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William Howard Russell, Special Correspondent to the Times

William Howard Russell, “Special Correspondent for the Times”, was the original war correspondent.

His unexpected career began in the Crimean War. As Russell later wrote, “When the year of grace 1854 opened on me, I had no more idea of being what is now–absurdly, I think, called a ‘War Correspondent’ than I had of being Lord Chancellor.” Already a well-known “color” writer for The Times of London, Russell accompanied the British expeditionary force on its trip to show support for Turkey against Russian aggression.  When the show of force unexpectedly developed into a full-scale war, Russell was in place, ready to report on the war first hand.

Russell was a correspondent in the most literal sense.  His reports were written in the form of letters to John Delane, editor of The Times. Sent to London by steamer, they took two to three weeks to arrive.  Sometimes five or six of his letters would appear on the same day.  According to his biographer, Alan Hankinson,  “it was like getting long letters, hastily but honestly set down, from a soldier son who was fair-minded and fearless, who had an insatiable appetite for information of all kinds and a lively no-nonsense way of putting it down on paper.”

Russell’s reporting was accurate, intelligent, and unrelenting.  For two years, he painted a picture of official incompetence by British generals, suffering among the troops, and the “steady courage” of the British soldier.   His descriptions of battle are realistic, detailed and clear, if a bit florid by modern standards.  Many of his most vivid phrases have attained the status of cliches at the hands of his successors.

Russell is generally hailed as the father of war journalism.  Russell described himself in less grandiose terms as “the miserable parent of a luckless tribe”.

Reporting live from Chicago…

 

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