“ He initiated not only a new conception of journalism, but a new style of English writing, never seen either before or since.”
“ He was a model correspondent, the best I have ever known, and 1 should like to say bow greatly grieved I am at his death.”
“ Through war and pestilence, red siege and fire.
Silent and self-contained he drew his breath;
Brave, not for show of courage —his desire Truth, as he saw it, even to the death.”
The death at Ladysmith on January 15, 1900, of the gifted special of the London Daily Mail was mourned by the entire English-speaking world. He was carried off by enteric fever, which, suggests W. E. Henley, “being translated is filth and low living,” and his memorialist adds, quite justly, that in him there was lost “as fine a spirit, as rare and completely trained a brain, and as brave a heart” as the English people had to show. Steevens was an almost unique combination of scholar and journalist, competent to review such a work as Balfour’s “Foundations of Belief,” and in his “Monologues of the Dead” to bring the characters of the ancient world into intimate and living contact with the men of the nineteenth century, and also to present in a series of graphic paragraphs the incidents of a battle and the life of a camp so vividly, that breakfast table readers in distant cities, however slow of wit and dull of imagination, were stirred by his impressionistic sketches. This pictorial quality was the outstanding feature of his work as a special correspondent. All details were quickly sifted through his mind; the right ones were retained and built into paragraphs that clutched and held the reader. The visual effect seemed always to be his aim.
Bom in a London suburb, Steevens became a prize boy, a prize student, an exhibitioner, the youngest of the dons, and the winner of so many scholarships and medals that he was called “the Balliol prodigy.” He might have devoted his life to the minutiae of classical scholarship. Instead he took a place on the staff of the Pall Mall Gazette and came out into the world. William Waldorf Astor had bought the paper and placed it in the hands of an editor who knew nothing of “the street” but who was daring and resourceful in high degree. Brilliant young men flocked to his staff. Steevens, with the applause of his fellows of the schools still ringing in his ears, now had to take both execration and praise, “now writing flippant paragraphs and now handling matters which might embroil two kingdoms.”
In 1895 the Gazette changed editors and Steevens, upon the invitation of Alfred Harmsworth, went to the Daily Mail. There now remained to him little more than four years of active newspaper life. He was sent to report the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, and with remarkable keenness he investigated the rumor of an Irish famine. The paper then sent him to the war between Turkey and Greece, to the Nile with Kitchener, to India with Lord Curzon, and to South Africa, where he died.
When he began his first war trail Steevens says he bound himself with a vow to state nothing on any authority unless he had seen it himself or had heard it from a European who had seen it, and he declares that, although the resolution cost him some excellent stories, on the whole he did not regret it. He had come to Salonica as a war correspondent only to find there neither a war nor the possibility of sending out news. He must find a way to get to headquarters at Elassona, and that was the one thing impossible to be done. The Turk had no confidence in the “ casual European” and no liking for press men. While he waited for the war, Steevens listed the things he would need at the front. Here is the inventory of the outfit:
“One dragoman, one cavass, two saddle-horses, two pack-horses, saddle and bridle English style, saddle and bridle Turkish style, two pack-saddles, brushes and currycomb, halters, hobbles, nose-bags, rope, two kit-bags, a chair, a table, a fez, a waterproof sheet, towels, knives, forks, spoons, a few yards of waterproof canvas, a bed, a pillow, a quilt, a cartridge-belt, water-bottle, bucket, quinine, hypermanganate of potassium, frying-pan, teapot, japanned dishes, japanned plates, japanned cups and mugs, two lanterns, a cheap watch, a thousand cigarettes, champagne, whiskey, port, sauterne, punsch likor, native hams, native tongues, tea, sugar, cocoa, tinned beef, tinned salmon, tinned herrings, sardines, salt, biscuits, Worcester sauce, cheeses, Eno’s fruit salt, corned beef, laundry soap, tinned peas, tinned beans, tinned oysters, tinned jam, tinned sausages, tinned egg-powder, tinned ginger-beer powder, tinned butter, and 180 pounds of oats.”
But as he went towards Elassona his baggage grew less every hour. He had acquired the dragoman, “Charley,” and had spent three days buying four horses, after the approved fashion of bargaining there in vogue. After an all-night ride he reached Elassona, where he found himself in the midst of 50,000 soldiers. Bugles were ringing from the hills; men were washing ragged linen in the streams. He slept in a bag on the bare floor of a bare little room; on each side of him snored a fellow war correspondent. He was under military law; technically, he was a first-class camp follower. Under his hand he kept his saddlebags packed with provisions for two days, but he was unhappy only because there as yet was no war.
