Censorship in the trenches: why didn’t journalists report the horrors of the First World War?

When Britain declared war in August 1914, newspaper editors had little idea of the challenge that would face their journalists in covering the scale and brutality of the vast, mechanised conflict. Writing for History Extra, Derek Taylor explores the system that was introduced to deliver carefully controlled news from the frontlines back to Britain, and how the journalists felt about their own role reporting on war

British war correspondents and press officers, western front, c1917. From the Great War Vol .10 published in 1918 FR left to right: Percival Phillips; Colonel Hutton Wilson; Beach Thomas; Captain Stewart. Standing: Basil Clark; Perry Robinson; Percival Gibbon. (Photo by Alamy)

In the days when I was a reporter covering wars for ITN, I often puzzled over this question: if TV news cameras had been present in the trenches during the First World War, would hundreds of thousands of young soldiers’ lives have been saved? If ordinary people back home – on both sides – had seen the slaughter for themselves, would they have cried, “Enough is enough!” and insisted their leaders negotiate immediate peace?

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We can never know the answer, of course. But we don’t need to pose such a theoretical question, because the means did exist at the time to get the truth out. For most of the duration of the conflict there were newspaper correspondents on the frontline, witnessing the unimaginable scale of death and suffering. So, did they report what they saw?

British troops in the trenches, Belgium, c1914–15. The horrors of the First World War lived long in the memories of its centenarian survivors. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)

When Britain declared war in August 1914, editors back in London had little idea of the challenge that would face the journalists they’d sent out to cover the impending mechanised hostilities. The common view in editorial offices was that ‘war correspondent’ was a job for a hunting man, someone who could get along with cavalry officers. Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail and the Times, ordered the Mail’s sporting editor to buy a horse and report to the War Office.

Newspaper editors could not know the challenges that would face the journalists reporting the First World War. Lord Northcliffe, owner of the 'Daily Mail' and 'The Times', ordered the Mail’s sporting editor to buy a horse and report to the War Office. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Newspaper editors could not know the challenges that would face the journalists reporting the First World War. Lord Northcliffe, owner of the ‘Daily Mail’ and ‘The Times’, ordered the Mail’s sporting editor to buy a horse and report to the War Office. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The Liberal government under prime minister Herbert Asquith for its part decided it would control what those reporters wrote. In September, one month into the war, parliament agreed that the following be inserted into the Defence of the Realm Act, giving the government unprecedented powers:

“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.”

In other words, the generals and government ministers could stop the press publishing anything they didn’t like.

War correspondents were indistinguishable from army officers during the First World War, says Derek Taylor. William Beach Thomas of the 'Daily Mail' is second from right. Far right is Perry Robinson of 'The Times'.
War correspondents were indistinguishable from army officers during the First World War, says Derek Taylor. William Beach Thomas of the ‘Daily Mail’ is second from right. Far right is Perry Robinson of ‘The Times’.

“A degree of freedom”

For the first few months of the fighting, correspondents enjoyed a degree of freedom to roam the war front. What they wrote, however, was censored. But that was often unnecessary. When Arthur Moore of The Times, for example, reported the retreat by British and French forces at Mons in August 1914, he included the upbeat lines:

“Let me repeat that there is no failure in discipline, no panic, no throwing up of the sponge. Every one’s temper is sweet, and nerves do not show. The men are steady and cheerful…”

A scene from 'They Shall Not Grow Old', showing how film director Peter Jackson digitally remastered footage of the First World War. (Photo courtesy of THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD/ WingNut Films/ Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM)

Moore’s boss, Lord Northcliffe, summed up the attitude in Fleet Street when he declared, “Trust the generals”. The Cabinet began to think that the press themselves might be trusted to help boost morale back home. They just needed to be kept on a short leash.

So, in June 1915 a new system for correspondents was introduced. What the British Army General Headquarters staff described as “a few writing chappies” would be brought to the front line, but their movements, as well as what they wrote, would be strictly policed. The national newspapers and press agencies were between them allowed to nominate six reporters. Philip Gibbs, for instance, would file stories for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Chronicle; William Beach Thomas for the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror.

The national newspapers and press agencies were between them allowed to nominate six reporters to report the war, including William Beach Thomas who would file reports for the 'Daily Mail' and the 'Daily Mirror'. (Photo by Alamy)
The national newspapers and press agencies were between them allowed to nominate six reporters to report the war, including William Beach Thomas who would file reports for the ‘Daily Mail’ and the ‘Daily Mirror’. (Photo by Alamy)

The chosen few were taken to General Headquarters at St Omer, 20 miles inland from Calais, where they were greeted by the commander-in-chief of the British forces on the western front, Sir John French. The field marshal made a short speech saying that he trusted their honour and loyalty. Then they were taken to an old house in the nearby village of Tatinghem in northern France, which was to be their lodgings and their office. There were orderlies to run errands for them and to keep the place clean; there were lorries and cars with drivers to take them around; and, most importantly, there was a group of officers who lived, ate and slept with the reporters and would escort them to the front – these were the censors.

