Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

2. Telegrams and Anger

Filson’s real reason for going to Kimberley was that Amery had just wired Pollock to go there to join a ‘Mafeking Relief Column’. In Bloemfontein, rumour had it that this column would set out on March 20 to rescue Mafeking, which was still under siege from the Boers. In Kimberley they discovered that an order from Roberts was expected any day, but in the event nothing happened till April 2, when Methuen set out with some 10,000 men from Kimberley for Boshof (a short way east while Mafeking was a long way north). Pollock and Filson attached themselves to  Methuen, but by now Filson was had run into trouble with his editor. Between March 20 and 28 he had sent Scott six of the brief heavily censored news telegrams the system allowed, to which Scott’s sole response had been ‘Stop telegraphing till you get to the front’. Filson interpreted this as a snub and was much put. Deciding a full explanation was needed even though he knew his letter wouldn’t reach England for a month, he immediately wrote to Scott defending himself at length against the/an earlier accusation that he had been slow in catching up with Roberts. He went on:

I am hoping to hear again from you something that will explain your request to me to stop telegraphing. It has puzzled me and given me the impression that I am an unprofitable servant. I did not attempt to gauge the importance of news at the far end; I simply went by its importance at this end [...] I was perhaps mistaken. Please do not imagine that I resent in any way your message, but when one is so very anxious to do well one is apt to be over easily discouraged. (17)

A little nervous of sending this letter, he kept it for a few days before posting it to Tom who duly received it a month later when he passed it on to Scott with a covering note:

[My brother] encloses a letter which he had written to you … he felt that you had lost confidence in him and did not value his work.(18)

Filson, meanwhile, for a week obeyed Scott’s order to send no more telegrams, until Methuen’s forces clashed with the Boers at Tweefontein and managed to kill one of their commanders, Count Villebois, a former French Foreign Legion officer serving as a mercenary. This was followed by ten days in camp at Zwartskopjesfontein, a period marked only by signalling problems and two ineffective sallies against the usually invisible enemy. Filson was again regularly telegraphing news to the Guardian, but Scott and his manager Dibblee were increasingly dissatisfied. In their opinion nothing important was imminent on the western front, and if anything did happen, Atkins would be able to cover it from Bloemfontein. After consulting Scott, who was as usual in London, Dibblee sent Filson a telegram in Scott’s name:

April 18 Please return England Atkins will now suffice

Filson was horrified. He believed (wrongly) that the terms of his agreement with Scott guaranteed he could stay in South Africa for the whole campaign no matter how long that might prove to be. In any case, he had no intention of letting the chance to go to Mafeking with the relief column escape him at the last moment. Besides, some interesting local trouble with ‘rebels’ had developed – Scott wasn’t fully aware of the situation and it was impossible to explain adequately by telegram. So he wired back:

April 19 Situation and developments here render me most reluctant return expensive preparations wasted await decision

Now Atkins in Bloemfontein unwittingly made things worse by telling Amery that Filson was to be recalled. Amery immediately wired Filson offering him the job of Times special correspondent with a Canadian column about to set out from Beira in Mozambique to advance on Mafeking from the north-east via Rhodesia. Filson wired Amery his acceptance ‘unless Guardian keeps me for campaign’. Meanwhile Dibblee and Scott had received Filson’s telegram of the 19th and replied:

April 20 Remain for present do not wire or only matters utmost importance

Scott was to explain much later that this message had been intended to mean

‘go on for a bit and we’ll see’, but it seems to have reached Filson only after

he had replied, on the 21st, to their telegram of the 18th, asking for clarification of Scott’s plans for him so that he could reply to Amery’s offer:

April 21 Times invites me to act special correspondent will remain you for whole campaign but no other terms your recall without explanation greatly surprised me as understood engaged campaign

To add to his troubles – and to his copy – Filson was captured by Boers on this same day, April 21. On the 20th several British soldiers had been killed in a skirmish at Spitz Kop near Boshof (‘kop’ is Afrikaans for ‘hill’). Next morning Filson and Pollock joined an ambulance party sent out under flag of truce to bury them. The party was politely received by the Boer commandant, P.A.Cronje (son of the general Kitchener had captured at the end of February); they were warned that only Red Cross officials could proceed beyond a certain point. Apparently unaware of this, Filson galloped off with a Boer doctor in search of a wounded British soldier who had been seen crawling around during the night. Both Boers and British, Pollock among them, shouted and whistled in vain: Filson seemed to have gone deaf. After two hours’ search Filson and the doctor found the man (now dead) after which, by accident or design, the doctor led Filson straight into the Boer ‘laager’ (camp), where some seven or eight hundred men were quartered. ‘I have no business to be here, you know,’ Filson said to the doctor, ‘we shall all get into a row,’ at the same time surreptitiously glancing at his pocket compass and making a mental note of the camp’s bearing from Spitz Kop. He was taken to Cronje and a piece of pure theatre followed reminiscent in its cat-and-mouse quality of the story of Kipling and Private Dickson’s boots.

