Mr John Buchan

Mr John Buchan on ‘The Press and the War’

From the Whitefriars Journal, vo. V, no. 2, July 1917, pp. 41-46.

The Prior, Friar W. H. Helm, paid a cordial tribute to Mr Buchan’s high literary qualities and to his remarkable versatility. Up to that evening Mr Buchan had been an elusive personality as far as the Club was concerned, but we were delighted at last to have him amongst us.

Mr John Buchan considered that the connection between ‘The Press and the War’ was very real and important. The Press formed the only medium by which the public were informed of the progress of the War. With the truncated condition of Parliament, and the absence of amusement like a General Election, it was the only means of bringing public opinion to bear upon Parliament. The part which the British Press had taken in this great crisis was on the whole admirable; it compared favourably with that of neighbouring belligerent countries. As far as Britain was concerned, without the newspapers the war could not be waged for six months. The duty of the Press was two-fold – to publish the news and to pass judicious comments on the news. He would be sorry to see any official control of newspaper comment. Newspapers might well be taken more into the confidence of the Government.

Dealing with the functions of the Press in describing incidents of the war, Mr Buchan demonstrated the danger of giving details as to the army brigades and divisions. The same thing did not apply to battalions. The publication of information respecting the various battalions did an enormous amount of good in stimulating local patriotism, the importance of which was frequently overlooked. The war was far too anonymous. The French exalted their military personalities; Foch, Nivelle, Joffre, and others stood out in the public eye. In this country, a tenth-rate politician came into greater prominence than our great soldiers.

Not one man in a thousand in this country really realized yet the magnitude of our British achievement; we had done something unparalleled in the history of the world. If we could create in the minds of the ordinary man an understanding of the magnitude of our achievement, we should achieve such a great wave of pride as to sweep away all sense of loss and discomfort. We were approaching the last stage of the war; the crisis was over. The war must end in one of two ways, arid the end was not very far away. It must end by attrition, or by a crushing military victory.

If all went well, we should shortly have a crushing superiority of men; already we had a great superiority in munitions. If we were to win, we had still to keep alive that wonderful fighting spirit which supported us through the first year of our defensive battles; that spirit must be kept alive by the civilians at home.

This spirit was largely the work of the Press and it was for the Press to see that it did not slacken or wither until it had carried us a long way to victory.

Mr Buchan was talking recently to a distinguished French officer, who said: ‘It is all right – I am now sure of the end.’ He asked him his reason for this faith. The officer answered: ‘Many things – principally the spirit of your men.’ Some time ago the speaker met a distinguished statesman, who pulled a long face, and stated ‘If we had an election and polled the soldiers at the Front, there would be a pessimist majority amongst them.’ On returning to France he made an experiment. A large number of letters written by men at the Front were collected at the time that President Wilson’ s first Peace Note was published, in order to see what the men were saying about it. Eight thousand letters made reference to the peace proposals but out of this total only five said that peace would be a good thing. Some, which he dare not quote, were simply blasphemous. One man in a letter to his wife, stated: ‘My dear Emma. – You asked me to write to you about peace. All I can say is this: when this war is over the first blessed Boche I meet, wherever he is, I does him in.’ With a spirit like that, could there be any doubt as to victory?

Mr Hamilton Fyfe gave some interesting details as to his recent sojourn in Rumania and Russia. He did not know anything about the state of the Press whilst he was away from England, hut understood that there had been some slight criticisms of the late Government. The Press worked under great difficulties in Russia, where the censorship was very severe. The censorship was even more strict in Rumania. Here the difficulties of the foreign correspondents were enormous. The censor of the foreign telegrams was the Minister of Education; a charming little man, kind and courteous, but difficult to get hold of. The correspondents spent more time in chasing the censor than in getting the information and writing it. It was difficult to make the censor understand English, therefore it became necessary to adopt words of one syllable, such as were used in a child’s first reading book.