He stayed on at Elassona, watching the “patient, weary, steadfast soldiers” standing to their guns in sheets of rain, patrolling the mountain tops in shrieking winds, and humped on their pack-saddles as they brought up cartridge-boxes and ammunition bags. After a week serious news arrived; the Greeks were said to have attacked in force. There had been hard fighting through an entire night. With “Charley,” Steevens started for Karya. As they struggled on there came a new experience. “‘Pop, pop; pop, pop, pop; pop, pop, pop, pop, pop; pop.’” His “heart began to try to keep time with the pops.” He “ turned a corner and came on the village — small and ramshackle and dirty — wedged into a recess under hills like cataracts suddenly turned to stone, and above these the solemn whiteness of Olympus.” Olympus was “the background of Karya; its foreground was the fight.” He “sees a little shiver of excitement run round a group of aides-de-camp, and hastens to ask about it.” It was great news; war was declared.
Exultant over the good news which had come at last, Steevens jumped on his pony, turned the tired pack-horse, not yet unladen of his baggage, and started full scramble back to headquarters, leaving the fight to crackle on as it would. The following day was Easter Sunday and he was off to join the Marshal and his staff. He was very happy; he had not come out in vain. He was “going to see the biggest fight since Plevna,” so he marched on only to draw up below a row of small, steep, barren hills.
On the crests the Greeks held the line of blockhouses. To attack these the Turkish infantry crawled up the slopes. Until seven in the evening the fighting continued. When he could not see he heard the bugles sounding the advance; the Turks were charging with fixed bayonets. The Greeks stood their ground until the assailants were about thirty yards away, and gave back. In the morning the Turks found the Greeks gone. The battle of Meluna had been won and the Turks had gained the gate of Thessaly. Steevens rode over the battle-ground and noted how spread out were the forces, each man building himself a little heap of stones behind which he took shelter and fired when the spirit moved him. It was the traditional hill fighting of the Balkans.
After a week the invasion of Thessaly began. “ Down, down they wound along the zigzags of Meluna — horse and foot and guns in a stream that looked as if it would last forever and choke up the whole plain.” There followed the deciding action of the first stage of the war, the battle of Mati, which won the town of Larissa. Steevens started the instant he heard of the occupation of the place to ride straight across country for it, “intending to swim the rivers, but at all costs to get into Larissa with all speed.” There was no water in the first river. In their panic the Greeks had not even broken the bridge over the second. Over a road two inches deep in white dust he made his way into the town, where he set up housekeeping, purposing to make it his base for the balance of the campaign. Of what he saw when he entered Larissa he wrote a vivid account:
“Never could there be seen more hopeless, headless, handless confusion. Saddles and harness were strewn in heaps; regimental papers flew before the winds in clouds. There was a knapsack, here a cap, there an artilleiy ammunition wagon hanging over the ditch, with the wheels broken and the traces cut; there — shame! — a little pile of cartridges. A soldier may throw away much, and there is still hope for him; once he begins to throw away cartridges, there is none. And there by the roadside were a couple of dead Greeks, their swollen faces black with flies; they had been killed by their comrades in the stampede. . . .
“As the dominant impression of the town was the sweet smell of laburnums in the public places, of roses and sweet peas in the gardens, so the impression of the occupation of the town was fragrant and kindly. The entiy of the Turkish troops into Larissa was the sweetest and most lovable thing I had seen during this week of war. That the Turkish army entering a town taken from the eDemy should be a pleasant sight, should be almost a kind of Sunday-school treat, will be surprising information to many Englishmen. But I have eyes in my head, and I saw it.”
The next start was for Velestino, and in the first stage of the fighting there the Turks were beaten. One correspondent, with the censorship in his mind, called it a “concentration in rear.” While most remember the fight for Mahmud’s charge, Steevens declared he would remember it as “the battle of thirst.” “Men, horses, asses, the heavens above and the earth beneath, all were parched and caked and burned and split with the raging thirst. Not a breath of air came over the hills where the Greek smoke hung heavily.” As the sun climbed up “the hard blue sky” it became at midday more than even the Turks could bear, “the sturdiest bearer of things unbearable in the whole world.” The horses seemed dazed and stupid in the pitiless glare, the troopers lay down “each behind his horse in the little patches of shadow and went to sleep with their mouths open.” As he rode along the line the special “met eyes of wild, wondering distress, mixed with the beginnings of despair.”
