War correspondents are journalists who cover stories first-hand from a war zone. They deliberately go to the most conflict-ridden parts of the world. Once there they attempt to get close enough to the action to provide written accounts, photos, or film footage.
From the start of World War One the British government was eager to control the flow of information from the front line, passing legislation in 1914 which allowed the War Office to censor the press and raising the spectre of the death penalty for anyone convicted of assisting the enemy.
In August 1914 Lord Kitchener expelled all journalists from the front line. He had not always had good press during the Boer War and disliked journalists intensely, arguing that battle grounds were the exclusive preserve of the armed forces.
In September 1914 he appointed Ernest Swinton, an army officer and writer, as official war correspondent. See the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on LCC's Digital Library.
Sir Ernest Dunlop Swinton
Swinton wrote 103 official articles under the name Eyewitness (or Eyewash as his critics called him). Each of these articles was vetted by Kitchener.
But although his reporting was restricted, he observed with increasing concern the emergence of stalemate on the western front. This is the headline of one of his articles which was published in The Times on 25th August 1914.
Not all reporters readily left France when ordered to do so. Many of them had been out on the front line when the war first started but escaped arrest when journalists were first expelled by Kitchener. These men who defied the ban lived like fugitives in France, and smuggled back their dispatches any way they could. Some proved extremely resourceful at avoiding arrest but they could not remain undetected indefinitely.
One such reporter was Basil Clarke. He was born in Manchester in 1879 and started his newspaper career at the Manchester Guardian. In 1914 he travelled out to Flanders as war correspondent for the Daily Mail. He was one of the last two reporters remaining in the war zone and was finally forced to return home in January 1915. However, for those last few months of 1914 Clarke and other journalists had covered events of huge historical significance and their presence meant that the accounts they published were not what the government wanted the public to know.
Pressure from principal newspaper proprietors in London forced Lord Kitchener to concede a role to five official war correspondents.
Philip Gibbs – Daily Chronicle & Daily Telegraph (1915)
Percival Phillips – Morning Post (1915)
William Beech Thomas – Daily Mail (1915)
Herbert Russell - Reuters news agency (1915)
Henry Perry Robinson – The Times
(They were followed by many others in subsequent years.)
From March 1915 these five men had the honorary rank of captain, and wore British army khaki uniforms with a green band on the right arm. They were always escorted by military officers and every word they wrote had to pass military censorship.
The first two official press photographers to be attached to GHQ didn’t arrive until early 1916. Like the war correspondents, they wore a uniform and were subject to much the same restrictions, although the nature of their work meant that they were frequently able to reach the front lines.
The first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916 brought 57,000 British casualties, including 19,000 dead. Gibbs, not ideally placed on the battlefield to see the entire picture, and also subjected to censorship, wrote: “We may say it is, on balance, a good day for England and France. It is a day of promise in this war.” Gibbs defended his dispatch saying he had tried to "spare the feelings of men and women who have sons and husbands fighting in France."
Herbert Russell sent a telegram to Reuters which also read: “the day is going well for Great Britain and France.” Russell later said he was deeply ashamed of what he had written.
British War Correspondents examining a dud German 42cm shell on 9th September 1917; (right to left: Henry Perry Thompson (The Times, William Beach Thomas (Daily Mail) and Captain La Porte ( Belgian Mission)
However reports about the horrors of the frontline did get through to politicians.
Charles Prestwich Scott proprietor & editor of the Guardian, recorded in his diary comments made by David Lloyd George after he had heard Philip Gibbs speak at a private meeting on 27th December, 1917.
“I listened last night, at a dinner given to Philip Gibbs on his return from the front, to the most impressive and moving description from him of what the war (on the Western Front) really means, that I have heard. Even an audience of hardened politicians and journalists were strongly affected. If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know, and can't know. The correspondents don't write and the censorship wouldn't pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds. The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can't go on with this bloody business.”
When Lloyd George wrote about “a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds” he may have had in mind an example such as this. It is an extract from the weekly pictorial called The Sphere, 23rd March 1915. The article is entitled “How Sergeant O’Leary of the Irish Guards Won the V.C.”
As a result of the way the news was controlled the reality of what actually happened on the First World War battlefields was not widely known in Britain until the 1920s.
In the years following the war many correspondents wrote books and memoirs expressing frustration at the level of censorship and deep regret that they had on many occasions misrepresented the severity of situation on the front line. However, in reality the official war correspondents had little or no choice. If they had tried to evade the censor the full force of the Defence of the Realm Act would have been brought to bear upon them.
For Ernest Swinton's full biography see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The Times Digital Archive can be access via your Lancashire library membership
Copies of The Sphere are held at the Harris Library in Preston.