Roy Greenslade versus Great War journalism

In the Guardian today, Roy Greenslade marks the centenary by considering the 1914-18 press’s reporting of the First World War, which he considers deplorable:

The catalogue of journalistic misdeeds is a matter of record: the willingness to publish propaganda as fact, the apparently tame acceptance of censorship and the failure to hold power to account.

The journalists, however,  were, he says, not wholly to blame for this, because they ‘were prevented from informing the public by three powerful forces – the government, the military and their own proprietors.’
Of course there is much truth in Greenslade’s article, especially when he discusses the inhibiting effect of DORA, the Defence of the Realm Act.

One of its regulations stated: “No person shall by word of mouth or in writing spread reports likely to cause disaffection or alarm among any of His Majesty’s forces or among the civilian population.” Its aim was to prevent publication of anything that could be interpreted as undermining the morale of the British people.

True, but as he acknowledges, this did not stop Lord Northcliffe spinning the news against Kitchener. Nor, one might add,  did it stop the press barons playing a crucial role in the fall of Asquith.
In fact, censorship was very strict on military matters, or on matters that might possibly affect the military (even weather forecasts were banned because they might help the enemy). Political comment was very free, however. I have written before about the extreme personal vituperation against ministers and other politicians in Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull (much nastier than anything you’s find in today’s papers, more like the pitbull viciousness of the comments below the line on even the nicest newspaper websites).

I’ve come to the conclusion that critiques of the War could be written, but they had to follow the rules. If you began by making  it very clear that you supported the soldiers, you could get away with almost anything in your attack on the politicians and how they were managing the War.

Roy Greenslade blames ‘the proprietors’ for being servile supporters of the war effort who obfuscated the truth – but then explains how in the early stages of the War these same proprietors sent reporters, most notably the Daily Chronicle’s Philip Gibbs and the Daily Mail’s Basil Clarke to the war zone despite Kitchener’s orders that journalists should not be anywhere near. (Gibbs, as Greenslade acknowledges, was threatened with a firing squad if he was caught there again.)

More significantly, ‘the proprietors’ were a lot more numerous and varied than they are today. Every decent-sized town or city had its own daily newspaper, and many had two, with opposing political views. Adrian Gregory has estimated that while 60% of papers sold had a Conservative bias, 40% were Liberal or radical. During the Boer War the press had reflected the heated political divisions in the country, and much of the Liberal press was strongly anti-war. In 1914 the bulk of the country was supportive of the war, or at least acquiescent, and the press reflected this.

There was no pre-censorship of British newspapers (only of dispatches sent from the war zone) and since part of Britain’s case was that she stood for liberty aaginst German autocracy, the government was determined to avoid the appearance of too much interference. In a Commons debate about extending the powers of the Defence of the Realm Act in 1915, Sir John Simon expressed the Government’s aspirations:

‘It is a very tempting thing to try and suppress statements of opinion with the genuine belief that that is the way to assist the national cause, but I think the national cause is far more likely to be successful if we see that statements of opinion, however wide of the mark they may be, are recognised as being, within proper limits, the privilege and right of everybody who takes it upon himself to make them.’

He contrasted the British situation with that in Austria, where ‘the best known Socialist newspaper […] has had to appear on two or three occasions with large parts of its edition blotted out by the censor.’
The threat of DORA hung most heavily over London papers, and there were complaints that some provincial papers were not censored. Sir Edward Cook, co-director of Press Bureau, replied to this complaint in terms that indicate the disparity in size between the British publishing industry and the state apparatus that would have liked to control it:

You are not quite correct in saying that we ignore the provincial papers. It is true that we do not every day examine all the thousands of papers, to do so, we should require a staff, and premises, rivalling the War Office in size.

The terrific Welsh Newspapers Online website allows us to see what some radical Welsh papers were printing during the War years. The news columns of the Merthyr Pioneer, for example, printed long verbatim accounts of anti-war speeches, of a type that London papers might have been harried for.
Roy Greenslade also claims:

Only later did the public learn of the high casualty toll and the horrific nature of trench warfare, such as the use of poison gas and the effects of shell shock.