At fall of dusk most of the correspondents were off for Larissa with their despatches, a ride of thirty-five miles out and thirty-five back. Even a Salonica pony could hardly do it after such a day. Steevens with his messmates decided to make another night of it on the ground. Their sentinels brought them the news that Mushir Pasha was marching for Pharsala, where they witnessed a battle which “was a race between night and victory, and night won.” But it was “one very fine bit of fighting,” and Steevens found it worth coming from England to see.
One of the most amusing experiences recorded in all the annals of war correspondence now fell to the lot of Steevens and his companions. On May 7, they rode to Velestino. At four the next morning a bluejacket waving the British flag opposite the railway station, and in the very middle of the Turkish army, attracted their attention. A deputation of British and French consuls had come to tell them that the town of Volo was evacuated and at their mercy and to beg them not to harm the peaceable inhabitants. Apparently some British journalists were to save the Greeks whom the Greek army had left to their fate. The little company galloped for Volo, Steevens, two English and one American special, a Turkish officer, a stray cavalry trooper picked up on the way, and two Albanian cavasses. The Sultan’s young aide-de-camp took no single step without consulting Steevens and his comrades. The people of Volo seemed to the handful of invaders to be greatly frightened, but as they advanced to the centre of the town and murdered no one the populace grew more assured and hopeful. To the town hall they clattered and strode to the council chamber. There was a little delay in finding some one willing to act for the mayor and sign the surrender of the place. Then a proclamation was read from the balcony to a thousand standing in the street. Their cowed faces brightened; they were to be spared. A Greek in the balcony called for three cheers for the Sultan, and they were given with a will.
It was not precisely a capitulation, because the town was not occupied in the military sense, but the aide-de-camp took the advice of the specials very seriously, and Steevens demurely recorded his opinion that it was “a rather fine thing” for two correspondents of the Daily Mail to negotiate the surrender.
The most furious fight of the entire war ensued at Domoko. To the right and left of the little hill on which the specials posted themselves were ten batteries hammering away at the Greek guns. Over their hill the Greek shells whizzed and sometimes dropped among the horses on each side. Mainly they fired at the men from Adrianople who were moving forward; they were “peppered” but they still went on; they came within a thousand yards of the entrenchments and there burst “from the Greek lines a hellish storm.” There were “savage volleys snarling along the trenches in front and right and left” but they still went on. Their “poor little individual puffs showed pitifully by the side of the smashing, crashing hail of the Greeks.” But they went on and on, and at five hundred yards, emerging out of a com field, they halted, but they clung to their position. Night fell, and still they clung there. A quarter of their four thousand men were killed and wounded. All night long the wounded came groaning and limping past the specials’ campfire on the hill, but during the night the Greeks slipped away over the Furka Pass to Lamia.
In the early morning Steevens rode forward and “began to ascend the woodland serpentine of the pass.” He was able to watch the fighting, how “the crimson bunting and white fezzes crawled on with caution, yet with swiftness,” how there would be “here a swift glide forward and there a shot or two under cover.” And then “from somewhere about Lamia” there appeared a white flag. They must cease firing and go no further down the pass. The news of the armistice had reached them. “And that was the end of the Turco-Grecian war,” says Steevens.
In less than a year the Daily Mail's correspondent was on the Nile. He found Wady Haifa looking “for all the world like Chicago in a turban,” and Kitchener making war “not with bayonets, but with rivets and spindle-glands.” His reports of the campaigns of Atbara and Omdurman are a series of brilliant impressionisms.
“Haifa clangs from morning till night with rails lassoed and drawn up a sloping pair of their fellows by many convicts onto trucks; it thuds with sleepers and bully-beef dumped on to the shore. As you come home from dinner you stumble over strange rails, and sudden engine-lamps flash in your face, and warning whistles scream in your ears. As you lie at night you hear the plug-plug of the goods engine, nearer and nearer until it sounds as if it must be walking in at your tent door. From the shops at Haifa the untamed Soudan is being tamed at last. It is the new system, the modern system — mind and mechanics beating muscle and shovel-head spear.”
When the time was ripe the troops marched up the Nile to Fort Atbara and then they began to seek the dervishes. At last came one of the famous night marches which figure so saliently in the story of warfare in the Soudan, and a battle next morning. “Hard gravel underfoot, full moon overhead, about them the coy horizon that seemed immeasurable yet revealed nothing, the square tramped steadily for an hour.” After a rest they marched again from one to four. As the sun rose the word came, and they sprang up, the squares shifted into the fighting formations. “At one impulse, in one superb sweep, near twelve thousand men moved forward” toward the enemy.