These men, as the six reporters soon discovered, were older officers, resentful of now having to nursemaid a bunch of civilian ‘intruders’. There was Colonel John Faunthorpe, a big game hunter who boasted of bagging more than 300 tigers, and who openly ridiculed the newspapermen. Also Colonel the Hon. Neville Lytton, who annoyed the others by playing Bach on an 18th-century ivory flute and imitating the sound of a duck lapping weeds. And Colonel Hutton Wilson, who insisted that all war correspondents were Bolsheviks.

Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring on the balcony of the Reichs Chancellery, Berlin. One British journalist recalled how, in 1933, Göring began an attack against the foreign press unlike any he had previously witnessed. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

A journalist’s life in the trenches

The correspondents themselves were required to wear officers’ uniforms – khaki jacket and tie with trousers tucked into puttees; regulation boots and a peaked cap, which could be swapped for a tin helmet when danger dictated. They were given the honorary rank of captain and, apart from a green armband, were indistinguishable from real officers. As it turned out, it wasn’t just their appearance that made the reporters seem part of the army. In their thinking, too, they soon fell into step with the officers around them. Beach Thomas was typical of his fellow journalists: on 4 August 1915, he gave his readers a jaunty picture of life for the brave lads in the trenches:

“As the chicken roasted and the frying potatoes sizzled, an occasional bullet ‘pinged’ over the trenches… I might be saying that it was about the finest, proudest old regiment in the British army, which would be invidious in view of all the other finest, proudest old regiments in the British army.”

A colour illustration of First World War allies, the German Reich and Austria-Hungary, featuring soldiers shaking hands, their troops and national flags, c1915. (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

The stage was set for what was the First World War’s most notorious cover-up conspiracy in Britain, between the press on one side and the government and the generals on the other: the battle of the Somme. It began on 1 July 1916 and would last for four-and-a-half months. Three million men fought and a million were wounded or killed. On the first day alone, 19,240 British soldiers were killed, and another 38,230 were wounded.

During the opening hours of the fighting the correspondents stayed in their quarters, as instructed by the chief of intelligence, General Charteris. Regular updates – carefully vetted, of course – were delivered to them on the progress of the fighting. This is what newspaper readers were told:

The Daily Chronicle’s reporter, Philip Gibbs wrote: “It is on balance a good day for England and France. It is a day of promise in this war.

The Manchester Guardian reproduced the Press Association report, under the headline “Our casualties not heavy”:

“The first day of the offensive is therefore very satisfactory… It is no longer a question here of attempts to pierce as with a knife. It is rather a slow, continuous, and methodical push, sparing in lives.”

Every newspaper in Britain carried a similar account of the events at the Somme, that casualties were 'not heavy', explains Derek Taylor. (Photo by Morgan-Wells/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Every newspaper in Britain carried a similar account of the events at the Somme, that casualties were ‘not heavy’, explains Derek Taylor. (Photo by Morgan-Wells/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Every newspaper in Britain carried a similar account – all re-hashed official communiques. But when, over the next few weeks, the correspondents were allowed out to see the fighting for themselves, they kept up the pretence, even though by now they could see that many tens of thousands of men were being killed or wounded.

This ‘watering down’ of the horrors and concealment of the casualty figures continued throughout the war. How can it be accounted for? To some extent, it was an establishment stitch-up. The wealthy proprietors of the newspaper empires, such as Lords Northcliffe and Beaverbrook, were so close to the government that they actually served in the cabinet: one as minister of propaganda; the other as minister of information. Then, among those who worked on their papers – the correspondents and editors – patriotism often trumped journalistic duty: negative news would aid the enemy. At the same time, the frontline reporters frequently fell into the trap that awaits all war correspondents: the temptation to think of oneself as a soldier, and to think like one.

c1916: British soldiers sitting around a lamp in their trench. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The most shaming aspect of all this is that at least some of the correspondents knew they were failing as journalists. Seven years after the war ended, the Mirror’s man, Beach Thomas wrote:

“A great part of the information supplied to us by British Army Intelligence was utterly wrong and misleading… For myself, on the next day and yet more on the day after that, I was thoroughly and deeply ashamed of what I had written, for the very good reason that it was untrue.”

Gibbs of the Chronicle, writing in 1923, went even further:

“We identified ourselves absolutely with the armies in the field… There was no need of censorship of our dispatches. We were our own censors.”

British journalist and author Philip Gibbs, c1915. (Photo by Raphael/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
British journalist and author Philip Gibbs, c1915. (Photo by Raphael/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Historians are always careful not to judge the actions of our ancestors by the standards of our own day. We have to remember that during the First World War there was a real fear that Britain would be invaded, conquered, ruled by and absorbed into the German Empire. That could be stopped only by recruiting millions of men to form an armed human barrier against the potential invaders. And that, in turn, required steadfast support and enthusiasm back home from the wives, girlfriends, siblings, parents and friends of those men. As prime minister David Lloyd George said in 1917:

“If the people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course, they don’t know and can’t know.”

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Derek Taylor studied law and history at the University of Oxford before joining ITN. As a correspondent he covered five wars and spent seven months in Iran during the Islamic revolution. He went on to work for the BBC, before becoming chief executive of the American-owned Associated Press Television News. Now, in retirement he writes popular history books. His latest, Fayke Newes: the Media vs the Mighty from Henry VIII to Donald Trump is published by The History Press.