Filson Young

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

Table of contents

27. The Western front

It was not until November 1915 that Filson managed to escape from his imprisonment at Portsmouth. He resigned his commission, and the Admiralty allowed him to begin writing for a living again while he looked round for another way to get into the war. He had been in the Navy exactly a year.

During this year he had had dealings, as we have seen, with the young publisher Martin Secker, who wanted to publish a collection of some of his later Saturday Review essays. This volume, New Leaves, contains thirty-four of his best pieces; it was first published in 1915 and reprinted in a cheap edition in 1926. Secker had also asked Filson to write a special essay for him to distribute as a 1914 ‘Christmas card’. A Christmas Card, as it was called, is a small hardback volume containing a sort of secular sermon; ‘Some grave reflections on Christmas and the passage of time. The book will take about five minutes to read,’ commented The Times Literary Supplement [11 Dec 1914 - but wasn't this a publisher's note? check]. Later in 1915, one W.Gordon Aston assisted in updating The Complete Motorist for Methuen for the eighth and final time; the first seven editions had appeared during 1904-7.

On his leaving the Navy, Filson’s principal source of income was the Times, to which he contributed about once a week from December 1915 to June 1916: articles on naval matters, and general essays – mostly homilies in his usual style – for the Court page. Being now regarded as an expert on naval affairs, he was paid double for his naval articles. He also enrolled with a lecture agency which published a 4-page leaflet about him and secured an engagement on 6 March 1916 for him to give a talk with lantern-slides on, ‘With the Battle Cruisers in the North Sea’, at Her Majesty’s Theatre Theatre, and possibly on another occasion at the Haymarket Theatre. His cousin Hugh Chisholm was now Financial Editor of the Times, having narrowly missed being appointed Editor a few years earlier. Filson’s contributions were so highly valued for their quality, that when he began haggling over payment and accusing the paper of meanly measuring the length of his articles, he was given what he asked for even though he was, strictly speaking, in the wrong. ‘I think I said that it was our intention to satisfy you whatever you might think of our arguments,’ the Assistant[?check] Manager told him. (125) But he was using up his credit faster than he knew: a few months later the Editor, Geoffrey Robinson, told the Manager, Howard Corbett, ‘If he is under the impression that an article a week is to be paid for whether it is used or not, the sooner the agreement is terminated the better.’ (126)

An unhappy Christmas letter reached him from Lion, just when his descriptive pieces about life on board exactly a year earlier were appearing in the Times:

Just a line to wish you what is possible to make the year 1916 a Happy one. Interesting it will be. Successful I am sure. And in that alone must the happiness lie. I think we ought to be very grateful for the fact that we are being permitted to eke out our existence upon this planet during such wonderful and stirring times. I think what it might have been. Surely it provides a theme for your facile pen? But the bitterness lies in the wasted opportunities and the thousand and one things that might have been so much better done than has been. The Admiralty give me an ache. I bombard them as usual. And as usual no response. Utter stagnation. Nothing done or will be done unless forced. And as Mr L.G. [presumably Lloyd George, the ?Prime Minister] says, Too Late. Think of all the really valuable lessons we have learnt and nobody to apply them. Note day by day valuable vessels sunk in the Mediterranean for the want of applying the lessons we learnt in the North Sea. And nobody straafed for it. It’s truly inconceivable, if the individual Admiral were to make a 100th part of their mistakes, he would be done for forever. The weariness of this interminable waiting is becoming unbearable and I can see no end. Day after day I eat my evening meal in the same company you know of and grow old. The Ginger and the Energy is running low and to seed. I am becoming inarticulate in conversation as I am in writing and I feel that I could do so much given the opportunity which my dear will never come. I suppose it’s one’s duty to go on but it’s the hardest form of duty that anyone could have conceived and that the Almight could have devised.

Good luck go with you

Yours ever


For heaven’s sake write and give hope. (127)

1916 would bring Beatty the Battle of Jutland; more action and mortal danger, and even more frustration.

