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Purple Propaganda

war sketches 1‘How The Men of Blankshire Baffled The Berliners’ shrieked trench paper The B.E.F. Times on Saturday 8th September 1917. ‘Special correspondent’ Mr Teech Bomas continued, ‘The terrific tornado had torn the trees and the blighting blast had battered the bark, but nothing could daunt the men from Blankshire. On they came kicking footballs, and so completely puzzled the Potsdammers. With one last kick they were amongst them with the bayonet, and although the Berliners battled bravely for a while, they kameraded with the best.’

The satirists from The Wipers Times were at it again. Their target was journalist William Beach Thomas who provided The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror with glorious government propaganda.  ‘Today’s great adventure’, he’d described the attack on Morval a year before. ‘The Territorials and Overseas men danced forward in unison through shells and bullets … as I write, fresh from the sight of returning prisoners … I am interrupted by news of one triumphant episode after another.’

Many soldiers hated this pompous guff. As Lt Bernard Adams wrote, just before he died of wounds in February 1917, ‘What right had men who have never seen war at all, who creep up on bicycles to get a glimpse of it through telescopes, who pester wounded men, and then out of their pictorial imagination work up a vivid description – what right have they to insult heroes by saying that “their wonderful spirit makes up for it all” that “the paramount impression is one of glory”?’

Beach Thomas knew he was pushing lies. Writing later about his reports on the Battle of the Somme, he said ‘I was thoroughly and deeply ashamed of what I had written, for the very good reason that it was untrue. Almost all the official information was wrong. The vulgarity of enormous headlines and the enormity of one’s one name did not lessen the shame.’ Yet somehow that shame did not prevent him accepting a knighthood for his services as a war correspondent.

Admittedly it was safer for soldiers to damn journalists than army brass. But there was, as always, a special anger towards those who profited from the suffering - whether self-aggrandising writers or, more creepily, proprietors in search of a jingoistic buck.