Since the advent of the modern press, newspapers and journals have dispatched their reporters to the seat of war in pursuit of the gripping action narrative or the photo that defines a conflict. Here, MHM profiles some of the first and best of the war correspondents.
WILLIAM HOWARD RUSSELL (1820-1907)
‘They advanced in two lines, quickening the pace as they closed towards the enemy… At the distance of 1200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame through which hissed the deadly balls.’
Perhaps the father of the modern war correspondent, William Howard Russell shook Victorian England with his no-holds-barred reportage of British military incompetence during the Crimean War. His exposure of these blunders was directly responsible for radical changes in the way soldiers were treated and to their conditions of service. Much of the military’s existing administrative and logistical system was revamped.
Russell’s influence was vast. His depictions of a clumsily-organised British army at Balaclava, Inkerman, and Sebastopol were blunt and honest; worlds away from the quixotic, jumped-up tales of valour being produced by his contemporaries.
Undermining army leaders and military top brass was, however, a risky business. He was nearly fired on various occasions for airing the British military’s dirty laundry, and was also subjected to unrelenting hostility from the authorities, including instances where his tent was vandalised and his property damaged. The reward for enduring these physical and mental sacrifices? To be branded an unpatriotic liar by his countrymen back home.
Of the Army’s meagre provisions and under-stocked medical supplies, he wrote: ‘The commonest accessories of a hospital are wanting; there is not the least attention paid to decency or cleanliness… and, for all I can observe, these men die without the least effort being made to save them… The sick appear to be tended by the sick, and the dying by the dying.’
In India, he witnessed violent racist attacks on Indian soldiers. Writing of the treatment of a captured mutineer in 1858, he reported: ‘… he was pulled by the legs to a convenient place, where he was held down, pricked in the face and body by the bayonets of some of the soldiery whilst others collected fuel for a small pyre, and when all was ready – the man was roasted alive! There were Englishmen looking on, more than one officer saw it. No one offered to interfere…’
FLOYD GIBBONS (1887-1939)
‘My appearance must have been sufficient to have shocked them. I was hatless and my hair was matted with blood. The red-stained bandage around my forehead and extending down over my left cheek did not hide the rest of my face, which was unwashed, and consequently red with fresh blood.’
During the First World War, Floyd Phillips Gibbons was the official war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. His fast-paced radio broadcasts made him a household name throughout America, and he is credited with being one of the first radio news reporters.
His journalistic career began at the Tribune in 1907 when he became well-known for covering the Pancho Villa Expedition in 1916, and for reporting on the 1917 torpedoing of the British ship Laconia. He was also a passenger on board the Laconia, just one of many dangerous situations he found himself in throughout his life as a war correspondent.
Another was at the Battle of Belleau Wood in France in 1918. In the process of trying to rescue an American soldier, Gibbons was hit by German gunfire and subsequently lost his left eye. Later than year, he was awarded France’s greatest honour, the Croix de Guerre with Palm, for this selfless act of bravery on the battlefield.
As his career progressed, Gibbons became known more and more as a radio commentator and narrator of newsreels, for which he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1929, he had his own half-hour radio programme on Wednesday nights, and in 1930, he narrated the documentary film With Byrd at the South Pole.
Thanks to Gibbons’ suggestion that Frank Buck write a book about his animal-collecting adventures, Buck collaborated with Edward Anthony on Bring ‘Em Back Alive, which became a bestseller in 1930. Gibbons himself wrote a book on the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, and another on the prospect of a Soviet conquest of Europe and invasion of America.
Gibbons died of a heart attack in September 1939 at his farm in Pennsylvania. Two years later, Marine Corps League State Commandant Roland L Young posthumously awarded Gibbons a gold medal, making him an honorary member of the Marine Corps. It was the first time such an honour had ever been bestowed upon a civilian in the history of the Marine Corps League.
Margaret Bourke-White, 1904-1971
‘The very secret of life for me… was to maintain in the midst of rushing events an inner tranquillity. I had picked a life that dealt with excitement, tragedy, mass calamities, human triumphs, and suffering. To throw my whole self into recording and attempting to understand these things, I needed an inner serenity as a kind of balance.’
