Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.
As well as being almost unimaginable human tragedy – the 19,000 British deaths on the first day make it one of the darkest days in our history – it is also a low-point in the history of British journalism, with newspapers reporting it as a good day.
To mark the centenary of the tragedy, I thought it would be worth setting out Gibbs’s recollections of the day, which he recorded in his autobiography in 1946:
“In front of us was not a line but a fortress position, 20 miles deep, entrenched and fortified, defended by masses of machine gun posts and thousands of guns in a wide arc… We spoke to each other in whispers, if we spoke. Then suddenly our guns opened out in a barrage of fire of colossal intensity. Never before, and I think never since, even in the Second World War, had so many guns been massed behind any battle front. It was a rolling thunder of shellfire, and the earth vomited flame, and the sky was alight with bursting shells…
“I went into Fricourt soon after it had been taken and saw the dead lying there. Many Germans had been bayoneted in the first rush but even as they lay dead they had their hands slightly raised… I saw the fury of battle, and the sweep of German gunfire, and the ground vomiting up great columns of black earth and smoke…
“On the left up by Gommecourt… our men had got nowhere on the first day. They had been mown down like grass by German machine-gunners who, after our first barrage had lifted, rushed out to meet our men in the open. Many of our best battalions were almost annihilated, and our causalities were terrible. But I remember that our young wounded officers could still find words of admiration for their enemy.
“‘The German machine-gunners were great,’ said one of them. ‘Came slap out in the open to meet us.’
“…A German doctor taken prisoner near La Boiselle stayed behind to look after our wounded in a dugout instead of going down to safety. I met him coming back across the battlefield next morning. One of our men was carrying his bag and I had a talk with him. He was a tall, heavy man with a black beard, and he spoke good English.
“‘This war!’ he said. ‘We go on killing each other to no purpose. It is a war against religion and against civilisation and I see no end of it.’
“…Beyond all doubt the first phase of the battles of the Somme taught many lessons, at fearful human cost, to the generals and staffs, who lacked experience and always underestimated the enemy’s strength, and the formidable power of his defence. In my book Realities of War I wrote harsh and critical things about staff officers and their generals. I am not going to withdraw them now; but time effaces much, including bitterness, and I find myself more tolerant, perhaps because I have forgotten or blurred the sharp edge of tragic things.”
In response to the recent story about John Simpson’s corporate consultancy website, Stuart makes the point that journalists “are unlikely to be able to do is jump straight in to the most senior public relations roles as no matter how stellar their journalistic credentials might be”.
I broadly agree, though I do wonder if, despite the importance of public relations training, we can sometimes underestimate the ability of a journalist with lots of common sense to do our jobs effectively.
But following Stuart’s post, I was inspired to look back at what Basil Clarke, probably the first UK journalist to do public relations for a living, had to say about the skills you need to be successful.
In a 1929 lecture (some 12 years after he made the switch), Clarke set out the qualities required of a new recruit:
“He must be an expert in news-value – in finding news, preparing it in different journalistic forms to secure the best and widest Press reflex for it, also in distributing it to best advantage. He must be expert in news treatment, also the capacity to impart to a cold static fact some warm and dynamic news quality,a ‘time’ factor, an ‘authority’ factor, a ‘human interest’ factor, and all the other factors that go to the make-up of news-value…
“I do think, however, that the duties of a press agent who is directing or advising in the public relations of a big undertaking or movement demand something more than ordinary journalistic qualifications. They demand a knowledge of men and affairs more comparable with an editor’s knowledge; a certain aptitude for, and knowledge of, business and administration which a journalist need not necessarily possess.”
It was exactly a century ago, on 28 November 1914, that war correspondent Basil Clarke had published what he considered to be the best scoop of his career.
While living as a fugitive in Dunkirk, he was the first journalist to reach the centre of Ypres following the German destruction of it.
But when his eyewitness account of what he saw appeared in his newspaper, the Daily Mail, it had to be presented as a third person piece he had heard from someone else. This was because Clarke feared that admitting to have been in Ypres himself may have given the authorities, who wanted to catch him and send him back to Britain, too much of a clue as to his whereabouts.
