War Reporting: Local Coverage of the Battles of the Somme and of Arras

Abstract

This is an extract from a Dissertation submitted for a BA(Hons) in 2012.

The original work sought to investigate and understand why the Battle of Arras seems to have been neglected and overlooked in contemporary reporting and post conflict literature, compared with the Battle of the Somme. The two WW1 battles have been described amongst the bloodiest and fiercest campaigns of the war, yet the reporting and collective memory of each is very different. In addition to the comparative characteristics of the battles, it has identified the factors that influenced the reporting of these battles in national and especially local press of the time. The work identifies some of the factors influencing the way the news was reported and received by the public.

The methodology employed included: secondary research of newspaper reports of the time and post conflict publications; official histories; literature relating to war reporting; propaganda and censorship..

A natural outcome of the research is a survey of war reportage in local and a selection of national newspapers. It also includes the identification of limitations of the research and opportunities for further research.

In truth, the extent of contemporary reporting in local newspapers is disappointing. The format and style of all the newspapers, in common with some of the nationals used front pages for classified advertisements, leaving the news for the inside pages. The majority of meaningful reporting from the war fronts was left to Editorial comment and reports received from men at the front to their families, presented in single columns.

Stories of local men in extraordinary circumstances; receiving military awards and of course casualty notifications dominate the coverage. Typical of the Editorial comment is an entry made in the Blackpool Gazette and News of 10 April 1917, page 5, the day after hostilities on the Arras front. The article mixes local church news, with a rousing statement of how ‘Field Marshall Haig’s blow has staggered’ the Germans. ‘Whilst they are taking advantage of Russia’s distraction of the revolution, Britain had been preparing this offensive’. It goes on:

‘The blows the British troops are showering on the Germans north of Arras will compel the Great Hindenberg to send his reserves to France instead of Russia: for these smashing, driving, overwhelming onslaughts demand the biggest efforts the Germans can make if they are to hold off defeat.’

The language and general tenor of the article demonstrates the classic ‘spin’ on a story, clearly aiming to appeal to its readers rather than stating the truth of the dreadful events actually taking place. It is also true that what was taking place wasn’t actually known by the author of the reports.

The main themes of news reflected what was considered important news for locals, although it might be argued by a cynic that this was the news newspapers wanted read or the news that inhabitants of Blackpool wanted to hear about. In late spring and early summer of 1916, the main headlines went to Blackpool Councils attempts to amalgamate the local authorities of Fleetwood, Thornton and Lytham St Annes. The nearest attempts at war reporting were the accounts of local men Killed In Action or Died Of Wounds or who died in the locality, alongside advertisements for the ‘Loo’s Trenches’, a system of training trenches, once used by infantry stationed in Blackpool and now open to the public and a Gymkhana to be staged for the King’s visit to the troops.

In the two weeks after the trauma of the first days of the Somme Battle, requests were published for any information from the front: ‘In the Big Push: Request for ‘Boys’ accounts from families of Great Push’ (Gazette, 11 July 1916, p2). Reports in the form of letters from men at the front to their families, were passed to the papers and formed the basis of articles, prompting column headlines like: ‘A Pals Story of the Great Offensive’ and ‘In the big push: Blackpool man’s graphic story’ (Gazette, 18 July 1916, p3). Interestingly, the slaughter of Loos and Neuve Chappelle was translated into: ‘Battle of the Somme supremely proved our volunteer soldiers worthy of the most splendid British traditions’. (Gazette, 11 July 1916, p2).

For the next month, reports in the press appear to have been based on these, probably censored accounts of life at the various war fronts. These represent the ‘Twitter’ of the day, albeit without the promptness. The days of formal news syndication was still in its infancy.

Later in the summer more reports were released and the papers include them, How-ever, reports were only single columns and remained upbeat, with details buried amongst other local news, for example, an Annual picnic, Exams held, annual report of Old Links Golf Club, a house auction, reading of a will (Blackpool Times & Fylde Observer, 22 July 1916, p8)

Reports pertaining to the April 1917 offensive were subtly different, with greater emphasis on official reports, but still only in the form of editorial and single column reports, no prominent headlines and those stories woven into other stories. New topics appear: Aid for Prisoners of War; Conscientious Objectors (and how to convert them!); Land Army recruitment and munitions workers holiday in Blackpool.

A main topic of the reports appeared to be a local ‘Pastries Order’ stopping making of ‘ornamental cakes crumpets muffins, teacakes and other light articles of food’ restrictions on sugar content and white flour, a column headline declares: ‘Bakers Baffled by drastic restriction on trade’. Another reports profiteering ‘Excessive War Profits’.

A table showing details of the local newspaper coverage is available for download.

You will need a PDF Reader, one is available here

Table of Local Reportage during the period of the Battles of Somme and Arras.

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