10 best bits of Philip Gibbs’s autobiography

Sir Philip Gibbs
Sir Philip Gibbs

I have just finished reading Pageant of the Years, the autobiography of legendary journalist Philip Gibbs.

It’s a fascinating read, which i’d recommend to anyone interested in the history of British journalism. I thought it would be worth picking out the 10 things in it that I found most memorable.

1. The Daily Mail – a hiring and a sacking

Gibbs’s career at the Daily Mail was unusual in the way it both started and ended.

At the age of 23, he was invited to meet the newspaper’s owner, Lord Northcliffe, and at the meeting he was offered the editorship of the Daily Mail’s literary page (page four).

For a man of his age, it was a huge opportunity and he did not hesitate in accepting it. Six weeks later he arrived at the Daily Mail office to start his new job but this time Northcliffe seemed unsure who he was.

“Let me see,” he said. “Oh yes, I remember. Didn’t I ask you to join us?”

“Yes,” Gibbs replied. “You offered me the editorship of Page Four.”

“Did I?” Northcliffe said, looking surprised. “Well that’s a little awkward. I’ve given it to a brilliant young fellow named Filson Young.”

Northcliffe called down Young to join them.

“This is Philip Gibbs,” he said to him. “He tells me I offered him the editorship of Page Four. Well, he can work under you for a time.”

And so began Gibbs’s career at the Mail, working for a man whose job he had thought he had been recruited to.

His departure from the Mail was equally unorthodox. He had thought his time there might be coming to an end when he overheard another member of staff saying some “ominous words” to Northcliffe and saw Northcliffe nod in agreement.

Fearing he was about to be sacked, Gibbs decided he would resign instead. He went upstairs and wrote a resignation letter, sending it down by messenger boy.

Half an hour later, a man knocked on his door and introduced himself as his replacement.

2. “Only gentleman in Fleet Street”

When working as literary editor for the Tribune, Gibbs wrote to the novelist Marie Corelli to ask her to write an article.

She replied that she would be willing to do so as long as it would not be cut or edited in any way.

Gibbs agreed to her condition, and was flattered to receive a postcard from her in which she wrote: “You are the only gentleman in Fleet Street.”

But when he received Corelli’s article, he was horrified to discover that it was what he described as “a violent and libelous attack upon almost every other newspaper”.

He wrote back to Corelli to explain there was no way he could publish it.

She responded with another postcard. On it were the words: “You are an unspeakable cad.”

3. The explorer

In 1908, the world was abuzz with the news that the American explorer Dr Frederick Cook had become the first man to reach the North Pole.

Frederick Cook: the first man at the North Pole?
Frederick Cook: the first man at the North Pole?

Gibbs traveled to Denmark to cover the story and, through a huge slice of luck, managed to get a place on a boat that was going to meet ship bringing Dr Cook back to Copenhagen.

It meant he would get to interview the explorer before he had even landed but although getting the interview was a major achievement, there was something about Dr Cook’s story that Gibbs thought seemed odd. His suspicions deepened when Cook became defensive at straightforward questions and so Gibbs concluded that he was a charlatan who was lying about having reached the Pole.

When the boat reached Copenhagen, Gibbs hurried off to write his story. In it, he took the huge gamble – putting his career at risk – of making it clear he thought Cook was a fake.

“I took a big chance,” Gibbs wrote, “and looking back on it one which was too dangerous and not quite justified. I had no proof whatever that he was a fraud.”

Having questioned Cook’s truthfulness, Gibbs interviewed Cook again (why he agreed to be interviewed by Gibbs is unclear) and asked him about details of his trip. He then checked Cook’s answers with Danish explorers and they told Gibbs that Cook’s answers proved conclusively he was lying.

But as sure as Gibbs now was that he was exposing a conman, he found himself to be “the most unpopular man in Copenhagen”, a city that had lauded the explorer for his supposed achievement. He was once booed while eating at a restaurant and a newspaper described him as “the murderer Gibbs”. One of Cook’s friends even challenged him to a duel.

Even the great British journalist W.T. Stead, who was also in Copenhagen at the time, warned Gibbs: “Young man, you are not only ruining yourself but you are ruining the Daily Chronicle [Gibbs’s paper] for which I have great respect.”

The hornet’s nest he had stirred up began to worry Gibbs.

“There were moments when I had frightful doubts about the line I was taking,” he wrote. “Supposing after all Cook had been to the North Pole? Suppose I was maligning an honest and heroic man?”

