John Buchan

John Buchan

John Buchan, the son of a Free Church minister, was born in Perth on 26th August, 1875. Educated at Glasgow University and Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1898 Buchan won the Newdigate Prize for poetry.

Although trained as a lawyer, Buchan became private secretary to Lord Alfred Milner, high commissioner for South Africa. In 1903 he returned to England where he became a director of the publishing company, Thomas Nelson & Sons. In 1910 Buchan had his first novel, Prester John, published.

In July 1914, Blackwood's Magazine, began serializing Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps. The hero, Richard Hannay, was based on the real-life military spy, William Ironside. With Britain on the verge of war, the nation was obsessed with German spy fever and its subject matter made it an immediate success. When it was published in book form, it sold over 25,000 copies in three months.

After the outbreak of the First World War the Liberal MP and successful journalist, Charles Masterman, was appointed head of the government's War Propaganda Bureau. Masterman recruited Buchan who was asked to organise the publication of a history of the war in the form of a monthly magazine. Buchan approached both Arthur Conan Doyle and Hilaire Belloc to help him with the project but both claimed they were too busy.

Buchan eventually decided to write the book on his own. Published by his own company, Thomas Nelson, the first installment of the Nelson's History of the War, appeared in February, 1915. A further twenty-three appeared at regular intervals throughout the war. The profits, including Buchan's own royalties, were donated to war charities.

In the spring of 1915, Buchan agreed to become one of the five journalists attached to the British Army. He was given responsibility for providing articles for The Times and the Daily News.Over the next few months Buchan covered both the second Battle of Ypres and the Battle of Loos.

In June 1916, Buchan was recruited by the British Army to draft communiqués for Sir Douglas Haig and other members of the General Headquarters Staff (GHQ). Given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps, Buchan was also provided with the documents needed to write the Nelson's History of the War. GHQ saw this as good for propaganda as Buchan's close relationship with Britain's military leaders made it extremely difficult for him to include any critical comments about the way the war was being fought.

Buchan's History of the War provided the public with a completely false impression of what was going on the Western Front. In 1915 told his readers that the Germans were on the verge of defeat. He estimated that over 1,300,000 German soldiers had been killed, whereas the British losses was only 100,000.

Buchan continued to work closely with Charles Masterman and the War Propaganda Bureau. A series of propaganda pamphlets were written by Buchan. Published by the Oxford University Press, the titles included Britain's Land War (1915), The Achievements of France (1915) and The Battle of Jutland (1916).

In his pamphlet, The Battle of the Somme (1916) Buchan described the offensive as so successful that it marked "the end of trench fighting and the beginning of the campaign in the open." He added that the "Germans may write on their badges that God is with them, but our lads - they know." Buchan did not tell his readers that on the first day of the fighting of the 110,000 British soldiers who made the assault, 57,540 were casualties, 20,000 of them killed. It was what one historian has described as "the blackest day in the history of the British Army."

Buchan claimed that the Battle of the Somme was an Allied victory and that it would enable Britain to now use its superior cavalry. However, Buchan did not provide details of what had been gained, nor did he tell his readers that in the 140 days that the battle lasted, the British Army had lost 400,000 men and had advanced six miles.

In February, 1917, the government established a Department of Information. Given the rank Lieutenant Colonel, Buchan was put in charge on the department on an annual salary of £1,000 a year. Charles Masterman retained responsibility for books, pamphlets, photographs and war paintings and T. L. Gilmour dealt with cables, wireless, newspapers, magazines and the cinema.

After the war Buchan continued to write successful adventures stories such as Huntingtower (1922), The Three Hostages (1924) and Witch Wood (1927). He also became involved in politics and in 1927 was elected Conservative MP for the Scottish Universities. Buchan held the seat until granted the title, Baron Tweedsmuir in 1935.

President of the Scottish History Society (1929-32), Buchan wrote biographies of Montrose (1928) and Sir Walter Scott (1932). Buchan also served as governor-general of Canada (1935-37) and chancellor of Edinburgh University (1937-40). John Buchan died on 12th February, 1940.

Primary Sources

(1) John Buchan, letter to George Brown (16th October, 1914)

I do think we shall get absolutely accurate details of most of the fighting till after the war, and therefore a history on the scale of The Times or the Daily Mail is impossible; but I am satisfied that three months after the fighting we shall know enough to write an accurate history on the scale which I propose - viz monthly parts.

