100 years since Daily Mail blockade scandal

Basil Clarke
Basil Clarke: “We are feeding the Germans”

It is exactly 100 years ago today that the Daily Mail published an article that, although it has been completely forgotten today, caused a huge global scandal that, according to the Economist, ‘has brought us to the verge of collision with neutral countries’.

It centred on the British blockade of Germany, which was aimed at preventing the importing food and other supplies.

But while its objective may have been straightforward, its implementation was complicated by the fact that Germany had land borders with neutral countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands. This meant that for the blockade to be truly effective, the British also had to stop goods being imported to neutral countries and then being sent on to Germany. The situation was so difficult that goods from Britain itself were being exported to neutral countries and then sent on to Germany.

As well as the practical difficulties, the British feared that restricting the trade of neutral countries might alienate them.

Publicly, the Government insisted the blockade was robust and effective, but privately its officials knew it was not working. Concerns began to enter the public domain towards the end of 1915, with opposition MPs questioning its effectiveness in the House of Commons, and the Daily Mirror calling it ‘our slipshod blockade’.

Yet this criticism did not seriously damage the Government because there was no strong evidence to support it. And so Lord Northcliffe, the owner of the Daily Mail who had already seriously wounded (some thought fatally) the Liberal government with his coverage of the shells crisis in 1915, sent reporter Basil Clarke to Copenhagen at the end of 1915 to try to find that evidence.

Clarke started his investigation into the blockade by trying to get import statistics from the Danish Government, only to be told it had stopped issuing them and had banned their publication. He did, though, manage to find a Danish trade newspaper called the Borsen that listed imports to Copenhagen.

While these figures did not include imports to other Danish ports, Clarke thought they might at least give an indication of whether more goods were being imported than before the war. So he hired an out-of-work Danish journalist to undertake the laborious task of taking the totals for each merchant and each ship for every day in 1915 and adding them together to give totals for
all the imports into Copenhagen for the whole year.

The results were staggering. In 1913, the whole of Denmark had imported 2,860 tons of rice, but according to Clarke’s figures Copenhagen alone had imported 16,625 tons in 1915. In 1913, Denmark had imported 4,000 tons of lard, but the 1915 total for Copenhagen was 15,000 tons. Pork imports followed a similar pattern, with 950 tons imported to Denmark in 1913 rising to 12,500 tons for Copenhagen in 1915.

Clarke immediately realised the figures compiled from this obscure Danish journal would be a major international story. He thought that some of the increase could be explained by reductions in imports from Germany and an increase in exports to Sweden and Russia, but he did not believe these explanations could account for the scale of the increase, which meant he had uncovered apparently incontrovertible evidence that goods were being shipped to Denmark and then being sent on to Germany.

While the Danish journalist had been compiling the import data, Clark had spent time at the docks at Copenhagen and seen sacks, boxes and barrels being loaded onto German-bound boats. He heard orders being given in German and even saw some boats flying the German flag. Clarke managed to get on board one of these boats and travelled in it to Malmo in Sweden with a cargo of oils, fats and iron. Once they arrived at Malmo, the cargo was unloaded onto the quay to wait for a German steamer.

With his observations supporting the Borsen’s statistics, he was confident that he had strong evidence that the blockade was being routinely flouted and so he returned to England. When Northcliffe heard the results of his investigation, he was so pleased that he invited Clarke to his house for lunch.

As Clarke sat down at the table with the other guests, the waitress asked him if he would prefer white or red wine with his meal and he asked for a glass of the white.

‘No you don’t, my boy,’ Northcliffe said, snatching the newly poured wine away. ‘You’ve got that blockade article to write this afternoon.’

Northcliffe was so keen for the article to be given Clarke’s full attention that after lunch he personally took him back to the Daily Mail and installed him in the directors’ room so he could write without being disturbed.

As he sat down to begin working, Clarke must have had many pages of notes in front of him. But he was able to summarise his findings in a five-word introduction that was as devastating as it was succinct: ‘We are feeding the Germans’.