To his teenage relations, Filson, unlike most adults, was an exciting if alarming companion. The idyllic Portaferry summers of his own childhood were a distant memory now, and in these summers of the First World War a new generation of Youngs, Chisholms and Bells would gather with or without their parents at St Ives in Cornwall, where Filson’s elder sister Janie lived at 28 The Terrace with her GP husband Fred Matthew. Filson would play golf (always pronounced ‘goff’) with Hugh Chisholm, Henry and Archie Chisholm acting as caddies, and also croquet; he was a poor games player, but adept at fiddling within the rules. Looking back many years later Hugh’s three sons, in their teens at the time, remembered Filson as dangerous but never dull. He tried to persuade them that a typical dreary wartime rice-and-tomato dish was really something exotic, and that its real name was ‘goff pie’ or ‘poff’. At one lunch after ‘goff’ at Lelant he plied the boys with Grand Marnier liqueur, an unforgettable experience as they’d never been drunk before. When they complained of feeling odd in the train back to St Ives, he told them it was because the carriage had square wheels. His outrageousness delighted them but they were never quite happy with him, sensing cynicism and mockery behind his charm; looking back later they saw him as a deliberate corrupter of youth.128 Their well-developed and perhaps provocative teenage cousins Annis Young (elder daughter of Tom) and Margaret Bell (daughter of Filson’s 1910 Trinidad hosts) told the Chisholm boys they didn’t like Uncle Filson because he put his hand up their skirts to reach for their knickers. (129) Sometimes he would sit at the piano and make up comic songs to amuse everyone. A favourite for its catchy tunes and outrageous rhymes made fun of the distinguished mathematician William Young (no relation of Filson’s father), who had married his former pupil the Chisholm boys’ Aunt Grace the ?first British woman to gain a doctorate in Mathematics. (130)

As I was going to Aberystwyth

I met a beard I wouldn’t be kissed with;

From William Young

His chin it hung

And its contents you could fill a list with.

A pea, a crumb and some cigarette ash,

Potato, dust and some drops of wet hash

You could fill your fist with

At Aberystwyth,

And some beef that would make the teeth of a vet gnash.

On 5 June 1916 Filson turned forty, and he was beginning to put on weight. Towards the end of the year a chance came for him to get back into the war. The Daily Mail‘s special correspondent on the Western Front, W.Beach Thomas, was due for a three month break and a substitute had to be found. We have already seen that the Navy looked with horror on the idea of newspapermen telling the public what was really going on; in the Army things were little better. Beach Thomas explains:

Towards the middle of 1915 the War Office was bullied, largely by Lord Northcliffe, who understood the art, into the adoption of a definite policy on war correspondence. Five men were put into officer’s uniform, less stars and crowns, and composed into a unit, provided with press officers, a château in France, many motor cars, and an elaborate outfit. For the rest of the war five correspondents supplied most of the news that was not contained in the official communiqués, and they wrote some of those. The first idea was that each newspaper should give its own man a turn; but in the sequel the same five held the fort. (131)

The five, and those who deputized for them from time to time, were thus privileged but strictly controlled and fed with official disinformation. Their reports were censored on the spot by a military officer, assisted by the former Manchester Guardian writer C.E.Montague, a deeply respected ex-colleague of Filson and Tom Young. Beach Thomas had worked with Filson on the Pilot and Outlook and shared his admiration for Garvin. Of Montague as censor he wrote:

… he was not altogether a good censor, certainly not so good as others who had small share in his genius. The main reason lay, I think, in his extraordinary, even extravagant delight in the written word. Faults of manner and style hurt him so much that his attention was distracted a little from the duties proper to a censor. I heard complaints that he had played the editor rather than the censor. He left things that ought to have come out, and altered things that were not the censor’s concern. The complaints were probably justified, but they acknowledge the defects of a great virtue. He himself was incapable of writing imperfectly. (132)

Beach Thomas, in fact, was ‘deeply ashamed’ of untruths he had been forced to feed to his readers back home for reasons of propaganda; even the first day of the Somme had been reported as a victory. Looking back later, he wrote:

A good part of the information supplied to us by [British Army Intelligence] was utterly wrong and misleading. … For myself, on the next day and yet more on the day after that, I was thoroughly and deeply ashamed of what I had written, for the very good reason that it was untrue. Almost all the official information was wrong. The vulgarity of enormous headlines and the enormity of one’s own name did not lessen the shame. (133)

The five regular correspondents, including Filson’s former colleagues Philip Gibbs and Beach Thomas, were rewarded for their compliance with knighthoods after the war.

