John Dilley, ex-editor of the Harborough Mail and a former Director of the Leicester Centre of Journalism at De Montfort University, began a four-year research project in the summer of 2014 comparing how national and local newspapers covered the Great War. This has involved examining the Market Harborough Advertiser and writing tens of thousands of words on his real-time website Newspapers and the Great War, providing a commentary of the paper’s main news each week, exactly a century later. Here are the conclusions in a feature written for The Harborough Historian magazine.
When I was editor of the Harborough Mail in the early 1990s I had one word at the heart of my tenure: community.
I wanted to hold up a mirror to the people who lived in the town and district, providing comprehensive coverage about everything that moved – the truth concerning the tough things in life as well as shining a flashlight on the fun stuff that makes the world go round. My mantra was simple: to be a paper of record with an entertaining twist.
It was a tradition rooted in decades of service by my predecessors, although perhaps not all of those editors would have summed up their own philosophy in quite the same words.
However, it has been a revelation, as well as a privilege, to research how the town’s main newspaper – the Mail’s predecessor the Market Harborough Advertiser – covered the Great War of 1914-18.
The process of this research has been assisted by the Harborough Mail’s loan of the original archives of the Advertiser from 1914-18, so each week I only have to walk to my office at home to immerse myself in life 100 years ago. However, there have also been many trips to the British Library to compare how national newspapers were covering the conflict, and I have also worked with my former De Montfort University journalism lecturer colleague David Penman, who has conducted a similar project with his local Derbyshire paper the Ashbourne Telegraph.
There have been many surprises along the way including the fact that the Advertiser’s editor clearly had a similar philosophy to my own: to be a paper of record with an entertaining twist.
But our research shows other unique revelations, primarily, that local newspapers, like the Advertiser, manoeuvered round Lord Kitchener’s infamous press censorship laws, scooped the finest reporters of Fleet Street, and produced articles that rivaled the war poets for powerful imagery.
And key to those achievements was the Advertiser’s ability to be part of its community.
What did the Victorians ever do for us?
Before looking at the contemporary coverage of the First World War, it is important to contextualise the circumstances surrounding the publication and consumption of national and local newspapers in 1914. There were three defining factors in the shaping of those newspapers that go back a further 50-odd years.
In 1855 an enlightened Victorian government abolished Stamp Duty, commonly known as ‘a tax on knowledge’. This had the effect of making it cheaper to publish newspapers, cut the cover price, and therefore increase circulation. As Dennis Griffiths said in his 2006 book Fleet Street: 500 years of the Press: “With the ‘taxes on knowledge’ finally gone, there now appeared a rush of would-be newspaper owners, especially in the provinces.” That equated to a 60 percent circulation increase in London and a massive 300 percent across the UK.
A second significant influence was a new Education Act in 1870 which brought about a huge school building programme and a massive drive to allow ALL children to ‘attend school until they were 12’ and learn how to read and write.
That single piece of legislation, according to Mick Temple in his book The British Press, ‘introduced a new literate working class population desperate for lively reading material’. And they turned to newspapers.
The third key factor was the launch in 1896 of the Daily Mail by Alfred Harmsworth, who later became Lord Northcliffe and an instrumental figure in the war itself. Northcliffe was the father of tabloid journalism and the Mail established itself as a newspaper with quirky, human interest articles mixed in with hard news stories that met Northcliffe’s famous newsroom cry of ‘Get me a murder a day!’
There is little doubt the Northcliffe Revolution changed the face of journalism and was copied everywhere, including in rural Market Harborough.
That was evident in the summer of 1914, when the Advertiser covered the June 28 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand but also carried its usual eclectic mix of local news of flower shows and cattle reports and sensational stories from around the world including the serialisation of a crime thriller called At Dead of Night; a bridegroom who slit his throat four days after his wedding; a six-year-old boy who fell from a moving train; five people injured in a ‘motor omnibus’ accident; and a German spy cornered in Paris.
