Thursday 22 March 2018

Stop the press! How the Great War was reported

'Irish Independent' took a distinctly anti-German tone, while British papers were defiant, writes Paul Melia

Wounded soldiers in a London hospital gather round to read the news from the front lines in 1914.
Wounded soldiers in a London hospital gather round to read the news from the front lines in 1914.
The front page of the ‘Irish Independent’
World War I's outbreak was confined to the World News pages
The ‘Evening Standard’ split its front-page coverage between World War I and the events of the 1916 Easter Rising
Daily dispatches from the war.
The ‘New York Herald’ reports on the sinking of the Lusitania
The 'Irish Independent' on the end of the Great War
The 'Irish Independent' on the end of the Great War
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

READERS who picked up a copy of the Irish Independent on August 4, 1914, would have been as struck by advertisements for Beecham's pills and ladies fashions at Clerys, as learning that war had broken out in Europe.

"Latest news, fierce fight, plucky defence at Longwy," the newspaper noted in a series of short reports on the front page.

It went on to describe how between five and 10 regiments of German cavalry had mounted an attack on Belgian forces "without any declaration of war".

Not until readers reached page five did they realise the enormity of what was happening, and the hell they were about to be plunged into.

"Momentous British decision. Unsatisfactory reply to ultimatum. Germany declares war on France and Belgium," the paper told its readers.

"England declared war against Germany last night owing to the unsatisfactory nature of the German reply to the British ultimatum," it said. "Germany has also declared war against France and Belgium, so that the state of war may be taken as now existing in the case of all the powers of the Entente and Triple Alliance except Italy."

It also carried the text of the British declaration of war.

"Owing to the summary rejection by the German government of the request made by his Majesty's government that the neutrality of Belgium be respected, his Majesty's Ambassador at Berlin has received his passport, and his Majesty's government has declared to the German government that a state of war exists between Great Britain as from 11pm on August 4."

The paper relied on wire copy from agencies to bring news of the war to its readers, including correspondents from British newspapers such as the 'Daily Telegraph', 'Daily Press' in London, 'Standard' and 'Daily Chronicle', among others.

Across the water, coverage was militant and defiant.

The 'Daily Mirror', which had a circulation of one million and remained the most read paper during the conflict, illustrated stories with pictures of soldiers waving goodbye to loved ones as they headed for the front.

"We could not stand aside! Britain will not allow Germany's fleet to batter France's undefended coast," it read.

The following day, the 'Daily Express' was encouraging men to enlist as soon as possible, saying: "England expects that every man will do his duty", while the 'Daily Mail' rowed firmly behind the government's decision to declare war.

"The proceedings in the House of Commons were worth of tremendous occasion. They will fill the nation with fresh courage and confidence," it said.

The 'Chronicling America: American Historic Newspapers' digital archive held by the US Library of Congress shows the reaction of US newspapers.

The 'Tacoma Times' reported that "British now in big war", with a large graphic on its front page illustrating "how iron and fire and death will flash through Europe".

The 'Evening Herald' from Oregon told its readers that 'Germany declares war vs France, Belgium', adding: 'Kaiser says he'll fight to the world to defend honour. Money is being sent to Europe to bring Americans home."

Getting news back to their titles was difficult for correspondents, as the British government controlled the flow of information from the front line.

The War Office was allowed to censor the press, and anyone convicted of assisting the enemy was subject to the death penalty. Some journalists were embedded with fighting forces, but every word was subject to censorship.

Others reported under cover and smuggled back their dispatches to England.

Arrested on a number of occasions, one – Philip Gibbs – was warned that if he persisted, he could be put up against a wall with "unpleasant consequences".

The tone of the reportage in the Irish Independent was unsurprisingly anti-German, cheerleading the plucky Belgians who were being subjected to assault by the war-mongering Hun.

On August 6, through the Brussels correspondent of the 'Daily Telegraph', the paper noted that following a "fierce fight" at Liege, the situation was "very favourable" for the Belgians, "who have victoriously repulsed all the German attacks".

"The German shells were unable to pierce the defences. German aeroplanes showed themselves much inferior to the Belgian. None of the Belgian aeroplanes sustained any accident, but several of the German did so.

"It is confirmed that the Germans behaved disgracefully yesterday at Vise. They shot many civilians, expelling the remainder of the inhabitants, and giving the town to the flames."

On April 6, 1917, the US entered the war.

"America in Armageddon; country is called to war; all its forces mobilising," the 'New York Tribune' reported, adding: "Round up Germans as plotters."

"US officially at war," the 'Daily Missourian' reported, adding that President Woodrow Wilson planned to raise an army that would involve conscripting two million men.

When the end was declared, it was greeted with a "splendid manifestation of gratitude", the Irish Independent reported on November 12, 1918.

"Populace's sigh of relief, rejoicings all over the kingdom," it added.

"At College Green, a number of Trinity students danced ragtime," it said. "Three old ladies and two middle-aged gentlemen joined the frolic."

Not forgetting the Easter Rising of 1916, a number of the crowd attempted to storm Sinn Fein's headquarters on Harcourt Street but were beaten back.

Details of the armistice were published, with the banner headline proclaiming the feelings of many. "End of the Great World War. Cruel nightmare ended."


See our dedicated  World War 1 section here.

Irish Independent Supplement

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