‘Please remain here,’ [Cronje] said to me sharply; and as he led the doctor away, pouring forth a stream of Dutch, I gathered that my poor friend was getting into trouble. At last Cronje came back and addressed me, speaking English very imperfectly. This is the substance of what he said –

‘You should never have been allowed to come here, and it is my duty to detain you as a prisoner.’

I remonstrated. ‘I’m a non-combatant, sir.’

‘I cannot help that. You are here and you have seen this place, and I must send you to Pretoria, whence, if the authorities are satisfied that you are a genuine non-combatant, you may be sent to Delagoa Bay.(19)  It was very foolish of you to come here.’

I explained that I had come in ignorance, not knowing where my guide would lead me; that I had come to look for a wounded man, and under the protection of a flag of truce; that the whole thing was an unfortunate accident, and that he should treat it as such.

Much to my surprise he seemed to waver. ‘If I were to let you go’ – and he looked at me sideways – ‘would you undertake to give no information?’

I suggested that the question was an unfair one. ‘You know how you would answer it yourself, sir.’

‘Yes’ (he was melting), ‘we are honourable also, and to our own side first of all. I have spoken of you with the doctor,’ he said, looking at me kindly for the first time, ‘and I shall let you go. By rights you ought to go to Pretoria. Of course your general may come and attack us here, and your information will be useful, but we are strong enough for all the English. Bring his horse,’ he shouted to someone standing by, and to me, ‘You may go. No, you may not!’ he added sharply; and then, with a smile, ‘not until you have had a cup of coffee.’

Upon this civility we parted, but it was not until I had rejoined my anxious friends with the ambulance that I began to suspect Commandant Cronje of a piece of pleasantry. Major Pollock, it appeared, had interceded on my behalf so effectually that my fate had been decided and my safe return promised long before I met the Commandant. He afterwards entertained himself by playing upon my anxiety, which, I have no doubt, was apparent enough. (20)

The dead were buried and the doctor read the burial service. Then British and Boers shook hands and separated, and Filson went sadly to Methuen and the Intelligence department to report the position of Cronje’s camp. After a discussion with his staff, Methuen decided it would be too risky to attack. Then Filson sent a news telegram to the Guardian. It would be nearly three weeks before he sent another.

Meanwhile, the telegram Filson had sent earlier the same day (the 21st) mentioning the Times‘s offer reached Scott and Dibblee, who assumed (it seems wrongly) that he had already seen their telegram of the 20th (remain  for present do not wire or only matters of utmost importance) when he committed himself provisionally to Amery, whereas it seems that at that point he had apparently only received the Scott-Dibblee telegram of the 18th recalling him. Whatever the truth of the matter, Scott and Dibblee were now too shocked to reply immediately. It is not clear exactly when their telegram of the 20th did reach Filson, but with Amery still waiting for him to make up his mind about joining Carrington’s Canadian column for the Times, Filson

wired Scott again:

April 24 Awaiting final decision

Meanwhile on the same day Dibblee wrote to Scott:

Enclosed I send a memorandum of our communications with Young and his replies. They read very badly as a whole. I also send the following suggestion for our instructions to Atkins. It is long but perhaps hardly full enough as there are so many points to be covered. It will afford a basis for discussion.

