The Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

the telegraph book of the first world warFrom our own correspondent…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Daily Telegraph is one of Britain’s most prestigious newspapers, established in 1855. This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in the paper during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information.

There is a very informative introduction, written by Michael Wright, discussing the role of newspapers in general and The Telegraph in particular as organs of propaganda throughout the war. Much of the information they printed, especially in the early days of the war, was controlled by the War Office and, indeed, there was a feeling amongst parts of the Government, including Winston Churchill, that the course of the war should be reported entirely from London. However, permission was given for correspondents to travel to the war-zones, and while reporting was still restricted and censored, the experienced and talented correspondents were still able to give vivid accounts of events soon after they happened.

Between the two parapets of these adversaries, so near to each other, corpses lie, mud-caked, rotting, in their last tragic gesture – German corpses and Italian. The air of death is all around; a heaviness as of sepulchre pervades the life in the trench. A German lies on the parapet of the enemy’s trenches. He thrusts out his hands and his head from the trench. No one pulls him in or casts him forth. You see the spikes of helmets pass and repass this horror tranquilly. It is an indifference terrifying and splendid. Death has become a familiar. He is always there; he comes and goes, tapping this or that one on the shoulder, gathers all, and for those who fall is neither shuddering nor respect. A dead body is a companion who sleeps and will not waken.

13th February 1915

The articles and reports are given entirely without footnotes or contextual explanation, and there are no notes at the end of the book. At first I found this an exceptionally strange editorial decision, especially given the advance warning in the introduction that the truth and accuracy of the reporting could not always be relied on. Since my knowledge of the conduct and progress of the war could at best be described as sketchy, I was sure, rightly, that I wouldn’t spot where the reporting veered from what we are now told by historians.

This feeling lasted for the first hundred pages or so, when I suddenly realised that I wasn’t reading the book as history any more, or at least not as war history. The lack of notes in fact put me in the same position as any contemporary reader of the paper – I had no other sources of information so had to rely on the reports entirely, and try to see through the words to the truth they were revealing, distorting, exaggerating or minimising. I don’t know if that was the reason for the decision not to annotate the book but, whether or no, it turned out to be incredibly effective in giving me an insight into how it must have been for the mothers, fathers, wives of soldiers and sailors far away and in mortal danger. And that had the odd effect of giving me a different perspective on the use of propaganda in such situations. I began to feel that, if I was the mother of a son on the Western Front, of course I would want to be told that morale was high, that the food was good, that the Tommies were better equipped than Fritz. Of course I’d want to think they were singing Tipperary as they marched to the Front, that they were achieving something, that their deaths were not wasted. Because, if it were my son and I was powerless to help him, how would it help me to know that for the most part the soldiers were dying for nothing?

The men who were going up to the battle grinned back at those who were coming out. One could not see the faces of the lying-down cases, only the soles of their boots as they passed; but the laughing men on the courier – some of them stripped to the waist and bandaged roughly – seemed to rob war of some of its horror, and the spirit of our British soldiers shows very bright along the roads of France, so that the very sun seems to get some of its gold from these men’s hearts.

Tonight the guns are at work again, and the sky is flushed as the shells burst, over there where our men are fighting.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914 Photo: The Telegraph
British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914
Photo: The Telegraph

That’s not to suggest that the correspondents didn’t paint a starkly horrifying picture of the war-zones – they did, and some of the images will haunt me for a long time to come. But they tended to ‘spin’ it so that the rotting corpses and body parts embedded in the mud and trenches are almost invariably German, and it’s the Germans who commit the horrors like releasing poison gas – when the Brits do it, it’s only in perfectly fair retaliation. German poison gas kills civilians, Allied poison gas is much more discriminating. However, they also frequently express admiration for the enemy – his courage, his gallantry – especially in the sections relating to the war in the air. One of the things that struck me most was how much more similar the fighting was in style to the wars of the nineteenth century than to the later wars of the twentieth. We see the progression from a ‘traditional’ war with cavalry and bayonets, to the tanks and aircraft of the later days of the conflict.

At that moment neither in France nor in England had the question of gas as a weapon even been considered. It was, indeed, months after the Germans began the use of gas that Commissions were appointed in England and France to commence the study of the question, and more months again elapsed before we had prepared any gas at all. Finally, when we did start using gas, all we had were tear bombs, with which we tried to reply to much more dangerous gases sent over by the Germans.

