At the time of his death in 1914, Bennet Burleigh was quite possibly the most famous war correspondent in the world.
The Daily Telegraph, the paper for which he had spent a large part of his career reporting, published a full-page obituary chronicling his adventures – which ended up being several thousand words longer than the paper’s coverage of the death of Tennyson.
Funds were raised for a memorial tablet in his honour to be installed in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, and George V asked Winston Churchill to chair a committee tasked with commissioning a statue in Burleigh’s memory.
Yet the statue was never made, and Burleigh’s name is now largely forgotten. For soon after his death, the war to eclipse all wars began – and Burleigh had missed the action. Plans for a statue were abandoned, and the romanticised image of war that his imperial reporting helped propagate was blitzed away by the mechanised slaughter of the Western Front.
After the Somme, Ypres, and Passchendaele, there was not much appetite for the plucky adventurism of a war correspondent who had got lucky reporting from the front lines of the far less deadly imperial battles of the 19th century.
Crossing the pond
Born to a middle-class family in Glasgow, Burleigh’s life began unremarkably. In his early twenties, however, while working as a shipping clerk, he was forced to marry his family’s servant girl after getting her pregnant.
His sense of familial responsibility notably lacking, he upped and left England for the Americas when the Civil War broke out, carrying a few torpedoes designed by his mechanic father, which he would try to sell to the Confederate Army.
Across the Atlantic, he was met with suspicion. Thinking he was a spy, the Confederates had him imprisoned, but he wormed his way to liberty by volunteering for the South, and spent the next few years as a Confederate pirate disrupting Union shipping.
At Chesapeake Bay, Burleigh planned and executed the capture of a Federal steamer; the vessel’s flag was put on display at the public library in Richmond. Taken ill with malarial fever while in Virginia, he took a break from soldiering and wrote his first article, for The Southern Illustrated News.
Returning to the front lines, he was captured by the 36th United States Colored Infantry while tearing down telegraph lines in Union territory and imprisoned at Fort Delaware. It is reported that he escaped from his cell by prising up planks of the floor to reveal the sewers beneath, which he crawled through to reach the adjoining river.
He then swam for five hours, until he was picked up by a vessel whose commander he convinced he had fallen overboard while fishing.
As soon as his escape was assured, he was off again on a new Civil War mission, to capture a Union steamer off the coast of Canada in an attempt to secure the release of Confederate prisoners of war. Betrayed by a contact, he and his fellow Confederate pirates abandoned the mission, but were captured while attempting to escape to Canada.
While in prison, Burleigh befriended the local sheriff. Given a file hidden in a pie, he managed to escape using the tool. By the time the Civil War ended, he had found his way back to Texas, where he changed the spelling of his name (from ‘Burley’). It was here that his journalistic career really kicked off .
From piracy to the papers
Burleigh became an editor for the Houston Telegraph, then worked as a reporter for newspapers in Brooklyn, covering trials and other current affairs. But civilian life bored the former pirate. He travelled back to Britain, which was at the height of its imperial campaigns, and was hired by The Telegraph to cover the war in Sudan.
He covered the conflict with relish, and his reporting did not omit any gory detail. According to Burleigh, he was standing just yards from Colonel Burnaby, a famed Victorian imperial idealist, when the man was killed by a spear through the neck, wielded by a Mahdist fighter. Burleigh narrates the death thus in the Telegraph:
Half a dozen Arabs were now about him… With blood gushing from his gashed throat, the dauntless Guardsman leapt to his feet, sword in hand, and slashed at the ferocious group. They were the wild strokes of a proud, brave man, dying hard.
His greatest scoop came soon after, breaking the news of the failure of the Khartoum relief force. General Gordon had defied government orders to withdraw from Khartoum, deciding to defend the city with a garrison of 6,000 men.
In March 1884, the Mahdist army laid siege to the city, trapping the British forces. Under public pressure, the British sent a relief force down the Nile into the Sudan. It failed to reach Khartoum before the Mahdists broke into the garrison, killing Gordon and all his men.
Burleigh was the first to report the news, and the Telegraph proprietors brought out a special Sunday newspaper to publish the story ahead of its rivals. Burleigh was happy to use dirty tricks to ensure his scoop was published first. After filing his copy, he kept the telegraph operators busy by sending passages from Genesis along the wires, delaying the communications of rival correspondents.
Having made his name, Burleigh went on to cover the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese conflict. His skulduggery continued throughout these campaigns. On one occasion, he and another journalist were on their way to interview a Boer general. Seated on the same train, Burleigh threw the other man’s bags out of the moving vehicle. His rival had to jump off to collect his baggage, leaving Burleigh to be first to the story.
As we have seen, such instances of foul play did not deny him journalistic acclaim. When Burleigh died, soon after retiring in 1914, he received the following tribute from Field Marshal Evelyn Wood:
I much regret to learn of the death of Mr Bennet Burleigh, of whose accuracy, ability, courage, endurance, discretion, integrity, military judgment and knowledge, patriotism, and tact, I have, from much personal observation extending over a quarter of a century, a very high opinion.
This article was published in the January 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.