These doubts were never more prominent than when a Danish newspaper announced that the Rector of the University of Copenhagen had examined Cook’s scientific notes and observations and thought they provided proof that he had been to the North Pole.

Gibbs, with his career on the line, went with Stead and a French journalist to visit the rector.

The rector proved reluctant to talk to them, telling them he was not allowed to give an interview to the press without first getting permission from the university.

“I only want to ask one question and to have one answer,” Gibbs told him. “Did you or did you not examine any notes and scientific observations by Dr Cook?”

“I do not want to get involved in this controversy,” the rector said. “The reputation of my university…”

At this point, Stead intervened. “This young man’s reputation is also at stake,” he said. “In any case the report in the press that you have examined Dr Cook’s documents should be confirmed or denied.”

Finally, the rector answered. “I have seen no papers from Dr Cook which confirm his claim to the discovery of the North Pole,” he said.

Shortly afterwards, Gibbs was having tea with the wife of a famous explorer when she showed him a letter from her husband. In it, he denounced Cook as a “charlatan and a rogue who certainly had never been anywhere near the North Pole”.

She agreed that Gibbs could publish it and, predictably, it created a sensation and seemed to prove Gibbs right. But then a few days later a letter appeared from the explorer’s wife denying she had ever shown Gibbs the letter.

“It was to me a knock-down blow,” Gibbs wrote. “I learned afterwards that she had weakened under great political and social pressure from high quarters. I have long forgiven her.”

Despite this set-back, as time went on it became increasingly clear that Dr Cook was lying about having reached the North Pole and his claims were finally disproved by the University of Copenhagen and the Royal Society.

Gibbs received a letter from Stead. “You were right and I was wrong,” the great journalist wrote.

4. Portuguese taxi ride

On a foreign assignment to investigate prisons in Portugal, Gibbs took a taxi ride to Forte Mon Santo outside Lisbon.

He wrote: “My driver went like a madman and a murderer, deliberately killing any dogs in the road. He knocked out three and was astonished by my anger.”

 5. C.E. Montague’s laughter

As one of the accredited reporters during the First World War, Gibbs’s work was supervised by C.E. Montague, previously a leader writer for the Manchester Guardian but now a censor for the British Army.

C.E. Montague: "ghoulish laugh"
C.E. Montague: “ghoulish laugh”

He had been against the war, but once it started he dyed his grey hair black and lied about his age so he could sign up, once telling Gibbs that since it was impossible to reconcile Christian ethics with the war, he had “declared a kind of moratorium on Christina ethics” until it was over.

Montague told Gibbs how when he was a sergeant in the front line he used to sneak up on his own sentries at night to see if any of them were asleep.

“It was a crime punishable by death,” Gibbs wrote, “and it was at a time when his men were so exhausted that sleep crept over them as an almost irresistible narcotic. There was something rather horrible in this stealthy creeping up on men like that, however necessary it might be.”

One day, Gibbs and Montague were watching a British attack and were close enough to see Germans running out of their dugouts and being shot as they emerged. Now and then a group of Germans that had been forced out into the open were hit by a shell, “blowing them all to bits”.

Each time this happened, Montague, who was sitting on a pile of sandbags, laughed in what Gibbs described as “a goblin way”.

“Montague, you’re ghoulish!” Gibbs said to him. “Why do you laugh like that?”

“I laugh because every shell that bursts on the enemy brings the end of the war nearer,” Montague replied.

Gibbs wrote: “This was a perfectly good answer, and yet somehow it seemed to me out of character – that goblin laugh – with a man of his high standard. I do not write this as a criticism of Montague, who was a better and wiser man that I have ever been, but as a glimpse of some oddity in him, some conflict within him, almost a touch of dual personality.”

6. The War and his wife

One of the most poignant parts of the book is where he writes about the effect the War had on his relationship with his wife, Agnes.

He wrote: “I noticed a change in her. She looked worn and thin. The war, so unending it seemed, was a horror to her, with all its casualties of youth. She saw no sense in it – nothing but massacre and misery on both sides. And she felt that she had lost me…

“She hated the despatches of war correspondents always holding out for a hope which was never fulfilled, always describing the heroic valour of boys who, of course, were sentenced to death. In the end she hated mine, for the same reasons, and I didn’t blame her, because that was the truth…

“I saw a tragic look in her eyes when I came back. She found a stranger in me because the war had changed me, she thought, and I was no longer the delicate boy she had loved – her shy fawn. I found her a little cold, a little distant, with some invisible barrier between us, though I came back to her with passionate longing, and left her again with tears in my heart.”