There was even an incredibly bizarre story from Russia relating the ‘serio-comic accounts’ to restrain a rogue elephant by poisoning it with ‘orange, cake and vodka’.
Beating the men with the censorship scissors
When war was declared on August 4, 1914, the Advertiser was right in the thick of it, holding up a mirror to its readers and telling the community exactly what they wanted to hear. The editor perfectly captured the feelings of the town when he wrote:
As the past week has been an eventful one in the history of the world, and of our beloved country, so it has been in the history of Market Harborough, and scenes have been enacted here which but a few days previously none of us would have dreamt of. Truly it has, as one Harborian put it, been ‘the week of one’s life’.
There was even a photograph of soldiers on parade in The Square – a significant publishing achievement in itself as pictures had rarely been used in the provincial press – which again demonstrated how in tune the editor was with his readers.
However, the Advertiser, along with all the local newspapers and national titles, were soon restricted by law on what they could report about the conflict. In particular, it became an offence to talk about details of troop movements and other military matters although the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was later extended to not only make it illegal to whistle, buy binoculars or fly kites, but also introduced shorter pub opening hours and British Summer Time.
Of course the national newspapers had the resources to send reporters to the battle front and those journalists were ‘embedded’ throughout the conflict and that meant – most of the time – that news was anodyne, if not downright untrue.
As Philip Knightley, a celebrated journalist and author observed in his 1978 war reporting book The First Casualty: “More deliberate lies were told [during the Great War] than in any other period of history, and the whole apparatus of the state went into action to suppress the truth.” Indeed Knightley’s book title echoes the words of Senator Hiram Johnson: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
Key to the success of Government’s national strategy was the formation of the Press Bureau (quickly dubbed the Suppress Bureau by Fleet Street hacks) which was hugely successful in establishing the Germans ‘as menacing aggressors’ and also gave the impression that British soldiers were doing well.
The most successful example of Government propaganda was an official investigation in December 1914 – known as the Bryce Report – which described the execution of Belgian civilians, the torture and mutilation of their women, the bayoneting of small children, and just about every atrocity that could be committed by German soldiers.
The Daily Mail carried some of these sensational stories but there was not a shred of evidence to support the claims – it was pure propaganda. And another Government investigation admitted that – but it didn’t really matter then because it was 1922.
In common with the national newspapers, the local press, including the Market Harborough Advertiser, published many of the Press Bureau reports throughout the war. But the real power of the Advertiser and its hundreds of local sister papers, lay in the stories they sourced themselves, stories that told the readers what was really happening, the stories that drove a horse and cart through the censorship laws.
We know who you are and we know where you live
There was no way the Press Bureau could check all the stories in regional papers and many of their news accounts came straight from the horse’s mouth – the local men writing home to their families who then shared their words with their town newspaper. As Jeremy Paxman observed in his book Great Britain’s Great War these stories provided ‘remarkably accurate accounts of battlefield combat’.
There was no shortage of opportunity for men at the front line to write home to their friends and family. There were three postal collections a day. In fact, the British Army Postal Service delivered around two billion letters during the war. By 1917 more than 19,000 mailbags crossed the English Channel each day, transporting letters and parcels to and from British troops on the Western Front.
Although some letters published by national newspapers told tales of exploits which were later found to be exaggerated or imagined, those appearing in the Market Harborough Advertiser were more easily verified. Not only were they from men with family, friends and neighbours in the town, but the contents of the letters were often corroborated by mail sent by other members of the same platoon.
Often the local paper would provide full identification of a soldier named in a story so the reader would know exactly who he was, or at least know of his family, street or place of work. For instance, in the Market Harborough Advertiser of November 1915, there was a story about Private Frederick Luck, 19, of 22 Queen Street, Desborough, who worked at CWS Corset Factory and was a member of the Congregational Church. He was shot in the head while fighting for the 1st/4th Northants Regiment.