Dibblee’s suggested instructions to Atkins were:

Young’s recall cancelled instructed join you keep him with you if useful but he must not wire own account he is inclined behave badly threatens discard engagement join Times does so at his own risk If useless require delivery all our property to you send him England or leave him free Salary paid England Scott

Dibblee’s letter reached Scott on the day it was written (letters from South Africa might take a month but postal services within Britain were generally quicker in 1900 than they are now, more than a century later). Scott then presumably wired Atkins on the lines suggested by Dibblee, and sent another telegram to Filson:

April 24 Decline vary engagement join Atkins Bloemfontein who will instruct you

The same evening Scott sent transcripts of these telegrams to Filson’s brother Tom, explaining that he was shocked that Filson appeared to be saying he would only continue to work for the Guardian on a condition that formed no part of his original engagement; besides, Filson had over £1000 (a very large sum) of Guardian property, including money received for expenses, which he had no right to transfer to another paper. I’m sorry to have to write this, Scott concluded, but it is right you should know. Deeply worried, Tom wired Filson at once. This caused another flurry of telegrams between Filson and the Guardian:

April 27 No reply Atkins Bloemfontein useless and difficult anxious remain Guardian Mafeking Pretoria Times requires decision tomorrow wire Boshof acceptance or release Young

April 27 You break your engagement with us at your own risk we decline transfer our property Times Our instructions are join Atkins Bloemfontein Scott

This was instantly followed by an afterthought clearly prompted by Filson’s experience on the 21st:

April 27 Join Atkins safe route avoid risk capture Scott

Scott also wrote a letter to Atkins the same day describing Filson’s behaviour (as he saw it) and explaining why he was sending Filson to him.

Tom Young was now fully involved. Hard on the heels of Scott’s letter to him of April 24th came one from Filson enclosing the letter Filson had written but not sent to Scott on March 29 at Kimberley when Scott had ordered him to stop telegraphing (see p 25). Tom immediately forwarded Filson’s Kimberley letter to Scott, for whom it had been written, adding a covering letter of his own in which while trying to be fair he was careful to put in a word for his brother. Thus Scott was faced simultaneously with Filson’s complaints from Kimberley at the end of March and from the front at the end of April. He immediately forwarded the Kimberley letter to Dibblee, who by now was sorry he had ever suggested Scott should send Filson to South Africa in the first place. Dibblee commented to Scott:

I do not accept anything I now hear from him without putting my own interpretation on it, and I am really sorry that he has now finally decided to obey us. This feeling I should not have had if he had not wired definitely revolting against us while he thought he was safe. It is evident that his brother’s wire coming later frightened him. My deduction is that in the final temptation he broke away from duty and honour while he thought himself legally secure and came to heel only when he began to doubt the strength of his position. His letters, now that we know his character, gain in cleverness but I confess it is the kind of ability for which we have no use. (21)

Luckily for Filson Scott was never quite at ease with Dibblee.(22)  He seems to have had more sympathy with Tom’s view of the matter, and to have had a greater awareness than Dibblee of the very real possibility of misunderstanding and of messages crossing in the post or on the telegraph wires.

Meanwhile Filson and Pollock were waiting at Boshof, with a staff officer as their ‘secret agent’ at Kimberley in case anything should be in the wind there. In fact news did reach them from Kimberley on April 28: a relief expedition was at last about to start for Mafeking. But the arrival of this information coincided with the arrival of Scott’s telegram of the 27th insisting Filson join Atkins at Bloemfontein. What should he do? If he went to Bloemfontein he would miss the long-awaited relief column, but if he went to Kimberley with Pollock he would be flatly disobeying his editor. Worse still, he couldn’t tell Scott why he wanted to go to Kimberley because the relief column was a military secret. Trusting that events would justify him he cabled Scott with unavoidable vagueness ‘Big opportunity here may I embrace it’ and on the 29th left with Pollock for Kimberley. They arrived in time to witness a melodramatic scene in which an envelope marked ‘secret’ was opened in the presence of five ‘correspondents of known discretion’, who were then informed that a ‘flying column’(23)  commanded by a Colonel Bryan Mahon would start from Barkly West (25 miles from Kimberley) at daybreak on May 4 for the relief of Mafeking. The newspapermen were then required to give their word of honour that they would keep this ‘secret’ as the army insisted on calling it. As Filson left the office a Kimberley resident came up to him and said, ‘Well, I hear that Mahon is going to make a dash for Mafeking on Friday via Barkly West; good business!’(24) Filson rushed off to find a suitable cart and four horses for the ‘moving home’ before everything was snapped up by others. He also needed a second riding pony as a reserve. Here he was too late and had to make do with the one he already had, ‘Little Bobs’ (named after Lord Roberts). Handing the horses and cart over to his ‘faithful kaffir groom’ (about whom we hear little), he sat down to write another letter to Scott in an attempt to clear up misunderstandings and set the record straight over Scott’s attempt to recall him and Amery’s offer from the Times (he added in passing that he’d also had an offer from Reuters at the same time). Filson’s account rings truer than Dibblee’s attribution to him of Machiavellian cunning. He seems to have honestly believed he’d been engaged for the whole campaign – this was the main misunderstanding – and if he believed this it is not surprising that he feared recall without explanation could damage his career. And if, in these circumstances, the Guardian had no further use for him, he could hardly be blamed for having shown interest in offers from Reuters and the Times. As soon as he had felt certain that Scott wasn’t trying to get rid of him unfairly he had stopped negotiating with others. He had never wanted to leave the Guardian, ‘the only paper with which (since it has done so much to mould my views) I find myself in sympathy’.(25)

