“ . . . the extraordinary devotion and energy of the press, of which the country may well be proud, have created, under very great difficulty, what may be called a war literature, unexampled in ability and interest, putting before the public all the various astonishing events which have so rapidly succeeded each other in this tremendous struggle.”
— Lord, Granville, 1870.
“Those newly invented curses to armies — I mean newspaper correspondents.”
— Sir Garnet Wolseley.
“The life of the modern war correspondent cannot be described as being exactly a bed of roses. The glorious days of the profession, when William Russell and Archibald Forbes and their like flourished, have gone, never to return.”
— Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett
We are told that the profession of war correspondence is out of date. War has become as much a matter of business calculation as any industrial enterprise, and in the interest of efficiency the newspaper man has been eliminated. Daring and dash no longer win battles. Close range actions and cavalry charges have faded into the picturesque past. The application of scientific methods to what was once the splendid game of kings has stretched the little battle line of Waterloo to the one hundred and fifty miles of Mukden, and has relegated the commanding generals to some point far in the rear of the firing trenches, where, with a battery of telephones, a corps of telegraphers and a roll of charts, they receive reports and send orders, not by galloping aides, but by wire.
The contending armies thus pushed apart and the lines of battle thus extended, the artist and the correspondent find themselves confronted by insuperable obstacles which render impossible the duplication of the feats of men like Archibald Forbes and William Howard Russell. They cannot see a battle. Episodes and incidents may come under their observation — provided they are permitted to get within reach of the firing line. These experiences may furnish the materials for articles which editors will welcome as “good stuff,” if the press men are allowed to forward their copy. But the blue pencil relentlessly takes the thrill and throb out of their despatches. Wires do not sizzle and cables do not oscillate nowadays with the stories from the “ specials at the front.” Correspondents are kept in straight-jackets, “cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d,” hampered, limited, and circumscribed. And therefore, we are assured, the alluring profession of the war special no longer invites the newspaper man.
Yet all these things have been said before. In 1880 the then Lieutenant, now General, Francis Vinton Greene, U. S. A., the friend of Januarius Mac- Gahan, was writing of the drab colors of the military pageant which once had made so brave a show. “How very prosaic the modern battle can be with its long- range muskets,” he said. “How tame as a mere spectacle — how little action there is in it. Yet this is characteristic of nearly all battles now. Up to the last moment of the final advance, which is decisive of victory or defeat, but which seldom lasts half an hour, . . . the dramatic features of battle have become short-lived and infrequent.” In one of his books upon the Boer War, Winston Spencer Churchill exclaimed: “Alas! the days of newspaper enterprise in war are over. What can one do with a censor, a forty-eight-hour delay, and a fifty-word limit on the wire?” And Alexander Innes Shand, relating the situation after the Russo-Japanese War, declared: “The war correspondent is notably the victim of the cycles. He was, he is, and it seems likely that he may cease to be.”
I do not think that he will cease to be, and for reasons which will presently appear. His province will be more defined and his sphere of action will be more circumscribed. Times change and he must change with them. The policies of the newspapers and of the war offices will be determined by two fundamental considerations: the right of the public — which pays the bills, furnishes the soldiers and mourns the dead — to know how well, or ill, a war is planned and fought, and the right of the men entrusted with the command of armies and navies to impose such restraints and compel such concealments as the strategy of a campaign may require.
The war correspondent is a newspaper man assigned to cover a campaign. He goes into the field with the army, expecting to send his reports from that witching region known as “the front.” He is a special correspondent commissioned to collect intelligence and transmit it from the camp and the battle ground. A non- combatant, he mingles freely with men whose business it is to fight. He may be ten thousand miles from his home office, but he finds competition as keen as ever it is in Fleet Street or Newspaper Row. He is engagedin the most dramatic department of a profession whose infinite variety is equalled only by its fascination. If he becomes a professional rather than an occasional correspondent, wandering will be his business and adventure his daily fare. Mr. A. G. Hales is of the opinion that the newspaper man who is chosen as a war correspondent has won the Victoria Cross of journalism.
For the making of a first-rate war correspondent there are required all the qualifications of a capable reporter in any other branch of the profession, and others besides. Perhaps it is true that the regular hack work of an ordinary newspaper man is the best training for the scribe of war. The men who had reported fires and train wrecks in American cities proved themselves able to describe vigorously and clearly the campaign in Cuba. William Howard Russell had been doing a great variety of descriptive writing before he was sent to the Crimea. The prime requisites for a satisfactory war correspondent are those fundamental to success in any kind of newspaper service, the ability to see straight, to write vividly and accurately, and to get a story on the wire.
