Latest posts by Jessica Edwards (see all)
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The British press – one of the noisiest, most opinionated and longest-running media institutions in the world – is known for its history of wide-ranging debate and reporting. Encompassing so many digital newspaper archives, the Gale Primary Sources programme offers a comprehensive view of the landscape of opinions and commentary which have featured in the British press at any one time. This makes it a great resource for those studying contemporary opinions about a particularly issue or controversy, or how attitudes have evolved over time. This is the first of two posts looking at how persuasion, debate and clashes of opinion have coloured the British press at particular historical moments; in this case, during the First World War. Next week I’ll be posting about the altercations that arose around the rise of Fascism. As well as some of the most well-known arguments, these posts will bring to the fore views which have now been side-lined, discredited or simply eclipsed by modern interpretations.
Before plunging into impassioned articles and heated exchanges, it’s interesting to provide a quick outline of the political positions held by the newspapers in Gale Primary Sources – though of course, these have sometimes changed over time.
It seems timely with the approach of Remembrance Sunday to consider contemporary press opinion towards what was to become one of the most momentous events of the twentieth century – the First World War. One point of contention debated in newspapers prior to WWI was whether or not Europe was actually heading for war. Many newspapers preached in the early years of the twentieth century that war with Germany was impossible or avoidable, but the Daily Mail was steadfast in its belief that a conflict between the great powers of Europe was inevitable. It subsequently prided itself on being the paper that foretold the war, and The Daily Mail Historical Archive clearly shows that for many months ‘the newspaper that persistently forewarned the public about the war’ was printed throughout the paper.
The Daily Mail continued to be an opinionated publication, even as peace crumbled and Britain began to face the harsh realities of ‘total war’ in the twentieth century. The paper campaigned for (amongst other things) better shrapnel helmets, more planes, and a ‘single-men first policy’ for conscription, and ended up playing a hugely influential role in the war. Most controversially, the Daily Mail publicly attacked Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, for his failure to order the right kinds of shells, leading to unnecessary casualties. ‘What we do know’, the paper wrote in 1915, ‘is that Lord Kitchener has starved the army in France of high-explosive shells’.
Lord Kitchener was a decorated Field marshal and national hero, and open criticism of such an icon in the Daily Mail led to a furious response from the public and other newspapers. Colonel Maude’s article in The Sunday Times exemplified the views of many when he vigorously defended Kitchener – even making comparisons between the Daily Mail’s owner and the German Kaiser! The Times, with its habit of reporting speeches in Parliament verbatim, recorded the debates which followed in subsequent days, with John Dillon MP speaking for many when he stated that if attacks on a man such as Kitchener had been made in Ireland, the man responsible (i.e. the owner of the Daily Mail) ‘would be promptly put into gaol’.
The leadership of Field Marshal Douglas Haig has also been widely criticised, leading to the appellation ‘Butcher of the Somme’. There were undoubtedly some who expressed bitter sentiments against Haig, and other military leaders at the time. Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘The General’, written in 1917, exemplifies the great acrimony that developed in the minds of some towards the highest tiers of military staff in the midst of the war.
A more widespread denouncement and understanding of the failings of Douglas Haig, however, has come largely in the decades since the war, rather than being expressed in the contemporary press. In fact, we can see in The Telegraph Historical Archive that during the war, the paper championed – and acted as a mouthpiece for – Haig, printing numerous reports written by the General. For example, along with others such as The Times, they printed Haig’s correspondence with the French General following part of the Somme offensive, which made it out to have been a great success.
Post-event analysis, however, has been far less supportive of the General. Many have placed the responsibility for the horrific slaughter of the Somme squarely on the shoulders of Haig. Judgement on this controversial figure is far from settled, however; our archives show passionate and conflicting judgements continue to be expressed by a variety of cultural commentators to the present day.
Nb. Some of the content explored here previously appeared in our NewsVault Case Studies.