However, these were temporary assignments for reporters who then returned to writing about politics, sport and social events. Russell was significant in the history of war journalism as he made the reporting of conflict the main focus of his career and he became synonymous with the work of the "war correspondent".
He was born in March 1820 at Lily Vale, Jobstown, in Co. Dublin, the son of John Russell, a businessman from a prosperous Co. Limerick family, and Mary Russell (née Kelly), of Jobstown. Due to his father's uncertain finances, he spent much of his childhood at Lily Vale in the care of his maternal grandparents. His maternal grandfather, Captain Jack Kelly, was the highly eccentric master of the Tallaght foxhounds and Russell would later write about how much he enjoyed these childhood years.
When Russell was six or seven, he moved to the home of his paternal grandparents at 40 Upper Baggot Street due to the financial difficulties of Capt. Kelly. His paternal grandfather, William Russell, had been a member of the Moravian church in Dublin, but the austere tone of the new household did not much deter the young Russell, who had a highly-developed sense of fun and mischief. Having attended a private school in Hume Street, he entered Trinity College Dublin in 1838, but did not apply himself to his studies and left in 1841 without a degree.
In many ways, Russell entered into journalism by accident, having being asked by his cousin (Robert Russell) to help in covering the 1841 general election for The Times. Once established as an Irish correspondent for the paper, Russell covered the 'monster meetings' of 1843 and the trial of Daniel O'Connell in 1844.
Moving to London, he studied for the bar and qualified as a barrister in 1850, but continued to write and covered the war in Schleswig-Holstein that year for The Times. He increasingly came to be recognised as being the most capable journalist when it came to war reporting.
It was the war in the Crimea that gave Russell his big break into journalism. As war with Russia seemed increasingly likely in February 1854, the editor of The Times, John T. Delane, asked Russell to accompany the army to the "seat of war" in the East, with the guarantee that the war would be over soon and that he would be home by Easter. Russell agreed and travelled first to Varna in Bulgaria and then to the Crimean peninsula itself. Ultimately he would not return for almost two years.
In previous wars, newspapers had been content to publish accounts by officers in the field or to adhere to the official despatches, but Russell very quickly realised that the official reports being sent home from the Crimea were totally divorced from reality. Using the new telegraph system and operating without any censorship, Russell sent home long accounts of tactical reverses in the field and the sufferings endured by the regular soldiers.
His frontline accounts of the incompetence of the British general staff, and the lack of basic facilities for the troops were published in The Times, and also syndicated to newspapers across Britain, Ireland and as far as America. For the first time, the newspaper-reading public were faced with the actual realities of war. In the case of the Crimean War, it was a war being run very badly with considerable levels of unnecessary suffering and financial cost. Russell’s reports caused huge public outcry and considerable political discomfiture - it has often been suggested that his dispatches led to the fall of Lord Aberdeen's government in January 1855.
Russell continued to work for The Times after the Crimean war and his next journalistic assignment was in India, where he reported on the brutal methods being used to suppress the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58. Throughout his career, he kept an eye out for his fellow-countrymen and often referred to, or quoted, Irish soldiers in his reports.
Travelling to America in 1861, he visited to the Southern States and criticised the system of slavery before reporting on the outbreak of the Civil War. In this context, he witnessed the early defeat of the Union Army at the First Battle of Bull Run in July 1861 and severely criticised the lack of organisation within the army and the conduct of Union troops.
These American reports resulted in considerable public outrage in both the Northern and the Southern States, perhaps a good indicator of the objective nature of Russell’s reporting style. Having received a number of death threats, he left America and did not cover the rest of the war. He would later report on both the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
Russell was extremely savvy in terms of maximizing his journalistic fame and published several books, largely based on his war journalism. These included The war: from the landing at Gallipoli to the death of Lord Raglan (1855–6), The British expedition to the Crimea (1858), The battle of Bull Run (1861), My diary in the east, during the tour of the prince and princess of Wales (1869) and The great war with Russia (1895). During the 1880s, he began writing Retrospect, a manuscript account of his early life in Dublin, which was never published and has since sadly been lost.
In his later years, Russell moved in influential circles and. A friend of the the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), he was knighted in 1895. Unsurprisingly, he was also prominent in literary circles and was friends with both Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Indeed, while Russell is largely forgotten today, he was one of the significant writers of his time. While writers such as Dickens and Thackeray were prominent due to their fictional works, Russell was equally well-known for his objective and accurate journalism, which was often expressed with considerable literary flair. From rather obscure beginnings, Russell emerged as one of the major voices of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Interestingly, in the 1968 film The Charge of the Light Brigade, the character of Willam Howard Russell was played by the Irish actor, T.P. McKenna.
Russell died in London in 1907 and was buried in Brompton cemetery. In 1909, a memorial bust of Russell was installed in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral, describing him as ‘the first and greatest of war correspondents’.
This piece originally appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm