Reporting the War from Deskside

Fifteen Months From The Note-Book Of An Indoor War Correspondent


By Frank B. Elser

[The Outlook; March 22, 1916]

Of military strategy I know little or nothing, and I have never seen a battle, yet for a period of more than fourteen months, eight hours a day, Sundays included, I sat at a desk in London as a member of a news association staff trying to report the great war for some nine hundred American newspapers.

In other words, I am an indoor war correspondent. I say this in no frivolous sense. From a daily newspaper standpoint, and especially in so far as the neutral press is concerned, this war has been chronicled from the desk rather than from the battle-front. There have been good stories—great stories—from all the fronts (I myself spent a week in the trenches at the British front in Flanders), but the daily march of events, the pinnacles of fact, correlated, interpreted, have been recorded by men in shirt-sleeves and eye-shades in some obscure office.

Strangely, the great American newspapers and press associations do not have pretentious offices abroad. I think this is invariably true. Our London office has a quaint, Dickensy look that is distinctly unnewspapery. It is up two flights of dark, narrow stairs, and when I first entered it, one September afternoon two years ago, an aged tea-kettle was crooning on an open-hearth fire. And there was a tall English office-boy in a cutaway coat—I tried to picture him on Park Row; and a battered old desk, and, over it, green-shaded electric light bulbs, with lamp cord weirdly tangled to regulate their height. Then there were an old-fashioned telephone, a small "morgue," some reference books, and, ranged against the wall back of the desk, the tickers of the Central News and the Exchange Telegraph Company. Then, of course, there was the staff.

This was the London office of the Associated Press; and London has been, and is now more than ever, the news center of the world.

When I walked into the office, one of the greatest struggles in history was going on just across the Channel; but everybody was as cool as could be—sad almost, it seemed to me. As I learned later, the depression which comes when you are working under a censorship had already set in. "Kicks" were coming from our New York office almost hourly. Where was Lewis, who had gone into Belgium with Cobb, McCutcheon, and others? New York wanted to know; and why couldn't we confirm the rumors that the Crown Prince of Germany had been assassinated in Berlin? and "Opposition says Paris evacuated;" and "Please impress British authorities with necessity intelligent censorship at once. Much your copy unintelligible;" and so forth.

This was on the afternoon of September 3, 1914, when the Germans were still battering their way towards Paris. On that day I learned two things about reporting a war. The first was: Don't hesitate to file with the Censor matter you think will be killed. It may be passed. The second was: File rumors of potential importance, no matter how absurd they are, and credit the source. They may be true.

Crediting, the source of war news has been adopted by conservative journals and news-gathering agencies in their desire to report all phases of the war without assuming responsibility for stories that may or may not be true. The system necessarily drags into despatches an ungainly skeleton of credit lines, but is imperative if you want to play safe.

This war has been largely a war of fake stories and misinformation. Not deliberate fakes on the part of American correspondents, but deliberate fakes on the part of many writers in the neutral Continental press, and misinformation of the kind that surrounds every great event. There has necessarily been more of it during this war because it is the greatest event that has ever happened in this world.

Slowly we learned to catalogue the fakes, and after a time we came to know them as old friends. There were the gun foundations of concrete prepared in France by the Germans in the guise of factory foundations long before the war. We sent stories about these at first, and then we were sorry, for later the same foundations were discovered in Poland. Then there was a certain correspondent in Copenhagen—the human adding-machine we called him—whose specialty was German casualty totals. Although he kept them in suspiciously round numbers, he was for a time convincing. Then it occurred to us that, inasmuch as no one in England outside the War Office could more than approximate the British losses at a given time, the figures of our Scandinavian statistician were uncanny, to say the least, and our faith in him waned.

Holland harbored—and still harbors—the specialists in computing how many troops Germany transfers from east to west and vice versa. These figures were always available after either the Allied or the Teuton forces had gained a notable success. If Germany lost ground in the west, she began immediately depleting her effectives along certain sectors of her eastern front, flinging reinforcements there from westward over that famous system of strategic railway. If she scored in the west or in the east, she began as promptly to withdraw men and metal from the field of victory, invariably leaving, so the writers in Holland said, old men and boys to hold the new position, which had been strongly consolidated. These figures also after a time lost caste, as I have no doubt that similar compilations purporting to affect the Allies and supplied at a time when they might be true have lost caste in Germany.

