The first casualty of war is truth: this idea, first espoused by an American senator and taken up by media bashers over the past half century, has almost become a set in stone. But is it?
Certainly during the First World War, the reporters of Fleet Street were ‘embedded’ and kept on a tight leash by the War Office and the Government’s draconian censorship laws.
And the early contemporary reports of the Battle of Jutland – commemorated this past week at sea and marked by several television documentaries – certainly had some incorrect battleship casualty figures: “18 German ships sunk to our 14,” says one headline.
But even in a small weekly newspaper such as the Market Harborough Advertiser, there is no sweeping under the carpet of this turning point in the conflict.
The June 6, 1916, edition runs nearly two columns of reports – all provided by the Government’s own Press Bureau – and there is no shirking away from the enormity of the British losses.
“The battle-cruisers, Queen Mary, Indefatigable, and Invincible and the cruisers Defence and Black Prince were sunk,” says the report.
“It is also known that the destroyers Tipperary, Turbulent, Fortune, Sparrowhawk and Ardent were lost and six others are not accounted for.”
Another report details the early contact in the battle. “The Grand Fleet came in touch with the German High Sea Fleet at 3.30 on the afternoon of May 31. The leading ships of the two fleets carried on a vigorous fight, in which battle-cruisers, battleships, and subsidiary craft all took an active part. The losses were severe on both sides.”
Although the terrible losses are not hidden – quite something within the context of Britain’s Royal Navy having ruled the world’s waves for more than a century – there is, without doubt, a jingoistic tone to the stories.
“The enemy’s losses were serious”, says one report. And another belittles German press stories: “That the accounts the Germans have given to the world are false is certain – and we cannot yet be sure of the exact truth.”
With hindsight we now know that although the reports about the British number of ships lost was correct, the contemporary reports that the Germans lost 18 ships was overstated – in fact it was 11. And there are no casualty figures supplied – official figures later stated that 6,097 British men lost their lives and 2,551 German seamen perished.
But even in 1916 there is no great conspiracy to say Jutland is a British victory. As with all things it is difficult to be black and white. Perhaps that grand statement should read: The first casualty of war is sometimes the truth.
What the readers of the Advertiser are certain of is their pride in their own community, and this is summed up in one story about Mrs J P Jarvis, a native of Great Bowden, whose picture also accompanies her story.
It is not the kind of report that would appear in The Times or the Daily Mail, but this ‘human interest’ story would be avidly consumed by the Advertiser’s readers, for it appears that Mrs Jarvis has no fewer than ‘six sons, of whom three are serving in the trenches and three attested and waiting to be called up’.
That’s not all. Mrs Jarvis also has five sons-in-law, ‘four of whom are in the Army and one waiting to be called up; and two daughters serving in munitions works’.
There is also news of another Market Harborough man who has been killed in action. In numerical terms one death versus the 10,000 deaths at Jutland is insignificant. Of course, in the context of the Advertiser and the community of Market Harborough it is not.
The death of Private William Deacon of Gallow Hill Cottages will be keenly felt by everyone in the area, especially as he is the second of his brothers to have been killed.
The report says: “Private Deacon’s has been killed in action by a trench mortar bomb…his death was instantaneous. He was a thoroughly good soldier and a son whom any mother could be proud. He has made the great sacrifice and done his duty well.”