by Alexander Maavara
In the popular memory, First World War news correspondents are often portrayed as either unjustly shackled by edicts handed down by propaganda bureaus or as willfully complicit in the manipulation of facts to trumpet victories while concealing the true pyrrhic cost. Lesser-known are those combative disputes in the first five frantic months of war in 1914, as Whitehall and Fleet Street negotiated their wartime relationship. This early negotiation was defined by a series of political scandals, that saw open conflict between soldiers and journalists—scandals that affected how the British people learned and understood the war effort. A fiery debate ensued between the War Office and Britain’s press agencies in which journalists faced an accusation familiar to twenty-first century audiences—publishing sensationalist fake news. Contrarily, the press faulted the War Office of jeopardizing the war of public opinion by implementing arbitrary censorship policies that kept the British people in the dark about the true handling of the war.
Alexander Maavara is a former associate of the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies, with a Master’s degree from Wilfrid Laurier University and a specialty in homefront studies. He is the co-author to Terry Copp’s manuscript, “Montreal At War 1914-1918,” which is set to be published by the University of Toronto Press in February 2022.
In the popular memory, First World War news correspondents are often portrayed as either unjustly shackled by edicts handed down by propaganda bureaus or as willfully complicit in the manipulation of facts to trumpet victories while concealing the true pyrrhic cost. Only once the guns fell silent and the soldiers returned home was the truth of the war told. While these descriptions are partly accurate, they gloss over the intricate and varying relationship between journalists and publishers on one hand, and national war efforts on the other.
In the United Kingdom, which boasted the largest press organizations in the world in the early twentieth century, news correspondence was equal measures cooperation and contention. Far from being muzzled, the Kingdom’s press on Fleet Street continued to be an independent, and potent, political force that frequently combated with the defence bureaucrats of Whitehall. The 1915 Shell Crisis Controversy and the downfall of Herbert Asquith’s Government in 1916 are the most well-known disputes over the United Kingdom’s freedom of the press in wartime.
Lesser-known are those combative disputes in the first five frantic months of war in 1914, as Whitehall and Fleet Street negotiated their wartime relationship. This early negotiation was defined by a series of political scandals, that saw open conflict between soldiers and journalists—scandals that affected how the British people learned and understood the war effort.
The earliest of these disputes came in the aftermath of the Battle of Mons, the first time the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) clashed with those of Germany. The Battle of Mons is remembered today as one of the most mythologized battles of the First World War; a heroic battle that placed the small BEF of only four divisions against four army corps of the German Army, in which angels themselves were said to be fighting on the side of the British. However, in 1914, the actual combat of the Battle of Mons was overshadowed in the United Kingdom by a fiery debate between the War Office and Britain’s press agencies in which journalists faced an accusation familiar to twenty-first century audiences—publishing sensationalist fake news. Contrarily, the press faulted the War Office of jeopardizing the war of public opinion by implementing arbitrary censorship policies that kept the British people in the dark about the true handling of the war.
Lord Kitchener and the Press
Much of the early animosity between the press and war effort was attributable to one man—Lord Herbert Kitchener. On becoming Secretary of State for War, Kitchener brought a deep-rooted dislike of journalists to the War Office. He had famously referred to those journalists he encountered in the Sudan as “drunken swabs.” [i] Kitchener reneged on a pre-war agreement for a group of military correspondents to accompany BEF overseas. Kitchener embodied the opinion that journalists divulged military secrets through their reporting. Kitchener’s Admiralty counterpart, First Lord Winston Churchill, despite his background as a journalist, exhibited similar distrust of the press. Consequently, when the BEF sailed to battle in France in late August 1914, Britain’s seasoned military correspondents were left behind.
As an alternative, Kitchener and Churchill created the Official Press Bureau to regulate what the press could and could not report on. The Bureau had three objectives: it was responsible for censoring overseas telegrams addressed to British newspapers, was a distribution hub for official press bulletins, and counselled journalists on what was permissible to publish.[ii] However, the earliest days of the Bureau was, as The Times later characterized, “an affair of amateurs.” Its small staff, including its first director F. E. Smith, had little conception on their duties or powers. Under Kitchener’s orders almost no wartime information was permissible to publish and the authorities proved extremely parsimonious in releasing press bulletins. Kitchener was of the opinion that the war could be waged in the dark, a peculiar notion to adopt given Kitchener was one of the few who predicted the war would last years.