7. Being called a liar by Lloyd George

In the years after the War, the journalists who had reported the conflict were accused of having misled the British public; Beach Thomas of the Daily Mail later admitted to being ashamed of what he had written.

Gibbs denied this (though elsewhere in the book he seems to allude to the fact that his despatches had not been quite the whole truth).

So it must have been upsetting when David Lloyd George wrote in his war memoirs: “Gibbs lied merrily like the rest of them.”

“It was grossly untrue,” Gibbs wrote, “and it was very unjust of Lloyd George of all men to make this accusation against me.”

Gibbs put the accusation down to the fact that he had criticised Lloyd George for his policies during the Irish War of Independence.

8. Ramsay Macdonald’s confession

Gibbs got to know Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald and, despite being politically “not altogether in sympathy with him”, he thought he had great charm “because of his handsome face, and beautiful voice with its Scottish accent, and a gentle way with him”.

Ramsay Macdonald: "A broken man"
Ramsay Macdonald: “A broken man”

One day, Macdonald was giving him a lift in his car when the Prime Minister turned to him.

“My dear Philip,” he said suddenly. “I am a broken man. I can’t put two sentences together, and I can’t put two ideas together. I am blind, and old, and useless.”

Gibbs wrote: “He grasped my hand and clung to it like a small boy needing comfort, and my heart was filled with pity for him, and I was stirred by the poignancy of this tragedy. But when I left him I was disturbed by the thought that a man in this state of mind and body should be Prime Minister at such a time in our history.”

9. Interviewing Himmler

When visiting Berlin in the 1930’s, he was given the chance to interview Himmler.

He wrote: “He was in a large room with big windows. He rose from his desk and came towards me, and for the first time I saw the man who was responsible, I should say, in the years to come, for more cruelty, torture, and human agony than any human being in modern times. He did not look like that. He looked like a professor at a university, or even perhaps an artist. 

“There was nothing repulsive about him. On the contrary, he was genial, vivid and humorous. It was difficult to believe I was in the presence of a most damnable villain.”

Himmler started the interview by introducing himself as “a man whom your English newspapers call ‘the worst man in Germany’” and then asked Gibbs why the English people thought Hitler was preparing for war.

“Many people in England,” Gibbs replied, “think that Hitler, after rearming, may be tempted to play the part of Napoleon and attack other people’s frontiers.”

Himmler laughed. “That is not only not the truth,” he replied, “but the very opposite of the truth. I know what is in Hitler’s mind, and that is not part of it. After all, we have read a little history. We know something about Mr Napoleon. We know what happened to him. We also know that if Hitler was to attack other people’s frontiers and march across Europe, as you suggest, it would be for Germany the road to ruin. That is a way we shall not go.”

In his book, Gibbs wrote: “Looking back upon them [Himmler’s words] they seem to me astonishing. Why did he say that? If he were lying to me that would be easy to understand, but surely he would not have lied in such a phrase? He need not have prophesised that a war of aggression would be for Germany the road to ruin. Even now I find its psychology inexplicable.”

When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, Gibbs wrote a letter to The Times in which he repeated Himmler’s claim that if Germany violated other countries frontiers then it would be the road to its ruin.

He later heard that Himmler was furious about the Times letter and in 1945 Gibbs learned that his name was on a list of those to be arrested in the event of a German invasion of England.

10. Second World War

Having been a war correspondent in the First World War when in the prime of his life, Gibbs returned to France at the age of 62 to report on the Second World War.

His autobiography gets across an overwhelming sense of history repeating itself:

“I had the queerest sensation of being a ghost and walking among ghosts. For every village into which I went, and every bit of country through which I passed, every town in which I halted with the younger crowd of war correspondents, was haunted by the young officers and men of the old war.

“Here I was in Arras again – the Arras into which I had gone so often with a steel helmet on my head when it was being shelled.

“Away towards Lens was the Vimy Ridge, captured by the Canadians and Scottish through a snowstorm. Outside Arras, only a few minutes in a car, was Monchy Hill which I had seen charged by cavalry when the bodies of young troopers lay about the ground below.

“All over this countryside were the war cemeteries with their rows of crosses in crowded ranks. There below the soil lay the lads whom I had known, whom I had seen trudging up the Arras-Bapaume road, whom II had heard singing in estaminets, who had walked the Street of the Three Pebbles in Amiens, who had been up to their waists in the trenches sometimes, and who knew their chances were one in four when they went over the top, and less than that the second time.