A nimbus of dust rolled from the zareba of the enemy and a half-dozen flags fluttered before its right centre. Steevens looked at his watch and it marked 6.20. The battle that had now menaced and now evaded them for a month had begun. The bugles sang and the pipes screamed and the line started forward “like a ruler drawn over the tussock-broken sand.” As the line crested the ridge the men knelt down and fired. The bugles and the pipes sounded again and the men were up and on. “The line of khaki and purple tartan never bent or swerved.” It moved down the gravelly incline always without hurry amid furious gusts of bullets. They stood before the loose low hedge of dry camel thorn and tugged at it until they made a gap, when they found a low stockade and trenches beyond.
The inside suddenly sprang to life. “Out of the earth came dusty, black, half naked shapes, running, running, and turning to shoot, but running away.”
Inside “was the most astounding labyrinth ever seen out of a nightmare.” The place was as “full of holes as any honeycomb only far less regular.” There was a shelter pit for every animal; donkeys were tethered down in holes, just big enough for themselves and their masters, a trench was full of camels and dead or dying men. There was no plan or system. “From holes below and hillocks above, from invisible trenches to right and left, the bewildered bullets curved and twisted and dodged.” On swept “the whirlwind of Highlanders, bullet and bayonet and butt.” They penetrated to the river and “across the trickle of water a quarter mile of dry sand bed was a fly-paper with scrambling spots of black.” “Cease firing!” was sounded, and sudden silence came down. The battle had lasted forty minutes.
A few months later Steevens was looking at Om- durman. The place was visible at last to an advancing English army; the battle that should avenge Gordon was to be fought and the last and greatest day of Mahdism was at hand. “We saw a broad plain, half sand, half pale grass,” says the special. “On the rim by the Nile rose a pale yellow dome, clear above everything. That was the Mahdi’s tomb. ... It was the centre of a purple stain on the yellow sand, going out for miles and miles on every side — the mud houses of Omdurman.”
Light stole quietly into the sky on the morning of the battle. Everyone was very silent and very curious. “A trooper rose out of the stillness from behind the shoulder of Gebel Surgham, grew larger and plainer, spurred violently up to the line and inside. A couple more were silhouetted against our front. Then the electric whisper came racing down the line; they were coming. . . . The noise of something began to creep in upon us; it cleared and divided into the tap of drums and the far away surf of raucous war cries.” A shiver of expectancy thrilled the army. A sigh of content followed. “They were coming on. Allah help them! They were coming on.”
The enemy came very fast and straight but presently they were stopped. The British were standing in double ranks behind their zareba. The blacks were lying in their shelter trench, and for a time “both poured out death as fast as they could load and pull trigger.”
Then section by section the firing was hushed, and for a while there was nothing “but the unbending, grimly expectant line before Agaiga and the still carpet of white in front.” After a half-hour the bugles sounded. The one disaster of the battle ensued. The Twenty-first Lancers, eager to be first in Omdurman, swung into their charge.
“Knee to knee they swept on till they were but two hundred yards from the enemy. Then suddenly — then in a flash they saw the trap. Between them and the three hundred there yawned suddenly a deep ravine; out of the ravine there sprang instantly a cloud of black heads, and a brandished lightning of swords, and a thunder of savage voices. ... It had succeeded. Three thousand if there was one to four hundred. But it was too late to check now. Must go through with it now! . . . One hundred yards — fifty — knee to knee. . . . Horses plunged, blundered, recovered, fell; dervishes on the ground lay for the hamstringing cut; officers pistolled them in passing over as one drops a stone into a bucket; troopers thrust until lances broke, then cut; everybody went on straight through eveiything. . . . Clean out on the other side they came — those that kept up or got up in time. The others were on the ground — in pieces by now, for the cruel swords shore through shoulder and thigh, and carved the dead into fillets. Twenty-four of these, and of those that came out, over fifty had felt sword or bullet or spear. Few horses stayed behind among the swords, but nearly one hundred and thirty were wounded.”
This to Steevens was hearsay. The rest of the battle he witnessed. He saw MacDonald’s splendid courage and strategy, commended so by Bennet Burleigh, when he “turned his front through a complete half-circle, facing successively south, west and north,” his brain “working as if packed in ice,” and “every tactician in the army delirious in his praise.” Still the honor of the fight was awarded by the correspondent to the men who died. He found the dervishes “beyond perfection” while the Sirdar’s army was “perfection.” The enemy “died worthily of the huge empire that Mahdism won and kept so long.” The spearmen charged hopelessly over and over again. “Their riflemen, mangled by every kind of death and torment that men can devise, clung round the black flag and the green, emptying their poor, rotten, homemade cartridges dauntlessly.”