Occasionally a brilliant workman appears from nowhere, the happy possessor of an almost uncanny intuition of movements and purposes. Such a man svas Archibald Forbes. But Forbes, no less than the average special, had to have the physical capacity to inarch with the private soldier, to ride a hundred miles at a clip at top speed over rough country, to sleep in the open, to stand the heat of the desert and the cold )f the mountain height, to endure hunger and thirst and all the deprivations of a hard campaign. Every correspondent at times must keep going until his strength is utterly spent. He must have the tenacity which does not yield to exhaustion until his messages are written and on the way to his paper. When the soldier ceases fighting the correspondent’s work is only begun. He needs also to have a degree of familiarity with the affairs of the present and the history of the past which will secure him the respect of the officers with whom he may associate. Along with the courage of the scout he should possess the suavity and tact of the diplomat, for he will have to get along with men of all types, and occasionally, indeed, his own influence may lap over into the field of international diplomacy. British correspondents, having covered many wars, small and great, since 1870, usually are acquainted with several languages, and often have acquired a knowledge of the technicalities of military science.
Students of the history of journalism pronounce the influence of the wars in the Low Countries upon the development of English periodicals to have been considerable. A precedent for the work of the war correspondent may be found in the “Swedish Intelligence” which contains entertaining reports about the armies of Gustavus Adolphus. But the first observers to whom it is possible to apply the term are Henry Crabbe Robinson and Charles Lewis Gruneisen, and only the latter was an actual spectator of the events he described. Usually William Howard Russell is called the inventor of war correspondence, and the first professional war correspondent he certainly was. But what is said in the biography of the famous editor of The Times, John Thaddeus Delane, that when Russell was sent to the Crimea the “idea of having a special correspondent with the army, moving with the troops and describing in detail every action and incident of the camp, was an entirely new feature in journalism,” is not quite true, for precisely that thing was done eight years previously in the war between the United States and Mexico. In America the fact has been almost forgotten and in England it never perhaps has been known, but it is true that in 1846 and 1847 the newspapers of New Orleans were manifesting a degree of enterprise in reporting the campaigns of Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott which would be entirely worthy of the most celebrated dailies of today.
Even a century ago the Duke of "Wellington was registering protests against such a mild type of war reporting as that done by Crabbe Robinson in the Peninsula. In 1809 he declared that “ in some instances the English newspapers have accurately stated not only the regiments occupying a position, but the number of men fit for duty of which each regiment was composed; and this intelligence must have reached the enemy at the same time as it did me, at a moment at which it was most important that he should not receive it. ” Verily that protest has a most modern sound. Mr. Atkins suggests in his biography of Russell that it may have been because of the repeated warnings of the English commander that there was no correspondent in the later Peninsular campaigns and none at Waterloo. That final conflict of the Napoleonic Wars had a little more than a column in the Morning Chronicle, and three-fourths of that space was devoted to the list of the killed and wounded.
Henry Crabbe Robinson really was more of a foreign special than a war correspondent. Between the months of March and August, 1807, he sent letters “from the Banks of the Elbe” to The Times. He took up his residence at Altona, where arrangements were made with a German editor to place at his disposal not only all public documents, but a quantity of information which the limits imposed upon the German press prevented the editor himself from using, a fact which suggests interesting inquiries as to the censorship of a century ago. A very comfortable and pleasurable time he had at Altona, mingling freely in the social life of the town, and sending duly to his paper accounts of the hopes and fears and rumors which made the gossip of the courts of Europe. Napoleon had won Jena and advanced into Poland. It was a time of grave anxiety in every capital. The battle of Friedland was fought on June 14, but the correspondent did not have the news until June 20.
The next year Robinson went out again for The Times, and from August, 1808, to the first of the following February he was dating his letters “from the Shores of the Bay of Biscay.” On July 19, immediately after the outbreak of the Spanish Revolution, he started from London with instructions to collect news and forward it by every vessel that left the port of Corunna where he landed on the last day of the month. From a local editor he secured the papers published in the Spanish capital, and the time between sailings was devoted to the translation of public documents and the writing of comments upon them, and to social intercourse with the “grand ladies and noblemen” who were numerous in the city. It is altogether likely that he did not see a shot fired in the whole campaign unless at a great distance. The battle of Corunna was fought and the death of Sir John Moore occurred on January 16, 1809, but he knew nothing of the fighting until he went to dine and found the great room, usually full of gay life, deserted and not a red coat in sight. A waiter said to him; “Have you not heard, sir? The French are come; they are fighting.” The correspondent walked a mile or more out of town and remained until dark, when he went aboard a ship in the harbor. He heard the cannonading which seemed to “ come from the hills about three miles from Corunna,” and he saw the wounded and the French prisoners brought into the city. Yet, although the vessel remained for two days, he seems not to have secured any details of the battle nor even to have heard of the death of the English commander.
The next war special was Mr. Gruneisen, who, in March, 1837, was sent by the Morning Post (whose foreign department he had managed) to observe the fighting in Spain. He made his start with all the speed of a modern, for within two hours he received his first notice, took his instructions, obtained his passport, and boarded the night mail for Dover. Having reported upon conditions at San Sebastian, he accompanied the British Legion and for some time was attached to the headquarters of Don Carlos. Although he is better remembered as a musical critic, Gruneisen proved himself a good journalist. He did not spare himself in his efforts to see the incidents of which he wrote, and he was present at several small actions and at the battle of Villar de los Navarros. After one victory the soldiers, contrary to the orders of Don Carlos, were about to massacre a number of prisoners, when the correspondent, having tried several expedients in vain, at last managed to save their lives by revealing himself to the commander as a Freemason. He was with the army in the advance upon Madrid, and in the retreat which followed he endured severe hardships and several times was in danger of death.