With correspondents banned from the front and the Press Bureau censoring every scrap of breaking news, newspapers struggled to find coherent war-related content. Many feared the news blackout created a dangerous media environment in the United Kingdom. Without the ability to independently confirm war related stories and absent support from the War Office or Admiralty, newspapers were susceptible to publishing misinformation. The Times journalist Michael MacDonagh predicted, “this strict censorship… favours the rise or deliberate manufacture of alarming rumours.”[iii] Philip Gibbs of the Daily Mail similarly reminisced that the press “printed any scrap of description, any glimmer of truth, any wild statement, rumor, fairy tale, or deliberate lie, which reached them from France or Belgium; and it must be admitted that the liars had a great time.”[iv]
Whatever Kitchener’s demands for a media blackout, many expeditious journalists travelled to France and Belgian to begin reporting on the war without credentials. Their number included such notables as Arthur Moore of The Times, Philip Gibbs of the Daily Telegraph, Hamilton Fyfe of the Daily Mail, H. M. Tomlinson, W. H. Massey, and Lucian Jones. Another journalist for the Daily Mail, George Curnock, gained early renown by printing the text of a song he heard members of the Connaught Rangers singing as they disembarked in France.[v] The previously obscure “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” went on to become a national hit. Days later, Curnock went on to experience an ordeal that all unauthorized reporters risked. He was arrested by the French Army and nearly executed under suspicion of being a spy.[vi]
The Battle of Mons
On landing in Continental Europe, those few gambling correspondents entered a vast fog of war. With invasions and counter invasions, millions of refugees, and the breakdown in continent wide communications cut off entire nations and regions from the wider world. This meant, alongside Kitchener’s news blackout, once the BEF landed in France and advanced into the interior, those in Britain, even Kitchener himself, only had vague notions of its movements. Subsequently, when the BEF was engaged by the German First Army at Mons on 23 August 1914, the world knew, but did not know the full details or outcome. The Press Bureau remained silent on the movements of the BEF, to the anger of the country.“ In war, as in peace,” the Manchester Guardian printed in an editorial appealing for transparency, “there is no source of strength to a Government so great as the feeling of perfect confidence. People—English people at any rate—do not like to be treated like children, and told merely what is thought to be good for them to know. Confidence begets confidence.”[vii]
The bubble burst on 30 August 1914. Arthur Moore and Hamilton Fyfe filed stories from Amiens describing what had happened at Mons. The United Kingdom first heard the result of the Battle on Mons in a special Sunday edition of The Times and the Weekly Dispatch on 30 August 1914. “This is a pitiful story I have to write,” Fyfe somberly wrote, “Would to God it did not fall to me to write. But the time for secrecy is past.” The battle had been a disaster. Fyfe and Moore told of a “German ‘Tidal-Wave’… they have carried all before them, partly by the deadly hail of bullets from their numberless Maxim guns.” The BEF was in total retreat as “Broken British Regiments” flooded across the French countryside.[viii]
Britain went into uproar. The reaction from Whitehall to the Amiens Dispatches was immediate and visceral. Kitchener released a press bulletin declaring The Times and Weekly Dispatch’s accounts to be false. The BEF was engaged, Kitchener reassured, but was intact and had inflicted enormous casualties on the German Army. The Press Bureau issued a second release, cautioning the public to avoid “[information] derived second or third hand from persons who are often in no condition to tell coherent stories.” In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and others recriminated the articles as “a very regrettable exception” to the patriotism of the British press.[ix] Other newspapers piled on the criticism. The Manchester Guardian labelled The Times as a propagator of “False War News,”[x] while the Daily News claimed the Amiens Dispatch was “an article… calculated to disturb and distress the public mind.”[xi]
The controversy took a turn when The Times responded to the criticism, revealing that its own editorial staff had hesitated publishing the unedited text of the Amiens Dispatches. It had been the Press Bureau director F. E. Smith who had urged publication and had even contributed a passage in the articles requesting immediate reinforcement of the BEF. Smith struggled to justify his actions in the Commons by announcing Lord Kitchener had given him the mandate to exploit any opportunity to boost recruitment in the British Army. Recruiting numbers did spike following the Battle of Mons.[xii] However, having irreparably damaged his relationship with both the press and the War Office, Smith’s position at the Press Bureau was compromised and he resigned weeks later.
