War Correspondents: our eyes and ears at the Front Line

Imagine an overseas war with no correspondents present to record events; things would proceed as normal at the Front Line, but you wouldn’t know that. In fact, you’d know nothing at all about what was going on. The government would report the general happenings at a later date… who won, who the main heroes were and what was gained or lost, but there would be no detail, no colour and few, if any, first-hand accounts. If Britain claimed victory, perhaps the other side would too, and how would anyone know who to believe until the troops came home?

War correspondents have documented war history from the days of the Iliad, and probably from before then, often at great personal risk. H.F. Prevost Battersby represented the ‘Morning Post’ throughout the Boer War, being twice wounded, and in the Great War in Flanders, where he was again wounded in 1916. H. W. Nevinson was also wounded in the First World War, while reporting from Chocolate Hill in Gallipoli, and despite being soaked with blood argued with the stretcher-bearers, insisting, “I’m not going away. I must see the battle! I must see the battle!” Max Pemberton outlined the initial victory in the Arras Offensive in 1917, describing the rattle of the machine guns, the roar of the artillery and the flash and whirl of bursting shells. Sir Thomas Basil Clarke (widely regarded as the UK’s first Public Relations professional) reported at Ypres and the Battle of the Somme, and once nearly got caught in Czernovitz- now in Ukraine, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire- as the city, which had been temporarily been held by the Russians, fell back into Austrian hands. He describes in ‘The War Illustrated: the Story of the Great European War, Vol 3’ how he paid a night guard to warn him if the Austrians drew near, but was only woken when they had already taken possession of the city; he was forced to sneak through strange streets in the pitch blackness, jumping walls and cutting through gardens, until he finally tore across the border into Romania just in front of pursuing mounted sentries, half an hour before the border was sealed.

However, the correspondents did not just record events, they actually influenced them too. The Vietnam War was a classic example of this, as the daily bulletins and images of extreme violence (many recorded by LIFE Magazine’s photo journalist Larry Burrows, who died in 1971 when his helicopter was shot down over Laos) being sent back to the United States caused political uproar. The country was polarised into supporters or opponents of the war, and it took a long time after Vietnam for the country to shake off its ‘Vietnam Syndrome’, a reluctance to involve American soldiers in any foreign conflict. If you still doubt the impact of war reporting on popular support for a given campaign, take it up with Field Marshall Montgomery. He personally drafted a forward on 1st November 1945 for ‘War Report: A Record of Dispatches Broadcast by the BBC’s War Correspondents with the Allied Expeditionary Force, 6 June 1944’. In it he said, “I think it is right to say that the key-note of this campaign was the Crusading Spirit, which inspired all ranks of the Allied Expeditionary Force… this Spirit has many and deep sources, and the BBC was one of the means by which this Spirit was fostered. In this way these Correspondents made no mean contribution to the final victory.”

Initially in World War Two, the people of Britain were not at all sure that they approved of war reporting. BBC reporter Charles Gardner caused great controversy in 1940 by reporting on a dogfight taking place over the Channel from a vantage point on the cliffs at Dover. Complaints were received from listeners who felt it was wrong to broadcast descriptions of destruction and death as they took place, as though merely reporting on a cricket match. However, by the time reports of D-Day, Arnhem and the crossing of the Rhine were broadcast in 1944, they had had a change of attitude.

Partly this was a result of the Army’s own changing attitude towards reporters. In March 1943 the military conducted an exercise entitled ‘Spartan’, to test how plausible the D-Day invasion might be; while the Army was laying its plans, the BBC conducted its own reporting drill, with correspondents attached to the two dummy armies, commentators describing what they were witnessing, feature writers and news dispatchers on standby and censors monitoring the reports in the field. The Secretary of State for War and the Commander in Chief of the Home Forces were so impressed by the quality and accuracy of the resulting stories that they agreed the Services must give the BBC their full co-operation. The War Reporting Unit was formed to help the Army with its PR efforts.

Determined that their correspondents should do a good job, the BBC trained them in gunnery, signals, reconnaissance, weapon and transport vehicle recognition, map reading and survival skills, and whipped them into peak physical condition. The reporters did the same exercises as the Army men, and the soldiers grew to like and respect the determined individuals, often much older than the normal recruit, who simply wouldn’t quit when things got tough. ‘War Report: A Record of Dispatches Broadcast by the BBC’s War Correspondents with the Allied Expeditionary Force, 6 June 1944’ carries a story in which a journalist was lagging way behind his unit in a training exercise, and was met by a dispatch rider, who explained that the Colonel had ordered him back to base so as not to keep the troops waiting for their dinner. He insisted on finishing the exercise, and instead of chastising him for his disobedience, the Colonel said, “Thank God you refused. I bet a pound that you’d have more guts than to give up before the finish.”

The correspondents and other BBC agents managed well when they were finally allowed to go to the front line, reporting honestly what they saw, without trying to exaggerate or alter the facts, and so earning the trust of the soldiers who surrounded and protected them. There were few barriers to the press, and they could go some places nobody else could, for example into prisoner of war camps. Their reports were detailed, informal, authentic and personal, and captured the mood and atmosphere of the battlefields superbly. They somehow managed to maintain lines of communication to Britain and beyond while all hell was breaking loose, forming “a link between civilians and the services, a window on the war through which the combatant and folk at home could catch a glimpse of each other.” They not only reached the British home audience, but those furtively listening in occupied countries or huddled at the Front Line themselves, hungry for any scrap of hope or comfort and often too close to events to grasp the bigger picture of the campaign. As ‘The War Illustrated: the Story of the Great European War, Vol 3’ says, “Our correspondents have yielded scenes from every quarter of the world where the effects of war have assumed material form…. (they create) in the minds of the reader a clear idea of the general course of events.” The book also reminds us that a picture is worth 1000 words, paying tribute to ‘the enduring value and high documentary importance of the work of the camera’, and adds, “One could write at considerable length on the courage and resource of the men to whom these pictorial records are due, for many of the photographs have been taken at grave risk to the photographer’s life.”

By the end of the war, an audience of 10-15 million was listening avidly to the daily bulletins. The people at home were inspired and grateful, those in foreign lands comforted and touched by a taste of ‘Blighty’. The reports also helped to foster and understanding between the various Allied forces, as experts on the different cultures and natures helped to extoll the virtues of, for example, the people of France, explain and mediate cultural differences and smooth away lingering distrust. As technology has improved, so have the immediacy and therefore the accuracy of war reports. Wherever there has been war there have been war correspondents, and while the words of the soldiers largely die with them, the journalists are by definition more prolific, and their testimonies are usually carefully archived at the time, and therefore more likely to live on.  As Field Marshall Montgomery says, “These dispatches give and interesting and vivid account (of the Second World War)… When the history of these times comes to be written, they will prove of great value and importance.”


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