In October was fought the battle of Retuerta, after which he determined to quit Spain, but instead he fell into the hands of the Christines. For a time he was in peril of execution as a Carlist, and once he was actually led out to be shot. He trusted to his neutral position for deliverance, and made no use in his own behalf of the appeal which had saved the Carlist prisoners. After a period of imprisonment at Pamplona and much suffering, the influence of Lord Palmerston and of Count Mole, then the French Premier, effected his release. Gruneisen returned to England in January, 1838. Later he served as the Paris correspondent of the Morning Post, and organized a carrier pigeon service between the French city and London, which was regarded as a remarkable stroke of energy. In this connection it should be noted that in the Carlist struggle The Times received letters from the noted C. F. Hen- ningsen, who fought in Spain as a soldier of fortune, and was also made prisoner by the Christinos. He was liberated at the same time as Gruneisen and upon the same condition, that he stay out of Spain during the continuance of the war.
But the custom of sending special correspondents to report campaigns dates in America only from the time of the Mexican War and in Europe from the campaign in the Crimea. When General Scott entered the City of Mexico in 1847 there were only a few hundred miles of telegraph in the United States, and in the whole Crimean War Russell sent but one telegram, a few words announcing the fall of Sebastopol. Not until November, 1851, was direct telegraphic communication established between London and Paris, and at about that time Algernon Borthwick, later known as Lord Glenesk and then the Paris representative of the Morning Post, wrote his father that the use of the wire “cleaned out his pockets sadly.” He went on to ask for £20, as therewas “a prospect of warm work” and he would “have to keep the electric fluid constantly flowing.” Truly that was the day of small things.
Expense accounts have mounted very fast since then. The cable tolls of The Times for despatches from Egypt in 1882 and 1883 when C. F. Moberly Bell was its correspondent footed up more than £18,000 for fourteen months. The cost of cabling Mr. Bell’s account of the bombardment of Alexandria was £800. For ten columns of news from Uganda a few years later the paper paid £2200. Among the large sums paid by American papers probably the earliest for the cabling of important news were the $7000 in gold by the New York Herald for the transmission of the whole of the speech of the King of Prussia after the battle of Sadowa in 1866, and the $5000 paid in 1870 by the New York Tribune for its account of the battle of Gravelotte. These amounts have many times been exceeded in the last score of years. At the time of Russell’s departure for the East newspaper circulations also were small as compared with today’s figures. The Times, in 1852, had a circulation of about 40,000. After about twenty years Shirley Brooks was saying to Sir John Robinson: “You and Bismarck are the only persons who have gained in this war,” referring to the enormous increases in the circulation of the Daily News which were the reward of its exertions in the Franco-Prussian War. In one week the paper is supposed to have jumped from a circulation of 50,000 to three times that number of copies.
The “war extra” is one of the most common tokens of present-day newspaper enterprise, but one has only to go a little way into the past to see how great is the contrast between the conditions in Fleet Street and Newspaper Row a half-century ago and today. To find the very first battle extra, however, the search must be extended back to 1759, when there was published “by authority” an issue of the London Gazette “Extraordinary” at the Whitehall Palace, telling of the capture of Quebec by General Wolfe. But consider how the news of the battle of the Alma was given to the city of London. The battle was fought on Wednesday, September 20, 1854. On the afternoon of Saturday, September 30, the publisher of the Gazette was in his office in St. Martin’s Lane when he received a message summoning him to the Secretary of War in Downing Street. He hurried to the War Office and found the Secretary greatly excited over the “glorious news” and much concerned as to how the people were to get the news on that Saturday evening as there were no papers. The publisher suggested that a special Gazette be printed and copies sent to the theatres to be read from the stage. It was done and a sudden stop came to most of the performances.
The story of the battle had been carried to Constantinople and the British Ambassador there had written a telegram which had been sent away by messenger on Saturday, the twenty-third. The nearest place where there was a wire available was Belgrade, and the courier had ridden over the Balkans and through Servia taking a week for the journey. The special Gazette’s report contained but a few lines and there were inaccuracies in these. On the Sunday there was a supplement issued with a brief telegram from Lord Raglan and then there was a wait of many days before the long lists of three thousand killed and wounded were received and printed.