The German reply to the Geneva Red Cross is thus the most cynical lie even the German Government has ever been guilty of. It is satisfactory, by the way, to learn from those who know that for a considerable time past the enemy is being paid back in his own coin, and that though late in this field of scientific barbarism we now have gases that are worse than any German gases.

25th September 1918

The book is enormously wide-ranging. The sections on the war itself don’t just concentrate on the Brits; there are reports about the contributions of all of the Allied nations and some from the other side too. (Scots, Irish and Welsh people should note that most of the journalists refer to Britain as England throughout, but they do mention nationalities when discussing specific regiments.) The Russian Revolution is covered – not in depth, but enough to give a flavour of how bewildering it must have been at the time. And there’s lots of stuff about the ‘home-front’ too – the civilian effort, the munitions workers, the land workers, the internment of enemy aliens. We hear about food supplies, about the American Santa ships bringing toys for the children of the servicemen on both sides in the period when they remained neutral. And we are shown the pressure that was put on young men, especially single men, to ‘volunteer’, with the word ‘shirker’ being thrown around freely by politicians and journalists alike.

The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914 Photo: The Telegraph
The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914
Photo: The Telegraph

The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it’s the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here – these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. If these reports could affect me like that one hundred years on and knowing something of the truth, how much more effective must they have been at the time?

Shells were rushing through the air as though all the trains in the world were driving at express speed through endless tunnels, in which they met each other with frightful collisions. Some of these shells, fired from batteries not far from where I stood, ripped the sky with a high, tearing note. Other shells whistled with that strange, gobbling, sibilant cry which makes one’s bowels turn cold. Through the mist and the smoke there came sharp, loud, insistent knocks, as separate batteries fired salvoes, and great clangorous strokes, as if iron doors banged suddenly, and the tattoo of the light field-guns playing the drums of Death.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

This is a massive book – 570 large pages of small print and no illustrations. It’s beautifully printed on high quality paper and is a tactile delight, despite its fairly considerable weight. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war. If they didn’t always get it right, if they allowed themselves to be used for propaganda purposes from time to time, they still provided an invaluable service to their readers, and now again to modern readers in giving an insight into how the war was seen at the time. One I would highly recommend to anyone interested either in the war itself or in the social history of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Aurum Press Ltd.

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51 thoughts on “The Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

    • It is, Carol! I could only read short snatches at a time so it took me an age to read the whole thing, but some of the writing is incredibly emotional. It made me realise how bland most of our news reporting is these days, and how sad that the programmes get hung up on arguing about soundbites and trivia instead of looking at the really important things happening in the world…

  1. It sounds like a very good read. I hate war. I still read the books, and watch the movies. But something inside of me yearns for all of us to find a better way to resolve our difficulties. But then again, when it comes home to us, as 911 did for us in the states, our first response is, “Kill the b******s. I don’t have any solutions. I probably won’t win a Nobel Prize for Peace.

    I went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC when I was working for a bus tour company. I don’t need to see that again. I don’t want to see it. It is forever engraved in my brain.

    Sorry for rambling on your blog.

  2. This looks fascinating. I like the idea of ommitting footnotes and references so you are, in effect, experiencing the same thing as the readers of that time. Very clever, I think. There are plenty of writings out there that will relay the story of WW1 in minute historical detail, this is a very interesting approach.

    • Yes, once I’d got over my surprise, I thought it was a brilliant decision, whether it was done for that reason or not. If there had been notes, I’d have been flicking backwards and forwards and tut-tutting disapprovingly when the facts got twisted. But this way I was totally absorbed into it and found my whole mind-set flicked off from our oh-so-knowing 21st century back to something approaching what it must have felt like at the time.

      • It’s so easy to forget, in our digital world, just how trusting of the media we once were. Although, I am rather dubious about anything written by anyone, anywhere as the internet is hardly a trustworthy source. Are we really any better informed now than we were then? Blimey, that’s a bit deep. My apologies I haven’t had any wine yet.

