During his time in South Africa, where his success in glossing over and deflecting criticism of the horrors of the concentration camps earned him the trust and gratitude of Alfred Milner and the Secret Elite, Buchan became acquainted with senior military figures under Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener. By 1914 these men constituted the High Command of the British Army, though Roberts had nominally retired. [1] His friendship with Richard Haldane, the creator of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and Secretary of State for War from 1905-12 opened doors for him at the War Office. His friends included such luminaries as General Sir John French, who was to command the BEF and General Sir Henry Wilson, the architect of the British Expeditionary Force’s preparations in Belgium.

Douglas Haig (front centre) and his Commanders: men stoutly defended by John Buchan.His faith in Douglas Haig also dated back to South Africa, and of course his Oxford connections, [2] though that is hardly justification for the slant he put on Haig’s military capability. Just as he gave his loyalty to Alfred Milner, John Buchan stood by Haig and defended him from his worst detractors, describing the Field Marshal as ‘first and foremost a highly competent professional soldier’. Some would disagree. [3] Whether it was simply through friendship and loyalty that John Buchan steadfastly defended the incompetence and failures of the British High Command during and after the war we will never know, but it was certainly a constant feature of the propaganda he presented as  history.

Buchan experienced an extraordinary period in his life between 1914-1918 embroiling himself in recording a version of the official history of the war, reporting from the Western Front for The Times, in propaganda work of a more general nature, in military intelligence, where part of his remit included writing speeches and communiques for Douglas Haig, and as the government’s Director of Information. Many readers will have assumed that he was just a Scottish story-writer. Not so. The war made him a household name as a novelist and as a historian. [4] The rest of the multi-layered duties he undertook for the Secret Elite were hidden from the public eye.

John Buchan operated within the most powerful group of men in the British Empire. He breakfasted with Sir Edward Grey two days before the declaration of war on Germany [5] and later praised the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in glowing terms: ‘Sir Edward Grey played under supreme difficulties a part which must rank amongst the most honourable achievements of British statesmen.‘ [6] He claimed that ‘It is not too much to say that the honour and liberty of our race’ were saved by our rushing to the assistance of our, as he put it, martyred ‘little neighbour.’ (Belgium) [7] Even although these words were penned in 1936, the propaganda machine held to the old lie of innocent Belgium.

He was quite ill in 1914 when war broke out. At thirty-nine Buchan was too old for enlistment, but his ineligibility to join the ranks was caused by serious digestion problems which developed into a duodenal ulcer. He was confined to bed for ‘three miserable months’. [8] It was a malaise which plagued him throughout the rest of his life. Buchan was a workaholic; of that there can be no doubt and his restless nature did not easily lend itself to inaction.

Buchan's record of the war was written as it progressed and published by his friend Thos. Nelson.

Buchan claimed that by 14 August 1914, he came up with the idea to write a popular history of the war for the publisher, Thomas Nelson and Sons, in order to keep the workforce fully employed. [9] He had been invited to become a partner in the firm in 1907 on the personal invitation of his Oxford friend, Tommy Nelson [10] and served as their literary adviser. Strange that he began writing Nelson’s History of the War to keep men in work at the point when so many had enlisted for the war. A cynic might wonder if his family ties to Charles Masterman, who had been appointed head of the secret War Propaganda Bureau had more bearing on the decision. In fact, Masterman secured the services of both John Buchan and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle along with other popular authors like H.G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, Ford Maddox Ford, Rudyard Kipling and G.K. Chesterton to promote and support the war through propaganda. [11]

Buchan became an integral figure in the propaganda machine. He quickly found that the foremost  limitation on what he could write was the truth. In his own words, he knew too much ‘and was often perplexed as to what I could print.’ [12] This is an unusually frank confession from a propaganda-insider. John Buchan confessed that he was unable to write the truth for an official history of the war. How much credence, therefore, should one give to his account of proceedings? And it was a widely read account. His Nelson’s History of the War appeared in fortnightly parts. It was published in instalments of 50,000 words and had by far the largest circulation of any war commentary at the time. [13]

The Canadian academic, Professor Peter Buitenhuis holds a very clear view on Buchan’s writings. ‘His entire History of the War is a work of propaganda, consistently giving the most positive slant to news from all fronts of the war. Through embellishing tales of advance and suppressing reports of staff incompetence, Buchan … consistently  falsified the British Military situation on the Western Front. The gulf between what he knew and the content of his narrative turned Nelson’s history into a propaganda text.’ [14] This is unquestionably true.

1915 was a profitable year for Buchan. He gave a series of popular lectures on the course of the war, [15] to huge gatherings at the Beckstein Hall in London, at which he was regularly accompanied  by high profile members of the Secret Elite including Sir Edward Grey and former prime minister, Arthur Balfour.  His journalistic career blossomed when The Times asked him to visit the front line troops and pen a series of articles exclusively for their readers. The first of these ‘On A Flemish Hill’ combined a panoramic view of landscapes which had suffered war and bloody battle for 2,000 years with the illusion of Ypres which from afar ‘looks like a gracious and delicate little city in its cincture of green hills.’

Ypres in ruins. The lonely skeleton of St Martin's church shocked Buchan

His shock at finding Ypres doomed beyond hope with its Cloth Hall in ashes and the skeletal remains of the famous towers of St Martin’s church threatening to fall any moment, brought a different kind of reality to The Times readership. [16] But John Buchan was not employed to charm the middle class with fine description. It was his conclusion which mattered. ‘It [Ypres] will stand as a symbol of unity within our race and unity within our Western civilisation, that true alliance and that lasting unity that are sealed by a common sacrifice.’ Rousing stuff, aimed to reassure the Empire, but fiction nevertheless.

