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.