100 years since Basil Clarke became war reporter

War reporter Basil Clarke
War reporter Basil Clarke

Today is exactly 100 years since, on October 15, 1914, the journalist Basil Clarke got a phone call telling him to report urgently to the Daily Mail’s office.

It was a call that changed his life forever and would mean the British people got more comprehensive news about the early part of First World War than they would have otherwise.

Clarke had spent the first couple of months at the Government’s Press Bureau in Charing Cross, picking up officially issued news and trying to get his colleagues’ copy past the censors.

But when Clarke arrived back at the office, his news editor told him the Germans were about to take Ostend in Belgium and he wanted him to try to reach the city before it fell into enemy hands.

‘Get there first and send us a tip-top story,’ his news editor told him as he handed him the paper bag filled with 100 gold sovereigns that was to be his expense account. ‘Run it to a page if you like.’

War reporting has always been one of the most challenging types of journalism, but working as a war correspondent in the first few months of the First World War was especially difficult because journalists were not allowed at the Front.

The ban made it difficult for journalists to report from the Front, but it is to the credit of the independent-minded nature of the press that a number of reporters used their guile to get to the war zone and send news back to London.

They would often be helped – or at least a blind eye would be turned – by members of the military who thought the restrictions were unnecessarily draconian, but the ban still meant that during the early days of the war the ability of war correspondents to evade capture was at least as important as the traditional journalistic skills of finding news and writing articles.

As Clarke received his instructions to go to Ostend, he still had on the bowler hat and Burberry coat he had worn to the Press Bureau that day. He had no idea how long he would be away, but there was no time to say goodbye to his family and so collected the small suitcase he kept packed in the office and headed straight to Dover.

He would later wonder if he was the only journalist ever to have gone to war in a bowler hat.

At Dover, he was told that no boats were going to Belgium and so he took a cab to Folkestone to see if he could get one from there. As he waited at Folkestone, boats began to arrive that were crammed full of Belgian refugees and he spoke to some of them and was told that they had come from Ostend and that the Germans had already taken the city. He was too late.

The German occupation of Ostend meant that completing his news editor’s instructions was now impossible, so the obvious course of action was to return to the office. But instead, Clarke made a life-changing decision that was extraordinary both in its impetuosity and its recklessness.

Despite having a young family, he was so eager to see the war for himself that he decided to risk both his life and the ire of his employers by taking the first boat heading to Europe and, using his bag of gold sovereigns to pay his way, see what he could of the war. He gambled that he might be able to retrospectively justify his decision to his newsdesk if he was successful in getting news back from the Front.

And so began the three months Clarke spent as what he described as a ‘journalistic outlaw’, when he lived outside the law and survived day by day by using his cunning to evade arrest in what was a ‘labour greater and more complex than anything I have ever undertaken in journalistic work’.

Clarke took a steamer to Calais, where he explained to a British Consul that he wanted to head towards the war zone but was told not to leave town unless it was to return to England. Clarke also tried to get French officials to help him but they all refused to give him a ‘laisser-passer’ to anywhere in the direction of the fighting.

Clarke was determined to circumvent the intransigence of officialdom and he headed to the train station despite not having the necessary paperwork. But when he arrived he saw that its doors were guarded by soldiers with bayonets and so he instead decided to try to leave town by road. He had identified Dunkirk as a potential base because of its relative convenience for getting copy back to London and, given that it was just over 20 miles from Calais, he thought he might be able to walk there.

On the outskirts of Calais he came to a sentry box and the soldier inside refused to let him pass. Feeling tired and dejected, he stopped at a roadside café filled with soldiers. There, he struck up a conversation with a soldier who had been a printer on a French newspaper before the war and who remembered reading Clarke’s work in the Paris edition of the Daily Mail.

He said that he would shortly be leaving on a train that would stop at Dunkirk and agreed to help Clarke board the train. So Clarke headed back to the station, where he found that the door to the station restaurant was unguarded and he was able to walk through the restaurant and straight onto the platform, where the soldier was waiting for him.

They boarded a train full of French soldiers and as they made their way towards Dunkirk they passed such large numbers of Belgians either trudging in the opposite direction or crammed into trains that it seemed to Clarke to be ‘a stream of outcast humanity as few live to see’. He saw trains that were so overcrowded that men were lying on the roof or holding on between the carriages, and at one point he saw women being pulled out unconscious. ‘All
Belgium seemed to be pouring into France,’ he wrote.

When they stopped just outside Dunkirk’s station, Clarke decided to leave the train in the hope of avoiding the officials who would be guarding the station. He grabbed his suitcase, said goodbye to the soldiers and jumped down onto the track. But there was no obvious way to get off the track and as he looked for an exit he noticed he was being watched by a soldier with a bayonet.

Anxious not to attract any more attention, he started walking towards the station platform and then through to the main hall. Both exits were guarded by a soldier, a police officer and a ticket inspector.

