The War on Truth

Canada’s First World War press censor wielded tremendous power in stemming the flow of upsetting news from the front.

Canada’s First World War press censor wielded tremendous power in stemming the flow of upsetting news from the front.

Canadians from every part of the country celebrated when Canada went to war in August 1914. Indeed, reports said the crowds in Montreal were as great as in Toronto, and “La Marseillaise” was sung as robustly as “God Save the Queen.” At the time, the rush of volunteers overwhelmed recruiters, no one thought of conscription, and most believed it would all be over by Christmas.

The home fires were blazing, and Canada’s government was determined to keep them burning brightly. Only days into the conflict, federal Justice Minister Charles Doherty was asked to draw up legislation to provide the government with the power to prosecute the war without restraints. The result was the War Measures Act. Passed by Parliament on August 22, it was made retroactive to the beginning of the war nearly three weeks earlier, thus establishing the possibility of ex post facto guilt. Its core was Section 6 authorizing “such acts and things ... necessary for the security, defence, peace, order, and welfare of Canada.” Among these was censorship. Those breaking the law could receive a five-thousand-dollar fine — ten times the average annual salary — or five years in jail, or both.

People in Canada rarely received grisly reports, a situation unaltered by the arrival of newspaper correspondents.

Canadians, especially in English-speaking parts of the country, entered the conflict not only with enthusiasm but also with intolerance towards those considered suspect in their loyalties. Some German Canadians joined about two thousand German reservists in internment camps, in most cases because they had uttered something deemed sympathetic to the enemy. However, because most German Canadians had roots stretching back in Canada for generations, they were British subjects and not classified as enemy aliens. Such was not the case with Galicians, meaning Ukrainians who came from an area that was made part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the war. Nearly six thousand were interned, many simply for being unemployed, while over eighty thousand were obliged to report monthly on their whereabouts to law enforcement services.

In this atmosphere, newspapers became cheerleaders as much as sources of information. War news was heavily filtered. Initially, Britain appointed an official eyewitness to provide reports from the front. Canada’s press was eager for its own representation, especially after the country’s troops saw action for the first time, in March 1915 at Neuve-Chapelle, France. Such representation had been granted to Australia to cover the Anzacs in the Middle East. With Britain agreeing to the same for Canada, but with Canada’s press unable to settle on a representative, the federal government turned to the London-based expatriate Canadian millionaire William Maxwell Aitken — Lord Beaverbrook — to serve as Canada’s official eyewitness. His reports were far more propaganda than news.

At the Second Battle of Ypres, in April 1915, many of Canada’s six thousand casualties — one third of its fighting force — literally coughed up their lungs from the effects of chlorine gas and desperately sought to fire defective Ross rifles that constantly jammed. Long casualty lists revealed the costs of battle, but Aitken’s message was that these were heroic and saintly sacrifices. The word “glorious” appeared often in Aitken’s dispatches: “The story of the Second Battle of Ypres is the story of how the Canadian division, enormously outnumbered ... fought through the day and through the night, and then through another day and night; fought under their officers until, as happened to so many, these perished gloriously.”

People in Canada rarely received grisly reports, a situation unaltered by the arrival of newspaper correspondents. Indeed, to obtain access to battle zones, some publishers wrote authorities that patriotism, not the desire for sensationalism and newspaper sales, would guide their reporters.

Censorship in Canada started in a narrow, technical manner, focusing on telegraph messages to try to ensure that militarily sensitive news was not leaked. It was soon determined that more was necessary, as some newspapers, desiring to scoop their competitors, leaked information such as details about the departure of troopships. On June 10, 1915, an order-in-council established a chief press censor’s office. Appointed to the position was Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest J. Chambers, a former newspaper reporter and militia intelligence officer.

Some journalists expressed concern over a formalized censorship service, but most accepted it as appropriate in wartime. Several even welcomed censorship as a way of levelling the playing field. They hoped the censor would stop some publishers from printing ill-advised stories that more patriotic competitors wouldn’t publish. The latter suffered financially for complying with government requests to bury sensitive copy.

As a former reporter, Chambers made overtures to the press. He wrote one former colleague that as “an old newspaperman” he would not be rigid or act like “an administrator of a Prussian system.” He presented himself as an advisor who could help editors to decide matters on which they were uncertain. Yet he took a harsh line against those he thought had acted defiantly. For instance, the Sault Ste. Marie Express became a banned publication for declaring, in a 1916 editorial, “No More Canadian Soldiers for the Front.”

Chambers drew a clear line against criticizing Canadian trainees and military life. In British Columbia, papers were prevented from reporting upon a riot involving drunken soldiers at the Vernon training facility, during which a military police officer was killed. He demanded that papers remove unpleasant tales about frontline life, including in soldier correspondence they printed. In one case, Chambers gave his blessing to a soldier’s comment that “the trenches were not so bad” but not to the observation of another that “the man who said war was hell did not know anything about it, for it [was] far worse.”