        • I rather regret the lack of trust – we’re all so cynical these days. I suspect people might have been happier when they believed that politicians were genuinely motivated by the desire to make things better, etc. Actually, I was wondering about the ‘better informed’ bit while I was reading this, and I don’t think we are at all. Journalists get so bogged down on trivia that we can miss major things altogether – they’ll be reporting some celeb scandal and forget to tell us that the aliens have landed and taken over Canada! Pass the wine…

  3. A brilliant review, of what was clearly a very powerful and unsettling read, FF

    I’m more and more convinced that, at least with anything on a world stage ‘truth-telling’ is impossible – firstly because we don’t just report facts, but have attitudes about them. Indeed our attitudes and beliefs colour what we actually perceive anyway. And then when you get the added complexity of ‘the fact’ becoming not only what it is, but also becoming a metaphor for something……like the use of gas you picked out.

    And this all still goes on, doesn’t it……..I’m thinking about listening to Radio 4 this morning, and an item about donors to political parties who it turns out were major tax evaders…..the interviewer asked the member of the Labour party who was making great use of the fact that a major donor to the Tories was a tax evader, what it meant, what the Tories should do, what this said about the Tories…….anyway James Naughtie said words to the effect ‘so if Labour discover that a major donor to the Labour party is shown to be a tax evader, will you do what you are saying the Tories should do….and there was SO MUCH wriggling going on and a refusal to answer the hypothetical question ‘but none of our donors ARE’ ‘but IF it should be discovered’ …….and it was absolutely obvious that the politician was NOT going to reply to this. Naughtie asked 3 times, and the politician did the usual party political broadcast meaningless speak which was all spin and no substance. All the sort of stuff which sadly makes politicians and party politicians (of whatever complexion) heartily distrusted, because you can hear the cogs of ‘approved speak obfuscation’ being cranked up, and a refusal to speak plainly, IN CASE.

    It’s hard, though, isn’t it because of course if you really tell things how they are you may demoralise the troops and change the outcomes…so you have to say (to go back to war’ ‘we are winning’ because if you say ‘we suffered the greater losses’ then the home front becomes disillusioned, fearful, defeatest…….and so do the troops, so they are less likely to engage with full commitment, leading to less likelihood of success in the field, etc etc etc

    • Thanks, LF – powerful and unsettling, indeed, and very emotional in parts.Yes, I think ‘truth’ is an odd concept when it comes to anything involving people, and in something like this the number of people involved means that generalisation becomes essential. They did bring it down to the personal occasionally by telling the story of an individual or interviewing a soldier, but still you were aware that someone had selected which individual or which story to tell.

      The book highlighted one of the problems of modern reporting for me – this picking someone up on a phrase and then crucifying them over it interminably, and worse, setting them up with an impossible ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ question in the first place. (Like Ed Balls with the ‘get a receipt from your window cleaner’.) I got the impression that these journalists might well despise the behaviour of our current lot – who don’t seem to want to tell big truths so much as they want to catch small lies. And despite the propaganda element of their reports, somehow I felt that the ‘big truths’ came through in their writing and in their emotions.

      Can you tell I was impressed? Some of these guys have been added to the FF list of heroes…

  4. Oh, this sounds absolutely fascinating! And what an interesting decision to put the reader in, more or less, the same position as a reader of the day as regards what to think of the stories. Without the context, one does get a fascinating perspective. Little wonder that you liked it as much as you did.

    • It is, Margot, and both thought-provoking and emotional. Yes, whatever the reason, the lack of notes turned out to be a great decision, I felt – otherwise I’d have been pulled out of the immersion of the telling into making comparisons with the ‘truth’. And overall, despite the propaganda element, I think the ‘truth’ came through anyway.

  5. This is a fantastic review, FF. Very perceptive of you to point out how families would solely be relying on papers for their information on the war – I don’t know if I would have thought of that, reading it, although I did know that Churchill called in the newspaper proprietors and told them certain things had to be withheld. I’m quite poor on WWI – because there’s so much footage available from WWII I think everyone has seen documentaries about it and know the story (especially if you’ve got a dad like mine, who watches history channels obsessively!) I got a couple of WWI books amongst the ton of em that came out last year, which I must really get back into.

    Interesting comment from Lady F, above – Ed Balls was exactly the same on Andrew Marr yesterday, as he was asked about a story re Ed Miliband avoiding his full tax commitments. And of course, Marr made him sound ridiculous, and kept asking if he would answer the question – as I’m sure James Naughtie did on Today! You can’t get away with it nowadays; people know when the answer’s being fudged! Back then, however, especially when the nation’s at war, I can understand the need for “selective reporting”….but a wonderful review (it would take me days to write that, and mine would still be rubbish, and months to read the book!)