This was the hornet’s nest Filson now entered at the beginning of December 1916; he stayed till the end of February 1917. Even if he had wished it, there was no question of his being allowed to share the life of the troops in the trenches; his room in the château of Tilque, just outside St Omer, was palatial and bitterly cold, but he was able to have a wood fire in it so that he could work there when he came in in the afternoons. His old acquaintance and current boss Northcliffe put in an appearance and dined with the correspondents just before New Year. Another old acquaintance on the premises was Philip Gibbs, Filson’s former rival for the editorial chair of the Daily Mail literary page; Gibbs was regular representative for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Chronicle. It was a time of stagnation. For most of his three months Filson had trouble finding anything newsworthy to write about. The Somme offensive of the previous summer had done a good deal to sap the morale of both British and German troops though Filson naturally claimed, in his reports, that only German morale had suffered. He described the atmosphere at the front near Bapaume, the arrival of the first Portuguese reinforcements, and that second great innovation of 1916 (the tank being the first), the Nissen hut. He speculated on why a particularly large number of Germans surrendered during the holiday season between Christmas and New Year. Towards the end of February there was at last some excitement when the British launched an offensive and the Germans retreated before them, but it soon became clear that the Germans were merely falling back to a more impregnable position that they had already prepared for themselves, while the British were not so much advancing as straightening a line they

already held; their objective was the Bapaume ridge. Only once did Filson find a subject that stirred him, when just before Christmas he spent three hours in the ruined and almost deserted town of Arras, a mere 2000 yards from the German lines:

At its ancient gate I passed from the busy world of war into the city of a dream. Its stillness was eerie beyond words. There were no sounds but the whine of the shells far overhead; my footsteps rang in the empty streets at high noon like those of some midnight pedestrian in a sleeping town …

But as you explore further you find that you are not alone. Arras is full of cellars, and a few people who have lost almost everything but life still live in some of them.An old

woman put her head up from one as I went by and I was nearly as startled as if I had seen a tiger.

As I was talking to her another head appeared from an adjoining cellar. These two women lived side by side, not in the same roomy cellar, mark you, but each alone in a

separate roomy cellar, thus clinging … to independence even in this golgotha.

They had been there for more than two years, they had lost everything and everybody, there was no reason why they should go anywhere else, and they were quite cheerful about it; they professed to want for nothing. And they were not the only ones; there is a remnant living, like them, underground. There is a baker who bakes in a cellar; there are even two butchers; and in their rivalry commerce may be said still to exist in Arras. …  I saw no bird or cat or mouse in Arras, but I saw dogs. In spite of a notice interdicting the Circulation of Dogs, dogs were circulating. I spoke to one, for company, at a lonely corner. I do not know what the dogs thought they were doing; but every now and then in the dead silence I passed either a dog or the ghost of a dog trotting along with all the importance of a dog who knows where he has come from and where he is going to.

And just as I was beginning to wonder where I had come from or where I was going to I met a woman leading a fat and rosy little boy of three. He can have known or remembered nothing of life but this hell of terror and demolition and haunting desolation; yet he was as well and happy as a child could be, and even his mother seemed to think that their situation was far from unfortunate, and that the world was an interesting and cheerful place. …

But perhaps the most surprising thing in Arras was the sight I had of two girls who suddenly turned out from one arcade of ruins and crossed the empty square towards another. There they were, obviously well-to-do, well turned out, with a smart and costly simplicity, their hair and feet in perfect daintiness and order, innocently laughing and swinging their chains and purses as though they were on a shopping excursion in the Rue de la Paix, and not at all as though they might be wiped out of sight at any moment.

