- Philip Gibbs
- 1877 - 1962
- Fleet Street's Finest War Correspondent
Five Years on the Western Front : a Memoir by Philip Gibbs
- left : Philip Gibbs at work in 1916
- right : a drawing made from a sketch by Philip Gibbs in 1914
Fleet Street in the days before the declaration of war was like the nerve center of the nation's psychology, and throbbed with all the emotions of fear, hysteria, incredulity, and patriotic fever, deadened at times by a kind of intellectual stupor, which took possession of her people.
It was self-convicted of stupendous ignorance. None of those leader writers, who for years had written with an immense assumption of knowledge, had revealed this imminence of the world conflict. Some of them had played a game of party politics with "the German menace," and had used it as a stick for their political opponents. The Daily Mail, favoring a big navy, and more capital ships, had led the chorus of "We want eight and we won't wait." The Daily News, favoring disarmament, had denied the existence of any aggressive spirit in Germany. According to the political color of the newspapers, Liberal or Tory, the question of German relations had been written up by the leader writers and news had been carefully selected by the foreign news editors. But the public had never been given any clear or authoritative guidance; they had never been warned by the press as a whole, rising above the political game, that the very life of the nation was in jeopardy, and that all they had and were would be challenged to the death. Murder trials, suffragette raids, divorce court news, the social whirligig, the passionate folly in Ireland, had been the stuff with which the press had fed the public mind to the very eve of this crash into the abyss of horror.
Even now, when war was certain, the press said, "It is impossible!" as indeed the nation did, in its little homes, because their imagination refused to admit the possibility of that monstrous cataclysm. And when war was declared, the press said, "It will be over in three months." Indeed, men I knew in Fleet Street, old colleagues of mine, said, "It will be over in three weeks!" Their theory seemed to be that Germany had gone mad and that with England, France, and Russia attacking on all sides, she would collapse like a pricked bladder.
Looking back on that time, I find a little painful amusement in the thought of our immeasurable ignorance as to the meaning of modern warfare. We knew just nothing about its methods or machinery, nor about its immensity of range and destruction.
After the first shock and stupor, news editors began to get busy, as though this war were going to be like the South-African affair, remote, picturesque, and romantic. They appointed a number of correspondents to "cover" the various fronts. They engaged, press photographers and cinema men. War correspondents of the old school, like Bennett Burleigh, H. W. Nevinson, and Frederick Villiers, called at the War Office for their credentials, collected their kit, and took riding exercise in the Park, believing that they would need horses in this war on the western front, as great generals dear simple souls believed that cavalry could ride through German trenches.
The War Office kept a little group of distinguished old-time war correspondents kicking their heels in waiting rooms of Whitehall, week after week, and month after month, always with the promise that wonderful arrangements would be made for them "shortly." Meanwhile, and at the very outbreak of war, a score of younger journalists, without waiting for War Office credentials, and disobeying War Office orders, dashed over to France and Belgium, and plunged into the swirl and backwash of this frightful drama. Some of them had astounding and perilous adventures, in sheer ignorance, at first, of the hazards they took, but it was not long before they understood and knew, with a shock that changed their youthful levity of adventure into the gravity of men who have looked into the flames of hell, and the torture chamber of human agony. Henceforth, between them and those who had not seen, there was an impassable gulf of understanding.
Owing to the rigid refusal of the War Office, under Lord Kitchener's orders, to give any official credentials to correspondents, the British press, as hungry for news as the British public whose little professional army had disappeared behind a deathlike silence, printed any scrap of description, any glimmer of truth, any wild statement, rumor, fairy tale, or deliberate lie, which reached them from France or Belgium; and it must be admitted that the liars had a great time.
A vast amount of lying was done by newspaper men who accepted the official statements of French Ministers, hiding the frightful truth of the German advance. It was an elaboration of the French communiqués which in the first weeks of the war were devoid of truth. But a great deal of imaginative lying was accomplished by young journalists, who at Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk, Ghent, or Paris, invented marvelous adventures of their own, exaggerated affairs of outposts into stupendous battles, and defeated the Germans time and time again in verbal victories, while the German war machine was driving like a knife into the hearts of Belgium and France.
Reading the English newspapers in those early days of the war, with their stories of starving Germany, their atrocity-mongering, their wild perversions of truth, a journalist proud of his profession must blush for shame at its degradation and insanity. Its excuse and defense lie in the psychological storm that the war created in the soul of humanity, from which Fleet Street itself very human did not escape ; in the natural agony of desire to find some reason for hopefulness ; in the patriotic necessity of preventing despair from overwhelming popular opinion in the first shock of the enemy's advance ; and in the desperate anxiety of all men and women whose heritage and liberties were at stake, to get some glimpse behind the heavy shutters of secrecy that had been slammed down by military censorship.
I was one of those who did not wait for official permits, and plunged straightway into the vortex of the war game. In self-defense I must plead that I was not one of the liars ! I did not manufacture atrocities, and had some temperamental difficulty in believing those that were true, because I believed in the decency of the common man, even in the decency of the German common man. I did not invent imaginary adventures, but found tragedy enough, and drama enough, in the things I saw, and the truth that I found. As I had two companions most of the time in those early days, whose honor is acknowledged by all who know them H. M. Tomlinson and W. M. Massey their evidence supported my own articles which, like theirs, revealed something to our people of the enormous history that was happening.
Strangely, as it now seems to me, I was appointed artist correspondent to The Graphic, as I had been in the Bulgarian war, and I actually made some sketches of French mobilization and preparations for war, which were redrawn and published. But my old paper, The Daily Chronicle, desired my services and I changed over to them, and abandoned the pencil for the pen, with The Graphic's consent, a few days after the declaration of war.
I had crossed over to Paris on the night the reservists had been called to the colors in England, although so far war had not been declared by England or France. But the fleet was cleared for action, and ready, and that night destroyers were out in the English Channel and their searchlights swept our packet boat where groups of Frenchmen who had been clerks, hairdressers, and shop assistants in England were singing "The Marseillaise" with a kind of religious ecstasy, while in the saloon a party of Lancashire lads were getting fuddled and promising themselves "a good time" on a week-end trip to Paris, utterly unconscious of war and its realities.
In The Daily Chronicle office in Paris, where I had done night duty so often, my friend and colleague, Henri Bourdin, was white to the lips with nervous emotion, and constantly answered telephonic inquiries from French journalists: "Is England coming in? Nothing official, eh? Is it certain England will come in? You think so? Name of God! why doesn't England say the word?"
It was the consuming thought in all French minds. They were desperate for an answer to their questions. Because of the delay, Paris was suspicious, angry, ready for an outbreak of passion against the English tourists, who were besieging the railway stations, and against English journalists, who were in a fever of anxiety.
French mobilization posters
I saw the unforgetable scenes of mobilization in Paris, which made one's very heart weep with the tragedy of those partings between men and women, who clung to each other and kissed for the last time so many of them for the last time and on the night of August 2nd I went with the first trainload of reservists to Belfort, Toul, and Nancy. All through the night, at every station in which the train stopped, there was the sound of marching men, and the song of "The Marseillaise":
"Formez vos bataillons!"
The youth of France was trooping from the fields and workshops, not in ignorance of the sacrifice to which they were called, not light- heartedly, but with a simple and splendid devotion to their country which now, in remembrance, after the years of massacre and of disillusion, still fills me with emotion.