While a necessary deception, Clarke later admitted that it meant “a toning down and loss of visual quality”. So today, to mark the centenary of the articles publication, I thought it would be worth reproducing the article as Clarke has originally intended it:
“A fair-haired Flemish girl stood bare-headed at the doorway in Ypres. She gazed wistfully upon the smoking Cathedral before her and the ancient Cloth Halls with their beautiful old walls all jagged and broken by German shell.
More shells, whining pitifully on their scandalous errand, flew by overhead, only to crash at length against ancient masonry and bring down more stones and timber and dust upon the heaps of ruins that now constitute the old-world city of Ypres.
The girl took no notice. Not a flinch showed upon her homely face at the falling whimper of the shells. It might have been carved of marble, like the faces and hands and bodies of the cathedral saints lying shattered in the road before her. But it lit up at the mere pleasure of seeing someone approaching. Visitors were rare just then in Ypres.
“Not afraid, Ma’mselle Bulckaert?” said my Belgian companion, who knew her.
“No longer, monsieur. One gets the habit.”
Another shell. We were silent while it passed.
Shakespeare wrote: “That sound again. It hath a dying fall.” A shell’s note, too, has a “dying fall”.
Mademoiselle imitated the whine, clapped her hands for the crash at the end of its fall, and gave a little, mocking laugh.
“Phew!” she said, and she shook a fist towards the German lines. “Bang away. What more have you got to break?” And then she spread her hands towards the wreckage in the square before us.
Mlle Bulckaert was the daughter of the café keeper in the Platz Alf van der Peereboom, of Ypres. Residents were few, and the only people to be seen were a few French soldiers, a woman who stood at the door of an imitation marble bar, a blind old man with red eyes who faltered about in the bar, trying to be useful, and two tiny children who sat on the floor taking their soup with wooden spoons. Ypres was given up for the time being to the shells.
And what a sight, then, from the Grand Platz! The Cathedral, the famous Cloth Halls, the Museum of Antiquities, the theatre – all ruined; all battered into holes and heaps. Imagine looking upon, say, Canterbury Cathedral or Westminster Abbey piled up in heaps – heaps of stone and mortar and wood, and saints and angels and stained glass and tombs and curtains and pictures and chairs and candles and Prayer Books – the old and the new, the venerable stones of the year 1400 and the forgotten umbrellas of 1914 – all in one headlong jumble!
That awful sight struck me cold. I wondered how Mlle Bulckaert and my guide could contrive to chatter. The city, so silent and empty and waste, might have been unpeopled by a plague, shattered by a mad god. You looked, and still looking, could hardly believe.
I left my companion and walked across the Platz Alf van der Peereboom to the Cathedral, entering through a shell hole in the wall.
Jagged patches of sky lay visible through the vaulted roof. The whine of the shells came through the gaps and into the silent church – an eerie, fascinating sound to echo through the arches. Never before could such devil’s music have sounded in that holy place.
I struggled along the aisle over stones and heaps to the altar steps. Fallen crosses and candlesticks, rent curtains, shattered tombstones and great holes!
A mitred bishop, Jansenius, carved in red-veined marble, lay still and intact on his tomb-top. Round about was chaos. Some half-burnt flowers lay on his chest. Part of a Rubens painting, detached from the wall, hung ragged and charred over his head.
The far end of the church was filled with blazing wood. A shell had caught the wooden roof not long before and fetched it down. It was burning now and cutting off the exit by the western door.
Outside, in the Platz, on the other sides of the Cathedral, lay such of its ruins as had not fallen inwards through the roof. Of the beautiful belfry about one-half remained standing – jagged at the top like a broken tooth.
Notwithstanding its shortened height and battered state, someone had planted a Belgian tri-colour on its highest point, and there it still fluttered in the breeze, though a shell had cut off part of the last colour of the three.
The remainder of the tower and of the broken walls of the Cathedral lay in heaps on the ground below, just as shell after shell had knocked off segments piecemeal.
In one of those heaps was a big brass drum with spikes on it and cogwheels. It was part of the mechanism of the famous carillon of Ypres – a carillon whose tuneful bells had played hourly to the townsfolk for hundreds of years, even back to the day when wicked Philip-le-Bel swore in his wrath because they kept him awake at nights.
