Good Reading for Mary-Anne

In 1915, Sir Douglas Haig, soon after becoming C-in-C , spoke for the first time to the assembled war correspondents.

“I think I understand what you gentlemen want,” he said. “You want to get hold of little stories of heroism, and so forth, and to write them up in a bright way to make good reading for Mary Ann in the kitchen, and the man in the street.”

In Realities of War (1920) Philip Gibbs writes of “the quiet passion with which these words were resented” by himself and his comrades. They saw their purpose as a much higher one than this and “took occasion to point out to him that the British Empire which had sent its men into this war yearned to know what they were doing.” Haig, (“a charming man”) apparently apologised for the perceived slight to their dignity, and taken note of their grievances.

But wasn’t Haig right, though he put it very tactlessly? Reporters liked to think that they were telling the truth; but I think Haig, an astute politician, saw that there was no such thing as unmediated truth, and that a reporter’s job was to transform the chaos of war into something shaped like a story (and preferably a story simple enough for Mary Ann in the kitchen to understand.) Little stories of heroism were precisely what the reporters were longing to tell, and what the censorship restrictions often prevented them from telling. The main outcome of this meeting seems to have been that Haig gave them a little more latitude in what they could report, especially the names of troops – which helped them to write stories that appealed much more directly (to Mary Ann among others).

Writers in later decades, of course, would be less interested in little stories of heroism, and preferred to work with little stories of disillusion, or little stories of soldiers being shot at dawn.


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