The year 1870, when France and Germany were fighting the war out of which issued United Germany and the Third French Republic, was the transition period in the history of war correspondence. Up to that time the specials won their reputations by the graphic qualities of their descriptive articles. As Forbes says: “They had no telegraph wire to be at once their boon and their curse; for them, in the transmission of their work, there was seldom any other expedient than the ordinary post from the camp or the base; or, at the best, a special express messenger.” In the American Civil War the telegraph was used to a vast extent. Yet at the outbreak of the campaign of 1870, European journals had no notion of substituting the instantaneous wire for the laggard mail. They thought of the economies of the slower vehicle and relied upon Reuter’s Agency for their foreign news. Before the war was more than begun astounding feats were being achieved and the whole art of war reporting was being revolutionized. The revolution would not have been possible had there not been able and ingenious men in the field, and of these the most remarkable was Archibald Forbes. Yet it is a fact which is not generally understood that the celebrated special of the Daily News did not precipitate the change. The idea of substituting the wire for the mail seems to have been carried to England by George W. Smalley of the New York Tribune. But he was unwilling to trust the wire under some circumstances, and, as American correspondents had carried tidings from the battle fields of Virginia to Washington and New York City, so he directed his men to come with their copy from France to London. The story is related at length in Smalley’s “Memories” with which should be compared the account in “Fifty Years in Fleet Street,” by Sir John Robinson of the Daily News.
Mr. Smalley, who had made himself famous as a special in the American war, hurried to Europe in 1866 when the news came of the opening of hostilities between Prussia and Austria. By the time he reached Queenstown the war was over. He went on to Berlin, however, where he did what then was regarded as a startling thing. There was a break in the negotiations for peace and the homeward march of the victors of Sadowa was halted. The American special sent a cable despatch of about one hundred words to the Tribune and paid $500 in tolls, which was an unheard-of extravagance.
Upon his next trip across the ocean, Mr. Smalley went “as the exponent of a new theory of American journalism in Europe, a theory based on the belief that the cable had altered all the conditions of international newsgathering and that a new system had to be created.” The outcome of the new system was a series of scores for the Tribune in the early months of the great war which all the world was watching with eager interest, and these scores were commonly spoken of in London as due to the application of “American methods ” to the European situation. At the beginning Mr. Smalley made an alliance with the Daily News; the messages from the Tribune’s correspondents were to be given also to the Daily News and vice versa. London, a little later, was confused by the arrangement, and the confusion became the greater because one of the specials for the New York paper had also an arrangement with the Pall Mall Gazette. Smalley’s plan was to select a few of the most desirable men and to send them out with directions which he himself has described.
“The instructions were very simple, but I believe at that time were novel in England,” he says. “Each was to find his way to the front, or wherever a battle was most likely to be fought. He was to telegraph to London as fully as possible all accounts of preliminary engagements. If he had the good luck to witness an important battle he was not to telegraph, but unless for some very peremptory reason he was to start at once for London, writing accounts by the way or after his arrival. If he could telegraph a summary first so much the better. But there must be no delay. The essential thing was to arrive in London at the earliest moment. He was to provide beforehand for a substitute or more than one who would take up his work while he was absent. Only when in London was a correspondent master of the situation. There was never much chance of sending a full story from the battle field, or from some near town, nor from any capital, not even a neutral capital.”
By faithful adherence to these instructions, what newspaper men exult over as “splendid scoops” were achieved by a Mr. Hands, Holt White, M. Mejanel and Gustave Muller. The story of the first exploit was thus told by Archibald Forbes:
“At Saarbrlick, on the French frontier, . . there was an immediate concentration of momentary interest scarcely surpassed later anywhere else; yet to no one of the correspondents gathered there, whether veteran or recruit, had come the inspiration of telegraphing letters in full. . . The world’s history has no record of more desperate fighting than that which raged the livelong summer day on the platform of Mars-la-Tour. The accounts of that bloody combat went to England per field-post and mail-train; yet the Saarbriiek telegraph office, from which the embargo had been removed, was within a six-hour’s ride of the field.
“The battle of Gravelotte did get itself described, after a fashion, over the wires; but it was no Englishman who accomplished the pioneer achievement. The credit thereof accrues to an alert American journalist named Hands, who was one of the representatives of the New York Tribune. Whether, when the long strife was dying away in the darkness, the spirit suddenly moved this quiet little man, or whether he had prearranged the undertaking, I do not know; nor do I know whether he carried or whether he sent his message to the Saarbrtick telegraph office. But this is certain, that it got there in time to be printed in New York on the day but one after the battle. ... It was, indeed, no great achievement intrinsically, looked back on now in the light of later developments; yet Hand’s half-column telegram has the right to stand monumentally as the first attempt in the Old World to describe a battle over the telegraph wires.”
The detailed story of Gravelotte. was the work of Moncure D. Conway, who made a thrilling trip to London, riding for hours stretched flat on the top of a freight car. He had served for some time as pastor of a Unitarian Church in Washington, when he decided to go to England and try to correct the mistaken impressions there prevailing as to the justice of the Federal cause in the controversy with the Southern States. At the beginning of the war between France and Germany the New York World cabled for his services as a correspondent. With a well-known American newspaper man, Murat Halstead, he watched the battle of Gravelotte and noted also the demeanor of King William, Moltke, Bismarck, and General “Phil” Sheridan, who was observing the campaign as the guest of the Germans. The morning after the battle Conway and Halstead went over the field. Having slid down a steep bank to drink from a spring, the clergyman- correspondent found it difficult to crawl back again. The handle of a cane was reached down to him and he scrambled up to find that his assistant was no other than Archibald Forbes. The three reporters walked together to Gravelotte, where they had a long talk about the battle with Sheridan.
