Filson Young

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

Table of contents

21. Running a hospital

When war broke out Filson’s first idea was to attach himself to the Navy, for reasons which will become clear at the beginning of the next chapter. Starting at the top, he went straight to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, whom he already knew. Churchill told him he had no chance of getting into the Navy because no volunteer officers or war correspondents were wanted; Filson would have been ideal, but there it was. So for the moment Filson had nothing to do except describe the irrational war fever that was gripping London in ‘The Things That Matter’. Too many people – women in particular – were mistaking emotional excitement for a sense of duty. Rich upper-class ladies would be prepared to spend two weeks knitting one pair of socks for the troops when it would have made more sense for them to pay – and they could well afford it – for more able hands to knit a thousand pairs. A fund was started to provide a vast quantity of nightshirts though the British army did not fight in nightshirts. People felt a duty to boycott German music, even not to indulge themselves by going to concerts or the theatre at all, without stopping to think that if everyone did this it would put British actors and musicians out of work. Some couldn’t bear to be on their own at such a time and gathered in crowds in front of such places as Buckingham Palace while the West End traffic speeded up as if the drivers were using their cars to show aggression to the enemy. Then on August 25, with the war three weeks old, Filson was able to tell his readers that he’d landed a job behind the lines in France, and this brought his two and a half years on the Pall Mall Gazette to an end.

He became secretary of an Australian Voluntary Hospital at the port of St Nazaire in western France, a long way from the front. But there was plenty to do:

I have been all along the lines of communication from Havre to Soissons; driven a motor ambulance and collecting [sic] wounded, given chloroform at operations, written letters for dying men, and carried stretchers until my back aches! I have seen a lot of German prisoners and wounded. It is curious to contrast the mutual respect out here between the English and Germans actually fighting with what one reads in the papers from home. The French are not popular with the army – chiefly on account of their atrocious behaviour to wounded and captive Germans who are in our charge. A staff officer and I had to knock three of them down in the street here the other day for trying to spit on some wounded German prisoners. Things are pretty hateful here; I daresay they are hateful at home too; I should think the strain which the censorship is putting on people (often unnecessarily) is beginning to tell.

Send me a line – I love to hear, although I can’t write. I spent all last night in a room with one man vomiting, another delirious, and another dying of Tetanus, trying to help them all at once; and at three a.m. had to carry out the then dead man, who stank, and with the help of two orderlies lift and push him into a kind of hen-coop in the garden: and he was a man I had known and loved. (83)

There is something not quite right about the tone of this letter, as though Filson too was mistaking forced emotion for a sense of duty. In fact he was miserable. On 2 September Rear-Admiral David Beatty wrote from the battle cruiser Lion to his wife:

I had a long letter from Filson Young, who has gone off as the honorary secretary of the Australian hospital, very down on his luck, and wants to go to sea as the official chronicler of naval events.

Six weeks of this ‘remote base’ with its ‘stagnant intrigues’ was enough for Filson, and in October he was back in London writing up his experiences for the Daily Chronicle (84), which paid him £100 for five articles. But London seemed even further from the war than St Nazaire. He got himself invited to society lunch parties where the more privileged members of the chattering classes held forth. As he recalled after the war:

… at such houses as the late Lady Paget’s and Mrs J.J.Astor’s the information was generally up to date and accurate. The well-fed oracle from the War Office, carefully waiting until the servants had left the room, with a peach and a glass of port before him and his, ‘Well, I can soon tell the little I know,’ remains a type of those days. He would be so deep in the imparting of his information that the return of the domestics with the coffee and cigarettes was never allowed to interrupt it. Strange little scenes are etched on the memory. Lady Cunard giving a detached but admiring Mr Balfour her advice on Russia; Lady Beresford’s views on Lord Fisher; those indefatigable lunchers, Sir John Cowans and Colonel Repington, analysing a G.H.Q. battle – such things were interesting once or twice, but soon palled.

I was suffering from a homesickness for my friends in the Navy. I wanted nothing better than to be with them and share whatever might befall them. This was no military zeal – it was just inclination. The muddy glories of the battlefield repelled rather than drew me; for, whatever I may be, I am no soldier. It was only because all my friends were at war that I wanted to be at war too; and amid scenes in London that had formerly been so congenial to me my spirit became more and more an alien. I did not trust the women who seemed to be running the war at home, and when a great lady, at whose table the possibility of a successor to Lord French was being discussed, and someone had mentioned the name of Douglas Haig, announced with a formidable concentration of purpose, ‘Never, if I can prevent it,’ I felt it was time to quit those scenes. (85)


83 FY to J.L.Garvin, 26 Sept 1914.

84 The first two were published on Oct 29 and 30. [What about the other 3?]

85 With the Battle Cruisers (1921) 32-3.

A.J.Balfour, in opposition at this time, had been Conservative Prime Minister from 1903 to 1906, and would be Foreign Secretary 1916-19 in the wartime coalition government headed by Lloyd George.

Sir John Cowans, as Quartermaster-General (overseer of the expansion of the Army) 1912-19 won the respect of Lloyd George; he also had a reputation as a noted philanderer.

Colonel Charles Repington’s army career had ended in 1902 when his affair with the wife of a fellow officer was publicised in a divorce case. He then became military correspondent of the Times and won a reputation for reporting off-the-record conversations verbatim, most famously when Sir John French, C-in-C of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front, blamed the failure of the British attack at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 on a shortage of artillery shells. Repington’s whistle-blowing on this occasion led to the replacement of French by Douglas Haig (clearly Filson’s ‘great lady’ failed to prevent this after all) and contributed to the fall of Asquith’s Liberal government.

We may assume that it was not the morals of these people that offended Filson, or even their lunchtime chattering, so much as their hostility to Admiral Sir John (‘Jacky’) Fisher (First Sea Lord 1904-10 and again 1914-15) and his policy of naval expansion at the expense of the Army. Filson knew and admired Fisher. Repington annoyed Fisher by advocating Army expansion at the expense of the Navy. Lady Beresford was the wife of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, whose ‘deadly feud’ with Fisher had ‘split the Navy from top to bottom’ (Roskill, Admiral of the Fleet Lord Beatty, 42).

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