The Crown Prince rumor, I think, had been printed before I left New York, in August; but it was not easily killed, and it was sent from London many times during the early fall of 1914, variously dated Geneva, Athens, Rome, The Hague, Stockholm. Each version was vouched for by some agency or newspaper or by some ostensibly reliable courier just out of Germany, leaving the correspondents no alternative but to send it along to be read by the American people for what it was worth. I mention this by way of explaining why so many despatches of this character were cabled during the first six or eight months of the war. Not a few of them are still being cabled; but the desk men abroad have developed a sort of sixth sense by the exercise of which they are becoming more and more discriminating. Yet the eternally harassing feature of selection is that so many of these rumors are based on truths or half-truths.

I dare say that at this writing no man in Europe, outside the circle of the German royal family or physicians attending the royal family, is entitled with veracity to add one sentence to the official bulletins concerning the German Emperor's recent indisposition. Notwithstanding this, special despatches from Paris and from other sources outside Germany have described his malady in detail and have told what operation his physicians purposed performing. Now this is palpably guesswork, but timely and intelligent guess work, creating newspaper material that no correspondent can overlook with impunity. I have no German papers at hand, but I venture to say that the same alarmist accounts were published in Berlin and elsewhere in the German Empire when it became known there that King George of England had been badly injured by a fall from his horse.

To writers in neutral states fringing the war zone the temptation to fake or half fake has been almost irresistible. Bear in mind that for news of conditions and events in Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Bulgaria the newspaper readers of England, France, Russia, and other countries of the Entente alliance must depend either upon the indirect service of neutral correspondents within Germany, Austria, Turkey, or Bulgaria, or upon the product of writers of whatever nationality at some base in a state adjacent to Germany or her allies. Obviously, an English writer, uninterned, cannot now remain in Germany, nor a German writer in England.

Therefore most of the accurate matter concerning Germany and allied nations as printed in England, France, Italy, and Russia to-day is prepared by American correspondents for American journals and press associations, and is either cabled back after publication in this country or given out in Paris or London for simultaneous publication here and abroad. Plainly these American writers working within the borders of Germany or of her allies are not going to send out, provided they expect to remain there—and, moreover, the Censor would prevent it—anti-German news. And in this class come food riots, the prevalence of disease, crop failures—in fact, economic distress of any kind; staggering casualty lists, gloomy pictures of illness in the royal family, cabinet crises, and the like. Yet these are just the things about which the people of England, France, Italy, and Russia want to read. Inversely, the people of Germany want to read the same things about their enemies; hence the German press garners and prints an array of rumors and near facts of an anti-Entente character as supplied by writers in the same neutral states surrounding her. Germany would draw on similar material from the United States except for the fact that England controls the cable situation.

This desire to read how your enemy is suffering, coupled with the will to believe that what one would like to be true is true, has created the immense field afforded by the war for the propagation of matter of this sort. That Greece, Switzerland, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries have been the hotbeds of it is due solely to their geographical position. I know a good many newspaper communities in this country that would be serious competitors were they so situated.

However—and this is the crux of the matter so far as the United States is concerned—the anti-Entente material reaching Germany from whatever source, seldom, if ever, finds its way to this country by cable, for the reason that from a cable standpoint Germany is isolated. To cable America the American correspondents in Berlin have to file by way of England, and there, at the hands of the British Censor, and properly so, according to the ethics of censorship laid down in this war, anything he considers inimical to the Entente cause is stricken out.

By virtue of this cable control England has become the Editor-in-Chief of the belligerents. She edits not only her own war copy but, with trifling omissions, the copy of her enemies, and on occasions the copy of her allies. Matter passed by the Censor in Petrograd for transmission via England to America was often recensored by the British before it was delivered to our office for forwarding, and at times despatches passed in France and sent via England because of delay on the French cable got no farther than the British Press Bureau.