“I was ghost-haunted. I myself was a ghost of that previous war. I went one day into Amiens and turned towards the Godebert restaurant with an officer who was with me. On many nights I had seen this place crowded with those who had come down from the Somme battlefields when their battalions were out of the line for a time. They had drunk too much wine here. They had flirted with little Marguerite. Now some of the officers of the Second World War were here, but not many.

“A woman came up to take my raincoat. She stared at me and then spoke to me in French.

“I remember you in the last war. I am almost certain of that.”

“Yes,” I said, “I was here in the last war. What were you doing then?”

“I was a young girl then,” she answered. “I used to take the officers’ overcoats when they arrived on rainy nights.”

I remembered her. She had been a slim dark slip of a girl. Now she was a middle-aged woman thin, and worn, and plain. Twenty-three years had passed since the Battle of the Somme, and I was elderly and haggard, and there was another war on.

Or was it the same old war? Had I been on seven days leave and come back again? Everything looked the same. The Vimy Ridge looked the same, through dank mist or a flurry of snow. The British soldiers in Arras were just like those others – their fathers – with the same cut of the jib, the same Cockney accent if they were Londoners, the same broad Scots if they were Scotsmen. They were singing the same songs: ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, “The Long Long Trail”, “Pack up Your Troubles in your old Kit-Bag”, with a few new ones which I didn’t know. The sons of the fathers were not much different, though afterwards in talking to them I found a difference. They were better educated, perhaps, and not so tough.”

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The Daily Mail and the First World War

Lord Northcliffe: had warned for years of the threat of Germany
Lord Northcliffe: had warned for years of the threat of Germany

Ahead of the centenary of the First World War, Private Eye has reported how in the Daily Mail did not understand the significance of the events of June and July of 1914 and at the time was more focused on events in Ireland.

There is certainly some truth in this, as the Daily Mail’s Tom Clarke set out in My Northcliffe Diary:

It has always seemed curious to me that the prophets of war who have since described this event [the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand] as the planned and obvious signal failed to recognise it at the time.

Northcliffe [the owner of the Mail] certainly did not recognise it. He, like many others, was wrapped up in the Irish deadlock, and as late as Monday, July 20, only five days before Austria and Serbia started the conflict which was to set Europe aflame, he was preening himself at having secured a personal ‘scoop’ about the King’s decision to summon a conference of the leaders of all parties on the subject of Ulster.

But criticising the Mail for lack of foresight over the War seems a little unfair.

Lord Northcliffe can at least claim to have been ahead of the crowd in identifying Germany as a threat. The Mail had been warning about Germany since its “Germany as She Is” series in 1896 and as early as 1908 he had written to Evelyn Wrench: “I know them [the Germans], they will bide their time, but Der Tag will come. You mark what I say.”

At the end of 1913 he even considered starting a Berlin edition of the Mail, which he apparently reckoned would cost him £200,000 but would be “worth many times that much if we can knock the war mania out of German heads”.

Northcliffe always saw the War as vindication of his years of warnings, but the reality is not quite so clear-cut. The Star newspaper’s claim that “next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any other living man to bring about the war” may have been overdoing it, but there is certainly a legitimate debate to be had over the extent to which the Mail’s hostility towards Germany was prescience or xenophobia.

While the answer is probably a bit of both, the fact that Northcliffe spent the last couple of years of his life – he died in 1922 – warning about Japan suggests he had something of a talent for identifing threats to world peace.

What is clear is that Northcliffe and the Daily Mail understood better than most that the impending war would be long and bloody. The Mail was devoid of all glibness about it being over by Christmas; on July 29, for example, it warned its readers that “Europe is face to face with the greatest catastrophe in human history”.

But while Northcliffe’s understanding of the situation was undoubtedly superior to many public figures, his judgement undoubtedly failed him at the outbreak of war and he was only saved by Thomas Marlowe, the Mail’s editor, from launching a ludicrous campaign for no British troops to set foot in Europe.

“Not a single soldier shall leave this country,” he announced to an astonished Mail newsroom. “We have a superb fleet, which shall give all the assistance in its power, but I will not support the sending out of this country of a single British soldier.

“What about invasion? What about our own country? Put that in the leader. Do you hear? Not a single soldier will go with my consent. Say so in the paper tomorrow.”

Northcliffe’s control over the Mail was such that he almost always got his way on matters of editorial policy. But this time, Marlowe disagreed with him and refused to back down.

This led to a tense night, with the printers preparing two very different leader columns for publication – one written by Northcliffe and the other by Marlowe – and Marlowe telling the printers that neither page should go through without his express order.

That day’s edition was three-quarters of an hour late going to press, as the office waited for a final decision. In the end, Northcliffe was persuaded to change his mind and it was Marlowe’s leader that the public read the following morning.

Press Gazette article on journalism in the First World War

Ahead of Monday’s Centenary of Britain’s entry into the First World War, I’ve written a piece for Press Gazette about the role of journalism during the War.

I’ve reproduced it here:

In as much as historians think about them at all, British journalists who covered the First World War tend to be viewed in a less than flattering way.

Seen as unthinking mouthpieces of the army and the government, the accepted version is that these journalists let their readers down by painting an inaccurate picture of the war. The most often cited example is William Beach Thomas, the countryside writer turned war correspondent who some believe inspired the inept main character in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.

To be fair, there is some truth in this negative portrayal and, certainly, the fact that Thomas was hosted by the British Army does seem to have compromised his independence. While it is common for war reporters to be “embedded” in this way, Thomas does stand out as exceptional for having presented the first day of the Battle of the Somme – the most disastrous single day in British military history – as a victory. He later came to regret allowing the military to influence his reporting and after the war admitted to being ashamed of some of what he had written.

But there is also another, very different, side to the story of how journalists covered the First World War. It is a story of hardship and heroism and of the kind of bloody-minded refusal to submit to authority that characterises the best of British journalism.

So as well as understanding the cautionary tale of Beach Thomas, we should also make sure we do not forget the stories of the many heroes of British journalism who risked everything to cover the war and challenged the government to an extent that was extraordinary.

The most famous example of this challenging approach is one of the most incendiary leader columns in the history of British newspapers. Written by Lord Northcliffe in the Daily Mail, it argued that Lord Kitchener – then a national hero – had been incompetent in ordering the wrong type of munitions and that this had resulted in the deaths of thousands of British soldiers

The article caused a scandal. Copies of the Mail were burned in the street; a police guard was put at its office near Fleet Street; and there was a huge overnight drop in circulation. But as unpopular as the article was in the short term, it was right and newspaper coverage of the scandal was seen as one of the reasons the Liberal Government was replaced with a coalition.

This willingness to challenge the Government, even during a time of War, was not an isolated incident. Just to take Northcliffe as an example, the following year his newspapers played an important role in removing Asquith as Prime Minister. Then when Lloyd George replaced Asquith, he was so worried about coverage in the Northcliffe press that he tried to placate him by offering him control of the Air Ministry. It did not work. Not only did Northcliffe reject the offer but he embarrassed Lloyd George by doing so publicly in The Times.

But it was not just the truculence of media owners that made British First World War journalism something to be celebrated. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about journalism during the War was the extent to which ordinary reporters were willing to defy the will of the Government.

Kitchener loathed journalists because he held a grudge for something that had been written about him earlier in his career. And so at the start of the war he decided to ban them from the war zone. Instead, newspapers were expected to pick up war news from a Press Bureau in Charing Cross and print reports penned by Sir Ernest Swinton, a kind of official war correspondent whose work one newspaper editor memorably dismissed as “magnificently uninformative”.

It is to the great credit of British journalism that it ignored the ban. From the start of the war until the restriction was eased in 1915, journalists used subterfuge to get to the fighting and endured living under constant fear of arrest as they gathered news for an anxious British public.

Life as a fugitive was difficult and dangerous. The war correspondent Hamilton Fyfe claimed Kitchener “talked wildly about having the reporters shot if they could be caught”, while Philip Gibbs, who later wrote for The Daily Telegraph, was held under arrest for ten days and told he would be put against a wall and shot if he dared to return to France.

Basil Clarke, who was one of these reporters, later recalled how life as what he called a “journalistic outlaw” was “a labour greater and more complex than anything I have ever undertaken”. He found that even the simplest aspects of reporting, from sending articles to London to even finding a light to write by, were suddenly filled with difficulty.

As Clarke wrote in his memoirs, the motivation for taking these risks and enduring such hard conditions was simple. “If Britons and Allies died in their thousands,” he wrote, “their fathers, mothers and sweethearts, and the countries that gave them, were entitled to know some little of the work they did.”

We should remember the defiance of the newspaper industry and the bravery of the journalists who risked their lives to report on the biggest story of their lifetimes. In this post-Leveson world, their example can act as an inspiration to us all.