Censorship of news was reluctantly accepted by the British press. Initially, they surrendered their right to freedom of information and expression with barely a noticeable whimper. Again it was left to Churchill, who gloried in being the front-man, to make the announcement in Parliament on 7 August. He praised the editors and proprietors who had deliberately  turned a blind eye to the discreet preparations for mobilisation by the Admiralty and the War Office barely ten days earlier and announced the formation of an all-powerful Press Bureau under the command of the Secret Elite’s legal colossus, F E Smith. [1] It’s purpose, he claimed was to provide,

F E Smith

‘a steady stream of trustworthy information supplied both by the War Office and the Admiralty … which, without endangering military or naval interests, will serve to keep the country properly and truthfully informed from day to day of what can be told, and what is fair and reasonable; and thus, by providing as much truth as possible, exclude the growth of irresponsible rumours.’ [2]

Perhaps the clue lay in the words ‘as much truth as possible’. Out of nowhere, a Press bureau was created under the all-pervading arm of the Defence of the Realm Act which allowed the government to impose very powerful social controls on the population. Freedom to access news about the war that had just begun was removed. Journalists were not allowed to travel to and report from the front line in August 1914, but newspapers were promised absolute accuracy from the War Office and Admiralty liaison officers.

The truth is that the press sold its prestige and degraded its conscience by surrendering to government propaganda, in abandoning its critical faculty throughout the war and in willingly taking part in the deliberate deception of the public. Northcliffe and his Secret Elite acolytes dominated the British press to an extent that no national newspaper stood against them. They have much to answer for, even a century later. They carried the slogans, their editors and leader-writers provided the invective, and they gloried in the malice they concocted against Germany. That those who survived the war were misled about its purpose and meanings is, on its own, deplorable, but that millions of fighting men died under the misconception that their cause would have some long term impact on the future of civilisation is surely one of the most poignant of all historic tragedies.  [3]

To the upper echelons of the Secret Elite, control over the population, how and what it thought, and what it was allowed to know, was central to their philosophy. Freedom of thought was not acceptable. Dissent was deemed unpatriotic.  Their disdain for democracy was raised to a new level. The masses would be told only what the masters allowed. But implementing these draconian measures proved difficult. F E Smith was thrust into a new role in charge of the Press Bureau for which there was no precedent and for which there was no experienced staff. [4] He had no previous Cabinet experience, and belonged to the more right-wing school of the Secret Elite. He was closely associated with the Milner/Roberts/Northcliffe group which favoured conscription to the armed services rather than a volunteer force.

Denied first hand accounts of what was happening in northern France and Belgium, from experienced and reliable journalists, the information vacuum had been filled with patriotic nonsense. For approximately three weeks the public were force-fed a series of preposterous stories in which half of the German army had been killed and the others had taken flight. Every day reports boasted that the German soldiers were cowards, and that they ran away at the sight of the bayonet, or surrendered ignominiously. What made matters worse was that the public had been solemnly promised that they would be given the absolute truth through the Press Bureau. The accounts they read about German soldiers virtually inferred that fighting was mere child’s play. [5] No-one anticipated a military disaster. The public had been fed a diet of cheerful nonsense that raised high expectation of imminent victory. The Daily News produced chatty reports from correspondents ‘at the front’, with stories of ‘Kippers for Tea’, ‘Toothache in the Trenches’, and ‘The Lieutenant’s Morning Tub’, [6] reassuringly encouraging  and anodyne in nature, but completely at odds with what was happening in northern France and Belgium. Little wonder many of the earliest recruits harboured a fear that the war might be over before they got to France Suddenly the brutal nature of modern warfare slapped middle-class Britain in the face over Sunday breakfast on 30 August.

BEF  resting at mons

The truth was devastating. The first shots fired by the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) in Belgium on 23 August near the city of Mons, [7] gave the B.E.F. a brief sense of superiority, but wave after incessant wave of German infantry bore down on the greatly outnumbered British who were forced to retreat in the face of an onslaught. On 26 August the BEF fought the famous delaying action of Le Cateau with wonderful courage against an enemy ‘double their numbers and double their artillery’, but lost 8,000 men before continuing the retreat.  [8] Though they battled with consummate distinction, the B.E.F. was confronted by a well disciplined and armed host which in places was three times its size. The retreat which lasted for thirteen days of unparalleled anxiety covered one hundred and sixty miles, over which the British regulars sustained huge losses. General Sir John French became convinced that the B.E.F. which he described as ‘shattered’ would have to be withdrawn behind the River Seine [9] He was overruled.