Now Conway was off for London. He started afoot for a French town twelve miles away, getting a lift over a portion of the distance in the cart of a peasant. As he neared the town he found the road clogged with ambulances, and past midnight he came to a large square in which the surgeons had established an open- air hospital. At Remilly also he found ghastly crowds, and as he fared on to Saarbriick the difficulties of travel increased. Here was the railway, but the only train was packed with hurt men, and his offer to serve as a nurse for his transportation was refused. As the cars moved out of the station, Conway climbed to the top of one of them. An official shouted a warning: “The bridges are low; your head will be knocked off.” But he found that the front edge of the car roof had been flattened, and there was little trouble lying on his back to escape the bridges so long as the daylight lasted. He spent ten hours on the car roof, and six of the ten were hours of thick darkness and chilling mist. For most of that period he was stretched flat, every nerve tense and every faculty alert, gripping the edge of the roof with his hands. On the beautiful Sunday morning which followed, Conway took the military train for Treves. Progress was slow, for wounded and dying soldiers were distributed at stations along the line. At every stop, before the train paused, women would begin to shriek for tidings of their friends. Years after, Conway wrote: “At times I was sick and faint. The earth yawned into one vast grave, the blue sky was a pall, the sun had turned to blood!” From Treves to Luxembourg the journey was made by voiture, for the railway bridges were burned. He hurried on to Brussels, caught the night boat at Ostend, and on Monday morning he was in London.
Not a paper contained any news of the great battle. Conway’s first duty was to cable a despatch to the New York World. He then went to the offices of the Daily News where Robinson captured him as the most valuable man in the world at that particular moment. The American was not permitted to leave the office until he had written the long description of Gravelotte which was telegraphed all over Europe and translated into all the languages of the Continent, making a tremendous sensation. For the New York Tribune Smalley also acquired it. In spite of the alliance with the London daily there were circumstances which prevented Robinson’s handing the article over to Smalley, whereupon the latter purchased it at a good round figure from the writer. Although not of much military value, the picturesque story remains to this day one of the daring feats of journalism. But Moncure Conway ended his career as a war correspondent then and there, and for weeks his dreams were haunted by the scenes he had witnessed.
Thursday, September 1, 1870, was the date of the battle of Sedan. On the afternoon of the Saturday following, one of the Smalley specials walked into his offices in Pall Mall with the story of the fighting, as seen from the German side. On Monday afternoon in came the correspondent who had followed the battle with the French. The first to arrive was Holt White, an Englishman; the second was M. Mejanel, whose father was French and mother English. When the former arrived, London had known for about six hours barely the fact that there had been a catastrophe at Sedan. Robinson of the Daily News and Smalley of the Tribune had been in conference over the situation, and at noon the latter had received a wire from White saying he was due in London that afternoon.
Both Archibald Forbes and Smalley have put on record their admiration of Holt White as a “man who at one supreme moment accomplished one of the most brilliant exploits” of journalism. He was in the saddle from four in the morning until the end of the battle. He was standing near “Phil” Sheridan when the letter of surrender was handed by the French General Reille to the Prussian King, and the napkin that had served the messenger as a flag of truce was given the correspondent as a souvenir. “And then,” to quote the language of Forbes, “with dauntless courage he walked right across the battle field, through the still glowing embers of the battle.” He was starting to London. He had to pass the lines of three armies, the Prussians who refused him a permit, the French outposts at the north of Sedan, and the Belgians who were making a pretence at least of guarding their frontier and preserving the neutrality of their territory. For miles White was riding with his life in his hand. He himself was never able to explain how he got through. Reaching the nearest railway station he took a train for Brussels where he arrived early on the morning of Friday. But the issue of the battle was unknown there. No despatch would be accepted from him. The operators scouted his story. He was crazy or he was trying to influence the prices of stocks. And anything for London or elsewhere would have to be submitted to the censor, and everywhere the censorship is a heartbreaking thing to the reporter. White went on by train to Calais, missed one boat, took the next, missed the connecting train from Dover to London, chartered a special, and was in the English capital on Saturday afternoon. What followed must be told in Smalley’s own terms.
“Seldom have I been so glad to see a man’s face as to see his, but there was hardly so much as a greeting between us. ‘Is your despatch ready?’ ‘Not a word written.’ ‘Will you sit down at once and begin?’ ‘I cannot. I’m dead tired. I’ve had no food since daybreak. I must eat and sleep.’ He looked it, a mere wreck of a correspondent, haggard, dirty, ragged, incapable of the effort which nevertheless had to be made. That was no time to consider anybody’s feelings. A continent was waiting for the news locked up in that man’s brain, and somehow or other the lock must be forced, the news told. Incidentally it was such an opportunity for the Tribune as seldom has come to any paper. ‘You shall have something to eat, but sleep you shall not till you have done your dispatch. That must be in New York tomorrow morning.’ We went over to a Pall Mall restaurant, and back in the Tribune office just after six commenced work.”
