John Bull

Insofar as Horatio Bottomley’s magazine John Bull is remembered in the history books it is as a purveyor of rabid Jingoism and hatred of the ‘Germhuns’. For a while I’ve been developing the idea that there was more to it than that, and that it was a strong populist voice, critical of the status quo. Recently I took a look at the British Library’s microfilms of issues from 1917.

The Jingoism and prejudice are definitely there. Look at this short item from a January issue. It is on the same page as a demand that British internees in Holland should receive a better diet:

The language of prejudice does not only extend to Germans:

There is plenty of this sort of stuff, but it is outnumbered by the pieces where Bottomley (vaingloriously and egotistically, because he was that sort of person) as ‘Tommy’s Ambassador’, voicing the concerns of the ordinary soldier. He made the promise:

No case of hardship or injustice, no instance of beggarly treatment or mean cheeseparing, shall go unchallenged and unremedied.

He wrote:

We are all familiar with the platitude that some day each of us will be asked “And what did you do in the Great War” For myself I shall be satisfied if I am able to say, “I was the soldier’s and the sailor’s friend.’

Before the war, John Bull had been a populist scandal sheet, uncovering the crimes of the pompous and the entitled, exposing deviant clergymen and sometimes causing severe embarrassment to politicians. G.F. Masterman was a notable target. In wartime, it hunted out grievances and injustices. Here are three items from a 1917 issue:

The tone is stern and righteous. Power is being held to account. When John Bull speaks, authorities are expected to take action. The first of the three items is very typical. Soldiers’ most common grievances were about food, living conditions and payment of allowances to families. John Bull was on their side. In this piece, the magazine lays into the way in which men of the Surrey battalion are treated:

In 1917 these men undergoing training would have been conscripts. I have read accounts by volunteers of 1914 who positively relish the ad hoc nature of their accommodation and supplies. By 1917 they felt that the system should be treating them better.

The grievances I find most interesting are about the use of power by those who feel themselves entitled to over-ride the feelings of ordinary soldiers. Here is an example of hospital authorities ignoring the wishes of wounded soldiers:

One can imagine the righteous pleasure of the wounded soldiers at seeing their grievance in print; and one can assume that the administrator who committed this act of petty tidy-mindedness would have deeply disliked being accused of ‘sheltering behind petticoats’. John Bull was a power in the land.

You’ll have noticed that all these examples are the grievances of soldiers in Britain. John Bull kept from explicitly criticising conditions in France or other war zones, though they undoubtedly received complaints from there. When Bottomley visited the trenches in 1917, he met Haig, and reports back to John Bull’s readers:

John Bull was not entirely silent on conditions in the war zone. Field Punishment is mentioned above. It was a practice much resented by soldiers, involving the tying up of a miscreant for a set time. Officers were instructed not to make it look like crucifixion, but that is what the soldiers called it, and so did John Bull:

Underlying much of this is an appeal to readers’ class resentments. John Bull was quick to find examples of the upper clases behaving in a way that showed off their insensitivity and sense of entitlement. I enjoyed this (non-military) example of a Bishop self-righteously spoiling some working men’s lunch:

Many issues of John Bull contain examples of there being one rule for officers, and a different rule for the rest. This story is typical:

To respectable commentators during the war and after, John Bull was simply an irresponsibe and trouble-making scandal-sheet. Its Jingoistic language was easy to reject as crude and offensive, and its proprietor was an obvious rogue; I imagine the paper did not have many readers in polite society. Among the working-class, however, it was a voice many listened to, and was selling over a million copies a week by 1918; the war years were the heyday of John Bull‘s success.

Before the war, the line Bottomley took in his magazine was anti-warmongering, isolationist. On 8th August, 1914 it declared that Serbia was not worth fighting for (though thought it would be a good thing if Britain took the opportunity to sink the German Navy). It was after the revelation of the atrocities that the magazine, like the bulk of the population, swung strongly begind the war effort. On my next trip to the British Library, perhaps I’ll take a look at the 1914 issues, to map more closely the progress of Bottomley’s conversion to Jingoism.

At the moment, the way I look at it is this – that the excesses of Jingoism and anti-German prejudice were a kind of insurance policy. When a paper fulminates against the Huns so ferociously, nobody could accuse it of being unpatriotic – so this provided a cover for the fierce criticisms of military authority, and the pinpointing of failures to provide men with basic comforts and treat them with decency.

And all the while, of course, Bottomley was making a fortune – not just from the sales of his paper, but from the fees he charged for his highly effective recruiting speeches. An extraordinary man.

One Comment

  1. Tom Deveson
    Posted October 14, 2021 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    This is VERY interesting from start to finish.

    Please tell us much more, and thank you for the time spent on researching such fascinating material.

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