Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Russell, William Howard
RUSSELL, Sir WILLIAM HOWARD (1820–1907), war-correspondent, was born at Lily Vale, in the parish of Tallaght, county Dublin, on 28 March 1820. His father, John Russell, came of a family which had been long settled in county Limerick, and was agent in Dublin for a Sheffield firm. His mother was Mary, daughter of John Kelly, a grazier, who owned a small property at Lily Vale. Near by the house in which Russell was born some ruins, known as Castle Kelly, suggested a family prosperity, which was already only a legend at the time of Russell's birth. John Russell was a protestant, and Mary Kelly a Roman catholic. In the early years of Russell's life misfortune broke up the business of his father, who migrated to Liverpool, where he tried more than one occupation. Young William Russell was brought up first by his grandfather Kelly, and then in Dublin by his grandfather William Russell. John Russell's wife and younger son, John Howard Russell, both died in Liverpool. William Howard Russell, after starting life as a Roman catholic, was converted to the protestant faith by his grandfather in Dublin. He was educated at Dr. E. J. Geoghegan's school in Hume Street, Dublin (1832-1837), and entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1838. He left Trinity College in 1841 without a degree, yet he acquired a good knowledge of the classics and a real liking for them, which did not desert him through life. His tutor frequently spoke of the possibility of his taking a fellowship.
In 1841 he was invited to help in reporting the Irish general election for 'The Times.' He was ignorant of journalism, except for some slight work on the Dublin 'Evening Mail.' At Longford, being anxious to pick up information from both sides as to some events he had missed, he was led by his mother wit straight to the hospital. There he found all the information he desired, and more. At the end of the elections he went to London to read for the bar, and was for two terms junior mathematical master at Kensington grammar school. J. T. Delane, the editor of 'The Times,' next asked him to report the episodes of the repeal agitation in Ireland in 1843. Russell attended many of the 'monster meetings' and had some amusing encounters with O'Connell, who more than once good-humouredly denounced the 'Times' Server.’ His vivacious work was so much appreciated by Delane that he became attached to 'The Times' regularly as a reporter. He reported O'Connell's trial and the 'rail-way mania,' and was engaged fairly frequently in the Press gallery of the House of Commons. In 1845 he joined the staff of the 'Morning Chronicle.' In the autumn of 1848 he rejoined 'The Times.’ In June 1850 he was called to the bar at the Middle Temple, but he never applied himself seriously enough to the work to succeed, though it was some years before he ceased to take an occasional brief. In 1850 he accompanied the Schleswig-Holstein forces in their campaign against the Danes and was present at the decisive battle of Idstedt.
The great opportunity of his life came in 1854, when the Crimean war broke out. With this war his name will always be connected. He landed at Gallipoli on 5 April 1854, and within a few days predicted the sufferings of the Crimea, as he found the management of the commissariat and medical departments infamous. His letters from here and from Varna were resented by the headquarters' staff, and when the army reached the Crimea he was an outcast, not authorised to draw rations, and knowing that his irregular and indeed unprecedented position might be challenged at any moment and that he might be removed from the theatre of war. He had lost most of his clothes, and by a freak of irony wore a commissariat cap. If he had not had great personal charm, which made friends for him rapidly, he could scarcely have contrived to do his work in the early days of the campaign, when he was dependent for food and shelter on the liberality of chance acquaintances. His letters to 'The Times' from the Crimea were narratives of remarkable ease, never disdaining any subject as too small, yet always relevant and appropriate. In writing of the battle of Balaclava (25 Oct. 1854) he applied to the English infantry the phrase 'the thin red line' which has since passed into the language. But the letters which moved Englishmen to an intensity of indignation, not before or since produced by such a means, were those describing the sufferings of the British army in the winter of 1854–5. It was these which made the public aware of the true condition of the army, which largely inspired the heroic work of Florence Nightingale [q. v. Suppl. II] and others, and which caused a stream of 'comforts' to be despatched from home to the stricken troops. Russell's letters to 'The Times' were no doubt also the chief cause of the fall of the Aberdeen ministry (29 Jan. 1855). The question whether he was unjust to Lord Raglan, the commander-in-chief in the Crimea, may remain a matter of opinion. The blame for the sufferings of the troops of course belonged much more to the government which had made war without preparing for it than to Lord Raglan. Russell always denied, however, that he had attacked Lord Raglan, who was the first general to conduct a war under the eyes of newspaper correspondents. As to Russell's service to the army on the whole there are not now two opinions. Lord Raglan complained that his published letters, especially during the siege of Sevastopol, revealed much that was of advantage to the enemy. But in Sir Evelyn Wood's words Russell 'saved the remnant' of the army (Kinqlake's Crimea, 6th edit. 208-11, 226-7). On his return home he was created an honorary LL.D. of Trinity College, Dublin.
Russell's next experience of fighting was in India, where he accompanied Sir Colin Campbell (Lord Clyde) in the compaign of 1858 against the mutineers. Colin Campbell put all the information of headquarters at his disposal. Delane attributed the cessation of indiscriminate executions to Russell's first letter from Cawnpore.
