Reporting the First World War: the fine line between truth and lies.

The first World War (1914-1918), also known as ‘Great War’, was an unprecedented conflict which came after the so called ‘belle époque’, a period of peace, great technological and social advance; therefore, all the inventions that seemed to improve life standards from the 1880s onward turned against the man that created them. Even though journalism had known a period of splendour, independence and objectivity, from 1914 it was affected by the Great War’s mechanisms. Initially, newspapers were looking for true stories to leave the readers breathless. However, the government’s purpose was to hide the cruel reality using propaganda in order to promote the conflict and to prevent people from protesting against it. Nevertheless, there was also a militant, hidden and illicit journalism which tried to make the most of the conflict and to bring people the truth at any cost.

This essay will explain how the state directly intervened to hide the truth but also why the whole War was a giant lie in the eyes of the Home Front. Secondly, it will analyze to what extent this period was a ‘dark age’ made of misrepresentation and inaccuracy.

 

During the Great War the three main powers of each state – the government, the military and the press barons – were responsible for the readers’ misinformation concerning the war: they prevented journalists from supplying news to their public (Greenslade, 2014). Even though a direct state censorship started only in 1914, in the first decade of the 20th century states as France and Germany were already used to the news control (Carruthers, 2011:48); for example, Britain prepared to war since 1904 setting up a draft Bill to control the publication of Naval and Military Information in Cases of Emergency, an Official Secret Act and a Committee to determine which news had to be published (Carruthers, 2011:50). As Carruthers (2011) points out, in 1914 the political leaders feared about civilians being told of the war’s brutalities, because it is likely that they would have opposed the conflict; as a consequence, they began legislating for every channel of communication – such as newspapers, newsreels, posters and pamphlets – being under the state’s influence and control. In August 1914 the British government went into action to suppress war news altogether. Firstly, most of the telegraph and radio services throughout the British Empire were suspended (Carruthers, 2011:50); all the messages travelling on British wires had to be open code and subjected to censorship as the government’s censors controlled commercial and diplomatic traffic at cable stations (Winkler, 2001:91,92). Secondly, Britain instituted the Defence of the Realm Act, also known as ‘DORA’, in order ‘to manipulate the press to fall in with the government’s wishes’ (Knightley, 2004:100); this was an ensemble of prohibitions against the dissemination of war material which could have been useful to the enemy (Carruthers, 2011:50); a consequence of these limitations was the press self-censorship: they submitted to the law and even asked censors about what to write: this became their ‘unwritten rule’ (Carruthers, 2011:51).

At the outbreak of war, the British War Office tried to limit the number of correspondents in the field in order to prevent any information from reaching the enemy: the result of this was the creation of ‘Regulations for Press Correspondents Accompanying a Force in the Field’, which included a register of authorized journalists (Farrar, 1998:4). Farrar (1998) states that later Horatio Kitchener – the British Secretary of State for War and Head of the War Office until June 1916 – banned any correspondent from the military zone and replaced their role creating a Press Bureau; the agency’s aim was to prepare communiqués for the Home Front, based on military information or, in other words, ‘to limit the power of the meddling war correspondent and provide newspapers with a distraction’ (1998:7). Only in 1915, five accredited British correspondents were embedded with the army and gained access to the front line; however, this event gave the military the chance to control and manipulate the news better (Carruthers, 2011:54). As stated in Farrar (1998), ‘correspondents […] add(ed) legitimacy to what was actually a policy of suppression’ (14), ‘they conformed to the great conspiracy, the deliberate lies and the suppression of the truth.’ (73) Indeed, journalists at the Western Front followed a strict code of censorship: they were not allowed to mention places and regiments by name and the only person they could have quoted directly was the Commander-In-Chief (Farrar, 1998:68). A compelling example of British censorship was Repington’s report on the ‘shell crisis’: the censor cut all the remarks the journalist made about the risk of explosive shells (Farrar, 1998:69). Meanwhile, the political power understood the relevance of journalism as a means to do propaganda and educate the civilians; in addition, it realised that the press barons would have been the weapon to pursue it (Knightley, 2004:89). The press baron Lord Northcliffe, for instance, was appointed director of propaganda while Lord Beaverbrook, press baron as well, became Minister of Information in 1918 (Farrar, 1998:152).

