Arnold Bennett at the Ministry of Information

The most marvellous, disconcerting and romantic thing that ever happened to me’: Arnold Bennett at the Ministry of Information, May-November, 1918.

A paper given at the conference of the Arnold Bennett Society, June 2016.

In February 1918 Lord Beaverbrook, the millionaire press baron and political maverick, was appointed to the head of the new Ministry of Information, which had been created to take overall control of British propaganda (until then delivered in a less than co-ordinated way by various departments of different ministries). It was what they called in wartime a mushroom ministry, appearing more or less overnight. Some of the civil servants at the existing Department of Information asked for transfers on the appearance of the press baron, but anyway he wanted his own team about him. Beaverbrook, says A.J.P Taylor in his biography, was:’an improviser, as he often confessed, and now improvised more impatiently than ever. He appointed men right and left, without considering how they would fit in with each other.’ (Taylor, 142)

In April 1918 Beaverbrook asked Arnold Bennett to become head of the Department dealing with British propaganda in France. In October of that year Bennett was promoted to become director of propaganda, in overall charge of all propaganda to allied and neutral countries. In November the war ended and his administrative career finished abruptly.

His time at the Ministry was therefore fairly short, and it is one of the less well-researched aspects of his career. Margaret Drabble in her biography deals with it only briefly. She explains that since the Ministry’s records have almost entirely disappeared, and since Bennett’s journal only deals sketchily with the subject, ‘it’s very difficult to know what he actually did.’ The record, she says, is ‘is nearly a blank’. (Drabble, 234)

Without access to evidence, blanks can be filled in fancifully, and it has become a matter of orthodoxy for certain critics of First World War literature to assume that all the writers who lent their talents to the propaganda enterprise did so in bad faith. About Bennett, for example, a recent scholar writes:

‘Arnold Bennett found himself – perhaps as a reward for the four hundred articles on the war he had published since its outbreak – briefly in charge of the entire operation.’ (Stevenson, 30)

The implication of this comment is that Bennett was given a sinecure as a reward for toadying; it is not a judgement that will survive examination of the newspaper and magazine articles he had actually been writing during the war – a high proportion of which were highly critical of government policy. He consistently opposed conscription, demanded better treatment for soldiers’ dependants, and criticised the persecution of conscientious objectors. And as will become clear, the job that he took on was no sinecure.

We can know this because the record is actually not completely blank. A few years ago the scholar A.D. Harvey reported in the Times Literary Supplement the existence of some files at the National Archive in Kew, including a hefty folder that is not labelled as a Ministry of Information file but as from the Foreign Office.

This file – FO 395/174 – contains correspondence to and from the French department at the time when Bennett was its head. How complete it is as a record of the Department’s work is uncertain, but it tells us something about the tasks that confronted him, and shows his style as an administrator.

From the beginning Bennett made it clear that he would be doing things his way. He wrote to Sir Roderick Jones, formerly London head of Reuters and now Director of the Ministry, putting on record the circumstances in which he had accepted the post:

Many thanks for your official letter of the 8th. It is sufficient for my purpose. At the same time I ought to point out that I did not “offer” to take charge of the French Section. In view of my total inexperience of departmental work, it would never have occurred to me to suggest myself for such a post. Lord Beaverbrook on 11th April personally asked me to take the post, and after reflection and with great diffidence I agreed to do so.

As a matter of honour, he was unpaid for this public service. So was Beaverbrook and so were all of the outsiders he called in as department heads. This in itself caused a certain friction with the traditional careerists of the Civil Service. Bennett also imported Winifred Nerney, his own secretary, to work for him at the Ministry, and paid her salary himself, asking the Ministry to contribute only her travelling expenses from Essex.

Bennett took over the French department at a crucial stage in the war. In the spring of 1918, the Germans had gambled everything on their huge offensive, which broke through the lines of the British Fourth Army and were threatening Paris. Genral Ludendorff had managed what the British Army had been trying to do and failing for three and a half years. They had broken the stalemate of the trenches. Anything could happen.

The file shows how at the Ministry Bennett saw estimates of French attitudes and morale that were very different from those appearing in the British press. The most interesting are from Edward Vicars, the British Consul at Lyons, who describes local Anglophobia especially among Catholics ‘de la vieille souche Lyonnais’; he calls these:

chauvinistic bigots who 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.

This traditional Anglophobia has been exacerbated by:

…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.

Vicars probably expresses the feelings of all in the propaganda departments when he says:

It is disheartening, after all one’s efforts to make them see us in a reasonable light. 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.