Fearing he was about to be arrested or sent back to Britain, he noticed the refreshment buffet. To delay facing the officials, and reasoning that if he had to spend the night in jail then it would be better not to do so on an empty stomach, he went inside and got a meal.

And then his luck changed.

As he ate, a train full of Belgian refugees arrived and the platform was suddenly full of hundreds of people who all seemed to want to get to Calais.

‘There are no more trains tonight,’ Clarke overheard a station official telling the refugees. ‘Tomorrow, perhaps.’

Someone else said they had heard there were no vacant rooms left in Dunkirk that night and news of the accommodation shortage led to a rush towards the station door. Clarke realised this was his chance and so he joined the crowd that was now surging forward.

The pushing and shoving became worse as Clarke got near the exit and he was pushed onto a woman holding two small children. He lifted one of the children, a girl aged three or four, onto his shoulders to protect her from the crush, and just then the half-open station door suddenly burst open under the pressure of the crowd and Clarke was carried past the gesticulating officials and out onto the street. When he gathered himself, he realised he still had the girl but could not see her mother or the other child. He decided to wait for them and sat on his suitcase among the refugees outside the station and did his best to comfort the crying girl.

Half an hour later, the girl’s mother finally appeared. She told Clarke she had been left inside the station when the staff shut the door and feared he had run off with the girl. Clarke could see she had been crying and she had also lost her luggage in the crush. He assured her she would find the luggage later but did not offer to help look for it because he thought going back inside the station might lead to his arrest. Instead, he bought some warm milk for the children and a coffee for the woman, which they drank sitting on the cobbled stones of the square outside the station. After finishing their drinks, they found a nearby furniture store whose owners let the woman and the children sleep on the floor for the night.

Clarke said goodbye and returned to the station square, wondering how he himself might be able to find a bed. But as he considered his options he was noticed by a police officer who asked him where he was from.

A wrong answer could have meant an abrupt end to his ambition of becoming a war reporter. So instead of answering the police officer’s question, he asked him when the next train for Calais was leaving, hoping to change the subject.

The tactic worked. The police officer gesticulated as he explained it would be impossible to get a train to Calais that evening and Clarke managed to further distract him from his original question by insisting that he was surely wrong and that there must be another train to Calais that night.

‘You can never do more towards making the ordinary man talk and forget his original line of question than by contradicting him, and letting him convince you he is right,’ Clarke later wrote.

The police officer ended a long explanation by concluding that Clarke’s only option was to spend the night in in Dunkirk. Clarke thanked him for his advice and said goodbye.

He eventually got talking to a barber’s assistant who arranged for him to stay in a room in a nearby café. Clarke was pleased with the find. He thought the small number of guests there made it less conspicuous than a large hotel and he ended up staying there for some weeks before eventually deciding to leave after a police officer showed too much interest in him.

After spending his first night in Dunkirk, Clarke woke early the next morning and, intent on getting to the Front as soon as possible, walked to the gates of the city. There, he found a guard-house that was manned by soldiers and he confidently walked up to it and asked the soldiers the way to the nearby city of Furnes.

‘Your laisser-passer, monsieur?’ said one of the soldiers.

Knowing he did not have the correct documentation, Clarke ignored the request and instead repeated his question. But the soldier again demanded that Clarke produce his papers, more aggressively this time. Clarke took out the documentation giving him permission to go as far as Calais and showed it to the soldier.

‘What is this?’ the soldier asked.

At this point, Clarke decided to tell the truth and explained that he was a journalist who wanted to get to the Front but had not been able to get a permit.

The soldier told him that he would not be allowed outside the city gates, but as they continued talking the tone of the conversation became friendlier. The soldier mentioned he had once lived in London and remembered reading the Daily Mail.

‘If you let me through that gate,’ Clarke said, sensing an opportunity, ‘I’ll undertake to show you some of my writing in the Daily Mail in a day or two from now. Possibly it will have my name on it and then you will know it is mine, but to prevent accidents I will tell you when I return through this gate tonight what I am going to write and then when it appears in the paper you will be certain.’

The soldier laughed. ‘It is not allowed to leave the gate, monsieur,’ he said in a conspiratorial tone, ‘unless one wants to pay a visit to the cemetery which you see over there. The same road leads to Furnes and Ypres and the Front. If monsieur, now, would say he would like to see the cemetery, I should be able to let him through the town gate.’

Clarke said he would love to see the cemetery and the soldier winked at him and let him through.

By the time Clarke returned to the gate it was dusk and he had had his first experience of war reporting. On Sunday, 18 October 1914, three days after leaving to try to get to Ostend, he sent his first despatch back to London. Just 38 words, it appeared in the Daily Mail the following day:

“Severe fighting is taking place today near Nieuport (south of Ostend). Very heavy firing has been heard at Dunkirk since eight this morning. It is suggested that torpedo-boats or gun boats are being used in the canals.”

It marked the start of the three months that Clarke spent living as a fugitive. By the time he was finally forced to return home in January 1915, he was one of only two journalists left in the war zone.

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