Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Press, The Army, and The French

 AS I think most scholars of the "Great Russian War (1854-1856)" are aware, the press played a particulalry important role shaping the perception of that conflict and the mythology of it, especially the Siege of Sebastopol which in reality was a side-show compared to the Naval War. It was through the press that the Siege of Sebastopol has been remembered as the major and perhaps only theatre of operations, famous for the suffering of the British "tommy" compared to the French "piou piou".

Whilst it is undeniable that the British army did suffer during the Winter 1854-1855, they were no worse off than their French allies who lacked shelter other than the most rudmentary kind (dug outs, bivouacs or the Tentes d'Abri (the latter not consisdered suitable for anything but a summer campaign); food (the French commissariat was a bureaucratic nightmare) and hig rates of sickness (mostly from preventable diseases such as scurvey or typhus and also from the cold).

William Howard Russell, the "Special COrrespondant with the Army" for the Times Newspaper, however, was biased in his reporting: he admitted in a letter to his editor, John Delane, that he was "convinced" Lord Raglan  was incompetant as "Commander in Chief of British Troops East of Malta" from the start of his appointment. To Russell he was too old, too inexperienced and, above all for member of the upwardly mobile and increasingly vocal middle class, too Aristocratic Lawrence Godkin, the Unitarian reporter for the Daily News was an out-spoken Radical opposed to the Establishment and The Morning Chronicle was editted by a fellow Unitarian and Radical. Russell, like his contemporaries Charles Dickens or Thackery, was a member of the Administrative Reform Association which believed that the Government and the Country should be run by "Professional Persons" on the same line as big business.   The Aristocracy - from where the bulk of senior army officers were drawn - were seen as incompetant in such a responsible position, that they only offered appointments to other "gentelmen" and it was time that the aristocracy moved over in favour of the middle class. In the eyes of many of the politically vocal and powerful middle class, the aristocracy could do nothing right. To the middle class, the French army represented the middle class ideal of the "self made man": the French officer promoted from the ranks, an army which rewarded merit and had little or no favouritism based on class. The direct opposite of the perceived nature of the British army, a perception which for very many army officers was incorrect.

Lord Hardinge, the British Army Commander-in-Chief (1852-1856) was convinced that attacks by The Times on the staff and army officers was the only acceptable attack that could be made on the Establishment and aristocracy and that such attacks were not well founded. The attacks, however, were powerful and influential. The Duke of Newcastle and Sidney Herbertin their dealing with Lord Raglan - as the political animals they were - acted in direct response to discussions in the House of Commons and the Press. They were constantly accusing Raglan of charges made against him and his army made by the Press to which Raglan was forced to reply and rebuke. Raglan was fighting a rear-guard action, as it were, against the press and his political superiors.

Furthermore, Lord Hardinge in his correspondance with Genral Richard Airey (the QMG to Lord Raglan) notes that General Estcourt (the AG to Raglan) was not as efficient as might have been hoped in providing the weekly returns of men, ammunition, weaspons, equipment to be sent etc etc etc. This meant that Lord Hardinge and those at Horse Guards found themselves reliant on information of how the Army was getting on int the Crimea not through offiicial channels, but from the papers! The Duke of Newcastle and Sidney Herbert both admit that their information on the campaign came from the newspapers and their opinions were shaped by whay they had read in the paper. The lack of official communication about the state of the army in the Crimea meant that Horse Guards were totally unable to rebuke the claims made by The Times because they simply did not have the data with which to do so, and the data they did have was from The Times!

The Times, whilst it not only published the famous dispatches of Russell also published letters home from the front from officers and soliders in huge numbers. This served to give human face to the unfolding drama outside Sebastopol. Ulike Raglan's rather terse official dispatches, Russell's accounts provided colour, human interest and good story telling, which were more readily accepted than the rather dull official version. Russell's reports were pure journalism: a good read, exciting stories of valour and human suffering which served to mobilise the philanthropic middle class into action to bring succour to the suffering troops and clamour for Army Reform.  Of the letters home, interestingly The Times only ever published those letters written home which were overtly critical of Raglan and/or drew unfavourable comparisons with the French. Letters which questioned the perceived superiority of the French were rebuked in the leaders of The Times etc. Having read many of manuscript letters int he National Army Museum and compared the writing of many officers to that of Russell I have found that many officers unconsciously slip into Russell-esque prose and even reproduce entire sentances from Russell. Thus, many officers were interpreting what they saw, or what they thought they saw, through their own eyes and also the critical lens of W H Russell. That officers were including whole sentances lifted from Russell suggests that they were either copying him, or had in fact read Russell and his reporting and interpretation had sunk into their unconsciousness and was accepted as the true version of events. Not only this, but the Times and other 'papers such as the Daily News held back reporting of the official version of events, such as Raglan's Dispatches, until the reports from their own Special Correspondants had arrived in London and could be published, further reinforcing to the domestic reader the Russell version of events rather than the Raglan version and giving the false impression that Raglan was writing in reply to Russell et al. Raglan, quite simply, lost the media war.

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