Other reports told of the panic in Paris as the German Army came closer and indicated that the French believed that the commitment of the British to the War was considerably less than their own. One French newspaper editorial would acidly comment that ‘Les Anglais se battront jusqu’au dernier Francais.’ (‘The English will fight to the death of the last Frenchman.’) The British at the time congratulated themselves on going to the defence of France and Belgium and making immense sacrifices on their behalf. People in France at the time did not necessarily see it like that. The British effort was localised. The French who lived in Northern France, near the Ypres salient or near the Somme, would be well aware that Britain was contributing a great deal to the war effort; those who lived in other parts might never see a British soldier, but would be very aware of the sacrifices that they themselves were making. There are stories of British children in France being pelted on the way to school on the grounds that they were greedy, that they were getting food while the French were not.

Attempting to restore confidence by propaganda was a piecemeal affair. Before Bennett took over, some promising suggestions had been made for improving Britain’s reputation in France. The Queen should graciously allow an exclusive photograph of herself to appear in the French magazine Femina, for example, and articles should appear in the French press insisting on Britain’s commitment to the war, over the facsimile signatures of literary men well known in France, such as Kipling and Conan Doyle. Bennett took these on among his first tasks, and the results show some of the the difficulties of the job. On the question of the Queen’s photograph he came up against Buckingham Palace bureaucracy in the shape of the formidable Lady Jersey. The idea went against precedent, and pleading the war effort was no use. There was considerable correspondence, but in the end Bennett had to admit defeat.

To Kipling and Doyle Bennett sent telegrams explaining what was needed. Kipling came up with the goods quickly, but Doyle replied with a brusque telegram: Feel impossible exceedingly busy. Bennet sent a telegram in reply: Many thanks for telegram. Minister urges you to reconsider decision. If you could send five hundred words by end of month it would meet the case. Doyle replied that he had no material for an article. Bennett sent him some. Doyle’s reply to this is revealing about the reputation of the Government propaganda departments at this time.

Dear Sir, I have wasted many weeks doing government or propaganda work at different times, all ending in nothing – one department turning down what another has ordered.

This sort of departmental confusion was what the new Ministry of Information was supposed to put a stop to, but the harm had been done, and writers like Doyle were unwilling to waste further effort when past experience had been so unsatisfactory. He dismisses the material Bennett has sent him, and points to one of the major problems facing the propaganda organisation:

All this material is stale and useless but nothing would be any use unless we say how many men we have sent since March 21, which the Boche would be glad to know.

The point is well made. The most effective propaganda is accurate military information – but to print that would be to help the enemy. Doyle finishes:’ I am working all day and every day and can do no more.’ What he was working at mostly was his own multi-volume History of the War, which he saw as his own essential war work. It was very much propaganda for the British cause, but not officially commissioned. The Ministry of Information was moving into a field where private enterprise had been more effective and efficient than the efforts of the civil service.

In Lord Raingo, Bennett’s 1926 novel which gives a fictionalised version of his time at the Ministry, Sam Raingo feels rejuvenated by the challenge of his new role in the Ministry of Records. Bennett maybe was the same. In his journal he wrote: ‘On the whole the first day was rather a lark.’ (Journal, May 10th, 1918)

Sam Raingo is scathing about the efforts of some of the civil servants under him. This seems to reflect Bennett’s experience. One of his first initiatives was for a weekly newsletter to be sent to French editors. He writes:

There has been trouble about this. D’Urville has been tried and found wanting. I shall chuck this fellow. He would soon ruin my health. Miss Stedman is now writing the first letter herself […] I have provided her with some material. What I feel is that if I could write everything myself it would be jolly good and effective.

If subordinates were a problem, so were other offices. A major theme of Lord Raingo is the often petty competition between departments:

And he had a wider vision – of every ministry,historic or mushroom, snarling at every other ministry, regarding every other ministry as an imposed evil to be suffered as little as possible and scotched as much as possible, and ferociously determined to protect its rights and its monopoly with the last drop of its blood. The only real war was in Whitehall; the war in Flanders was merely a game, a sort of bloody football. (Lord Raingo, Chapter XXV)

Throughout his time at the Ministry, Beaverbrook was in constant territorial disputes, especially with the Foreign Office. Beaverbrook enjoyed disputes. An example in the file shows Bennett being drawn into one of them. At the end of May, Edward Vicars, the consul in Lyons, sent the urgent message:

It is being 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. It is of vital importance that immediate steps are taken to kill this mischievous lie here and elsewhere.

There was some truth in this allegation; Lloyd George was unwilling to send to France all the men that Haig asked for. the Bennett’s team quickly produced a swift rebuttal directed at the Lyons newspaper that had printed the story. The War Office and Foreign Office complained because they had not been consulted, and a serious territorial row transpired.