I do not intend here to give a narrative oi my own experiences of war. I have written them elsewhere, and what do they matter, anyhow, in those years when millions of men faced death daily and passed through an adventure of life beyond all power of imagination of civilized men? I will rather deal with the subject of the Press in war, and with the peculiar difficulties and work of the correspondents, especially in the early days.
For the first few months of the war we had no status whatever. Indeed, to be quite plain, we were outlaws, subject to immediate arrest (and often arrested) by any officer, French or British, who discovered us in the war zone. Kitchener refused to sanction the scheme, which had been fully prepared before the war, for the appointment of a small body of war correspondents whose honor and reputation were acknowledged, and gave orders that any journalist found in the field of war should be instantly expelled and have his passport canceled. The French were even more severe, and sent out stern orders from their General Headquarters for the arrest of any journalist found trespassing in the zone of war.
For some time, however, it was impossible to enforce these rules. The German advance through Belgium and Northern France was only a day or two, or an hour or two behind the stampede of vast populations in flight from the enemy. The roads were filled with these successive tides of refugees. The trains were stormed by panic- stricken folk, and even the troop trains found room in the corridors and on the roofs for swarms of civilians, men and women. Dressed in civilian clothes, unshaved and unwashed, like any of these people, how could a correspondent be distinguished or arrested? Who was going to bother about him? Even the spy mania which seized France very quickly and feverishly did not create, for some time, a network of restriction close enough to catch us. I traveled for weeks in the war zone on a pass stamped by French headquarters, permitting me to receive the daily communiqué from the War Office in Paris. I had dozens of other passes and permis de séjour from local authorities and police, which enabled me to travel with perfect facility, provided I was able to bluff the military guards at the railway stations, who were generally satisfied with those bunches of dirty passes and official- looking stamps. There was, too, a dual control in France, and a divergence of views regarding war correspondents. The civil authorities prefects, mayors, and police favored our presence, desired to let us know the suffering and heroism of their people, and welcomed us with every courtesy, because we were English and their allies. Often they turned a blind eye to military commands, or were ignorant of the orders against us.
Massey, Tomlinson, and I, working together in close comradeship, in those first weeks of war, traveled in Northern France and Belgium with what now seems to me an amazing freedom. We were caught up in the tide of flight from French and Belgian cities. We saw the retreat of the French army through Amiens, from which city we escaped only a short time before the entry of Von Kluck's columns. We came into the midst of the British retreat at Creil, where Sir John French had set up his headquarters; mingled with the crowds of English and Scottish stragglers, French infantry and engineers, who were falling back on Paris, before the spearheads of the German invasion, with a world of tragedy behind them, yet with a faith in victory that was mysterious and sublime. We had no knowledge of the enemy's whereabouts and set out in simple ignorance for towns already in German hands, or alighted at stations threatened with immediate capture. So it was at Beauvais, where we were the only passengers in a train that pulled over a bridge where a cuirassier stood by bags of dynamite ready to blow it up, and where the last of the civilian population had trudged away from streets strewn with broken glass. Only by a strange spell of luck did we escape capture by the enemy, toward whose line we went, partly in ignorance of the enormous danger, partly with foolhardy deliberation, and always drugged with desire to see and know the worst or the best of this frightful drama.
We were often exhausted with fatigue. On the day we came into a deserted Paris, stricken with an agony of apprehension that the Germans would enter, I had to be carried to bed by Tomlinson and Massey, as helpless as a child. A few days later, Massey, a strong man till then, but now ashen-faced and weak, could not drag one leg after another. We had worn down our nervous strength to what seemed like the last strand, yet we went on again, in the wagons of troop trains, sleeping in corridors, the baggage rooms of railway stations, or carriages crammed with French poilus, who told narratives of war with a simplicity and realism that froze one's blood.
We followed up the German retreat from the Marne, when the bodies of the dead were being buried in heaps and the fields were littered with the wreckage of battle, and then went north to Dunkirk, bombed every day by German aeroplanes, but crowded with French fusiliers, marins, Arabs, British aviators of the Royal Navy, and Belgian refugees. Here I parted for a time with Massey and Tomlinson, and in a brief experience as a stretcher bearer with an ambulance column attached to the Belgian army, saw into the flaming heart of war, at Dixmude, Nieuport, and other places, where I became familiar with the sight of death, dirty with the blood of wounded men, and sick with the agony of this human shambles a story which I have told in my book, The Soul of the War.
Other men, old friends of mine in Fleet Street, were having similar adventures, taking the same, or greater, hazards, dodging the military authorities with more or less luck. Hamilton Fyfe, then of The Daily Mail and now editor of The Daily Herald, was caught in a motor car by a patrol of German Uhlans, and only escaped becoming a prisoner of war by an amazing freak of fortune. George Curnock, also of The Daily Mail, was arrested by the French as a spy, and very nearly shot. A little group of correspondents among them Ashmead Bartlett were flung into the Cherche Midi prison and treated for a time like common criminals. I happened to fall into conversation with a French officer, who had actually arrested them. He was strongly suspicious of me, and asked whether I knew these gentlemen, all of whose names he had in his pocket book. I admitted that I had heard of one or two of them by repute, and expected to be arrested on the spot. But this officer had been French master at an English public school and was anxious, for some reason, to get an uncensored letter to the head master. I told him I was going to England, and offered to take it. ... I was not arrested that time.
Another adventurer was young Lucian Jones, son of the famous playwright, Henry Arthur Jones. He made frequent trips to the Belgian front and was one of the last to leave Antwerp after the siege, which was not a pleasant adventure when heavy shells smashed the houses on every side of him. As he made no disguise whatever of his profession and purpose, he was sent back to England and forbidden to show his face again. He took the next boat back, and was again arrested and flung into a dirty prison. His editor, who received word of his plight, sent a message to General Bridges, asking for his release, and obtained the brusque answer, "Let the fellow rot!" only it was a stronger word than "fellow."
One great difficulty we had in those days was to get our messages back to our newspapers. Sometimes we intrusted them to any chance acquaintance who was making his way to England. Several times we had to get back to the coast, in those terrible refugee trains, to bribe some purser on a cross-Channel steamer. When that became too dangerous because it was strictly forbidden by the military and naval authorities we made the journey to London, handed in our messages, and hurried back again the same day to France. The mental state of our newspaper colleagues exasperated us. They seemed to have no understanding whatever of what was happening on the other side, no conception of that world of agony. "Had a good time?" asked a sub-editor, hurrying along the corridor with proofs and I wanted to choke him, because of his placid unconsciousness of the things that had seared my eyes and soul.
I could not bear to talk with men who still said, "It will be over in three months," and who still believed that war was a rather jolly, romantic adventure, and that our little professional army was more than a match for the Germans who were arrant cowards and no better than sheep. In Fleet Street, at that time, there was no vision of what war meant to the women of France and Belgium, to the children of the refugees, to the mothers and fathers of the fighting men. It had not touched us closely in those first weeks of war.
My vexation was great one morning, after one of these journeys home, when I missed the train to Dover, and my good comrades Massey and Tomlinson by just a minute. Perhaps I should never see them again. They would be lost in the vortex.
"Take a special train," said my wife.
The idea startled me, not having the mentality or resources of a millionaire.