… Here one saw the beautiful and dignified dwelling-place that centuries had brought to perfection smashed utterly to pieces; and out there beyond the walls man was going back to the most primitive home of all – a hole scraped out of the earth. (134)

When he came back from France in March 1917 Filson did what was on the face of it a very surprising thing: he began preparing for reissue his very first book A Psychic Vigil, written at the age of 19 or 20 and pure juvenilia as he must have well known,. The key to this was that at this time of terrible slaughter on the Western Front and elsewhere, people were ready to clutch at any straw that might bring them closer to loved ones they had lost. Fresh from the Western Front himself, Filson wrote a new preface for his book:

At a time when Death is busy violently sundering human ties and companionships, the interest of living men and women in the unseen and unknown hereafter becomes panful in its intensity. An acute anxiety, a profound and wistful curiosity follow those who have passed thus suddenly beyond the veil; we long to know how it fares with them; and in our bereavement we stretch out hands towards the unknown, craving for some reply, some token that the familiar and beloved individuality still exists.

This is the meretricious bedside manner of popular spiritualism. He removed the childish (and no longer state-of-the-art) pseudonym ‘X-Rays’ under which he had first published the book in 1896, but didn’t replace it with his own name, and speciously told his readers he hoped the author’s desire to preserve strict anonymity would be understood when the ‘intimate nature’ of the book was considered. In fact there is nothing very intimate about it, and a more likely explanation would seem to be that knowing it poorly written and having no inclination to rewrite it, he thought that, while with a bit of luck it might sell, it could do nothing to further his career. There is something of the contemporary cynicism of Horatio Bottomley (135) in the reissue of this piece of juvenilia with its unctuous new preface. British reviewers ignored it while the New York Times, which had more space for such things, remarked that what it said about spiritualism was worth reading, but nothing more than one would hear at a Sunday night séance. There is no evidence that A Psychic Vigil sold many copies in either 1896 or 1917.

That summer Filson tried to recapture something of his lost childhood in Ireland, leaving his cat in his Ebury Street house under the care of a new friend, Vera North, with whom he had formed a close relationship before going to France. He now reported to her from ‘Wharparilla’, Portaferry:

I am very happy here. We have been out every day and all day mullet fishing. First I go up the lough in the motor launch, start the net, and then lie about on the grass for two or three hours until the tide ebbs and the fish (if there are any) begin to jump and fight at the net. Then we get them and come rushing home over the peacock-blue water towards the lilac mountains. We live as simply as in a nursery. I drink one glass of stout and one glass of whiskey a day, and go to bed at eleven … (136)

But there was still a war on, and if he was to live, he must work.


125  William Lints Smith to FY, 21 Feb 1916.

126  Geoffrey Robinson to Howard Corbett, 7 July 1916. Not long after this Robinson changed his surname to Dawson for reasons of inheritance.

127  David Beatty to FY, 23 Dec 1915

128  Archibald Chisholm in conversation with SM, 4 May 1976. A favourite word with both Archie and Henry Chisholm in describing Filson, as with their father Hugh before them, was ‘epicene’, i.e. having both male and female characteristics, or of indeterminate gender. Others were convinced he was bisexual.

129  Sir Henry Chisholm to SM, 15 March 1976; Henry added sententiously, Who knows what goes on in the minds of young girls?

130  This song was a spontaneous composition (both as to words and music) produced by Filson when sitting at a piano after, I think, I had been describing to him the rather straggly and unkempt beard worn by my uncle by marriage  William Young, husband of my father’s sister Grace. I am not sure of the date. My first impression is that the composition took place at St Ives one summer when we were staying there, about 1917 … it has a haunting little tune which goes very well with it. Sir Henry Chisholm (who would have been about 17 at the time of the events described) to SM, 15 March 1976. [possibly add inf on Wm & Grace Young]

131  W.Beach Thomas, A Traveller in News (1925), 103-4. In his book The Great War and Modern Memory (p 28) Paul Fussell dismisses Beach Thomas as a ‘notoriously fatuous correspondent’.

132  W.Beach Thomas, quoted by Oliver Elton in C.E.Montague: A Memoir (1929), 182-3.

133  W.Beach Thomas A Traveller in News, [page?]

134  Daily Mail, 21 Dec 1916.

135  Horatio Bottomley [dates?], newspaper owner (notably of the stridently patriotic and racist John Bull) and former MP, set himself up in 1914 as the ‘unofficial recruiting agent of the British Empire’ and made a fortune for himself by preying on the patriotic feelings of ordinary people. For this he was later sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. [check]

136  FY to Vera North, undated but clearly summer 1917. The above description of his life in the chateau of Tilque is also based on letters to Vera from Dec 1916.

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