The Free Lance and the Fakir
An Inside Story Of War Reporting
By William G. Shepherd
[Everyman's Magazine, March 1917]
These articles by Mr. Shepherd are the first frank, full answer to the questions that we constantly ask as we read reports from the front. Last month Mr. Shepherd answered the question: How much do war correspondents really see? This month the question is: Do war reporters tell the truth? The answer is both a startling revelation and a reassurance. Mr. Shepherd has had a remarkably varied experience. He has reported the war from every important battle-front in Europe. As correspondent of the United Press, he covered the destruction of Belgium; he was the only newspaper man who saw the second battle of Ypres; he was the first American reporter permitted at the British front in France. He has been at the German front; with the Austrians at Przemysl; with the Italians in the Trieste district; he reported four of the greatest retreats of the war, including the retreat of the Austrians, and later that of the Servians, from Servia.—THE EDITOR.
There have been three stages in war correspondents' activities in Great War. Every one of them might have been noticed by the careful newspaper reader if he had read between the lines of the war dispatches.
The first stage may be known as the "freelance days." The public, news-hungry, was often misled in that period. In the mass of war news, no small amount of fake and lies was fed to it by unscrupulous adventurers who were not trained correspondents and who had no reputation for veracity to sustain.
The second stage is called by European war correspondents the "dark ages." The public suffered in this stage too, because, though it got fewer fakes and fewer unreliable stories, it got no other news of any sort, except the official-reports; and these it had learned to take with a grain of salt.
The third stage, the one we have entered only recently, is the stage of the new twentieth-century war correspondent.
The harum-scarumness of those early freelance days is almost unbelievable, as one looks back on it now. Every word that a correspondent wrote for the news-hungry public was pure gold. Never, in the modern world, did news count-for so much in the lives of so many millions of people as it did during those first months of the Great War. Not a word that a correspondent wrote in those days was overlooked by the news-seeking millions. News, lies, local color, human interest, fakes, all went down the great public gullet in Gargantuan gulps.
Because the war began in Belgium, the experiences of the war correspondent began there also. The first real war news and the first real war fakes came from there.
Who "saved" the American consulate at Antwerp when the Germans seized the town? American correspondents in Europe are still debating this question, and the lie has been passed more than once in the discussion, discussion, because three different sets of correspondents claim the distinction.
It was like this: As the Germans approached Antwerp many sagacious humans fled the town, among them some of the consulate employees and officials. Shells were falling on the city, and those of the correspondents who were not joining in the retreat were hiding in cellars.
After the shell-fire had ceased, some of the American correspondents who came out of hiding—and, be it understood, they can not be blamed for having hid—made their way to the consulate, and, finding no one there, proceeded to "save" it from some imaginary danger that has not yet been made clear.
Who did the "saving"? That's the question. Americans have read at least three different thrilling stories of the incident. The consulate stood on a little side street, two doors off the main street, but there was a jog in the latter which made it possible to obtain a 'view of the main street for a distance of about two blocks. Was the "rescuer" a moving-picture man who hurried to the consulate when he saw the Germans were marching into the town, placed his camera in one of the windows, and, under the shelter of the American flag and a window-curtain, photographed the lines of incoming conquerors, not knowing that he was the only human being in the house?
Or was it a correspondent from a small newspaper who, entering the place and finding it empty, sat down at the consul's desk and wrote a story about how he had taken charge of the deserted American consulate? Is it true that this correspondent made two copies of the story, left one by accident on a table, and thus played into the hands of a third correspondent who found it and. wired it to his own newspaper as his own experience?
None of us war correspondents knows the truth.
"War is the Fakir's Opportunity"
Those were the good old days in the Great War, those days when war correspondents, unbidden, unwelcome, deluged Belgium and the northern part of France. They were the free-and-easy days when, if a man were a faker at heart, he could fake to his heart's content with no one to deny his stories, no one to question his alibis.
Adventurers rushed from the United States at the outbreak of war, usually traveling on their own money, carrying credentials from some newspaper that was only too glad to have a correspondent in Europe at no expense to itself. With such credentials these same adventurers saved themselves from capture now and then, and between times made themselves heroes at home by faking stories of their own valiant deeds and great dangers.
The American public read a mass of rot in those days in its daily allotment of war news. It did not know the difference between the truth and the lie; neither did the editors. While the scandal of faking was hot among us, and while we were bandying about the legend, "War is the faker's opportunity;" the fakers were lying shamelessly them to the American public about battles they had never seen, battles that had never occurred, about deeds that they had never performed.
These fakes were intended, in the main, to impress readers with the writer's prowess and bravery. One result is that several names of American newspaper writers which are synonymous with heroism in the mind of newspaper readers are synonymous with faking in the knowledge of other newspaper writers. Their fakery, in the main, was not injurious, but there have been instances where their work has produced serious results—especially in their reports of German atrocities in Belgium. For the supreme news-cheating of all the war was done in Belgium.
The German Atrocities
Let me say, right here, in view of what I shall say next, that my sympathies are strongly pro-Ally, I have been with armies on both sides in the Great War. I have been in all the warring countries, except Rumania and Russia, and after all that I have seen and heard and learned, my once neutral mind has settled itself into the Ally groove. I am convinced that humanity will gain more from an Allied victory than from German success. Yet, in spite of this I am bound to say, knowing what I do of the business of war news, that every American who has based his ideas of German atrocities in Belgium on newspaper reports of the early, free-lance days, is carrying a vast amount of misinformation in his head. I was in Belgium when the first atrocity stories went out. I hunted and hunted for atrocities during the first days of the atrocity scare. I couldn't find atrocities. I couldn't find people who had seen them. I traveled on trains with Belgians who had fled from the German lines and I spent much time among Belgian refugees. I offered sums of money for photographs of children whose hands had been cut off or who had been wounded or injured in other ways.
I never found a first-hand Belgian atrocity story; and when I ran down the second-hand stories they all petered out.
Yet in those days there were newspaper men around me, spending their time as I spent mine, living in the same hotel with me, eating at the same cafes and often at the same table, making the same news rounds that I made, who were sending their daily budget of atrocity stories back to the United States. I am only telling the truth when I say that the first Belgian atrocity stories to reach the United States from Belgium were those of certain correspondents whose reputations among American newspaper men are those of arch-fakers, and who, since the early days in Belgium, have lied about so many other things that they have since become discredited in newspaper circles.
"I attended the funeral, yesterday afternoon, of a hand," said one of those correspondents importantly as he seated himself at my table one noon in the Hotel St. Antoine in Antwerp. "It was the hand of an old man, and it had been cut off by a German soldier. I'll bet I make the front pages of the New York papers this morning with my story."
I don't know whether he did or not, but I do know that, at the very time when he was supposed to have been at this grotesque funeral, he was playing billiards in a cafe.
These correspondents witnessed no more horrors than I did during the time that I was in Belgium, yet they never withheld details of horrors. Stories of old men being shot; of children putting forth their hands to have them cut off by German sabers; of women with children being bayoneted, flew from their typewriters with astonishing rapidity as soon as they discovered that such stories were proving of interest to American newspaper readers.
In all fairness to the great news-gathering agencies of the United States, the Associated Press, the United Press, the International News, and the smaller agencies on which so many American newspapers have depended for their news during the war, I must say that they are to be exonerated of faking in this serious matter of the Belgian atrocities.
I should add that I have no reason to question the word of men of high standing who have reported the commission of frightful deeds in Belgium. I can only tell of what is compassed by my own experience.
The leser faking to which American readers were sometimes subjected in the early days, was not unentertaining. A certain little circle of fakers—pariahs among the responsible correspondents—included one man who wrote that he had been arrested as a spy by the French on the outskirts of a village, handcuffed to German prisoners, and led into the village, with a French crowd trying to get at him with their knives. He did not know, when he wrote the story, that certain American correspondents were also under arrest in the village at the same time and saw him, under arrest, escorted gently by a French officer to the outskirts of the town, where he mounted a bicycle and rode away without molestation.
"I was riding on a train near Paris," ran the story of one man who faked a whole battle in France, "when we suddenly heard shooting. The train stopped and we got off, and, looking over a hill, we saw a battle in full swing. As I looked, I saw one soldier jab another through the head with his bayonet."
His story, coming early in the war as the first eye-witness story of a battle, received flattering attention and huge headlines. But he was later recalled because of his unreliability.
"I was at the front last night," said one of these faking correspondents to me, one morning in Paris—the war had been on only three weeks and I was interested. "Yes, I was sitting here in the hotel lobby when a man in uniform came up to me and said, 'Come on, Mr. Newspaper Man, and I'll give you a ride. We got into his car, and rode for about three hours. Then he took me into a ditch where a lot of bullets were flying and we had a fine view of the battle."
To my certain knowledge, this young man had not left his room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Paris that night, and yet some weeks later I came across an astonishingly interesting story, which appeared in two hundred and fifty or more American newspapers, of how this youth had spent that night on a battle-field.
American correspondents, however, were not the only offenders in the matter of faking. The British correspondents had more to fear from the enemy than did the American writers, though most of them, with extraordinary bravery and coolness, remained to the last with American correspondents in the threatened towns of Belgium and northern France. A few beat retreats that were too hasty and so got out of touch with the news-centers. It then seemed advisable to some of them to draw on their imaginations for their news.
One British correspondent, favorably known for his conduct in other wars, stationed himself at Ostend, far out of the danger-zone, and sent from there such exciting stories of the proximity of the Germans and the danger of capture he himself was running that, by some process of psychology, the danger which he was imagining became very real to him. One day he took a boat and retreated to London, appearing in the editor's office in a state of "blue funk," with the story that he had remained in the Belgian town as long as it was safe to do so.
His story was published with a great flourish, making it appear that the noted correspondent was the last to leave the scene of the German advance. But for many days the correspondents of London newspapers remained in Ostend, and their daily stories sent from the town whence the famous war correspondent had fled, soon branded him a victim of his own imaginative yarns.,/
The Good Old-Days
But if those early days of the war made faking easy, they were, nevertheless, happy times, too, for the honest newsgetter. We could get around in those days when we were regarded as "nothing more than civilians."
I heard that expression first on the same day that I heard the first shot in the Great War. That shot was fired under the window of my room in the Hotel St. Antoine at Antwerp, at 2:30 A. M., September 2, 1914. As I looked out of the window into the pitch-black streets, twenty more shots followed, and I heard distant cannon. I went to the bathroom and got a drink of water. I remember looking at the cast-iron bathtub and wondering whether bullets would pass through its sides. By the time I got to the window again forty thousand Belgian rifles and some hundreds of Belgian machine guns, together with some scores of Belgian artillery pieces, were all booming away with high frequency. The flashes all pointed upward into the sky.
I was seeing the first armed resistance against a Zeppelin. I saw the sparks on the bombs which the Zeppelin was dropping; I saw the bombs whirl through the air in mad circles; and I heard the terrific explosions. I knew that I had come across a great newspaper story. I got into my clothes and dashed down the stairs to the front door.
A soldier stood there. "You can't pass out," he said. "You'll be killed."
"Never mind that part of it," I said. "I'm a newspaper man and I've got business out there."
"Newspaper men are only civilians to me," said the soldier. "You can't go out."
Of course, that Belgian soldier and all the other soldiers I met who regarded newspaper men as he did, were wrong. The difference between a civilian and a newspaper man, that morning in the hotel lobby at Antwerp was, that the civilians remained in the lobby, while the newspaper man sneaked out through the kitchen, found a door into an alley, and made his way to the street to see what was going on.
After an hour the firing ceased. Daylight came, and as soon as the telegraph office was opened, I went there to wire my story to London—a story of the first battle against a Zeppelin. There was a soldier at the entrance to the telegraph office who would not permit me to enter. I proved to him, and to his superiors that I was a newspaper correspondent.
"Newspaper correspondents are only civilians to me," was their answer. "And what's more, even if you did give your story to the censor, he wouldn't send it."
Nevertheless the story was printed that night in New York and many other American cities. I found a man who was going to Ostend in an automobile. He carried my copy to the telegraph office in that town, and had no difficulty in getting the officials to send it.
The Belgian system had thus broken down twice within a few hours in its attempt to carry out the military theory that there was no such animal as a newspaper correspondent. This was the theory that was generally held in all the armies in Europe at the outset of the war. It was a theory that made possible the existence of the free-lance reporter, whether he was an honest and reliable newsgetter or a conscienceless faker.
Going to Dunkirk
Of course, we played tricks in those days, I confess; we outwitted War Offices; we went where we were not wanted, and, if we were caught, we suffered for it.
There is a little dining-room in the railroad station at Calais which was used by more than one American war correspondent to outwit both the French and the Belgian War Offices in the first winter of the war. More than one American correspondent has sat in that station buffet forcing himself to swallow food he did not want, trembling in his shoes lest some French or Belgian officer should challenge his right to be there, while he played the famous trick of "Going to Dunkirk."
The correspondents always felt justified in working the "Going to Dunkirk" trick, because they believed that, in doing so, they were only beating the Belgian War Office at its own game. The Belgians, after the fall of Antwerp, would never refuse an American correspondent a pass to their lines beyond Dunkirk; their desire to please American correspondents was always apparent. But, to reach the Belgian lines, it was necessary to pass through the French lines at Calais, and the French invariably refused to permit correspondents to do this. The correspondents could not disabuse their minds of the impression that the French refusal was made with the approval of the Belgians. Wherefore, they set out to beat the game, as best they could. The dining-room trick did it.
It went like this:
The Calais railroad station was closely guarded by the French. If you wanted to leave Calais by train you were forced to go to the military authorities for passes which would permit you to enter the railroad station. Once inside the station, however, you might buy a railroad ticket for any point; your very presence in the station guaranteed that the French military authorities in the town of Calais had investigated you and granted you permission to travel.
But there were other ways of entering the Calais railroad station besides passing the sentry at the door with your military laissez-passer. We American correspondents discovered that by taking a train at Paris and alighting in the Calais railroad station, which was at the end of the Paris-Calais line, we could escape all challenges by sentries, if we only lay low and made ourselves inconspicuous. There was an evening train for Dunkirk, and, once you were in the Calais railroad station, you had only to buy a ticket for Dunkirk and wait until the train departed.
The little dining-room was the hiding-place. Upon alighting from the train from Paris you would ask a porter to carry your baggage into the dining-room, which opened directly on to the station platform. There you would go through the form of eating until within a few minutes of train time. Then, leaving your baggage in the dining-room, you would saunter out to the ticket-office, purchase your ticket with as little fuss as possible, saunter back to the dining-room, call a porter, and go out to the train through the dining-room door.
Two hours later you would be in Dunkirk, carrying your Belgian pass, which the Belgians could not well refuse to honor. We all knew that the time would come when one of us would be caught at the buffet trick and that the correspondent who was caught would wish he had stayed in Paris. But the newspaper stories which we got along the Belgian front were too precious to lose. No American newspaper correspondent was ever caught at the game of "Going to Dunkirk." It fell, instead, to the lot of an Englishman, Lucien Jones, a son of Henry Arthur Jones, the playwright, representative of the London Chronicle. Jones went to Dunkirk three times in succession, after the Belgians had twice expelled him, and his persistent reappearances caused the military officials to seek out the hole in their military system whereby the correspondents were leaking into their lines.
Into jail he went; it was only through the efforts of the British Foreign Office and the prominence of his father that he secured his release. The military authorities were so angry at him that when I tried to send him a cheese from my hotel in Dunkirk, where I was held awaiting exportation, they refused to let him have it.
And who tipped off the trick to the authorities? A newspaper man who, when a colleague in kindness told him how he could get to Dunkirk by using the Calais dining-room as a hiding-place; sat down in his hotel in Paris and wrote a story saying that he had got to Dunkirk and the Belgian front, and telling how he had done it. It was a he that put Jones into jail for three weeks, and ended our trips to Dunkirk, where the news-picking was always good.
Sharp Wits — and Penalties
There were two rumored punishments for war correspondents who got to the front without passes in those days. One was death by shooting; the other, imprisonment in a fortress for the length of the war. In those old days when we were considered mere civilians with no rights that any one was bound to respect, we used often to talk of those mythical punishments; but to this day I have never heard of any correspondents suffering either penalty.
We are tagged and listed now in little black books that can be found at any frontier or in any army headquarters, but in those happy-go-lucky early days of the war the armies had not learned how to control us. The great machinery of that cyclonic blast of war that hit the civilized world of 1914 left newspaper correspondents entirely out of its operations. It ignored them, and therefore it had no way of dealing with them. We puzzled the generals. The rules said: "No newspaper correspondents allowed." But there were always American newspaper correspondents around somewhere.
The weather man might as well make a rule that there shall be no rain in April.
The Germans began the war with a rule against correspondents, but when they got to Brussels, they found a nest of American correspondents awaiting them. In their forward rush they overtook John McCutcheon, Irvin Cobb, and others. The late Richard Harding Davis marched alongside the German hordes that were advancing on Paris. The English rules were as strict as the German; but American correspondents were in the retreat from Mons, and all the regulations of General French's army as to the disposal of off-side war correspondents broke down. The army men were too busy retreating to worry about punishing a poor war correspondent who was trying as hard to get away as they were.
I have a crumpled piece of paper, among my souvenirs, which took me to Soissons; incidentally, it puzzled, beyond measure, a whole townful of British and French officers. The mayor of Creepy-en-Valois gave it to me; it set forth that I was to be permitted to pass along the road to Soissons. The truth was that the mayor had no right to give me such a pass; but he didn't know it and I didn't know it, though I did suspect, at the time, that the pass might be questioned. All the soldiers I met along the road were men who had been soldiers only a few weeks and to whom a paper signed by a mayor carried as much weight as a paper signed by a general. They were better acquainted with mayors than with generals, in fact, and wherever I presented this bit of paper I was welcomed with a smile and permitted to pass.
That piece of paper symbolizes as deep pleasure as I have ever had in my life. It threw open to me the beautiful tree-fringed roads. It was autumn; the days were golden and a full moon lighted the nights; the direction, said direction being toward the United States.
The Free Lance
I have so far told of the conditions governing war writing only on the Ally side. But on the German side, the same happy-go-lucky system of war corresponding was under way. John McCutcheon, Irvin S. Cobb, and several other American writers left Brussels and went forward to meet the oncoming Germans. For over a week they were traveling in the "no man's land" between the two armies, not knowing whether they were the tail-end of the British retreat or the advance-guard of the German rush. The Germans decided it by catching up to them and arresting them.
While these American correspondents were watching the German advance, Robert Dunn, of the New York Evening Post, and other correspondents, were in the British rout, and between the stories which have been written by both sets of correspondents the American public learned first-hand of what happened, during those stirring days, on both sides. Which is more, thanks to the censorship, than the public of any of the warring countries has learned to this day.
The Germans, too, were puzzled by the presence of war correspondents in their midst.
"There are no war correspondents with the German army," a certain general declared to the culprits who were brought before him.
"Beg pardon, general," said Cobb, "there are three of us."
Within a few weeks these same correspondents had been recognized by the War Office at Berlin and were permitted to visit various scenes of German triumph.
These happy days of free-lancing never existed in Austria. American Correspondents who went there found conditions far different from what they were in other parts of the war zone. From the very first day of the war, the correspondents in that country—German, Austrian, and neutral—were recognized by the Government. In fact, the war started off with a boom for war correspondents in the dual monarchy. One hundred and eighteen writers were accredited to the army. They included Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Swedes, Danes, and Americans. They purchased, under army instructions, horses, saddles, costumes, and firearms, and were established in a Kriegspresse-Quartier in a little town some ninety miles behind the front, under Colonel John, curator of the war museum in Vienna. They lived like lords and officers in those days. While their brother correspondents were scouting around France and Belgium, free-lancing, feeding themselves, and sleeping where they could, these writers in the Austrian press headquarters, were enjoying a course of study and practise in what might have been termed a "war correspondents' school." Every morning they got on their horses and rode in a circle, riding-school fashion, around a riding instructor. Later in the day they filled a near-by forest "with the sounds of revolver practise. Their food was given to them, free—splendid Hungarian wines included—in a great mess-hall; and every man got tobacco and cigarettes as part of his rations.
