How did local newspapers get round Kitchener’s censorship laws in the Great War?

Lord KitchenerTwo Journalism lecturers from De Montfort University – Programme Leader John Dilley and Senior Lecturer David Penman – are conducting a four-year First World War research project.

John and David’s project shows how local newspapers maneuvered round Lord Kitchener’s draconian press censorship laws and produced articles that rivaled the war poets for powerful imagery. They are focusing their attention on two market town weekly titles which have been published in their respective communities for well over 100 years.

Each week they are blogging extracts in real-time from Leicestershire’s Market Harborough Advertiser and the Ashbourne Telegraph in Derbyshire and are being followed and published by the present-day newspapers too. They are also comparing and contrasting the coverage from national newspapers and current-day academics.

Millions of words have been written about the First World War but it’s fascinating to see how the first-time chroniclers of history – the journalists – covered the conflict. Most of the Fleet Street reporters produced largely broad-brush accounts (fairly lofty in tone) with an almost literary approach.

Local newspapers like the Market Harborough Advertiser and the Ashbourne Telegraph were much more intimate. They sourced many of their stories via Fleet Street reporters and official communiqués but they also used the very personal – and often bleakly honest – letters from frontline soldiers to their loved ones. And they were surprisingly eloquent and rivaled any literary or poetic accounts produced contemporaneously or from our own era.

Consider the following extract from a soldier’s letter used as a news story in the market Harborough Advertiser. The language used to describe life on the Front was as every bit as powerful as the celebrated war poet Wilfred Owen:

“One night I witnessed what I can only describe as an awful battle. Imagine the worst thunderstorm you ever hear. It was as if some trapdoor in hell had opened and let loose ten thousand demons who traversed the air in roaring chariots of destruction.

‘Canon belched flame, shells moaned like lost souls, and rifles spluttered death and destruction wholesale, while the sky was filled with a cold, flickering light which gave the whole an atmosphere as if the pit that is bottomless.”

What’s even more interesting is the way the national papers were shackled by Kitchener and his infamous Press Bureau – commonly referred to as the Suppress Bureau – which meant both soldiers and their families back home knew they were being peddled a lot of spin. Local paper editors got round the hogwash by using those soldiers’ letters home to their market town families.

There was certainly no shortage of material – a staggering 12 million letters were sent home every week – and the readers truly believed the accounts because they either knew the soldier or knew of his family.

John and David’s  project will obviously continue for another two years – until November 2018 and the Armistice centenary.

John’s weekly blog can be found at: http://newspapersandthegreatwar.wordpress.com/ David’s weekly blog can be found at: http://greatwarreports.wordpress.com/

Meet John and David at Leicester Military History Live 2016 – a FREE event on Saturday 18 June!

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