Henry Hamilton Fyfe and the First World War

Henry Hamilton Fyfe and the First World War

Henry Hamilton Fyfe, the son of James Hamilton Fyfe and Mary Jonas, was born on 28th September, 1869. After finishing his education at Fettes School, he joined his father on the staff of The Times. As a young man he was a strong supporter of the Conservative Party and acted as a special constable at the Bloody Sunday demonstration at Trafalgar Square.

After working as the theatre critic of The Times, Fyfe became editor of the Morning Advertiser in 1902. The youngest newspaper editor in Britain, Fyfe brought in several innovations including a gossip column and making recently published books into news stories.

Alfred Harmsworth was impressed by Fyfe's work and the following year he appointed him editor of his newspaper, The Daily Mirror. At the time, circulation was down to 40,000, and was still falling. Fyfe made extensive changes to the newspaper. As Fyfe later explained, he main appeal was to those who wanted to read their newspaper on the way to work: "Packed in tram, train, or omnibus, standing up perhaps and holding on to a strap with one hand, they required in the other, not a journal to stir thought or supply serious information, but one to entertain them, occupy their minds pleasantly, prevent then for thinking. It was easier to look at pictures than to read print. The news was displayed and worded in a manner that made assimilation simple. Everything in the Daily Mirror was calculated to be easy of absorption by the most ordinary intelligence."

Fyfe also experimented with using different types of photographs on the front-page. On 2nd April, 1904, the Daily Mirror published a whole page of pictures of Edward VII and his children, Henry, Albert and Mary. This was a great success and Fyfe now realised the British public had an intense interest in photographs of the Royal Family.

Another successful innovation was the sponsorship of special events. In June, 1904, the Daily Mirror paid D. M. Weigal to drive a twenty-horse power Talbot on a 26,000 mile motor run. A month later the newspaper offered a hundred guinea prize for the first person to swim the Channel.

In August 1905, the Daily Mirror began to pioneer the idea of the "exclusive". The first example was the "exclusive" interview with Lord Minto, the new Viceroy of India. This approach was popular and later that year the circulation of the newspaper had reached 350,000.

After four years with the Daily Mirror, Alfred Harmsworth offered Fyfe the chance of becoming special correspondent to his most popular newspaper, the Daily Mail. This appealed to Fyfe who had a great love of travelling. As Fyfe explained in his autobiography, "I was the special correspondent with the largest newspaper public in existence to address, and a fairly free hand as to what I would write about and how." Over the next few years he reported all the world's major stories for the newspaper.

By this time Fyfe's political opinions had moved sharply to the left. He had joined the Fabian Society and he associated with leaders of the emerging Labour Party. The policy of employing Fyfe to write political leaders in the Daily Mail came to an end after he supported attempts by David Lloyd George to redistribute income with his 1909 People's Budget.

On the outbreak of the First World War Fyfe immediately went to France and covered the Battle of the Mons. His reports were censored by F. E. Smith and according to Fyfe, this helped to increase panic in Britain. "He saw the intention with which they had been written - to rouse the nation to a sense of the need for greater effort. But he seemed to think that it would be better to suggest disaster by the free use of dots than to let the account appear in coherent and constructive form. With unsteady hand he struck out sentences and parts of sentences, substituting dots for them, and thus making it appear that the truth was far worse than the public could be allowed to know."

Lord Kitchener, Britain's War Minister, was unwilling to have journalists working on the Western Front, and Fyfe was threatened with arrest if he stayed. Fyfe attempted to overcome this problem by joining the French Red Cross as a stretcher bearer. In this way he was able to continue reporting on the war in France for a couple more months. However, the British military caught up with Fyfe and he decided to leave and report on the Eastern Front where journalists were still able to report on the war without restrictions.

Fyfe returned to the Western Front in 1917 and remained there until July 1918, when he was replaced by William Beach Thomas. The reason for this was that all men up to the age of 48 could be conscripted into the army. Fyfe was over that age, but as Thomas was just under 48 and could be sent to the Western Front as a soldier, rather than as a journalist.

Like other British war correspondents, Fyfe was offered a knighthood for his work during the First World War. Fyfe, who saw it as a bribe to keep quiet about the inefficiency and corruption he had witnessed during the war, refused it. Fyfe believed that Britain's political and military leaders had let the country down during the war. A strong critic of the Versailles Peace Treaty, Fyfe was also an active member of the Union of Democratic Control after the war.

