A certain Lt.Charles Naysmith can probably be said to be the father of professional war journalism . . . by default. He was an officer with the East India Company’s Bombay Artillery and as meant to be sending reports on the war in the Crimea to the Times in London. However, he lacked one great quality of any decent newsman, a sense of urgency, so the newspaper of record decided to send one of its own, an Irishman from Tallaght in Co. Dublin, a graduate of Trinity College named William Howard Russell, not, as is often the case, because an Irishman is more expendable, but because he was already near the top of his profession
Russell’s reporting from the bungled war in the Crimea aroused the ire of, among others, Prince Albert. Queen Victoria’s consort wrote of Russell that ‘the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country’. So we have to assume that he was doing something right. The myth of Russell is that he was a campaigning polemicist who exposed the incompetence of the British High Command and whose blistering indictment of the Army’s derisory medical facilities, which were killing far more ordinary soldiers than the Russians, led to the arrival of Florence Nightingale in Crimea. This resulted in the consequent increase in the average life expectancy of the average soldier and the birth of a caring legend. As with most myths some of it is actually true.
Disease and abysmally inadequate hygiene were indeed far greater killers than Russian cannon or musketry in the Crimea. But it was not Russell who brought this to the attention of the readers of the Times but the paper’s Constantinople correspondent Thomas Cheney. Neither was Russell the only correspondent in Crimea. He faced competition from his equally accomplished but much younger fellow Irishman Edwin Godkin of the Liberal London newspaper The Daily News.
Russell, however, was hugely influential in turning public opinion against the conduct of the Crimean campaign. He spent almost two years covering the war but most of his published work tended to emphasise the qualities of bravery and dash displayed by the soldiers rather than the muddle headed, in-bred, casual incompetence of their Generals. When describing one of the most celebrated disasters in what was a regular downpour of military ineptitude, the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, Russell wrote in a florid and heroic style worthy of The Battle of Maldon
‘The first line is broken, it is joined by the second, they never halt or check their speed an instant . . with a halo of flashing steel above their heads, and with a cheer that was many a noble fellow’s death cry, they flew into the smoke of the batteries . . ‘
It was an era of romanticism, so mundane and meaningless death was not permitted, not even to readers of the Times. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, duly took note and futile gesture became enduring myth in one of his most famous poems.
But the salient part of Russell’s own myth is true. He did make a difference. He was subjecting military incompetence to independent scrutiny for the first time. He had great moral courage because he had to put up with the hostility of many of the members of the officer corps. He was blacklisted and Lord Raglan, the British commander, advised his officers to have nothing to do with Russell. Furthermore he established the campaigning credentials of the Times – earning its nickname The Thunderer – and set a standard in war reporting which would not fully erode until just over half a century later with the onset of World War 1.
William Howard Russell, the acknowledged father of war correspondence, a term, incidentally, which he loathed, was born in Tallaght one hundred and ninety four years ago on this day.