I spent Saturday at the National Archives in Kew, taking a look at, among other things, Arnold Bennett’s activities when in charge of British propaganda to France in 1917-1918.
Bennett’s notes and memos are rather impressive – crisp, sensible and decisive – as he deals with a multitude of issues. Trying to persuade the Queen, for example, to give a signed photograph of herself for use in the French magazine Femina (The formidable Lady Jersey disapproved of the idea). Or persuading British mayors to celebrate Bastille day in their towns, as a tribute to our ally. Bennett clearly worked very hard at getting positive articles about Britain into the French press (who were more inclined to praise the Americans), and at keeping the British message consistent.
The file is large, and I hardly did more than skim its contents. If anyone is looking for a good topic for an M.A. thesis, then I’d suggest they take a look at it.
The parts of the file that I found most interesting were the letters from Edward Vicars, the British Consul at Lyons, about negative French attitudes towards the British. These reached a crisis in the late spring of 1918, when Vicars reported:
…that unhappy retreat of the 5th Army, which is commonly spoken of as a débandade (‘Les Anglais ont f….u le camp’ to put it in the vernacular) […] a wave of resentment against us is passing over France.
No-one who really knows the French will expect them to be generous, but they might as well be just, and that is what they are apparently incapable of being, so far as we are concerned.
The roots of anti-Englsh feeling went deep, especially among Catholics ‘de la vieille souche Lyonnais’ who:
seem to be irredeemably hostile [….] hate England in their heart of hearts because she is Protestant, take a Sinn Fein view of the Irish question, and look upon everything we do with suspicion.
It’s no wonder that the French were tetchy at this time, and looking for a scapegoat. There are dramatic letters in the file about nervousness in Paris, and people fleeing the city in fear of an attack. The German advance was formidable, and a report in July 1918 reports
300,000 new refugees from the recently invaded districts, who are practically destitute and entirely dependent on charity for subsistence at the moment.
A telegram from Vicars tells Bennett in London:
It is currently alleged here and doubtless all over the country that England is retaining large numbers of troops who ought to be in France, for fear of an invasion.
This was a difficult rumour to dispel without publicising the figures of Britain’s actual deployment of troops – information that the Kaiser would be very pleased to know. The question of how to deal with this allegation led to a squabble between interested departments (the sort of thing that gave Bennett material for Lord Raingo). In the end some articles appeared in French papers explaining how large the British contribution was, but I bet that these did little good to quell the rumours.
The British war effort was, of course, large, but it was localised. The French near the Belgian border would have known how much the British were contributing, and also those near the Somme front. Probably much of France never saw a British soldier, though.
I shall return to Kew to look at these French files in more detail. I only skimmed them on Saturday.
The other files I looked at related to the 1917 reports by Robert Donald on the propaganda effort to date. These included an interesting interview with C.F.G. Masterman, defending the record and achievements of Wellington House. Despite this, Donald produced a report that was scathing in its condemnation of the propaganda effort so far.
Masterman was good at getting big literary names to write for him, but was less good at getting good deals from publishers. The report lists many instances of the Department of Information wasting public money by paying over the commercial odds for the publications it used.
But propaganda departments rarely please anyone. One of Donald’s interviewees said:
The German newspapers are very much perturbed by what they call Allied propaganda and they are always attacking their own propaganda department, just as our newspapers are attacking ours.
So who was the Edward Vicars who wrote such interesting reports? Here’s his brief Times obituary in 1949: