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One of only six original Lord Kitchener WWI posters found in attic

It is the definitive piece of First World War propaganda, which has been reproduced in hundreds of different guises since. 

Intense, arresting eyes loom from the moustachioed face of Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War in 1914, his stern face and pointing finger above the words ‘Your country needs YOU!’

His call to arms, as the fighting in Europe was just beginning almost a century ago, was answered by more than two million Britons – many of whom would never return.

But the poster, much imitated around the world, was a masterpiece of artistic licence. In particularly the commanding eyes – an enduring symbol of authority – were pure invention as Lord Kitchener had a pronounced squint in his left eye.

Alfred Leete, a magazine illustrator who never met Kitchener, threw together the design in a few hours from a postcard dating from 1895. In the process of drawing he also made the face squarer and thickened the moustache.

The original version of the Kitchener drawing was not meant for a poster, but was the front cover image for the mass-circulation London Opinion magazine on September 5 1914

The officer circa 1900, displaying his squint

The new version of the Kitchener recruitment poster, which read simply, ‘Your Country Needs You’ (left) and the officer circa 1900, displaying his squint 

The Government was running a recruitment poster campaign at the time, but it’s adverts were walls of text outlining pay and conditions of service.

However, after seeing the powerful image on the front of the magazine, those in authority seized upon it and produced thousands of copies, which ended up on walls and billboards across the UK.

Martyn Thatcher, an artist who has written a book about the poster, said: ‘Kitchener himself was what they called at the time called squinty-eyed – one eye looked straight at you and the other eye, unfortunately, looked up the chimney.

‘People commented on his gaze but it was more the uncomfortable feeling that they had when looking at the guy’, he told BBC Radio Northampton.

As a test Mr Thatcher replaced the face in the poster with a more accurate version of Kitchener, and found that people hardly responded to the tweaked version at all.

But the polished and edited version, distributed nationwide, had an irresistible effect on many young men in the early days of the war.

A report from The Times in 1915 described the scenes in central London: ‘Posters appealing to recruits are to be seen on every hoarding, in most windows, in omnibuses, tramcars and commercial vans.’

‘Their number and variety are remarkable. Everywhere Lord Kitchener sternly points a monstrously big finger, exclaiming ‘I Want You”

Speaking to MailOnline, Mr Thatcher said that many hopeful recruits would have been particularly taken in due to an implicit trust of authority figures.

He said: ‘A guy in authority saying ‘We want you’ – back then people jumped, they did what they were told.

‘This man, obviously senior with a well-known name pointed his finger, and they wouldn’t even question that. Do that today and people would tell you where to get off.’

Mr Leete’s design proved so effective that it was picked up in other countries to fire separate recruitment campaigns. European powers even produced versions to inspire soldiers to fight on behalf of Germany and her allies using similar designs.

However, the most enduring imitation is the Uncle Sam image used to encourage recruits into the United States army – reproduced three years later in time for the American entry to the First World War in 1917.

The poster was based directly on the Kitchener design, and was reproduced more than four million times, and used in a slightly altered form to encourage sign-ups in the United States for the Second World War.

The design was given an extra nod of recognition at the start of the year when the Royal Mint announced that it would feature the poster design on a commemorative £2 in honour of the First World War centenary. However, it was immediately criticised on social media for promoting ‘jingoism’ over remembrance.