from ‘the War Illustrated’, 22nd December 1917
'My Censors'
By Hamilton Fyfe

Piquant Passages from a Famous War Correspondent's Notebook

the entrance to the French censor's office


I bear them no malice. One can't be angry with people who make one laugh. They have a difficult job, and I dare say that if I were made a censor I should make an ass of myself too. That is the worst of being put into a position of authority. It changes a man's nature. It makes him fussy and assertive. It takes away the sense of humour. Officialism is a blight upon all but the simplest, kindliest characters.

And there is a special difficulty about censoring. Censors work in the dark. They are supposed to prevent information leaking out which might be useful to the enemy. But how do they know what he will find useful ? I know a case in which a firm was being robbed. No one in the firm could connect the thefts with any particular person. They called in a detective and told him about it. He spotted the thief immediately. What they knew was of no use to them, but it gave him all the evidence he required.

A censor, therefore, is sure to cut out more than is necessary, simply as a precaution. He is sure to exaggerate the enemy's ignorance. I wanted once to say that an allied army had been obliged to retire some distance. This was not permitted. I said, " But that can't tell the Germans anything. They know how far they have advanced."

"Are you sure of that ?" inquired my censor, with a cunning glance from under his bushy eyebrows. "Perhaps they may not."

What an exquisitely comic idea — the Germans waiting for the English newspapers to tell them how much ground they had gained!

Officials—and Humour

Another instance of excessive caution. A message spoke of "shrapnel bursting in the blue sky."

The censor's pencil went through "blue sky."

"That would show where this incident took place," he said. "It would indicate the south too clearly. In the north the sky is never blue."

Humour very seldom gets passed. In a cable from Venice last summer I described 'the war aspect of the "Bride of the Sea," and wrote "that the guides, made fierce by hunger, lay in wait for the infrequent visitor." The Italian military censor gently blue-pencilled this. "Un poco troppo- forte" ("A little too strong"), he murmured. My poor little joke !

But, on the whole, I would far sooner have to do with military than civil censors. They concern themselves only with what might advantage the enemy in a military sense. The civilian censor is more oppressive. He takes into consideration not only "Will it convey information to the enemy ? " but also —

(a) How will it affect public opinion at home ?
(b) How might it be construed abroad ?
(c) Could it be held to constitute a precedent ?

Those who have studied the Official know that the creation of a precedent is the terror that haunts his waking hours, and gives him nightmare when he sleeps. They know, too, his fear and dislike of public opinion. The most vivid piece of description I have done during the whole course of the war was cut to shreds on the ground that it was "too pessimistic." It was an account of the destruction of the Rumanian oil-wells and refineries by Colonel Sir John Norton-Griffiths and the staff of helpers he collected on the spot. I began it by saying that I had only had my clothes off twice in eight days. I dwelt upon the impossibility of leaving the oil for the enemy. But I could not pretend that the destruction was anything but deplorable. Nor was it possible to conceal the wretched situation of the Romanian Army, which was the cause of thirty million pounds worth of industry, built up through twenty years, being wiped out in half as many days.

"Too pessimistic," was the censor's verdict. Did they expect me to treat it as a triumph, or a joke?

A "Scoop" Destroyed

Sometimes censors attain their ends by mere inertia. When the Tsar took over the command from the Grand Duke Nicholas, the Russian authorities, being always afraid of any mention of the Emperor's name, would not allow any announcement of the change to go forth. I concocted, a telegram something to this effect: "Managing director going on holiday. Head of firm taking charge of business."

I added some details as to prices being steady, and the weather fine, addressed it to a private house in London, whence I knew it would reach my editor, signed it with one of my pen-names, and handed it in at the telegraph office. It went through. It was read aright in London. The news was written about and submitted to the censor. The censor kept it three days. By that time the change in the command was announced. My "scoop" was killed.

I should not, of course, ever try anything in the way of a code message with news of a military character. That would not only involve the danger of making public what perhaps ought to be kept dark. It would be a breach of the understanding by which war correspondents are expected to abide. But no consideration of either kind attached to the news about the Tsar's assuming command.

Russian Censorship

I have noticed that military, censors, and civil alike, almost always let a correspondent send favourable news, even though they may know that he has been misled into believing it; whereas they try to suppress bad news, however fully it may be confirmed. During the Battle of Lodz in November, 1914, the Russians thought they had four German corps in such a position that they must be forced to surrender. M. Sazonoff, the Russian Foreign Minister, told a number of people that these corps had been captured. I was one of those informed. I immediately sent a triumphant despatch. Next day it turned out that the enemy had broken through the net. I felt badly about it, until I learned that the British Embassy had also telegraphed Sazonoff's statement, and that Lord Kitchener had announced the victory in the House of Lords. Erring in such august company saved me from reproof.

This incident made me so wary of believing anything on the word of even a Minister, that when on the day of the fall of Przemysl General Sukhomlinoff assured me that the number of prisoners taken was 180,000, I did not believe him, and sent no message. This was far in excess of the numbers at which the Austrian garrison had been estimated. It was correct, however. Again I lost a useful exclusive.

The Russian censorship has a disconcerting habit of stopping all telegrams without letting the correspondent know anything about it. Once I happened to hear from a banker, who supplied me with information, that no messages whatever were being sent. As I was handing in messages every day, I felt aggrieved. I went to the Chief Censor. He was profusely polite, as usual, but he begged me to go to the Director of Telegraphs. "I can tell you nothing," he said. " He knows all about it."

Off I went to the Director. He had a face like the dial of a clock, completely void of any expression. I said to him, "I understand that you are holding up all telegrams."

He said "Tak ?" which means "Is that so?"

I said: "The Chief Censor suggested my coming to you."

Again he said "Tak ?"

"It would be a great convenience to me to know if the wires are closed."

"Tak ?"

"You see, I am writing messages daily, and if they are not going, this is waste of time."

"Tak ?"

After that I gave it up, and "tacked" on another course.

"Caviared" News

I wonder whether "the sturgeon" still "caviares" the foreign newspapers in Petrograd. That was how his baleful activities were spoken of. even at the Foreign Office. (The stuff employed to black out news and articles which the authorities did not like was gritty, something like caviare, (which is sturgeons' roe.) I often received newspapers with my contributions "caviared."

My kindest and most considerate censor was M. Daka, Rumanian Minister of Education, who as head of the Telegraphic Censorship, had to read every single telegram, press or private, which was handed in. Poor man, it was a heavy burden ! I used to hunt him sometimes for hours. He trusted me without fear, but no message was accepted without his countersign. He was said to be the only man in Rumania who knew English well enough for this duty. He did not speak it, however. We always talked in French. We became great friends and last Christmas Eve I said good-bye to him with affectionate regret.

That night I got a Red Cross train to take me as far as the frontier. There, in the crowded restaurant of the frontier station, I slept on the floor, and woke up on Christmas morning to find that all the small supply of coffee had gone already, and that there was nothing but bread in the place to eat. I shall do better than that this Christmas, but yet I enjoyed it. As long as one keeps fit and cheerful, one can always get some fun out of what are usually called hardships — censors and all.


at work in the German censor's office


Back to Index