William Howard Russell (1820-1907)
Born in Dublin to a middle class family merchant family, Russell entered Trinity College Dublin in 1838. Like many in the nineteenth century, he left university without a degree, obtaining work in 1841 as a reporter for The Times. After writing on the parliamentary election of that year, Russell left for London, where he studied for the bar and worked freelance for The Times. In 1843, he was sent back to Ireland by Times editor, J.T. Delane to report on O’Connell’s campaign for repeal (‘monster meetings’).
His major breakthrough came in 1854 when he was sent by The Times to cover the Crimean War. Over the next two years he was an embedded correspondent, reporting on nearly every major battle including that of Balaklava where his description of the 93rd Highlanders became immortalised as the ‘thin red line’. He was liberal with his praise of the British forces, but ruthless in his condemnations of the incompetence of senior officers and doctors. Russell’s convincing and detailed reports had a major impact shaping public opinion and led to the reform of the British military and civil administration. Lionised at home, he became popular in literary and aristocratic circles.
In 1857, The Times sent Russell to India to cover the Indian rebellion, or mutiny as it was known. Arriving in 1858, he joined the campaign of Sir Colin Campbell and almost immediately began to criticise British policy in India, advocating conciliation as opposed to repression. In addition to his reports for The Times, Russell published his diaries, which condemned the atrocities meted out by British forces as ‘spiritual and mental tortures to which we have no right to resort, and which we dare not perpetrate in the face of Europe’.
Continuing to work for the Times, Russell covered the American Civil War, Austro-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War. However, during the latter, he failed to keep up with technological advancements. His reluctance to utilise telegraph networks and was frequently scooped by rival journalists. Nevertheless, The Times paid him to accompany his friend, the Prince of Wales, on his tours to the Near East in 1869 and India in 1875-6 of which he published various accounts. He would later work for the Daily Telegraph as reporter during the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. Despite his presence in Egypt during the British invasion in 1882, this was to be his last major campaign. Russell remained in publishing, editing and contributing articles to the Army and Navy Gazette, a periodical which he founded in 1860. In 1895 he was knighted for his services to journalism.
An unconventional and colourful reporter, Russell had a major influence on how all future wars were covered and reported on by the media. In recognition of his role in creating a new branch of journalism, his epithet reads the: ‘the first and greatest of all war correspondents’.
Sources: Roger T. Stearn, ‘Russell, Sir William Howard (1820–1907)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004); William Howard Russell, My diary in India in the year 1858-9, vol. I (London, 1859).