In 1860 Russell founded the 'Army and Navy Gazette,' which he edited, and in which he owned the chief interest, to the end of his life. In spite of this occupation he was still able to work on important occasions for 'The Times.' In March 1861 he sailed for the United States to inquire into the dispute between North and South which culminated in the civil war. 'The Times' supported the Southern cause, but Russell had not been long in the country before he discovered that his sympathies were strongly with the North. A visit to the South made him dislike the 'peculiar institution' of slavery so intensely that he was unable to tolerate even the most indirect excuses for it. After his return to the North he watched the disorderly recoil of the federal troops at the first battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861). He wrote a faithful description of what he saw, and when his narrative was published in the United States such a storm of anger broke about his head that he doubted whether his life was safe. He was now as unpopular in the north as in the south, and it was no doubt difficult for him to pursue his work usefully. He returned to England without warning in April 1862, much to the displeasure of Delane. He received a pension of 300l. a year from ’The Times' in 1863, but he remained an occasional contributor to the paper till his death.
In 1866 he was present at the last phase of 'the seven weeks' war' between Austria and Prussia. He saw the battle of Königgtätz (3 July), and was impressed by the deadly effectiveness of the 'needle-gun,' the adoption of which he recommended with much earnestness. He took the field again in 1870, when he accompanied the army of the Crown Prince of Prussia (afterwards the Emperor Frederick III) in the Franco-German war. He was treated with such consideration that Matthew Arnold satirically imagined him in 'Friendship's Garland' as being hoisted into the saddle by the old King of Prussia, while Bismarck was at the horse's head and the Crown Prince held the stirrup. In this war Russell became conscious that all the conditions of his work had been changed by the telegraph since Crimean days. Speed in transmission now earned more praise than skilful writing or acute judgments. He was frequently beaten in the competition by Archibald Forbes [q. v. Suppl. I] and other correspondents. Russell's last campaign was with Sir Garnet (afterwards Lord) Wolseley, for the 'Daily Telegraph,' during the Zulu war in South Africa in 1879.
Meanwhile Russell unsuccessfully contested Chelsea in the conservative interest in 1869. He was one of the companions of King Edward VII when Prince of Wales in journeys through the Near East in 1869 and through India in 1875-6. Of both tours Russell published full narratives. With King Edward he remained on terms of intimacy till his death. He revisited Canada and the United States in 1881, was in Egypt through the rebellion of Arabi Pasha and the beginnings of the British occupation in 1882, and in 1889 travelled in South America.
Russell may be said to have invented the office of the modern special correspondent. He was distinguished throughout his career by great moral courage, but he was often reckless in his statements. He wrote at white heat, when his indignation or pity was moved. When he felt it his duty to speak out no thoughts of his own comfort or of friendship restrained him. His personal qualities carried him through many difficulties of his own making. He was matchless 'good company' and a renowned story-teller. His literary friends included Douglas Jerrold, Dickens, Thackeray, and Shirley Brooks. Thackeray used to say that he would pay a guinea any day to have Russell dining at his table at the Garrick Club.
Russell was knighted in 1895, and was created C.V.O. in 1902. He received orders from France, Prussia, Austria, Turkey, Greece, and Portugal. He died on 10 Feb. 1907 at 202 Cromwell Road, Kensington, W., and was buried at Brompton cemetery.
He was married twice, first on 16 Sept. 1846 to Mary Burrowes, a great-niece of Peter Burrowes [q. v.] the Irish judge. By this marriage he had two daughters and two sons. Mrs. Russell died on 24 Jan. 1867. Russell married his second wife, the Countess Antoinetta Malvezz, on 18 Feb. 1884. There were no children of this marriage. His widow, who survived him, received a civil list pension of 80l. in 1912.
Russell published the following works, which are mostly a reprint or recasting of his journalistic work: 1. 'The War from the Landing at Gallipoli to the Death of Lord Raglan,' 2 vols. 1855 and 1856. 2. 'The British Expedition to the Crimea,' 1858; new edit. 1877. 3. 'Rifle Clubs and Volunteer Corps,' 1859. 4. 'My Diary in India in the years 1858–9,' 2 vols. 1860; new edit. 1905. 5. 'The Battle of Bull Run,' New York, 1861. 6. 'A Memorial of the Marriage of Albert Edward Prince of Wales and Alexandra Princess of Denmark,' 1863. 7. 'My Diary North and South: Canada, its Defences, Conditions, and Resources,' 3 vols. 1863–5. 8. 'General Todleben's History of the Defence of Sebastopol: a Review,' 1865. 9. 'The Atlantic Telegraph,' 1866. 10. 'The Adventures of Dr. Brady,' 3 vols. 1868. 11. 'My Diary in the East, during the Tour of the Prince and Princess of Wales,' 1869 (2 editions). 12. 'My Diary during the Last Great War,' 1874. 13. 'The Prince of Wales's Tour; with some Account of Visits to the Courts of Greece, Egypt, Spain, and Portugal,' illustrations by S. P. Hall, 1877. 14. 'The Crimea 1854–5'; comments on Mr. Kinglake's ’Apologies for the Winter Troubles,' 1881. 15. 'Hesperothen. Notes from the West, being a Record of a Ramble in the United States and Canada,' 2 vols. 1882. 16. 'A Visit to Chile and the Nitrate Fields of Tarapaca,' 1890. 17. 'The Great War with Russia: the Invasion of the Crimea: A Personal Retrospect'; reprinted from the ’Army and Navy Gazette,' 1895. On 9 Feb. 1909 a memorial bust of Russell by Mr. Bertram Mackennal was unveiled in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral. A cartoon portrait by 'Ape' appeared in ’Vanity Fair' in 1875.
[Russell's published works; his private diaries and correspondence; reminiscences of friends; The Life of Sir William Howard Russell, by the present writer (London, 2 vols. 1911); Herbert Paul's History of Modern England, i. 370-1; S. M. Mitra's Life of Sir John Hall, 1911.]