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

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

American Journalists in the Great War
Reviewed by Dr. Margaret Spratt

American Journalists in the Great War: 
Rewriting the Rules of Reporting

by Chris Dubbs
University of Nebraska Press, 2017

A good war sells newspapers. In 1914, that was the accepted axiom. The war correspondent was the messenger breaking news in a world that depended on the paper to bring it into the everyday lives of its readers. Telegraph cables that traversed oceans meant that by the advent of the Great War "battlefield action viewed in the morning could be cabled back to America in time for a newspaper's evening edition." Newspaper sales depended on immediacy and excitement. This war produced more and bigger stories than were imaginable at any time before it.

Correspondent Richard Harding Davis
The job of the war reporter was to convey sensational events on all sides of the conflict that usually meant engaging in adventurous exploits with no regard to personal safety. This took a certain kind of person. One veteran reporter described his newly minted colleagues as "men of sporting instincts and jaunty confidence" who were eager to "see a bit of fun." This sounds much like the qualities sought for in young men chosen as pilots in the air corps. Danger didn't seem to be much of a deterrent to the cub reporters who clamored for an overseas assignment. American journalists jumped on ocean liners and headed for Europe within hours of declarations of war. The pursuit of the "big story" was the object, and getting to the front became the ultimate goal of the war correspondent. However, appropriate credentials were essential for traveling in a war zone. If the enemy apprehended a credentialed reporter, he was treated as a prisoner of war; a non-credentialed civilian was shot as a spy.

Two veteran reporters, Richard Harding Davis and Frederick Palmer, made their way to Brussels, the perfect place to cover the beginning of the war but none of the Allies—the French, the British, or the Belgians—were allowing reporters at the front. So with U.S. passports, letters from editors, and travel passes from a local civil or military authority they set out each day for a different location hoping to pick up a good story. Davis hired a luxury auto and adorned it with all the Allied flags he could find. After a day of wandering about in the countryside looking for a Belgian unit or a group of refugees, he would return to Brussels, file his story, and then settle down to a "perfectly served dinner and a luxurious bed." (p. 23) This "free-for-all" period did not last long.

At a time when an automobile could bring a reporter from his hotel room to the battlefield in a few hours, and telegraphs, the wireless, and telephones could transmit his story home the same day, the military on all sides began to realize they had a problem. Banning reporters from the front was important in order to assure secrecy in terms of locations, troop movements, and other classified information. But the stakes were so high for journalists that freelancers took chances and ignored military restrictions on travel. The appetite for news was so insatiable they were willing to risk being arrested. Neither were publishers that concerned over the veracity of this news that came from the front.

A Devastated Louvain

In late August of 1914 two trainloads of American correspondents were deported from occupied Belgium. Richard Harding Davis and a few others had gotten wind of the orders and left on their own, heading for neutral Holland. Along the way, they witnessed an atrocity that transformed their journalistic outlooks. Stopping in the Belgian university town of Louvain, these journalists saw the burning of the city and terrified residents running for their lives and heard shots of a firing squad ring out. The conundrum of the journalist's profession rose to the forefront once again: how does one remain dispassionate and neutral in the face of such human atrocities? Thus began a deluge of articles condemning the Germans for their treatment of civilians in Belgium. An entire subgroup of reporters emerged, those who expressly searched for stories about these atrocities. Davis gave up all pretext of objectivity and his reports "characterized the German army as a heartless, efficient machine of destruction, at war with civilians and civilization itself" (p. 42). He advocated for an end to American neutrality.

Karl von Wiegand, the Berlin correspondent for United Press and the New York World, had a different perspective on the war. Since the beginning of hostilities, he had been writing from inside Germany and had traveled around the Western Front with German officers. In the first week of October 1914, Wiegand traveled with his military escorts from Berlin to Russian Poland. From the vantage point of a hilltop and armed with a pair of binoculars, this reporter watched the third day of the Battle of Wirballen. As hordes of Russians advanced on the German line, he viewed a baffling sight. He wrote, "The men literally went down like dominoes in a row." Machine gun fire stopped all in its wake, causing panic and quick retreat.