In fact, these men got everything they wanted—except news.
While the correspondents in Austria, with all their luxuries, were looking forward, with little hope, to the time when, they might get to the front, the uncredentialed reporters on the Ally side were seeing all that was to be seen.
But the war correspondent's game was changing on both sides. The Austrian correspondents soon lost their horses, which were commandeered for the army. Their revolvers proved useless for anything but shooting at trees. They passed miserable hours in waiting for promised trips to the front which did not materialize. When I reached the Austrian press headquarters in October of 1914, after the fall of Antwerp, I found the writers there a discontented and altogether miserable lot.
"The Dark Ages"
It was the fall of Antwerp that ended the happy, free-lancing days on the Ally side. An old-time war correspondent remarked with a sigh as he crossed the Scheldt River and departed from Antwerp in the retreat: "Antwerp has fallen; thank God, the day of the free-lance faker has passed!"
And then came what the war correspondents call the "dark ages," when the War Offices came to look on correspondents not as unclassified, civilians, but as pests who must be kept down. Oh, the dark, hopeless days that we spent waiting in the capitals, helpless, unable to move. In London there were at least thirty war writers practically prisoners. We could not move from London. There were orders against us; the French were instructed to "pick up" certain of us who tried to cross the Channel to France. The little black books were coming into being; the spring of 1915 saw their birth. You might have gone into the American bar at the Savoy Hotel in London, any evening at five o'clock in those days, and seen from a dozen to a score of famous war writers who were marooned in the British capital.
Paris, in those "dark ages," was as desolate, as London. I found the correspondents there in the spring of 1915 almost desperate from inaction. Henry's bar was their meeting-place, and there they exchanged their tales of woes. The War Office would not recognize them; they had been informed that any individual attempts on their part to get to the front by stealth or sneaking would be severely punished. One or two brave spirits who risked it were prevented from sending any news of any sort—even the daily communiqué—to their papers for the space of ten days. Richard Harding Davis, Phil Simms, Charles Wythe Williams, Henry Beach Needham—all were at one time or another silenced by such punishment.
I was a wanderer during those "dark ages." I hurried to Rome, hoping that perhaps the Italians had not heard of the newest wrinkle in War Office procedure regarding correspondents. It looked bright in Italy for a little while. I got on a train and went, with difficulty, to Udine, the Italian headquarters. It was a big moment when I got off the train in that headquarters town. While all the correspondents in London were longing vainly to get to the British headquarters, and all the correspondents in Paris yearning hopelessly to get to where General Joffre held forth—by blindly traveling I had taken a chance and had reached the town from which General Cadorna conducted the campaign of the Italian army. I got all the thrill of the old free-lance days in Belgium and France when the open road stretched before any fellow who had the nerve to take it. Again I was to tramp over fields and farms, sleep and eat as I could, and write stories of war at first-hand.
That was a glorious evening in Udine; the star of hope was brighter than any of the other lights in the soft Italian sky that gleamed above us as we dined in the garden of the quaint old Italian inn. And what a dreamless, happy sleep, that night!
Breakfast started off gloriously, because after breakfast I was going to begin to see things.
I looked up and beheld a detective. He didn't need a star to identify him. He had the curling mustache, the thick-soled shoes, the turtle's forehead, and the stump of a cigar which all detectives possess.
"I'm him," I said, not wasting good grammar.
"You may finish your breakfast. I will wait for you."
All the gentlemen I met within the next sixty minutes were kind but firm in their declaration that I could not remain in Udine. The detectives even permitted me to go directly to General Cadorna's headquarters, where an Italian count, disguised as a soldier, received me most graciously and said:
"Well, you may remain in Udine if you wish to; but if you do, we'll be forced to shoot you."
