Reporting from the Crimean War

William Howard Russell [was], according to his epigraph in St. Paul’s Cathedral “the first and greatest” war correspondent. The greatest is open to dispute, and he was not the first …. But Russell’s coverage of the Crimean War [1854-1856] marked the beginning of an organised effort to report a war to the civilian population at home using the services of a civilian reporter. This was an immense leap in the history of journalism, so it is appropriate to begin with Russell, because, whether or not “the first and the greatest,” he was certainly, as he put it himself, “the miserable parent of a luckless tribe.”…

Russell returned to London and fame. The Times made the gesture every war correspondent dreams of: it put aside his IOUs for advance expenses and told him he could start again “with what tradesmen call a clean slate.” He was placed on the list of Times foreign correspondents at £600 a year, providing “you will render monthly accounts of your expenditure showing a clean balance so that we may both know how we stand.” He had breakfast with the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, who, mistakenly believing that Russell’s criticisms of the conduct of the war must have been inspired by his having evolved constructive alternatives, disconcerted Russell by asking him what he would do if he were commander-in-chief of the army. After the war Russell’s dispatches were published in book form, and while awaiting new battles to cover he went on a lecture tour.

Clearly, it would have been hard for Russell not to have made a name for himself in the Crimea. This was the first time that a British army in the field had been subjected to any form of independent scrutiny, and it would have been difficult to miss its shortcomings. Russell certainly chronicled them, but he failed to understand and expose the causes. He concentrated his attacks on Raglan rather than on the system, not knowing that Raglan, a humane and sensitive man, had done his best to overcome the results of years of government neglect. Throughout the campaign, Raglan had made repeated requests for all manner of equipment and supplies to overcome deficiencies in the commissariat and the medical departments, but most of his requests had been ignored. When public clamour led to a demand for a scapegoat, Russell’s dispatches helped make Raglan a convenient choice.

Although Russell criticised the lot of the ordinary soldier in the Crimea, he was careful not to hammer too hard at a comparison with that of the officers, to whose social class he himself belonged. He did not write, as he could quite accurately have done: “While the troops, ill-clad to weather a Russian winter, try to ease their hunger with a watery stew made of doubtful horseflesh, tonight in the officers’ mess the menu consists of soup, fresh fish, liver and bacon, a shoulder of mutton, pancakes with quince preserve, cheese, stout, sherry and cigars.” Above all, Russell made the mistake, common to many a war correspondent, of considering himself part of the military establishment. The one thing he never doubted or criticised was the institution of war itself. He realised he had hit the right note in criticising the conduct of the war and that his dispatches suited The Times’ politics of the moment. (Russell tended to toe his paper’s editorial line despite his professional assessments.)…

It is clear that before the war ended the army realised that it had made a mistake in tolerating Russell and his colleagues, but by then it was too late. The war correspondent had arrived, and when the American Civil War broke out, five years later, 500 of them turned out to report the conflict on the Northern side alone.

SOURCE: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, by Phillip Knightley (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000; first published in 1975), pp. 1-17

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