When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, The Illustrated London News could already boast over 70 years’ experience in reporting on conflicts around the world. Though considerably younger, The Graphic had fortuitously launched on the eve of the Franco-Prussian War, while The Sphere, founded in 1900, had cut its journalistic teeth covering the Second Boer War.
Reporting on war was what these magazines did. Before the advent of television, or even wireless, the engravings and illustrations published in the weekly illustrated papers were often the only images the public at home might see of events unfolding abroad.
By 1914, the rise of illustrated daily picture papers such as the Daily Mirror was beginning to threaten these weekly magazines. Yet their reputation, quality and format made them highly suited to covering the multi-layered and rapidly escalating Great War (as it was already being termed).
In the first few weeks of the conflict, correspondents were ordered to withdraw from France by the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener and all letters and telegrams were vetted and censored. The result was a news vacuum; the press left to pass anodyne comment or fictionalise events.
The ILN was as guilty as any. But where the illustrated press could outperform daily papers was in providing a visual account of the war with in-depth and visually rich coverage, combining numerous illustrations and photographs on high quality paper, complemented by writing from a roster of talented journalists.
Special artists employed by the magazines would interview eyewitnesses and work up impressions of events in Belgium as faithfully as they could. Pictures of activity on the home front, from the mobilisation of troops to the commandeering of horses, filled pages and cartoons lampooned the enemy or deprecated the hysteria of civilians at home.
Even the advertising pages soon changed to reflect the preoccupations of war. This pictorial documentation was taken to a further dimension by the ILN, when it launched The Illustrated War News on 12 August 1914.