Buchan’s work for Northcliffe’s newspapers continued from May till October 1915 from the otherwise restricted confines of the British Army Headquarters in France. Even his entirely one-sided accounts could give offence to the military censor, and his despatch from the Front on 7 October was withheld, an infringement which was criticised in Parliament. Apparently his writings provided the enemy with too much relevant information and too many accurate maps. And that is the problem with John Buchan. His use of fact, in this given instance troop movement, might have been accurate, but the praise that he lavished on the military commanders was so unjustifiably gilt-edged that he wandered into falsehood. We acknowledge that every country at war indulges in propaganda to favour its actions, but the real problem begins when those in charge repeatedly lie to cover-up the horror they have created, deny their failures and hoodwink the public.

Throughout the war, John Buchan continued to work for the upper reaches of government. While in France he was promoted to major in the intelligence corps and prepared military summaries and communiques which shed the best possible light on the British commanders. In 1916 he was regularly employed by the Foreign Office on matters of intelligence for his friend, Sir Edward Grey, and reported directly to him. He was also attached to Douglas Haig’s staff in France and made numerous visits to his headquarters. [17]

The Somme 1916. into the slaughter; 'Dead men can advance no further'

He was with him during the critical weeks of the Somme and wrote most of Haig’s dispatches during that period. He claimed that on the first day of the Somme, the Germans ‘had fallen into every trap we [Haig and his advisors] have laid.’ [18] With hindsight it seems a ludicrous comment, though Haig had hoped to use the battle on the Somme as a feint which would pull German reserves from Flanders and weaken them there. In a war of  attritional stupidity, the Somme stands as testament to brutal obstinacy. A million British and German casualties were sacrificed in an area of seven square miles. John Buchan wrote the communiques for Haig’s General Headquarters without a word of criticism about Douglas Haig’s incompetence. At no point did he allow personal loyalty to be undermined by fact.

When the Secret Elite at last removed Herbert Asquith from the post of Prime Minister in December 1916, Buchan’s mentor, Lord Alfred Milner joined the inner war-cabinet led by David Lloyd George. John Buchan’s star rose accordingly. He was summoned directly to the War Cabinet at 10 Downing Street where he renewed old friendships [19] and accepted the challenge of ‘improving’ propaganda. His proposals on reconstructing its policy was delivered within one month and the Secret Elite network put its own man in charge. Lord Milner proposed that Buchan be appointed director of a new department of information on 9 February 1917, and it was created by a cabinet minute that very day. He liaised directly with the prime minister and was given a salary of £1000 p.a. [20]. A Private on the line received just over £18 per year. John Buchan, who never faced a bullet, was well paid for his services.

He proved to be a moderate innovator. Buchan divided the department of information into four sections: (1) art and literature, (2) press and cinema, (3) intelligence, (4) administration, which he located inside the Foreign Office. He increased the scale of government propaganda considerably and developed the use of film in British propaganda to condition the home population and convince it of the noble cause of the ‘war for civilisation’.

It takes more than imagination to produce ' the sweetest love story ever told' which is precisely what D W Griffith's propaganda film claimed to be.

The two large-scale propaganda films were D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1917) and Herbert Brenon’s The Invasion of Britain (not completed until the end of the war and never shown). Many newsreels were added to capture the imagination of cinema audiences. He commissioned a film about the Battle of the Somme, brought in professional writers, created a department of information in New York, sent out lecturers, and tirelessly organised every avenue of propaganda. Behind the façade of the gentlemanly amateur, Buchan was a tough and professional propagandist. [21]

In March 1918 the department became a ministry under Lord Beaverbrook, and John Buchan, by then a Colonel, became director of intelligence. Ironically, at the end of the war Buchan was appointed ‘liquidator’ of the Ministry of Information, which he closed down on 31 December 1918. It is an interesting concept, is it not? Liquidator of the Ministry of Information sounds too close to a special section from 1984. What did they immediately want rid of, or required to be shredded, shelved in secret places, removed, withdrawn and otherwise destroyed? Strange that an author should take on such a task.

[1] John Buchan, Memory Hold The Door, p. 111.
[2] Both men attended Brasenose College at Oxford and had family roots in the Scottish Borders.
[3] Without a doubt, Denis Winter,’s exposure of Douglas Haig is the clearest indictment of the failures of that British commander. We recommend his book, Haig’s Command.
[4] Kate MacDonald, Reassessing John Buchan, p. 78.
[5] Janet Adam Smith, John Buchan and his world, p. 61.
[6] John Buchan, Episodes of the Great War, p. 23.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Buchan, Memory Hold The Door, p.164
[9] Smith, John Buchan and his world, p. 61.
[10] Buchan, Memory Hold the Door, p. 137.
[11] [http://www.firstworldwar.com/bio/masterman.htm
[12] Buchan, Memory Hold the Door, p. 167.
[13] H.C.G. Mathew, Buchan, John, First Baron Tweedsmuir, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
[14] Keith Grieves, Nelson’s History of the War, John Buchan as a Contemporary Military Historian, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 28, no.3, July 1993, p. 533.
[15] The Times, 21 April, 1915, p. 5.
[16] The Times, 17 May, 1915, p. 9.
[17] Smith, John Buchan and his world, p. 65.
[18] Denis Winter, Haig’s Command, p. 181.
[19] Buchan, Memory Hold The Door, p. 169.
[20] Gary Messinger, British Propaganda and the State in the First World War, p. 89.
[21] Mathew, Buchan, John, First Baron Tweedsmuir, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.