In as much as historians think about them at all, British journalists who covered the First World War tend to be viewed in a less than flattering way.
Seen as unthinking mouthpieces of the army and the government, the accepted version is that these journalists let their readers down by painting an inaccurate picture of the war. The most often cited example is William Beach Thomas, the countryside writer turned war correspondent who some believe inspired the inept main character in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.
To be fair, there is some truth in this negative portrayal and, certainly, the fact that Thomas was hosted by the British Army does seem to have compromised his independence. While it is common for war reporters to be “embedded” in this way, Thomas does stand out as exceptional for having presented the first day of the Battle of the Somme – the most disastrous single day in British military history – as a victory. He later came to regret allowing the military to influence his reporting and after the war admitted to being ashamed of some of what he had written.
But there is also another, very different, side to the story of how journalists covered the First World War. It is a story of hardship and heroism and of the kind of bloody-minded refusal to submit to authority that characterises the best of British journalism.
So as well as understanding the cautionary tale of Beach Thomas, we should also make sure we do not forget the stories of the many heroes of British journalism who risked everything to cover the war and challenged the government to an extent that was extraordinary.
The most famous example of this challenging approach is one of the most incendiary leader columns in the history of British newspapers. Written by Lord Northcliffe in the Daily Mail, it argued that Lord Kitchener – then a national hero – had been incompetent in ordering the wrong type of munitions and that this had resulted in the deaths of thousands of British soldiers
The article caused a scandal. Copies of the Mail were burned in the street; a police guard was put at its office near Fleet Street; and there was a huge overnight drop in circulation. But as unpopular as the article was in the short term, it was right and newspaper coverage of the scandal was seen as one of the reasons the Liberal Government was replaced with a coalition.
This willingness to challenge the Government, even during a time of War, was not an isolated incident. Just to take Northcliffe as an example, the following year his newspapers played an important role in removing Asquith as Prime Minister. Then when Lloyd George replaced Asquith, he was so worried about coverage in the Northcliffe press that he tried to placate him by offering him control of the Air Ministry. It did not work. Not only did Northcliffe reject the offer but he embarrassed Lloyd George by doing so publicly in The Times.
But it was not just the truculence of media owners that made British First World War journalism something to be celebrated. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about journalism during the War was the extent to which ordinary reporters were willing to defy the will of the Government.
Kitchener loathed journalists because he held a grudge for something that had been written about him earlier in his career. And so at the start of the war he decided to ban them from the war zone. Instead, newspapers were expected to pick up war news from a Press Bureau in Charing Cross and print reports penned by Sir Ernest Swinton, a kind of official war correspondent whose work one newspaper editor memorably dismissed as “magnificently uninformative”.
It is to the great credit of British journalism that it ignored the ban. From the start of the war until the restriction was eased in 1915, journalists used subterfuge to get to the fighting and endured living under constant fear of arrest as they gathered news for an anxious British public.
Life as a fugitive was difficult and dangerous. The war correspondent Hamilton Fyfe claimed Kitchener “talked wildly about having the reporters shot if they could be caught”, while Philip Gibbs, who later wrote for The Daily Telegraph, was held under arrest for ten days and told he would be put against a wall and shot if he dared to return to France.
Basil Clarke, who was one of these reporters, later recalled how life as what he called a “journalistic outlaw” was “a labour greater and more complex than anything I have ever undertaken”. He found that even the simplest aspects of reporting, from sending articles to London to even finding a light to write by, were suddenly filled with difficulty.
As Clarke wrote in his memoirs, the motivation for taking these risks and enduring such hard conditions was simple. “If Britons and Allies died in their thousands,” he wrote, “their fathers, mothers and sweethearts, and the countries that gave them, were entitled to know some little of the work they did.”
We should remember the defiance of the newspaper industry and the bravery of the journalists who risked their lives to report on the biggest story of their lifetimes. In this post-Leveson world, their example can act as an inspiration to us all.
Richard Evans has written From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke, the first ever biography of Basil Clarke. It is published by The History Press.
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