It was 100 years ago today the Bury Free Press reported the outbreak of World War One, but not on its front page.
To modern newspaper readers that seems odd, but in 1914 front page news did not exist. The front was for advertising so the war went on page five.
We were not alone. Even the Daily Telegraph carried the outbreak on page seven.
If modern newspapers present the news like a ready meal, those of 1914 gave readers the grocer’s shop and let them sort it out.
The big story was not always at the top of the page. For example, a council meeting report, over most of a page, was in the order business was done, so big decisions might fall anywhere in the page.
One reason for this lack of priority is that the pages were laid out in metal frames on a bench called the stone, because that is what they were once made of, and the news was typeset and slotted into the frames as it came in.
When war broke out, they were on column three of page five, so that is where it went.
Neither did they use snappy journalism, so, that August 8 report on war in Europe starts: “Following on the declaration of war on Russia and France by Germany and the invasion of neutral Belgium by the Germans, Great Britain declared war on Germany at seven o’clock on Tuesday.”
It then records that the German reply was ‘unsatisfactory’ so assurances about Belgium were sought. As they were not given, the Government announced that a state of war existed at 11pm.
The way news was added as it came in can be seen from the way, halfway down the column, it reports that HMS Amphion had sunk a German minelayer in the North Sea (actually off Harwich) the day after the war started.
But six inches further on it announces that on the Friday Amphion had been sunk by a mine and 130 crew lost.
The page goes on to report mobilisation of territorials around Suffolk, donations to the Red Cross , how doctors joining up meant other practitioners would have ‘their professional duties increased’ and how the Empire Theatre, Bury, had arrange to show war news flashes from the BFP.
From the next week on the paper would carry a regular war report on the back page.
The news must have come from either a national agency or direct from Government dispatches and often paints a more positive picture than history suggests.
Often only the Germans seemed to have ‘heavy losses’.
Take a look at the headlines below from August 29. It boasts: “Magnificent stand by British forces, Enemy pushed back, Fearful losses on both sides”, and yet the “Germans advance on France”.
Behind these headlines hides the retreat from Mons, the first Suffolk Regiment deaths on August 23 and the deadly stand at Le Cateau on the 26th.
At Le Cateau the Suffolk Regiment’s second battalion were ordered to hold the German advance – it was a ‘magnificent stand’. But don’t look for the name here or expect to discover that by the end of the day a third of the battalion were dead and another third were injured or captured.
Today it would shock many of us that when deaths are reported from the front, only officers are named.
This also happened in regimental war diaries, though the Suffolk Regiment’s does record the names of all three men killed on the 23rd.
Later in the war, deaths of individual men, often privates and ordinary sailors, are published in the Bury Free Press, often with pictures. But these stories always appear to come from bereaved families, either directly or through the town’s funeral directors.
Even where stories are told of returning men’s experiences later in the war, it reads like a recruiting puff.
The reporting of the war remained a far cry from the front line reports we would expect today from journalists embedded with regiments.