In other heaps were sections of beautiful stained-glass windows that had come crashing to earth under shell fire – mammoth spiders’ webs of lead filled with glass of wondrous hues.
I picked up a piece and held it up to the sun. It depicted the white taper fingers and the wrist of a woman – perhaps an angel or a saint or the Virgin – on a background of gorgeous blue.
Through a gash in the Cathedral wall overhead protruded into the street the torn end of a painting. It flapped to and fro in the wind like some poster torn from a hoarding by a gale. It was another of the splendid wall pictures, by Rubens, with which Ypres Cathedral was filled.
The Market Halls of Ypres, near by, were, like the Cathedral, ruined. I walked along their colonnades, now roofless, and in many places smashed beyond recognition. In one place a great book lay smouldering on the stones. It was part of the marriage register of Ypres, and the dates alongside entries on a page I opened were 1714.
Later I walked through the streets to see houses without roofs, houses without fronts, houses with bedsteads and wardrobes ready to topple out through holes in the walls and into the street, houses, too, that were just one tall heap of stones and plaster.
In the Platz Alf van der Peereboom was a huge hole in the street big enough to accommodate a London motor omnibus. The hole was made by one German shell. Thousands of such shells must have been used to reduce the historic buildings of Ypres to the state they were in.
Mlle Bulckaert, at the café door, and her father were full of the details of the bombardment. They were there all the time in their café overlooking the Cathedral. At first, they told me, no shots went near the Cathedral or the Cloth Halls or the Museum. House after house suffered, and the prison and the hospital, but not these places. “No, monsieur. For days and days not a shell went near the Cathedral or the Cloth Halls. The Germans would not smash them up. They thought to take the place and make it their own.”
But day followed day, and the Germans were as far from taking Ypres as ever. For this simple reason: the Allies’ troops did not sit still under bombardment. They went out on all sides of the town and kept a ring of trenches and fire and steel, at a distance varying between four to eight miles, between the Germans and Ypres. German shell and shrapnel could reach it, but not German men. Attacks from north, east and south, separately and collectively, all failed.
Then the Germans smashed up the historic treasures of Ypres.
“Perhaps they got angry,” as Mlle Bulckaert put it to me. “Anyway” (to continue her narrative) “the shell fire changed on Saturday last (November 21). On that day shot after shot went into the Cloth Hall and brought it down in heaps. Then came night and a rest from shell fire. On Sunday they changed their aim to the Cathedral. Sunday, too, of all days! Shot after shot into it! And I was christened there, monsieur. I should perhaps have been married there – who knows?
“The abbé was about all the time. He and an English officer carried buckets of water to put out the flames after every shell that set the woodwork alight. Oh, he was heartbroken, but he and the English officer worked and worked and thought nothing of the shells.
“All that night the firing went on, and sparks and fire and burning wood were thrown onto our house from houses near us that were hit. Some of these houses caught fire, and we should have been burned down, but father stayed on the roof, getting here and there with a fire extinguisher, putting out every bit of fire he could see. He sat on the tiles with an extinguisher, monsieur, waiting for the shells to come.
“Next day (Monday) the Germans finished off the Museum of Antiquities, the theatre, and ever so many more houses and buildings around the Platz.
“Like this, one after another they went. There seems not much more to finish, but still they keep on. Seventy shells fell in half an hour just before you came along. I’ve not counted them since…”
So Mlle Bulckaert had been counting the shells as she gazed out wistfully from her door over the ruins of Ypres!
M Bulckaert would not leave his home, and as he would not go his daughter would not. She would stay with her father, she said simply. “How can I leave him with no one to see to him?” I looked again at this brave Flemish girl, wished them luck and left Ypres.
On the country roads later, as I came towards Dunkirk I noted anew with an added joy the grim-set, determined faces of the troops marching out to the lines to maintain that ring of trench and fire and steel about Ypres. It was safe and fitting, I felt, to leave it to them and their arms to deal with those defilers of Ypres.”
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.”
Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently he who moulds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.
It is a quote I wasn’t previously aware of but, for those of us who work in public relations, I think it is worth remembering.
Public relations often has a bad reputation. But this gets across, perhaps better than any other quote I can think of, why virtually every successful organisation understands that they cannot do without it.