This type of detail was provided throughout the war. In April 2018 there was tragic news of many casualties involving Market Harborough men caught up in the German’s Spring Offensive – this included seven men all from Caxton Street and Caxton Terrace. Their names, regiments and, most importantly, their home street numbers, were published along with how they had died.
No sweeping statements by Army generals in the national press could hide the facts of how terrible was the fighting when everyone in Market Harborough could read about the real fate of people they knew. It was a similar story in market towns across the country.
Powerful prose to rival the celebrated war poets
The course of the First World War can be critically evaluated in a multiplicity of approaches: through numbers – nearly a million British servicemen killed; through movies and TV – like Oh What A Lovely War! (1969), or Blackadder Goes Forth (1989); through literature – for instance, Birdsong (Sebastian Faulks 1997), or War Horse (Michael Morpurgo 1982); or famously through poetry – Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, or Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, are particularly noteworthy.
All of these media are consumed through the prism of the rear-view mirror of history and the words have, apart from the poets, come from the pens of those who did not actually live through that period in time. All of the examples above are also, quite rightly, celebrated as great examples of their genre – a simple truism that the cream always rises to top and it is the best of the authors, directors, poets and even statisticians, who are remembered and read.
But what of the contemporary chroniclers of the day? The journalists who wrote for the national and local newspapers that were read in real-time, by both the men fighting the war and those on the Home Front? Inevitably, they detailed what was happening – the battles, the deaths, the feats of bravery; they reported the debating points – the need for more munitions or conscription; they recorded the mundane and everyday stories of people going about their ordinary lives – movements in the stock market, the success of the harvests or the outcomes of court justice.
Many of these articles used language that was simple, concise and devoid of literary device, constrained by the commerce of restricted pagination and the newspaper column width. This is not surprising. What is surprising is the difference between the pictures created by the national press and the local press, partly from the choice of sources and partly by the style of language used by those sources.
For instance, the Daily Telegraph of July 27, 1916, described the ‘storming of Pozières’ and failed to mention that there were 23,000 Allied casualties during the few days of this battle and the Pozières ridge is ‘more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth’.
But the failure of the reporting was not just in the positive spin put on the story, it was also in the reporter’s choice of language. The account read:
After five days of furious fighting, described in Paris as equalling anything that has occurred even at Verdun, the British Army yesterday completed its capture of Pozières village, and according to the German admission, established itself there.
The attack began on Sunday night and by midnight our soldiers had carried the outer works. On Sunday and Monday, despite the strength of the German defences, they made further progress. The place had been transformed by the enemy into a veritable fortress, with each house and cottage separately fortified and filled with machine guns, so that the task of the troops was extremely arduous.
The reporter’s language used many journalistic tricks to convey the message that this fighting was of some importance: it began with some effective alliteration, provided facts in a succinct and concise manner, and used short, informative but descriptive phrases to give the paragraphs pace and rhythm.
Where it failed to convince, as did so many other national newspaper articles, was in its lack of human emotion. The article can be read as: “The attack began… they made further progress… the task was extremely arduous… the Army completed its capture… and established itself there.”
The readers were given plenty of information, in a tone of authority, but they were not involved. They were not told about the blood pumping through the veins of soldiers sick to their stomachs with fear as they struggled to come to terms with friends dying and their own imminent death.
Compare this to a simple soldier’s description of life under shellfire published in the Market Harborough Advertiser in February 1915. The soldier, like many young men who had previously worked in factories or farms, had a surprising grasp of the English language as evidenced by this remarkable description of what it was like to live, fight and die, under unbearable artillery fire.
One night I witnessed what I can only describe as an awful battle. Imagine the worst thunderstorm you ever hear. It was as if some trapdoor in hell had opened and let loose ten thousand demons who traversed the air in roaring chariots of destruction.
Canon belched flame, shells moaned like lost souls, and rifles spluttered death and destruction wholesale, while the sky was filled with a cold, flickering light which gave the whole an atmosphere as if the pit that is bottomless.
