William Russell, war correspondent.
William Russell almost single-handed invented the art of the war correspondent. Born in Dublin in1820 Russell inherited the charm and way with words for which the Irish are renown. The emergence of mass public opinion during 19th cent Britain presented him with a readership for the major political events of his age. For the first time public opinion mattered and the British middle classes had a spokesman they could trust.
Writing for the Times, Russell covered such diverse subjects as the Crimean War, Indian Mutiny in 1857, the American Civil War, Franco Prussian War to the experience of travelling by train into the Wild West in 1881. His description of embarkation in Chicago displays his ability to engage readers reveal his writing strength places the reader into the story.
He writes, ‘the special train scrambled into the Chicago terminus… at some unpleasantly early hour. We wandered on through the crowds of early workman and people going to their various places of business in straight lines, and saw street life in the morning – coffee – stands, crowds round the barbers’ door and saloons, and coloured men and women – a large element – shuffling to and fro along to the scene of their labour.’ Russell’s ability to transfer such exact observations of participants while presenting two sides of a story are his trademark.
His dispatches on the Zulu War are honest and exact.
Sept. 28 Zulu War. About the Battle of Isandlwana he writes,…’I am bound to say… established beyond doubt that the Zulus had no intention of making an attack on that occasion, because it was the day of the new moon, on which they never transact any important business.’ However they were ‘fired upon by the volunteers and mounted police.’ Later when talking to Methlegazulu a Zulu Chief, showed indifference to his fate remarked, ‘How,’ he said, ‘can I be worse off than I am? You have taken away my cattle, my wives have deserted me, and I cannot get any more; if you hang me I could hardly be worse off! ‘
Russell mentions that Natal settlers had praised ‘heroic methods of the Anglo-Saxon doctors who have “polished off” the patients in Tasmania, Australia,’ suggesting a possible solution to the Zulu problem in Natal.
Some of Russell’s most descriptive observation concerned the Crimean War. His covering of the campaign was such that it was widely read by the British Cabinet as well as the general public. His relentless descriptions of misery and military incompetence made their mark. The lack of proper food, water filtration and even basic sanitary discipline, the lack of suitable clothing provided the detailed for fluent, angry, brilliant despatches. For the first time a reporter was telling the public the tale of their fighting men at war.The British Army was not impressed, they refused him a mount, or rations, or any quarters to sleep or any recognition of his status. Russell’s despatches however for the first time brought home to the War Office that the public had a right to say something about the conduct of wars in their name. His dispatches forced the Government to improve their responsibilities towards their troops. These seething articles were directly responsible for Florence Nightingale going to the Crimea. Russell’s achievement speak for themselves and have never been equalled since