Men at war: nineteenth-century Irish war correspondents from the Crimea to China

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), Volume 15

Here’s a question for bibliophiles! Who wrote The war of the civilisations? No, I am not talking about Samuel Huntingdon’s 1996 tome, The clash of civilisations and the remaking of the world order. The book to which I refer comes from a radically different era. Its full title is The war of the civilisations: being a record of a ‘foreign devil’s’ experiences with the allies in China, published in 1901 by a now-obscure Irish journalist, George Lynch, who accompanied the multinational military force sent to Peking in the summer of 1900 to relieve the foreign community who were besieged there during the Boxer Rebellion.

William Howard Russell

Lynch was one of a number of Irish-born journalists who helped chronicle the wars of the nineteenth century, etching them into the public consciousness though the medium of the mass-circulation newspapers of the time. The point has been made that the Irish have always played a disproportionate role in the field of war-reporting. Indeed, the nineteenth-century tradition of war-reporting was initiated by an Irish newspaperman, William Howard Russell.

The death of Captain Nolan by Thomas Jones Barker depicts the start of the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava. Nolan, whose family was from County Carlow, carried the order to Lord Cardigan, who famously misread it. As the charge began, Nolan, perhaps realising the mistake, galloped across the front of the brigade, waving his sword and shouting, but to no avail since he became the brigade's first casualty. His horse carried him back through the ranks. (National Gallery of Ireland)

I first came across Russell as a character in George MacDonald Fraser’s rollicking historical novel Flashman at the charge. MacDonald Fraser, who possesses an unrivalled flair for mining the comic seam of the Victorian world, has the cynical Harry Flashman give Russell credit for offering a good account of the Crimean War, ‘but he always had an eye cocked towards his readers, and the worse he could make out a case the better they liked it’. Russell did, indeed, have an eye for a good story and a winning turn of phrase.
Russell was born in County Dublin in 1820 and studied at Trinity College. In 1841 he got his first break into journalism when he was asked to cover the Irish elections for The Times. This election was the first one in which Daniel O’Connell campaigned for the repeal of the Act of Union, thus raising the temperature of Irish political life. Russell did sufficiently well as a fledgling journalist to become a regular reporter, covering the repeal movement and O’Connell’s ‘monster’ meetings. He has left powerful descriptions of O’Connell’s lure as an orator, which he considered unequalled.
Russell rose to fame on foot of his vigorous news reports from the Crimea for The Times, in which he fumed about the inadequacies of the British military leaders, the dreadful conditions endured by the soldiers, and the paucity of medical facilities as troops went down with dysentery and cholera. His writings caused a sufficient stir to undermine the British government, which fell in 1855 on account of public and political disenchantment with the errant prosecution of the war against Russia. Russell had an undoubted flair for describing military operations in the stirring prose of the mid-nineteenth century. Here is a brief excerpt from his voluminous description of the Battle of Balaklava:

‘As lightning flashes through a cloud, the Greys and Enniskilleners pierced through the dark masses of Russians. The shock was but for a moment. There was a clash of steel and a light play of sword-blades in the air and then the Greys and the redcoats disappear in the midst of the shaken and quivering columns . . . With unabated fire, the noble hearts dashed at their enemies. It was a fight of heroes.’

In Russell’s realm of unbridled heroism, there was no time for fretting about the grim, blood-soaked realities of battle!
Russell went on to describe the main conflicts of the mid-Victorian era, the Indian ‘Mutiny’, the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War and finally the Zulu War. During his long life he visited Ireland frequently and never lost his interest in the affairs of his native land. Looking back over his career, he wrote that in all his years ‘supping full of horrors in the tide of war, I never beheld sights so shocking as those which met my eyes in that Famine tour of mine in the West [of Ireland]’.

William Howard Russell. (Roger Fenton)

William Howard Russell. (Roger Fenton)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a diary entry in 1868 he expressed sympathy for the creation of an Irish parliament, which he saw as the only means of satisfying Irish aspirations. Twenty years later he would confide that ‘I really am becoming Fenian. The stupid ferocity of the respectable British organs in dealing with Irish questions sickens and revolts me.’ Although undoubtedly an establishment figure and a close confidant of the prince of Wales, Russell was no great lover of imperialism as it evolved in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Edwin Lawrence Godkin

