Florence Nightingale

War Correspondents in the Crimean


William Russell was born at Lilyvale, near Tallaght, in the county of Dublin, on the 28th of March 1821, being one of the Russells of Limerick, whose settlement in Ireland dates from the time of Richard II.

Raised by a Protestant father and Catholic mother in Ireland, Russell's family moved to Liverpool, England while he was still a child.

He entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1838. Three years later a relative, Mr R. W. Russell , who had been sent to Ireland by the Times, deputed him to report the Irish elections at Lomgford, and his success turned William Russell's attention to journalism.

Coming to London in 1842, Russell went to Cambridge, but left before taking a degree. In the following year he was sent by the Times to Ireland to report the O'Connell meetings, and became their special correspondent on Denmark in the war of 1849-50. He was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1851.

The Crimean War was carried on chiefly in the Crimea, on the part of Turkey aided by Britain and France, in which Sardinia eventually joined them, against the encroachments of Russia in the east and which was proclaimed against Russia on March 24, 1854.

Initially sent by John Delane, the editor of the Times, to Malta to cover English support for Russia in 1854, Russell despised the term "war correspondent" -- though his coverage of the conflict brought him international renown.

He was described by one of the soldiers on the frontlines thus, "a vulgar low Irishman, who 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."

This reputation however, led to Russell being blacklisted some circles, including British commander Lord Raglan, who advised his officers to refuse to speak with the reporter. On the outbreak of the war Russell went out as special correspondent, and, accompanying the light division to Gallipoli, proceeded with the first detachment to Varna. On the embarkation for the Crimea he was attached to the second division, and landed with it on the 14th of September.

On September 20, 1854, Russell covered the battle above the Alma River - writing his missive the following day in an account book seized from a Russian corpse. The story, written in the form of a letter to Delane, was supportive of the British troops though paid particular note to the battlefield surgeons' "humane barbarity," and the lack of ambulance care for wounded troops.

He later covered the Siege Of Sebastopol where he coined the contemporary phrase "thin red line" in referring to British troops, writing that "The Russians dash on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel..."

Russell was also at Balaclava on the morning of 25th of October 1854 -- forever remembered as The Charge of the Light Brigade.

The battle took place on the morning of October 25, 1854. The first news to reach the British public came in the Times on November 4, via a Foreign Office telegram, but would have remained just one military disaster among many, were it not for the vivid descriptive power of Russell's letter, dispatched on October 26. It took almost 20 days to reach London and was published in on November 14.

It was this description of the battle that inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson to compose his “Charge of the Light Brigade,” published in a collection called Maud And Other Poems in 1855.

Russell's reports of the plight of the soldiers and his criticism of the medical facilities undoubtedly contributed to Florence Nightingale's determination to help. However, it was a report of the conditions at the military hospital at Scutari by Russell's colleague, Thomas Chenery, that proved the catalyst. Chenery wrote from Constantinople on September 30, 1854, the report appearing in the paper on October 12.

In direct response, Sir Robert Peel, son of the former Prime Minister, sent the editor of the Times a cheque for £200 to start a fund for supplying comforts to the sick and wounded -- what was to become the Times Crimea Fund. Money poured in from all over Britain.

On the October 13, Chenery again commented upon the excellent nursing work being done for the French by The Sisters of Charity and on the 14th a correspondent to the paper was asking "Why have we no Sisters of Charity?."

It would be wrong to claim that the decision of Florence Nightingale to assemble her team of nurses was a direct result of Chenery's exposures (approaches had already been made by Lady Maria Forester to Nightingale offering to pay for a nursing expedition), but there is little doubt that Chenery's and Russell's reports contributed to it. By October 21 she had assembled her first staff of 38 nurses, of whom 18 were nuns.

In the meantime, the Times Crimea Fund had amassed almost £7,000 and John C. MacDonald, engineer and later manager of the Times, was chosen to act as its almoner.

Another Times colleague, Henry Reeve, was a friend of the Nightingale family and interceded with the editor, Delane, on behalf of the nurses. MacDonald was instructed to co-operate with Florence Nightingale and they sailed on the same ship from Marseilles.

On her arrival at Scutari, Nightingale embarked on radical changes to the medical arrangements. The public funds were hedged with bureaucratic procedures, and she had to meet costs partly from her own funds and partly through donations made by MacDonald from the Times fund. She and MacDonald evolved a close working relationship, and the fund became a powerful weapon against official incompetence. As a result the newspaper was subjected to a campaign of vilification from elements in the establishment, who either denied that things were as bad as reported or imputed base motives for the paper's involvement.

MacDonald filed a detailed report on the Sick and Wounded Fund and the condition of the hospitals at Scutari, which was published on February 3. This pre-empted the plan to wind up the fund. Instead a renewed appeal was made which brought in £8,000 in just four days.

MacDonald was subsequently replaced by William Stowe as almoner of the fund. Stowe, a literary critic on the newspaper, arrived in the Crimea in the spring of 1855.

Towards the end of May 1855 Russell left the Balaclava camp to accompany the expedition to Kertch, and Stowe came from Scutari to take his place. Shortly after his arrival Stowe contracted cholera. As a civilian he was refused admission to the military hospital, and died on June 22 age 30 years. The Times of July 6 published a eulogy of his work in the Crimea as well as an indignant protest at his treatment:

The event has led to a determination in which we hope to have the concurrence of our supporters. We shall not send out another friend, another valuable life, to a service in which, among other dangers, British inhumanity is to be encountered. Whoever goes out to administer our Fund must expect that, in the event of his sickening in the crown -- and almost everybody there does sicken at one time or another, till he is acclimated -- he will be excluded from the hospitals where he is sent to minister, and deprived of the medical aid which he has, perhaps, assisted with the most needful supplies.
Another Times journalist, Frederick Hardman finished the work undertaken by MacDonald and Stowe. By this time the hospitals were well equipped, and little remained beyond supplying reading matter for the convalescents and supervising the "Inkerman Café" which the Times had established, with the collaboration of Florence Nightingale, between the two main hospitals at Scutari.

Russell was at the fall of Sebastopol, on Sepember 8, 1855, represented the beginning of the end for the Russian forces. The Treaty of peace was signed in Paris, in March 1856.

Through its uncompromising reporting of the events in the Crimea the Times gained the respect of the public and achieved a standing never before reached by a newspaper. This did not come without cost. A significant section of the establishment accused the newspaper of providing information and encouragement to the enemy by publishing reports of the strength, situation and condition of the Army. Closer to home, the paper also lost one of its best journalists in William Stowe.

Russell finally left The Crimea in December 1855. However, if he had not set out to shock the conscience of the nation there would have been no Times Fund, no mission of Florence Nightingale, no reform of the military commissariat, no shake-up of the political establishment, and no reinforcements on the scale eventually sent. The resultant condition of the Army would have left it in no state to pursue the war to its successful conclusion.

His dispatches were hugely significant: for the first time the public could read about the reality of warfare. Shocked and outraged, the public's backlash from his reports led the Government to re-evaluate the treatment of troops and led to Florence Nightingale's involvement in revolutionising battlefield treatment

The popularity of the Times Crimea correspondence led to its republication in two volumes under the title of The War, 1855-56. In 1895 Russell published a personal retrospect entitled The Great War with Russia.

Russell's letters to the Times were mainly responsible for the enlightenment of the public at home as to the conduct of affairs at the scene of action, and his exposure of the mismanagement during the winter of 1854 did more than anything else to cause the downfall of Lord Aberdeen's ministry.

Russell was knighted in May 1895, and was the recipient of numerous war medals and various foreign orders. He married twice, first in 1846 to Mary Burrowes, who died in 1867, and secondly in 1884 the Countess A. Malvezzi. He died on the 11th of February 1907.

-- John Roberts


Among some common misunderstandings about the Crimean War and Miss Florence Nightingale is the one about William Howard Russell and the Times of London newspaper. It is said that Russell was the "first" war correspondent and that his story in the Times caused the public and private uproar over the lack of medical attention paid Crimean War troops. This is almost true but distorted; the truth is:

The telegraph had been invented but lines not laid. The British military laid a line from the Crimean across the Black Sea to the Eastern shore where the war started but that was all. There were sailing ships and steam ships. The fastest trip for news was a fortnight or two weeks.

The Times manager Mowbray Morris wrote to his correspondent in Constantinople, Thomas Chenery, how excited he was at the thought of assigning a writer to cover the British and French siege of the Fort of Sebastopol. The Times editor John Delane was given the job of finding reporters to go "to the front." Delane himself went to the Crimea and witnessed the British Armys’ problems in person. Some reports are by Delane himself. It is William Howard Russell who Delane assigned to accompany the British Army to Malta, then on to the Eastern shore of Russia and finally to the Crimea and Sebastopol.

But it is the stories of Thomas Chenery, the Times' Constantinople reporter, that awoke the British to the problems at the Barrack Hospital. In a dispatch published October 12, 1854, Chenery wrote:

...it is with feelings of surprise and anger that the public will learn that no sufficient medical preparations have been made for the proper care of the wounded. Not only are there not sufficient surgeons--that, it might be urged, was unavoidable--not only are there no dressers and nurses--that might be a defect of system for which no one is to blame--but what will be said when it is known that there is not even linen to make bandages for the wounded? The greatest commiseration prevails for the suffering of the unhappy inmates of Scutari, and every family is giving sheets and old garments to supply their want. But, why could not this clearly foreseen event have been supplied?...It rests with the Government to make enquiries into the conduct of those who must have so greatly neglected their duty...
The Times supported the article with an appeal for a charity to come to the rescue.

The next day, October 13, 1854, the Times ran another dispatch from Chenery which is often mistakenly credited to Russell:

The worn-out pensioners who were brought out as an ambulance corps are totally useless, and not only are surgeons not to be had, but there are no dressers or nurses to carry out the surgeon’s directions and to attend on the sick during intervals between his visits. Here the French are greatly our superiors. Their medical arrangements are extremely good, their surgeons more numerous, and they have also the help of the Sisters of Charity, who have accompanied the expedition in incredible numbers. These devoted women are excellent nurses.
These dispatches printed in the Times of London created the next historic chain of events.

The next day the Times carried a letter signed "A Sufferer by the Present War," who asked, "Why have we no sisters of charity?" and added, "There are numbers of able-bodied and tender-hearted English women who would joyfully and with alacrity go out to devote themselves to nursing the sick and wounded." Later the same day Miss Nightingale wrote to her friend Mrs. Sidney Herbert (Liz), wife of the Secretary for War, or at war according to who you read, whose job it was to supervise hospitals for the Army, saying "I do not mean to say I believe the Times accounts but I do believe that we may be of use to the wounded wretches," and setting out a scheme for a private nursing corps. Liz Herberts’ husband, Sidney Herbert, had written at the same time a letter to Miss Nightingale asking her to do such a thing...and the letters crossed in the mail!

-- Joe McDonald

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