Down they sat opposite each other. Said White: “I am to condense as much as possible, I suppose?” Smalley replied: “No. You will please write fully.” “But— it is going by cable.” “Yes.” “And it will be several columns long.” “The longer the better.” “I still don’t quite understand.” “Then please put the cable out of your mind. Write exactly as if you were writing for a London paper and the printer’s devil waiting.” Thus Smalley relates the conversation, as indicating how strange was the idea of wiring, much less cabling, even the story of one of the most momentous battles of the century.
Holt White wrote a terribly bad hand. Smalley copied the article sheet by sheet, and carried these legible pages to the cable office, taking no chances. Neither knew for a certainty that no other person had come through. White had recognized no rival on the way and he was sure none had traveled on his special, but it was two days since Sedan had beenfought, and the one thing they could be sure of was that their single duty must be to get the story on the cable. White wrote on with grim determination. Would he take a brief rest before finishing? No; if he stopped he would fall asleep, and if he once slept he would not wake. After two on Sunday morning the last lines were scrawled with fingers almost benumbed.
Monday morning the English papers were nearly a blank as to news from Sedan. Holt White’s narrative did not appear in the Daily News because he had an arrangement with the Pall Mall Gazette, an afternoon paper, for which he prepared a shorter account of the battle. On Sunday morning across the ocean the Tribune printed “a clear, coherent, vivid battle story,” and it was the only report to appear either in New York or in London. The London morning papers first had full accounts of the battle on Tuesday. The situation caused a vast amount of comment and mystification.
While Smalley was still almost shouting for joy, on Monday afternoon in walked Mejanel. “An angel from heaven would have been less welcome,” says Smalley. The correspondent had seen the battle from the French side. He had taken his chances of being shot in order to get away with the news. He was a prisoner, when once the French surrendered, and he was never able to remember if he was released or if he escaped. If the latter he might have been shot by German sentries or arrested and brought before a court martial. He had been sorely tried getting on to London, and had had no chance to write. He was staggering with fatigue but his nerves were steady. At once he sat down at that small table to write. His memory was accurate. He wrote a good English style. His was a picture of the horrors within the French lines and the town of Sedan. Smalley again copied sheet by sheet the despatch, and at midnight, with four columns completed, Mejanel ended his toil. On Tuesday morning that despatch was printed in New York, making ten columns in all of exclusive matter on Sedan.
The final exploit of the series which started the making over of the whole method of war reporting was that of Gustav Muller, whose story of the surrender of Metz was published simultaneously in the Daily News and the New York Tribune on October 30, 1870, which was the second day after the capitulation. It was a remarkable account, including a visit to the surrendered city, which “startled all England,” to use the language of Archibald Forbes. In London The Times the next morning quoted the narrative in full with a prefatory statement “congratulating our contemporary on the energy and enterprise of its correspondent.” That correspondent was long supposed to be Forbes, but the actual writer was a German- American whom Smalley had engaged for the Tribune. He saw the dejected troops of Bazaine march out of ' Metz; he entered the city with the Germans and saw the confusion which held sway there for a time; and then he rode north along the Moselle valley to the frontier of Luxembourg, in peril all the way, and managed to get through to London. Forbes, who repudiated the credit wrongly assigned him, supposed the story went to London by wire from a Luxembourg hamlet, but Smalley states explicitly that Muller did just what White and Mejanel had done before him. And Forbes, having penetrated into Metz and spent the night writing a letter, which he sent off by post, was “turned physically sick” by the arrival of a copy of the Daily News with Muller’s story.
Thus it was that Europe and the world learned that in modern war correspondence, as in every department of newspaper work, the race is to the swift and the battle to the strong. Smalley states the case thus: “Putting the question of cost aside, it does not matter how a piece of news is transmitted, whether by rail, steamship or wire. What matters is that it shall get there. Today this is a truism; in 1870 it was a paradox.” Forbes was quick to seize upon the new idea. From Robinson came instructions to send complete stories by telegraph. From that time on Forbes was very seldom beaten. He became “the swift, alert man of action,” to use his own phrase, “an organizer of means for expediting news.”
The improvements in the systems of collecting and transmitting news not only changed the old order but induced also a vastly greater demand for information of every kind. The war correspondent was almost a necessary consequence of the expectations to which the advances of science gave rise. But as the correspondents multiplied in numbers, and the competition became ever more keen, army commanders began to encompass them with restrictions. Regulations were framed to meet the dangers of a freedom which might easily degenerate into an irresponsible license. The censorship was mild in the war of 1870. Scores of correspondents roamed and scribbled almost without restraint in Bulgaria in 1877. News men were tolerated, if not welcomed, by officers in the field. But the press men have been hampered more and more in each successive campaign, until from the Russo-Japanese War many correspondents returned home in disgust, and in the late war in the Balkans the men who followed the Bulgars found the regulations, says Mr. Philip Gibbs, “appalling in their severity.”
