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First War Correspondent

How William Howard Russell’s pen was a mightier than the sword.

The prose was anything but leaden: “The silence is oppressive, between the canon bursts one can hear the champing of bits in the clinks of the sabres in the valley below.”  This was how William Howard Russell described, for readers of the Times of London, the lull before the mayhem of the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854.  “With a halo of flashing steel above their heads, and with a cheer that was many a noble fellows death cry, they flew into the smoke of the batteries.”

On the scene

Russell was the first accredited newspaper war correspondent.  In the days before he was dispatched to cover the Crimean War of 1854-6, newspapers tended to compile war reports from letters sent by junior army officers, or from stories in the foreign papers.  In 1808, for example, the Times had sent a journalist to Spain to cover the Peninsula war, but he had not stayed long.  Russell was not the only journalist on the Crimean scene, but he pieced together reliably accurate accounts of the fighting from confused eyewitness accounts.

“What has been the cost to the country?”  he asked readers, “…  Of the men who died in their tens or in hospital of exhaustion, overwork, and deficient or improper nutriment?”  Such dispatches, reporting the military commands gross miss-management of medical supplies, hospitals, food and clothing, were consistently supported in the editorial columns of the times, the paper read by the government and the ruling and middle classes.  The generals were accused of being preoccupied with petty rules and regulations instead of their soldiers welfare.

In January 1855, the government fell.  Were Russell’s reports to blame? Russell thought not, but the new Secretary for War made it clear to Russell that he was the culprit, and Prince Albert launched a furious counterattack on the “miserable scribbler” to restore confidence in the establishment.

A hero returns

But the truth in Russell’s dispatches was indisputable, and he returned to England a popular hero.  His vivid reports were backed by reliable facts and detailed descriptions.  No one previously had provided such complete accounts of a war.  Even a rival journalist in the Crimea, Edwin Lawrence Godkin, praised his influence: “in his hands correspondence from the field really became a power before which generals began to quail.”  As a result of Russell’s reports, the Army was comprehensively reorganized.

The war correspondent was now an unavoidable accessory to any military conflict.  When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, just five years after the end of the Crimean War, no fewer than 500 war correspondents, Russell among them, turn out to report on it from the northern side alone.

Image via Wikipedia

William Howard Russell During The Crimean War 

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