    • Nooooooooooooooooo crimeworm (I’m clearly in fighting feisty mood today) – don’t do that – do yourself down re ‘mine would be rubbish’

      Just being personal here, but I rather think (even given FFs particularly brilliant above brilliant reviews of complex historical/political books) that they all DO take days to write, because once you start writing reviews i think they kind of percolate away in your head AS you read (I know mine do) and most particularly in the gaps between reading, whilst doing boring things like ironing.

      Anyway if you read on you’ll see FF said it took her weeks to read……

      Actually, I’m beginning to find it alarmingly shocking how long it takes to write a review…….and the better the book, the longer and longer it takes.

      MY take on it is that we all begin to inspire each other and kind of spur each other on………..

      • That is true (that we spur each other on!) although when writing a review earlier, that had participated away for several days, I had a slight panic that I’d stolen a POV from another blogger’s review, but I investigated and it seems I didn’t (probably stole it off the Guardian website, though!) You’re right in that FF is excellent at the “big idea” books – she seems to pluck all the pertinent and most interesting, and personal, points out, whereas I think I’d just get in a mess. Definitely easier to stick to crime fiction! You’re excellent on NF too, especially anything arts-related. I think I’ll have to arm myself with lots of these little baby arrow post it notes if I tackle anything big….Really, though, I don’t think I’ve read a better review than some of FFs – even in newspapers, where people are paid by the word. The only difference is who you know, not what you know, definitely. Which sucks. And it’s probably going to get worse.
        That’s interesting, that ironing can help…My most hated job. I will now attack it with renewed vigour! Inspiration can be found in the strangest places…And thank you so much, for your kind words of encouragement. They’re greatly appreciated. I will treasure them for the days I can’t think WHAT to say about a book…

  6. Stellar review, FEF! Wow…they really wrote oddly then, didn’t they? So much differently as compared to today.

    Imagine fighting in those trenches! *shudders* I think I would have rather been in the sky, hunting the Red Baron.

    *laughs* We take it for granted how easy it is today to access news. If a newspaper was it…that would be depressing, I think. Especially if you wanted information very quickly quick.

    America’s Santa? Isn’t he the Santa for everyone?

    • Thanks, Prof! *smiles bigly* More like Dickens, really, and Conan Doyle – so you can see why I’d enjoy it so much. I love that style with the great vocabulary and the raw emotion…

      I don’t want to imagine my C-W-W anywhere near those trenches! *shudders* There were some great reports about the air war though – one about a dog-fight between one of our pilots and 50 or so of their planes. He was shot down in the end, but he took several of the enemy with him. And I didn’t know, did you, that when the Red Baron was finally shot down and killed, the Allies recovered his body and buried him with full military honours, with the officers and men of the Air Service attending to pay their respects to a brave enemy.

      I know – it’s so different now even to how it was when BUS was young, when we got a nightly news report on TV and that was about it. Now we know about things almost before they happen.

      Nah! I’ve told you before – Santa’s a Scotsman…

      • Yes, Dickens did that…but Doyle?! Doyle was a humdinger!!! Him and his dinos.

        Aw, that’s sweet of you. Had I been born then, though… I did not know that about the Red Baron! He got a decent funeral, then. Doesn’t he have a striking pose? The hat is awesome. Dogfights always interest me. I love that sort of thing. Only I’d be in a Spitfire, I think.

        Very true! It’s because of twitter. *laughs*

        Nah, he’s Indonesian.

        • Tchah! What about the Hound, though? Can’t you forgive him the dinos for the Hound?!?

          I would have locked you in the cellar for four years! *nods decisively* He does, and according to this book he loved his job – born to be a daredevil fighter pilot! You should read Biggles…

          Then who was that impersonating him on Polar Express?!?

          • The hound…hmm…hmm…hmm…umm…but what about White Company?!

            Four years in a cellar? Oh rats…that would have been real boring. Biggles…I’ve heard this before. Is he a pilot?

            Didn’t you know? It was that chap from The Green Mile.

            • But you have to weigh that up against The Dancing Men…

              I’d have given you lots of books to read. And cherries! Lots of cherries! He’s an ace fighter pilot in the RAF. It’s years since I read any though – they’re probably really outdated now. No swearing or girls in baths… *chuckles meanly*

              I’ve never seen The Green Mile…

            • He wrote that? Yeah, he’s pretty much deceased.