Of the 253 printed publications banned in Canada, 222 came from the United States, and 164 were in a language other than English or French. Among those banned were major newspapers, most notably the eleven dailies owned by William Randolph Hearst that were strongly anti-British. Chambers insisted that newspapers printed in enemy languages be held to a higher standard to remove any hint of disloyalty. He was suspicious of papers like the Berliner Journal, which had been in business in southwestern Ontario since 1859. Even without translator reports, he started proceedings to ban it based upon complaints received from A.C. Laut, the publisher of the London Advertiser, who was a long-time critic of the Journal. Probably because he was of German background, local MP William G. Weichel came to the Journal’s defence, informing Chambers that its publisher-editor served as county sheriff and was widely considered to be of impeccable character.

Chambers was uncompromising in his approach to those who promoted the political left. Following the November 1918 armistice, which ended the war but not the power of the War Measures Act (which remained in effect until January 1920), Chalmers banned eighty-nine socialist publications. He targeted Russian, Ukrainian, and Finnish newspapers based upon the strength of socialism in the original homelands of their readers. Illustrative was the case of Vapaus, the organ of the Finnish Socialist Organization of Canada. To increase his chances of discovering unacceptable material in its pages, Chambers assigned a translator recommended to him by the editor of a rival right-wing Finnish newspaper, the Canadan Uuitiset.

Although most Canadians learned about the war through newspapers, censorship encompassed other means of communication. The chief censor instructed telegraph operators to inspect thousands of messages sent or received by those deemed suspect. The vast majority under close surveillance were of non-British background. In British Columbia, these included Hindus and Sikhs suspected of helping anti-colonial factions in India and Asians presumed sympathetic to Germany because of overtures made by Berlin to Chinese republican rebels.

With telephones, Chambers relied on operators, or others, to stumble across peculiarities. When they were reported, he responded swiftly. Most cases turned out to be false alarms. For example, in May 1917, the secretary of the Grand Trunk Railway told Chambers of an employee who, when calling his wife in Ottawa from Montreal, inadvertently tapped into another discussion. “It seemed to be between a clerk and his employer,” he wrote, “the latter instructing that someone meet the 9:20 train tomorrow as there would be some confidential mail on it. He then said to find out when the steamship Baymaster would sail, and whether direct to France.”

Chambers contacted the chief commissioner of the Dominion Police along with military intelligence and harbour authorities. However, it was discovered that the dialogue was between a superior officer with the Imperial Munitions Board and a manager for Montreal-based British Munitions Limited.

When it came to pictures, Chambers adopted a more strict standard than the British, based upon the belief that Canadians, being isolated from the war, would more easily be shocked and revolted by viewing gruesome realities. Thus, he accepted photos bearing subtitles like “the unfailing cheerfulness of the British Tommy” but rejected images carried in British newspapers that aimed to rouse hatred against Germany by showing “bodies of men and horses amid wreckage of a French city.”

Chambers applied the same unstinting standards to movies. Among the films he quashed was Peace at any Price. Made during America’s neutrality years, Chambers said it “served German interests” by showing “the gruesome side of war through depictions of ghastly heaps of dead ... graveyard scenes, etc.” He rationalized his approach by pointing out that Germany had given financial support to firms such as the American Correspondent Film Company. Turning to provincial movie censors, Canadian film distributors, and theatre owners, he “noted with satisfaction” their co-operation in guaranteeing that “nothing ... be shown which might be calculated to produce an injurious effect on the minds of the public.”

Certainly, there were things censorship could not hide. Canada suffered nearly a quarter million casualties in the First World War, or just over three per cent of its population. By the end of 1915, the first wave of the wounded was returning home and describing what they had been through. A Toronto Star report of February 14, 1916, carried an account by Major Ewan A. MacDougall that cautioned readers against believing what they heard, even if it appeared in the carefully censored newspapers: “Major MacDougall warns friends at home not to accept statements from returned soldiers as to hardships in the field literally. Many accounts, he says, that he has seen in Canadian papers are gross exaggerations.”

Despite military censors and the desire of most men not to shock or upset loved ones, some servicemen conveyed grisly details in their letters home. Canadians confronted casualty lists in newspapers that, after a major battle, went on for pages. The decline in volunteers and the move to conscription showed that many realized it was not all glory overseas.

In the years following the conflict, shock and horror came to compete in public consciousness with the celebration of Canadian heroism and pride in battlefield accomplishments.

The position of chief press censor was dissolved at the end of 1919. Yet Chambers continued his battle, acting as an informal advisor to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on “dangerous” left-wing publications. He ended his days in service to Parliament as the editor of the Canadian Parliamentary Guide and as the Usher of the Black Rod. He died in 1925 at age sixty-three.

Chambers had considerable success in stemming the flow of upsetting news during the war. He was helped tremendously by a patriotic press and had no qualms about using the iron heel when a diplomatic approach did not work. His ability to operate with little restraint against foreign-language and socialist texts spoke to a far more limited view of civil liberties a century ago.

In the end, Canada’s contributions to victory over Germany were achieved not only by sacrifices overseas but also by crushing dissent at home.

Text by Jeffrey A. Keshen. This article originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Canada's History.