Russell was not the only Irish-born journalist involved in reporting the Crimean War, and, by some accounts, not even the most talented one. In his book on war correspondents, The first casualty, Philip Knightley gives this distinction to Edwin Lawrence Godkin, who was born in Moyne, Co. Wicklow, in 1831 and reported from the Crimea for the London Daily News. Godkin’s father, James, was a Presbyterian clergyman who lost his position as a result of his support for the Young Ireland movement. Revd James Godkin went on to edit the Dublin Daily Express and acted as Irish correspondent for The Times. A man of energetic intellect, he published studies of the two most vexed Irish quarrels of the nineteenth century: religion and the land issue. He argued enthusiastically that if Irish people were given ‘church equality and tenant security . . . they will be as ready as the English and the Scotch to fight against all invaders’. He yearned for policies that would ‘reconcile the two races and close the war of seven centuries’.
A graduate of Queen’s College, Belfast, Edwin Godkin was still in his early twenties when, in 1853, he published an impressive history of Hungary, which stylishly described the powerful Austrian conservative Prince Metternich as ‘one of the ablest high priests that ever ministered at the altar of absolutism’. Arthur Griffith’s politically influential work from the early twentieth century, The resurrection of Hungary, may well have been influenced by Godkin’s book, with which it shares a strong pro-Hungarian slant.
Godkin spent two formative years reporting from the Crimea, which, according to his biographer, gave him a ‘hatred of war’ for ‘he had seen its horrors naked’. Unlike Russell, who revelled in describing the heat of battle, Godkin’s reports are at their best when dwelling on non-military matters. He attached himself to the Turkish army and, going against the conventional prejudices of his time, wrote favourably of the bravery of its soldiers, who, ‘if officered as they ought to be and armed as they ought to be, might again make Europe tremble’. In one piece he offered his readers a positive portrait of the Turkish commander, Omer Pacha, his manner ‘that of a polished gentleman—his courtesy untiring, his patience inexhaustible’.
Godkin’s reports from the battlefield evoke more gore than glory. Here is part of his description of the aftermath of the fighting at Eupatoria in February 1855:

‘Men lay on every side gashed and torn by those frightful wounds which round-shot invariably inflict. Here a gory trunk, looking as if the head had been wrenched from the shoulders by the hand of a giant . . . another cut in two as if by a knife and his body doubled up like a strip of brown paper.’

In another report, he describes the advance of Russian solders through a graveyard filled with memorials ‘in the shape of stones of every size and form, from the simple cross or headstone of the peasant to the square ponderous tomb of some wealthy shopkeeper or director of the quarantine’. After the fighting had subsided, Godkin noted that many of the dead ‘were half-buried and crushed under tombstones . . . and it would have required no great stretch of imagination to have supposed them the peaceable tenants of the tombs around who had risen to ask the cause of the wild tumult which raged above their abodes’.

Russell reported on the Indian ‘Mutiny'; here (in checked coat) he looks on at the sacking of Kaiser Bagh, March 1858.

Russell reported on the Indian ‘Mutiny’; here (in checked coat) he looks on at the sacking of Kaiser Bagh, March 1858.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Godkin came across his compatriot, William Howard Russell, in the Crimea and wrote that Russell’s dispatches had led to ‘a real awakening of the official mind. It brought home to the War Office the fact that the public had some say about the conduct of wars, that they are not the concern exclusively of sovereigns and statesmen.’
After his stint in the Crimea, Godkin emigrated to the United States, where he had a distinguished career in journalism, setting up a leading newspaper, The Nation (a title inspired, no doubt, by the Young Ireland journal of the same name). He also edited the New York Evening Post and became an influential political commentator. A lifelong advocate of Home Rule, Godkin contributed to an 1887 collection of essays on the Irish question in which he dismissed arguments to the effect that the US example undermined the Irish case for self-government. While visiting Europe in 1893, he was elated to be present in the House of Commons when Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill was passed.

George Lynch

While Russell and Godkin were present at the birth of serious war-reporting, George Lynch operated in a different environment as he covered the wars at the apogée of the age of empire, in the period between the turn of the century and the First World War. Lynch was born in Cork in 1868 and educated at the Catholic University, Dublin. As a young man, he set out to explore the vast expanses of Western Australia at around the same time as another Irishman, Paddy Hannon, discovered gold there and helped transform that dry wilderness into an economic success story.
Lynch went to Cuba to write about the Spanish-American war of 1898, which saw the United States emerge as a new world power. He represented the Illustrated London News during the Boer War and was wounded at the battle of Rietfontein, which ushered in one of the worst three months in Britain’s imperial history as its forces, which included some 30,000 members of Irish regiments, stumbled to a series of shock defeats at the hands of the rampant Boers. Lynch found himself trapped in the town of Ladysmith, where the members of the Irish Transvaal Brigade, including Major John MacBride, were among the surrounding Boer forces. The indefatigable correspondent was taken prisoner during a failed attempt to escape from the besieged town and was held in Pretoria before being invalided back to Europe.

Edwin Lawrence Godkin-his reports from the battlefield evoked more gore than glory.

Edwin Lawrence Godkin-his reports from the battlefield evoked more gore than glory.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Lynch’s experiences in South Africa did not dim his enthusiasm for war-reporting and he spent many more years covering conflicts in the Far East, in Russia and the Balkans. Lynch witnessed the emergence of new power realities in the Far East, when he reported for the Daily Chronicle on the Russo-Japanese War, the first modern conflict in which a European power was decisively beaten by a non-European foe. He was in St Petersburg to describe the momentous events of 1905 that brought an end to centuries of autocracy and paved the way for subsequent revolutionary upheavals in Russia.
Lynch’s finest hour, however, was in China in 1900. By the standards of the late nineteenth century, when jingoism was rife, Lynch comes across as an observer who was sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese and critical of what he saw as the arrogance of the Western powers in their treatment of China. In The war of the civilisations he set out to correct what he saw as the tissue of lies ‘wrapped around these mysterious people of the East’, and criticised the West ‘for probing, knife-like, into the heart of Peking’. His experiences in China convinced him that Europeans were culpable because they had not made any effort to understand China’s ancient civilisation. China, he believed, ought to be left to the Chinese. There was, he felt, no justification for trying to Europeanise that vast country.
Lynch’s book offered accounts of the ill-treatment of Chinese civilians, including the massacre of a boatload of helpless coolies. He records examples of Chinese women jumping to their deaths from high windows so as to avoid falling into the clutches of foreign troops. Lynch decried the destruction of Chinese heirlooms and the burning of thousands of ancient books. He felt that ‘a horrible lust of cruelty developed amongst the private soldiery of all nationalities’. Looting was commonplace in the wake of the relief of Peking. China’s conquerors, Lynch believed, ‘were simply wallowing in spoil’. An expedition that had set out with noble, humanitarian objectives had turned into what he viewed as ‘the biggest booty excursion since the days of Pizarro’.
His experiences in China led George Lynch to condemn ‘the vulgar aggression of the West against the East’ and to conclude that the West had more to learn from the East than vice versa. Certain things he had seen in China convinced him that ‘this western civilisation of ours is merely a veneer over savagery’. These were brave sentiments for a journalist to utter at a time when the superiority of Western ways over those of Asia and Africa were taken for granted by most Europeans.
Lynch subsequently interviewed the Chinese nationalist leader, Sun Yat-sen, in the Chinese quarter of Yokohama in Japan, where he had taken refuge after a failed rebellion against the imperial government in Canton. Sun Yat-sen, who became the first president of the Chinese Republic following the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty a decade later, explained to Lynch that his goal was to revolutionise China, emulating what Japan had achieved during the previous three decades. Quizzed by Lynch on China’s early twentieth-century economic emergence, and the threat this could pose to European trade, Sun Yat-sen dismissed fears of what he termed an ‘industrial Yellow Peril’. His words strike a contemporary chord:

‘You must recollect that the result of such industrial development would also mean a rapid rise in the standard of comfort of the Chinese people. With the raising of the standard of comfort would be an equivalent increase of the cost of living that would entail a similar increase in the cost of production. Therefore, the Chinese manufacturers would not be able to undercut the other nations of the world in any alarming or disastrous measure.’

Lynch left China convinced that, far from being pacified by foreign intervention, the country had been stirred up and was ripe for further upheavals.

George Lynch demonstrating the special gloves he patented for handling barbed wire.

George Lynch demonstrating the special gloves he patented for handling barbed wire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lynch fell in love with the East and wrote approvingly of Russia’s eastward expansion at a time when the common British view was conditioned by the memory of the Anglo-Russian competition for influence in Central Asia, known to Victorians as the ‘Great Game’.  Travelling on the newly built trans-Siberian railway in the opening years of the twentieth century, Lynch dismissed the notion of a potential Russian invasion of India. He believed that Russia would have ‘sufficient occupation for a long time to come in developing, cultivating, reclaiming and civilising that wide region [i.e. Siberia] through which, with masterly foresight, she has driven her great railway’. He strove to call attention to the economic opportunities emerging in the Far East and criticised the ‘parochial smallness’ that caused Europeans to ignore these new realities in world affairs.

Shaped by the main currents of the Victorian era

It is tempting to attribute Lynch’s relatively liberal outlook to his Irish background, just as William Howard Russell’s critique of the British generals in the Crimea might arguably have been influenced by his position as a semi-outsider in Victorian England. Closer to the reality, it seems to me, is that Russell, Godkin and Lynch were Irishmen whose lives were shaped by the main currents of the Victorian era, which subsumed but did not quite eradicate their Irish identity.
Although all came from backgrounds that could easily have created Irish rebels, none appears to have had any great inclination in that direction. All three took an ongoing interest in the country of their birth, but their worlds were those of Fleet Street and the great international crises of the second half of the nineteenth century, in which Irish affairs, although completely absorbing within Ireland and periodically troublesome for British governments, were invariably a sideshow. Lynch wrote of Ireland in elegiac terms as ‘the land of the evening calm’, an enchanted place of refuge from the hurly-burly of the modern world. He wanted it to remain that way.
Russell, Godkin and Lynch were Irishmen who sought to parade their writing talents on the big stage. They helped their readers to gain some grasp of the harsh realities of warfare at a time when wars were fought mainly in faraway places and were thus all too easy to sanitise under an umbrella of imperialism. It fell to these Victorian Irishmen to contribute to the first draft of Victorian history. In the main, they did a good job.

Daniel Mulhall studied history at University College Cork and is the author of A new day dawning: a portrait of Ireland in 1900 (Collins Press, 1999).

Further reading:
A. Hankinson, Man of wars: William Howard Russell of The Times (London, 1982).
G. Lynch, Impressions of a war correspondent (London, 1903).
R. Ogden (ed.), Life and letters of Edwin Lawrence Godkin, vol. I (New York, 1907).

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