              You’d have to give me my guitar, and orange a day, and a pull-up bar. Plus, a few action movies, my katana, and a coconut. And pet spider. Hey! I didn’t like that part…

              Me neither. *laughs*

            • *laughs* But… they weren’t really dancing men. It was a secret cipher…

              Deal! Well, except for the action movies – it was 1914 after all. But you can have a gramophone and a selection of 78s… dance tunes perhaps. *raises quizzical eyebrow*

              *laughs lots* I love our conversations…

            • For…? For what? It might be redeemable.

              I don’t want a darn gramophone. A Fugoo will do. Dance tunes are awesome. Big Band dance tunes, that is. But it’s pre big band. Rats. I’d have to listen to Cohan, I suspect. Or Martin Luther. I bet he lived then. Well–you must have loved that part!!

              *laughs* Me too.

            • A secret code used by a vicious gang of Chicago gangsters…

              *laughs* Sooo twenty-first century!! Cohan as in George M, my little Yankee Doodle Dandy? But Martin Luther?? I swear you talk in code sometimes too!

            • Ohhhhhhhhhhhh…you should review it!

              Yes, that’s the one! The Patriotic chap who smashes grapefruits in people’s faces. Well, Martin Luther wrote a few hymns, and I was just thinking that since it’s so long ago…I might be forced to listen to him!

  7. What a brilliant review of a book that I would probably never have looked at! Sounds like it was not so much a read as an immersion in the period. And so true about the footnotes – they would have broken the spell. But what was astonishing was the quality of the journalists’ writing. Beautiful!

    • Welome, to the blog, товарищ! Lovely to see you here! And thank you! One of the joys of reviewing is that I get access to books that I’d probably never think to buy – especially these heavy factual tomes. And yet I find I enjoy them at least as much if not more than most fiction. I really did find this one immersive, and as you say the writing is amazing. I love that late Victorian style – the lush vocabulary, the willingness to be openly emotional, the desire to paint a picture rather than just to make a report. (I know it’s post-Victorian really, but in terms of writing I feel the style didn’t change until after the war really.) And there’s nothing snide about them the way there is with so much reportage today – no desire to prove their superiority to the people they’re reporting on. I felt they did my mythical son on the Western Front proud!

    • That’s exactly how I’d have read it if it wasn’t a review copy. Sometimes it was so powerful I had to stop for a while before I could face any more. And it tooks me weeks to read which is quite unusual for me even with factual books.

  8. Wow what an amazing find! This book sounds enthralling and as you say must give a feel of what those at ‘home’ knew about what was happening to their loved ones. I did however allow myself a wry smile when you talk about the gas… I don’t know that this is a book that I’d read in one go but I definitely want a copy, thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    • I was thinking about you for this one – I think you’d reallly find it interesting. I wouldn’t have read it all at once if it hadn’t been a review copy – definitely one to take in chunks, and it’s nicely divided up into subjects – like the Western Front, the War at Home, etc. But overall it progresses from the start of the war to the end so you do get a feeling for how things changed over time.

  9. Very much my kind of book. As you pointed out, I’m old enough to remember when we had two news bulletins a day, and when we still got most of our in-depth information from newspapers. Even the popular press treated serious issues seriously, and the heavyweights wrote essays on the big political topics. In a lot of ways, I regret the instant availability of information – it makes it too easy to make snap judgements before all the facts are in.

    • Yes, I think you’d like this as much as I did. I haven’t properly read a newspaper in years, mainly because they’d already become full of trivia and soundbites. The book reminded me of what the broadsheets were like when I was young, though even then they were never as well written as some of this. I agree – we get far more ‘news’ in terms of time and availability, but the depth and quality doesn’t compare. Last week we got so fixated on some piece of trivia that the BBC forgot more or less entirely that there were important things happening out there in the world beyond celebrity culture…

  10. Oh this does sound fascinating! BUT, I will have to live vicariously through your reading. I recall my grandfather talking about being upset that they wouldn’t let him join the army because he had a hole in his arm from a farm accident. Leads one to question just what exactly is good and bad luck?

    Anyway, thank you for the wonderful review. But I will get back to my regularly scheduled reading now…. 😀

    • Indeed! The pressure, though, that was put on young men to sign up must have meant that those who couldn’t were in danger of being called ‘shirkers’ or worse. Which clearly many of them felt was a fate worse than death, quite literally.

      But I shall let you off this once. Have you ordered The Way Things Were yet? 😉

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