A while ago I bought a 1916 copy of Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull magazine from the table of oddments outside one of the second-hand booksellers in Cecil Court, just off the Charing Cross Road. It was well worth the couple of quid I paid for it, if only as evidence against those who claim that the government orchestrated propaganda in favour of the War, deceiving an innocent and docile people.
Bottomley, of course, was a rogue on an epic scale, dodging from bankruptcy to bankruptcy, and ending up with a richly deserved jail sentence when his Victory Bond scheme was proved an utter fraud.
His paper, though, is fascinating. It is full of articles berating the government. ‘They have muddled the war from the beginning to the end,’ says one article. Another declares: ‘Our Admiralty is a disgrace – and it is a wonder that the Navy doesn’t revolt against it. The War Office is little better.’
Abuse of politicians is crudely personal:
‘The Foreign Secretary is a pompous and solemn ass; the Home Secretary is an oleaginous, smug, self-righteous prig; whilst as to some of the Treasury Bench underlings – ye gods! Have you seen their faces on the films?’
The constant theme is that the decent British people, especially the soldiers, are ready and willing to win the War, but are constantly let down by the feeble and incompetent government. Haig is sarcastically commended for finally getting round to ordering body shields for the troops, which John Bull advocated ‘months ago’. Bottomley has the answers, and also specialises in asking awkward questions:
‘Why is not every British ship provided with a 3-inch gun and a gunner? Surely this would be the most effective way of stopping the submarine menace.’
‘Why is it that potato farmers are allowed to use soldiers for lifting their crops, only to sell at grossly inflated prices?’
Why are ‘soldiers “rotting” at home through over-training, while thousands of care-worn and war-worn men can get no leave at all’?
There is a special scorn reserved for pacifists like Arnold Lupton, and for anyone suggesting the negotiation of ‘a shameful and premature peace with the butchers of Belgium.’
There are diatribes against people of German descent living in Britain. (Germans and Austrians are routinely referred to as ‘Germhuns’ and ‘Austrihuns’.) One of many complaints against the government is that ‘clocks of Germhun origin’ are being imported to Britain, under the pretence that they must come from neutral countries. Officials ‘must be blind to the real nature of the goods.’
Perhaps the most important part of the magazine, however, is ‘Tommy and Jack’s Page: A weekly tribune of the soldier and sailor.’ It is headed by:
‘Our Pledge: No Case of hardship or injustice, no instance of beggarly cheeseparing, shall go unchallenged or unremedied.
Horatio Bottomley in JOHN BULL, 19th August, 1915.’
Part of Bottomley’s skill as an editor was that he got his readers to write much of the magazine for him. Soldiers sent in, for example, complaints about poor food and poor treatment at various camps (and the magazine draws attention to the number of suicides at Catterick).
Readers’ grievances are made into news stories:
On some golf links in Sussex a raw recruit encountered a person dressed in civilian trousers and a military tunic. The boy did not know he was an officer, and failed to salute… The unfortunate boy is now enjoying 14 days in the cells.
Questions are raised about why ‘the men of the Yacht Patrols up North’ are not issued the same warm clothing as the men on the trawlers, and why ‘the men who guard the interned Huns are still under canvas, pitched in a very wet field, without floorboards or mattresses’ in worse conditions than the internees. There are stories about businesses profiteering from food shortages, and others about government waste and incompetence. In among the War stories are some that might make the tabloids today: Town councillors paying themselves over the odds, and a Baptist minister molesting children. (He ‘was artful enough to adopt a disguise when on his unholy trail by taking off his collar and tie and turning down his clerical waistcoat at the corners to form a “V” at the neck’.)
Bottomley clearly had an excellent rapport with his huge audience (Circulation was pushing two million by the time of the Armistice.) Equally clearly, he told them what they wanted to hear. In these pages you hear the voice of the lying demagogue, but you also hear the voice of the ordinary soldier insisting that he is doing his best, but resentful of those above him who are abusing their privileges.Yes, this is propaganda, but it does not come from the Government. Bottomley has judged the mood of a large fraction of the people, and his magazine lets their prejudices, resentments and suspicions make themselves heard (while its editor and part-owner rakes in an enormous profit.) The magazine is excellent evidence for Adrian Gregory’s judgement that ‘Being beastly to the Hun was good business; being fair-minded might be ruinous. The public were far more vehement haters than most of the press, and the press was far more inclined to hatred than official agencies.’