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World War One-Series 6 (Mail man who went to the Trenches in a bowler hat and Burberry coat: )
6 months ago

Mail man who went to the trenches in a bowler hat and Burberry coat: Eccentric, rebellious and breathtakingly brave, Basil Clarke defied the censors to tell an unsuspecting world the true horror of WWI
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  • The Daily Mail journalist spent three months undercover in war-torn France
  • He smuggled home dispatches detailing the vivid horror of the fighting
  • But to Lord Kitchener he was a 'rogue journalist' doomed to be arrested
  • He was later knighted for developing the fields of propaganda and PR

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Fearless: Basil Clarke evaded both the shells and the censors of the First World War... in a bowler hat (Derby Hat)
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On a freezing night in the depths of winter in 1914, a deep frost lay on the ground in Flanders. With a clear sky, the stars and the moonlight illuminated the pretty cottages that lined the road between the Belgian city of Veurne and the French port of Dunkirk.

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Along it were walking two British reporters — Christopher Lumby of The Times, and Basil Clarke of the Daily Mail. As their feet trudged over the frozen ruts left by thousands of gun carriages, the minds of both men were cast back to their families safely tucked into their beds on the other side of the Channel.

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In the distance, the two men heard the bells of Dunkirk Cathedral chime out the unofficial anthem of the city — the Hymn of Jean Bart.

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Then, suddenly, there was a booming sound that shook the earth, and the sky was lit up by the white flashes of guns, the pink flashes of howitzers and the red-yellow of exploding shells.

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‘Thud, boom, and boom again, we could feel the shock of them in our feet as well as hear them,’ Clarke later recalled.

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As Clarke was to report in the pages of this newspaper, what we would now describe as the festive season was to offer no respite from the slaughter on that section of the Front.

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‘The Germans came down upon the countryside in a fury of hate,’ Clarke wrote. ‘The frost had hardened the marshy fields. They came on now with a clatter instead of with a squelch. And the whole afternoon the Allies were busy beating them off. The guns thumped, the machine guns tapped, and rifles cracked.’

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As Clarke reported to Mail readers, in many parts of the Front, including the northern section where he was based, the fighting during Christmas and New Year in 1914 continued as savagely as normal. There was no  let-up in hostilities.

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Certainly, thanks to Clarke we know that the almost legendary ‘Christmas Truce’ was a sporadic affair at best rather than the blanket event that has been presented since. However, what makes his reports all the more remarkable is that he should not have been anywhere near Flanders at all.

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In fact, he was operating in the war zone without any official sanction.

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Journalists were banned and had he been caught, it was likely that he would have been arrested and imprisoned. But then, Clarke was never the most conventional of reporters, and was always kicking against authority.

War: Troops in Veurne, France. Kitchener so hated journalists that he banned them from the battlefield and set up a Press Bureau in central London - which omitted so much it was nicknamed the Suppress Bureau
Fight: The 14th Battalion of the London Scottish Regiment marching towards the Somme in 1916

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When the war broke out, Clarke was given the job of representing the paper at the Press Bureau that had been established by Lord Kitchener to issue war news and to censor  newspaper articles.

For the Daily Mail writer, the idea of working at a place that quickly became known among the Press pack as the ‘Suppress Bureau’ was anathema.

After all, Clarke was very much a go-getting reporter, who was not afraid of getting into a scrap. Before he had become a journalist, and after a tedious spell working in a bank, Clarke worked as a tutor in Germany, where he managed to get into a fistfight with his employer.

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Clarke was also lucky not to have been put through with a sword after he insulted a drunken German officer, while on another occasion he was attacked and thrown in a river by some German soldiers he had got into an argument with.

He therefore leapt at the chance when the Daily Mail’s news editor informed him, in October 1914, that he was to be sent to Ostend in Belgium. The paper wanted him to try to reach the city before it fell into the hands of the Germans.

For both Clarke and the paper, it was vital that the public should know the truth of what was going on. The Mail urged the government to ‘have the great courage to tell the British people the truth’.

6 months ago

Battle: Clarke was a leading figure in reporting shell shock, now known as post-traumatic stress disorder

Death: The destruction of Flanders fields. Clarke's best sources were soldiers, given Kitchener's distrust

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Clarke was also personally opposed to what he believed was a ‘short-sighted and brutal policy’ of banning reporters from the frontline, thus denying grieving families a true picture of how their loved ones were laying down their lives.

