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From the Archive: William Howard Russell and The Crimean Wars Cultural Legacy

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Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 15th November, 2022 29 min read

From the Archive: William Howard Russell and The Crimean Wars Cultural Legacy

Our exciting new collection, The Sketch, 1893-1958, explores British high society across some of the biggest social and cultural changes in Britain. Encompassing almost 170,000 images and over 3,000 issues, the collection is an invaluable source for students and researchers alike. The publication mostly adopted a light-hearted tone, with comedic illustrations and short stories from upcoming authors. However, this publication also contained content related to the British empire and reflected many of the racist and xenophobic attitudes prevalent within British society at the time. There is something within this collection to suit a wide variety of research interests. The Sketch is an eclectic resource for all researchers of British society in the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century. 

The Sketch published a diverse selection of articles and illustrations over its sixty-five years of publication including contemporary news, society photographs, fashion, and various guides. The publication also frequently included articles on notable people or events in history. This article will focus on one particular article published in The Sketch titled “Dr William Howard Russell, The War Correspondent”. The article details Russell’s tremendous contributions as the first modern war correspondent who reported the events of the Crimean War. Russell spent twenty-two months working for The Times and reporting all the brutalities of the Crimean War to the British public. 

Article from the Sketch on William Howard Russell
“There is no name more intimately connected with some of the most stirring incidents of the latter half of the present century than that of Dr William Howard Russell” – The Sketch, 19th September 1894. 

This article aims to explore this above comment within The Sketch, particularly looking at just how and why this war correspondent was so important in the mid nineteenth century. The article will analyse the significance of Russell's reporting in forming the Crimean narrative and most importantly highlight how the newspaper press held an “undisputed place” in the mid nineteenth century.1 In particular, it will analyse how Russell’s reports of the Crimean War were a catalyst in creating what Ulrich Keller termed a "cultural genealogy" in Britain.2 It will take an interdisciplinary approach, placing Russell’s reports into the wider discussions of war, media, and cultural legacies in Britain. 

Who was William Howard Russell?

Born in 1820 in Ireland, William Howard Russell was originally a maths teacher at Kensington Grammar School, however he occasionally wrote for The Times on the side. He covered major events such as the trial of Daniel O’Connell. The editor of The Times, John Delane, was impressed by Russell’s reports so he employed him as a full-time writer in 1843. He worked for The Times until 1845 when he began writing for The Morning Chronicle, yet he rejoined The Times later that year.3 

However, everything changed in February 1854 when Delane informed Russell that a “short excursion had been arranged for him to accompany the Guards, who had just been ordered to Malta” during the Crimean War.4 At first Russell was apprehensive to take on this role as correspondent during the Crimean War, due to him having two young children. However, Delane promised him “you will be back by Easter, depend on it”.5 This initial three-month timeline was in fact extended to twenty-two months. Russell began reporting the realities of the war to the British public through some of the major events of the Crimean War such as the Siege of Sevastopol and the Charge of the Light Brigade. His coverage of the Crimean War “earned him a lasting reputation as the ‘first Special Correspondent’”.6

Crimean War and Media

“The first mass media war.”7

The Victorian era has been described as a period of both rapid and radical change. In particular the mid nineteenth century witnessed a paradigm shift in the technology, lowered cost, and importance of both the newspaper and war reporting as a whole.8 During the mid nineteenth century the press grew in importance; there were changes in the way news was shared to the public, characterised by the shift from pamphlets to newspapers.9 In Crimea: The Last Crusade, Orlando Figes claims that the Crimean War was in fact “the most significant event” of the nineteenth century.10 While the concept of war was certainly not new, as Britain had been involved in wars for centuries before, the ways in which the war was narrated to and interpreted by the British public was. Keller has claimed that the Crimean War was a “diffused war”, going on to state how it was the first war in which there was an integration between war and media.11 War did not represent the unknown anymore. The Crimean War has long been considered the “first mass media war” in which the events of war were reported as they were unfolding.12

Narrating the War: From Battlefield to the British Public

Taking Keller’s comments into consideration, the newspaper press held an "undisputed place" in the way the Crimean War was pieced together. Russell’s reports in The Times created a Crimean narrative for the British public. E.S. Dallas claims that mid nineteenth century newspapers were simply a "fugitive literature", just producing “disputable and unreliable” information that had no purpose.13 However, Russell’s reports were "sharp, clear" and detailed: they reported the "the reality of warfare", as he stated the public “should know” about the “hard truths”, highlighting how Russell’s reports were far from "disputable and unreliable". They formed an "integral role"  in the Crimean narrative.14 

