In the centenary year of the end of the Great War, Charles à Court Repington answers a tricky question – exactly when did we start to refer to the horrors of the 1914-1918 conflict as ‘The First World War’?
There is a false assumption that it could not have been so named until after the start of World War Two, but it was Repington who first popularised the phrase in the title of his book The First World War published in 1920.
Repington was born in Wiltshire in 1858, the son of a Conservative MP. He was actually an à Court at birth but took the name Repington in 1903 under the terms of an old will when he succeeded to the family Amington Hall Estate.
He joined the British Army in 1878 and served in Afghanistan, Burma and Sudan before entering the Staff College at Camberley. He later served as military attaché in Brussels and the Hague.
Repington served as a staff officer during the Second Boer War in South Africa and was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George for his services during that conflict.
However, Repington’s military career was brought to a dishonourable end in 1902. In 1897 he had been posted to Egypt and had begun an affair with Mary Garstin, wife of Sir William Garstin, head of the Egyptian Ministry of Works.
When the affair first came to light, he was severely reprimanded by his superiors and gave his word ‘upon his honour as a soldier and gentleman’ to have nothing more to do with her. But during the divorce proceedings, it became clear that he had broken his parole and he was forced to resign his commission.
Unabashed by the damage to his reputation, Repington embarked on a career in journalism as the military correspondent for the Morning Post and then for The Times from 1904 to 1918.
He was a vocal advocate of a firm national defensive policy and an army strengthened at the expense of the navy which didn’t endear him to Admiral of the Fleet Jacky Fisher. Repington also warned of a German ‘bolt from the blue’.
Repington used his friendship with the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Sir John French, to visit the Western Front in the early stages of the war at a time when other correspondents were barred from France.
It was French who told Repington that the failure of the attack on Neuve Chapelle in 1915 was due to a shortage of artillery shells and this information caused a political scandal when he subsequently reported the accusation in The Times.
As a result, the owner of The Times, Lord Northcliffe, led a sustained campaign against War Minister, Lord Kitchener, the latter taking his revenge by banning Repington from visiting the front until March 1915.
Repington became increasingly disillusioned by Northcliffe’s reporting of the war and resigned in January 1918, returning to the Morning Post where he fell foul of the Defence of the Realm Act in disclosing secret information in one of his articles.
The books he wrote after the war cost Repington many friendships for including private conversations, but they were bestsellers nonetheless and introduced us to ‘The First World War’ that would inevitably lead to a second.
Those of you who do your own research will claim that the true originator was German philosopher, Ernst Haeckel, who in September 1914 wrote ‘there is no doubt that the course and character of the feared ‘European War’ … will become the first world war in the full sense of the word’.
But then history is always written by the victors!