Why we should remember the bravery of World War One journalists

Richard Evans
Basil Clarke 225x300 Why we should remember the bravery of World War One journalists

War reporter Basil Clarke (Getty Images)

Imagine if the British Government suddenly announced that journalists would not be allowed to report on a particular story and would face arrest if they tried to do so.

Judging by the apocalyptic warnings we have seen following the relatively modest measures proposed by Leveson, we could be likely expect huge levels of protest and dire warnings about the effect on freedom of speech. And now imagine that this was not just any old story but possibly the biggest story in human history.

The good news is that in 2013, despite those in the media who see Leveson as the thin end of the wedge, this seems almost unthinkable. But it is exactly what happened at the start of the First World War.

Lord Kitchener, who was appointed Secretary of State for War at the outbreak of the War, had contempt for the media, believing his reputation had been damaged by newspaper coverage during the Omdurman and the Boer War. He was certainly not the last public figure to have a less than positive view of journalists, but the usual response is to tolerate them with gritted teeth. But Kitchener simply banned them from the front, instead setting up Sir Ernest Swinton as a kind of official war correspondent and establishing a press bureau in Charing Cross in London to issue official news.

Unsurprisingly, newspapers did not find this an adequate substitute for having their own reporters at the front. They protested, both in the pages of the newspaper and in private meetings with the Government. But they did more than argue against the ban; they ignored it. Journalists who were already on the continent stayed there, while some of those in England used subterfuge to get to the front.

One of them was Basil Clarke, who on arriving in Calais managed to get smuggled on a train full of French soldiers to Dunkirk. He lived in Dunkirk as a fugitive, evading the round-ups of reporters by staying in a small café that was less conspicuous than the main hotels. It was a dangerous existence. On one occasion in particular, Clarke felt the terror of facing imminent death when a village he was being shown around came under heavy shellfire.

He was not alone. One of Clarke’s Daily Mail colleagues claimed Kitchener “talked wildly about having the reporters shot if they could be caught”, while Philip Gibbs of the Daily Chronicle was held under arrest for 10 days and warned he would be put against a wall and shot if he dared to return to France. Another reporter endured the ordeal of being threatened with summary execution by French police who suspected him of being a German spy.

Although it meant knowingly risking their lives, journalists did it anyway. A big part of this was the pursuit of what Clarke called “that exulting thing, the quest for which made reporters of us and will continue throughout time to make reporters – that feeling of life lived; life sought out and faced; life hot, strong and undiluted.”

But they were also doing it out of the belief that the British people should have access to independent, if censored, news. “If Britons and Allies died in their thousands,” Clarke wrote, ‘their fathers, mothers and sweethearts, and the countries that gave them, were entitled to know some little of the work they did, for which they often lay down their lives”.

Some of the journalists at the front proved extremely resourceful at avoiding arrest. But they could not remain undetected forever. When Clarke was finally forced to return home in January 1915, he was one of the last two reporters remaining in the war zone. Not long after, in April 1915, the need for journalists to live a fugitive existence ended when the British finally accepted the argument for press freedom and agreed to allow accredited reporters. But for those last few months of 1914, Clarke and other journalists covered events of huge historical significance and their presence meant that the version the public heard was not just the one the government wanted it to hear.

It is an episode of newspaper history that has largely been forgotten but it is one that, with the renewed interest in the War with the centenary in 2014, it is worth remembering.

For one thing, honouring the bravery of those who took part in the War is one of the reasons for marking the centenary. But more than that, the experience of reporters in 1914 is something that is especially worth celebrating at a time when most of the stories we hear about journalists are negative ones. And for those journalists who are daunted by what they see as a threat to their independence following the Leveson Inquiry, the actions of Clarke and other reporters in 1914 can act as a reminder that journalism has a long and successful history of defying attempts by government to control it.

‘From the Frontline: The Extraordinary Life of Sir Basil Clarke’ is written by Richard Evans and is published by The History Press.

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  • Freke

    Let us not forget that preventing journalists from reporting from a war has lasted into modern times. Here is an excerpt of what Julian Barnes wrote about the Falklands war in the Guardian in 2002:

    “the Falklands war would turn out to be the worst-reported war since the Crimean. While our armed forces defeated the Argentinians, the Ministry of Defence was putting to rout the British media. All the significant news, good or bad, was announced or leaked from London……In the age of image, the Falklands war remained image-free for much of its length – no British pictures for 54 of the 74 days the conflict lasted – and image-weak thereafter.”

  • canamera

    Don McCullin, probably the UK’s greatest living war photographer, repeatedly asked to be allowed to cover The Falkland’s War. He was not permitted to go. The government simply did not want proper coverage of the ‘conflict’ but who knows why.

  • Fayez79

    Robert Fisk is a living legend, he is loved by both East and West…

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