She was the first female war correspondent and the first woman to work in combat zones during WWII. She travelled to the eye of the storm as Germany broke its peace-pact with the Soviet Union in 1941, capturing the blazing trail of destruction as the German forces invaded.
As the war progressed, Margaret Bourke-White was increasingly exposed to some of the fiercest fighting, most notably in North Africa with USAAF and in Italy with the US Army, where she repeatedly came under fire.
To the staff at Life magazine, she was known as ‘Maggie the Indestructible’ after her numerous dices with death, including one when the England-to-Africa British troopship she was on board, the SS Strathallan, was torpedoed in the Mediterranean. She recorded her experience in an article for Life titled ‘Women in Lifeboats’ on 22 February 1943.
Her work is well-known in India and Pakistan, notably her photographs of Gandhi at his spinning wheel and of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. According to journalist Somini Sengupta, Bourke-White was ‘one of the most effective chroniclers’ of the partition of India and Pakistan, and of the violent scenes which accompanied it. She goes on to say that, in looking at her photography, ‘you glimpse the photographer’s undaunted desire to stare down horror’.
Bourke-White was obsessed with photography. She was always able to place herself in the right place at the right time, a talent which her interview with Mohandas K Gandhi hours before his assassination in 1948 proves.
Of her arrival at the notorious concentration camp Buchenwald, she said, ‘Using a camera was almost a relief. It interposed a slight barrier between myself and the horror in front of me.’
After the war, she produced the book Dear Fatherland, Rest Quietly, a cathartic side-project which helped her obtain a little closure following the brutality she had witnessed throughout her professional career.
WINSTON CHURCHILL, 1874-1965
‘Everybody is in favour of free speech. Hardly a day passes without its being extolled, but some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.’
The manner in which Winston Churchill used the power of the media to influence and persuade others was unprecedented. As a young, ambitious man he had always made sure to keep on good terms with newspaper proprietors, becoming close friends with Oliver Borthwick, editor of the Morning Post, and Alfred Harmsworth, proprietor of the Daily Mail, in the late 1890s.
As a war correspondent during the Boer War, his antics and feats of derring-do – including tales of capture and escape – would secure for him a celebrity status he would capitalise on during his early political campaigns.
In 1899, Churchill headed to South Africa as a newspaper correspondent for the Morning Post. While there, he found himself on board an armoured train which was ambushed and captured by Boer soldiers. He arrived in Pretoria at the State Model Schools prison on 18 November 1899 along with all the other prisoners.
On the night of 12 December, a chance to escape presented itself and Churchill climbed over the prison wall while the guards’ backs were turned.
Wearing a brown flannel suit with £75 and four slabs of chocolate in his pocket, Churchill walked through the night in hopes of finding the Delagoa Bay Railway. After one or two train journeys hidden by coal-stained sacks, he found himself at the house of the manager of the Transvaal Collieries, John Howard. Mr Howard hid him in a coal mine before managing to transport him to safety.
It is easy to forget, with the breadth of Churchill’s long-spanning political career, that Churchill was first a successful war correspondent. In his 1900 book London to Ladysmith via Pretoria, he gives his impressions of the first five months of the Second Boer War. His style was well-suited to readers of the Boy’s Own Paper, which had been launched 20 years previously
Of the Boer army, he writes, ‘What men they were, these Boers! I thought of them as I had seen them in the morning riding forward through the rain – thousands of independent riflemen, thinking for themselves, possessed of beautiful weapons, led with skill, living as they rode without commissariat or transport or ammunition column, moving like the wind, and supported by iron constitutions and a stern, hard Old Testament God.’
Herbert Bayard Swope (1882-1958)
‘The secret of a successful newspaper is to take one story each day and bang the hell out of it. Give the public what it wants to have and part of what it ought to have whether it wants it or not.’
Inside the German Empire was a series of articles which won Herbert Bayard Swope the first ever Pulitzer Prize for Reporting in 1917. The articles were based on Swope’s time as a reporter during the First World War. Along with James W Gerard, he later turned the articles into a book, Inside the German Empire: in the third year of the war.
He is probably best known for coining the phrase ‘Cold War’, and for being the first editor to use the ‘op-ed’ concept, where opinion pieces are published opposite the editorial. Although standard editorial pages had been printed by newspapers for many centuries, Swope established the first modern op-ed spread in 1921.