"It's worth it," said my wife, who is a woman of big ideas.
I turned to the station master, who was standing at the closed gates of the continental platform.
"How long would it take you to provide a special train?"
"No longer than it would take you to pay over the money."
I consulted my wife again with raised eyebrows, and she nodded.
I went into a little office, half undressed, and pulled out of my belt a pile of French gold pieces. By the time they had been counted and a receipt given no more than three minutes there was a train with an engine and three carriages, a driver and a guard, ready for me on the line to Dover. My small boy (as he was then) gazed in awe and admiration at the magic trick. I waved to him as the train went off with me. I was signaled all down the line, and in the stations we passed porters and officials stared and saluted as the train flashed by. Doubtless they thought I was a great general going to win the war ! At Dover I was only one minute behind the express I had lost. Massey and Tomlinson were pacing the platform disconsolately at the loss of their comrade. They could not believe their eyes when I walked up and said "Hello!" So we went back to a new series of adventures.
I used with success, three times running, another method of getting my "dispatches" to Fleet Street. After the third time some intuition told me to change the plan. At that time, as all through the war, a number of King's messengers mostly men of high rank and reputation traveled continually between British G.H.Q. and the War Office, with private documents from the Commander-in-Chief. Three times did I accost one of these officers a different man each time in an easy and confidential manner.
"Are you going back to Whitehall, Sir?"
"Yes. What can I do for you?"
"I shall be much obliged if you will put this letter in your bag, and deliver it at the War Office."
"Certainly, my dear fellow !"
My letter was addressed to The Dally Chronicle, care of the War Office, and, much to the surprise of my editor, was punctually delivered, by a War-Office messenger. But my intuition was right. After the third time the editor of The Daily Chronicle received word from the War Office that if Gibbs sent any more of his articles by King's messenger, they would be destroyed.
The method of delivery became easier afterward, because the newspapers organized a series of their own couriers between England and France, and that system served until the whole courier service was rounded up and forbidden to set foot in France again.
It was amazing that my articles, and those of my fellow correspondents, were allowed to appear in the newspapers, in spite of military prohibition. But the press censorship, which had been set up by the government under the control of F. E. Smith, now Lord Birkenhead, was not under direct military authority, and was much more tolerant of correspondents who evaded military regulations. I wrote scores of columns during the first few months of the war, mostly of a descriptive character, and very few lines were blacked out by the censors. So far from being in the black books of the press censorship as established at that time, I was sent for by F. E. Smith, who thanked me for my narratives and promised to give personal attention to any future dispatches I might send. This was at the very time when Kitchener himself gave orders for my arrest, after reading a long article of mine from the Belgian front.
I was also received several times by Sir William Tyrrell, Secretary to the Foreign Office, who questioned me about my knowledge of the situation and begged me to call on him whenever I came back, although he knew that orders had been given to cancel my passport and that I was in the black book, for immediate arrest, at any port. It was Sir William Tyrrell, indeed, who, with great kindness provided me with a new passport after I had fallen into very hot water indeed.
It was F. E. Smith who read, approved, and even strengthened by a phrase or two, a sensational dispatch written by my friend Hamilton Fyfe and a colleague named Moore, which revealed for the first time to the British nation the terrible ordeal and sacrifice of the little Regular Army in the retreat from Mons. It was too sensational, perhaps, in its account of "broken divisions," and "remnants of battalions"; and its tone was too tragic and despairing, so that there was one black Sunday in England which will never be forgotten by those who lived through it, because there seemed no hope for the British Army, or for France.
As it happened, Massey, Tomlinson, and I had covered the same ground as Fyfe and his companion, had seen the same things, and had agonized with the same apprehension. But owing largely, as I must honestly and heartily say, to the cool judgment and fine faith of Tomlinson, our deduction from those facts and the spirit of what we wrote was far more optimistic and future history proved us to be right so that they helped to restore confidence in England and Scotland, when they appeared on Monday morning, following Fyfe's terrible dispatch.
But Fyfe did a great service to the nation and the Allies, by the truth he told, somewhat overcolored as it was. It awakened Great Britain from its false complacency. It revealed to the nation, for the first time, the awful truth that our little Regular Army, magnificent as it was, could not withstand the tremendous weight of the German advance on the left flank of the French, was not sufficient to turn the scales of victory in favor of France, and was in desperate need of reinforcements from the untrained manhood at home. It shook the spirit of England like an earthquake, and brought it face to face with the menace of its life and liberties. For if France went down, we should follow. The recruiting booths were stormed by the young manhood of England and Scotland, who had not joined up because they had believed that myth: "The war will be over in three months."
There was tremendous anger in the War Office at the publication of that article by Fyfe and Moore, and F. E. Smith, as the press censor, was severely compromised.
The truth was that the military mind was obsessed with the necessity of fighting this war "our war" as the regulars called it in the dark, while the nonmilitary mind knew that such a policy was impossible, and might be disastrous, in a war costing such a frightful sum of life, and putting such a strain upon the nation's heart and spirit.
Philip Gibbs (in car) with his friend and colleague Hamilton Fyfe (right)
Looking back on my experiences as an unauthorized correspondent in that early part of the war, I must confess now that I was hardly justified in evading military law, and that I might have been found guilty, justly, of a serious crime against the Allied cause. By some frightful indiscretion (which I did not commit) I or any other of those correspondents might have endangered the position of our troops, or the French army, by giving information useful to the enemy.
The main fault, however, lay with the War Office, and especially with Lord Kitchener, whose imagination did not realize that this war could not be fought in the dark, as some little affair with Indian hillmen on the northwest frontier. The immense anxiety of the nation, with its army fighting behind the veil while the fate of civilization hung in the balance, could not and would not be satisfied with the few lines of official communiques which told nothing and hid the truth.
Gradually the net was drawn tighter, until, in the first months of 1915, it was impossible for any correspondent to travel in the war zone without arrest. I had come home to get a change of kit, as my clothes were caked with blood and mud, after supporting wounded men in Belgium. It was then that I heard of Kitchener's orders for my arrest and was greeted with surprise and apprehension by Robert Donald and the staff of The Daily Chronicle, who had sent over two messengers (who had never reached me) to warn me of my peril.
Next time I went to France I was provided with wonderful credentials as a special commissioner of the British Red Cross, with instructions to report on the hospital and medical needs of the army in the field. These documents were signed by illustrious names, and covered with red seals. I was satisfied they would pass me to any part of the front. ... I was arrested before I left the boat at Havre and taken by two detectives to General Williams, the camp commander. He raged at me with an extreme violence of language, took possession of my passport and credentials, and put me under open arrest at the Hotel Tortoni, in charge of six detectives. Here I remained for ten days or so, unable to communicate my ignominious situation to the authorities of the Red Cross, upon whose authority I had come. Fortunately I became good friends with the detectives, who were excellent fellows, and with whom I used to have my meals. It was by the kindness of one of them that I was able to send through a message to the editor of The Daily Chronicle, and shortly afterward General Williams graciously permitted me to return to England.
It looked as though my career as a war correspondent had definitely closed. I had violated every regulation. I had personally angered Lord Kitchener. I was on the black books of the detectives at every port, and General Williams solemnly warned me that if I returned to France, I would be put up against a white wall, with unpleasant consequences.
