Propaganda in action

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In 1935 John Buchan became Lord Tweedsmuir and Governor General of Canada.

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Buchan wrote 50,000 words of the purplest prose for each of the 24 volumes of Nelson’s History of the War.

Adventurer John Buchan rode high in 1915 with his novel The Thirty Nine Steps. Illness kept him from joining up, so he set his pen to promoting the war. Through 24 editions of Nelson’s History of The War he spun quasi-historical accounts of recent fighting. He also drafted communiques for Haig and in 1917 headed up the new British propaganda department.

Throughout the war Buchan stood at the centre of misinformation. Here are some extracts from his account of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, as reported in Volume XVI of Nelson’s History of the War.

Bear in mind that on this day 1st July 1916: 110,000 British soldiers made the assault; 57,540 became casualties; 20,000 were killed. It was a disaster without parallel in the history of the British Army. As Sir Basil Liddell-Hart wrote in 1930, ‘One can hardly believe that anyone with a grain of common-sense or any grasp of past experience would have launched troops to attack by such a method unless intoxicated with confidence in the effect of the bombardment.’

Here’s Buchan’s spin on that day:

To one who visited the front before the attack the most vivid impression was that of quiet cheerfulness. There were no shirkers and few who wished themselves elsewhere. One man’s imagination might be more active than another’s, but the will to fight, and to fight desperately, was universal. With the happy gift of the British soldier they had turned the ghastly business of war into something homely and familiar.

Accordingly they took everything as part of the day’s work, and awaited the supreme moment without heroics and without tremor, confident in themselves confident in their guns, and confident in the triumph of their cause. There was no savage lust of battle, but that far more formidable thing – a resolution which needed no rhetoric to support it.

The British moved forward in line after line, dressed as if on parade; not a man wavered or broke rank; but minute by minute the ordered lines melted away under the deluge of high-explosive, shrapnel, rifle and machine-gun fire.

In that stubborn action against impossible odds the gallantry was so universal and absolute that it is idle to select special cases.

The splendid troops, drawn from those volunteers who had banded themselves together for another cause, now shed their blood like water for the liberty of the world.

The British soldiers were quick to kindle in the fight, and more formidable figures than those bronzed, steel-hatted warriors history has never seen on a field of battle. Those who witnessed the charge of the Highlanders at Loos were not likely to forget its fierce resolution.

A letter of an officer … is worth quoting: “The more I see of war the more I am convinced of the fundamental decency of our own folk. They may have a crude taste in music and art and things of that sort; they may lack the patient industry of the Boche; but for sheer goodness of heart, for kindness to all unfortunate things, like prisoners, wounded, animals, and ugly women, they fairly beat the band.” It is the kind of tribute which most Britons would prefer to any other.

The typical public-school boy proved a born leader of men. His good humour and camaraderie, his high sense of duty, his personal gallantry were the qualities most needed in the long months of trench warfare … the younger officers sacrificed themselves freely, and it was the names of the platoon commanders that filled most of the casualty lists.

The Army was the people. Not a class or profession or trade but had sent its tens of thousands to the ranks, and scarcely a British home but had losses to mourn. Those fighting men had come willingly to the task, because their own interest and happiness were become one with their country’s victory. Having made their choice, they showed themselves gluttons for the full rigour of service.

No great thing is achieved without a price, and on the Somme fell the very flower of our race, the straightest of limb, the keenest of brain, the most eager of spirit… the young men who died almost before they had gazed on the world, the makers and the doers who left their tasks unfinished, were greater in their deaths than in their lives.  They builded better than they knew for the sum of their imperfections was made perfect, and out of loss they won for their country and mankind an enduring gain. Their memory will abide so long as men are found to set honour before ease, and a nation lives not for its ledgers alone but for some purpose of virtue.

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Buchan's account of the Battle of the Somme came out just months after the fighting. It sold well. Propaganda has seldom been so popular - or profitable to the writer.

Copyright Matthew Crampton