This would indicate that the Allies are not always of one mind as to what constitutes news for neutral consumption. But I want to emphasize that this article is in no way intended as a criticism of the British censorship, nor of the German, or the Russian, or the French, or the Turkish. Only the test of time will tell whether censorship as enforced in this war was founded on a wise or fallacious policy. Incidentally, Germany, through restrictions drawn only this winter, has gone further than any other country in the matter of regulating the neutral press. She has demanded of all foreign correspondents a personal guarantee that all their despatches, by mail or cable, shall not be changed or altered in any way by the newspaper receiving them, nor shall there be placed over them headlines which the Germans regard as misleading. Violation of this is punishable by the forfeiture of the correspondent's right to gather news in Germany. All foreign correspondents in Germany were required personally to subscribe to these regulations, but how they are to live up to them is not clear to me.

The fortunes of war and the irony of fate compel Germany to look to her arch-enemy, England, as the outlet for news. Direct cable communication between this country and Germany, it will be recalled, was severed by the British only a few days after the outbreak of hostilities. Since that time all despatches from Germany or her allies, in view of their geographical position, have of necessity passed through the British Press Bureau, the one exception being a meager budget of news that Berlin gets off daily by wireless to Sayville, Long Island.

England may thus keep, and does keep, a complete record of every despatch sent from Germany to this country—records of unquestionable value both from a military and diplomatic standpoint. She has, moreover, aside from such brief bulletins as Berlin may send, by wireless, complete control of the official communiqués of all her enemies. While these communiqués have at no time, to my knowledge, been suppressed in their entirety, whole sentences, sometimes whole sections, have been deleted on the ground of being either palpable misstatements or as containing information likely to prejudice the Allied cause.

During the nearly a year and a half that I was in London I sat facing a clock with two sets of hands—black and red. The black hands told us what time it was in London; the red registered the time in New York. Always the hands were five hours apart, for when it is noon in London it is only seven A.M. in New York, six in Chicago, five in Denver, four in San Francisco.

That is a patent observation, but I make it because those two sets of clock hands are fixed in my mind. When I arrived in London, I was reimpressed with the fact that we would work with this five-hour advantage, that we could crowd into afternoon editions in New York matter appearing in London after nightfall, and cull from the London morning papers reaching us at daylight copy which would reach telegraph desks in America before even first editions went to press.

The clock held true to form, but the five hour leeway turned out to be something of a delusion. The machinery of the censorship moved at times so slowly and there intervened so many quasi-mechanical operations to hinder news traffic that we soon proceeded on the theory that London and New York time were identical. Delays in transmission, due to one thing and another, ranged from one to seventy-two hours, and when a despatch left the desk we seldom knew, unless subsequently advised from New York by letter or cable, whether it went through promptly or lingered for hours after the leisurely manner of the proverbial American messenger boy. Similarly, we had no means of knowing how much editing a despatch had undergone at the Press Bureau, and frequently we filed "adds" to despatches when the despatches themselves had been suppressed.

Working under such conditions, month in and month out, weighed on us heavily—in other words, created the depression I referred to above. It tended to kill two things that every real newspaper man is supposed above all to possess—snap and enthusiasm. Nothing made very much difference. We knew that should the greatest naval battle in history take place in the North Sea we would be confined in reporting it to an official Admiralty statement of possibly a hundred words; we knew, and such proved to be the case, that when the Zeppelins came we would be barred from describing what I now regard as one of the most dramatic incidents of the war, but would be supplied with one of many mimeograph copies of an official account thereof.

When the "Zeps" did come for their first big raid, about eleven o'clock at night, only our night editor and an assistant and the cable operator and a copy boy were in the office. Yet that staff was ample for the emergency. Throughout the town, in homes and hotels, other members of the staff were scattered, but few even took the trouble to call the office on the telephone. They knew only too well that they would be of no use.

I, for one, stood in front of my house and watched the Zeppelin with a professional anguish that burns within me yet. I never so wanted to write a story in my life. I cast and recast opening sentences. I sent "adds" and corrections and inserts. I pictured myself at the end of a leased wire, dictating a running story to a good operator, baseball world's series fashion, breaking in now and then with such a bulletin as, "At eleven fifteen the Zeppelin seemed to hang almost over the Bank of England. Fires were breaking out near Cheapside."

My story was never written. A bomb fell within sixty yards of the office, driving out the night editor and his assistant and the office boy and the cable operator; but what we sent to New York that night was the mimeograph official statement, nothing more.

