Sir William Howard Russell: War Correspondent
Continuing with my Strelets Crimean War personalities series, I turn my attention to a single figure which was supplied with the French “Last Assault on Sevastopol” set and appears to be distinctly un-military. Like the rest of the figures, he is unnamed but is clearly writing something into a notebook and dressed in civilian clothing. Who is he?
Plastic Soldier Review state; “the man is in civilian dress and could serve for many things but we like to think of him as a newspaper correspondent.”
Any mention of Crimean War reporting must reference William Howard Russell. He was The Times ‘war correspondent’, an occupational description which he personally abhorred. Regardless, Russell provided many stirring, graphic accounts of the horrors of the Crimean War which brought him fame and recognition.
Often considered to be the first ‘modern’ war correspondent, use of the newly invented telegraph enabled his dynamic reports to reach the British public remarkably quickly. His despatches were reaching London in just two days after the Royal Engineers laid a cable, and an underwater cable reduced this in 1855 to a few hours only. The practice of day-to-day reporting of a distant foreign war began in the Crimean campaign.
Born in Ireland in 1821, Russell’s family had moved to England when he was a small child, though he returned to Dublin to study. Though he was qualified as a lawyer, he began the career of a war journalist which led to his assignment to the Crimean theatre in 1854.
“I was with the first detachment of the British army which set foot on Turkish soil, and it was my good fortune… to be present at Alma, Balaklava, Inkerman, to accompany the Kertch and the Kinburn expeditions, and to witness every great event of the siege–the assaults on Sebastopol, and the battle of the Tchernaya.”
William Howard Russell, “The British Expedition to the Crimea”.
After the Battle of the Alma, he wrote up his account in the pages of a book taken from a dead Russian soldier. The despatch, written in the form of a letter to his editor, was generally praised the British army’s conduct but importantly did not hesitate to describe the battlefield surgeons “humane barbarity” and also drew attention to the lack of ambulance care for wounded troops.
His influence was profound and Florence Nightingale credited her move into war nursing directly to Russell’s reports coming from the Crimea. Mary Seacole’s contribution to the care and well-being of the soldiers was also first brought to the wider public consciousness by his writing.
Being such a new concept, a war correspondent was at that time able to work without any censorship and, as with many other journalists since, Russell’s explicit reporting ruffled many feathers. Following reports which revealed the British Army’s supply and medical care shortages during the winter of 1854, Queen Victoria called his despatches “infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers”, whilst her husband Albert stated that “the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country”.
Others in the military were equally suspicious of him, making snide or prejudiced comments on his character and methods of investigation;
“…a vulgar low Irishman, sings a good song, drinks anyone’s brandy and water and smokes as many cigars as a Jolly Good Fellow. He is just the sort of chap to get information, particularly out of youngsters.”
Russell famously observed the events of the Battle of Balaclava. In describing the dramatic moment when the 93rd Highlanders stood firm and repulsed the Russian cavalry charge, he coined the now familiar phrase “the thin red line”, albeit using notably different words;
Roger Fenton’s images of Russell in the Crimea show him dressed in the manner suggestive of a military officer, possibly a deliberate affectation in order to better integrate with the troops and gain their confidence. Strelets’ figure’s civilian garb does not share any similarity with this, nor does it reflect his build (he was described as ‘portly’), but he did have a full beard during the campaign and the figure is nevertheless clearly intended to be a reporter or writer of some description.
So, I’m still happy to dub him ‘William Howard Russell’: scourge of the establishment; eyes and ears of the Victorian public; chronicler of great battles; the original ‘war correspondent’ and famous journalist of the Crimean War!
N.B. Russell’s book on “The British Expedition to the Crimea” is available to read as a free download from the Project Gutenberg website.