“Now under the black flag in a ring of bodies stood only three men, facing the three thousand of the Third Brigade. They folded their arms about the staff and gazed steadily forward. Two fell. The last dervish stood up and filled his chest; he shouted the name of his God and hurled his spear. Then he stood quite still, waiting. It took him full; he quivered, gave at the knees, and toppled with his head on his arms and his face towards the legions of his conquerors.”
That night in Omdurman, Steevens found the Sirdar flat on his back, dictating by the light of a solitary candle his despatch to the chief of the intelligence department. Colonel Wingate, who was stretched flat on his belly. The correspondent himself “scraped a scrawl on a telegraph form, and fell asleep on the gravel with a half-eaten biscuit” in his mouth.
On the morning of October 10, the following year, Steevens awoke to find his ship lying beside the wharf at Cape Town. He headed instantly for the north and the war. At Elandslaagte he was seen walking about close to the firing line leading his grey horse, a conspicuous mark for a sharpshooter. There were as always clever descriptive touches in the letter which he forwarded his paper. “For half an hour the hillside was ... a maze of men wandering they knew not whither, crossing and recrossing, circling, stopping and returning, slipping on smooth rock-faces, breaking shins on rough boulders, treading with hobnailed boots on wounded fingers.” Thus, until the word came that the hurt men were to be brought down to the Boer camp between the hills. And thus of the treatment of the wounded after they were carried down in the darkness:
“In the rain-blurred light of the lantern — could it not cease, that piercing drizzle tonight of all nights at least?— the doctor, the one doctor, toiled buoyantly on. Cutting up their clothes with scissors, feeling with light firm fingers over tom chest or thigh, cunningly slipping round the bandage, tenderly covering up the crimson ruin of strong men — hour by hour, man by man, he toiled on.”
Soon Steevens was shut up in Ladysmith. He endured his full share of the privations and perils of the siege and rendered more than his share of service in keeping up the hearts of his fellows. “Tack-tap, tack-tap, as if the devil was hammering nails into the hills” the bombardment went on. When the firing was strongest he would toil up a ladder of boulders and bend and steal forward to the sky-line to make his observations. The rains came in level downpour and transformed Ladysmith into a lake of mud. They were lying in the bottom of a saucer and staring up at the pitiless ring of hills that barked death. Help would come, that was sure, but would it be in time? And how soon dared they expect it? They could only hazard opinions. By means of native runners the correspondents tried to get messages out of the beleaguered town, but the risks of sending through the lines of the Boers were so desperate that the prices paid were “appalling.” For his first runner Steevens paid £70.
Through the weary weeks of waiting Steevens smiled and jested. The Ladysmith Lyre was founded for the express purpose of promoting laughter, and for three months its publication was hailed as an event of the first magnitude in that little world which was segregated absolutely from the big world beyond. Nothing could daunt the courage or curb the wit of the Daily Mail special and all within the lines laughed at his sallies and were the better for their laughter. There are other services than those connected most directly with the profession of war correspondence which the specials of the newspapers may render and often have rendered. Meantime the winking heliograph and the flashing searchlight brought messages in cipher to headquarters from the outside. A few days before Christmas the press men were summoned to hear an abridged version of one of these messages. They were to adumbrate the ill tidings which somehow had been whispered about the town. Buller had sent word that he must wait for siege guns, which meant another thirty days at least for pent-up Ladysmith. But it was March 1 when the actual entry was made, and the town had been cut off from the outer world, save for the Kaffir runners, for one hundred and nineteen days.
Weeks before the relief reached the town Steevens was stricken with the scourge of Ladysmith, enteric fever. He fought for his life and was declared almost convalescent, when suddenly there was a relapse. A fellow correspondent was obliged to tell him the truth, the farewell messages were dictated, and in three hours he was dead. At midnight, “with the Bulwaan searchlight shining on them like a Cyclop’s eye,” the little company of correspondents carried their comrade to the cemetery outside the town, and at the grave, the searchlight having left them, a deputation from headquarters, a group of officers, and the press men stood in darkness and rain for the burial service.
Thus passed a war correspondent whose press work was not only history but literature. Shy, quiet, urbane, magnanimous, kindly humorous, proud as well as modest, a wit and a cynic at times but not given to censure, without any girding up of his mind pouring out droll ideas, striking similitudes and quaint expressions, this man’s life was one of the most expensive counts in the computation of the costs of the South African War.