Also Germany, Russia, Austria and USA suffered the state’s intervention to conceal the real face of war. After proclaiming the State of Siege, in July 1914, Germany suspended the right of opinion, free word, print or picture, and besides, it established 26 prohibitions for the press, to avoid ‘unreliable information from reaching the public.’ (Carruthers, 2011:48) Russia initially accepted war correspondents on the battlefield but, as the restrictions to the reporting of war were severe, journalists started protesting against the military; therefore, the government abandoned this scheme to use the British model of censorship: correspondents were no more allowed to the front and they could only gather news from the Hotel Bristol, in Warsaw (Mathews, 1957:161,162). Thirdly, the Austrian government ‘appeared to be the most kindly disposed to war correspondents’ but, as can be expected, this was a way to tame them: journalists all lived a relaxed life and were given everything but news (Mathews, 1957:162,163). As McLaughlin (2002) argues, the American Press coverage was impartial during the first period of the Great War; nevertheless, from 1917 up to the end of the conflict the United States adopted a system of censorship too; in fact, the state established the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, whose purpose was not to help the enemy (62).

 

It is important to realise that, during the Great War, ‘the news hungry public was often misled’: ‘news, lies, local color, human interest, fakes: all went down the public gullet in gargantuan gulps.’ (Crozier, 1959, cited in McLaughlin, 2002:62) At the beginning of the conflict correspondents were refused the access to the front, nonetheless, as the press was ‘hungry for news’, they filled ‘the vacuum of official silence’ (Carruthers, 2011:53) printing ‘any scrap of description, any glimmer of truth, any wild statement, rumour, fairy tale, or deliberate lie’ which reached them from abroad (Farrar, 1998:14). One of the great weapons of falsehood used during the war was propaganda and journalists such as Frederick Palmer became the means of it; as a matter of fact, Palmer defined himself as a ‘public liar’ that had to inspire pride in people at the Home Front (Mathews, 1957:155). In the first place the conflict had to be depicted as an answer to an aggression: Knightley (2004:86) states that journalists in Britain often represented Germans, the enemies, as beasts, criminals, barbarians, mutilators and madmen with an inferior intelligence. For instance, the French Bureau de la Presse started a regular publication of atrocity stories on Germans, known as ‘Les atrocitées allemandes’ (Knightley, 2004:87); moreover, they filled publications with heroic sentiment, avoiding news (Knightley, 2004:94). In Britain as well, newspapers started propaganda, running atrocity stories on the French model (Knightley, 2004:87). Bryce’s report, for example, aimed at touching the civilians’ pride through untrue accounts about the German soldiers’ cruelties (Knightley, 2004:88). Another example of propaganda was the story of the German Corpse Factory – this maintained that Germans boiled down their soldiers’ corpses in order to distil glycerine for their munitions – which at the end turned out to be invented (Knightley, 2004:111). Furthermore, the British government published a surrogate of news, the ‘Eyewitness’, written by Sir Ernest Swinton, which offered readers ‘an aestheticized vision of martial endeavour.’ (Carruthers, 2011:53)

Between 1914 and 1918, the British newspapers tended not only to hide defeats but also to replace them with positive, false news. As an illustration, they avoided reporting the defeat and retreat of Mons, describing the army’s action on that day in this terms: ‘the British forces […] held their ground’ (Knightley, 2004:95). Similarly, the Battle of Frontiers, in which Germany won and France lost nearly 300,000 soldiers, remained unknown in Britain until the end of the war (Knightley, 2004:97). In addition, the Russian loss of three army corps at Tannenberg was not reported in both British and French newspapers (Knightley, 2004:98). At the same time also correspondents, as Philip Gibbs, knew that their job was to hide the truth from the nation, painting the war as a ‘jovial picnic’, as a conflict the soldiers wished to pursue: these lies were offered to civilians as ‘faithful accounts’ of what war was like (Knightley, 2004:104,105). ‘Retreats became strategic retirements, evacuations were rectifications of the line, and a defeat such as the Somme in July 1916 brought only bland, innocuous reports’ (Knightley, 2004:106); the latter was described by Philip Gibbs as a great and promising day for England and France (Gardner, 2014). To say nothing of the journalists’ attitude towards the generals: they concealed any mistake of the army to prevent criticism from the Home Front (Farrar, 1998:75). According to Douglas Haig, British Commander-in-Chief of the Empire’s Forces, the best war correspondent was the one able to write ‘the most thrilling lies.’ (Farrar, 1998:76)

 