You would have thought that nobody could have emerged alive from the inferno. It was too hot, however, to last and after an hour or two the disturbance subsided to the normal crack of musketry, which goes on night and day.
Anyone reading these words, literary in style but full of emotion, could not feel other than moved by the horror.
This is not a one-off example. A week later the Advertiser published this thought-provoking eloquence from Trooper H Breeze, who was in B Squadron of the Leicestershire Yeomanry.
The shell-fire is appalling and unceasing, day and night. We pass, en route, many grim sights, which force home the cruel, murderous and inhumane aspects of this war.”
He continued with almost poetic expression.
It is beyond the greatest imagination – it must be seen – just one glance.
The examples of this emotive style are evident on a weekly basis. For instance, in a July 1915, edition of the Market Harborough Advertiser Sergeant G Payne, a former employee at Messrs Eady and Dulley’s Brewery, described the horror of trench warfare. He wrote:
As I sit in my dug-out now writing this there is an unceasing roar and rattle of big guns and rifle fire. What a pandemonium, or in simpler words, it is just hell let loose.
He described how his partly-built advance trench was earlier hit by German artillery.
The shells seemed to burst all round us at once, they were ploughing up the ground in front of us, behind us, well all around us, burying us with earth and I’m sure there was not one in the trench but what thought his last hour had come.
The words and sentence structure were simple; there was even a colloquial grammar error in the last part of the quote that added poignancy and authenticity.
It was not just powerful prose that the local papers published. In a February 1915 edition of the Advertiser, a poem written by one of the town’s soldiers serving in Flanders took pride of place on page 8. It will never be found among the celebrated War Poets on the A-Level curriculum, but in its way it is full of imagery that is worthy of analysis.
A whistle, a whirr, a deafening crash,
The crack of a shell-split tree,
A cry, a shout, the stretcher’s out –
“Is it Blighty or R.I.P.?”
Shrapnel, they send them now and then
In the hope of catching a few –
This is our way on Bank Holiday,
Is it the same with you?
In just 52 words the lot of a frontline soldier was captured: the incessant shellfire that sent many men mad; the indiscriminate roll of the dice that exploding bombs brought – life, death or a chance to go home with a ‘minor’ wound; and the sense of injustice that still at home there were many young men who had not volunteered. In fact, the poem was called To The Slackers.
Perhaps it didn’t capture the despair of Wilfred Owen writing in Dulce Et Decorum Est but the message is the same.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
The analysis of these First World War local papers reveals the power and glory of the language used by these ordinary people. The master craftsmen of every media over the past century have told the ‘real’ story of the First World War and there is no disputing the power of Sebastian Faulks, or Wilfred Owen, or even Rowan Atkinson.
Often a single diary has been used as a source for a story, and the poignancy of the words brought to life with intimate clarity. But the diaries, by their very nature, were private and often only came to light many years after the Armistice.
All welcome – no fake news here
What this research has uncovered is the emotive and evocative vocabulary used by the common soldier to write his contemporary letters with such powerful imagery, stripped bare of the influence of propaganda or the pretence of literary loftiness, and then given a public platform by community papers across the land.
The unique nature of my research has allowed a light to shine on the role of the local media and its importance in a world in which national papers may be influenced by the ruling classes to act against the public interest.
The title of Knightley’s book The First Casualty, as previously noted, echoes the words of Senator Hiram Johnson: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”
The ‘truth’ Knightley refers to is the ‘truth’ held back by politicians and national pressmen. However, perhaps another ‘truth’ has been a casualty of war – the truth that local newspapers managed to defeat the draconian First World War censorship laws, outmanoeuvered the all-seeing eye of the Press Bureau propaganda machine, and gave a platform to the frontline local Tommy in the trench who wrote as powerfully as the celebrity poets.
I’m sure the editor of the Market Harborough Advertiser did not have such lofty aspirations when he was publishing the papers through those terrible years from 1914 to 1918, he would have been simply intent being a paper of record with an entertaining twist – and serving his community of readers.