Next he was faced with a problem connected with the regulations for the movement of horses and carts which affected the ‘moving home’. Having dealt with this, having started his letter on its month’s journey to Scott, and having made his way to the relief column assembly point at Barkly West, he might have been forgiven for assuming he would at last be left in peace to get on with his job. Not a bit of it. On May 3, with the flying column due to start the next morning, another telegram presumably drafted by Dibblee arrived:

Willing cancel your engagement immediately Scott

In despair he dashed off another letter to Tom, enclosing a copy of the letter

he had posted to Scott three days earlier:

I have a wire from the office today saying ‘Willing cancel your engagement immediately’ and I as nearly as anything threw up the sponge and came home. Can you understand what this means when one is alone, living on biscuits and meal and embarked on an exhausting and difficult job? I don’t attempt to understand it and I must ask you to see Scott and act for me. If he really waited, as it would seem, until I had thrown up the Times and then sacked me again, cable me one word and I won’t stay another hour. Now, although I mean what I have said, I don’t believe he is that kind of man at all – you know I have always had confidence in him. It is possible he misunderstood my cable in which I said ‘Big opportunity here may I embrace it’ and thought it referred to some private chance of my own and not, as of course it really was, an opportunity for the M[anchester] G[uardian]. The Press censor wouldn’t let me put it more plainly and I had to trust them to understand.

Well, if it’s all a confounded misunderstanding, for God’s sake explain it to Scott. I don’t think I’ve behaved in any way that I shouldn’t, but I do think they’ve been a little bit stupid over the wires. And tell Scott that I haven’t written to him again because this last wire knocked fits out of me until it was too late to write any but this one scribble which I send to you.

One other thing. Be sure to tell me if the M.G. on the whole think they’ve been sold in me, and have any sort of ‘never again’ attitude about my home coming. Because if so I’ll contrive to get something out of Amery before I return. I’m really very unhappy about it all, because I’ve done nothing but in their interests, and I do care for the paper apart from anything else. If they’re satisfied and think I’ve done well, all right of course. I’ll come back with joy to the music and dramatic, any other work they care to give me. Sorry to worry you but the diet is lowering to the spirits. (26)

Much was to happen before this letter reached Tom at the end of May, when Tom forwarded it to Scott with a covering note: ‘Of course you will read this as a private letter to me, written without any sort of constraint or reserve’. Tom would also comment that it was strange Filson had never mentioned getting Scott’s telegram of April 20 (‘Remain for present do not wire or only matters utmost importance’), and that perhaps this was because it had never reached him. However, in a letter to Scott at the end of July (after his return to England), Filson would insist he did get this telegram but only after he had had the offer from Amery. In that case, why didn’t he mention this to Scott earlier? My guess is that he started by thinking it unimportant because subsequent events had rendered it obsolete, and then in the stress and excitement of getting ready for the flying column during May 1-3 he forgot about it; if he had mentioned it earlier in his letters to Scott and Tom it would of course have strengthened his argument that he was being misunderstood.

So it was that on May 4 Filson started his most important piece of work in South Africa under the impression that quite probably, and for no good reason, his editor couldn’t wait to get rid of him.


17. FY to C.P.Scott, 29 March 1900

18. T.M.Young to C.P.Scott, 28 April 1900

19. At the southern tip of Mozambique

20. The Relief of Mafeking, 195-7

21. G.B.Dibblee to C.P.Scott, 30 April 1900

22. See above p 11, footnote 2

23. In Filson’s words, flying column  means in a case like this a rapid march of twenty miles a day, mules instead of oxen, short rations, starving and ruined horses (The Relief of Mafeking, 212)

24. The Relief of Mafeking, 210

25. FY to C.P.Scott, 1 May 1900

26. FY to T.M.Young, 3 May 1900

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