Details of this serious reverse were not given to the press until the Times received a dispatch from one of its most reliable correspondents in the early evening of Saturday 29 August. It came as a bolt from the blue, and they instantly sought permission to print the story. Surprisingly, the Press Bureau replied within three hours, removed some minor details and gave permission to print. Confident of their source, and with F E Smith’s approval, the Times carried the news of ‘a retreating and broken army…a terrible fight…broken bits of many regiments’. [10]  It was a disaster. The British people were aghast. Had the B.E.F. been destroyed?  The effect was stunning. The moment was later caught perfectly by H G Wells in his novel Mr Britling Sees It Through (published in 1916) ‘it was as if David had flung his pebble – and missed!’

And it was a Northcliffe exclusive.

The following day The Times and the Daily Mail ‘suppressed the articles from their Monday editions.’ [11] The Times revised its position with a damage-limitation editorial to prevent widespread panic and defuse accusations of disloyalty made against it in Parliament. [Instead of focussing on the retreat of a ‘broken army’ they turned truth on its head by writing:

‘The British Army has surpassed all the glories of its long history, and has won fresh and imperishable renown. It has inflicted terrible losses on the German army and has repeatedly held its own against tremendous odds. Though forced to retire by the overwhelming strength and persistence of the foe, it preserves an unbroken if battered line…’ [12]

The gallant BEF at Le Cateau

It was an indefensible lie. The B.E.F. was by 30 August retreating south towards the River Marne leaving behind it a trail of broken wagons, tattered, abandoned equipment and rations and piles of supplies dumped by the roadside. Anything else that could ease the marchers’ burden apart from their arms and ammunition was left behind. [13]

What the Times initially revealed had blown a gaping hole in effective censorship and forced Kitchener to claim that ‘for every man lost, two more have reached the front’. The Times ‘rejoiced to receive the assurance that British troops are still facing North with “undiminished strength and undaunted spirits.” Another lie.

Had the Censor got it so badly wrong in allowing the truth to surface or was there another motive? Outrage at Northcliffe and his flag-ship newspaper was short lived when it became apparent that F E Smith, the censor himself, had not only cleared the article, but included a comment which Northcliffe duly printed. Convinced that the serious losses sustained by the B.E.F had to be used to rally support for Kitchener’s drive for volunteers, Smith approved the article and admitted in Parliament next day that following discussions with Kitchener, he had been asked by him to ‘obtain recruits for his army.’ The words he had added to the original dispatch were, ‘we want reinforcements, reinforcements and still more reinforcements’. [14] Smith had briefly breeched his own draconian censorship and for the first time the fear of defeat was used to bolster recruitment.

Meanwhile, the first person to fall foul of the censorship law was a newsboy who was thrown into jail for ‘calling out false news’ on the streets of the Scottish Capital on 30 August 1914. [15]

[1] F E Smith, later Lord Birkenhead, was a close friend of Alfred Milner and Sir Edward Carson of the Secret Elite.
[2] Hansard, HC Deb 07 August 1914 vol. 65 cc2153-6.
[3] J. S. Ewart, Roots and Causes of the Wars,  p.30.
[4] HC Deb 10 September 1914 vol. 66 cc726-752.
[5] Dillon, The Times and the Press Censor, House of Commons Debate 31 August 1914, vol. 66, cc454-511.
[6] Irene Cooper Willis, England’s Holy War, p. 179.
[7] John F Lucy, There’s a Devil in the Drum, p.74.
[8] C R Cruttwell, A History of the Great War 1914-1918, p. 23.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Special edition of the Times, 30 August 1914.
[11] Hansard, HC Debate 31 August 1914, vol. 66 cc497-8.
[12] The Times 31 August 1914, p.9.
[13] Paul Greenwood, The British Expeditionary Force August-September 1914. http://1914ancien.free.fr/bef_1914.htm
[14] Hansard, HC Debate 31 August 1914, vol. 66 cc498-9.
[15] Hansard, HC Debate 31 August 1914, vol. 66 cc372-4.