistic output. The essence of his moral standpoint is an unshakable absolute conviction of conscience, clearly articulated in his fable ‘Inscription from Babylon’: although citizens ‘ought to be law-abiding’, in the final analysis, pacifism is justified by faith that ‘Divine law stood above human laws’ in the form of the the sixth cCommandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill’.
Southall’s satire in 'Fables and Illustrations' also ties in with his involvement in local and national politics, allowing his pen to express challenging views in both image and text. In this way he could counter the pro-war propaganda of the ‘priests of Jingo’ and ‘the ruling classes of Europe’. For example, an issue that particularly engaged Southall in 1917 was the imprisonment of his Quaker friend the outspoken pacifist politician Edmund Morel. As secretary of the Birmingham Branch of the ILP he moved a resolution to lobby the Prime Minister and Home Secretary in protest. Although he is not named, Morel’s cause is pursued in ‘The Earth and the Moon'. In this fable politicians invent pretexts and contrive imaginary threats to justify and escalate war, while truth-telling pacifists oppose lying warmongers (‘magicians’): ‘One of the most distinguished Imperians [Morel] even went so far as to publish a treatise ['Truth and the war' (1916)], in which he proved by theory and experiment that the real danger lay not in any attack from the moon but from the errors and greed of the magicians. This disloyal person was at once cast into prison.’
In addition to reminding people of fundamental principles and raising awareness of specific issues, Southall’s art at this time is bold and confrontational in its mission to expose inconsistencies and contradictions in military thinking. He cleverly presents caricatures of what is perceived as normal, so that the exaggerations and distortions encourage people to reassess their attitude to war. For instance, the fable ‘The Missionary’ attacks the foundation of aggressive policies: ‘Cannibalism must be met with cannibalism, only thus can it be crushed; and besides, if we did not eat the odious natives of Kettelonia [Germany] they would inevitably eat us. To make sure of success we have even adopted Kettelonian methods of cooking'. His central message here, as in the image of The Obliterator and in the title of his lecture ‘The Futility of Force’,1 is the moral and logical indefensibility of a strategy leading to total mutual annihilation.
Illustration from Fables and illustrations (London: National Labour Press, 1918)
1 Lecture noted in the Minutes of the Birmingham Branch of the Independent Labour Party, 6 March 1917
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