Strange as it appears, the military authorities blotted out my sins when at last they appointed five official war correspondents with a recognized status in the British armies on the Western Front. No longer did I have to dodge staff officers, and disguise myself as a refugee. In khaki, with a green armlet denoting my service, I could face generals, and even the Commander-in-Chief himself, without a quiver, and with my four comrades was recognized as an officer and a gentleman, with some reservations.
a number of official British reporters
The appointment and work of five official war correspondents (of whom I was one from first to last) caused an extraordinary amount of perturbation at British General Headquarters. Staff officers of the old Regular Army were at first exceedingly hostile to the idea, and to us. They were deeply suspicious that we might be dirty dogs who would reveal military secrets which would imperil the British front. They had a conviction that we were "prying around" for no good purpose, and would probably "give away the whole show."
Fear, personal and professional, was in the minds of some of the generals, it is certain. We found that many of the regulations to which we were subject until we broke them down were much more to safeguard the reputation and cover up the mistakes of the High Command than to prevent the enemy from having information which might be of use to him. They were afraid of the British public, of politicians, and of newspapers, and were profoundly uneasy lest we should dig up scandals, raise newspaper sensations, and cause infernal trouble generally.
I can quite sympathize with their nervousness, for if newspapers had adopted ordinary journalistic methods of sensation mongering, the position of the Army Command would have been intolerable. But this must be said for the newspaper press in the Great War whatever its faults, and they were many proprietors and editors subordinated everything to a genuine and patriotic desire to "play the game," to support the army, and to avoid any criticism or controversy which might hamper the military chiefs or demoralize the nation.
As far as the five war correspondents were concerned, we had no other desire than to record the truth as fully as possible without handing information to the enemy, and to describe the life and actions of our fighting men so that the nation and the world should understand their valor, their suffering, and their achievement. We identified ourselves absolutely with the armies in the field, and we wiped out of our minds all thought of personal "scoops," and all temptation to write one word which would make the task of officers and men more difficult or dangerous. There was no need of censorship of our dispatches. We were our own censors.
That couldn't be taken for granted, however, by G.H.Q. They were not sure at first of our mentality or our honor. The old tradition of distrust between the army and the rest was very strong until the New Army came into being, with officers who had not passed through Sandhurst but through the larger world. They were so nervous of us in those- early days that they appointed a staff of censors to live with us, travel with us, sleep with us, read our dispatches with a mass of rules for their guidance, and examine our private correspondence to our wives, if need be with acid tests, to discover any invisible message we might try to smuggle through.
We had to suffer many humiliations in that way, but fortunately we had a sense of humor and laughed at most of them. Gradually also very quickly indeed we made friends with many generals and officers commanding divisions, brigades, and battalions, broke down their distrust, established confidence. They were surprised to find us decent fellows, and pleased with what we wrote about the men. They became keen to see us in their trenches or their headquarters. They wanted to show us their particular "peepshows," they invited us to see special "stunts." Their first hostility evaporated, and was replaced by cordial welcome, and they laughed with us, and sometimes cursed with us, at the continued restrictions of G.H.Q., which forbade the mention of battalions and brigades (well known to the enemy) whose heroic exploits we described.
For some time G.H.Q., represented by General Macdonagh, Chief of Intelligence, under whose orders we were, maintained a narrow view of our liberties in narration and description. Hardly a week passed without some vexatious rule to cramp our style by prohibiting the mention of facts far better known to the Germans than to the British, whose men were suffering and dying without their own folk knowing the action in which their sacrifice was consummated.
The heavy hand of the censorship fell with special weight upon us during the battle of Loos. General Macdonagh himself used the blue pencil ruthlessly, and I had no less than forty pages of manuscript deleted by his own hand from my descriptive account. Again it seemed to us that the guiding idea behind the censorship was, to conceal the truth not from the enemy, but from the nation, in defense oi the British High Command and its tragic blundering. That was in September of 1915, and we became aware at that time that the man most hostile to our work was not Sir John French, the Commander-in- Chief, but Sir Douglas Haig, at that time in command of the First Corps. He drew a line around his own zone of operations beyond which we were forbidden to go, and the message which conveyed his order to us was not couched in conciliatory language. It was withdrawn under the urgent pressure of our immediate chiefs, and I was allowed to go to the Loos redoubt during the progress of the battle, with John Buchan who had come out temporarily on behalf of The Times.
The tragic slaughter at Loos, its reckless and useless waste of life, its abominable staff work, and certain political intrigues at home, led to the recall of Sir John French and the succession of Sir Douglas Haig as Commander-in-Chief.
For a time we believed that our doom was sealed, knowing his strong prejudice against us, and in the first interview we had with him, he did not conceal his contempt for our job. But with his new responsibility he was bound to take notice of the increasing demand from the British government and people for more detailed accounts of British actions and of the daily routine of war. It became even an angry demand, and Sir Douglas Haig yielded to its insistence. From that time onward we were given full liberty of movement over the whole front, and full and complete privileges, never before accorded to war correspondents, to see the army reports during the progress of battle, and day by day; while Army Corps, Divisions, and Battalion headquarters were instructed to show us their intelligence and operation reports and to give us detailed information of any action on their part of the front.
The new Chief of Intelligence, General Charteris, who succeeded General Macdonagh, devoted a considerable amount of time to our little unit, and in many ways, with occasional tightening of the reins, was broad-minded in his interpretation of the censorship regulations. It may be truly said that never before in history was a great war, or any war, so accurately and fully reported day by day for at least three years, subject to certain reservations which were abominably vexatious and tended to depress the spirit of the troops and to arouse the suspicion of the nation.
The chief reservations were the ungenerous and unfair way in which the names of particular battalions were not allowed to be mentioned, and the suppression of the immense losses incurred by the troops. The last restriction was necessary. It would be disastrous in the course of a battle to give information to the enemy (who read all our newspapers) of the exact damage he had done at a particular part of the line. Nothing would be more valuable to an attacking army than that knowledge. In due course the losses became known to the nation by the publication of the casualty lists, so that it was only a temporary concealment.
With regard to the mention of battalions, I am still convinced that there was needless secrecy in that respect, as nine times out of ten the German Intelligence was aware of what troops were in front of them, along all sectors. Scores of times, also, mention was made of the Canadians and Australians, where no reference was permitted to English, Scottish, Irish, or Welsh battalions, so that the English especially, who from first to last formed sixty-eight per cent of the total fighting strength, and did most fighting and most dying, in all the great battles, were ignored in favor of their comrades from overseas. To this day many people in Canada and the United States believe that the Canadians bore the brunt of all the fighting, while Tommy Atkins looked on at a safe distance. The Australians have the same simple faith about their own crowd. But splendid beyond words as these men were, it is poor old Tommy Atkins of the English counties, and Jock, his Scottish cousin, who held the main length of the line, took most of the hard knocks, and fought most actions, big and little. Anybody who denies that is a liar.
Our victory over the censorship, and over the narrow and unimaginative prejudice of elderly staff officers, was due in no small measure to the censors. That may sound like a paradox, but it is the simple truth. I have already said that each correspondent had a censor attached to him, a kind of jailer and spy, eating, sleeping, walking, and driving. Blue pencil in hand, they read our dispatches, slip by slip, as they were written, and our letters to our wives, our aunts, or our grandmothers. But these men happened to be gentlemen, and broad-minded men of the world, and they very quickly became our most loyal friends and active allies.
