Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Value of War Correspondents

By Tony Langley

It is always worth remembering that, aside from word of mouth, the printed medium was the only form of information people could use when they wished to learn what was happening during the tumultuous years of the Great War. Radio and television were both things of the future. The printed word reigned supreme, and by happenstance technological advances and developments converged to make printing and distributing newspapers and illustrated news magazines in huge numbers both feasible and cheap.

First Page of a Major Article in Leslie's Magazine,
Photographer Donald Thompson Shown

Demand for news is voracious during times of war and never more so than in the years 1914–1918. A bewildering plethora of new publications was launched in the early months of the war in all of the warring nations, all bringing news and accounts and, also important, abundant illustrated material in the form of either hand-drawn images or photographs of battlefields and armies. Aside from creating new magazines from scratch, old existing publications were almost completely revamped, bringing news of the war and yet more news on every conceivable subject.

People were needed to cover events, write up stories, take photos, and create illustrations. Many thought they were suited for the job-—amateurs, adventurers, and professionals. Only a few rose to any level of fame and proficiency, but those who did—writers such as Philip Gibbs, E. Alexander Powell, Hamilton Fyfe, Carillo Gomez, Robert Vaucher, Gustave Babin, Frederic Palmer, John Reed, Arthur Ruhl, Irwin Cobb and others—were all masters of journalism and writing, producing articles and books that still speak to present-day readers.

American Correspondent E. Alexander Powell in Flanders

Photographers and illustrator-reporters such as Donald Thompson, H.C. Seppings-Wright, Frederic Villiers, Fortunino Matania, and many more were just as important for the news media as the writers. Moreover, they have influenced our mental imagining of the Great War by providing archetypal imagery that characterizes how contemporaries and later generations have come to remember events, battlefields, and soldiers of the war.

A Sampling of Thompson's Photographs from Russia

A large percentage of the contents of news magazines and newspapers was very patriotic in tone and often prone to give events a more than unrealistic interpretation. Such is normal in times of war, of course, though the journalists who rise above such temptations and easy solutions, are those who ultimately make a lasting contribution to our knowledge of events.


  1. This was a fascinating insight into the role of reporters and photographers in the Great War. Thank you! It would be interesting to know to what extent they were restricted in their work by the military authorities. David Beer

  2. James Norman Hall, as co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty, was obviously a master of writing. You could say he didn't stay objective, since he was supposed to write about the Lafayette Escadrille, but ended up flying for it instead. I wonder if any other reporters joined the units they were supposed to write about?