Lord Esher and the System of Falsehood

An interesting letter about the differences between propaganda and information was written by Lord Esher to General Macdonogh on 17th October 1916.

Major-General George Macdonogh was a Catholic Irishman who became Director of Military Intelligence in the British Army under Sir William Robertson in 1916. When Sir Douglas Haig replaced Robertson as BEF Commander-in-Chief he sidelined Macdonagh, whom Haig distrusted as being “tainted” as an Irish Catholic and because he kept telling him (correctly) that his attacks would not work. Haig replaced Macdonagh with John Charteris (the mystery man of the Anglo-Irish Treaty) who shared with Haig the view that Catholics were “half-hearted” about the war and should not occupy important positions.

Here is what Lord Esher wrote to General Macdonogh:

“The more I hear and see of propaganda, the more chaotic it appears. I quite agree that if you could begin afresh it could be united under one supreme head in London. This is now impossible owing to the position occupied by Mr. Masterman.

“The cardinal principle that underlies the whole subject is the clear separation of propaganda and intelligence. The one is mainly a system of falsehood, while the other aims at the exact truth. It is corrupting for the furnishers of truth that they should be engaged in manufacturing lies. Both Napoleon and Bismarck understood this division of labour. They each of them had a cabinet for the Collection of Information, and another Cabinet for the Promulgation of Falsehood. Roughly, the one is eminently the function of soldiers, while the second can be left to the Foreign Office. Accepting this as a basis, it would not be very difficult to build up an organisation.”

The event that seems to have produced Lord Esher’s warning about the mixing of propaganda and fact was the publication of Lord Bryce’s Report on The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in October 1916, when Esher wrote to Macdonogh. Esher was clear that the Great War was about the crushing of Germany, which had to be done on the Western front. The Armenians were a distraction from this and propaganda on their behalf produced by Masterman’s department could only lead to calls for a diversion of effort from the primary war aim.

Lord Esher is interesting because he speaks the truth in his letters and journals. He avoided public office, though offered some of the highest positions in the British State by the greatest men leading it, because he wanted to think clearly for England and advise them correctly, free from the distorting effect of political considerations.

He saw propaganda and truth as opposites and having entirely different objectives. For this reason there should always be a “clear separation of propaganda and intelligence”. The material produced by the Masterman organisation, by Lord Bryce etc. was “mainly a system of falsehood”  while intelligence “aims at the exact truth”. And propaganda was fundamentally “corrupting for the furnishers of truth” when they were “engaged in manufacturing lies”.

Esher thought for England and he was invariably listened to. But the British State had gone too far down the road to un-mix propaganda and truth. The Great War had become a Great Fraud through the Liberal Imperialist desire to implicate Liberal England in it at the outset and let them write war propaganda to salve their consciences. And then Britain needed the U.S. to dig them out of the hole they had dug for themselves and America would not join a Balance of Power, Imperialist land-grab. So the propaganda had to be maintained to cover President Wilson’s tracks. But the British ruling stratum always knew it was a Great Fraud.

The organisation which Esher referred to as being led by Mr. Masterman was Wellington House. It got its name in the Autumn of 1914 when the War Propaganda Bureau was a part of the Foreign Office and was stationed in Wellington House (later destroyed in a mysterious fire), near Buckingham Palace. It was part of the Foreign Office because the target of its work was overseas opinion, particularly in America.

The Director of the War Propaganda Bureau was Charles F. Masterman, a Liberal M.P., former Cabinet Minister in Asquith’s Government, and literary editor of The Daily News, who before the War had run a campaign in favour of Lloyd George’s National Insurance legislation. When Asquith called Masterman to direct the propaganda of the British State in August 1914 he invited twenty-five leading British writers to Wellington House. The agenda of the meeting was to discuss ways of best promoting Britain’s interests during the War. It was attended by J.M. Barrie, Gilbert Murray, H.G. Wells, John Galsworthy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, John Masefield, Arnold Bennett, G.K. Chesterton, and G.M. Trevelyan among others.

The meeting was the largest gathering of creative and academic writers for an official purpose in English history. A second meeting attracted all the great newspaper editors like Geoffrey Dawson, Edward Cook, J.L. Garvin and J.A. Spender. Those present at the conference agreed to the utmost secrecy regarding their future work and very few people, even in Parliament, knew of the existence of Wellington House until well after the War.

Propaganda was a game played by English gentlemen but it was not considered to be a gentleman’s game. Arnold Toynbee, from Winchester College and Balliol, and a respected classical historian, apparently remarked that he would like to get out of it for that reason, and as soon as it was practically possible. Nevertheless it was something that had to be done and British gentlemen did it as their patriotic duty. And to relieve their consciences all the records of their activities at the Propaganda Office were destroyed immediately after the War.

The Wellington House brief was very simple – to make the enemy look as evil and conniving as possible and make Britain and her allies look as decent and upright as could be. The main focus was Germany, but much of its effort was later to be expended against the Turks, who had been getting too much of a good press in England by those who regarded them along the lines of the common phrase: “The Turk is a Gentleman”.

In December 1916 the British Propaganda Bureau run by Masterman became the Department of Information and it was placed under the direction of John Buchan (of 39 Steps fame) on Lord Milner‘s recommendation. Masterman became Deputy. In February 1917 Buchan was also given charge of the Department of Information to coordinate all the State‘s propaganda activities, under the direction of Lord Carson. Later, in 1918, upon Carson’s resignation from the Cabinet, a Ministry of Information was created under Lord Beaverbrook, the influential press baron. Throughout all these organisational changes people involved in the propaganda formation business continued to refer to it all as Wellington House.

Lord Esher was undoubtedly correct about the “system of falsehood” that was erected in fighting the war and the propaganda departments’ “manufacturing of lies” against Turkey and Germany. This produced positions which had to be retreated from in the conclusion of the War. However, it was the effect of these official lies on those they instigated to fight who were the real victims. They found that Britain was not interested in them after all their sacrifices.

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