The Thin Red Streak: the Histories of The Times’ War Correspondents

Anne Jensen is the Archivist Assistant at News UK. This Thursday (20 February)  from 7pm-8pm, she will be giving a talk on the histories of The Times’ War Correspondents from the Crimean in 1854 to today. Tickets are still available. Here she gives a glimpse about what you can expect to hear about later on this week…

From the writing of a story in the field to its publication in the newspaper there is often a lot of drama. War correspondents have lied, smuggled, bribed and pleaded to get their dispatches to their editors by post, ship, runner, telegraph, phone, balloon, and pigeon.

The archive of The Times is full of documents telling these stories. The descriptive reports from the battlefields of the Crimean War (October 1853 – February 1856) written by William Howard Russell, took weeks to reach London. An example of this was his letter reporting the arrival of the allied forces outside Sebastapol.  The letter was dated 4 October 1854 and it was published in the paper on the 23 October, almost 3 weeks later.

Russell

Letter from William Howard Russell to John Thadeus Delane, Editor of The Times, dated 23 April 1855.

The Crimea War was the first war in which the telegraph was to figure. Russell’s access to the telegraph was dictated by the military authorities and was sporadic and inconsistent and he continued to rely upon a mixture of overland mails, boat and telegraph when the opportunity allowed.

Through the Siege of Khartoum (1883-1885) it continued being difficult to get the news sent home to London. Frank le Poer Power sent messages via steamer and telegraph from Khartoum until the middle of April 1884, but then the telegraph was cut and all communication with Khartoum was lost. However, Power continued to send dispatches by runner, none were received by The Times until one runner successfully reached Musawwa in September. Three messages, written in April and July, were handed to the provincial governor, Alexander Mason, who forwarded them to Charles Moberly Bell, The Times’ Cairo correspondent. They were published in The Times on September 29, 1884 and told of an increasingly desperate situation.

An interesting postscript to this story was added in 1890, when one of Power’s despatches, dated April 14, 1884, was received by The Times. It had been delivered to Sir Evelyn Baring in Cairo. It transpired that the messenger who had been sent from Khartoum carrying the telegram had arrived in Dongola, the day before it fell to the Mahdi. The messenger was captured and imprisoned by the enemy, but not before he had successfully hidden the telegram in the wall of a house outside the town. Following his release from prison several years later he returned to the house, retrieved the telegram and took it to Cairo. As Moberly Bell had by now returned to London to become the Manager of The Times, the messenger delivered the document to Baring who forwarded it to his old friend Bell.

Khartoum

Handwritten telegram sent to The Times by Power on Easter Monday [April 14] 1884. This message did not reach The Times until 1890. The runner carrying the telegram arrived in Berber the day before the Dervishes captured it. On the fall of Berber he hid the messages in a house outside the town and returned to Khartoum. When Khartoum fell the runner was imprisoned for some years and subsequently returned to Berber, removed the telegram from its hiding place and delivered it to Sir Evelyn Baring, the British Agent in Cairo, who forwarded it to The Times.

The talk will also cover stories from the Siege of Ladysmith (1899-1900), where a telegram was captured by the enemy, and the Russo-Japanese war (1904-05), where The Times spent a fortune on wireless communication.

During the First World War the stories sent back from correspondents at the front were subject to strict censorship by the War Office Press Bureau.

At the beginning of the war Arthur Moore was sent to work behind the British Expeditionary Force. He found himself among the scattered remnants of the British Fourth division after the retreat from Mons, and was alarmed at what he saw.

On the 29th August 1914 he wrote, from Amiens, a dispatch and sent it to London where it arrived on Saturday evening. Both the acting Editor George Sydney Freeman and Henry Wickham Steed, the Foreign Editor, thought it unlikely that the dispatch would pass the censor. They applied their own censorship before sending it to the Press Bureau, from whence it returned two hours later.

Dispatch from Arthur Moore from Amiens. Copyright The Times.

Covering letter from The Times submitting the Amiens dispatch for censorship. Censor, F.E. Smith’s reply can be read on the covering letter.

On the covering note F.E. Smith, the head of the Press Bureau, had annotated: “I am sorry to have censored this most able and interesting message so freely but the reasons are obvious. Forgive my clumsy journalistic suggestions but I beg you to use the parts of this article which I have passed to enforce the lesson – re-enforcements and re-enforcements at once.”

A number of deletions made by Freeman and Steed had been restored by Smith and a couple of extra phrases had been added to the last paragraph in Smith’s handwriting, strengthening the dispatch’s conclusion. The annotation on the covering note was taken as an order to publish the dispatch and it was published, as amended by Smith, the next morning.

The dispatch caused quite a stir as it was the first time a newspaper had reported the gravity of the situation so openly.

Next morning, The Times published a sharply worded column by Freeman, which explained that Moore’s offending dispatch had been published not merely with the consent but at the request of the head of the Press Bureau. With this reply from Printing House Square attacks on The Times ceased.

Expenses claim by

Transcript of Philby’s list of the personal kit he lost on 19 May 1940 while retreating rapidly from Amiens the day before the German army captured the town.

In the very early days of the Second World War we come across a well-known name: Harold Adrian Russell Philby, better known as Kim, was appointed correspondent of The Times with the British Expeditionary Force in France on 9 October 1939. The documents held at the archives of The Times tell the story of the rapid retreat from Amiens, the main base for the British war correspondents, on 19 May 1940, the day before the Germans captured the town.

Philby lost his personal kit, when the war correspondents were taken to Boulogne and shipped back across the Channel before that town was captured on the 23 May 1940.

The expense claim which Philby wrote detailed, amongst other things a “camelhair overcoat (two years of wear)” and a “Dunhill pipe and pouch (six years old but all the better for it)”. A copy memorandum to the accountant shows that Philby was only paid £70 of the £100 16s he estimated as the value of the items lost.

Anne Jensen, Archivist Assistant at News UK

The talk will conclude with a look at present day war correspondence and coverage of the Iraq war in 2003.

Please book your space online or simply show up at the Phoenix Centre (next door to the BPMA Search Room) for 7pm to attend.

Tickets are £3 per person, £2.50 for concessions (60+) and accompanied children under 12 free.

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