Ernest Swinton

Ernest Swinton

Ernest Swinton was born in Bangalore, India in 1864. He joined the British Army and by the outbreak of the First World War had reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

In August 1914 the British government established the War Office Press Bureau under F. E. Smith. The idea was this organisation would censor news and telegraphic reports from the British Army and then issue it to the press. Lord Kitchener decided to appoint Swinton to become the British Army's official journalist on the Western Front. Using the pseudonym, Eyewitness, Swinton was instructed to write articles about what was happening on the front-line. Swinton's reports were first censored at G.H.Q. in France and then personally vetted by Kitchener before being released to the press.

Swinton worked to strict guidelines. He was not allowed to mention place names or soldiers' battalions, brigades and divisions. Swinton was told that no article could be passed for publication if it indicated that he had seen what he had written about. He was also instructed to write about "what he thought was true, not what he knew to be true".

When observing early battles where machine-gunners were able to kill thousands of infantryman advancing towards enemy trenches, Swinton wrote that a "petrol tractors on the caterpillar principle and armoured with hardened steel plates" would be able to counteract the machine-gunner.

Swinton's proposal that the British Army should build what he called a tank were rejected by General Sir John French and his scientific advisers. Unwilling to accept defeat, Swinton contacted Colonel Maurice Hankey who took the idea to Winston Churchill, the navy minister. Churchill was impressed by Swinton's views and in February 1915, he set up a Landships Committee to look in more detail at the proposal to develop a new war machine.

The Landships Committee and the newly-formed Inventions Committee agreed with Swinton's proposal and drew up specifications for this new machine. This included: (1) a top speed of 4 mph on flat ground; (2) the capability of a sharp turn at top speed; (3) a reversing capability; (4) the ability to climb a 5-foot earth parapet; (6) the ability to cross a 8-foot gap; (7) a vehicle that could house ten crew, two machine guns and a 2-pound gun.

Eventually Lieutenant W. G. Wilson of the Naval Air Service and William Tritton of William Foster & Co. Ltd. of Lincoln, were given the task of producing a small landship. The first prototype landship, nicknamed Little Willie, was demonstrated to Swinton and the Landship Committee on 11th September, 1915.

After the First World War Swinton became Professor of Military History at Oxford University (1925-39). He also wrote a book, Eyewitness (1932) about his experiences in the war. Ernest Swinton died in 1951.

Primary Sources

(1) In his book Eyewitness, Ernest Swinton explained how he became the official reporter on the war.

Discontent now became so great at the unnecessary state of ignorance in which the nation was being kept that it was decided to compromise with a half-measure. War correspondents were not allowed at the front, but their place was to be taken by some appointed officer.

The principle which guided me in my work was above all to avoid helping the enemy. They appeared to me even more important than the purveyance of news to our own people. For home consumption - that is for those who were carrying the burden and footing the bill - I essayed to tell as much of the truth as was compatible with safety, to guard against depression and pessimism, and to check unjustified optimism which might lead to a relaxation of effort.

(2) Ernest Swinton, official report distributed to the British press on the offensive at Neuve Chapelle (15th March, 1915)

At 7.30 a.m. on the 10th the battle began with a bombardment by large numbers of guns and howitzers. Our men in the trenches describe this fire as being the most tremendous both on point of noise and in actual effect they have ever seen or heard. The shrieking of the shells in the air, their explosions and the continuous thunder of the batteries all merged into one great volume of sound. The discharges of the guns were so rapid that they sounded like the fire of a gigantic machine-gun. During the 35 minutes it continued our men could show themselves freely and even walk about, in perfect safety.

Then the signal for the attack was given, and in less than half an hour almost the whole of the elaborate series of German trenches in and about Neuve Chapelle were in our hands. Except at one point there was hardly any resistance, for the trenches, which is places were literally blotted out, were filled with dead and dying partially buried in earth and debris, and the majority of the survivors were in no mood for further fighting.