His article, published in the Daily Mail on 12 January 1916, made the shocking allegation that ‘ship after ship and train after train, as I have seen for myself, are still pouring the world’s goods into Germany’. ‘In setting out the facts on which these deplorable conclusions are based,’ he wrote, ‘I will try to keep from my presentation of them any distortion due to the disgust and burning anger that they evoke in me, as they must do any patriot of this Empire.’

He went on to set out the statistics for how greatly imports to Denmark seemed to have increased since the start of the war, explaining how the Borsen figures represented a 375 per cent increase in imports of lard and a 1,300 per cent increase for pork. After setting out similar increases for cocoa and coffee, he argued that the only possible explanation was that the extra goods were going to Germany. ‘[Denmark’s] 2,900,000 population could not use so much cocoa and coffee, for instance, if they drank nothing else night and day,’ he wrote. ‘To argue that Denmark is using these commodities herself is mere foolishness. She is exporting, of course.’

The article was accompanied by a scathing editorial. Headlined ‘Deplorable, Pernicious, and Dangerous’, it lambasted the Government for letting down ‘the young men who form the flower of this nation’ by failing to take ‘proper steps to cut off the supply of food which sustains the Germans of the material for making ammunition with which the Germans are to kill our men’.

The publication of Clarke’s article caused an immediate worldwide sensation.

Newspapers around the world repeated the Daily Mail’s claim that the Government’s failure to impose an adequate blockade was a betrayal of the men who were fighting and dying at the Front.

Yet despite the seriousness of the allegation and the fact that it struck at the heart of the Government’s competence to run the war, there does not initially seem to have been any real attempt to rebut it.

The lack of a government response did not mean Clarke and the Daily Mail were about to let the story drop. Over the next few days there were two follow-up articles, one by Clarke claiming British tyres were being used on German cars and the other a leader column accusing the Government of running a ‘sham blockade’.

The editorial demanded that the Admiralty be put in charge of it and warned ominously that Britain ‘is going to insist on a real blockade of Germany and it will make short work of its Ministers if they do not convert their sham blockade into a real strangle-hold’.

Five days after Clarke’s initial article, he wrote another piece headlined ‘Sham Blockade’ and in the same edition it was reported that Parliament was planning to debate the issue. Then the following day the conservative Morning Post joined the Daily Mail in criticising the blockade.

One of its reporters had uncovered separate statistics suggesting Germany had imported 4 million pairs of boots from the United States in 1915, which it used as evidence that ‘Germany has been permitted by the British Government to import through neutral countries essential supplies to an amount exceeding the amount imported by her in time of peace’.

The Daily Mail welcomed the Morning Post article with an editorial that demanded that control of the blockade be taken from the Foreign Office and given to the Admiralty, which consisted of seamen who it believed were the only ones in government with ‘the requisite knowledge to conduct it’. Then it maintained the pressure with another article by Clarke about how workers at Dunlop‘s Birmingham plant had demanded assurances before agreeing to work on a consignment of tyres for Copenhagen, telling the company’s management they were ‘not going to make tyres for the Germans’. The protest was only settled, Clarke reported, when managers were able to prove the tyres would not be sent on to Germany.

By now, almost a week had passed since Clarke’s first article and, if anything, interest in the story appeared to be increasing. It was around this time that the Government began to fight back. The Westminster Gazette, which was generally considered to be a mouthpiece for the Government, published an editorial on 18 January defending the blockade: ‘Whatever else it may be, the blockade is not a sham … whether it can be made more effective still is a question which concerns us all, but we are not at the beginning of wisdom on that subject until we understand the very real difficulties which surround this question. It alarms us to see these very difficult and delicate questions … discussed without, apparently, any understanding of the necessary conditions.’

In the same edition, the Westminster Gazette reported that the Government had recently sent ‘a business man of eminence’ to Scandinavia, and he had concluded the blockade was working well. ‘Such a man would have very much better means of examining the situation from within than any correspondent sent out to make a case against the Government,’ it suggested.

Clarke responded to this claim a week later, writing that an attempt to ‘discredit my figures has been made by a vague allusion to a visit of enquiry by “an eminent man of business”’ that he understood to be a reference to the financier and politician Sir Alexander Henderson. ‘Sir Alexander, if he reported “all well” with our blockade, was wrong,’ wrote Clarke.

The day after its claim about the ‘business man of eminence’, the Westminster Gazette urged its readers not to ‘be led away by mere clamour’, and then the following day rubbished Clarke’s articles as ‘only a phase of the conspiracy to bring the Government down’ that was being orchestrated by Northcliffe.

It quoted an anonymous MP who claimed to detect a sinister motive behind the articles: ‘If the Daily Mail would study the German papers, instead of talking about statistics which it does not understand, it would get a little nearer the truth of the effects of our blockade. But it does not want to do this, because it is out not to beat Germany, but to destroy the Coalition Government at home, by the continual process of sapping and undermining its prestige and authority … The country believes the stories about our feeding Germany, and the Government must do everything in its power to make the truth known, and rebut these calumnies, or it may find it difficult to exert its authority in the administration of the law.’

By this stage, Clarke was expending as much energy responding to criticism of his articles as he was to making the case against the Government. On 20 January, for example, he described the suggestion that the extra imports to Copenhagen were being sent on to Russia rather than Germany as ranking ‘among the very poorest of all the bad arguments that have been put forward to defend our sham blockade,’ before going on to claim that Russia had ‘almost negligible’ trade with Denmark.

The story had by now been running for nearly two weeks and still the Daily Mirror reported that businessmen in the City of London were ‘discussing nothing else but the inefficiency of the blockade’ and that ‘a great popular demand for freedom of action for our Fleet is growing in force every hour’, with the ‘man in the street … crying out for a check to be put upon this abuse
of privilege’.

It was not just in London that Clarke sparked debate, with the Livingstone Mail in Northern Rhodesia calling the blockade’s effectiveness ‘one of the questions of the hour’.

So when a scheduled statement to the House of Commons about the blockade was delayed for a week, it must have added to the impression that the Government was in crisis.

On 21 January, the Westminster Gazette admitted that MPs ‘realise that these articles have shaken public confidence to some extent’ and on the same day, the New York Times reported that public discussion of the blockade ‘continues bitterly’.

With almost every day that passed, the Daily Mail published a new article.

On 22 January, Clarke reported that a Viennese newspaper had recently published an advert for 40 tons of prime beef from the Netherlands, and a weekly supply of a wagon full of cement and linseed oil from Denmark.

On 24 January, at the start of the week when the blockade was scheduled to be discussed in the House of Commons, one Danish newspaper reported that ‘every capital in Europe is full of the sensational rumours used by Mr Clarke’.

The Daily Mail began the week by trying to rally the public to put pressure on their elected representatives: ‘If you have near and dear ones in any of our fighting forces, you cannot do better this Monday morning than by bringing some pressure – postal, telephonic, or verbal – upon any member of Parliament to get him to stop the food and explosive supplies we are permitting to pass into Germany. By so doing you can shorten the war and save lives.’

On the Tuesday, the day before the Parliamentary debate, the Daily Mail published yet another article by Clarke, this time addressing claims that a tighter blockade would threaten relations with neutral countries.

‘It has about as much reality as our “blockade of Germany”,’ he wrote. ‘My experience of neutrals and neutral countries during this war is pretty extensive, and it is that they are amazed at the extent of the trade powers we leave in the hands of neutrals.’

As Clarke wrote these words, he would have expected that the day after they were published the Government would finally give its official reply.

Actually, he did not even have to wait that long.

On the same day, 25 January, the Government unexpectedly issued a lengthy memorandum responding both to Clarke’s articles and those in the Morning Post.

The memorandum was forensic in its detail. And while it lacked the hyperbole of Clarke’s articles, it rebutted the allegations in a way that was quietly devastating and showed that the Daily Mail’s confidence that it was ‘beyond possibility’ for Clarke’s story to be repudiated had been badly misplaced.

The memorandum showed that the Government had spent the previous two weeks carefully preparing its defence. It had tracked down copies of the Borsen and discovered its figures included consignments bound for other countries. The memorandum gave the example of a cargo of rice and pineapples that were included in the Borsen figures but were actually being shipped to Norway.

It also revealed that some goods were only allowed to continue to Denmark if the British were guaranteed that they would either be returned to Britain or stored in Denmark until the end of the war. This was because some goods covered by the blockade were stored near the bottom of the ship, which meant removing them would involve unloading the whole ship and lead to delays and congestion in ports.

Yet the Borsen had listed the contents of the whole cargo, even when much of it was to be returned to Britain or stored in Denmark.

The memorandum argued that this had significantly inflated the Daily Mail’s figures for 1915.

Having pointed out two general problems with Clarke’s conclusions, it then systematically went through each type of goods mentioned in the original Daily Mail article. With rice, for example, it accused Clarke of failing to compare like with like, because the 1913 total had only included rice meal or ground rice, while the 1915 total included whole rice, rice groats and rice meal. It also suggested that any increase to rice imports could be explained by the fact that the price of rice had increased by much less than the price of pearl barley or oatmeal.

While these arguments were in themselves enough to raise serious doubts about Clarke’s figures, the memorandum’s final point was perhaps most effective in undermining the credibility of both the story and also of Clarke himself.

Clarke had got his maths wrong.

In his original article, he had reported that the increase in lard imports from 4,000 tons to 15,000 tons had represented a 375 per cent rise. In fact, this is a 275 per cent increase. Similarly, he claimed the increase in pork imports from 950 tons to 12,500 tons was a 1,300 per cent increase. It should have been 1,216 per cent. There were similar mistakes in other calculations.

Considering how obvious it must have been that his article would be highly contentious, it is extraordinary both that Clarke made such basic mistakes in the first place but also that nobody at the Daily Mail seems to have bothered checking the percentages before publishing them. The error made a mockery of the Daily Mail’s claim in the editorial accompanying the first article that Clarke was ‘an able man, with great experience in sifting and analysing facts
and figures’.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing for Clarke was that the correct percentages still represented huge increases and there is little difference, from the point of view of constructing an argument, between an increase of 375 per cent and 275 per cent, or between 1,300 per cent and 1,216 per cent. This was a point Clarke made in his response to the memorandum in the following day’s Daily Mail, as he tried to defend what he must have known was a serious error by accusing the Government of splitting hairs:

‘My percentages, Alas! were wrong in some cases. The increase in rice imports, for instance, should have been only a tiny 480 per cent, not 580; lard a mere 275 per cent, not 375 per cent, pork only 1,216 per cent, not 1,300 per cent; and so on. To have reduced each of these totals by 100 may give the War Trade Arithmetic Department much joy, but it does not show that extra food in colossal quantities is not going into Germany – as it undoubtedly is.’

Clarke also accepted that the Government’s point about goods being stored in Denmark or being sent back to the UK might be ‘partly true’, but he questioned whether this really had a significant effect on the totals. He also expressed his frustration at the fact that the Government response had dealt only with the Borsen statistics, whereas he saw these figures as only part of a wider investigation.

‘Let me say at once that had the Borsen figures alone been the evidence on which I asserted that Denmark is acting as a food-getter for Germany I might too have been doubtful,’ he wrote. ‘But these figures were but a fraction of the sum total evidence I collected and wrote.’

Clarke’s response was accompanied by an editorial that weakly tried to excuse the errors in the percentages – ‘No doubt these statistics contained inaccuracies. Most statistics do’ – and then wrongly attributed the errors to a Danish Government statistician. Then, like Clarke’s own article, it attempted to put the Government back on the defensive by highlighting the fact that it had not made ‘the slightest attempt to dispute any of Mr Clarke’s own statements concerning what he saw and heard with his own eyes and ears about the vast volume of supplies pouring through the Danish ports into Germany’.

As part of the Northcliffe press’s response, The Times published a letter by Clarke in which he reasserted his claim that the blockade was leaking: ‘There is still an ample margin of truth left in those Danish returns, even accepting the contention that they are not absolutely accurate, to justify the deduction I drew from them, which was, that foodstuffs in most unusual quantities are being imported by Denmark. The War Trade Department makes no attempt to dispute the large mass of other evidence which I collected from personal observation and inquiry on the spot regarding the great quantity of these extra supplies which is going through Danish ports into Germany. ‘

The Times’s editorial adopted a more measured tone, but it also thought the Government still had a case to answer. It acknowledged that the memorandum ‘points out a serious error … but it leaves the broad fact unchanged and unquestioned that, in spite of all precautions, goods in considerable amounts continue to reach the enemy through these neutral channels’.

