The year when truth became a casualty of war

Picture shows HMS Audacious, after hitting a mine in the North Sea, wallowing helplessly with her decks almost awash.
Picture shows HMS Audacious, after hitting a mine in the North Sea, wallowing helplessly with her decks almost awash.

by Dr Jack Binns

“The first casualty when war comes is truth” were words spoken in the United States senate by Hiram Johnson in 1917. It’s the senator’s only entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, but it is an expression superior to most in that illustrious collection. What the senator did not add, and could not have known at the time, was that truth about the Great War that America was entering was often so well and deliberately concealed that it remained a secret until exposed by historians only generations later.

One of the most blatant examples of wartime cover-up concerned the loss of HMS Audacious on October 27, 1914. One of the Royal Navy’s finest super-dreadnoughts and in service only a year, the Audacious was sunk by a German mine off the coast of northern Ireland. Though nearly all its crew were saved, the ship’s total loss was not admitted by the Admiralty. Strenuous efforts were made by the government to suppress the news, even though thousands had witnessed the catastrophe. HMS Audacious remained on the official list of active battleships until its fate was finally disclosed on November 14, 1918, three days after the Armistice!

We now know that contrary to repeated British government denials, the liner Lusitania carried four million rounds of rifle ammunition, 1,250 cases of shells and a variety of other war munitions as well as more than a thousand passengers when it was torpedoed and sunk off the southern Irish coast in May 1915. The Kaiser called off further U-boat attacks on civilian vessels in British waters when he was told that more than a hundred of the drowned were neutral Americans. But it was too late: “Remember the Lusitania” was already in print on recruitment posters all over Britain. Similarly, the German naval attacks on Scarborough, Whitby and the Hartlepools six months earlier, on December 16, 1914, were intentionally misreported in London for propaganda purposes. In this case, the truth took nearly 80 years to be fully revealed.

Whatever German purposes might have been when they bombarded three North Sea towns and ports, the Admiralty had been forewarned of the raid and deliberately failed to warn its victims. To do so would have revealed to the Germans that their naval codes had been deciphered and the wireless stations down the coast, including Scarborough’s in Sandybed, were capable of monitoring the movements and locations of enemy naval traffic. The damage that was about to be inflicted on innocent, unsuspecting British civilians and their property was a price that had to be paid for the concealment of vital naval intelligence. Moreover, to Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty and his professional advisers, there seemed a better chance of intercepting and annihilating the Kaiser’s cruisers on their return route after they had bombarded the English coast.

In the event, the interception was bungled and the German cruisers returned home unscathed and triumphantly. Yet even after the Admiralty and government were openly and widely criticised for their failure to protect defenceless women and children, in reply no excuses were offered. As Churchill wrote much later, when his career was no longer at stake, “We could not say a word in explanation...We had to bear in silence the censures of our countrymen.”

But truth was not the only or even the main casualty of 1914 and the war years that followed. Former Grenadier Guards officer, Captain Osbert Sitwell, chose to call his first novel, written in 1926, Before The Bombardment. It was a work of satirical fiction, not historical fact, and says nothing about the German bombardment of Scarborough, but it used the town’s pre-war society to illustrate and condemn everything he had hoped the war would sweep away, in particular the snobberies and undeserved privileges of the idle rich. In fact, Osbert’s targets – such as public schools, blood sports, exclusive upper-class rituals – survived the war and even prospered after it. Significantly, when the captain put himself forward as a pacifist Liberal candidate in the parliamentary election of December 1918 at Scarborough, he was heavily defeated by the Conservatives who had not held the borough since 1895.

So the significance of the bombardment of 1914 was not the inroads it might have had to class inequalities but the endorsement and reinforcement it gave to the worst features of the first global war. The popular press, local and national, was harnessed to the war effort of competing propaganda at the expense of objective, impartial reporting. The Hartlepools had suffered enormous destruction from German shells and 114 civilians and soldiers had been killed, but there was less propaganda value there than for Scarborough, where only 18 had lost their lives. After all, Hartlepool had several artillery battery defences and a naval port, whereas Scarborough was well known as a seaside resort with a derelict medieval castle and obsolete Crimea-war cannon. And it was the death of a 14-month-old baby and his nurse at Westbourne Park that provided the strongest propaganda copy. In his letter to Mayor Graham, dated December 20, 1914, Churchill was unable to resist denigrating the Kaiser’s cruisers as “the baby killers of Scarborough”.

So Scarborough became the subject of a recruitment poster to stimulate voluntary enlistment at a time when it was slackening. “Remember Scarborough” was second only in familiarity and effectiveness to Lord Kitchener’s pointed finger and his summons “Your King and Country Need You”. After press stories of atrocities committed by German soldiers against Belgian women and children, what more evidence was now needed of the barbarism of the “Huns”?

By the end of 1914 the war was less than five months old yet already very different from the heady, enthusiastic, innocent days of August. Now it was certain that it would not be over in months or even years. It was not even certain to some that it could be won. There was no more talk of victory marches down the boulevards of Berlin. What had started as a gesture to rescue gallant, little Belgium had become an all-out struggle for survival. At Mons, Le Cateau and in the desperate battle around Ypres the tiny, professional British Expeditionary Force had been wiped out. Now there were a million young, eager, amateur volunteers to clothe, feed, accommodate, arm and train for a long and costly war of attrition. No one now was printing or mouthing “business as usual”. Loss of liberties of speech, the press, commerce and movement would have to be tolerated for the duration. Soon even conscription would be necessary.

So, the year 1914 was much more than a mere watershed: in retrospect, it can be identified as a seismic rupture in British history.