William Beach Thomas

William Beach Thomas, second son of the Rev. Daniel George Thomas and Rosa Beart, was born in at Godmanchester on 22nd May, 1868. After an education at Shrewsbury School and Christ College, Oxford, he taught at Bradfield (1891-96) and Dulwich (1897-98).

Thomas began contributing to The Globe and this led to a full-time post with The Outlook magazine. After working for the Saturday Review he was was recruited by Alfred Harmsworth in 1907 to join the staff of the Daily Mail. Thomas wrote a regular column of country life and in 1908 a selection of this articles appeared in the book From a Hertfordshire Cottage.

On the outbreak of the First World War he was sent by the Daily Mail to France. Lord Kitchener, the War Minister, was determined not to have any journalists reporting the war from the Western Front. Thomas was arrested and sent back to England. However, at a Cabinet meeting in January, 1915, the government decided to change its policy and allow selected journalists to report the war. Five men were chosen: Beach Thomas, Philip Gibbs, Henry Perry Robinson, Percival Philips and Herbert Russell. 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.

Beach Thomas (second left) on the Belgian Front
Beach Thomas (second left) on the Belgian Front

Over the next three years the journalists accepted government control over what they wrote. Even the disastrous first day of the Battle of the Somme was reported as a victory. Thomas later commented that: "The censors would not publish any article if it indicated that the writer had seen what he wrote of. He must write what he thought was true, not what he knew to be true." He admitted that he was "deeply ashamed of what he had written" but Philip Gibbs defended his actions by claiming that he was attempting to "spare the feelings of men and women, who, have sons and husbands fighting in France". As well as supplying articles on the war for the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror Thomas wrote the book With the British at the Somme (1917).

After the Armistice Thomas was awarded a knighthood for his services as a war correspondent. Over the next twenty years Thomas wrote articles on foreign affairs for both the Daily Mail and The Times. He also contributing a weekly column on country matters for the Observer.

William Beach Thomas, who wrote two autobiographies, A Traveller in News (1925) and The Way of a Countryman (1944), died on 12th May, 1957.

Primary Sources

(1) In his book, Traveller in News, William Beach Thomas wrote about the problems he had reporting the First World War in 1914.

The censors would not publish any article if it indicated that the writer had seen what he wrote of. He must write what he thought was true, not what he knew to be true. New correspondents were not allowed to be sent to France, but no decision was reached to banish the men already in France.

(2) William Beach Thomas, With the British on the Somme (1917)

No true news (of the first day of the Battle of the Somme) was known by anyone for hours. Flashes of hope, half-lights of expectation, hints of calamity only penetrated the smoke and dust and bullets that smothered the trenches. The tension was unendurable. The telephones, the carrier pigeons, the guesses of direct observers, the records of the runers, the glimpses of the air-men, all combined could scarcely penetrate the fog of war. The wounded who struggled back from the German trenches themselves knew little.

(3) In his book, Traveller in News, William Beach Thomas wrote about his reporting of the Battle of the Somme for the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror.

A great part of the information supplied to us by (British Army Intelligence) was utterly wrong and misleading. The dispatches were largely untrue so far as they deal with concrete results. For myself, on the next day and yet more on the day after that, I was thoroughly and deeply ashamed of what I had written, for the very good reason that it was untrue. Almost all the official information was wrong. The vulgarity of enormous headlines and the enormity of one's own name did not lessen the shame.

(4) William Beach Thomas saw his first tank during the Somme offensive at Flers-Courcelette in September 1916.

They (the tanks) looked like blind creatures emerging from the primeval slime. To watch one crawling round a battered wood in the half-light was to think of "the Jabberwock with eyes of flame" who "came whiffling through the tulgey wood and burbled as it came."

(5) William Beach Thomas reported the offensive at Arras in the Daily Mail (10th April, 1917)

Near Arras our troops leapt to the attack in the midst of such artillery fire as the world has never seen. It was accompanied by an onslaught of strange engines of war, while overhead, as soon as the clouds allowed, our aeroplanes, moving at 130 miles an hour, rushed to tackle any German machines they could find.

From this vantage-point, where the full panorama from Vimy to Tilloy was etched in flames, I write immediately after watching the first storming. It is too early to give more than partial news, but the famous divisions directly in front of me, both of which I had before seen throw themselves on an entrenched and buttressed enemy, went straight through to their goal.

(6) William Beach Thomas reported the early stages of the offensive at Messines Ridge in the Daily Express on 9th June, 1917.

I have seen several of the heaviest bombardments ever conceived by scientific imagination; none of them approached this in volume or variety or terror, and one moment in it will live for ever in the mind of all who were within range as a spectacular miracle of the world. An hour before dawn, as we stood over the dim valley, where the black tree-tops looked like rocks in a calm sea, we saw what might have been doors thrown open in front of a number of colossal blast furnaces. They appeared in pairs, in threes, and in successive singles. With each blast the earth shook and shivered beneath our feet.

(7) William Beach Thomas described the Battle of Passchendaele in the Daily Mail (2nd August, 1917)

Floods of rain and a blanket of mist have doused and cloaked the whole of the Flanders plain. The newest shell-holes, already half-filled with soakage, are now flooded to the brim. The rain has so fouled this low, stoneless ground, spoiled of all natural drainage by shell-fire, that we experienced the double value of the early work, for today moving heavy material was extremely difficult and the men could scarcely walk in full equipment, much less dig. Every man was soaked through and was standing or sleeping in a marsh. It was a work of energy to keep a rifle in a state fit to use.

(8) William Beach Thomas, Daily Mail (24th August, 1918)

Last night helped by the harvest moon, this morning aided by a low mist, and this noon in full sunlight two British armies again attacked the enemy, recovered many French villages, and refilled cages with prisoners at various points on a front of 30 miles, from the Cojeul River, about 5 miles south of Arras, away nearly to Lihons, north of Roye.

Where we struck we won, and what we have taken we hold. One could go freely into Albert this morning, and away to the north end of the Hindenburg Line was already close and clear. More than this, our shrapnel was winking away behind the hills that guard and threaten Albert and 5.9 shells were falling in quick rotation at points nearly a mile on the German side of the town. This was at 11 a.m. At the same time, both north and south, above the Ancre and along the Somme drumfire announced yet more onslaughts.

(9) William Orpen, An Onlooker in France (1921)

The Ypres Salient - June 1917: Here the Press used to come when any particular operation was going on in the North. In my mind now I can look clearly from my room across the courtyard and can see Beach Thomas by his open window, in his shirt-sleeves, writing like fury at some terrific tale for the Daily Mail. It seemed strange his writing this stuff, this mild-eyed, country-loving dreamer; but he knew his job.

Philip Gibbs was also there - despondent, gloomy, nervy, realising to the full the horror of the whole business; his face drawn very fine, and intense sadness in his very kind eyes; also Percival Phillips - that deep thinker on war, who probably knew more about it than all the rest of the correspondents put together... According to Beach Thomas, "The censors would not publish any article if it indicated that the writer had seen what he wrote of. He must write what he thought was true, not what he knew to be true."