They saw the absurdity of many of the regulations laid down for their guidance in censoring our accounts, and they did their best to interpret them in a free and easy way, or to have them repealed, if there was no loophole of escape. Always they turned a blind eye, whenever possible, to a vexatious and niggling rule, and several of them risked their jobs, and lost them, in putting up a stiff resistance to some new and ridiculous order from G.H.Q. They went with us to the front, and shared our fatigues and our risks, and smoothed the way for us everywhere by tact and diplomacy and personal guarantees of our good sense and honor.
The first group of censors who were attached to our little organization were as good as we could have wished if we had had a free choice of the whole British Army.
Our immediate chief was a very noble and charming man. That was Colonel Stuart, a regular soldier of the old school, simple-hearted, brave as a lion, courteous and kind. He led us into many dirty places and tested our courage in front-line trenches, mine shafts, and bombarded villages, with a smiling unconcern which at least taught us to hide any fear that lurked in our hearts, as I freely confess it very often did in mine. He was killed one day by a sniper's bullet, and we mourned the loss of a very gallant gentleman.
Attached to us, under his command, was an extraordinary fellow, and splendid type, famous in the two worlds of sport and letters by name of Hesketh Prichard. Many readers will know his name as the author of The Adventures of Don Q., Where Black Rules White, and other books. He was a big game hunter, a great cricketer, and an all-round sportsman, and he stood six foot four in his stockings, a long lean Irishman, with a powerful, deeply lined face, an immense nose, a whimsical mouth, and moody, restless, humorous, tragic eyes. He hated the war with a deadly loathing, because of its unceasing slaughter of that youth which he loved, his old comrades in the playing fields and his comrades' sons. Often he would come down in the morning, when the casualty lists were long, with eyes red after secret weeping. He had a morbid desire to go to dangerous places and to get under fire, because he could not bear the thought of remaining alive and whole while his pals were dying.
Often he would unwind his long legs, spring out of his chair, and say, "Gibbs, old boy, for Gods sake let's go and have a prowl round Ypres, or see what's doing Dickebush way." There was always something doing in the way of high explosive shells, and once, when my friend Tomlinson and I were with Prichard in the ruin of the Grand Place in Ypres, a German aeroplane skimmed low above our heads and thought it worth while to bomb our little lonely group. Perhaps it was Hesketh's G.H.Q. arm-band which caught the eye of the German aviator. We sprawled under the cover of ruined masonry, and lay "doggo" until the bird had gone. But there was always the chance of death in every square yard of Ypres, because it was shelled ceaselessly, and that was why Hesketh went there with any companion who would join him and his choice fell mostly on me.
He left us before the battles of the Somme, to become chief sniper of the British army. With telescopic sights, and many tricks of Red Indian warfare, he lay in front-line trenches or camouflaged trees, and waited patiently, as in the old days he had lain waiting for wild beasts, until a German sniper showed his head to take a shot at one of our men. He never showed his head twice when Hesketh Prichard was within a thousand yards.
Then Prichard organized sniping schools all along the front, until we beat the Germans at their own game in that way of warfare.
He survived the war, but not with his strength and activity. Some "bug" in the trenches had poisoned his blood, and when I saw him last he lay, a gaunt wreck, in the garden of his home near St. Albans, where his father-in-law was Earl of Verulam Francis Bacon's old title. In a letter he had written to me was the tragic phrase, "Quantum mutatus ab illo" How changed from what once he was! and as I looked at him, I was shocked at that change. The shadow of death was on him, though his beautiful wife tried to hide it from him, and from herself, by a splendid laughing courage that masked her pity and fear. He was a victim of the war, though he lived until the peace.
Another man who was attached to the war correspondent's unit in that early part of the war was Colonel Faunthorpe, famous in India as a hunter of tigers he had shot sixty-two in the jungle and as a cavalry officer, pigsticker, judge, and poet. When, after the war, Faunthorpe went for a time to the British Embassy in Washington (making frequent visits to New York), American society welcomed him as the Englishman whom they had been taught to expect and had never yet seen. Here he was at last, as he is known in romance and legend tall, handsome, inscrutable, with a monocle, a marvelous, gift of silence, a quiet, deep, hardly revealed sense of humor, and a fine gallantry of manner to pretty women and ugly ones. He left a trail of tender recollection and humorous remembrance from New York to San Francisco.
Faunthorpe, behind his mask of the typical cavalry officer, had (and has), as I quickly perceived, a subtle mind, a lively sense of irony, and a most liberal outlook on life. He had a quiet contempt (not always sufficiently disguised) for the limited intelligence of G.H.Q. (or of some high officers therein), he was open in his ridicule of journalists in general and some war correspondents in particular, and he regarded his own job in the war, as censor and controller of photographs, as one of the inexplicable jests of fate. But he stood by us manfully in a time of crisis when, at the beginning of a series of battles, a venerable old gentleman, an "ancient" of prehistoric mind, was suddenly produced from some lair in G.H.Q., and given supreme authority over military censorship, which he instantly used by canceling all the privileges we had won by so much work and struggle.
With the Colonel's full consent, we went "on strike" and said the war could go on without us, as we would not write a single word about the impending battles until all the new restrictions were removed. This ultimatum shocked G.H.Q. to its foundations or at least the Intelligence side of it. After twenty-four hours of obstinate command, the ancient one was sent back to his lair, our privileges were restored, but Colonel Faunthorpe was made the scapegoat of our rebellion, and deposed from his position as our chief.
We deplored his departure, for he had been great and good to us. One quality of his was a check to our restlessness, nervousness, and irritability in the wear and tear of this strange life. He had an infinite reserve of patience. When there was "nothing doing" he slept, believing, as he said, in the "conservation of energy." He slept always in the long motor drives which we made in our daily routine of inquiry and observation. He slept like a babe under shell fire, unless activity of command were required, and once awakened to find high explosive shells bursting around his closed car, which he had parked in the middle of a battlefield, while his driver was painfully endeavoring to hide his body behind a mud bank. Colonel Faunthorpe is now "misgoverning the unfortunate Indians" it is his own phrase as Commissioner at Lucknow, with command of life and death over millions of natives whom he understands as few men now alive.
India was well represented in the group of censors attached to our organization, for we had two other Indian officials with us Captains Reynolds and Coldstream, both men of high education, great charm of character, and unfailing sense of humor. For Reynolds I had a personal affection as a wise, friendly, and humorous soul, with whom I tramped in many strange places where death went ravaging, always encouraged by his cool disregard of danger, his smiling contempt for any show of fear.
Coldstream was a little Pucklike man, neat as a new pin, damnably ironical of war and war correspondents, whimsical, courteous, sulky at times, like a spoiled boy, and lovable. He is back in India, like Reynolds and Faunthorpe, helping to govern our Empire, and doing it well.
Our commanding officers and censors changed from time to time. It was a difficult and dangerous position to be O. C. war correspondents, for such a man was between two fires our own resentment (sometimes very passionate) of regulations hampering to our work, and the fright and anger of G.H.Q. if anything slipped through likely to create public criticism or to encourage the enemy, or to depress the spirit of the British people.
