Britain's Deadly Peril/Chapter 4
THE PERIL OF THE CENSORSHIP
War brings into discussion many subjects upon which men differ widely in their opinions, and the present war is no exception to the general rule.
Amateur and expert alike argue on a thousand disputed points of tactics, of strategy, and of policy: it has always been so: probably it will be so for ever. But the censorship imposed by the Government, on the outbreak of war, has achieved a record.
It has earned the unanimous and unsparing condemnation of everybody. Men who have agreed on no other point shake hands upon this. For sheer, blundering ineptitude, for blind inability to appreciate the mind and temper of our countrymen, in its utter ignorance of the psychological characteristics of the nation and of the Empire, to say nothing of the rest of the world, the methods of the censorship, surely, approach very closely the limits of human capacity for failure.
When I say "the censorship" I mean, of course, the system, speaking in the broadest sense. It matters nothing whether the chief censor, for the moment, be, by the circumstance of the day, Mr. F. E. Smith or Sir Stanley Buckmaster. Both, I make no doubt, have done their difficult work to the best of their ability, and have been loyally followed, to the best of their several abilities, by their colleagues. The faults and failures of the censorship have their roots elsewhere.
Now to avoid, at the outset, any possibility of misunderstanding, I want to make it absolutely clear that in all the numerous criticisms that have been levelled at the censorship, objection has been taken not to the fact that news is censored, but to the methods employed and to the extent to which the suppression of news has been carried.
I believe that no single newspaper in the British Isles has objected to the censorship, as such. I am quite sure that the public would very definitely condemn any demand that the censorship should be abolished. Much as we all desire to learn the full story of the war, it is obvious that to permit the indiscriminate publication of any and every story sent over the wires, would be to make the enemy a present of much information of almost priceless value. Early and accurate information is of supreme importance in war time, and certainly no Englishman worthy of the name would desire that the slightest advantage should be offered to our country's enemies by the premature publication of news which, on every military consideration, ought to be kept secret.
This is, unquestionably, the attitude of the great daily newspapers in London and the provinces, which have been the worst sufferers by the censor's eccentricities. They realise, quite clearly, the vital and imperative necessity for the suppression of information which would be of value to the enemy, and, as a matter of fact, the editors of the principal journals exercise themselves a private censorship which is quite rigid, and far more intelligently applied than the veto of the official bureau. It would surprise a good many people to learn of the vast amount of information which, by one channel or another, reaches the offices of the great dailies long before the Press Bureau gives a sign that it has even heard of the matters in question. The great retreat from Mons is an excellent instance. It was known perfectly well, at the time, that the entire British Expeditionary Force was in a position of the gravest peril, and it is, perhaps, not too much to say that had the public possessed the same knowledge there would have been a degree of depression which would have made the "black week" of the South African War gay and cheerful by comparison, even if there had not been something very nearly approaching an actual panic.
But the secret was well and loyally kept within the walls of the newspaper offices, as I, personally, think it should have been: I do not blame the military authorities in the least for holding back the fact that the position was one of extreme gravity. Bad news comes soon enough in every war, and it would be senseless folly to create alarm by telling people of dangers which, as in this case, may in the end be averted. The public quarrel with the censorship rests on other, and totally different, grounds.
That a strict censorship should be exercised over military news which might prove of value to the enemy will be cheerfully admitted by every one. We all know, despite official assurances to the contrary, that German spies are still active in our midst, and, even now, there is—or at any rate until quite recently there was—little or no difficulty in sending information from this country to Germany. No one will cavil at any restrictions necessary to prevent the enemy anticipating our plans and movements, and if the censorship had not gone beyond this, no one would have had any reason to complain.
What may perhaps be called the classic instance of the perils of premature publication occurred during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. In those days there was no censorship, and France, in consequence, received a lesson so terrible that it is never likely to be forgotten. It is more than likely, indeed, that it is directly responsible for the merciless severity of the French censorship to-day.
A French journal published the news that MacMahon had changed the direction in which his army was marching. The news was telegraphed to England and published in the papers here. It at once came to the attention of one of the officials of the German Embassy in London, who, realising its importance, promptly cabled it to Germany. For Moltke the news was simply priceless, and the altered dispositions he promptly made resulted in MacMahon and his entire force capitulating at Metz. Truly a terrible price to pay for the single indiscretion of a French newspaper!