Chris Hedges comments that when a "nation goes to war; the press goes to war" too. This was not the case with the Crimean War.15 The British government in the 1850s "did not impose" press censorship of any kind: journalists were free to report and comment on the war without worrying whether what was being reported undermined patriotism.16 While it was a "diffused war", the press and the war were two completely different entities, countering one another instead of working in conjunction. The freedom of the press allowed Russell to critically comment on "military errors".17 In one report, Russell refers to the British army not being sufficiently equipped during the Siege of Sebastopol, explaining how: 

“The wretched beggar who wanders the streets of London lends the life of a prince compared with the British soldiers.”18 

This simile used by Russell, in combination with the freedom of the press, is indictive of why the newspaper held an "undisputed place" within the Crimean narrative. Through Russell’s accounts, the public had access to a "sufficient amount of information" and was able to hear about the reality of "military action" for the first time.19 The fact Russell’s reports were "avidly read"  by the literate population in Britain, with 6,100 copies being printed daily by 1855, shows how newspapers were truly indispensable sources in the narration of the war.20 

“The only true history of a country is to be found in its newspapers.” - Thomas Macaulay

Russell often interviewed soldiers to get exclusive stories of the goings-on of war. He wrote about the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, which was a failed military action against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava in October 1854. Following an misinterpreted order by Lord Raglan, 100 cavalrymen lost their lives. Russell, with his “inkpot and caustic quill pen”, described the casualties and particularly criticised Lord Raglan for incompetence.21 Furthermore, during the winter of 1854-1855, Russell reported  the sufferings of the British Army in the harsh winter. He reported that roughly 8,000 soldiers were suffering with cholera and malaria and were dying. These reports resulted in public outcry at the time. The reports of the suffering inspired nurses Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale to volunteer their services to help ill British soldiers during the war.22 

Despite being avidly read, Russell’s honest reporting of the hardships of war was not always welcomed. Queen Victoria was not impressed by Russell’s lack of patriotism and attacks on Lord Raglan, explaining that his "infamous attacks against the army have disgraced our newspapers".23 Furthermore, Prince Albert commented that "the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country", while Sidney Herbert, Sectary of War, stated:

"I trust the Army will lynch The Times correspondent".24

Despite these criticisms there is no doubt that Russell's reports in The Times did help to bring forward the stark reality of warfare. Russell’s honest, yet critical, style of reporting on the events in Crimea meant the reality of warfare was presented to the public for the first time. This not only shaped public attitudes of the war, but also helped in the transformation of medical treatment during wartime. Russell’s reports and the newspaper press held an “undisputed place” in the narration of the Crimean War: for the first time, the gap between war and the public was bridged. For this reason it is no wonder that Russell’s name is so “intimately connected with some of the most stirring incidents” of the mid nineteenth century.25 

The Crimean Narrative and A New Era of Journalism

Russell was not the only influential reporter during the Crimean War: soldiers were also reporters in a sense. The publication of the private letters from soldiers to their families in The Times was just as revolutionary and influential in its own right in terms of piecing together the narration of the war.26 Stefanie Markovits described them as "supplementary narratives" to those more detailed accounts given by Russell.27 However, they were not merely extra pieces of information to fill gaps within the newspaper: they served a greater role in offering the public a different narrative - a more personal stance - from individuals who were actually fighting in the war. During times of war, writing a letter was the only means of communication between families and soldiers. These letters are fascinating in revealing information about personal experiences of war, in a way a newspaper report can not. One published letter by Captain Dallas reveals the authentic experiences of warfare that otherwise would have remained private. Dallas wrote a letter to the wife of a sergeant informing her that her husband had been injured while fighting for the country, and was therefore “unable to write”.28 Historian Peter Stallybrass asserts that postal objects such as letters are “potent reminders of the past”.29 They are important historical artefacts that not only offer a personal style of narration, but are “windows onto Victorian society”, offering a “glimpse of life” as individuals lived it.30 Usually, letters from soldiers to their families would have remained private however, due to the Crimean War being a media war, the letters were grouped together and published under the heading “Private Letters from the Crimea” for the entire population to read.31 These letters are not just “windows onto Victorian society”, but also windows for the British public onto the lives of soldiers, further reiterating how the newspaper held an "undisputed place"  in the Crimean narrative. 

Russell labelled the British army the “noblest army ever sent”, and this noble nature is clearly depicted in Dallas’ letter.32 It not only serves as a way of informing the sergeant’s wife about what happened to her husband, but also, because this private moment is offered to the public, it helps to create a collective acknowledgment of both the sergeant’s heroic behaviour and Dallas’ kindness in writing to his fellow soldier’s wife, depicting the noble nature of the army. Thus, the newspaper certainly held an “undisputed place” in the Crimean narrative: the publication of the soldier’s letters was integral in bringing stories of the otherwise unknown soldiers to the forefront for the first time. 