(2) Leo Amery, letter to his wife (7 June, 1915)

I read John Buchan's articles in The Times and thought them excellent. He is a born journalist in the very best sense of the word - he can sense a situation quickly and can with the maximum of effort make a vivid story of it.

(3) Howard Spring was a journalist on the Western Front when he met John Buchan in 1916.

I remember John Buchan, a cavalier if ever there was one, always commanding our respect but never forgetting how to unbend. It is a mystery to me how he got through the days as he did. He was doing his work as an Intelligence Officer; he was writing his history of the war; and he was somehow fitting in novels as well.

(4) John Buchan, Nelson's History of the War: Volume V (1915)

Trench warfare cannot last indefinitely. The enemy cannot fall back forever on new trench lines. The reason is that human powers are limited and the steady pressure of those winter weeks, barren as it might seem in brilliant results, was more vital to our ultimate success than any spectacular victory.

There can be little doubt that the Germans, especially in the West, lost out of all proportion to their opponents. We can therefore regard the long-drawn Battle of West Flanders as an Allied gain.

(5) John Buchan described the first day of the offensive at the Somme in his pamphlet, The Battle of the Somme (1916)

The British moved forward in line after line, dressed as if on parade; not a man wavered or broke ranks; but minute by minute the ordered lines melted away under the deluge of high explosives, shrapnel, rifle, and machine-gun fire. The splendid troops shed their blood like water for the liberty of the world.

(6) In his pamphlet, The Battle of the Somme, John Buchan describes the Allied attack on German lines on 14th July.

The attack failed nowhere. In some parts if was slower than others, where the enemy's defence had been less comprehensively destroyed, but by the afternoon all our tasks had been accomplished. The audacious enterprise had been crowned with unparalleled success. Germans may write on their badges that God is with them, but our lads - they know.

(7) In his pamphlet, The Battle of the Somme: The Second Phase, published in 1917, John Buchan claimed that the battle marked the end of "trench fighting and the beginning of a campaign in the open."

Thenceforth, the campaign entered upon a new stage, and the first stage, which in strict terms we call the Battle of the Somme, had ended in Allied victory. We did what we set out to do; step by step we drove our way through the German defences. Our major purpose was attained. It was not the recapture of territory that we sought, but the weakening of the numbers, materiel and moral of the enemy.

(8) In his book on First World War propaganda, The Great Wars of Wars, Peter Buitenhuis is highly critical of Buchan's book on The Battle of the Somme.

The account contains all the ringing clichés and exaggerations of the genre, and by representing that almost unmitigated hell in such glowing colours, Buchan falsifies the whole military situation on the Western Front. By his omissions and exaggerated claims he makes not only the common soldier but also the commanding generals look superb.

(9) John Buchan, Memory Hold the Door (1940)

But in a soldier character is at least as vital as intellect, and there can be no question about the quality of his (Douglas Haig) character. He had none of the lesser graces which make a general popular with troops, and it took four years for his armies to feel his personality.

He had to feel his way in his task and was often conscious of blunders more acutely conscious, I think, than most of his critics. He had difficulties with his allies, with his colleagues, with the home Government, though, let it be said, he had far less to complain of on the latter score than most soldiers of a democracy.

He had repeated bitter disappointments. He had the wolf by the ears, and at first he clung to traditional methods, when a smaller man might have tried fantastic experiments which would have assuredly spelt disaster. He did not revise his plans until the old ones had been fully tested, and a new one had emerged of which his reason could approve. Under him we incurred heavy losses, but I believe that these losses would have been greater had he been the brilliant empiric like Nivelle or Henry Wilson.

When the last great enemy attack came he took the main shock with a quiet resolution; when the moment arrived for the advance he never fumbled. He broke through the Hindenburg line in spite of the doubts of the British Cabinet, because he believed that only thus could the War be ended in time to save civilisation. He made the decision alone - one of the finest proofs of moral courage in the history of war. Haig cannot enter the small circle of the greater captains, but it may be argued that in the special circumstances of the campaign his special qualities were the ones most needed - patience, sobriety, balance of temper, unshakable fortitude.