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Clarke set off from London dressed in decidedly un-military wear — a bowler hat and a Burberry coat. He would later wonder if he was the only journalist ever to have gone to war in a bowler.

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However, when he arrived at Folkestone, he was told he was too late — the Germans had already taken Ostend. Many would have turned back, but instead Clarke made a life-changing decision. He would try to get to the front anyway.

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Despite having a young family, he was eager to see the war for himself, and he boarded a boat for Calais.

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So began Clarke’s three months as a ‘journalistic outlaw’, where he lived outside the law and survived day by day using his cunning to evade arrest in what was a ‘labour greater and more complex than anything I have ever undertaken’.

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After arriving in Calais, Clarke decided to walk the 20 miles to Dunkirk, regarding it as a potentially good base for his operations. However, at the outskirts of Calais, he came to a sentry box, where a French soldier refused to let him pass.

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Determined not to be thwarted, Clarke headed to the station in the town, where he wangled himself on to a train full of French soldiers heading towards the front.

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What he witnessed on that short ride was to shock him. As the train chuffed towards Dunkirk, Clarke saw horrendously overcrowded trains heading in the other direction.

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Men were lying on the roof or holding on between carriages, and at one point he saw women being pulled out unconscious from the melee of refugees. ‘All Belgium seemed to be pouring into France,’ he wrote.

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Three days after he left London, on October 18, Clarke finally managed to get his first dispatch home. Concerning severe fighting the Allies and Germans around the town of Nieuwpoort, it ran to just 38 words. But it was a start, and what was most satisfying was that it had not been issued by the ‘Suppress Bureau’.

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As Clarke settled in Dunkirk, he found that his best sources were soldiers. He openly visited a treatment centre and, on one occasion, he was called upon to act as a translator between the medical staff and German prisoners.

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However, Clarke was not a man to sit still, and soon some of the reports that he was sending back were to shock the British public, and to give them a very vivid picture of the war, a picture that without his efforts would never would have been painted by Kitchener’s official Press Bureau.

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During his first weeks at Dunkirk, some of the fiercest fighting was around the Yser Canal.

 

6 months ago

Clarke wrote of how men wrestled and died by drowning each other in the Yser Canal, which ran red

Lord Kitchener on a recruiting poster for the First World War, 'Your Country Needs You'.
Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War pictured during World War I.

Hostile: Lord Kitchener abhorred journalists and banned them from the battlefield, making them stay in Britain

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‘There were 2,500 German bodies in the Yser Canal this morning after the fighting in the night,’ he reported. ‘Many of them had been drowned, others bayoneted. The very water itself was bloody. Dixmude’s [a nearby Belgian town] streets were strewn thick with the dead’.

Clarke also described how ‘men even wrestled and died by drowning each other in the canal’s water’, and he told the story of a ‘huge Belgian who used his rifle like an axe, and felled man after man till a  bullet took him through the thigh bone and fetched him down’.

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This was truly war reporting in the raw, but until that point, Clarke had not felt his life to have been  in danger. That was to change a few weeks later when he entered the ‘jagged wreck of a village’ called Zuydschoote with a Belgian official. As the men inspected the bombed-out buildings, they heard a faint whining noise that was followed by the sound of shell bursting nearby.

Patriotism: As well as Clarke's reportage the Daily Mail published postcards in aid of military charities
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‘The Boche have found us monsieur,’ said the Belgian with a smile.

‘Evidently,’ Clarke replied, trying to maintain his composure.

A second later, another shell landed, this time closer.

‘This is not agreeable,’ said  the Belgian.

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‘What do you suggest, monsieur?’ Clarke asked, still trying to  sound calm.

The two men dived for cover, but more shells saw them bolt for the Belgian’s car.

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As they sprinted, they ran past a pig waddling down the street. Just then, another shell burst, and Clarke felt a sharp smack against his neck. He put his hand up to where he had been hit, and he was shocked to find that it was covered in blood.

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For a few moments, Clarke thought that his time had come. It was only when he saw the dying pig on the ground that he realised the shell had torn some flesh from the poor animal, and it was this that had hit him.

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One of Clarke’s most impressive pieces of reporting was his dispatch from Ypres, which had been devastated by repeated German bombardments. Once again, Clarke was able to give the British public the unvarnished truth of what  had happened.

