The Boer War was the first major conflict since Britain had moved toward universal literacy and there had been a huge growth in the number of newspapers and magazines available to satisfy the public’s newfound appetite. The biggest sellers were those that concentrated on the armed forces. An example of this was the Daily Mail, founded in 1896 to extol the virtues of the Empire, and had become a market leader in three years. Reading about British achievements in some foreign land allowed the public back home to wallow in some reflected glory.
In the weeks before the war, the Times was keen to keep its readers fully prepared for the inevitable conflict with detailed maps and articles dedicated to the situation in South Africa. That the paper was strongly in favour of military action came as no surprise; the directors were strong Cecil Rhodes supporters. Flora Shaw, the South African correspondent, was strongly influenced by Rhodes’ views in her articles. Readers were treated to lengthy diatribes on the persecution of the Uitlanders and a defence of Rhodes’ role in the Jameson Raid. It became apparent at Jameson’s trial that Shaw and the senior staff had some involvement in planning the Raid, and only very suspect testimony before a parliamentary committee saved the paper’s reputation.
The Times was by no means the only newspaper to deliberately arouse jingo feelings in the public; with the exception of the Manchester Guardian, Morning Leader, the Star and the Daily Chronicle (whose editor was sacked for failing to reflect the readers’ patriotic sentiment), all the other main newspapers backed military action. The Telegraph summed up the prevailing attitude: “Kruger’s asked for war and war he must have.” Newspaper editors were well-practised in manipulating public opinion to suit the directors’ viewpoint, and special war editions were sent to the presses to encourage anti-Boer feeling. Sales at patriotic papers rocketed, even leading to some complaining at the distasteful sight of women buying copies of their own.
Having aroused public interest in South Africa, editors spared no expense to provide the best coverage, and three hundred correspondents were assigned to report back from the frontline including Dr Arthur Conan Doyle and a young Winston Churchill. The typical layout of the war section would be a collection of small articles from correspondents covering a different aspect of the war. The development of telegraph technology allowed reports to be filed for printing the day after, enabling the news-hungry public to be kept right up to date. Accuracy was sometimes sacrificed for speed, and pages were filled with exaggerated stories of British heroism and Boer atrocities.
The main beneficiary was Baden-Powell, who became the biggest war hero since Nelson after some carefully orchestrated reporting of his handling of the siege at Mafeking. Starving hundreds of native Africans out of town to conserve food stocks was suppressed, but his eccentricities, were played up to the hilt by a press corps desperate to find some good news to report.
Photography and film played a significant role in war coverage. There was little opportunity for cameramen to capture action on film owing to the cumbersome nature of the equipment, but reconstructions of events became popular in the music halls, and were responsible for a boom in the fledgling film industry. The storylines were designed to fire up the patriotic spirit. One filmed on London’s Hampstead Heath, showed a ragged, unwashed Boer shoot a gallant Tommy after the latter had offered him a drink. Another heroic Englishman shot down the no-good Boer, and the audience could go home relieved that good was triumphing over evil in South Africa.
Public opinion in the rest of Europe was firmly behind the Boers, a small nation fighting a far superior foe. Newspapers in Europe delighted in the difficulties Buller suffered, and could match the British press when it came to dreaming up stories of atrocities. The Tribunal de Geneve claimed Kipling had assisted in the brutal murder of a civilian in South Africa.
Satirical newspapers flourished during the war. While often attacking the establishment, the papers were careful not to print anything that could be construed pro-Boer. The most prominent of the satirical weeklies was Punch, founded in 1841 on the principles of religious and political tolerance. Patriotic to Queen and country, the extremes of Jingo and Anti-War supporters were mercilessly parodied. They employed the most eminent cartoonists of the day: Sir John Tenniel (who also illustrated Alice in Wonderland), Phil and F. C. Gould.
Gould was himself the editor of the Westminster Gazette, the most blatantly anti-war of the big-name weeklies. Some of his cartoons were used by W.T. Stead in his Stop the War Committee pamphlets. The most celebrated satire of the day was The Westminster Alice, written by Saki and illustrated by Gould. Alice tries to make her way through the lunatic world of British politics, hindered by the Mad Hatter (Chamberlain) and Humpty Dumpty (Buller).
Poetry and the Press
The Times’ report on Kruger’s ultimatum and the subsequent declaration of war appeared next to a typically Jingo poem from Swinburne [right] entitled Transvaal, a rallying cry for the strife to come. The poem was free of copyright, meaning it could be printed anywhere for no charge. Poetry was an integral part of the daily newspaper, frequently used as a “livener” when reporting major events. The message was more important than Swinburne’s bank balance. Newspapers and journals throughout the country were deluged with verse from all areas of society. Most of these were of the England Arise! vein from amateur writers swelled with bloodlust, but there were still publications where more considered poetry flourished. Hardy’s A Christmas Ghost Story was included in the 23 December edition of the Westminster Gazette, again free from copyright.
The pamphlet was one of the crucial methods of generating debate, and was a vital weapon for any nonconformist group. W.T. Stead was expert in the art of the inflammatory pamphlet. While the moderate South African Conciliation Committee used pamphlets to prick some of the more extreme Jingo myths, Stead used his talents to produce highly polemical essays including Joseph Chamberlain: Conspirator or Statesman? and Shall I Slay My Brother Boer? Stead’s writings were in the style of fire and brimstone preaching, the basic message being: ““For the wicked shall be turned into Hell and all nations that forget God.” With roots in Christian associations, Stead’s Stop the War Committee had many branches up and down the country, and in 1900, three and a half million pamphlets were distributed.
Disenchantment and Condemnation
After Black Week some questions were raised about the tactics and the generals that had so badly let down their men, but the majority decided there was no time for criticism with the campaign going from bad to worse. One of Lord Roberts’ innovations in the field was to welcome the press corps warmly where Buller had regarded them as a necessary evil. In return he was known as “Bobs” and escaped any of the criticism that his predecessors and successors received.
At home, leading articles continued to demand everyone was fully behind the war effort, and condemning as traitors any that did not. On some occasions they would incite Jingo extremists to take action against the pro-Boers. The Unionist press in Birmingham spread scare stories about the nature of a Lloyd George rally to take place in the city, and a mob descended to disrupt the meeting. The next day the same papers frowned upon the violence but blamed Lloyd George for inciting the trouble. It was only after Roberts had reorganised the army and won a series of crucial victories that the hysteria surrounding South Africa began to disappear, and the newspapers began to consider what had gone wrong. Further military reforms were demanded to help the common soldier who had been so badly let down by the government, War Office and the generals. The Times published a series of articles from the MP W. Burdett-Coutts on the outbreak of typhoid in the British camp at Blomfontein:
“…hundreds of men to my knowledge were lying in the worst stages of typhoid with only a blanket and a thin waterproof sheet between their aching bodies and the hard ground, with no milk and hardly any medicines, without beds, stretchers… with only three doctors to attend 350 patients. In many of these tents there were ten typhoid cases lying closely packed together, the dying with the convalescent, the man in his crisis pressed against the man hastening to it.”
Interest in the war died down at home as victory appeared to be secure and the Boxer Rebellion in China became the more newsworthy event. There were still plenty of articles printed, but the overriding mood favoured an end to the whole mess as soon as possible.
The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley, 1975
War and the Media, Miles Hudson and John Stanier, 1997