On 1922, Arthur Henderson, the Labour M.P., asked Fyfe to became editor of the Daily Herald. Over the next four years he increased its circulation but he unwilling to accept attempts by the Trade Union Congress to control the content of the newspaper and left in 1926.

Fyfe went on to work for the Daily Chronicle and the Reynolds' News. In the 1929 General Election Fyfe failed to become the Labour MP for Sevenoaks. He was also defeated at Yeovil in the 1931 General Election. As well as his newspaper work, Fyfe wrote biographies of Alfred Harmsworth (1930) and T. P. O'Connor (1934) and an autobiography My Seven Selves (1935) where he wrote about his life as a journalist and war correspondent.

Henry Hamilton Fyfe died at Eastbourne on 15th June 1951.

Primary Sources

(1) Henry Hamilton Fyfe was highly critical of the way the Liberal Government handled the conflict with Germany in 1914.

Not until six years later did Mr. Lloyd George blurt out the truth - that the rulers of nations "stumbled and staggered into war". It was plain enough to anyone behind the scenes within a few months of the start. No one had believed in war coming, therefore no one had made full preparations for it. In the last week, desperate efforts were made to ward it off, but the feeble incapacity of politicians, their shrinking from decisions, could not be overcome.

(2) Henry Hamilton Fyfe went to France on the outbreak of the First World War.

To me at first it was an exciting novelty. The thrill of romance was in it still. All that I had read about war (nearly all of it rubbish) flooded my mind with ideas of pomp and circumstance, of shrewd intellects contending for advantage, of marching columns and flying cavalry doing as those intellects planned. What a fool I was! How quickly I learned that war is above all dullness; that those who direct it - or let it take its own course - are mostly pompous, incompetent dullards; that, like all other machinery, the machinery of war has escaped from the control of its users; that the task of soldiers is to cower in trench dug-outs and have hell rained upon them. However, for the moment, before I had seen anything of it, war appeared to be a tremendous event, full of colour, fine in quality; and I was going to report it.

The whole country swarmed already with soldiers. Most of them were middle-aged, none of their uniforms fitted. They wore the absurd red trousers below the blue coat which had been in fashion since Napoleon's time. I recall a conversation with a French journalist who assured me that the army would lose all spirit if its red trousers were taken away. He would not listen to me when I said the uniform would have to be altered, as the British red coats were changed to khaki in South Africa. That was the general attitude of Frenchmen.

(3) In early September, 1914, Hamilton Fyfe, met up with the British Expeditionary Force and observed the early success of the German Army.

Driving from Boulogne we saw British soldiers and we heard the whole story. Orders had been given for a hasty retreat of all the British troops in and about Amiens. What had happened? They shrugged their shoulders. Where were they going? They didn't know. What Arthur Moore (The Times) and I felt instantly was that we had to know. There was nothing to keep us out of Amiens now. In less than two hours we were there, listening to the sound of not very distant guns. We drove about all that day seeking for news and realizing every hour more and more clearly the disaster that had happened. We saw no organized bodies of troops, but we met and talked to many fugitives in twos and threes, who had lost their units in disorderly retreat and for the most part had no idea where they were.

That Friday night, tired as we were, Moore and I set off to Dieppe to put our messages on a boat which we knew would be leaving on the Saturday morning. They reached London on Saturday morning. They reached London on Saturday night. Both were published in The Times next day. (The Times was then published on Sunday; the Mail was not.)

As they gave the first news of the defeat they must in any case have caused a sensation. But the sensation would not have been so painful if Lord Birkenhead, then F. E. Smith, had not been Press Censor at the time. The despatches were taken to him after dinner. When the man who took them told me about it later on, he said, "After dinner - you know what that meant with him."

Birkenhead saw that they must be published. He saw the intention with which they had been written - to rouse the nation to a sense of the need for greater effort. But he seemed to think that it would be better to suggest disaster by the free use of dots than to let the account appear in coherent and constructive form. With unsteady hand he struck out sentences and parts of sentences, substituting dots for them, and thus making it appear that the truth was far worse than the public could be allowed to know.

(4) In September 1914, Lord Kitchener, Britain's War Minister, banned journalists from the Western Front. Hamilton Fyfe attempted to overcome this problem by joining the Red Cross.

