'Read all about it!' War correspondents in the First World War
The New Zealand public was keen to keep abreast of events overseas and get some sense of what loved ones in the armed forces were experiencing. Much of the reporting of the war fell on the shoulders of Malcolm Ross who was appointed as the official war correspondent in early 1915.
G.W. Woon, the owner of the Taranaki Herald, can perhaps lay claim to the title of New Zealand's first war correspondent. As a member of a volunteer unit, he produced a journal of events based on the fighting in Taranaki from 1860 to 1861. Other correspondents to cover the New Zealand Wars included W.D. Campbell (Lyttelton Times), Gustavus von Tempsky (Daily Southern Cross) and John Featon, who published a history of the Waikato campaign in 1879.
During New Zealand's first overseas war, in South Africa (1899–1902), a number of leading newspapers pooled resources to send J.A. Shand and J.D. Moultray to cover the war.
With the outbreak of the First World War, authorities in London indicated that correspondents were not to accompany forces into the field of battle. This was perhaps because Germany had indicated that, if caught, they would be treated as spies and shot.
Malcolm Ross was a friend of Prime Minister William Massey and had a strong journalism background: he was parliamentary correspondent for the Otago Daily Times and the Christchurch Press, and he was New Zealand correspondent for the Melbourne Age and The Times of London. His wife, Forrest, also worked as a parliamentary reporter and was the first 'lady editor' of Wellington's Evening Post. Malcolm had represented several newspapers when he accompanied the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) that captured German Samoa in August 1914.
Authorities in London had advised that New Zealand could have one correspondent accredited there. This position went to G.H. Scholefield, the New Zealand Press Association (NZPA) man already based in London. This arrangement didn't last as it was soon apparent that he could not serve the whole press in New Zealand.
Newspapers themselves were not prepared to finance a correspondent, and as a result the government reluctantly agreed to appoint an official correspondent. The NZPA agreed to organise the distribution of reports to all newspapers in New Zealand. Ross was appointed to this position, and 85 newspapers agreed to take his reports.
Ross arrived in Egypt in May 1915. His first dispatches were the result of conversations with wounded soldiers who had been evacuated from Gallipoli. Among them was his son, Noel, an early casualty from Gallipoli who was evacuated to Egypt before his father arrived. Malcolm landed at Anzac Cove in June 1915 and remained there until the evacuation in December.
From mid-1916 until the end of the war, Ross was with the New Zealand Division on the Western Front. Despite restrictions, he and his Australian counterpart, C.E.W. Bean, spent as much time as possible close to the battlefield. This did not always translate into reader satisfaction. The needs of censorship and the fact that he was at first not allowed to cable news because of the expense to the New Zealand government meant there was a considerable delay in some of his dispatches making it home. Complaints that his reports lacked freshness resulted in around 10 newspapers withdrawing from the arrangements to receive them.
In 1918, at Ross's request, Prime Minister Massey authorised a military publicity department at the NZEF headquarters in London to make full use of his dispatches. These were considered to be the highlight of his journalistic career. Among the men, however, especially at Gallipoli, he suffered the resentment accorded to all journalists because of the privileges they enjoyed and the requirement to produce a positive version of events. This tension between telling it as it was and boosting morale at home was something Ross seemed comfortable with. He was after all the official correspondent, and from April 1916 he was also an honourary captain in 1 NZEF, so he was seen by his detractors as being very much part of the establishment. In the end, however, military authorities in Wellington considered that he lacked the technical knowledge needed to prepare the official history of New Zealand and the First World War, and he was excluded in favour of field officers.
1. Imagine you are Malcolm Ross. You have just arrived in Cairo, Egypt. It is early May 1915. The first casualties from the Anzac Day landings (including your own son) have been evacuated to Egypt, and you have an opportunity to speak to some of them in preparation for your first dispatch home.
- Prepare a list of five key questions you want to ask your interviewees about their experiences of and reactions to events on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
- On the basis of the answers given, write a report, of 200 words maximum, for newspapers in New Zealand, describing events at Gallipoli for readers back at home. Consider your role as New Zealand's official war correspondent in deciding the tone of this report. Make sure your report has an appropriate heading.
2. Now imagine you are a wounded soldier recuperating in a hospital in Cairo or London. You have been sent a copy of Malcolm Ross's report on the first phase of the Gallipoli campaign.
- In a letter that you are intending to send home to your cousin in New Zealand, describe your thoughts on this report.
- Do you think Ross has been truthful in his account? If not, why not?
- What are some of the problems you believe Ross might have in telling people back home what is really happening and what it is really like at the front.
3. As the editor of a New Zealand newspaper receiving and publishing Ross's reports from the war, explain to your readers in an editorial why you have made the decision to stop using the reports in your publication.
4. New Zealand soldiers were involved in a number of key battles on the Gallipoli Peninsula in 1915, from the landings at Cape Helles and Anzac Cove on 25 April to Walker's Ridge in May and the battles for Chunuk Bair and Hill 60 in August. The Gallipoli guide that is part of Anzac.govt.nz has good detail on these battles as well as still images and panorama of the sites.
- Select one of these battles as the basis for a report to appear in a New Zealand newspaper in 1915.
- Describe the event itself, but ensure that you give your readers some sense of the physical environment that the soldiers have had to contend with.
5. In your opinion, what is the role of the war correspondent? What are some of the problems associated with 'telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth' in these circumstances?