George Steer’s big break came at the age of 25 as Special Correspondent in Abyssinia for The Times of London. Having the prestige of The Times behind him gained him an exclusive with the Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie. It is at this point where an extraordinary life began. The theme running throughout the book is that of Steer’s friendship with Selassie. Soon after The Times interview, on Selassie request, Steer was sent on missions to investigate what the Italians were planning and report back. He soon learned that he had been embedded, as the term would go today. Or as he said, riding with ‘the backbone of resistance’, going to the front line. On his return Steer reported to the world the Italian’s use of mustard gas and pleaded for the Ethiopian people not to rise up, for their muskets were no match for the Italian’s military might.
Through Steer’s diaries and dispatches we learn how war reporting has changed dramatically since his day. Correspondents can be in a war zone within 24 hours and dispatches sent via satellite phone instantly. Steer’s first trip to Ethiopia from the UK took 2 weeks, consisting of a combination of trains and boats and ships. His dispatches were sent as a telegram, the price of which would rise dramatically with demand (in the days leading to the Italian occupation of Addis Ababa telegrams were costing today’s equivalent of $5 a word).
However, what fascinates more is how many other aspects of war and the reporting of it remain the same.
Rankin tells how up to 130 journalists spent weeks confined to the hotels of Addis Ababa waiting for the ‘story’ to reach them. Frustrated that they couldn’t get out into the field, backstabbing and competitiveness for non-existent stories ensued. One such rival was Evelyn Waugh then of the Daily Mail whose politics were firmly to the right of Steer’s. There was then the looting: with the arrival of the Italians, Selassie fled the country giving orders for his possessions to be distributed amongst the people. The people had other ideas, favouring a looting frenzy. No property was left unturned; men paraded the streets in top hat and tails, fine wines (specially imported for the Italians) were downed in one by thirsty gangs. To the journalist’s horror, even Mon Ciné, the elite Greek cinema bar did not escape a trashing. Steer tells of how that night’s blockbuster lay spooled over the street. Meanwhile expats of all nationalities, (except Ethiopian or Italian) fled to the British embassy where a tent city enveloped in the grounds. Rankin gives a riveting account of how one of Africa’s most prosperous and diverse cities descended into anarchy in the days leading up to Italian occupation, not wholly dissimilar to recent events in Iraq.
The book’s title refers to Steer’s Telegram that alerted the world to ‘the Fascist game plan’. On Monday 26th April 1937 Franco waged war on the Spain’s Basque people. Bombs were indiscriminately dropped on the historic town of Guernica. “The first time a war had intentionally been waged against civilians,” a tactic in warfare that now seems to be the norm. The author goes onto document the percentage of civilians killed in major conflicts, including September 11. Steer was at the scene of the bombing and found spent bomb casings labelled with German insignia. His telegram stating German involvement was published in The Times and had reverberations around the world. One of it readers was Pablo Piccaso, a pro-Republican Spaniard in exile who went on to paint his masterpiece, Guernica, depicting the destruction and suffering of the Basques as described by Steer.
During World War II Steer headed up a propaganda unit whose aim was to demoralise the opposition through communications. What resulted was the Indian Field Broadcasting Unit (IFBU). Through a network of loudspeakers projecting sentimental music, sounds, speech and anything that would evoke nostalgia in the enemy, Steer’s team set about breaking the will of the Japanese. He never got to see the fruits of his labour. On Christmas day 1944 he died in a tragic road accident. And there an extraordinary life comes to an abrupt end – as does the book.
Whilst Steer hasn’t become a household name as has say, Evelyn Waugh, it’s no understatement that without Steer the outcome of World War II, and Italy’s colonial adventures could have been very different. Propaganda still plays an important part in war and IFBU lives on. As recently as 1999 its name changed from Psychological Operations to Information Support Group. The current operatives are based in Bedfordshire. A poster of George Steer with Haile Selassie adorns the office wall.
Telegram from Guernica not only documents Steer’s brief yet interesting life. It is also a refreshing look at the tense climate in the run up to World War II.