John’s WWI blog: “Out of my way you drunken swabs”

Former Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the 1914 Market Harborough Advertiser. '(MAIL PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER)
Former Harborough Mail editor John Dilley with a copy of the 1914 Market Harborough Advertiser. '(MAIL PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER)

June 8, 1915: “Out of my way you drunken swabs,” is how Lord Kitchener, Britain’s War Secretary greeted a swarm of journalists in 1898 in the Sudan while trying avenge the death of General Gordon at Khartoum.

That’s how long ago the poster boy of the Army call-up campaign had hated reporters and it was one of the reasons censorship in the First World War was so vigorous.

The Defence of the Realm Act, which not only made it illegal to whistle or fly kites, and introduced shorter pub opening hours and British Summer Time, threw an enormous cloak over the news reporting of the conflict.

At the outbreak of war the Government established a Press Bureau ‘with the special brief to stop newspapers publishing anything that might help the enemy or undermine public morale’.

But as Jeremy Paxman says in his book Great Britain’s Great War, the Fleet Street journalists quickly named it the ‘Suppress Bureau’.

And so the reports from the Press Bureau, which were prominently attributed by small town editors, in papers like the Market Harborough Advertiser, always looked exactly as they were: Government propaganda.

As Paxman adds: “The Regional Press, which was able to avoid much of the government censorship, published remarkably accurate accounts of battlefield combat.”

Two reports in the June 8, 1915, edition of the Advertiser sum up this significant contradiction where local newspapers regularly scooped Fleet Street’s finest.

In a letter from the Front, one Harborian soldier – who is not named – describes life in the trenches in an extraordinarily blasé fashion.

“It is the same story, bullets and shells with the occasional bomb or grenade to relieve the monotony. It is amazing how close these can come without hurting you.”

He goes on: “When an advance comes it will be hell let loose. Fancy sitting for months in this trench warfare expecting every moment to be your last, for you very well know that the Germans are reasonably close and are delving in the earth towards you hoping to put you in the sky at the first opportunity.”

And he even gives his opinion on the outcome of the war, and certainly not in the patriotic tones of the Press Bureau. “The situation at present is like rubbing two pieces of stone together, and it is a question which piece lasts longest.”

And the story concludes with the somewhat unsurprising news that the Advertiser is not just read in the Market Harborough area, but makes its way over to Belgium and France too. The soldier says: “I always look for the Advertiser and it is always well read before we give it up to the men.” Now that’s a quote an editor from any era cannot afford to omit.

Compare the simple but intimate honesty of the article sourced from a local soldier and the one-dimensional report from Press Bureau headlined ‘Turkish Regiment wiped out in The Dardanelles’.

“Turkish prisoners who have recently arrived in Egypt say that the Ottoman losses in the fighting in the Gallipoli Peninsula have been terribly heavy. The 20th Regiment was almost annihilated, its colonel alone of its officers escaping death or capture.”

This report may have been true but it certainly did not encapsulate the full picture which we now know to have been disastrous for the Allies, who eventually withdrew towards the end of the year without victory but with a huge loss of life.