It was, though, in a minority, as most of the next day’s press considered the memorandum to have been a masterstroke.

‘While the Daily Mail and the Morning Post stick to their ground and declare that the Government’s statement deals mostly with side issues, other newspapers assert that the Government’s reply is absolutely convincing and unanswerable,’ the New York Times reported,50 while the Sydney Morning Herald described the memorandum as ‘a very effective answer to figures and criticisms’ and the Livingstone Mail in Northern Rhodesia thought ‘the official reply reduces very materially the value of the attack made upon the Government’.

In London, the Evening Standard reported that the memorandum contained strong evidence that ‘our strangle hold on German trade has been increased in firmness every week’, while the Westminster Gazette suggested that the use of statistics by both the Daily Mail and the Morning Post ‘are now proved to contain nearly every kind of error which haste or irresponsibility could devise – errors of carelessness, errors of arithmetic’. An editorial in that day’s Daily News argued that the memorandum exonerated the Government and called Clarke’s professionalism into question:

‘There has rarely been a more crushing exposure than that issued by the War Department of the latest Northcliffe scandal … Nearly every fact on which the case is built up is found to be either an ignorant misapprehension or a garbled half-statement … It is found in nearly every case that the allegation of the scaremongers is a gross and fatuous alarm.’

If the decision to release the memorandum the day before the Parliamentary debate was intended to take the sting out of the story, then it succeeded.

The Times may have still believed that ‘today’s debate is anxiously awaited throughout the civilized world’, but much of that day’s press coverage gave the impression the Government had won the argument even before Edward Grey stood up in Parliament that evening to defend the blockade.

After several MPs had had their say, Grey got to his feet just after 6pm to give his statement to a packed House of Commons. Watched by Ministers from Denmark and Sweden in the public gallery, Grey began his response:

edward grey
Basil Clarke: “We are feeding the Germans”

‘I must deal with some of the figures scattered broadcast lately in some organs of the press, which have created a grotesque and quite untrue impression of the amount of leakage through neutral countries – figures which will not bear examination, but the conclusions founded upon which have undoubtedly done great harm.’

Grey went through the figures released in the memorandum and argued they showed the Government was already doing all that could reasonably be expected, given its obligation to respect the rights of neutrals. He also called for an end to newspaper attacks on the blockade because of the dispiriting effect they were having on the Navy.

His statement was well-received by his fellow MPs, with the New York Times reporting that it left ‘the position exactly as before the debate, except that Parliament seemed more converted to the Government policy’.

The Daily Mail’s response the following morning was still critical, though perhaps less truculent than might have been expected. But any doubts the editorial’s relatively measured tone may have raised about its stomach for continuing its fight with the Government were dispelled by the response by Clarke that was published alongside it. Dripping with vitriol, he made no attempt to hide his anger as he railed against what he viewed as the underhand tactics of the Government:

‘Such is their guilt and knowledge of it that a last-minute reply had certain attractions for them. They take a fraction of the twenty or more columns of evidence that I adduced, showing how we are feeding Germany, and they point out in what direction that fraction of evidence may have been misleading to me and others. They deal, in short, solely with statistics I quoted from the Danish trade paper Borsen and assume (quite wrongly) that I omitted to take notice of certain considerations which might qualify these statistics.’

He went on to challenge the Government to prove its claim that large quantities of goods had been sent back to Britain or were being stored in Denmark until the end of the war, and he argued that the effort the Government had put into discrediting his articles would have been better used combating German propaganda in neutral countries than in ‘seeking minor journalistic victories at home’.

Given the scandal caused by his allegations, the idea that the Government should not have bothered to investigate them was so obviously weak that it suggests Clarke was beginning to feel the effect of day after day of biting criticism.

He was on firmer ground with his claim that by focusing exclusively on the figures from the Borsen, the Government had ignored everything else in his articles. It was, perhaps, an early example of the now established public relations tactic of identifying a single flaw in an opponent’s argument and focusing on it disproportionately in the hope of undermining their overall credibility.

