Contention in the British Press: WWI – Likelihood and Leadership

The following two tabs change content below.

Jessica Edwards

I’m currently a Marketing Executive in the Gale International Strategic Marketing team. I love the combination of creativity, strategic thinking and project management required in this busy role. Having studied History and English at Durham, it’s a great pleasure to work for a company producing historical archives and literary materials – meandering through Gale’s abundant resources never really feels like work! And to pad out this depiction of me, I can frequently be found running through the Hampshire countryside, and have a strong partiality for coffee cake.

The British press – one of the noisiest, most opinionated and longest-running media institutions in the world – is known for its history of wide-ranging debate and reporting. Encompassing so many digital newspaper archives, the Gale Primary Sources programme offers a comprehensive view of the landscape of opinions and commentary which have featured in the British press at any one time. This makes it a great resource for those studying contemporary opinions about a particularly issue or controversy, or how attitudes have evolved over time. This is the first of two posts looking at how persuasion, debate and clashes of opinion have coloured the British press at particular historical moments; in this case, during the First World War. Next week I’ll be posting about the altercations that arose around the rise of Fascism. As well as some of the most well-known arguments, these posts will bring to the fore views which have now been side-lined, discredited or simply eclipsed by modern interpretations.

Before plunging into impassioned articles and heated exchanges, it’s interesting to provide a quick outline of the political positions held by the newspapers in Gale Primary Sources – though of course, these have sometimes changed over time.

table

It seems timely with the approach of Remembrance Sunday to consider contemporary press opinion towards what was to become one of the most momentous events of the twentieth century – the First World War. One point of contention debated in newspapers prior to WWI was whether or not Europe was actually heading for war. Many newspapers preached in the early years of the twentieth century that war with Germany was impossible or avoidable, but the Daily Mail was steadfast in its belief that a conflict between the great powers of Europe was inevitable. It subsequently prided itself on being the paper that foretold the war, and The Daily Mail Historical Archive clearly shows that for many months ‘the newspaper that persistently forewarned the public about the war’ was printed throughout the paper.

"How to Read the News" Daily Mail [London, England] 12 May 1915: 4. Daily Mail Historical Archive, © Associated Newspapers Limited, Gale Document Number: EE1863131701

“How to Read the News” Daily Mail [London, England] 12 May 1915: 4. Daily Mail Historical Archive, © Associated Newspapers Limited, Gale Document Number: EE1863131701

Our Correspondent, "The Arbitration Treaties" Times [London, England] 5 Aug. 1911: 3. The Times Digital Archive, Gale Document Number: CS52493573

Our Correspondent, “The Arbitration Treaties” Times [London, England] 5 Aug. 1911: 3. The Times Digital Archive, Gale Document Number: CS52493573

"The Peace of Europe." Western Times [Exeter, England] 29 Sept. 1908: 4. British Library Newspapers Sourced from the British Library Gale Document Number: EN3220826017

“The Peace of Europe.” Western Times [Exeter, England] 29 Sept. 1908: 4. British Library Newspapers Sourced from the British Library Gale Document Number: EN3220826017

The Daily Mail continued to be an opinionated publication, even as peace crumbled and Britain began to face the harsh realities of ‘total war’ in the twentieth century. The paper campaigned for (amongst other things) better shrapnel helmets, more planes, and a ‘single-men first policy’ for conscription, and ended up playing a hugely influential role in the war. Most controversially, the Daily Mail publicly attacked Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, for his failure to order the right kinds of shells, leading to unnecessary casualties. ‘What we do know’, the paper wrote in 1915, ‘is that Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high-explosive shells’.

"The Tragedy of the Shells" Daily Mail [London, England] 21 May 1915: 4. Daily Mail Historical Archive (Also note use of the tagline stating that the Mail forewarned the public about the war.)

“The Tragedy of the Shells” Daily Mail [London, England] 21 May 1915: 4. Daily Mail Historical Archive
(Also note use of the tagline stating that the Mail forewarned the public about the war.)