Colonel Hutton Wilson, who was our immediate chief for a time, was a debonair little staff officer with the narrow traditions of the Staff College and an almost childlike ignorance of the press, the public, and human life outside the boundaries of his professional experience, which was not wide. He was amiable, but irritating to most of my colleagues, with little vexatious ways. Personally I liked him, and I think he liked me, but he had a fixed idea that I was a rebel, and almost a Bolshevik. Later in the war he was succeeded by Colonel the Honorable Neville Lytton, the grandson of Bulwer Lytton, the great novelist, and the brother of the present Lord Lytton. Neville Lytton was, and is, a man of great and varied talent, as painter, musician, and diplomat. In appearance as well as in character he belongs to the eightenth century, with a humorous, whimsical face, touched by side whiskers, and a most elegant way with him. He is a gentleman of the old school (with a strain of the gypsy in his blood), who believes in "form" above all things, and the beau geste in all situations of life or in the presence of death. When I walked with him one day up the old duckboards under shell fire, he swung his trench stick with careless grace, made comical grimaces of contempt at the bursting shells, and said, "Gibbs, if we have to die, let's do it like gentlemen ! If we're afraid (as we are!) let's look extremely brave. A good pose is essential in life and war."
At the soul of him he was a Bohemian and artist. His room, wherever we were, was littered with sketches, sheets of music, poems in manuscript, photographs of his portraits of beautiful ladies. Whatever the agony of the war around us, he loved to steal away alone or with one of his assistant officers, my humorous friend Theodore Holland ("little Theo" and "Theo the Flower," as he called himself), well known as a composer, and play delightful little melodies from Bach and Gluck on an eighteenth-century flute.
In the early part of the war Lytton had served as a battalion officer in the trenches, with gallantry and distinction, and then was put in charge of a little group of French correspondents, whom he controlled with wonderful tact and good humor. He spoke French with the argot of Paris, and understood the French temperament and humor so perfectly that it was difficult to believe that he was not a Frenchman, when he was in the midst of his little crowd of excitable fellows who regarded him as a "bon garçon" and "un original," with such real affection that they were enraged when he was transferred to our command.
Another distinguished and unusual type of man one of the greatest "intellectuals" of England, though unknown to the general public joined us as assistant censor, halfway through the war. This was C. E. Montague, editor of The Manchester Guardian. At the outbreak of war he dyed his white hair black, enlisted as a "Tommy," served in the trenches, reached the rank of sergeant, and finally was blown up in a dugout. When he joined us he had taken the dye out of his hair again and it was snow-white, though he was not more than fifty years of age.
It was absurd for Montague to be censoring our dispatches, ordering our cars, looking after our mess, soothing our way with headquarter staffs, accompanying us as a silent observer to battlefields and trenches and "pill-boxes" and dugouts. He could have written any man of us "off our heads." He would have been the greatest war correspondent in the world. He writes such perfect prose that every sentence should be carved in marble or engraved on bronze. He had the eye of a hawk for small detail, and a most sensitive perception of truth and beauty lying deep below the surface of our human scene. Compared with Montague our censor hating his job, deeply contemptuous of our work, loathing the futility of all but the fighting men, with a secret revolt in his soul against the whole bloody business of war, yet with a cold white passion of patriotism (though Irish) we were pigmies, vulgarians, and shameless souls. His bitterness has been revealed in a book called Disenchantment very cruel to us, rather unfair to me, as he admits in a letter I have, but wonderful in its truth.
There was one other man who joined our organization as one of the censors, to whom I must pay a tribute of affection and esteem. This was a young fellow named Cadge, unknown to fame, always silent and sulky in his manner, but with a level head, a genius for doing exactly the right thing at the right time, and a secret sweetness and nobility of soul which kept our little "show" running on greased wheels and made him my good comrade in many adventures. Scores of time he and I went together into the dirty places, into the midst of the muck and ruin of war, across the fields where shells came whining, along the trenches where masses of men lived in the mud, under the menace of death.
A strange life like a distant dream now ! but made tolerable at times, because of these men whose portraits I have sketched, and whose friendship was good to have.
The four and a half years of war were, of course, to me, as to all men who passed through that time, the most stupendous experience of life. It obliterated all other adventures, impressions, and achievements. I went into the war youthful in ideas and sentiment. I came out of it old in the knowledge of human courage and endurance and suffering by masses of men, and utterly changed, physically and mentally. Romance had given way to realism, sentiment of a weak kind to deeper knowledge and pity and emotion.
Our life as war correspondents was not to be compared for a moment in hardness and danger and discomfort to that of the fighting men in the trenches. Yet it was not easy nor soft, and it put a tremendous, and sometimes almost intolerable, strain upon our nerves and strength, especially if we were sensitive, as most of us were, to the constant sight of wounded and dying men, to the never-ending slaughter of our country's youth, to the grim horror of preparations for battle which we knew would cause another river of blood to flow, and to the desolation of that world of ruin through which we passed day by day, on the battlefields and in the rubbish heaps which had once been towns and villages.
We saw, more than most men the wide sweep of the drama of war on the Western front. The private soldier and the battalion officer saw the particular spot which he had to defend, knew in his body and soul the intimate detail of his trench, his dugout, the patch of No-Man's Land beyond his parapet, the stink and filth of his own neighborhood with death, the agony of his wounded pals.
But we saw the war in a broader vision, on all parts of the front, in its tremendous mass effects, as well as in particular places of abomination. Before battle we saw the whole organization of that great machine of slaughter. After battle we saw the fields of dead, the spate of wounded men, the swirling traffic of ambulances, the crowded hospitals, the herds of prisoners, the length and breadth of this frightful melodrama in a battle zone forty miles or more in length and twenty miles or more in depth.
The effect of such a vision, year in, year out, can hardly be calculated in psychological effect, unless a man has a mind like a sieve and a soul like a sink.
Our headquarters were halfway between the front and G.H.Q., and we were visitors of both worlds. In our château, wherever we might be and we shifted our locality according to the drift of battle we were secluded and remote from both these worlds. But we set out constantly to the front every day in time of active warfare through Ypres, if Flanders was aflame, or through Arras, if that were the focal point, or out from Amiens to Bapaume and beyond, where the Somme was the hunting ground, or up by St. Quentin to the right of the line. There was no part of the front we did not know, and not a ruined village in all the fighting zone through which we did not pass scores of times, or hundreds of times.
We trudged through the trenches, sat in dugouts with battalion officers, followed our troops in their advance over German lines, explored the enemy dugouts, talked with German prisoners as they tramped back after capture or stood in herds of misery in their "cages," walked through miles of guns, and beyond the guns, saw the whole sweep and fury of great bombardments, took our chance of harassing fire and sudden "strafes," climbed into observation posts, saw attacks and counterattacks, became familiar with the detail of the daily routine of warfare on the grand scale, such as, in my belief, the world will never see again.
We were visitors, also, to the other world the world behind the lines, in G.H.Q., in Army Corps and Divisional Headquarters, in training schools and camps, and casualty clearing stations and billets in the "rest" areas, remote from the noise and filth of battle. From the private soldier standing by a slimy parapet to the Commander-in- Chief in his comfortable château, we studied all the psychological strata of the British armies in France, as few other men had the chance of doing.
But all the time we were between two worlds, and belonged to neither, and though I think our job was worth doing (and the spirit of the people would have broken if we had not done it) we felt at times (or I did) that the only honest job was to join the fighting men and die like the best of British manhood did. Our risks were not enough to make us honest when so many were being killed, though often we had the chance of death. So it seemed to me, often, then; so it seems to me, sometimes, now.