It is not to be denied that to some extent certain of the "smarter" of the British newspapers are responsible for the severity of the censorship in force to-day. In effect, the censorship of news in this country dates from the last war in South Africa. Some of the English journals, in their desire to secure "picture-stories," forgot that the war correspondent has very great responsibilities quite apart from the mere purveying of news.
The result was the birth of a war correspondent of an entirely new type. The older men—the friends of my youth, Forbes, Burleigh, Howard Russell, and the like—had seen and studied war in many phases: they knew war, and distinguished with a sure instinct the news that was permissible as well as interesting, from the news that was interesting but not permissible. Their work, because of their knowledge, showed discipline and restraint, and it can be said, broadly, that they wrote nothing which would advantage the enemy in the slightest degree.
In the war in South Africa we saw a tremendous change. Many of the men sent out were simply able word-spinners, supremely innocent of military knowledge, knowing absolutely nothing of military operations, unable to judge whether a bit of news would be of value to the enemy or not. Their business was to get "word-pictures"—and they got them. In doing so they sealed the doom of the war correspondent. The feeble and inefficient censorship established at Cape Town, for want of intelligent guidance, did little or nothing to protect the Army, and the result was that valuable information, published in London, was promptly telegraphed to the Boer leaders by way of Lourenço Marques. Many skilfully planned British movements, in consequence, went hopelessly to pieces, and by the time war was over, Lord Roberts and military men generally were fully agreed that, when the next war came, it would be absolutely necessary to establish a censorship of a very drastic nature.
We see that censorship in operation to-day, but far transcending its proper function. It was established—or it should have been established—for the sole purpose of preventing the publication of news likely to be of value to the enemy. Had it stopped there, no one could have complained.
I contend that in point of fact it has, throughout the war, operated not merely to prevent the enemy getting news which it was highly desirable should be kept from him, but to suppress news which the British public—the most patriotic and level-headed public in all the world—has every right to demand. We are not a nation of board-school children or hysterical girls. Over and over again the British public has shown that it can bear bad news with fortitude, just as it can keep its head in victory. Those of us who still remember the terrible "black week" in South Africa, with its full story of the horror of defeat at Colenso, Magersfontein, and Stormberg, remember how the only effect of the disaster was the ominous deepening of the grim British determination to "see it through": the tightening of the lips and the hardening of the jaws that meant unshakable resolve; the silent, dour, British grip on the real essentials of the situation that, once and for all, settled the fate of Kruger's ambitions.
Are Britons to-day so changed from the Britons of 1899 that they cannot bear the truth; that they cannot face disaster; that they are indeed the degenerates they have been labelled by boastful Germans? Perish the thought! Britain is not decadent; she is to-day as strong and virile as of old and her sons are proving it daily on the plains of Flanders, as they proved it when they fought the Kaiser's hordes to a standstill on the banks of the Marne during the "black week" of last autumn. Why then should the public be treated as puling infants spoon-fed on tiny scraps of good news when it is happily available, and left in the bliss of ignorance when things are not going quite so well?
From November 20th, 1914, up to February 17th, 1915—a period of three months of intense anxiety and strain—not one single word of news from the Commander-in-Chief of the greatest Army Britain has ever put into the field was vouchsafed to the British public. For that, of course, it is impossible to blame Sir John French. But the bare fact is sufficient condemnation of the entirely unjustifiable methods of secrecy with which we are waging a war on which the whole future of our beloved nation and Empire depends. The public was left to imagine that the war had reached something approaching a "deadlock." The ever-mounting tale of casualties showed that, in very truth, there had been, in that silent period of three months, fighting on a scale to which this country has been a stranger for a century.
Will any one outside the Government contend that this absurd secrecy can be justified, either by military necessity or by a well-meant but, as I think, hopelessly mistaken regard for the feelings of the public?
We are not Germans that it should be necessary to lull us into a lethargic sleep with stories of imaginary victories, or to refrain from harrowing our souls when, as must happen in all wars, things occasionally go wrong.
We want the truth, and we are entitled to have it!
I do not say that we have been deliberately told that which is not true. I believe the authorities can be acquitted of any deliberate falsification of news. But I do say, without hesitation, that much news was kept back which the country was entitled to know, and which could have been made public without the slightest prejudice to our military position. At the same time, publication has been permitted of wholly baseless stories, such as that of the great fight at La Bassée, to which I will allude later, which the authorities must have known to be unfounded.
