Viewing World War I through the eyes of its journalists
By Chris Dubbs
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
I occupy a narrow slice of scholarship in the history of World War 1—its journalism. Having so focused a view on such a vast subject means that I filter all the drama of WW1 through the reporters who covered it. For example, I would not write about the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914 in military terms, but about how the war correspondents reported it. How Irvin Cobb took a taxicab from Brussels in pursuit of the war and became embedded with German army or how Mary Boyle O’Reilly witnessing the destruction of Louvain and then walking with refugees through the devastated region to neutral Holland gave the world its first glimpse of the human toll of the invasion.
My fourth book on WWI journalists will appear in April 2021—American Women Report World War I: An Anthology of Their Journalism. A fourth book on WW1 journalists, you ask? Would not three, or two, or even one, have been enough?
I thought at one point that if I wrote a book about the journalists of WW1 and then edited a follow-up anthology of their work—which I did—I would have covered the topic to my satisfaction. Afterall, I had retrieved from articles, autobiographies, letters, scholarly works, and archives the wonderful adventures of these journalists and coaxed from the material their unique personalities.
I had explained how World War 1 served as a proving ground for many of the news-gathering strategies and news-controlling practices that were largely duplicated in World War II and in other wars since. Those two books demonstrated the value of viewing the Great War through the lens of journalism, with its ability to set the larger social frame on the conflict. Job done. Dust off my hands. Move on.
But an alarming thing happened while I was working on that follow-up anthology. I realized that I had made a mistake when writing my first book. For the past few years, and the past two books, I have been on a mea culpa mission to make amends for what I got wrong.
In my defense, I was not the first historian to make this mistake. In fact, the mistake has been such a routine occurrence through the ages that it has only in recent decades even been acknowledged as a mistake. While compiling that anthology of WW1 reporting (with co-editor John-Daniel Kelley) and reviewing hundreds of war articles, from hundreds of sources, I realized that I had shortchanged the role of women.
I remember the exact moment when the hammer blow struck me. I was reading a series of articles written by Mary Roberts Rinehart in the summer of 1915, for the nation’s largest circulation magazine, the Saturday Evening Post. On the strength of a January-March 1915 visit to Belgium, England, and France, Rinehart pulled off one of the most extraordinary bits of reporting in the entire war. At a time when journalists were still forbidden from entering the war zone, Rinehart arranged with the Belgian Red Cross to get carte blanche access. She slogged through the muddy trenches on the Yser Front and got bombed in Calais. She saw the wounded in Belgian hospitals and explored the British and French zones. She arranged first-in-the-war interviews with the King and Queen of Belgium, British Queen Mary, as well as the commanders of the British and French forces.
It’s impossible to exaggerate just how incredible was Rinehart’s accomplishment and the window on the war she offered to the Post’s two million readers. Or, how well she demonstrated that being a woman was no bar to being an effective war correspondent.
Rinehart got only a brief mention in my book. She deserved a whole chapter. Other female journalists also made cameo appearances, but I did not do justice to the important part they played in recording the war. Do not ask me to explain or justify that lapse. I cannot.
I quickly discovered that there had been far more women war correspondents than I ever imagined and that their perspective on the conflict was different than that of their male counterparts. The challenges they faced, the stories they covered, how they gathered the news—resonated with a unique voice and outlook on the war. I knew then that I had to tell their story. The result has been two books about the women war correspondents of WW1—An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I and American Women Report World War I: An Anthology of Their Journalism.
Although they typically faced resistance from civil and military officials, women journalists reported from all of the fronts, including such difficult and dangerous locales as Serbia, Armenia, Galicia, Mesopotamia, Turkey, and revolutionary Petrograd. Before April 1917, they visited all the belligerent countries to report on social and political conditions. After U.S. entry, they caught up with doughboys in training camps, the trenches, hospitals, and at leisure in Paris. Their reporting has a different content and tone, something more intimate and empathetic than that of male reporters. It is a different brand of war reporting.
One of the most impactful accomplishments of these women was to draw out the full picture of women’s role, a news story that was overlooked by male correspondents. Women were the unsung victims and heroines of the conflict, Corra Harris reported in 1914. She wrote about worsening conditions for women in England and the heroic efforts of the Women’s Emergency Corps to equip hospitals, support Belgian refugees, and raise money for war relief. Harris was the first journalist to focus on how the burden of war fell on women.
By the time Mabel Potter Daggett visited Europe in 1916, for the women’s magazine Pictorial Review, she discovered a revolution in women’s empowerment. Before the war, women had been forced to push their way into virtually every business, industry, and profession; now they were invited in, to replace the men sent to fight. An army of women worked in munition factories, on farms, and in nearly every occupation. For the first time, many universities graduated women in the sciences and engineering. In the war zone, women drove ambulances and staffed hospitals. Ideas about women’s rights that once seemed progressive, even radical, were now a given. “Nothing that anybody ever said about women before August 1914 goes to-day,”
Daggett noted. “Everything they said she wasn’t and she couldn’t and she didn’t, she now is and she can and she does.” Daggett and other women journalists from the neutral United States brought these profound changes to public attention.
George Lorimer, the legendary editor of the Saturday Evening Post sent four women to cover the war in its first year, asking them to capture the “woman’s angle” on the war. Throughout the war, women made up the majority of his reporting team. It was an inspired bit of editorial judgement. The stories they wrote not only appealed to the Post’s female readers, but they enriched the narrative of the war and made a unique contribution to how we still view the war today.
My fourth book about the journalists of the Great War will appear this month. I thought—again—this would close out my work on the subject, but that is not the case. I am working on a fifth book about war reporters, collaborating with journalism historian Carolyn Edy. Like so many issues related to WW1, I don’t know how this one can be exhausted. In so many ways, the Great War seeded today. The war’s role in the evolution of journalism and the advancement of women’s rights still hold riches to explore. But primarily, I want to hold a journalistic magnifying glass to every element and happening of the war. That war is not one reassembled by scholars from the dusty record of events but one snatched real time from the turbulent flow. That is exactly the way that Americans on the homefront experienced the war, by having it reported raw in their daily newspaper and their favorite magazines.
Chris Dubbs is a retired professor and university administrator. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. But he got his first taste of journalism through a civilian readjustment program while finishing his tour in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. Chris Dubbs’s books on the journalism of WWI include:
- American Journalists in the Great War: Rewriting the Rules of Reporting
- The AEF in Print: An Anthology of American Journalism in World War I (with John-Daniel Kelley)
- An Unladylike Profession: American Women War Correspondents in World War I
- American Women Report World War I: An Anthology of Their Journalism
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