The duties of the censors are opposed in most particulars to the duties of the correspondents, so that, unless, upon the one hand, great discretion is shown, and, upon the other, great tact, the relations between the two parties become strained. At an enormous expense the papers equip their specials and maintain them in the field. These bills the newspapers would not pay, except that no war of any magnitude can be fought these days and the whole world not be concerned about it. Meagre official reports will not satisfy the demand for information. The public want, and ought to have, the details, and from a presumably impartial source. The newspapers that would survive must supply the demand, and the rewards of their endeavors come partly in increased circulation and largely in prestige.
Directly upon the beginning of hostilities the censors begin work. Whatever the conditions, theirs is no small task. With gratitude the special correspondents in Cuba in 1898 bore testimony to their cordial relations with several of the censors there. On the other hand, there are not wanting able observers who assert that the military press censorship in the Philippines was “maintained for the sole purpose of protecting the administration and army from popular criticism, or for political purposes only.” The news men were not permitted to use the word “ambushed” in a despatch, we are told, because it would imply negligence on the part of the military authorities.
In the Boer War, before the arrival of Lord Roberts in South Africa, the commanding general in each of the four zones of action had the option of accepting or rejecting correspondents, and staff officers, with little notion of the duties of the position, were appointed censors. There was much confusion in consequence. Julian Ralph, an American, wrote that one censor amused himself by taking the despatches of a young man, who was doing his best to enter upon an honorable career as a correspondent, and throwing them into the wastebasket for ten days without telling the special of their fate. “It pleased him to insult me,” he continues, “by telling me that the only message I could send to England must be the description of a sandstorm.” Nor was any attention shown to the order in which correspondents brought in their despatches. The first to submit his copy might have supposed that his energy was to have its natural reward. But often enough the last to file a message would be the first to get the signature, his manuscript being at the top of the stack. With the coming of Lord Roberts the unhappy lot of the specials was abated. Freedom of movement was granted a large number of men. Their long letters were sent forward uncensored, being stamped and sealed at the censor’s office to insure their final delivery without examination. The press cables, however, were limited to events which had already occurred and were subjected to censorship. But it was an intelligent censorship. The office was entrusted to Lord Stanley, who proved himself a considerate and courteous supervisor, and his relations with the news men were always agreeable. There is a political side to the story in this war also, in the judgment of some well-informed men, who declare that there was no military necessity for the press censorship.
For many months after the beginning of the war between Russia and Japan a small army of correspondents were left stranded high and dry in Tokio. The government made sure that they cabled nothing and saw nothing. A special for The Times telegraphed that General Fukushima of the General Staff informed the foreign press men that a force had begun to land on the Liautung Peninsula. They wished to know where and in what numbers the landing had been effected. The General merely smiled. They asked again: “In the East, West, North or South?” The reply was: “Out of the skies from heaven.” Undoubtedly the Japanese were surprised and embarassed by the great number of press men who flocked to the war. But Bennet Burleigh, in an eloquent defense of his profession, said that the Japanese, as “keen observers of the signs of the times,” realized that they had made a mistake in their treatment of the correspondents, as was indicated by a belated change of policy. In the Balkan War the severity of the press restrictions varied according to the army to which a correspondent was accredited. The Turkish censorship was incapable, facilities for forwarding despatches were promised and the promises were not kept, and every effort was made to lead the specials away from the news. The Bulgarian authorities forbade the reporters to give the names of generals or the disposition of troops, the names or numbers of the killed and wounded, the success or failure of the army, the condition of the soldiers’ health, or even the state of the weather.
The object of the embargo upon publicity is declared to be to prevent military information from becoming known to the enemy. The justification of the censorship is commonly illustrated by the citation of cases, some of which, at least, will not bear examination. It long was asserted that Russell’s Crimean letters helped the Russians. Years after that war Russell wrote Gortchakoff and asked his opinion, receiving in reply a statement that the papers had been regularly sent him from Warsaw by a cousin, but that he had never learned anything from them which he had not known beforehand. And often the tale has been related that at the critical time in the opening of the Franco- Prussian War, Marshal von Moltke was most anxious to know the exact whereabouts of the army of Marshal MacMahon, that he was in doubt for several days, that at last a paragraph, with a Paris date line, in a London newspaper, told him that the French were concentrating near Sedan, and that the German commander at once modified his plans and initiated the strategy which ended in the capitulation of the French army and the surrender of Louis Napoleon. That story seems incredible on its face. It surely does no credit to the organizing genius of the famous German soldier.