Not so, really. The papers printed long casualty lists, which told their own story. As for gas, admittedly the very first reports of the Battle of Loos in late September 1915 do not include mention of the first British use of poison gas. By October 18th, however, the Times‘s reporter (probably Repington) was writing this, and the military censor was clearing it for publication:

Away on my extreme left an especially dense cloud of smoke pure white on top and strangely tinted with red and green below, showed where we had loosed our gas attack in the direction of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and where we were now endeavouring to retaliate upon the Germans for their use of this poisonous weapon.

Less graphically, Sir John French had already issued a press dispatch to the effect that ‘we attacked the enemy’s trenches under cover of a cloud of gas and smoke’.
Roy Greenslade says that ‘all sorts of facts were hidden from the readers of British newspapers. British blunders went unreported, as did German victories.’ There is truth in this, but it is not the whole truth. The Times and other papers printed Reuters despatches which included the German official reports. So, on October 14th 1915,Times readers had the chance to read (without comment) the German version of Loos, which included:

‘the British, along almost the entire front between Ypres and Loos, began an attack behind clouds of smoke and gas which completely failed. At several points the clouds of smoke floated back into the [British] trenches.’

So one of the crucial British blunders of the battle was clearly reported, albeit in a form (the German communiqué) that many readers would prefer not to believe.
For a really graphic account of what it was like to participate in the battle of Loos, you would do best to read the Daily Mail, which first printed the battle sketches of stretcher-bearer Patrick Macgill, later collected as his superb book The Great Push. here’s an example:

Men and pieces of men were lying all over the place. A leg, and arm, then again a leg, cut off at the hip. A finely formed leg, the latter, gracefully putteed. A dummy leg in a tailor’s window could not be more graceful. It might be X; he was an artist in dress, a Beau Brummell in khaki. Fifty yards further along I found the rest of X [….] A man, mother-naked, raced round in a circle, laughing boisterously. The rags that would class him as friend or foe were gone, and I could not tell whether he was an Englishman or a German. As I watched him an impartial bullet went through his forehead, and he fell headlong to the earth.

‘Shell-shock’ was first described by Charles Myers in a Lancet article in February 1915. The Times was not too far behind when in April 1915 it printed this article, describing some of the mysterious psychological effects of war:
shell blindness
(I have used examples from the Times because I have easy access to the excellent Times Digital Archive. Some other papers would provide similar evidence.)
Roy Greenslade is right to point out that the Great War marked a definite stage in government interference with the press, but I think he underestimates – perhaps because he is relying on secondary sources rather than looking at the actual wartime press coverage – the press’s actual response in all its variety. DORA did indeed inhibit free expression of some truths about the War, but the effects of censorship and control between 1914 and 1918 were considerably less absolute than, for example, those imposed during the Second World War, when the media was more centralised and the news was much more tightly managed.


  1. Alan Allport
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    The point about more extensive media management in WWII is fair enough, but I’d add that the press was often pretty scathing about the Army’s performance even then, especially in 1941-1942, when little seemed to be going right.

  2. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Most interesting.

    American censorship in 1918 became incredibly stringent. It was a federal offense to use “disloyal” or “abusive” language to criticize the armed forces of the US or of the Allies.

    “Disloyal” and “abusive” were not defined.

    There were few prosecutions, but the law effectively stifled serious dissent.

    • Posted July 30, 2014 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      My impression is that American press control was tougher because the war was a more divisive issue in America, The US had a large population of German-Americans – and also a large Irish-American community less than keen on supporting Britain, especially after 1916.
      For the same reason, American WW1 propaganda was often more extreme than the British, I think.

  3. Jonathan Lighter
    Posted July 30, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Undoubtedly true about German- and Irish-Americans.

    Don’t know if anyone’s meaningfully compared the relative “extremity” of the propaganda itself, but it was very vigorous in the US in both the public and private sector. And it appears to have been notably more forceful than in WWII.

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