With the Press Bureau’s indiscretion revealed, public opinion turned and political commentators, even those who had condemned the content of the Amiens Dispatches, began blaming the War Office for allowing a situation to transpire. Imposing news blackouts and not allowing journalists access, even heavily chaperoned access, to the front was blamed for the dissemination of false stories and misinformation. In the House of Commons, a gaggle of backbenchers went on the record opposing the Press Bureau and Kitchener’s correspondents ban. Arthur Markham appealed that “public are entitled to the fullest possible information which is not detrimental to the public interest.”[xiii] Another prescient warning came from W. Llewelyn Williams: “If you try to suppress news in a free country… then the public will get some sort of news—unreliable news if they cannot get trustworthy news.”[xiv]William Byles too identified the “famine in news” from the War Office as responsible for fomenting misinformation and public alarm.[xv]
As heavy casualty lists began to arrive later in the week and the BEF retreated towards Paris, it became clear that Moore and Fyfe’s dire words held more truth than the War Office was letting on. The War Office continued to stubbornly refuse to permit professional news correspondents to the front, furthering the impression that the truth was being kept from the public. “The War Office remains dumb,” The Times later argued, “… It is due to the lack of comprehension in high places of the right use of the Press in war time, especially in a democratic and highly educated country.”[xvi] The Daily News, which had so recently lambasted The Times, conveyed comparable hostility to Whitehall: “The War Office misunderstands the Press now as thoroughly as it has hitherto misunderstood the temper of the English people.”[xvii]
The War Office’s censorship policies were not without their own political defenders, but the Battle of Mons was a defining moment in the relationship between Fleet Street and Whitehall. The Kingdom had been at war for a little over a month, and there were already serious disagreements over the conduct of the war effort. The scandals following the Amiens Dispatches compelled those in Whitehall to recognise the war of public opinion needed to be better fought. Early September 1914 saw the establishment of Britain’s first national propaganda institutions, the Parliamentary Recruitment Committee and the War Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House. Each would go onto to publish some of the most famous propaganda of the First World War.[xviii]
The scandal forced Kitchener to concede that the British public deserved some reporting from the front beyond the dry and infrequent dispatches from BEF headquarters, albeit from a source he could personally control. He selected Major Ernest Swinton, a military engineer and author, to travel to France and begin filing dispatches as the British Army’s first official “Eye-Witness.”[xix] However, Swinton proved unpopular on Fleet Street. Much of the press derided his drawl human interest pieces on the British soldier in the field. The Daily Mail described Eye-Witness’ reports as “retail day by day and week by week small-beer… the record of futilities which are of no interest to the nation.” Admittedly, the criticism of Swinton may have been unwarranted, his articles were frequently rewritten by Kitchener himself.
It would take more time, and still more press scandals, to convince the War Office and the Admiralty that if they were going to wage total war, it was necessary to engage with the fourth estate to maintain the semblance of public transparency on how the war was being fought.
[i] J. Lee Thompson, Politicians, the Press, & Propaganda: Lord Northcliffe & the Great War, 1914-1919 (Ohio, 1999), 27.
[ii] The best available description of the Press Bureau, albeit a biased one, is Edward Cook, The Press in War-Time, with some account of the Official Press Bureau, (London, 1920).
[iii] Michael MacDonagh, In London During the Great War (London, 1935), 16.
[iv] Philip Gibbs, Adventures in Journalism (New York, 1923), 233.
[v] Daily Mail, 18 August 1914, 5.
[vi] Gibbs, Adventures, 239.
[vii] Manchester Guardian, 28 August 1914, 4.
[viii] The Times, 30 August 1914.
[ix] Hansard, House of Commons, 31 August 1914, Vol. 66, 373.
[x] Manchester Guardian, 31 August 1914, 4.
[xi] Daily News, 31 August 1914, 4.
[xii] Stephen Badsey, “Strategy and Propaganda: Lord Kitchener, the Retreat from Mons, and the Amiens Dispatch, August-September 1914,” in M. Connelly, J. Fox, S. Goebel (eds.) Propaganda and Conflict: War, Media and Shaping the Twentieth Century (London, 2019).
[xiii] Hansard, Commons, 31 August 1914, vol. 66, 464-8.
[xiv] Hansard, Commons, 31 Aug 1914, vol. 66, 471-3.
[xv] Hansard, Commons, 10 September 1914, vol. 66,726-52.
[xvi] The Times, 5 September 1914, 9.
[xvii] Daily News, 1 September 1914, p. 4.
[xviii] For a sample on British propaganda, see, Cate Haste, Keep the Home Fires Burning: Propaganda in the First World War, (London, 1977); Gary Messinger, British Propaganda and the First World War, (Manchester, 1992); Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War: British Society and the First World War, (Cambridge, 2008).
[xix] Ernest Swinton, Eyewitness: Being Personal Reminiscences of Certain Phases of the Great War, Including the Genesis of the Tank, (London, 1932).
[xx] Daily Mail, 17 October 1914, 4.