We had wonderful facilities for our work. Each man had a motor car, which gave him complete mobility. On days of battle we five drew lots as to the area we would cover, and with one of the censors, who were, as I have said, our best comrades, set out to the farthest point at which we could leave a car without having it blown to bits. Then often we walked, to get a view of the battlefield, amid the roar of our own guns, and in the litter of newly captured ground. We got as far as possible into the traffic of supporting troops, advancing guns, meeting the long straggling processions of "walking wounded," bloody and bandaged prisoners, stepping over the mangled bodies of men, watching the fury of shell fire from our own massed artillery, and the enemy's barrage fire.
Then we had to call at Corps Headquarters our daily routine for the latest reports, and after many hours, motor back again to our own place to write fast and furiously. Dispatch riders took our messages (censored by the men who had been out with us that day) back to "Signals" at G.H.Q., from which they were telephoned back to the War Office in London, who transmitted them to the newspapers.
The War Office had no right of censorship, and our dispatches were untouched after they had left our quarters. Nor were our newspapers allowed to alter or suppress any word we wrote.
It may surprise many people to know that we were not in the employ of our own newspapers. The dispatches of the five men on the Western front (apart from special Canadian and Australian correspondents attached to their own Corps) were distributed by arrangement with the War Office to all countries within the Empire, under the direction of an organization known as The Newspaper Proprietors Association, who shared our expenses.
From first to last we were read, greedily and attentively by millions of readers, but I tell the painful truth when I say that many of them were suspicious of our accounts and firmly believed that we concealed much more than we told. That distrust was due, partly, to the heavy- handed censorship in the early days of the war, when our first accounts were mutilated. Afterward, when the censorship was very light so that nothing was deleted except very technical detail and, too often, the names of battalions, that early suspicion lasted.
During long spells of trench warfare, without any great battles but with steady and heavy casualties, the British public suspected that we were hiding enormous events. They could not believe that so many men could be killed unless big actions were in progress. Also, when great battles had been fought, and we had recorded many gains, in prisoners and guns, and trench positions, the lack of decisive result seemed to give the lie to our optimism.
Again, the cheerful way in which one or two of the correspondents wrote, as though a battle was a kind of glorified football match, exasperated the troops who knew their own losses, and the public who agonized over that great sum of death and mutilation.
Personally, I cannot convict myself of over-cheerfulness or the minimizing of the tragic side of war, for, by temperament as well as by intellectual conviction, I wrote always with heavy stress on the suffering and tragedy of warfare, though I coerced my soul to maintain the spiritual courage of the nation and the fighting men sometimes when my own spirit was dark with despair.
To our mess, between the two worlds, came visitors from both. It was our special pleasure to give a lift in one of our Vauxhalls to some young officer of the fighting line and bring him to our little old château or one of our billets behind the lines and help him to forget the filth and discomfort of trenches and dugouts by a good dinner in a good room. They were grateful for that, and we had many friends in the infantry, cavalry, Tank corps, machine guns, field artillery and "heavies" to whom we gave this hospitality.
When Neville Lytton became our chief, we even rose to the height of having a military band to play to our guests after dinner on certain memorable nights, and I remember a little French interpreter, himself a fine musician, who, on one of those evenings when our salon was crowded with officers tapping heel and toe to the music, raised his hands in ecstasy and said, "This is like one of the wars of the eighteenth century when slaughter did not prevent elegance and the courtesies of life."
But in the morning there was the same old routine of setting out for the stricken fields, the same old vision of mangled men streaming back from battle, prisoners huddled like tired beasts, and shell fire ravaging the enemy's line, and ours.
Army, Corps, and Divisional Generals, occasionally some tremendous man from G.H.Q., like our supreme chief, General Charteris, favored us with their company, and discussed every aspect of the war with us without reserve. Their old hostility had utterly disappeared, their old suspicion was gone, and for three years we possessed their confidence and their friendship.
In a book of mine "Realities of War," published in the United States under the title of "Now It Can Be Told" I have been a critic of the Staff, and have said some hard and cruel things about the blundering and inefficiency of its system. But for many of the Generals and Staff officers in their personal character I had nothing but admiration and esteem. Their courage and devotion to duty, their patriotism and honor, were beyond criticism, and they were gentlemen of the good old school, with, for the most part, a simplicity of mind and manner which doesn't, perhaps, belong to our present time. Yet I could not help thinking, as I still think, that those elderly gentlemen who had been trained in the South-African school of warfare, had been confronted with problems in another kind of war which were beyond their imagination and range of thought or experience. Even that verdict, however, which is true, I believe, of the High Command, must be modified in favor of men who created a New Army, marvelously perfect as a machine. Our artillery, our transport, our medical service, our training, were highly efficient, as the Germans themselves admitted. The machine was as good as an English-built engine, and marvelous when one takes into account its rapid and enormous growth in an untrained nation. It was in the handling of the machine that criticism finds an open field and it's an easy game, anyhow !
Apart from Generals, staff officers, and battalion officers who came to our mess, there were other visitors, now and then, from that remote world which had been ours before the war the civilian world of England.
During the latter part of the war all sorts of strange people were invited out for a three-days' tour behind the lines, with a glimpse or two of the battlefields, in the belief that they would go back as propagandists for renewed effort and strength of purpose and "the will to win." A guest house was established near G.H.Q., to which were invited politicians, labor leaders, distinguished writers, bishops, and representatives of neutral countries. In their three-days' visit they did not see very much of "the real thing," but enough to show them the wonderful spirit of the fighting men and the enormous organization required for their support, and the unbroken strength of the enemy. Now and then these visitors to the guest house came over to our mess, more interested to meet us, I think, than Generals and officers at the Base, because they could get from us, in a more intimate way, the truth about the war and its progress.
Among those apparitions from civil life, I remember, particularly, Bernard Shaw, because it was due to a freakish suggestion of mine that he had been invited out. It seemed to me that Shaw, of all men, would be useful for propaganda, if the genius of his pen were inspired by the valor and endurance of our fighting men. Anyhow, he would, I thought, tell the truth about the things he saw, with deeper perception of its meaning than any other living writer.
Bernard Shaw, in a rough suit of Irish homespun, and with his beard dank in the wet mist of Flanders, appeared suddenly to my friend Tomlinson as a ghost from the prewar past. His first words were in the nature of a knockout blow.
"Hullo, Tomlinson ! Are all war correspondents such bloody fools as they make themselves out to be?"
The answer was in the negative, but could not avoid an admission, like the answer yes or no to that legal trick of questioning: "Have you given up beating your wife?"
Bernard Shaw was invited, by suggestion amounting to orders from G.H.Q., to lunch with various Generals at their headquarters. I accompanied him two or three times, and could not help remarking the immense distinction of his appearance and manners in the company of those simple soldiers. Intellectually, of course, he was head and shoulders above them, and he could not resist shocking them, now and then, by his audacity of humor.
So it was when an old General who had sat somewhat silent in his presence (resentful that this "wild Irishman" should have been thrust upon his mess) enquired mildly how long he thought the war would last.
"Well, General," said Shaw, with a twinkle in his eye, "we're all anxious for an early and dishonorable peace !"
