Horatio Bottomley was one of those larger than life characters who litter the stage of history. His career veered wildly from failure to success, and from fame to disgrace, ending in the grotesque sight of the journalist who had proclaimed himself 'the soldier's friend' being sent to prison for defrauding thousands of ex-soldiers of what little money they had.

Born in 1860 Bottomley spent much of his early life in an orphanage; one of his early jobs as a court shorthand writer led to a consuming interest in journalism and self promotion. During the years before the Great War he founded several short-lived publications, started other businesses few of which ever paid their shareholders. He was made bankrupt twice, the second time in 1911 meant that he had to resign as MP for South Hackney, and was twice taken to court for fraud, being acquitted twice.

He was a man who loved the good life, and like many such men tended to spend more than he had. But the start of the war marked the beginning of the high point of his career, when he turned his magazine John Bull into a patriotic paper: writing a couple of weeks after war was declared, he thundered "Let every Briton, therefore, gird on his armour. It is not necessary to be a soldier, but it is necessary to be a MAN".

Horatio Bottomley
Bottomley at a wartime rally in London's Trafalgar square

He then turned his attention to the matter of recruiting. His famous recruiting speech was first delivered on 14 September at a huge rally when five thousand people filled the London Opera House and fifteen thousand waited outside hoping to get tickets. Of course he had a high opinion of his own talents in this respect: "Professional politicians are useless for this purpose. Iím going to be the unofficial Recruiting Agent of the British Empire."

Early in 1915 he made the following promise at another massive rally: "When the time comes I will not hesitate ... to insist upon the trial by court martial of every man who has taken advantage of his countryís troubles to line his filthy pockets with gold at the expense of the State."

He became much sought after as a speaker at recruiting meetings, and appeared in theatres throughout the country, usually supported by a chorus of wounded soldiers and hospital nurses. At one venue (he claimed) a thousand men joined up as a result of his oratory.

At straightforward recruiting meetings he charged only £25, but made his money at 'patriotic lectures' where he took most of the takings - there were well over 300 of these during the last three years of war.

He was virulently anti-German, and believed that the whole race should be hated and shunned. He gave the readers of John Bull some advice for when the war ended: "If by chance you should discover one day in a restaurant that you are being served by a German waiter, you will throw the soup on his foul face."

The truth is that few serving soldiers felt the same hatred for the enemy as those on the Home Front - they were after all both victims of war. The Wipers Times mocked Bottomley mercilessly, giving him the name Cockles Tumley. 

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Horatio Bottomley - the soldier's friend (1)

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Sunday 19 March 2006