William Russell
[ Issue 3 ]

William Russell holds a lot of interest for Emily Bronto

Bikwil salutes William Russell

William Russell

In Issue 3 Tony Rogers continues to sing the praises of William Russell (1820-1907), still regarded by many as the greatest war reporter of all time.  He covered the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the American Civil War, the Austro-Prussian War and the Franco-Prussian War.   

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


(This is the conclusion of an article on William Russell, 19th century war correspondent for The Times.)

Later, in South Africa, Russell was little impressed with the British Empire's expansionist tendencies there, as elsewhere, and said so:

"I have sixty Zulus under me," said a young road inspector today," and the fellows drive me mad by their idleness. I would like to dynamite the whole lot of them." Alas! dynamite will not do it. The complaint to be cured is an old one, and the heroic methods of the Anglo-Saxon doctors have "polished off" the patients in Tasmania, Australia, and Northern America; they have been mollified in India, have failed in China, and are of very doubtful efficacy in South Africa.

Likewise in Egypt, where he refused to be swept along by Britain's imperial bluster and its inability to recognise the justifiable feelings of the local populace. The latter, resentful of the Anglo-French grip on the country's finances had risen up and had rioted in Alexandria.

I see that all the newspapers in England have made up their minds that there is no such thing as the country "Egypt", and there can be no such sentiment as that of Egyptian nationality . . . I am sure it will not be popular to express these opinions, but I believe you are blinded by your cupidity to the truth, and by the burning lust after Egypt which has been chiefly aroused by the stimulus of the Suez Canal.

Such observations did not endear him to all sections of his readership, of course, and not only at home. His reporting of the Civil War, for example, made him very unpopular in America, whose citizens, no matter what their allegiance, were sensitive to any views put forward by The Times.

Russell was attached to the South's army, and when the Confederates read his despatches (which revealed some of their military secrets), Russell found himself in trouble. Yet this was nothing compared to the resentment and bitterness he received from the other side when he wrote of the retreat of the Union army after the first Battle of Bull Run. Once he fully realised he was the focus of an entire nation's animosity, Russell suffered great loneliness and became deeply depressed, returning to England before the war had come to an end.

By the time he had turned fifty Russell had lost his enthusiasm for the merciless hurly-burly of newspaper rivalry in the field. His leisurely, thoughtful letter style was rapidly being superseded by the use of the telegraph (particularly in the hands of aggressive Americans) as the principal means of journalistic communication, a medium Russell was reluctant to employ. This meant that often his news was stale when published, already scooped by other papers. Nevertheless, his unequalled descriptive skills never left him, and from the 1870s he devoted his efforts, not to time-driven frontline reporting, but more to evocative accounts of events and people observed unhurriedly.

It is tempting to speculate what words Russell might have penned had been attached to the other side in some of these conflicts, with the North in the American Civil War, say, or with the Austrians or French instead of the Prussians. And how would have seen the Boer War, had he been young and fit enough?

Over a long career Russell had the opportunity to interview numerous influential persons. In America he met Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. During the Franco-Prussian War he met Otto von Bismarck several times, who took to Russell quite readily. In their first meeting in Berlin they talked for over an hour. Two months later, in Rheims, in the street, they met again, and Bismarck invited Russell back to his quarters for another lengthy interview. At the end of the war, the Prussians awarded Russell the Iron Cross, describing him as "our charmant franc-tireur anglais". While he did not meet Napoleon III, Russell did observe him in parades and other ceremonies.

The eminent personage Russell came to know most closely, however, was the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), and they forged a lifelong friendship, Russsell becoming a "royal companion". He accompanied the Prince to the Near East (including a return trip to the Crimea), and later to India.

In 1895, aged 75, he was awarded a knighthood, apparently as much for his services to the British Army as for his journalism. (Apart from his pleas from the battlefield for better conditions for the troops, he had established the Army and Navy Gazette in 1860, and continued as its editor till 1903.)

When as an old man Russell received his CVO (Commander of the Royal Victorian Order) from Edward VII, he wrote in his diary,

When I hopped in the King said, "You must not trouble to kneel, Billy! Stoop."

He died in 1907.