That the press has at times committed excesses in the name of freedom no one will deny. But the way to keep that freedom within the limits of propriety is not by the use of a muzzle. The whole question may largely be solved by seeing to it that censors shall be trained for their task, just, competent and fair, and that correspondents shall be of the highest level of newspaper men, high-minded, honest and trustworthy. Lord Roberts won the respect of the newspaper men in South Africa by trusting them. In the Indian Mutiny Lord Clyde had no trouble in securing the silence of Russell. He merely trusted him; Russell’s honor did the rest. Few indeed are the press men, with the ability to go into the field as war specials, who will betray a trust that has been fairly committed to them. As Bennet Burleigh put it: “What a creature that correspondent would be who would betray the host with whom he remains as an honored guest!” But he added, most justly: “And what a contemptible enemy that must be who trusts to the newspapers as their intelligence department, and not to their own and well-organized and costly system of spies, scouts and special service men!”
As a matter of fact, no press censorship prevents military plans and secrets from becoming known to the enemy. Spies and secret agents march with every army and have their ears at the keyhole of every cabinet and council of war. Correspondents work in the open; they can be suppressed; but the underground routes have never yet been barricaded. Upon the other hand, it would be easy to list a series of valuable services which the war correspondents have rendered the world. Their despatches have been read in Congresses and Parliaments. Russell saved the remnant of the British army in the Crimea. Charles Nasmyth saved the Crimean Allies a campaign on the Danube; Lionel James told the truth about the battle of Liao-yang and hastened the coming of peace. MacGahan in Bulgaria, Creelman in Corea, various correspondents in Cuba, supplied the world with tidings of massacres and oppressions about which mankind had a right to know. To be sure, there have been exaggerations, “fakes,” and misrepresentations in many times and places. There have been instances, not a few, of commanders and armies encouraging deliberately the telling of untruths for the booming of personal reputations and the manufacture of spurious victories and maneuvres. There are charges that
the Bulgars in the late war thus put a premium upon the correspondence of unscrupulous and pliant men and discouraged the energies of the specials who sedulously sought to ascertain and to tell the truth. The limitations must be imposed upon all in order that the excesses of the few may be stopped. But these misrepresentations are far from being a modern invention. The eminent American journalist, E. L. Godkin, scathingly denounced the falsehoods sent out from the Crimea, where he served as a war special. German and Austrian papers were describing battles which never were fought and naming commanders who did not exist. In this respect the war correspondent has many times been made to suffer for the sins of audacious adventurers who have represented themselves as specials in order to get to the front.
As long ago as 1881 the case was well stated by Lieutenant Greene, before quoted, who wrote:
“Newspaper correspondents will hereafter form a most important element in every war, every great diplomatic conference, every other great event of every character; and the way to treat them is not foolishly to banish well-trained professional men, as the English tried to do in Afghanistan, and take in place of their reports the crude, biased and incorrect statments of tyros in the form of subaltern officers, but to treat the real correspondents with dignity, increase their sense of responsibility, and give them every facility for acquiring correct information of facts that have already transpired and are concluded; in short, to make the position one that will be sought by men of brains, energy, and a high sense of honor, and thus to see that the world, which will have news of some sort, shall have truthful news. ”
These words, which sound as if they were written yesterday, rather than more than thirty years ago, strike the right note. News of some sort the world will have, indeed. And it is not good for militarism to feel itself exempt from criticism. Russell said that “independent civilian opinion is good for army men,” and that “the close atmosphere of any society of experts is likely to be the better for a little outside air.” Civilization must have an unprejudiced witness at the front in war. Technical records have no place in the newspapers. Graphic pictures of the life of the camp and incidents of the battle are the stuff that patriotism thrives on. The people like to read about the way the soldier lives, his shaving and his eating, his whistling and his singing, how he behaves under fire, little pathetic or humorous scenes as well as big thrilling episodes. The reporting of splendid disasters never hurts the solemn pride of a people and never lessens the number of enlistments. The story that Forbes wrote of Gravelotte, how as evening fell the result hung in the balance and how the King burst into tears when Von Moltke clattered up and announced the victory; MacGahan’s picture of Skobeleff at Plevna, Richard Harding Davis’s tale of the little boy on the battle field in Greece, Kravchenko’s despatch with the thrilling account of the destruction of the Russian battleship at Port Arthur, these, together with the simple statements of numbers, commanders, marches, and all the events of campaigns, are what the people expect the papers to print in war time.
The statesman and the soldier must reckon with the fact that the people conceive themselves to have the right to know about the administration of their government, the spending of their money and the fighting of their wars. The printing press is but another name for publicity and publicity more and more is taking its place as one of the very chief implements of progress and civilization. This fundamental principle was stated on a time by Frederic Villiers, the famous war artist and correspondent, in these vigorous words:
“Whatever the temptation, whatever the influence or pressure, whatever the government itself, whatever the consequences or personal sacrifice, never suppress the news.
“Always tell the truth, always take the humane and moral side, always remember that right feeling is the vital spark of strong writing, and that publicity, publicity, publicity is the greatest moral factor and force in our public life.”