When he took over as editor in 1920, he realized that the page opposite the editorials was ‘a catchall for book reviews, society boilerplate, and obituaries.’ He wrote: ‘It occurred to me that nothing is more interesting than opinion when opinion is interesting, so I devised a method of cleaning off the page opposite the editorial, which became the most important in America… and thereon I decided to print opinions, ignoring facts.’
Swope served as the editor for New York World’s 21-day crusade against the Ku Klux Klan in October 1921; a campaign which won the newspaper the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1922. As an example of investigative journalism, it was ranked 81 out the top 100 journalism stories of the 20th century by New York University’s journalism department.
A legendary poker player, Swope is supposed to have once won over $470,000 in a game with an oil baron, a steel magnate, and an entertainer.
Richard Harding Davis (1864–1916)
‘The secret of good writing is to say an old thing in a new way or to say a new thing in an old way.’
In his youth, you may have been forgiven for describing Richard Harding Davis as a layabout. Dismissed from Lehigh University for choosing to dedicate his time to his social life rather than his studies, his father managed to secure him a job as a journalist for the Philadelphia Record. For similar reasons, he was quickly sacked from this position. Hope for the young socialite seemed lost.
He managed a brief stint at the Philadelphia Press, before accepting a better-paid job at the New York Evening Sun. It was here that Davis began to shine as a writer, his flamboyantly written pieces on the sensitive subjects of abortion, suicide, and execution soon started turning heads.
Working his way up the journalistic ladder, he became a managing editor of Harper’s Weekly and was soon to be recognised as one of the world’s leading war correspondents with his coverage of the Second Boer War. America’s neutrality meant he was able to report from both British and Boer perspectives.
From a United States Navy warship during the Spanish Civil War, Davis witnessed the shelling of Matanzas in Cuba. The story he subsequently wrote made national headlines, but resulted in reporters being banned from American naval vessels for the rest of the war.
He covered the Russo-Japanese War from the perspective of the Japanese forces, and later went on to report on the Salonika Front during WWI, an experience which led to his being arrested as a spy by the Germans. He was soon released.
Although some of his contemporaries accused him of yellow journalism – which uses sensationalist headlines, fabricated interviews, and unfounded articles to sell publications – his stories of life and travel in Central America, the Caribbean, Rhodesia, and South Africa were widely published and well-received.
He was a good friend of Theodore Roosevelt’s, and used his popular writing and wide influence to assist the politician’s career. That influence stretched as far as the fashion world, where he popularised the clean-shaven look among men at the turn of the 20th century.
Helen Johns Kirtland (1890-1979)
‘Camouflage is, of course, either the art of making something ‘look as though it ain’t’, or look like something else entirely.’
Active towards the end of the First World War, Kirtland was the first and only female correspondent to be allowed at the front after the Battle of Caporetto. She worked as a photojournalist for the highly visual European publication Leslie’s Weekly. In this capacity, she faced real danger on a regular basis.
She was made a guest of the US Navy and Army during the First World War, and worked with the support of the YMCA, with whom she was also closely linked. Her ability to communicate in a number of languages and her natural talent for photography ensured success on her European assignments.
Like many of her female contemporaries, Kirstland chose to focus mainly on the activity of women during the war. ‘A Tribute to Women War Workers’ was a picture story published in Leslie’s Weekly on 30 November 1918, which celebrated those women who had aided the Allied armies and alleviated the suffering of civilians.
A letter to her mother written on a tour sponsored by the Belgian Relief Committee after the war offers a taste of the style in which she wrote:
I am first beginning to get over the queer sensation of crossing the lines and wandering in no-man’s-land. Even yet one hears tremendous explosions now and then – and these only add local colour – appropriate sounds to describe the sights! For they are of course cleaning up the country of duds – My! What a job! I’d hate to be a farmer in these parts!… Every now and again someone gets ‘Bumped off’. The shells and their little brothers, the hand grenades, are not a race of savages to get too chummy with and stub your toe on one as you tramp through the pits and hummocks among the lines.
Kirtland and her husband Lucian Swift Kirtland spent the post-war period travelling extensively through Europe and Asia. Lucian wrote for various publications, while Helen often made the photographs that accompanied her husband’s articles, but was rarely credited.