'Here's 100 gold sovereigns, get to Ostend before it falls into enemy hands' - book tells story of journalist and PR Basil Clarke

Journalist-turned PR Richard Evans's book is about the life and career of Basil Clarke. Here, he gives a brief insight into Clarke's time covering the First World War for the Daily Mail.

Given how the First World War was to come to define his extraordinary life, Basil Clarke’s experience of the start of it was unremarkable.

While other journalists reported on the fighting, Clarke’s employers at the Daily Mail assigned him to the Government’s Press Bureau to collect news and negotiate with censors. It was not a role he enjoyed; the bureau was based in cramped offices and it became known as the “Suppress Bureau” because it proved more interested in censoring news than in supplying it.

But then on 15 October 1914 everything changed. Clarke was at the Press Bureau when he received an urgent call from the Daily Mail’s newsdesk telling him to report back to the newsroom at Carmelite House immediately. When he arrived his news editor, WG Fish, told him the Germans were about to take Ostend in Belgium and that he wanted Clarke to try to reach the city before it fell into enemy hands.

“Get there first and send us a tip-top story,” Fish said, handing him a paper bag filled with 100 gold sovereigns that was to be his expense account. “Run it to a page if you like.”

War reporting has always been a challenging form of journalism, but working as a war correspondent in the first few months of the First World War was especially difficult because Lord Kitchener pushed through a ban on them at the Front. Instead, the needs of newspapers were to be met by the Press Bureau and by appointing Sir Ernest Swinton as a kind of official war correspondent.

The fact that Kitchener thought these measures might be acceptable for such a huge story shows he lacked any real understanding of newspapers. It is to the credit of the independent-minded nature of the press – and something that can serve as an inspiration to those who are today worried about the prospect of government control – that a number of reporters simply ignored the ban, using their guile to get to the war zone and send news back to London.

Dozens of journalists were apparently arrested and sent home and while most of them were treated well, being caught was not without danger. Philip Gibbs of the Daily Chronicle was held under arrest for ten days and warned that he would be put against a wall and shot if he dared to return to France. But after the drudgery of the Press Bureau, Clarke was jubilant at suddenly having the chance to get first-hand experience of perhaps the biggest news story in history.

As he received his instructions to go to Ostend, he still had on the bowler hat and Burberry coat he had worn to the Press Bureau that day. He had no idea how long he would be away, but there was no time to say goodbye to his family and so collected the small suitcase he kept packed in the office and headed straight to Dover. He would later wonder if he was the only journalist ever to have gone to war in a bowler hat.

At Dover, he was told that no boats were going to Belgium and so took a cab to Folkestone to see if he could get one from there. As he waited at Folkestone, boats began to arrive that were crammed full of Belgian refugees and some of them told him they had come from Ostend and that the Germans had already taken the city. He was too late. The obvious course of action was to return to the office but, instead, Clarke made a life-changing decision to risk both his life and the ire of his employers by taking the first boat heading to Europe and, using his bag of sovereigns to pay his way, see what he could of the war. He hoped he would be able to retrospectively justify his decision to his news editor by the amount of news he would be sending back.

Clarke took a steamer to Calais, where he was smuggled aboard a train full of French soldiers that was heading to the fighting. He got out at Dunkirk and managed to get past the soldiers and police officers guarding the exit, finding a room to stay in a nearby cafe that he chose because it was inconspicuous. It proved a good choice, as it meant he managed to evade round-ups of journalists by the police that focused on the main hotels.

And so began the three months Clarke spent as what he described as a “journalistic outlaw”, when he lived outside the law and survived day by day by using his cunning to evade the authorities in what was a “labour greater and more complex than anything I have ever undertaken in journalistic work”. His achievements included a huge exclusive when he became the first journalist to get into the centre of Ypres following the German bombardment, though just as valuable from a historic perspective were the human interest articles he sent back about what life was like for ordinary soldiers. He was finally forced to return home in January 1915, by which time he was one of just two reporters left in the war zone.

There was, of course, much more to Clarke’s career than the last three months of 1914. He would go on to get the first reports out of Dublin following the Easter Rising; report on the Eastern Front; and cause a huge global scandal by accusing the Government of failing to enforce its blockade of Germany. Then after leaving the Daily Mail he became an accredited reporter for Reuters and the Press Association at the Battle of the Somme – the ban on reporters having ended in mid-1915 – and in 1917 he became the UK’s first public relations officer.

But as eventful as his career would be and as unpleasant as he found living under the constant fear of arrest that at times “weighted like a nightmare”, for the rest of Clarke’s life he would have a special nostalgia for the time he spent as a “journalistic outlaw”.

“Flanders seems afar now,” he wrote some 20 years later, “its worries and discomforts all faded and remote. There remains supreme over all other things, that exulting thing, the quest for which made reporters of us and will continue throughout time to make reporters – that feeling of life lived; life sought out and faced; life hot, strong and undiluted; the Male animal’s conception of romance.”

From The Front Line is available to buy on Amazon here.

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