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When our writers lied to us: War Propaganda Bureau

John Simkin

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On 2nd September, 1914, soon after the outbreak of the First World War, Charles Masterman, the head of the War Propaganda Bureau, organised a secret meeting of Britain's leading writers, to discuss ways of best promoting the country's interests during the war. Those who attended the meeting included Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, Ford Madox Ford, William Archer, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Gilbert Parker, G. M. Trevelyan and H. G. Wells. (George Bernard Shaw was the only leading writer not invited - they felt he could not be trusted)

All the writers present at the conference agreed to the utmost secrecy, and it was not until 1935 that the activities of the War Propaganda Bureau became known to the general public. Several of the men who attending the meeting agreed to write pamphlets and books that would promote the government's view of the war.

In 1914 Conan Doyle wrote the recruiting pamphlet, To Arms!. The WPB arranged for Conan Doyle to go the Western Front and his pamphlet, A Visit to the Three Fronts was published in 1916. During the war Doyle also wrote his six volume history, The British Campaign in France and Flanders. Conan Doyle also wrote on the war for the Daily Chronicle.

The propaganda produced by these men resulted in hundreds of thousands of men joining the British Army. Large numbers of these men were killed, including Conan Doyle’s son, Kingsley Conan Doyle. Rudyard Kipling also lost his only son as a result of this propaganda. His response was to write two poems about the War Propaganda Bureau:

Common Form (1918)

If any question why we died.

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

A Dead Statesman (1924)

I could not dig; I dare not rob;

Therefore I lied to please the mob.

Now all my lies are proved untrue

And I must face the men I slew.

What tale shall serve me here among

Mine young and defrauded young.

Arthur Conan Doyle did not write any poetry about the loss of his son. Instead he became interested in spiritualism. I imagine he was trying to tell his son he was sorry.

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