There was a culture clash, probably amounting to mutual incomprehension, between, on the one hand, newspaper men like Beaverbrook and Bennett and Sir Roderick Jones who had been head of Reuters in London, and on the other hand War Office types like Lord Onslow, head of M.I.7., the Army’s propaganda department.

Beaverbrook wrote to Bennett in a note marked ‘Confidential’:

Onslow has instituted all the old War Office formulas as regards communications, with the result of constant delays and serious decrease of efficiency. […] The whole trouble springs from Onslow’s entire ignorance of press organisations in France and his determination to do things in a strictly War Office way.

Beaverbrook and Bennett were political outsiders. Bennett understood this when the head of his Paris office wrote to him that copies of the Manchester Guardian and the Nation were not getting through the British censorship for postage abroad. The politics of these two papers was very close to Bennett’s own kind of Liberalism. Bennett rectified the situation, but noted: ‘Evidently the censorship is interfering with a certain kind of liberalism at the present moment.’

After only a few months in charge of propaganda to France, Bennett was promoted. He notes in his journal:

On my return I found myself appointed at the M. of I. To the post of director of propaganda (vice Sir R. Jones), together with general supervision and co-ordination of all departments of the ministry, i.e. deputy minister. This is the most marvellous, disconcerting and romantic thing that ever happened to me. At any rate, I, as an artist, shall have had the experience. It would be enormous fun except for the responsibility and the 3 a.m. worryings. (Journal, October 4th, 1918)

This was a very significant promotion. Why did Bennett get the job? A.J.P. Taylor, whose biography of Beaverbrook is closely based on what the great man had told him, says that it was because Bennett had proved ‘the most successful of his appointments’. (Taylor, 142 ) The National Archives doesn’t have a file that shows how he tackled this more important job. (Or maybe it does. Maybe it’s just that nobody has found it yet. )

The Journal suggests that Bennett went about the new job with the same no-nonsense efficiency. For example:

At the Ministry yesterday I found out that the meetings of the Turkish committee were being held at the offices of the British-American Tobacco Co. I at once wrote to the minister and told him that I meant to revoke his order to that effect. (Journal, October 10th, 1918)

(The venue choice was tactless because the Virginia tobacco of the B.A.T. was a major competitor of Turkish tobacco – one of Turkey’s most important exports.)

How successful was Bennett at the Ministry, and did his work there make a significant contribution to the war effort? He certainly seems to have been a dynamic force, pushing for clarity and efficiency where there had previously been confusion. It is hard, though, to find anything he did there that had a significant historical effect. It was during his tenure that the British Army spearheaded the Allied attack that drove the Germans back to their own borders during the last hundred days of the war. Did these victories improve the French perception of the English? Possibly.

The efforts of the Ministry of Information probably had less effect than those of their rival Lord Onslow at M.I.7. His department organised the dropping from balloons of hundreds of thousands of leaflets onto German troops and civilians, urging that they had lost the war and that further efforts would be futile. It is estimated that these leaflets did have an appreciable effect on German morale. Though that morale was affected even more by the pilots of the R.F.C. British airmen who demonstrated British air supremacy at this time by machine-gunning German troops on the way to the front. The propaganda war was a lot less important than the brutal military one.

For Bennett personally, this was an important stage in his life. ‘At any rate, I, as an artist, shall have had the experience’ he wrote, and the result was Lord Raingo, which combines his own experience as a newcomer to a ministry with Beaverbrook’s gossip about the personal side of wartime politics. Bennett’s time at the Ministry was cut short by the Armistice, which is perhaps why he could not turn Sam Raingo’s tenure of his post into a story with a neat closure; instead, Sam’s career is interrupted too, in a different way, by illness and death, and the novel enters new territory and strikes notes deeper than the political.

Bennett describes his first day at the ministry as a lark, and he seems to have found the whole episode exhilarating, though often frustrating and exhausting. But maybe it’s significant that after the war, his first major work was the novel Mr Prohack, which is about a man rediscovering the joys of ordinary life after escaping from the civil service and from the constraints of the war.

References:

All quotations from Ministry of Information correspondence are from the Foreign Office file FO 395/174; the pages are not numbered.

Bennett, Arnold, Lord Raingo, (London: Cassell, 1926)

Bennett, Arnold, The Journal of Arnold Bennett (New York: The Literary Guild, 1933)

Drabble, Margaret, Arnold Bennett: a biography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974)

Harvey, A.D., ‘On the Literary Front’, Times Literary Supplement (January 14th, 2005), 12.

Stevenson, Randall, Literature and the Great War 1914-1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press,2013)

Taylor, A.J.P., Beaverbrook (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1972)

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