The Times dubbed the conflict “the peoples war” for a reason.33 Contradicting Alan Farmer, who has made the audacious claim that the war had no influence on civilian life, Charlotte Mason asserts that a narration is not simply about the way in which the author tells the story, but how it is absorbed and "processed" by the reader.34 The narration of the war does not solely mean how information went from the battlefield to the British public through journalists, but also how the story of the war was absorbed and interpreted by the public. The act of writing letters is a form of narration in itself; the published letters from the public to the editor within The Times are indicative of the way the story of the war was absorbed and interpreted by the public. The integral role the newspaper occupied in British society paved the way for a more "participatory" style of journalism, as Paul Hunter has advocated.35  

Just like in the twenty-first century where the public can use social media in order to play an active role in current affairs, in the nineteenth century the newspaper provided a platform in which, for the first time, the public could voice their opinions on Russell’s reports or simply offer their advice to the troops by writing in to The Times.36 Ordinary people, who otherwise could not comment on the war, felt empowered enough by Russell’s reporting to add their “two bits to the war effort”.37 Following Russell’s reports of how badly equipped the army were during the winter of 1854 one individual called “W” wrote to The Times in order to offer advice on how best to deal with the conditions. “W” recommended the army use “flour paste” in order to apply “paper over the cracks” in the soldier’s wooden huts, asserting how he felt it in his capacity to offer this suggestion, however “trivial”, just in case the army had forgotten this in the “hurry and excitement” of the war.38

The Times terming the Crimean War “the peoples war” is extremely valid: the very fact that more or less any ordinary individual could see it as a “matter of their duty” to contribute their own expertise - like “W’s” advice - highlights the “new level of importance” the war played for the public.39 The newspaper allowed anyone the capability of being a "private solider" - a hero in a European conflict - by offering their expertise or just their narration of the war. Thus, this further highlights how the newspaper and Russell’s reports occupied an “undisputed place” in the way story of the war was pieced together and absorbed. 

It is plausible to suggest the newspaper and Russell’s reports occupied a liminal space during the Crimean War. Liminality derives from the Latin word "limen", meaning a threshold between two states. This is arguably the case, as the newspaper served as a threshold; a gateway for the British public into the world of war from “the confines of one’s home”, providing a platform in which, for the first time, both “public and private voices” could mix.40 Through the new "participatory" style of journalism, The Times functioned as a threshold for the expression of the “private experiences of war”.41 The Times acted as a gateway allowing ordinary individuals to personally be part of the war from “the confines of their home”.42 A combination of the freedom of the press, Russell’s reports, and a new "participatory" style of journalism allowed for a war in “all truthfulness” and brutality to enter pubic consciousness for the first time.43 The newspaper allowed Britain for the first time to be united in a war: therefore it is no wonder why The Sketch proclaimed that Russell’s name was so “intimately connected with some of the most stirring incidents” of the mid nineteenth century.

‘The Peoples War’ in Public Consciousness: Interpretation and Memory

“As Mr Russell wrote his letters the question ‘What will they say at home?’ never occurred to him”44The Sketch

In a letter by Dallas to his family, published in The Times, he makes reference to Russell’s reports by ending his correspondence with “we are…the worst clad, worst fed, worst housed army that was ever read off”.45 Dallas’ letter is interesting for a number of reasons: in particular, the last two words spark a great deal of interest. The fact Dallas chose to write “that was ever read off” instead of "that ever was", is paramount in highlighting why the British experience of the Crimean War was so novel: the war in "all truthfulness had entered public consciousness".46 However, history is not so much about the facts, but far more to do with how these facts are interpreted and remembered by people.47 The fact the public heard about the victories and defeats of war almost immediately inspired a great deal of cultural documentation, which created a lasting collective memory of the war. The works of writers, artists, and poets in the decades to follow the conflict show how the facts of war were interpreted and remembered by people.48 Russell’s coverage of the war was integral in influencing and creating the "cultural genealogy" of the war in Britain.49 

Contemporaries have viewed the Crimean War as serving as a “midwife to the age”, just as a midwife would offer assistance in childbirth, helping to bring children into the world.50 The back-and-forth of reports between Crimea and Britain helped to give birth to a vast amount of new cultural interpretations of warfare. At the heart of this rests Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade”, which was considered to be the most significant cultural by-product of the conflict.51 Following the reports of the “blunder”, as Russell typified it, during The Charge of the Light Brigade Tennyson was inspired to write a poem.52 Tennyson’s poem consists of six stanzas explaining the murderous charge into the “valley of death”.53  

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”

Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

   Someone had blundered.

