Seema Syeda on battlefield scoops throughout the ages.
William Howard Russell was one of the most prolific and revolutionary journalists of his time. Best known for his reporting on the Crimean War, he narrated the events of the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, and Tennyson wrote his celebrated poem of the same name – now etched into the British national consciousness – using Russell’s dispatches as a guide.
But Russell’s influence was not limited to the creation of national mythology: his commentary on the shambolic state of health provision in the army resulted in a transformation of wartime medical treatment, and his criticism of the failures of the British political and military administration helped topple the government of George Hamilton-Gordon, Earl of Aberdeen.
Widely regarded as the first modern war correspondent, Russell was a globetrotter with a wide purview, reporting on the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the American Civil War, the coronation of Tsar Nicholas I, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Zulu War, among many other key events of the tumultuous 19th century.
Making use of technological developments such as the telegraph, Russell’s pioneering work brought the realities of war into the Victorian living room like never before.
Russell began his journalistic career reporting for The Times on Britain’s pivotal 1841 general election, which brought Robert Peel – who would go on to repeal Britain’s protectionist Corn Laws against the will of the landed aristocracy – to power. Russell, Irish by birth, also reported on the movement to repeal the Act of Union and achieve self determination in Ireland.
He cut his teeth on the battlefield during the First Schleswig War – fought mainly between Denmark (allied with Sweden) and the German Confederation. Reporting from the Battle of Istedt, his fast, vivacious narrative style was evident early on:
To the extreme left , also, the Danes were repulsed and driven to a considerable distance northward,and as the Holstein tirailleurs were evidently advancing, while the fire from the Danish centre had abated, sanguine hopes were entertained of the result. But they were premature.
The Danes advanced again, and the battle raged with more fury than ever, the artillery in the plain on all points firing incessantly. The roar of the heavier cannon, and the rush and hiss of the balls through the air, were the only sounds that fell on the ear; the irregular firing of the riflemen and infantry was like the rattle of a toy compared to the clash of an enormous steam-engine.
But it was his reporting from the Crimea that made Russell’s name and turned him into the bane of the military command. Like any journalist worth their salt, he did not withhold his criticism of the organisational failings of the army, and was unafraid to hold the military and political establishment to account. Shocked at the living conditions of ordinary soldiers, Russell wrote with great pathos from Sebastopol:
The commonest accessories of a hospital are wanting; there is not the least attention paid to decency or clean linen; the stench is appalling; the fetid air can hardly struggle out to taint the atmosphere, save through the chinks in the walls and roofs; and for all I can observe, these men die without the least effort being made to save them.
There they lie, just as they were let gently down on the ground by the poor fellows, their comrades, who brought them on their backs from the camp with the greatest tenderness, but who are not allowed to remain with them. The sick appear to be tended by the sick, and the dying by the dying.
These reports created waves once they had been published back in Britain, and resulted in a movement to redress it – with Florence Nightingale crediting her entry into wartime nursing to his dispatches.
Lord Raglan, commander of the British troops in the Crimea, was so disturbed by Russell’s presence that he advised his officers to refuse to speak to him. One British Secretary for War even went so far as to write, ‘I trust the Army will lynch The Times correspondent,’ but Russell managed to escape such a fate.
AMERICAN CIVIL WAR
Russell’s life was often in danger, and this was no less the case when he began reporting on the American Civil War. Though Russell denounced ‘the peculiar institution of slavery’, the editorial policy of The Times seemed to be more favourable to the Southern Confederacy than Lincoln’s Unionists.
Russell wrote to John T Delane, the editor of The Times, begging for the paper to take a more neutral stance, for the sake of the safety of its own reporters in America. ‘The Times is regarded on all sides as a Secession print or as an agent which is doing all it can to break up the Union,’ he wrote in 1861.
Warning that his life was in danger due to his association with the paper, which had garnered the hostility of Union soldiers, he implored Delane to reconsider his editorial policy, writing, ‘I don’t want to ask you to sacrifice the policy of The Times to me, but I would like you, if possible, not to sacrifice me (& no end of children and wife…) to the leaders in The Times’.
It was not just soldiers who were hostile to The Times, President Lincoln had very much hoped the British queen and parliament, as well as the press, would support the Union, reportedly telling Russell, ‘The Times is the most powerful thing in the world, perhaps except the Mississippi,’ and Russell recollected in his diaries that Lincoln was ‘black as thunder’ at the paper’s perceived support for the Confederacy, as well as the British declaration of neutrality in 1861, which had granted the Confederacy belligerent status.
Russell thus attempted to influence and resist the reactionary policies of the established media and the landed aristocracy who owned it. As well as this, he had been a vocal critic not just of the British administration in Crimea, but also of British colonial policy more generally. Reporting back from India, which was in the midst of rebellion in 1857, he commented,
What I observe is this – that after an Englishman has been a few years in India, unless he is a man of reflection and education, he forgets altogether the principles of his life, the rules of his religion, and the feelings of his civilisation.
Such statements had an effect. According to The Times’ editor, it was Russell’s critical Indian Mutiny dispatches which led to the stopping of the indiscriminate execution of prisoners.
Despite Russell’s outspoken reporting and the deeply dangerous nature of his work, he survived his adventures with his health intact and eventually received a knighthood for his pioneering reportage.
He retired as a battlefield correspondent in 1882 and founded the Army and Navy Gazette. Dying of natural causes in London in 1907, the epitaph on his memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral describes him as ‘The first and greatest of War Correspondents’.
This article was published in the June 2019 issue of Military History Matters.
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