To conclude this essay, I think you’ll agree that the cumulative effect of the following example of Russell's eloquence is just extraordinary. I have chosen neither a battle report nor a description of some other famous occasion. Instead why don’t we marvel at his account of his own wounding and ensuing illness during his journey in overwhelming heat across northern India, some of it rebel territory, after the recapture of Lucknow in 1858? His ordeal begins as he is attempting to rescue his horse from attack by other stallions.

April 29th . . . I ran over to preserve my beast from being eaten alive — but I was sleepy: my leg was stiff from the strain of the day before, and, just as I was getting up to the head of my horse, a powerful Arab . . . ran back to have a last go in at his enemy, and delivered a murderous fling, from which I could not escape, for my own horse was pressing hard against me. I saw the shoes flash in the moonlight. In an instant I was sent flying along the ground under my horse's belly. One heel had struck me just at the lower part of the stomach, but the steel scabbard of the sword I wore broke the force of the blow there, though the shoe cut out a small piece of skin; the other hoof caught me right in the hollow of the right thigh. Several men ran towards me . . .

May 2nd. In great agony last night; up at one this morning, and left Shahjahanpur camp at two a.m.! bound for Tilhour, twelve miles distant. In much pain all day; a large lump forming in the hollow of the thigh, from near the knee to an inch of the hip. The kick is now really serious. Twenty-five leeches were put on the calf of my leg as soon as we halted. Why on the calf? Bleed, and bear, and ask no questions.

May 3rd . . . In great pain all day. Twenty more leeches on my leg.

May 5th . . . In great pain from angry leech-bites and blisters, I had removed every particle of clothing, except my shirt, and lay panting in the dooly. Half an hour or so had passed away in a sort of dreamy, pea-soupy kind of existence. I had ceased to wonder why anything was not done ... I know not what my dreams were, but well I remember the waking.

There was a confused clamour of shrieks and shouting in my ear. My dooly was raised from the ground and then let fall violently. I heard my bearers shouting "Sowar! sowar!" I saw them flying with terror in their faces. All the camp-followers, in wild confusion, were rushing for the road. It was a veritable stampedo of men and animals. Elephants were trumpeting shrilly as they thundered over the fields, camels slung along at their utmost joggling stride, horse and tats, women, and children, were all pouring in a stream, which converged and tossed in heaps of white as it neared the road — an awful panic! And, heavens above! within a few hundred yards of us, sweeping on like the wind, rushed a great billow of white sowars, their sabres flashing in the sun, the roar of their voices, the thunder of their horses, filling and shaking the air. As they came on, camp-followers fell with cleft skulls and bleeding wounds upon the field; the left wing of the wild cavalry was coming straight for the tope in which we lay.

The eye takes in at a glance what tongue cannot tell or hand write in an hour. Here was, it appeared, an inglorious and miserable death swooping down on us in the heart of that yelling crowd. At that instant my faithful syce, with drops of sweat rolling down his black face, ran towards me, dragging my unwilling and plunging horse towards the litter, and shouting to me as if in the greatest affliction. I could scarcely move in the dooly. I don't know how I ever managed to do it, but by the help of poor Ramdeen I got into the saddle. It felt like a plate of red-hot iron; all the flesh of the blistered thigh rolled off in a quid on the flap; the leech-bites burst out afresh; the stirrup-irons seemed like blazing coals; death itself could not be more full of pain. I had nothing on but my shirt. Feet and legs naked — head uncovered — with Ramdeen holding on by one stirrup-leather, whilst, with wild cries, he urged on the horse, and struck him over the flanks with a long strip of thorn — I flew across the plain under that awful sun.

I was in a ruck of animals soon, and gave up all chances of life as a troop of sowars dashed in among them. Ramdeen gave a loud cry, with a look of terror over his shoulder, and leaving the stirrup-leather, disappeared. I followed the direction of his glance, and saw a black-bearded scoundrel, ahead of three sowars, who was coming right at me. I had neither sword nor pistol. Just at that moment, a poor wretch of a camel-driver, leading his beast by the nosestring, rushed right across me, and seeing the sowar so close, darted under his camel's belly. Quick as thought, the sowar reined his horse right round the other side of the camel, and as the man rose, I saw the flash of the tulwar falling on his head like a stroke of lightning. It cleft through both his hands, which he had crossed on his head, and with a feeble gurgle of "Ram! Ram!" the cameldriver fell close beside me with his skull split to the nose. I felt my time was come. My naked heels could make no impression on the panting horse. I saw, indeed, a cloud of dust and a body of men advancing from the road; but just at that moment a pain so keen shot through my head that my eyes flashed fire. My senses did not leave me; I knew quite well I was cut down, and put my hand up to my head, but there was no blood; for a moment a pleasant dream of home came across me; I thought I was in the hunting-field, that the heart of the pack was all around me; but I could not hold on my horse; my eyes swam, and I remember no more than that I had, as it were, a delicious plunge into a deep cool lake, in which I sank deeper and deeper, till the gurgling waters rushed into my lungs and stifled me.

On recovering my senses I found myself in a dooly by the roadside, but I thought what had passed was a dream. I had been for a long time insensible. I tried to speak, but my mouth was full of blood. Then I was seized with violent spasms in the lungs, from which for more than an hour I coughed up quantities of mucus and blood; my head felt like a ball of molten lead. It is only from others I gathered what happened this day, for my own recollections of the occurrences after the charge of the cavalry are more vague than those of a sick man's night visions . . . It appears that . . . a soldier who belonged to the ammunition guard, and who was running from the sowars, seeing a body lying in the sun all naked, except a bloody shirt, sent out a dooly when he got to the road for a "a dead officer who had been stript", and I was taken up and carried off to the cover of some trees.

The doctors came in at last . . . They saw me — withdrew, consulted in whispers. I can remember so well their figures as they stood at the door of the pall, thrown into dark shade by the blazing bivouac-fires! . . . Ere I went to sleep for the night I was anointed all over back and chest with strong tincture of iodine. I never knew till long afterwards that up to this moment one lung had ceased to act at all, and that a portion of the other was gorged from pulmonary apoplexy, brought on by the sunstroke or heat; and that in fact my two friends had no expectation of my being alive next morning. Such is my recollection and experience of the Battle of Bareilly.

May 6th. A night of great pain . . .

May 7th. The doctors tell me that had I not been so weakened by previous bleeding and dosing, the coup de soleil would have been as fatal to me as it was to many of our poor fellows on the 5th. I am now able to employ an amanuensis, but the leg is still very painful, and the swelling is now as hard and as large as an egg; so I shall remember the Rohilkhand campaign for the rest of my life, be it long or short.

May 25th. The march was resumed. On again we went for mile after mile over a sandy, dusty plain ... Suddenly there came out of the hot black night a fearful storm — not of rain or thunder, but of wind and dust, which burned like the ashes of a furnace. The column halted at once. Nor man nor beast could face the force of the blast, the burning breath of the simoom! The current was as a stream of lava, and it fell on my dooly so savagely that I tumbled out of it on the sand to leeward lest it should be blown away with me. The bearers threw themselves on the windward side and kept the litter down. I felt the hot dust gathering over me, my skin burned as though in fever . . .

In a quarter of an hour or so the strength of the wind abated. The column re-formed, and the march began once more . . .

I crawled back to my dooly into a bed of burning sand, and there I lay exhausted. For hours we marched on. Oh! what delight at last to wake up in the midst of a stream of bright clear water, to see beyond its banks another broader still. I had been borne over the Ramgunga in a sort of dreamy consciousness, and even the pangs of thirst could not awake me. But now I was in the midst of water. My dooly was at rest in the shallow stream like some small island, and the waters rolled over the sandy bed with a gurgling, pleasant song, away, under, and through the legs of my bed. And then came old Sukeeram, and taking up the grateful draughts in a gourd, held them to my parched lips. Then with the hollow of his hand he dashed the dimpling surface of the current on my head and face. I could fancy how the sun-smitten earth drinks in the first autumn showers. All around me, above and below, the native campfollowers, syces, bazaar-people, were rolling in the river, and puffing and blowing like so many porpoises We were in a branch of the Ganges, and beyond us, across a long low waste of sandbanks, rolled the main body of the Sacred River.

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