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Historical perspectives

The Great War: Whose side was Reuters on?

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

Great Britain declared war on the German Empire on Tuesday August 4, 1914. Reuters was the news-agency of the British Empire. This news had immediate and specific impact.

Was Reuters an impartial company?

Reuters lost, at a stroke, its revenues from every “enemy” country. Cable and telegraph communications – its life-blood – were disconnected and disrupted. What was almost worse was the fact that anti-German hysteria in Britain was becoming ever more strident. Wasn’t “Reuter” a German name? Even more damning, wasn’t the title held by Baron Herbert de Reuter, its chief, a German one? Reuters never had any reason to make a secret of its 44 year-old news-exchange contract with Wolff, the German news-agency. Unsurprisingly, some people were only too happy to believe the worst. In this climate, even a slight ambiguity in Reuters coverage was likely to arouse suspicion.

By August 4, last hopes of peace were fading fast. The British Admiralty intercepted German wireless messages to German shipping, warning that war with Britain was imminent. Wrongly, as it turned out, the Admiralty interpreted these signals as meaning that Germany had already declared war. It believed that Germany had anticipated the expiry of the ultimatum received from Britain. At 11.45pm, the British Foreign Office put out a statement which Reuters published, in good faith: Germany declared war at 7 o’clock to-night. Almost immediately, the Foreign Office realised that it had blundered. Britain was being left to declare war on Germany. Soon after midnight on August 5, Reuters issued a correction: It was Great Britain who declared war against Germany at 7 o’clock yesterday evening.

Archive letter detailing the events surrounding an erroneous reporting: The British declaration of war against Germany in 1914.
Bradshaw’s letter to subscribers. Click to enarge.

The misinformation had come from the Foreign Office, but many were prepared to blame Reuters for confusing the public. A smaller number thought that Reuters had done so deliberately. Criticism rumbled on for some months. Finally it became clear to Reuters that steps would have to be taken. On December 19, Walter Bradshaw, Reuters Company Secretary, made the unprecedented decision to write to the agency’s subscribers setting out clearly and precisely how the error had occurred. Reuters critics fell silent.

A copy of Bradshaw’s letter is reproduced below. Sadly, the text is now a little indistinct. The letter says:


To the Editor ………… 19th December 1914

Dear Sir

With reference to the letter from the Editor of the Daily Mail which appears in the newspapers of this morning, we gladly recognize the courteous tone of the statement therein made with regard to our share in the announcement on the night of August 4th respecting the declaration of war. We must, however, ask you to allow us to place on record the precise facts which do not altogether tally with the recital of the Daily Mail.

Here is the precise transcript of the communications sent over our wire to the newspapers:-

GREAT BRITAIN AND GERMANY

August 4th, 1914 (11.16 p.m.)

Reuter’s Agency learns that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany.-Reuter

———————————–

August 4th (11.45 p.m.)

Reuter’s Agency learns that Germany declared war at 7 o’clock tonight.-Reuter

———————————-

ENGLAND DECLARES WAR AGAINST GERMANY

August 5th (12.13 a.m.)

Reuter’s Agency is informed that it is now stated officially at the Foreign Office that it was Great Britain who declared war against Germany at 7 o’clock yesterday evening.

The original statement was issued by the Admiralty, and it was to the effect that Germany had declared war.-Reuter

August 5th, 1914 (12.24 a.m.)

Reuter’s Agency is informed that the following statement was issued from the Foreign Office at 12.15 a.m.:-

“Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by His Majesty’s Government for assurances that the neutrality of Belgium would be respected, His Majesty’s Ambassador in Berlin has received his passports, and His Majesty’s Government has declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11 p.m. on August 4th.”- Reuter

The record is extant, not in our office alone, and it makes it manifest that the “mistake” was an official mistake and not that of Reuter’s Agency.

Yours truly, W.F. BRADSHAW, Secretary


Learn more

Browse our company history dating back to 1799 or contact our archive staff directly for a deeper dive into the Thomson Reuters Archives.

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