Even if the years of the First World War reporting were terribly marked by inaccuracy, censorship and lies there were some journalists who did not fall under the state’s restrictions. Above all at the beginning of the conflict, the majority of newspaper proprietors wanted to cover the war because it meant great profits for them (Knightley, 2004:89). Northcliffe, for instance, strongly campaigned against Kitchener to publish news and to tell people the truth at any cost (Greenslade, 2014); in detail, as argued in Engel (1997), Northcliffe’s Daily Mail ‘did not slavishly follow authority’ (87), although, it openly denounced censorship and criticised the mistakes made by the army; nevertheless, later, as argued in the first part of the essay, Northcliffe will serve the state as director of propaganda. In the same way, the Express announced it would have kept people informed with news from all parts of Europe (Farrar, 1998:3). Additionally, when denied of the front’s coverage by Kitchener, some correspondents made their own way to the battlefield as outlaws, hiding from the authorities and risking detention (Knightley, 2004:92); the outlaws were also referred to as ‘persona non grata’ and if found they could have lost their passport and sent back to England (McLaughlin, 2002:58). Among these people Luigi Barzini, Ashmead Bartlett, George Curnock and Hamilton Fyfe risked the most, nevertheless, they always managed to get around and spread news (Mathews, 1957:159).

For example, until 1915, Philips Gibbs and Basil Clarke had the courage of sidestepping the authorities and getting their pieces back to England any way they could (Gardner, 2014). Another journalist who risked arrest for illegally writing news from the front was Arthur Moore of the Times (McLaughlin, 2002:58). One of the best exceptions to the false reporting of the Great War was Charles à Court Repington, who broke the story of the ‘shell crisis’: the allegations made by this correspondent provoked a strong political crisis which led Asquith’s liberal government to resignation; later, Repington was accused of getting the story by subterfuge and trickery (McLaughlin, 2002:61). Not to mention Arthur Moore and Hamilton Fyfe’s reporting of the British retreat from Mons: the Northcliffe’s press reported the event in an exceptional realistic and pessimistic way (Mathews,1957:160); however, the publication of Moore’s article was wanted by F.E. Smith, the King’s Counsel, who passed the truth not in the interest of civilians but to push his own views on the matter (Knightley, 2004:97). Equally significant was the impartial and detailed coverage the United States made while they were neutral – until 1917 (McLaughlin, 2002:62). Despite his oath of allegiance to the British army, the journalist Keith Murdoch as well tried to get the real news back to London: once at the front, he was influenced by Ashmead Bartlett’s desire of reporting the true warfare and promised him to get back his uncensored dispatch; unfortunately, he was discovered and arrested, nonetheless, he tried to dictate what he remembered of the dispatch to the Australian High Commissioner (Knightley, 2004: 108,109,110). So far, as argued in Knightley (2004:118,119,120), one of the most outstanding real coverage during the Great War was the reporting of the German collapse in 1918 by five American correspondents; while British correspondents described only the military side of it, the American ones defied the army’s rules and illegally reported the human side of the collapse, describing the hunger, the lack of money and extreme poverty in Germany.

Overall, this essay has studied the reporting of the First World War arguing that this was a dark period for journalism. As a matter of fact, in most cases journalism was absorbed by the state and controlled by it through censorship and laws. The result of this process was the production of a fictional reporting, in which the truth was suppressed and lies were given as true accounts of warfare. As can be seen, there were only a few exceptions to this great conspiracy; however, the majority of these ‘persona non grata’ were forced to submit to the law. Given these points, it is right to consider the Great War’s reporting as a period of falsehood and suppression of information.

 

Mirianna la Grasta

 

 

Bibliography

Carruthers, S. L., 2011. The media at war. 2nd edition ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Engel, M., 1997. Tickle the Public. 2nd edition ed. London: Indigo.

Farrar, M. J., 1998. News from the front. First edition ed. Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Limited.

Gardner, F., 2014. BBC. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zs9bwmn
[Accessed 12 December 2015].

Greenslade, R., 2014. First world war: how state and press kept the truth off the front page. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jul/27/first-world-war-state-press-reporting
[Accessed 8 December 2015].

Knightley, P., 2004. The first casualty. 5th edition ed. Baltimore, Maryland: The John Hopkins University Press.

Mathews, J. J., 1957. Reporting the wars. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McLaughlin, G., 2002. The war correspondent. First edition ed. London: Pluto Press.

Winkler, J., 2001. FROM THE ARCHIVES EARLY CORPORATE ESPIONAGE AMID WORLD WAR I CENSORSHIP. Cryptologia, 25(2), pp. 91-94.

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