Two hours later, because a train didn't leave sooner, I departed from Udine—having been escorted to the train by a detective—and returned to Rome. The "dark ages" were on in Italy, too. I was permitted, months later, to see something of the Italian fighting, but that was after I had become a decent, credentialed war reporter.
The "dark ages" were on in every warring country in Europe. In Petrograd, Stanley Washburn, John Bass, Walter Whiffen, and other American correspondents sat about the hotels of the Russian capital or shared the hospitality of Ray Baker, at the American Embassy. In Austria the correspondents had been moved from Alt-Sandec, a town near the Austrian headquarters, to a little village in the very center of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where they got less news than the newspaper readers in Budapest.
American newspaper readers got little news in those days from their correspondents in any part of the war zone. The fakers had nothing to fake.
The Twentieth-Century War Reporter
It was a light that dawned in Germany, spreading through the War Offices of Europe, which finally dispelled the gloom of the "dark ages." The British kept their first battle of Ypres a secret from the world for four months. But the Germans were guilty of a stupidity almost as great, for von Hindenburg's first defeat of the Russian army in the Masurian lake region did not reach the world until Karl von Wiegand, then of the United Press, discovered the battle as a news story, and persuaded the German War Office to let him go to Eastern Prussia and make a news story out of the victory.
That one story served to prove to the Germans the value of proper publicity. Within a short time they had appointed a man in the War Office whose sole duty was to arrange for trips for war correspondents to the various fronts.
The Allies soon felt the force of this German move. While desperate correspondents on the Ally side were either sending out fake and imaginative stories, or were passing their days in idleness in the Ally capitals, the correspondents in Germany were glorifying German arms by their stories of German doings. To offset the German propaganda, the Allies began to grant certain privileges to correspondents, and these privileges exist to-day.
With the memories of the good old days behind them, and with the "dark ages" only recently passed, the war correspondents in Europe to-day have moved into the third era of their existence, the era of the twentieth-century war correspondent.
The like of the twentieth-century war correspondent has never been seen before. He is a patented war correspondent. You find him on both sides. He had been tested in a hundred ways as to his dependability and his sympathies. He is tabulated on the military records. His headquarters are always in some European capital, and he makes it a point to keep in daily touch with the War Office. He visits these offices regularly, like a police reporter, or a city-hall reporter doing his daily rounds. Once in a while, he is told that he may pack up his field kit and take a trip to the front. With a few other correspondents, on a certain day, he will make a tour of certain interesting places after which he returns to the capital, writes a story of what he has seen, and then goes back to his daily grind of office visiting.
Most of the faking of the old days is gone. The free-lance adventurer who used to write his entertaining fakes has dropped out of the game, though harmless fakes, intended merely to glorify the writer while not misleading the public on an important matter, even now find their way into print occasionally. Such a story was that of the correspondent who, after being presented to President Poincaré, of France, with a number of other correspondents—a purely formal proceeding—wrote that "the President of France, learning that I was with a party of correspondents, sent a courier across the fields to ask me to come to meet him. He thanked me for all I had written in support of the Ally cause."
President Poincaré speaks no English, and this particular correspondent speaks no French; and what really occurred was that, as the line of correspondents passed the French president, this one, coming to his turn, offered his hand, smiled—and passed on down the line.
The new twentieth-century war correspondent knows a great deal about war, in spite of the restraints put upon him. He is under fire, oftentimes, and he has a grasp of the technical side of war. He writes only about what he has actually seen or what comes to him from official-sources, and his stories are strictly censored.
The day of the faker has passed. While it is true that the American public is not getting the whole truth from its correspondents on either side, owing to the censorship (with which I shall deal in a later article), nevertheless the average newspaper and magazine reader may rest assured that he is getting few lies. The reporters who are on the job in these days of the restrained twentieth- century war correspondents are men who must do their work as Richard Harding Davis did his.
"If you read a story by Davis," said Frederick Palmer to me one day recently, "about a little yellow dog in some out-of-the-way village, you could be sure, not only that Davis had really been in that village, but that he had really seen the yellow dog."
The Richard Harding Davis standard of truth is the standard of all the men I know in Europe who to-day are sending America its war news.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald