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British Military History Collections, 1801-1945

Probably the earliest known account of any historical event to be published in England was an undated news pamphletof around 1513 giving an eye-witness account of the battle of Flodden by 'Richard Faques'. It is no surprise that with the advent of the modern press, newspapers were quick to despatch their reporters to the far-flung corners of the globe.

'The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois'

'The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois'. The Sphere 27 November 1916. Copyright © The British Library Board

The very first 'war correspondent' was a barrister called Henry Crabb Robinson who reported on Napoleon's 1807 campaign along the Elbe for The Times. Robinson did not, however, visit the battlefields, and his reports took several weeks to reach London. The following year, Robinson also covered the British victory at Corunna, but his reports were largely inaccurate and compiled from accounts published in local newspapers. The first real correspondent to write his reports from the actual scene of the fighting was Charles Lewis Guneison of The Morning Post when he covered the Spanish civil war of 1835-1837.

The Illustrated London News

The Afghan War, The Illustrated London News 4 January 1879

But the father of the modern war correspondent was William Howard Russell of The Times, whose frank revelations of military mismanagement and incompetence during the Crimean War shocked Victorian England. It resulted in radical changes to the army's attitude towards the treatment of its men and an overhaul of its inadequate administrative and logistical system. The importance and influence of Russell's work was immense, and his graphic descriptions of a British army in the field and reports from the Alma, Balaclava, Inkerman, and the fall of Sebastopol were a sobering contrast to the romantic and jingoistic heroism of most 19th-century reporting - objective reporting that would do much to undermine both the Government and Lord Raglan, the British commander.

The Illustrated London News

Charge of Light Cavalry at Balaclava, The Illustrated London News 23 December 1854

The 'golden age of the war correspondent' and war reporting (1854-1914) had well and truly begun, and where Russell first trod, others were quick to follow.

After Russell, Archibald Forbes, of The Morning Advertiser and The Daily News, and George W. Steevens of The Pall Mall Gazette and The Daily Mail were probably the most famous correspondents of the second half of the 19th century. This was a period marked for the love of second-hand adventure and romance that would underscore the imperial frenzy that gripped the public's imagination.

The Illustrated London News, 7 June 1879

The Illustrated London News, 7 June 1879

But, by the 1870s technical developments had radically altered the nature of war reporting. In the age of the electric telegraph, the ability to write accurately and concisely had become more important than the composition of long battlefield descriptions or military knowledge. Henceforth, brief telegraphic reports and hasty descriptions would predominate in the mad scramble to get the news home first. Nevertheless, despite these considerations, Steevens made a name for himself as a journalist of the highest calibre. Indeed, his critical account of the Battle of Omdurman was an acknowledged masterpiece of war journalism, in which he broke away from the patriotic flag-waving style of many of his contemporaries, among whose ranks included the illustrious names of Empire: Winston Churchill of The Morning Post and Rudyard Kipling of The Daily Mail.

To complement the work of the correspondent, 'special artists' provided sketches and illustrations for publication in conjunction with the textual descriptions. From the 1850s, with the launch of a number of successful illustrated magazines and newspapers, the importance of the war artist grew as the public appetite for such work increased. Of the men who drew the Empire at war, many would gain fame, but probably the most famous of them all were William Simpson, Frank Vizetelly, Constantin Guys, and Melton Prior of The Illustrated London News, and Frederick Villiers of The Graphic. Between them, they could boast of having more campaign medals than any contemporary soldier. Although they accurately drew what they saw, hasty battlefield sketches and drawings were, more often than not, redrawn and revised by engravers to create a more dramatic yet palatable image for Victorian audiences - images that would thrill the nation with the depiction of individual British heroism amid collective defeat in exotic far-off locations. Nevertheless, the days of the artist were numbered as the growing importance and supremacy of photography gradually edged the special artist into redundancy.

The Metamorphoses of War

The Metamorphoses of War, The Sphere 6 May 1916

It was in the Crimea that the first steps towards creating a photographic record of military affairs were taken, when Roger Fenton experimented with the use of photography. Despite the limitations of the equipment and techniques available, which restricted photographs to posed portraits and static scenes, the results were, nevertheless, encouraging.

During the 1890s, a series of technical photographic advances held important implications for war reporting. The greater mobility afforded by a reduction in the size of the equipment used meant that the photographer could penetrate the battlefield itself, while the development of better lenses and a reduction in exposure times meant that action photographs could be taken for the first time. In short, these amounted to developments that would precipitate the new-style photojournalism of Horace Nicholls, and latterly Robert Capa, and a type of battlefield photography that would radically alter the publics' perception of warfare. Consequently, the Boer War became the first 'media war' with an intensity, accuracy, and immediacy never seen before. But despite the increasing use of photography, it would take until the First World War before this unfamiliar style of illustration became a permanent and increasingly dominant part of magazine and newspaper production.

The Zulu War

The Zulu War, The Pictorial World 3 May 1879

However, with the promise of adventure and a chance to see the world came the very real risks that all correspondents, artists, and photographers faced. Many lost their lives during the 'golden age', while many more had their own tales of disease ravaged armies, capture, torture, escape, and close encounters with death. Indeed, Winston Churchill, as both serving officer with the South African Light Horse and war correspondent with The Morning Post, enthralled the nation with his exploits during the Boer War. It is a sobering thought that seven out of the twenty correspondents despatched with the British Army to the Sudan failed to return.

Together, the correspondent, artist, and photographer forged the classic images and stereotypes of Britain's colonial era. Through the pages of an increasing number of illustrated Victorian and Edwardian magazines and newspapers the British public could thrill to the stoicism and steadfastness of the red-coated hero against the Dervishes, Zulu, Afghan tribesmen, or Boer farmers in the exotic far-flung corners of the Empire - enduring images that, once established, added to the cultural legacy of an Empire upon which the sun never set.

By 1914, the era of the roving correspondent and artist had been and gone, as administrative consolidation replaced imperial expansion, and attention switched to the war clouds that were gathering over mainland Europe. With the onset of mass industrialised warfare, the nature of war reporting drastically changed. Stifled by the heavy hand of censorship, overwhelmed by the sheer scale of modern warfare, and contained by military and political restrictions, the role that the modern press would play was radically different to the lassez-faire style of 19th-century reporting. Aerial bombing, conscription, naval attacks on coastal towns such as Scarborough, 'pals battalions', rationing, and unrestricted submarine warfare brought the realities of modern warfare closer to the civilian population than ever before. While at the front, 'Tommy Atkins' was no longer the red-jacketed or khaki-clad professional soldier of the pre-war era, but the local banker, office clerk, or postal worker.

Henceforth, the role of newspapers necessarily changed to reflect the needs of the population, the military and the government to fight a war on a truly global scale. Morale and propaganda played an increasingly important part as each year of war passed, while the demand for information relating to local regiments, battalions, individual soldiers and the war in general greatly increased as the territorials and Kitchener's volunteers went into the front line.

The importance of the press and the role it would adopt during the protracted, all-encompassing, nature of early 20th-century inter-state war was eloquently highlighted by Phillip Gibbs of The Daily Chronicle in 1914:

'We want to know what we have a right to know, and that is the life and progress of this war in which our men are engaged. We want to know more about their heroism, so that it shall be remembered by their people, and known by the world; about their agony, so that we may share it in our hearts; and about the way of their death, so that our grief may be softened by the thought of their courage. We will not stand for this anonymous war'.

From Waterloo to Normandy, newspapers have sought to chronicle the exploits of Great Britain through nearly a century and a half of military conflict. In doing so, what they achieved was the compilation of a unique, yet important, insight into the development of the nation itself; its beliefs, values, social characteristics, class divisions and distinctive regional differences. It remains as an important record that tells us much about the development of the society in which we live and its impact upon the rest of the world.

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