I was fortunate enough to have a good view of the Zeppelin, and I am going to set down here a little of what I wanted so much to write that night. But first I want to disclose a bit of news—and I do not believe it has been printed either in England or America: the entire raid was witnessed by Sir John French, then Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in France and Belgium, temporarily in London, presumably for a war conference, he stood on the balcony of his home in Lancaster Gate and smoked cigarettes during the bombardment. I have this from no less authority than the Field Marshal's butler. Of the raid itself here are my chief impressions as recorded at the time:

To those who had never seen a Zeppelin in action before—and this included practically all of London—the striking thing about it all was the familiarity of the spectacle. Here was the cigar-shaped, gray-sided creation of Count Zeppelin breezing along, shedding bombs just as we had expected. Below, and once or twice above, broke the British shells, making little points of light very similar to an electric spark except that red, and not blue, seemed to predominate in the color. Even the crash of the anti-aircraft guns seemed reminiscent. Everybody had read so much and talked so much about Zeppelins, and seen so many diagrams of them and so many fanciful pictures of London being bombarded, that the real thing seemed quite natural.

What sent a chill through all who heard was the noise of those high-explosive bombs. They did sound sinister. There was a reverberation and a readjustment of the atmosphere afterward that would have impressed an idiot. It was one of these high-tension monsters going off that gave the first general alarm in our part of town. Strangely, although special constables had been drilled to give the alarm in case of a raid, no one at our house was roused until the shooting began. Whether the raiders were discovered before they were actually over the city I don't know, and probably never shall. It is the general report that the Germans gave themselves away—that is, they drew no fire until after dropping a bomb. Then the searchlights groped about the sky and finally fingered them and, having once achieved this, held them until they disappeared.

The one I saw was high in the heavens when it passed our way. Guessing elevations is a fool's job, but, if I were asked, I should say that it was seven thousand feet up. Shells were breaking far short of it, and it sailed on with as much apparent serenity as if it were on a trial trip with the inventor aboard.

There was an almost uninterrupted crash and boom of gunfire, and a great many people, seeing the flashes below the air-ship, thought these were bombs being dropped. The Zeppelin was moving toward the north, very slowly it seemed to us, and perfectly horizontal. The noise of its great battery of two hundred-horse-power motors was barely audible. If there were any British aviators darting about it at the time, the crisscrossing searchlights did not disclose them. I do not believe there were, for, with the shells zipping skyward, that aerial locality was, as the British officers would say, "quite unhealthy."

The great thing finally slipped away in the northeast, and the crowds remained staring into a starlit sky. When it passed from view, it seemed to me, measured as an artist would measure with his brush, to be about as big as a good-sized salmon.

To this day the London papers have printed nothing descriptive of that raid—barring the brief official account and guarded editorial comment based thereon—nor, of the raid that soon followed it. The idea is to puzzle the Germans concerning the results of raids, so that on succeeding visits the raiders may not profit by past mistakes. Whether this theory is sound and compatible with the allegations that the United Kingdom is overrun with German spies, I do not know.

The official version of the raid referred to contained just fifty words. Biblical reporting, that! Here was the biggest thing that had happened to London since the start of the war, and even the Northcliffe press had to dismiss it in three sentences. I have since tried to picture the New York papers in such a predicament. I wonder if such a feat of journalistic discipline could be accomplished in America.

Journalistic discipline brings me back to the censorship—that is to say, the Official Press Bureau. This Bureau, an outgrowth of the war, and now quartered just off Whitehall near the Admiralty, may be described briefly as an agency of the British Government charged with the duty of determining so far as possible what the newspapers, not only of the United Kingdom, but of the whole world, shall or shall not print about the war. For convenience, the Bureau is also the medium through which the Government announces to the public news of naval and military operations, casualties, etc. Contrary to popular belief, the Bureau has no power to whip the press into obedience. From time to time it issues confidential warnings, directing newspapers and correspondents how such and such a piece of news shall be treated; but the enforcement of these instructions lies with the courts and the military authorities, who may prosecute offenders under the Defense of the Realm Act. The submission of copy by the British press is therefore voluntary; but those who publish without submission do so at their own risk. At first glance this would appear to inflict undue hardship on the provincial press, involving the sending of matter for censorship from a distance, a procedure almost prohibitory for a daily newspaper. Theoretically this is the case, but the situation is ameliorated by the fact that what these newspapers print consists almost entirely of official communiqués and despatches to the great London papers, matter automatically censored upon receipt in London.