Clarke finished his article with an accusation: ‘The British Government … know of it [the leaks in the blockade]; or are deliberately shutting their eyes and discrediting the evidence of their own agents. If they would say, “Our blockade is not perfect; we are sorry; it cannot be made more perfect without incurring disadvantages greater than the advantages we should reap through perfecting it” – if they would say this one would at least sympathise with their point of view even if one did not share it.

‘But in solemn, full, round phrases they insist for the benefit of a trusting people (and of the Allied nations who fight with us) that our blockade is real and sound and true; and they take laborious means to discredit all those who on the evidence of their own eyes and common sense would show that it is not. This may be politics, but it is not cricket. Nor is it war.’

As bombastic as his article was, there was something in its tone that hinted that, having staked his reputation on his fight with the Government, he realised the initiative was slipping away. Certainly, most of the next day’s newspapers were fulsome in their praise of Grey’s statement.

The New York Times reported that ‘Sir Edward Grey’s effective speech appeared to finish the work thus begun’ by the memorandum the previous day, while the Manchester Guardian judged that ‘the statistical case against the Government’s blockade policy has been almost completely demolished’ and the Daily Mirror, which had itself previously questioned the effectiveness of the blockade, reported that Grey’s statement had fully addressed ‘some grotesque figures which had been published and which were quite untrue, but the conclusions founded upon which had done great harm’.

Of all the coverage of Grey’s speech, perhaps the most extreme in its criticism of Clarke’s argument was the Daily News. ‘Dragged into the light it is found to be an impudent invention, based on grotesque figures and falsified deductions,’ it concluded. ‘Its aim has been, not to enlighten the public, but to bewilder it.’

The combination of the memorandum and Grey’s speech seemed to have won the Government a decisive victory but, as battered as their reputations may have been, neither Clarke nor the Daily Mail were about to give up. Clarke followed his response to Grey’s speech with a defiant article the following day headlined ‘Leaks in the blockade’ and the next day he wrote yet another piece, this time with the headline ‘Leaky blockade’. Yet despite Clarke’s determination not to be beaten and the Daily Mail’s willingness to let him continue criticising the Government, his articles were beginning to give the impression that the story was running out of steam.

In another article on 31 January, Clarke turned his attention to the newspapers that had been so critical of him, describing them as the ‘Hide-The-Truth press’ for having defended the Government. German traders, he wrote, ‘must be delighted to find the impression spreads … that the Foreign Office has proved that no food or supplies, or only negligible quantities, are going to Germany’.

The next day, another article by Clarke rebutted the claim that the extra tea arriving in Denmark was being sent on to Russia rather than Germany, and then three days later he wrote about a Danish trader who had advertised 200,000 pairs of military horseshoes in a German newspaper. The following day he claimed iron ore was getting through the blockade.

And then there was silence. The article about iron ore was the last one Clarke wrote about the blockade.

It is unclear why his articles stopped so suddenly. But just over a week later, the Daily Mail published an article by the reporter Robert Segar about problems with the blockade in the Netherlands. Under the headline ‘The blockade failure; how we are still feeding the Germans’, Segar continued in the same vein as Clarke as he claimed the Netherlands was ‘being used by the Germans as a vast storehouse’.

The next day, on 15 February, the Daily Mail published another article by Segar that described how the blockade was ‘leaking at every seam’ and over the course of nine days, between 14 February and 22 February, the Daily Mail published six articles criticising it. Neither Clarke nor his investigation were mentioned once.

Then on 23 February, the Government announced the establishment of a Ministry of Blockade. The Daily Mail may have been calling for responsibility for the blockade to be given to the Admiralty, but it could justifiably count the announcement of the new ministry as a victory. Over the previous month it had printed thousands of words criticising the blockade, and now the Government was changing the way it was managed.

That is not to say newspaper coverage was the only reason the Ministry of Blockade was established. But it does seem likely that newspaper coverage and the resulting public anger was one of the main reasons for the change.

Looking back at his career towards the end of his life, Clarke himself would certainly believe his campaign had an impact. Referring to his original piece in the Daily Mail, he wrote: ‘That article of mine did some good.’