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The power of the war correspondent’s pen: W H Russell of ‘The Times’

Posted in Communications, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Literature, War on Saturday, 31 December 2011

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This edited article about journalism originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 889 published on 3 February 1979.

W H Russell, picture, image, illustration

William Howard Russell, the War Correspndent of ‘The Times’ in the Crimea

“The blackguard ought to be hung!” roared a bewhiskered senior officer, speaking for many of his friends. Others wanted the man horsewhipped.

Who was the appalling person who so deserved the rope? No less a figure than the first and greatest of all war correspondents, William Howard Russell of The Times. What was the crime of this “vulgar low Irishman”, as one apoplectic general dubbed him? Simply that he had dared to tell the terrible truth about the conditions the troops were enduring in the Crimean War. Every despatch he sent to his paper was likely to cause a sensation by its brutal frankness and honesty. Young officers and the troops they commanded were grateful to him, but authority loathed him.

The Crimean War broke out in 1854, almost 40 years after the Battle of Waterloo. It was the first major was Britain had fought since Waterloo, when Napoleon had been finally beaten. Britain now had her old enemy, France, as an ally, with Russia as the enemy. Alas, the great Duke of Wellington, the victor at Waterloo, was dead. In command was an officer who had served under him, Lord Raglan. He had none of his old chief’s genius and was a very poor leader, as events were proving.

Yet he can hardly be blamed for the abysmal way the expedition had been organised at home, the woeful lack of medical supplies and the criminal way in which the transport situation had been handled.

His main fault was that he was a pleasant old man, not a dynamic leader. He and his fellow generals were to find that Russell was more dangerous an enemy to them than were the Russians.

The only senior officers who were experienced in war were those who belonged to the British army in India, but their expertise was not called upon. This neglect had fatal results.

Meanwhile Russell went on wielding his deadly pen. He was the first to praise the bravery of the soldiers and their junior commanders. It was he who invented the immortal phrase “the thin Red Line”, when, in his despatch from Balaclava, he described how the Russians “dash on towards that thin red line of steel”. He also wrote memorably about the fateful charge of the Light Brigade, while castigating the men who were responsible for it.

Russell is best remembered now for his description of the horrors of the military hospital at Scutari, which led to the appearance there of Florence Nightingale and her devoted band. Long before his truly sensational account of the squalor there, he had stressed the hell the men were enduring, especially the wounded. He described the horrors of a Crimean winter:

“Our men have not either warm or waterproof clothing . . . the trenches are turned into dykes . . . and not a soul seems to care for their comfort or even for their lives.” As for his descriptions of the wounded, and the horrors they endured, they stunned the nation.

Stunned is perhaps too weak a word. Did the soldiers of the greatest Empire ever known deserve to be treated in this way? Not if The Times could help it. Its leading articles used information privately sent to the editor, in which Russell went even further than he did in his official despatches. His information came not only from what he saw and heard, but from very many army officers and men who wanted the facts made known.

And the result? The unfortunate Raglan cracked and died under the strain, being made the scapegoat for the imcompetence of the Government and many others. The Government itself was brought down, so great was the public indignation. Things began to improve. And never again was a British army so badly administered.

Russell’s most enduring triumph, however, arose from his Scutari despatches, mentioned above. They blazed with anger. Sentences like, “The manner in which the sick and the wounded are treated is worthy only of the savages of Dahomey,” caused utter dismay at home, while the revelation that the French had excellent nurses, the Sisters of Charity, and good hospitals and doctors, shamed every Briton. Soon Florence Nightingale and her nurses were on their way to the Crimea.

Russell was to describe many other campaigns. He dared to reveal the terrible massacre inflicted by the British on the mutineers of the Indian Mutiny, and on innocent Indians. He would not be silenced and nor would his great paper. In the end the establishment had to bow to public opinion, and in 1895, he was knighted.

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