The ban on correspondents was still being enforced, so I joined a French Red cross detachment as a stretcher bearer, and though it was hard work, managed to send a good many despatches to my paper. I had no experience of ambulance or hospital work, but I grew accustomed to blood and severed limbs and red stumps very quickly. Only once was I knocked out. We were in a schoolroom turned into a operating theatre. It was a hot afternoon. We had brought in a lot of wounded men who had been lying in the open for some time; their wounds crawled with lice. All of us had to act as aids to our two surgeons. Suddenly I felt the air had become oppressive. I felt I must get outside and breathe. I made for the door, walked along the passage. Then I found myself lying in the passage with a big bump on my head. However, I got rid of what was troubling my stomach, and in a few minutes I was back in the schoolroom. I did not suffer in that way again.

What caused me discomfort far more acute - because it was mental, not bodily - were the illustrations of the bestiality, the futility, the insanity of war and of the system that produced war as surely as land uncultivated produces noxious weeds: these were now forced on my notice every day. The first cart of dead that I saw, legs sticking out stiffly, heads lolling on shoulders, all the poor bodies shovelled into a pit and covered with quicklime, made me wonder what the owners had been doing when they were called up, crammed into uniforms, and told to kill, maim, mutilate other men like themselves, with whom they had no quarrel. All of them had left behind many who would be grieved, perhaps beggared, by their taking off. And all to no purpose, for nothing.

(5) As an ambulance driver Hamilton Fyfe often had to make difficult decisions. On one occasion he was heading towards Albert when he came across a group of French soldiers.

We came across a group of men in varying stages of disability by the roadside. They greeted us joyfully. But there were a dozen of them. Our motor ambulances held only eight. Some of them who were almost, but not quite, walking cases, looked at us with pleading eyes. Somehow or other, after their dressings and bandages had been looked to in the red glare of the burning town, we squeezed eleven of them in. One we had to leave there. It was impossible that he could live for more than a few hours. To move him would have killed him at once.

On a little mound we left him, a truss of straw beneath his head. His features were aquiline, delicate. He was unconscious, would never be conscious again. He murmured broken phrases. As he drove off, I thought I should never cease to see the butchered body, that death-mask on its truss of straw. Within an hour or two I was sitting with the rest at supper (we had not eaten since morning), talking, laughing, forgetting the episodes of the day. It had to be so. If we had not forgotten, we should have gone mad. Experiences that in our peaceful lives would have seemed too horrible for endurance now made next to no impression on us. So quickly is callousness bred by war.

(6) In 1915 Hamilton Fyfe began reporting the war on the Eastern Front.

Brussilov was the ablest of the army-group commanders. His front was in good order. For that reason we were sent to it. The impression I got in April was the Russian troops, all the men and most of the officers, were magnificent material who were being wasted because of the incompetence, intrigues, and corruption of the men who governed the country.

In June Brussilov's advance showed what they could do, when they were furnished with sufficient weapons and ammunition. But that effort was wasted, too, for want of other blows to supplement it, for want of any definite plan of campaign.

The Russian officers, brutal as they often were to their men (many of them scarcely considered privates to be human), were as a rule friendly and helpful to us. They showed us all we wanted to see. They always cheerfully provided for Arthur Ransome (a fellow journalist), who could not ride owing to some disablement, a cart to get about in.

(7) In 1917 Hamilton Fife returned to the Western Front.

My next assignment was to the British Front in France. what a contrast I found there - in the comfortable chateau allotted to the correspondents, in the officers placed at their service, in the powerful cars at their disposal - to the conditions prevailing in the early months of the war! Then we were hunted, threatened, abused. Now everything possible was done to make our work interesting and easy - easy, that is, so far as permits and information and transport were concerned. No scrounging for food: we had a lavishly provided mess. No sleeping in hay or the bare floors of empty houses: our bedrooms were furnished with taste as well as every convenience, except fitted basins and baths. But then we each had a servant, who brought in a tin tub and filled it after he had brought early morning tea.

I felt a little bit ashamed to be housed in what, after my experiences, I could not but call it luxury. It had an unfortunate result too, in cutting us off from the life of the troops. I made application soon after I arrived to be allowed to stay in the trenches with a friend commanding a battalion of the Rifle Brigade. No correspondent, I learned, had done this. They knew only from hearsay how life in the front line went on.

(8) Henry Hamilton Fyfe was a strong critic of the Versailles Peace Treaty.

If all had worked together as comrades to repair the damage done and to build up better conditions than existed before - had worked at this task without resentment, recognizing that all had been to blame, there would have been employment for all and the promises of a "better world", made so glibly for recruiting purposes, could have been fulfilled. But that called for a clearness of foresight, an honesty of purpose, which the politicians in power at that time did not possess.