The General's cheeks were slightly empurpled, and he was silent, wondering what he could make of this treasonable utterance, but there was a loud yelp of laughter from his A.D.C.'s at the other end of the table.
Before entering the city of Arras, in which shells were falling intermittently, Shaw, whose plays and books had had a great vogue in Germany, remarked with sham pathos, "Well, if the Germans kill me to-day, they will be a most ungrateful people !"
I accompanied him on various trips he made there was "nothing doing" on the front just then, and he did not see the real business of war and in conversation with him was convinced of the high-souled loyalty of the man to the Allied Cause. His sense of humor was only a playful mask, and though he was a Pacifist in general principles, he realized that the only course possible after the declaration of war was to throw all the energy of the nation into the bloody struggle, which must be one of life or death to the British race.
"There is no need of censorship," he told me; "while the war lasts we must be our own censors. All one's ideas of the war are divided into two planes of thought which never meet. One plane deals with the folly and wickedness of war. The other plane is the immediate necessity of beating the Boche."
He has surprising technical knowledge of aviation, and talked with our young aviators on equal terms regarding the science of flight. He was also keenly interested in artillery work. Unfortunately his articles, written as a result of his visit, were not very successful, and the very title, "Joy-riding at the Front," offended many people who would not tolerate levity regarding a war whose black tragedy darkened all their spirit.
Sir J. M. Barrie was another brief visitant. He dined at our mess one night, intensely shy, ill-at-ease until our welcome reassured him, and painfully silent. Only one gleam of the real Barrie appeared. It was when one of my colleagues asked him to write something in the visitors' book. He thought gloomily for a moment, and then wrote : "Beware of a dark woman with a big appetite." The meaning of this has kept us guessing ever since.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created a great sensation along the roads of Flanders when he appeared for a few days, not because the troops recognized him as the writer of Sherlock Holmes and other favorite books, but because he looked more important than the Commander- in-Chief, and more military than a Field Marshal. He wore the uniform of a County Lieutenant, with a "brass hat," so heavy with gold lace, and epaulettes so resplendent, that even Colonels and Brigadiers saluted him as he passed.
John Masefield was more than a three-days' guest. After his beautiful book "Gallipoli," he was asked to study the Somme battlefields from which the enemy had then retreated, and to write an epic story of those tremendous battles in which the New Armies had fought the enemy yard by yard, trench by trench, wood by wood, ridge by ridge, through twenty miles deep of earthworks, until, after enormous slaughter on both sides, the enemy's resistance had been broken.
Masefield arrived late on the scene, and was only able to study the ground after the line of battle had moved forward, and to get the stories of the survivors. I had had the advantage of him there, as an eyewitness of the tremendous struggle in all its phases and over all that ground. When I republished my daily narrative in book form under the title of "The Battles of the Somme," Masefield abandoned his plan, and so deprived English literature of what I am certain would have been a deathless work. All he published was an introduction, which he called "The Old Front Line," in which, with most beautiful vision, he described the geographical aspects of that ground on which the flower of our British youth fell in six weeks of ceaseless and terrible effort.
I met Masefield at that time. He was billeted at Amiens with Lytton's wild team of foreign correspondents. They were all talking French, arguing, quarreling, gesticulating, noisily and passionately, and Masefield sat silent among them, with a look of misery and long suffering.
The most important visitor from the outside world whom we had in our own mess was Lloyd George, then Minister for War. He came with Lord Reading, the Lord Chief Justice of England. Like most other visitors, they did not get very far into the zone of fire, and it would, of course, have been absurd to take Lloyd George into dangerous places where he might have lost his life. He did, however, get within reach of long-range shells, and I remember seeing him emerge from an old German dugout wearing a "tin hat" above his somewhat exuberant white locks. Some Tommies standing near remarked his somewhat unusual appearance. "Who's that bloke?" asked one of them.
"Blimy !" said the other. "It looks like the Archbishop of Canterbury."
The visit of Lloyd George was regarded with some suspicion by the High Command. "He's up to some mischief, I'll be bound," said one of our Generals in my hearing. It was rumored that his relations with Sir Douglas Haig were not very cordial, and I was personally aware, after a breakfast meal in Downing Street, that Lloyd George had no great admiration of British Generalship. But it was amusing to see how quickly he captured them all by his geniality, quickness of wit, and nimble intelligence, and by the apparent simplicity in his babe-blue eyes. Officers who had alluded to him as "the damned little Welshman," were clicking heels and trying to get within the orbit of his conversation.
He was particularly friendly and complimentary to the war correspondents. I think he felt more at ease with us, and was, I think, genuinely appreciative of our work. Anyhow, he went out of his way to pay a particular compliment to me when, in 1917, Robert Donald of The Daily Chronicle, was kind enough to give a dinner in my honor. The Prime Minister attended the dinner, with General Smuts, and made a speech in which he said many generous things about my work. It was the greatest honor ever given to a Fleet-Street man, and I was glad of it, not only for my own sake, but because it was a tribute to the work of the war correspondents handicapped as they were by many restrictions, and by general distrust.
I had an opportunity that night of saying things I wanted to say to the Prime Minister and his colleagues, and the memory of the men in the trenches, and of the wounded, gassed, and blinded men crawling down to the field hospitals, gave me courage and some gift of words.
I do not regret the things I said, and their emotional effect upon the Prime Minister.
At that time, I confess, I did not see any quick or definite ending to the war. After the frightful battles in Flanders of 1917, with their colossal sum of slaughter on both sides, the enemy was still in great strength. Russia had broken, and it was inevitable that masses of German troops, liberated from that front, would be brought against us. America was still unready and untrained, though preparing mighty legions.
There was another year for the war correspondents to record day by day, with as much hope as they could muster, when in March of '18 our line was broken for a time by the tremendous weight of the last German attack, and with increasing exaltation and enormous joy when at last the tide turned and the enemy was on the run and the end was in sight.
That last year crammed into its history the whole range of human emotion, and as humble chroniclers the small body of war correspondents partook of the anguish and the exaltation of the troops who marched at last to the Rhine.
The coming of the Americans, the genius of Foch in supreme command, the immortal valor of the British and French troops, first in retreat and then in advance, the liberation of many great cities, the smashing of the German war machine, and the great surrender, make that last year of the war unforgetable in history. I have told it all in detail elsewhere. Here I am only concerned with the work of the war correspondents, and the supreme experience I had in journalistic adventure.
On the whole we may claim, I think, that our job was worth doing, and not badly done. Some of us, at least, did not spare ourselves to learn the truth and tell it as far as it lay in our vision and in our power of words. During the course of the battles it was not possible to tell all the truth, to reveal the full measure of slaughter on our side, and we had no right of criticism. But day by day the English-speaking world was brought close in spiritual touch with their fighting men, and knew the best, if not the worst, of what was happening in the field of war, and the daily record of courage, endurance, achievement, by the youth that was being spent with such prodigal unthrifty zeal.
I verily believe that without our chronicles the spirit of the nation would not have maintained its greatness of endeavor and sacrifice. There are some who hold that to be the worst accusation against us. They charge us with having bolstered up the spirit of hatred and made a quicker and a better peace impossible. I do not plead guilty to that, for, from first to last no word of hate slipped into my narrative, and my pictures of war did not hide the agony of reality nor the price of victory.
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