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Clarke was the first reporter to enter Ypres, and was appalled by the devastation wrought on the historic city and its cathedral, writing: ‘Imagine looking upon, say, Canterbury Cathedral or Westminster Abbey piled up in heaps — heaps of stone and mortar and wood, and saints and angels and stained glass and tombs and curtains and pictures and chairs and candles and prayer books — the old and the new, the venerable stones of the year 1400 and the forgotten umbrellas of 1914 — all in one headlong humble!’

6 months ago

Brutal: The destruction and fury of the First World War became real and vivid in Clarke's writing

Brutal: The destruction and fury of the First World War became real and vivid in Clarke's writing

Mud: Troops try to haul an 18-pound field gun out of the slushy fields of Flanders in 1917

Mud: Troops try to haul an 18-pound field gun out of the slushy fields of Flanders in 1917

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Clarke walked through the streets of Ypres, passing houses without roofs, and with large holes in the walls. In some cases, beds or wardrobes were protruding from the holes, threatening to fall out on to the street at any moment. ‘The city, so silent and empty and waste,’ Clarke observed, ‘might have been unpeopled by a plague, shattered by a mad god. You looked, and still looking, could hardly believe.’

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As well as capturing such scenes of physical destruction, Clarke was also to reveal to the British public a condition that would soon become known as shell shock.

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‘They brought in a fellow the other day for whose body life had been too much.

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He was not hurt, but was temporarily dazed and tottering in the limbs and numbed in the brain with weeks in the cellars and the cold of the trenches.

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‘For minutes and minutes, though he seemed quite conscious, his eyes were wandering round the little mirrored room as though his mind were unable to take in all that he was seeing; as though he were trying to realise where he was and what strange things he was looking at.’

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This was to be one of the last articles Clarke was able to send back from Dunkirk. The authorities were fed up with what they saw as rogue journalism, and Clarke was told by the local police chief he was under orders to have him arrested.

Clarke walked through the streets of Ypres, passing houses without roofs, and with large holes in the walls. In some cases, beds or wardrobes were protruding from the holes. Pictured: Troops near the town in 1917

Clarke walked through the streets of Ypres, passing houses without roofs, and with large holes in the walls. In some cases, beds or wardrobes were protruding from the holes. Pictured: Troops near the town in 1917

Sombre: A soldier seeking a comrade's grave towards the end of the war in Pilckem, Belgium

Sombre: A soldier seeking a comrade's grave towards the end of the war in Pilckem, Belgium

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Clarke realised that his luck had run its course, and he took the first boat back to England.

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He was still wearing his trademark bowler hat.

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‘It proved my best disguise in the war zone,’ he wrote. ‘For whoever thought of looking for a newspaper man under a bowler hat?’

It would be the greatest adventure of Clarke’s life — even though he was subsequently knighted for leading the British propaganda effort in Ireland after the war, and later established what is regarded as the first professional public relations agency in the UK.

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Although Clarke’s time on the Western Front at the end of 1914 had been brief, he had achieved much.

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He had shown the full horror of mechanised modern warfare, and had proved that to get at the truth, a redoubtable reporter will always do more service to newspaper readers than those who govern them.

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Extracted from From The Frontline: The Extraordinary Life Of Sir Basil Clarke, by Richard Evans, published by The History Press at £17.99.
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http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2540229/Basil-Clarke-Daily-Mail-man-went-trenches-bowler-hat.html

6 months ago

Please Note: As there is a number of Articles in the World War One Series, I think it would be in the best interest of Political Derby to link all Articles together for the benefit of the Members and Hosts

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(1)  World War One-Series 1 ( Who were the real War Horses)

(2)  World War One-Series 2 (What did World War One really do for Women)

(3)  World War One-Series 3 (How Close did the World come to Peace in 1914)

(4)  World War One-Series 4 (Pigeon-v-Telephone: Which work the best in the Trenches)

(5)  World War One-Series 5 (Why were Journalist threatened with Execution in WW1)

6 months ago

Ray, so enjoy the newest installment of the series on WWI.  This has been the most interesting columns and please, hope there will be more.  Thank you so much.

6 months ago

Linda, I am pleased members do enjoy these threads and there will be alot more to come, 

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