Keeping check on the despatches of foreign correspondents is done through the simple expedient of shunting through the Press Bureau "all press cables to, from, or through London." Upon this tremendous mass some forty men, mostly retired army and navy officers, work day and night in eight-hour shifts. If these subordinate censors are unable to decide whether an article should be passed or suppressed, the article is submitted to higher authorities. This at times involves a delay that to the American correspondents at first seemed appalling.

Copy is deleted literally, and not by a process of rewriting. Sentences are either painted out with ink, blocked out with heavy pencil, or cut out bodily with small scissors. I have seen many cablegrams from our Berlin correspondent, going also, as I pointed out before, into the enemy's hands, that had been so scissored as to resemble Mexican drawn-work. Edited to taste, these cablegrams are stamped "Passed for publication" and may be forwarded to America, provided they reach the cable office with no alteration whatsoever. There is a censor on duty at the cable office to see that there are no interlineations on passed matter. Now, while no honorable correspondent would attempt to write between the lines or otherwise change copy that bore the Censor's stamp, it often happens that copy as edited by the Censor is incomplete in text, and sometimes misleading. To meet such a situation I once took a chance.

As received on our desk from the Press Bureau a despatch from the Continent read just the opposite of what I knew the writer intended, and I realized that in making changes the Censor had unintentionally created this error. He had used both scissors and ink. For me to re-edit the copy with ink or pencil differing from the Censor's I knew would mean detection, and I had visions of deportation, perhaps a jail sentence. To send the copy back with a request for recensorship would involve several hours' delay, and the despatch was an important one.

I read it carefully and saw that the elimination of four words would clear up the ambiguity. Well, thought I, I can use the scissors just as artistically as the Censor and nobody will be the wiser. I did. The four words came out and the despatch got away on time. My conscience was clear, for I knew I had made the despatch read as it should have read.

Incorrect statements of a certain character, however, if believed by the enemy, are helpful to a nation at war, and on this theory none of the belligerents objects to the circulation of reports which have enough of the ring of veracity to keep opponents guessing.

Somewhere near the start of this article I observed that it was a good policy to file matter with the Censor, even though at heart you knew it would not get by. The reason for this is that our experiences in London proved that the censors were essentially human beings, and that what is meat for one is poison for another. Working on this theory, several individual correspondents were able to get through some descriptive matter on the Zeppelin raids. Thus, while the standardization of methods of handling news in this war has, on the one hand, minimized beats and exclusive stories, it has, on the other hand, by virtue of its mechanism, developed freaks of transmission and created arbitrary situations wherein one correspondent has been enabled far to outstrip competitors.

There were two American correspondents of my acquaintance with the Turks at the Dardanelles. Both ultimately left that field, discouraged at being able to get so little matter through to this country. It was of course pro-Turk matter, and it had to be routed up through the central empires and Holland, and then, inevitably, to England, where a great deal of it perished. But—and here is the story—these two chaps both interviewed the commander of the first German submarine to come down from the North Sea, around Gibraltar, into the Mediterranean. The event was the forerunner of the withdrawal from the Dardanelles of the British war-ships, and many weeks before the submarine menace in the Mediterranean was acute. The interview with the submarine commander was a picturesque and graphic novelty, one of the best news and feature stories of the war.

The two correspondents obtained their interviews at the same time, wrote them at the same time, filed them at the same time. But fate was pulling for one and against the other. One went through with comparative despatch to the Chicago paper to which it was filed; the other lay in London for five days. When it reached New York, it was as dead from a news standpoint as Rameses.

I have never heard a satisfactory explanation as to how it was possible for this to occur. Incidentally we were never able to obtain a satisfactory explanation as to why our first bulletin from Queenstown telling of the sinking of the Lusitania was held fifty-two minutes by the Censor. In the meantime a message had gone to the Cunard Line offices in New York, where the news was first made public.