In Russia, one of Mr Fyfe’s telegrams referred to the blue sky, and the word ‘blue’ was struck out by the censor because ‘it makes it obvious that you refer to the south. In the north of Russia, the sky is never blue.’ Mr Fyfe gave some valuable information as to the attitude of Russia towards the war.

Mr Frederick Coleman (the well-known American war correspondent, author of From Mons to Ypres and With Cavalry in 1915: The British Trooper in the Trench Line) described some of his experiences in Japan, dealing with certain phases of the anti-Anglo-Japanese spirit amongst a portion of the Press. A most distinguished Englishman told him that in 40 years’ experience he had never noticed this attitude in Japan. It was started by an important paper in Tokyo. The day before the speaker left Tokyo he had a talk with the Premier, and asked him what he should tell the people of England. The reply was: ‘You may give the people of England a message from me; tell them that I have not been in England since Queen Victoria’s Jubilee, but I have been watching the conduct of the war by the British with the greatest admiration and sympathy; their doggedness and decision to carry the thing through at all costs have won our admiration. As far as the Cabinet is concerned, we will prosecute this war just as hard as we can. Any sacrifice you ask from Japan, the Cabinet will pledge the country to give. Further, it is my personal regret that matters have turned out impracticable for Japanese soldiers to take a greater part in the war.’

Friar Sir John Foster Eraser described his failure in the early stages of the war to induce the authorities to permit the gallant deeds of the various county battalions to be described in the provincial papers. He also spoke of the failure of the Foreign Office to educate the neutral countries through the Press as to the exact position of Britain in the war. Anybody who had been in neutral countries knew perfectly well that the Germans were doing excellent work, from their point of view, in financing their propaganda.

Commander Dorling (better known as ‘Taffrail’, the brilliant author of Pincher Martin, OD, and other books on the war), as a ‘simple sailor’, disclaimed being a practised speaker like the other guests who had preceded him, but could not refrain from paying a tribute to the bravery of the fishermen and mercantile mariners who were engaged in minesweeping. There was a sailor who had fought in the Battle of Heligoland, had been in the Dogger Bank fight, and the Battle of Jutland. After Jutland, there came a dull period and the sailor requested his commanding officer to have him sent on active service. A dredger put into port and a yam got about that certain members of the crew were afraid to go to sea. A leading hand, an old Scotch skipper, went to the Admiral and said: ‘I have come to see you about the yam that has been set about. It’s all damn lies; we will go to Heligoland if you will take us there.’ There was a man who had been blown up and had suffered severe injuries. He was asked whether he intended seeking a civil job ashore. He replied: ‘No civil job for me. For God’s sake, send me to sea in something with a gun.’

Mr Gonnosski Komai (a Japanese visitor) envied the position of journalists in England, for in Japan and China journalism did not pay. The difference between the Press in East and West was that in the former case the journalist had fully to explain the details of each fact; in the West, particularly in England, the public were fully prepared to receive the information.

Friar McCallum Scott MP contributed some reminiscences of Mr John Buchan at the time they were fellow-students at Glasgow University. He had published some of Mr Buchan’s articles in the Glasgow University Magazine. A member of the ‘Buchan School’ contributed a review of Mr Buchan’s first novel. One of the sentences he blue-pencilled from the review was: ‘This novel is only surpassed by Shakespeare and the better parts of the Bible.’

Sir Harry Wilson recalled his associations with Mr John Buchan when they were serving under Lord Milner in South Africa. Speaking of the necessity of exercising the greatest care In publishing statements in war time, he mentioned that a magazine with which he was associated published an article on the Irrigation of Mesopotamia. The Germans placarded Mesopotamia with an extract from the article, which was perfectly innocuous. As a proof that the Press manufactured public opinion, he alluded to the fact that one paper ridiculed the ploughing up of Hyde Park owing to the prevalence of wire worms there. After this appeared, he met three or four persons, who were not entomologists or agriculturists, and they stated: ‘What a ridiculous thing to plough up Hyde Park; you cannot do that without liberating the wire-worm.’

Mr Buchan briefly replied to some of the criticisms.