War Office Press Bureau

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 Colonel Ernest 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.

Later in 1914, Henry Major Tomlinson, a journalist working for the Daily News, was also recruited by the British Army as an official war correspondent. Swinton and Tomlinson worked to strict guidelines. They were not allowed to mention place names or soldiers' battalions, brigades and divisions. The men were told that no article could be passed for publication if it indicated that they had seen what they had written about. Swinton and Tomlinson were also instructed to write in terms of what they thought was true and not what they knew to be true.

After complaints from the USA the British government decided to look again at how the war was reported. After a Cabinet meeting on the subject in January, 1915, the government decided to change its policy and to allow selected journalists to report the war. Five men were chosen: Philip Gibbs (Daily Chronicle and the Daily Telegraph), Percival Philips (Daily Express and the Morning Post), William Beach Thomas (Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror) Henry Perry Robinson (The Times and the Daily News) and Herbert Russell (Reuters News Agency). Before their reports could be sent back to England, they had to be submitted to C. E. Montague, the former leader writer of the Manchester Guardian.

Over the next three years other journalists such as John Buchan, Valentine Williams, Hamilton Fyfe and Henry Nevinson, became accredited war correspondents. To remain on the Western Front, these journalists had to accept government control over what they wrote.

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.