William Russell
[ Issue 2 ]

William Russell is a particular interest of Emily Bronto

Bikwil honours William Russell

William Russell

It was in 1854 when the name of William Russell first came to prominence with his reporting of the Crimean War for The Times, yet still he is regarded by many as the greatest war correspondent of all time.  Here, in Issue 2, Tony Rogers sings his praises.

An elegant writer who was able to paint in vigorous words time and place and person

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"All My Efforts to Get a Horse Have Been Unsuccessful"
— Tony Rogers


Question: What do the following have in common?

Crimean War (1854-5)
Indian Mutiny (1858)
American Civil War (1861-2)
Austro-Prussian War (1866)
Franco-Prussian War (1870-1)

Tentative answer: They were all wars fought in the second half of the nineteenth century?

Correct as far as it goes, yes. More interestingly: those wars were all reported on first-hand in The Times by the same remarkable man – William Howard Russell. It is now 143 years since his name first came to prominence with his reporting of the Crimean War, yet still he is regarded by many as the greatest war correspondent of all time, and indeed he may truly be said to have invented the art.

In addition to all his war despatches, Russell also reported on the Irish potato famine, the Crystal Palace Exhibition, the Duke of Wellington's funeral, the coronation of Czar Alexander II in Moscow, the wedding of the Prince of Wales, an attempt to lay the Atlantic Cable, a visit to Egypt and Palestine he took on the invitation of the Prince of Wales, a visit to India, also with the Prince of Wales, and the later stages of the Zulu War (this time for the Daily Telegraph).

(The edition I am working from here is that of the Folio Society (William Russell, Special Correspondent of The Times, 1995), which is a selection of Russell's writings with an introduction by Max Hastings.)

Russell was born in County Dublin in 1820 and educated at Trinity College Dublin. His aim was to become a barrister, though at one stage he contemplated army enlistment, having been fascinated from childhood by the activities of soldiers in the nearby barracks. In the words of Hastings,

He seems to have been a rumbustious, cheerfully combative young man, prone to the usual range of adolescent enthusiasms for whiskey and modest riot.

It was in Ireland in fact that Russell did his first work for The Times, where he operated as a supplementary reporter during the parliamentary elections. Here his flair immediately became apparent, when he chose to make the local hospital his base. In this way he could meet the casualties coming in from various political meetings. Impressed, The Times offered him a position on its House of Commons staff in 1842.

By 1854 Russell had built himself a reputation at The Times as an elegant writer who was able to paint in vigorous words time and place and person, so when the Crimean conflict broke out the editor John Delane selected him as the newspaper's representative. It was his reporting of this war that made Russell's a household name among the reading public in England, a popularity he never lost for the remaining fifty years of his life.

But this early fame came at a price. Before the Second World War the conditions under which newspaper reporters attached to armies had to operate were quite inadequate, to say the least. They had to look after themselves as best they could, to get as close to the action as possible by their own efforts, to compose their news bulletins wherever they could and as rapidly as possible, and then make their own arrangements for despatching them. Thus in the Crimea Russell endured all sorts of hardships: he had to supply his own horse and his own tent, and for a while his own rations.

There can be little doubt that it was Russell's comments on the plight of the sick and wounded in the Crimea that convinced Florence Nightingale to travel out to Turkey and establish efficient and sanitary nursing facilities first at Üsküdar (now part of Istanbul) and later at Balaklava in the Crimea. And who knows? Perhaps Russell's graphic portrayal of the heroic though futile Charge of the Light Brigade in October 1854 directly inspired Tennyson's celebrated poem.

Certainly, Russell's eyewitness reports (assisted by Delane's thundering editorials) helped bring down a prime minister – the Earl of Aberdeen – in 1855. The Times drew attention to military and administrative incompetence in the conduct of the war, and other papers took up the cry. As a result, public confidence in the whole system was undermined, first in the higher command, then in the dubious methods of military promotion, and finally in the aristocracy itself. In vain did alarmed conservatives fulminate against the vulgar power of the press.

Just as he told the Crimean War as he saw it, in the future Russell never shrank from criticising what appalled him. British colonialism, in particular. En route to India to cover the Mutiny, for instance, he reported how he was forced to hear from “pundits” on board all manner of repugnant racial prejudice:

As you listen to this chaos of opinions, you see a row of animated machines sitting crouched down on the floor of the cabin, swaying listlessly to and fro, as they pull the punkahs. Their slender, well-knit frames, bright eyes, and glistening teeth, give those poor “niggers” some claims to be thought, as Mr Carlyle would say, not quite unlovely, but they have a dark hide — they are low Mohammedans, and, to the intelligent Briton, they are as the beasts of the field. “By Jove! sir,” exclaims the major, who has by this time got to the walnut stage of argument, to which he has arrived by gradations of sherry, port, ale, and Madeira — ”By Jove!” he exclaims, thickly and fiercely, with every vein in his forehead swollen like whipcord, “those niggers are such a confounded sensual lazy set, cramming themselves with ghee and sweetmeats, and smoking their cursed chillumjees all day and all night, that you might as well think to train pigs. Ho, you! punkah chordo, or I'll knock — Suppose we go up and have a cigar!”

The fact is, I fear that the favourites of Heaven — the civilisers of the world — la race blanche of my friend the doctor, are naturally the most intolerant in the world.

Listen next to his scathing comments on slavery in America. On those “gentlemen”

. . . who indulge in ingenious hypotheses to comfort the consciences of the anthropoproprietors. The Negro skull won't hold as many ounces of shot as the white man's. Potent proof that the white man has a right to sell and to own the creature! He is plantigrade, and curved as to the tibia! Cogent demonstration that he was made expressly to work for the arch-footed, straight-tibiaed Caucasian. He has a rete mucosum and a coloured pigment! Surely he cannot have a soul of the same colour as that of an Italian or a Spaniard, far less of a flaxen-haired Saxon! See these peculiarities in the frontal sinus — in sinciput or occiput! Can you doubt that the being with a head of that shape was made only to till, hoe, and dig for another race? Besides, the Bible says that he is a son of Ham, and prophecy must be carried out in the rice-swamps, sugar-canes, and maize-fields of the Southern Confederation. It is flat blasphemy to set yourself against it. Our Saviour sanctions slavery because he does not say a word against it, and it is very likely that St Paul was a slave-owner. Had cotton and sugar been known, the apostle might have been a planter! Furthermore, the Negro is civilised by being carried away from Africa and set to work, instead of idling in native inutility. What hope is there of Christianising the African races, except by the agency of the apostles from New Orleans, Mobile, or Charleston, who sing the sweet songs of Zion with such vehemence, and clamour so fervently for baptism in the waters of the “Jawdam”?

(This article on William Russell will be concluded in the next issue of Bikwil.)

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