Why were journalists threatened with execution in WW1?

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1. State censorship of the press

From the start of the war the British government was eager to control the flow of information from the front line, passing legislation in 1914 which allowed the War Office to censor the press and raising the spectre of the death penalty for anyone convicted of assisting the enemy. Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, had crossed swords with the press in the Sudan and the Boer War and believed battle grounds were the exclusive preserve of the armed forces.

Within a year a handful of journalists had become officially ‘embedded’ with the British Army, and at the war’s end a select few would be honoured for their work.

But until March 1915 men such as Philip Gibbs and Basil Clarke, who defied the ban, lived like fugitives in France, and smuggled back their dispatches any way they could. What was it like spending the early months of the war living as journalist outlaws?

2. Reporters as outlaws at the Western Front

Daily Chronicle reporter Philip Gibbs, 37, was in France when the war broke out. In the early months of the war he toured the war zone under cover.

He had to be resourceful in getting his dispatches back to Fleet Street, evading the French or British authorities to deliver his stories to London himself. Another time he bribed the purser of a cross-channel steamer and even managed to get his dispatches delivered by the War Office itself, courtesy of an official King's messenger.

Gibbs was arrested more than once but kept returning to the front. He was finally captured in 1915 at Le Havre.

He remained under arrest for 10 days before base commander General Hugh Bruce-Williams warned him that if he persisted in returning to the front line he would be put up against a white wall ‘with unpleasant consequences’. Gibbs wrote that he thought his time as a war reporter had come to an end.

3. The dangers of the public knowing the truth

At a reception held for him at London's Savoy Hotel on 27 December 1917, Philip Gibbs spoke movingly of his wartime experiences. That he was honoured in this way showed just how much the official view of war reporters had softened after three years.

Among those at the dinner was Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was reportedly shocked by Gibbs’s account of the war. The following day Lloyd George confided that the British public should never be allowed to learn the true nature of "this bloody business."

4. Embedded correspondents

Faced with a growing clamour for news from the front lines, as opposed to ‘bald communiques’ from British Army General Headquarters (GHQ), and with Lord Kitchener’s star beginning to fade (he was to die at sea in June 1916) the government, after a Cabinet meeting, responded by sending five accredited British war correspondents to France in March 1915.

Gibbs, along with Percival Philips, William Beach Thomas, Henry Perry Robinson and Herbert Russell were based at British Army Headquarters (GHQ).

Gibbs’s stories were syndicated in a number of publications including the Daily Telegraph, Daily Chronicle and the New York Times. Their every word was subject to heavy censorship. Gibbs was unhappy but he agreed.

Faced with the introduction of even greater reporting restrictions the correspondents went on strike, refusing to write a word. GHQ backed down but the censorship continued.

In September 1915 a total of 40 pages of Gibbs’ account of the Battle of Loos were subjected to the censor’s dreaded blue pencil.

5. Truth: the first casualty of the war

British Army staff officers at GHQ were deeply suspicious of the official correspondents. “They had a conviction that we were ‘prying around’ and ‘would probably give away the whole show’,” Gibbs later wrote.

However, he insisted the correspondents wanted to report the truth as fully as possible without handing information to the enemy. “We identified ourselves absolutely with the armies in the field, and we wiped out of our minds all thoughts of personal ‘scoops’. There was no need of censorship of our dispatches. We were our own censors.”

The first day of Somme on 1 July 1916 brought 57,000 British casualties, including 19,000 dead. Gibbs, not ideally placed on the battlefield to see the entire picture, and also subjected to censorship, wrote: “We may say it is, on balance, a good day for England and France. It is a day of promise in this war.”

Herbert Russell sent a telegram to Reuters which also read: “the day is going well for Great Britain and France.” Russell later said he was deeply ashamed of what he had written. Gibbs defended his dispatch saying he had tried to "spare the feelings of men and women, who, have sons and husbands fighting in France."

6. Was Gibbs right to submit to censorship?

Having heard about the challenges faced by journalists, which of these choices best sums up how you would react in their position?

Refuse to submit to censorship

You selected

Refuse to submit to censorship

Philip Gibbs

"There are some who… charge us with having bolstered up the spirit of hatred and made a quicker and a better peace impossible."

No choice but to submit

You selected

No choice but to submit

Philip Gibbs

"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..."

Go along for the greater good

You selected

Go along for the greater good

Philip Gibbs

"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."