Then there is the mystery of the Kaiser's head. When I was over in France as a correspondent at General Headquarters of the British Army, I witnessed on a plain not far from the little town of St. Omer a tent-pegging contest and a demonstration of rough riding by the East Indian cavalry.

They are magnificent horsemen, these Indians, and I wrote a story in "cablese" telling how, to the immense delight of the assembled French peasants, they swept across the plain, charging into lines of imaginary Germans, slashing right and left with their sabers, or, piercing with their slender lances straw-stuffed sacks which dotted the ground. Then came the tent-pegging, and, finally, the pièce de résistance. On a small, flat piece of wood an Indian artist had painted a likeness of the German Emperor. An iron cross hung about the wooden neck, With considerable ceremony an Indian soldier buried it up to the chin in mud and straw, then Mohamed Akrum—I jotted down his name at the time—wheeled his horse some sixty yards away and with lance raised bore down on that curiously painted likeness of the ruler the Indian has grown to hate. He hit it square in the center, riding top speed, splitting the painted face from scalp to chin.

That night, writing my story at Headquarters, I hesitated before saying that the board bore the German Emperor's likeness, reasoning that when the story was printed in America Germans and German sympathizers would say, "A nice pastime for the refined English!" So I spoke to Captain Faunthorpe, of the press staff, about it. "It makes a better story to leave the Kaiser in," I explained, "but there will surely be editorial comment on it by the pro-German press. What about it?"

He shrugged his shoulders. "It will not be censored out if you care to put it in," was his comment.

So I put it in; and the story went to London by King's messenger the next morning, and was cabled to New York that afternoon and was printed throughout this country the same day.

When the American papers reached London, I looked for my story, and found that for Kaiser or German Emperor—I have forgotten which I used—there had been substituted—the "face of a German soldier."

I sent my clippings to the War Office, according to regulations, and got a letter back from my friend Faunthorpe. "I see," he said, "that the Kaiser's head didn't get through, after all. What ever became of it?"

Frankly, I don't know. My copy was censored at the front, and presumably went through the Press Bureau untouched. When I got back to New York, I looked up our day cable editor and asked if he had done it. "I followed your copy," he said.

But I have been wandering far afield from the desk, and I shall go back. Hans Lody was the first German spy to be executed in London. Like the others that have followed him, he was shot in the Tower. Latterly, spies shot have been designated in the brief official announcements as A, B, C, etc.; but in Lody's case they used his name. I state this because it is pertinent to the circumstances through which, by chance, I got a good story on how he died.

It was my day off, and, accompanied by Baedeker, I went to the Tower of London. Rain was falling through fog, and generally it was one of those gloomy London days that in reality are just as depressing as fiction writers say they are. The Tower is not a cheerful place, but I wandered around considerably, and finally stood in a courtyard gazing at a spot where Lady Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn and others had had their heads cut off.

An old beefeater, gay in his regalia, came and stood beside me. "That's the place the block stood," he said, by way of voluntary information. I smiled my appreciation and handed him a sixpence. Then, by way of being pleasant, I said:

"I guess it's been a long time since any one was executed in the Tower."

I was startled; and he added, quickly, "It was Lody, the spy."

Now we knew that Lody had been tried by court martial, but I, for one, had not pictured for him death amid such historic surroundings.

I gave the old beefeater a shilling, and, leading me into a doorway, he told me all about how Lody had died. He had been shot at dawn, after the custom of court-martial executions, in another courtyard, 'fifty yards away. And he had died game. He had smoked a cigarette up to the last, and he had asked that he be allowed to face the firing squad with eyes unbound. Whether this request had been granted, my informant was unable to say.

When I got back to the office that night, I found this notice from the Press Bureau on the spindle: "The press are authorized to state that spy Lody (sic) was found guilty by court-martial and sentenced to death. Sentence was duly confirmed at the Tower of London."

This had already been put on the cable, but I sat down and wrote how Lody died. Somehow the thing impressed me tremendously. We had been writing for months with hardly a passing thought of men dying by the thousands in the trenches; but this was different. I wondered for a time if the story would get me into trouble. Not that there was anything in it against regulations; it was submitted to the Press Bureau in the usual way. But it occurred to me that they might wonder how I knew so much about it. However, I never heard from it again, except to see the story under a spread head in the home papers.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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