William Beach Thomas was a gentle soul. He loved nature and the British countryside, growing up in a rural Huntingdonshire village and spending much of his adult life contemplating the niceties of country life.
Such peaceful reflections were rudely disturbed by the outbreak of the First World War. Beach Thomas was one of the first journalists to report back from the trenches: initially illegally, but later as an accredited war correspondent.
Athlete and Scholar
Beach Thomas had not set out to be a journalist. The son of a rector, he won a scholarship to Oxford University where he excelled in athletics. Lean and tall, he displayed great sporting prowess. This success was not, however, mirrored in the academic sphere: he graduated with a third in Classics.
Leaving university to work as a teacher at Dulwich College, he found the job ‘uncongenial’, and began writing columns for The Globe, The Outlook, and The Saturday Review, mainly on the topics of athletics and country life, until he was finally taken on by the Daily Mail as a writer focusing on the countryside.
This suited William Beach Thomas perfectly: he moved out of London to a beautiful cottage in Hertfordshire’s Mimram Valley. There he wrote on country life for many years, publishing From a Hertfordshire Cottage in 1908.
But his idyllic respite was soon over: when war broke out in 1914, Beach Thomas was sent by the Daily Mail to cover the conflict.
The presence of journalists on the Western Front did not go down well with the British military authorities. Army commanders preferred to control the publishing of news through press releases; Lord Kitchener, who had troublesome experiences of journalists during the Boer War, was particularly keen to keep the probing eyes of the media away from action at the front.
Kitchener formed a press bureau and demanded that all newspaper reports were sent to the bureau for review by censors. The papers, initially, did not play ball, and Beach Thomas found himself on the unlikely journey from country cottage to frontline to prison aft er being arrested by the British Army. Beach Thomas described this experience on the Western Front as ‘the longest walking tour of my life, and the queerest.’
Eventually, however, the British Army relented. Pressure from the United States, on whose support Britain relied, led the military staff to allow accredited – though heavily guarded and controlled – war correspondents to report from the front. Beach Thomas was released from prison and allowed to report back for the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror.
Censored and ridiculed
All Beach Thomas’s reports were heavily censored. Army officers did their best to keep journalists away from the frontline, for fear that reports which described the horrors of the war too vividly would dampen morale at home.
Beach Thomas and his journalistic colleagues ended up self-censoring, recalling that ‘the censors would not publish any article if it indicated that the writer had seen what he wrote of. He must write what he thought was true, not what he knew to be true.’
So Beach Thomas sent home reports that would have been more comfortable in a satirical column rather than a serious newspaper. One particularly farcical passage, published on 4 August 1915, reads:
As the chicken roasted and the frying potatoes sizzled, an occasional bullet ‘pinged’ over the trenches… I might be saying that it was about the finest, proudest old regiment in the British Army, which would be invidious in view of all the other finest, proudest old regiment s in the British Army.
The most notorious and unlikely reporting came from the Battle of the Somme. The huge casualties and sheer folly of the action were totally downplayed, not just in Beach Thomas’s reporting, but from across the British press.
Headlines from the Press Association, for instance, stated: ‘Great British Offensive. Attack on a 20-mile front. GERMAN TRENCHES OCCUPIED. Many prisoners taken. OUR CASUALTIES NOT HEAVY.’
Beach Thomas’s later memoirs expressed deep regret at this misleading of the public, and were scathing about the role of British Army intelligence:
A great part of the information supplied to us by British Army intelligence was utterly wrong and misleading. The dispatches were largely untrue so far as they deal with concrete results.
For myself, on the next day and yet more on the day after that, 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 own name did not lessen the shame.
For his blatant misrepresentations, Beach Thomas was lampooned by ordinary Tommies. The Wipers Times, the subversive and satirical trench newspaper, took particular pleasure in parodying him.
The paper published articles supposedly written by him under the byline Teech Bomas. One such was entitled ‘“We Attack at Dawn” by Teech Bomas (the fictional) special correspondent for The BEF Times, 15 August 1917’:
All was still as the first flush of dawn lit the sky. Then suddenly the atmosphere was riven by the crescendo chorus which leapt to meet the light as a bridegroom to his bride.
The delicate mauve and claret of the dawning day was displaced by a frothy, and furious fandango of fire… I was picking wallflowers in Glencorse Wood when all this happened, and even now the memory of that zero hour is with me.
One soldier, Albert Rochester, was court-martialled for attempting to send to the Daily Mail a letter that stated the realities as he saw them. The letter was critical of Beach Thomas’s work, noting the ‘ridiculous reports regarding the love and fellowship existing between officers and men’.
Beach Thomas’s misrepresentations of the war thus did irreparable damage to his journalistic reputation. Peter Stothard, editor of The Times between 1992 and 2002, describes him as ‘a quietly successful countryside columnist and literary gent who became a calamitous Daily Mail war correspondent.’
This reputation is probably deserved, but a thorough perusal of Beach Thomas’s writing suggests that he was not always so cheerful about the nature of war on the Western Front. This report from the Battle of Passchendaele was published in the Daily Mail on 2 August 1917:
Floods of rain and a blanket of mist have doused and cloaked the whole of the Flanders plain. The newest shell-holes, already half-filled with soakage, are now flooded to the brim.
The rain has so fouled this low, stoneless ground, spoiled of all natural drainage by shellfire, that we experienced the double value of the early work, for today moving heavy material was extremely difficult and the men could scarcely walk in full equipment, much less dig.
Every man was soaked through and was standing or sleeping in a marsh. It was a work of energy to keep a rifle in a state fit to use.
While he makes no mention of the mass bloodshed, slaughter, wounded, and dead that would inevitably have been the most arresting feature of battle, there is a clear element of realism in Beach Thomas’s description of the muddy, pockmarked, bleak landscape of Passchendaele, with death euphemistically hinted at.
Still, a century on from the events of the First World War, it is evident that the journalistic reporting from that time is a poor source of accurate information about the realities of war. Rather, it is the literature, poetry, memoirs, and letters of real soldiers who served at the front that provides a truthful witnesses to its horrors and failures.
William Beach Thomas left the Western Front at the end of the war, and after a couple of stints travelling the globe, went back to writing about country life: a topic to which he was clearly better suited.
IN CONTEXT: William Beach Thomas
William Beach Thomas was a romanticist, who hated the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the destruction it had wrought on the countryside and natural world. He despised the rise of industry and commerce, and the decline of agrarian lifestyles.
He idealised the rural village, campaigned for the establishment of national parks, and called for the conservation of wild, untouched areas of natural beauty.
A patriot and a conservative, his reporting on the First World War followed the propaganda line, initially out of a sense of moral duty to the nation.
In 1900, he married Helen Dorothea Harcourt, with whom he had three sons and one daughter. One of his sons was killed serving as a naval officer during the Second World War.
This article appeared in the November issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about receiving the latest cutting-edge military history research and analysis delivered to your door, click here.