24 June 1915 – Daily Telegraph

Twelve years before the Daily Telegraph moves into its iconic Art Deco building on Fleet Street (see above), the newspaper that will come to be known derisively as the ‘Daily Torygraph’ is already showing a conservative bent. Its editorial line had been notably skeptical of German intentions since 1908, when the Kaiser gave the paper a damning interview just as his naval arms buildup began in earnest. Having failed to supervise the official transcript’s editing, Prime Minister Bernhard Heinrich Karl Martin von Bülow resigned and was replaced by Theobald Theodor Friedrich Alfred von Bethmann Hollweg, the current German PM. Seen in retrospect, it was an early indicator of the aggressive turn that Germany policy was taking, for Wilhelm managed to insult the British, French, and even the Japanese. But the episode is also emblematic of Germany’s overall lack of public relations savvy, a deficiency which has a huge and lasting impact on public perceptions of the conflict.


Phillip Gibbs reporting from the Somme in 1916

Despite official censorship and wartime restrictions on journalists, the British press is quite up to the task of keeping the Liberal government accountable in 1915. A daring handful of reporters have managed to sneak close enough to the front to do real war correspondence, including the legendary Phillip Armand Hamilton Gibbs, whose byline is syndicated in the Telegraph. In fact, during May the conservative Times released a bombshell exposé of the embarrassing failures of the War Ministry’s approach to arms and ammunition production, leading to a cabinet shakeup that increased Conservative participation in the wartime government. The scandal diminished the influence of Lord Kitchener, the War Minister whose personal opposition to battlefront journalism had kept journalists at bay, and now there are daily dispatches arriving from the Western Front…subject to heavy redaction by military authorities, of course.

Mindful of the recent muckraking over shell production woes, today the Telegraph is only too happy to write glowingly of yesterday’s speech in Parliament by David Lloyd George, the newly-minted Minister of Munitions. A Liberal, Lloyd George will nevertheless prove accommodating to Conservatives and their issues. Declaring that London is to become “another Woolwich Arsenal,” Lloyd George’s grand centralization of materials and efforts has the enthusiastic approval of the Telegraph. Indeed, today Prime Minister Asquith announces a new bill to regularize the registration and organisation of critical national resources, including coal, for as reported with palpable joy by the Telegraph, Lloyd George has mentioned the necessity of increased coal production.

His chief anxieties are concerned with labour during the next few weeks and months. The Minister made no concealment. The truth is that the supply of munitions at this very hour could be doubled if labour were willing. Labour is the crux of the whole position. It rests with the skilled workmen to decide whether this war shall be long or short and what shall be the price in lives of their fellow-men.

“Skilled labour must consent to allow unskilled labor to work at its side. There are many firms which could work double shifts at once if this were done, for skilled labour is perilously short.

“Skilled labour must also frankly abandon all its cherished regulations, which limit output.”

This, indeed, is the kernel of the whole matter, and Mr. Lloyd George dealt with it faithfully, showing how the most “devastating regulations” are not those which are written but those which are unwritten — the deliberate discouragement of putting forth all one’s energy, and the hostility shown to men who are judged by their fellows to be doing too much.

It was not an agreeable theme. To the Labour members it was naturally distasteful…

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Trade unions have already accepted wartime prohibitions on strikes, just as employers have accepted government arbitration of wages. But a century later, ‘lazy people’ being forced to work remains the favorite canard of conservative politics even when its adherents reject ‘big government,’ alterations in the social fabric, and the centralized industrial state as ‘liberal’ ideas.


Carl Friedrich Muller looking very, very worried some time before he was stood against a wall and shot by a firing squad yesterday

Underneath the story about Lloyd George’s speech on Page 9 of today’s Telegraph is a report on the execution of Carl Muller, a German spy, at the Tower of London last night. Multilingual, financially strapped, and familiar with the shipping business, he was a perfect recruit for German intelligence. Muller monitored British ship traffic and wrote the contents on innocuous-looking letters using invisible ink made from lemon juice and formaldehyde. Arrested with a confederate named John Hahn by the agency that will become known as MI-5, Muller pleaded not guilty and was sentenced to death. Hahn, who brought government attention on the entire cell by putting his own address on an envelope, was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty.

The Telegraph article makes no mention of the black irony in Muller’s execution: conveyed from Brixton Prison to the Tower in a London taxi, his ride suffered a breakdown, and Muller was obliged to wait for a second taxi to be summoned before he could complete his final journey. Muller thus becomes the second spy to face a firing squad in Britain thus far. Altogether, eleven men will be executed for espionage within the walls of the Tower during the war, a fact which helps explain why the location will see more capital punishment during the 20th Century than it did during the Tudor period. The next to die will be Robert Rosenthal on August 15th, by hanging; his arraignment at Wellington Barracks yesterday is mentioned in the businesslike report of Muller’s demise.

Finally, the same page of the Telegraph also carries a delusory update on the fighting around Lemberg on the Eastern Front. Based largely on Russian Army reports which make the ongoing collapse of resistance in Galicia sound like a great success, or at worst a minimal setback, the article is almost entirely propaganda and wishful thinking. The Great War is producing an endless stream of such ‘news’ designed to keep spirits high within societies, for every power has mastered the art of making verbal lemonade out of every high-casualty lemon. But with each wave of this reporting that is later proven false by events, public trust and enthusiasm ebb a little more; defeat is hard enough to swallow without adding the unwelcome element of surprise.

Ultimately, success on the battlefield will determine which nation’s news shall become History — and which nation’s executions will be considered crimes.