Wiegand described this as the biggest story of his journalistic career. "Today I saw a wave of Russian flesh and blood dash against a wall of German steel. The wall stood. The wave broke–was shattered and hurled back. Rivulets of blood trickled back slowly in its wake. Broken bloody bodies, wreckage of the wave, strewed the breakers. Tonight I know why correspondents are not wanted on any of the battle lines. Descriptions and details of battles fought in the year of our Lord 1914 don't make nice reading" (p. 65). His was the first eyewitness account from a reporter at the battlefront in the Great War and the first report on the impact of the machine gun against massed ranks. His account of Wirballen also made Wiegand the favorite journalist of the German high command, and they rewarded him with exclusive interviews that propelled him and the German cause onto the front pages of American newspapers. The Central Powers had learned the advantages of working with the press. It would take a while longer for the Allies to catch on.

Correspondents John Reed and Louise Bryant, 1915

By the time the U.S. entered the war in 1917, attitudes about the usefulness of the war correspondent had evolved. Rather than viewing them, at best, as nuisances, and at worst, as unwitting spies, the military embraced the significance of accurate and sympathetic reporting. As General Pershing noted, "In this war, I consider a trained newspaperman worth a regiment of cavalry" (p. 203). This transformation is at the heart of the narrative of this book.

This book's author, Chris Dubbs, can spin a yarn to rival even the great American journalist Richard Harding Davis. Of special note is the chapter on the Russian Revolution and the lengths to which reporters like John Reed and Louise Bryant went to cover it. He is best when recounting an anecdote, but make no mistake, those anecdotes are evidence to reinforce the major themes of the study.

One veteran reporter noted: there were two types of reporter in the Great War, the "cable man" and the feature writer. Dubbs shows the sensibilities of the feature writer who describes the atmosphere and emotions in order to provide a big picture. On the other hand, Dubbs understands the economy of narrative of the "cable man."

After reading this entertaining volume, one can conclude that recent hyperbole about the relationship of the press and current U.S. politicians is only a new take on an old refrain. When history is researched and written well, we are reminded of the similarities between past events and contemporary issues. This is history at its most accessible and significant.

Dr. Margaret Spratt


  1. A fine review of what sounds like a fascinating book.
    Does British journalist Philip Gibbs make an appearance?

  2. As the buildup and engagement of American troops in France grew in 1918, top American journalists were sent to cover the Western front by leading newspapers. The big names were Ray Carroll of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Floyd Gibbons of the Chicago Tribune, Martin Green of the New York Evening World and Don Martin of the New York Herald (my grandfather). As a contribution to the historical record of American journalism in the Great War, I will post on a daily basis starting on/about December 7 Don Martin’s Herald articles along with his diary entries and letters, on BlogSpot titled Don Martin WWI Soldier of the Pen.

  3. I wonder if Mary Roberts Rinehart is covered in this book?

  4. Anyone wanting the real and unvarnished story of WWI should read Philip Gibbs' Now It Can Be Told. Gibbs covered WWI from within the trenches and from the beginning to the end. This final book is both clear-eyed and elegiac.

    1. Agreed. That's why I mentioned him up above.
      Did you hear Dan Carlin's WWI podcast where he read extensively from Gibbs?

  5. I now have a copy of this book. The coverage of the Western front from March-September 1918 is pretty slim. My daily Don Martin blog, to be launched on Dec 7, will fill in quite a bit on what the American war correspondents were doing in that period.
    For Chris Dubbs and readers of the book, I am pretty sure that the caption to figure 23 on page 215 has the front and back rows mixed up. I know that Don Martin is second from left in the front row (not back row) and front center is Captain F. P. Adams, who was writing for Stars and Stripes. I wonder if others could confirm this.