Lord Kitchener was a decorated Field marshal and national hero, and open criticism of such an icon in the Daily Mail led to a furious response from the public and other newspapers. Colonel Maude’s article in The Sunday Times exemplified the views of many when he vigorously defended Kitchener – even making comparisons between the Daily Mail’s owner and the German Kaiser! The Times, with its habit of reporting speeches in Parliament verbatim, recorded the debates which followed in subsequent days, with John Dillon MP speaking for many when he stated that if attacks on a man such as Kitchener had been made in Ireland, the man responsible (i.e. the owner of the Daily Mail) ‘would be promptly put into gaol’.

Colonel F. N. Maude, C. B. "Lord Northcliffe's Attack on Lord Kitchener." Sunday Times [London, England] 23 May 1915: 11. The Sunday Times Digital Archive, 1822-2006

Colonel F. N. Maude, C. B. “Lord Northcliffe’s Attack on Lord Kitchener.” Sunday Times [London, England] 23 May 1915: 11. The Sunday Times Digital Archive, 1822-2006

"House of Commons." Times [London, England] 8 June 1915: 9+. The Times Digital Archive

“House of Commons.” Times [London, England] 8 June 1915: 9+. The Times Digital Archive

  The leadership of Field Marshal Douglas Haig has also been widely criticised, leading to the appellation ‘Butcher of the Somme’. There were undoubtedly some who expressed bitter sentiments against Haig, and other military leaders at the time. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘The General’, written in 1917, exemplifies the great acrimony that developed in the minds of some towards the highest tiers of military staff in the midst of the war.

A more widespread denouncement and understanding of the failings of Douglas Haig, however, has come largely in the decades since the war, rather than being expressed in the contemporary press. In fact, we can see in The Telegraph Historical Archive that during the war, the paper championed – and acted as a mouthpiece for – Haig, printing numerous reports written by the General. For example, along with others such as The Times, they printed Haig’s correspondence with the French General following part of the Somme offensive, which made it out to have been a great success.

D. Haig, "Sir D. Haig's Victory." Times 30 Sept. 1916: 7, The Times Digital Archive

D. Haig, “Sir D. Haig’s Victory.” Times 30 Sept. 1916: 7, The Times Digital Archive

Post-event analysis, however, has been far less supportive of the General. Many have placed the responsibility for the horrific slaughter of the Somme squarely on the shoulders of Haig. Judgement on this controversial figure is far from settled, however; our archives show passionate and conflicting judgements continue to be expressed by a variety of cultural commentators to the present day.

"Commander Under Fire." Times 2 May 1963: 15. The Times Digital Archive

“Commander Under Fire.” Times 2 May 1963: 15. The Times Digital Archive

John Elliot, "In Fairness to Haig." Daily Telegraph 25 Apr. 1963: 20. The Telegraph Historical Archive

John Elliot, “In Fairness to Haig.” Daily Telegraph 25 Apr. 1963: 20. The Telegraph Historical Archive

Seán Day-Lewis, "History, Haig and human sacrifice." Daily Telegraph 4 July 1996: 29, The Telegraph Historical Archive

Seán Day-Lewis, “History, Haig and human sacrifice.” Daily Telegraph 4 July 1996: 29, The Telegraph Historical Archive

"Haig: highs and lows." Times 7 Aug. 2008: 26. The Times Digital Archive

“Haig: highs and lows.” Times 7 Aug. 2008: 26. The Times Digital Archive

Andrew Wilson, "Has history misjudged the Butcher of the Somme?" Weekend. Daily Mail 21 Feb. 1998: 15. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004

Andrew Wilson, “Has history misjudged the Butcher of the Somme?” Weekend. Daily Mail 21 Feb. 1998: 15. Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1896-2004

Nb. Some of the content explored here previously appeared in our NewsVault Case Studies.