It is not for us to criticise the policy of our gallant Allies, the French. We must leave it to them to decide how much or how little they will reveal to their own people. I contend, with all my heart, that the British public should not have been fobbed off with the studiously—guarded French official report, with its meaningless—so far as the general public is concerned—daily recital of the capture or loss of a trench here and there, or with the chatty disquisitions of our amiable "Eye-Witness" at the British Headquarters, who manages to convey the minimum of real information in the maximum of words. It is highly interesting, I admit, to learn of that heroic soldier who brained four Germans "on his own" with a shovel; it is very interesting to read of the "nut" making his happy and elaborate war-time toilet in the open air; and we are glad to hear all about German prisoners lamenting the lack of food. But these things, and countless others of which "Eye-Witness" has told us, are not the root of the matter. We want the true story of the campaign, and the plain fact is that we do not get it, and no one pretends that we get it.
Cheerful confidence is an excellent thing in war, as well as in all other human undertakings. Blind optimism is a foolhardy absurdity; blank pessimism is about as dangerous a frame of mind as can be conceived. I am not quite sure, in my own mind, whether the methods of the censorship are best calculated to promote dangerous optimism, or the reverse, but I am perfectly certain that they are not calculated to evoke that calm courage and iron resolve, in the face of known perils, which is the best augury of victory in the long run. Probably they produce a result varying according to the temperament of the individual. One day you meet a man in the club who assures you that everything is going well and that we have the Germans "in our pocket." That is the foolishness of optimism, produced by the story of success and the suppression of disagreeable truths.
Twenty-four hours later you meet a gloomy individual who assures you we are no nearer beating the Germans than we were three months ago. That is the depths of pessimism. Both frames of mind are derived from the "official news" which the Government thinks fit to issue.
Here and there, if you are lucky, you meet the man who realises that we are up against the biggest job the Empire has ever tackled, and that, if we are to win through, the country must be plainly told the facts and plainly warned that it is necessary to make the most strenuous exertions of which we are capable. That is the man who forms his opinions not from the practically worthless official news, but from independent study of the whole gigantic problem. And that is the only frame of mind which will enable us to win this war. It is a frame of mind which the official news vouchsafed to us is not, in the least degree, calculated to produce.
In the prosecution of a war of such magnitude as the present unhappy conflict the public feeling of a truly democratic country such as ours is of supreme importance. It is, in fact, the most valuable asset of the military authorities, and it is a condition precedent for success that the nation shall be frankly told the truth, so far as it can be told without damage to our military interests.
Mr. Bonar Law, in the House of Commons, put the case in a nutshell when he said that—
That, I venture to think, is a perfectly fair and legitimate criticism. The battle of Ypres was fought in November. Mr. Law was speaking in February. Who can say what the country would have gained in recruiting, in strength of determination, in everything that goes to make up the morale so necessary for the vigorous conduct of a great campaign, had it been given, at once, an adequate description of the "terrible fight against overwhelming odds" out of which the British Thomas Atkins came with so much honour?
The military critics of our newspapers have, perhaps, been one of the greatest failures of the entire campaign. One of them, on the day before Namur fell, assured us that the place could hold out for three months. Another asserted that the Russians would be in Berlin by September 10th. Another, just before the Germans drove the Russians for the second time out of East Prussia, declared that Russia's campaign was virtually ended! Besides, all the so-called "histories" of the war published have been utter failures. Personally, I do not think the nation is greatly perturbed, at the present moment, about the conduct of the actual military operations. No one is a politician to-day, and there is every desire, happily, to support the Government in any measure necessary to bring the war to a conclusion. We have not the materials, even if it were desirable, to criticise the conduct or write the history of the war, and we have no wish to do so. But we desire to learn, and we have the right to learn, the facts.
It has always been an unhappy characteristic of the military mind that it has been quite unable, perhaps unwilling, to appreciate the mentality of the mere civilian who only has to pay the bill, and look as pleasant as possible under the ordeal. And I suspect, very strongly, that it is just this feeling which lies at the root of a good deal of what we have had to endure under the censorship. In its essence, the censorship is a military precaution, perfectly proper and praiseworthy, but only if applied according to the real needs of the situation. Quite properly the military mind is impatient of the intrusion of the civilian in purely military affairs, and I have no doubt whatever that that fact explains the gratifying presence—in defiance of our long usage and to the annoyance of a certain type of politician—of Lord Kitchener at the War Office to-day. But military domination of the war situation, however admirable from the military point of view, has failed to take into sufficient account the purely civilian interest in the progress of the war and the extent to which the military arm must rely upon the civilian in carrying the war to a successful conclusion.
