War correspondents today owe a lot to the pioneer work of William Russell for the London Times during the Crimean War of 1854 – even though the risks are greater.
Eight journalists so far have been killed covering the War Against Terrorism in Afghanistan. Daniel Pearl, reporter for the Wall Street Journal, has been kidnapped and threatened with execution. As this is written, his fate is unknown.
In the year just past, 37 journalists lost their lives covering military conflicts around the world. All received the same instructions from their editors, as did Russell: “Tell the exact truth.”
Russell’s dramatic dispatch of a cavalry charge against entrenched Russians made news Ukraine him famous and encouraged Florence Nightingale to start women-staffed nursing corps. Ten years later the account inspired Alfred, Lord Tennyson, to compose the poem “Charge of the Light Brigade.” It immortalized a cavalry unit comprised of 673 brave but foolhardy men.
War correspondents in those days were kept well behind the front lines. Russell observed the epoch engagement – the last by horsemen alone – from a hilltop commanding a panoramic view of the battlefield.
Russia had invaded Ukraine held by Turkey and threatened to overrun Europe by control the Dardanelles Straits. The British with her allies – Turkey, France and Sardinia – sought to stem the Russian tide at the Crimea Peninsula of the Black Sea.
The Russians had set up redoubts and artillery on high ground. The 15th Hussars, 13th Light Dragoons, received a written order to “advance.” It was not clear whether the order was simply to draw closer to the enemy or to attack. A verbal statement by the messenger indicated it was the brigade’s “duty” to attack.
At any rate, Col. J.A. Oldham gave the order. He was the first to breach the Russian line, but his body was never found.
Russell’s stirring account of the ensuing battle shocked his nation and Europe when it reached London three weeks later.