Our military organisation, rightly or wrongly, is based upon the voluntary system. We cannot, under present conditions, obtain, as the conscriptionist countries do, the recruits we require merely by calling to the Colours, with a stroke of the pen, men who are liable for service. We have to request, to persuade, to advertise, and to lead men to see their duty and to do it. To enable us to do this satisfactorily, public opinion must be kept well informed, must be stimulated by a knowledge of the real situation. When war broke out, and volunteers were called for, a tremendous wave of enthusiasm swept over the country. The recruiting organisation broke down, and, as I have pointed out, the Government found themselves with more men on their hands than they could possibly train or equip at the moment. Instead of taking men's names, telling them the exact facts, and sending them home to wait till they could be called for, the War Office raised the physical standard for recruits, and this dealt a blow at popular enthusiasm from which it has never recovered. Recruiting dropped to an alarming degree, and, so recently as February, Mr. Tennant, in the House of Commons, despite the efforts that had been made in the meantime, was forced to drop a pretty strong hint that "a little more energy" was advisable.
Now the connection between the manner in which the recruiting question was handled, and the general methods adopted by the censorship, is a good deal closer than might be imagined at first sight. Both show the same utter failure on the part of the military authorities to appreciate the psychology of the civilian. Psychology, the science of the public opinion of the nation, must, in any democratic country, play a very large part in the successful conduct of a great war; and in sympathetic understanding of the temper of the masses, our military authorities, alike in regard to the censorship and recruiting question, have been entirely outclassed by the autocratic officials of Germany. I do not advocate German methods. The gospel of hate and lies—which has kept German people at fever-heat—would fail entirely here. We need no "Hymns of Hate" or lying bulletins to induce Britons to do their duty if the needs of the situation are thoroughly brought home to them.
But we have to face this disquieting fact, that, whatever the methods employed, the German people to-day are far more enthusiastic and determined in their prosecution of the war than we are.
That is a plain and unmistakable truth. I do not believe the great mass of the British public realises, even to-day, vitally and urgently, the immense gravity of the situation, and for that I blame the narrow and pedantic views that have kept the country in comparative ignorance of the real facts of the situation.
We have been at war for eight months and we have not yet got the men we require. Recruits have come forward in large numbers, it is true, and are still coming forward. But there is a very distinct lack of that splendid and enduring enthusiasm which a true realisation of the facts would inevitably evoke. Priceless opportunities for stimulating that enthusiasm have been, all along, lost by the persistent refusal to allow the full story of British heroism and devotion to be told.
We can take the battle of Ypres as a single outstanding example. The full story of that great fight would have done more for recruiting in a week than all the displayed advertisements and elaborate placards with which our walls are so profusely adorned could achieve in a month!
Sir John French's despatch, as a military record, bears the hall-mark of military genius, but it is idle to pretend that it is a literary document calculated to stir the blood and fire the imagination of our countrymen. Admirable in its firm restraint from the military point of view, it takes no account of the civilian imagination. That is not Sir John French's business. He is a great soldier, and it is no reproach to him that his despatch is not exactly what is required by the urgency of the situation. Moreover, it came too late to exercise its full effect. Had the story of Ypres been given to the public promptly, and in the form in which it would have been cast by a graphic writer who understood the subject with which he was dealing and the public for whom he was writing, we should probably have been better off to-day by thousands and thousands of the much-needed recruits. The failure to take advantage of such a glorious opportunity for the stimulation of enthusiasm by purely legitimate means, convicts our censorship authorities of a total failure to appreciate the mentality of the public whose supposed interests they serve.
And as with successes, so with failures. It is the peculiar characteristic of the British people that either a great victory or a great disaster has the immediate result of nerving them to fuller efforts. We saw that in South Africa: it has been seen a hundred times in our long history. Let us turn for a moment to the affair at Givenchy on December 20th. Sir John French's despatch makes it clear that the repulse of the Indian Division on that occasion was a very serious matter, so serious, in fact, that it required the full effort of the entire First Division, under Sir Douglas Haig, to restore the position. Yet, at the time, the British public was very far from fully informed of what had happened: much of our information, indeed, was derived from German sources; and these sources being naturally suspect, the magnitude of the operations was never realised.
There may have been excellent military reasons for concealing, for the moment, the real position, though I strongly suspect that the Germans were quite as well informed about it as we were. But there could be no possible reason for concealing the fact from the public for a couple of months, and thus losing another opportunity of powerfully stimulating our national patriotism and determination.