   Theirs not to make reply,

   Theirs not to reason why,

   Theirs but to do and die.

   Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.”54

Tennyson’s use of “do and die” instead of "do or die", at first look may seem to be referencing the suicidal nature of the charge, yet the use of the conjunction “and” hints to the heroic sacrifice made by the soldiers. Charles Kingsley asserted that mid-Victorian notions of heroism were embodied with men helping their country and with suffering.55 Tennyson’s use of “do and die” highlights the soldiers' self-sacrifice and intense bravery, as they suffered while helping their country. Throughout the poem Tennyson acknowledges the "suicidal impulse" that caused the "military holocaust", that Russell typified, by attributing the first five stanzas to death, yet the final stanza refers to the "salvation of a hero".56 Tennyson helped to evoke meaning to an otherwise ambiguous event. Therefore, the "undisputed place" of the newspaper and Russell’s reports in the Crimean narrative was integral in inspiring "imaginative interpretations" of warfare.57

The fact Tennyson’s poem is still remembered over 150 years later as the most significant cultural by-product of the war highlights how the reporting of the war allowed the Crimean War to enter public consciousness. In 1890 Rudyard Kippling wrote a poem in response titled “The Last of the Light Brigade”, in which he wrote “Our children’s children are lisping to ‘honour the charge they made’”.58 The fact that generations after generations will remember and are “lisping” the brave self-sacrifice the soldiers endured, clearly exemplifies how Tennyson’s poem and the Crimean War as a whole are an important part of the "cultural genealogy" of Britain.59 

Memoirs produced by “Crimean celebrities” are also a significant part of the cultural legacy of the war.60 The “harrowing descriptions” of the state of the army’s health was significant in inspiring French chef Alexis Soyer to volunteer his services.61 Soyer wrote a letter to the editor of The Times, offering up his services at his “own personal expense” in order to “improve the health of” British soldiers.62 This followed a soldier’s published letter appealing for recipes for the “ration of pork and biscuit” issued.63 Within just a month Soyer's work in Crimea greatly reformed the health of soldiers: he provided “decent cooked diets” and taught kitchen staff to cook.64 Soyer recorded his experience in his memoir, A Culinary Campaign. Memoirs are significant in providing a gateway into a different perspective. They are extremely powerful "forms of recollection": unlike autobiographies which offer more of a comprehensive narrative, memoirs are more focused pieces of recollection, narrating one specific period in an individual’s life.65 The more focused nature of the memoir allowed Soyer to record each step of his “Crimean exertions” so vividly, in particular in the chapter "Sad Sights" where he explains how the “painful scenes” of the soldiers' deteriorating health in Sevastopol “weighed heavily upon the heart and mind” and therefore inspired him further to improve the health of soldiers.66 The fact Soyer’s use of emotive language to describe how the war personally affected him will always be around shows how memoirs are significant in bringing the "the past into the present".67  

Both the nurses Mary Seacole and Elizabeth Davies also chronicled their experiences of the war in memoirs. The fact these wartime heroes - who were not “only of lower class” but also "national outsiders" - were inspired enough by Russell’s reports to proceed their social standing in a society sharply divided by social class and offer up their services in order to help in the war is indicative of the “sense of Britishness that emerged from the war”.68 This “diffused war” truly acted as a threshold in bringing people together. The memoirs by “Crimean celebrities” will always be a marker of how, for the first time, a war in “all truthfulness” emotionally touched the hearts of ordinary individuals, therefore making them a significant part of the “cultural genealogy” of the war.69 This also further highlights just how and why Russell’s name is so “intimately connected with some of the most stirring incidents” of the mid nineteenth century.


In conclusion, this article has discussed the reasons why Russell’s name is so “intimately connected with some of the most stirring incidents” of the mid nineteenth century.70 The newspaper coverage of the Crimean War was the prime catalyst in influencing the collective memory of the war, evoking a great deal of cultural documentation in the decades to follow. The shift in war reporting and the freedom of the press paved the way for the mishaps of war to be reported in "all truthfulness".71 The war was not just for the government and soldiers anymore: The Times and Russell acted as a gateway, allowing the British public to personally be part of the war; promoting a more coherent national identity within Britain. 

The newspaper did not dictate public opinion, but served as a catalyst for promoting and inspiring personal interpretations of events, providing ordinary people with a voice for the first time. The cultural documentations of the war hold a "permanent place" in the "collective memory" of Britain: they are physical embodiments of the "real cost of war".72 Prior to the Crimean War, only the victories of war were celebrated by the nation, yet due to the "authentic experiences" of war being reported by Russell it created shifts in the perceptions of soldiers and of what constituted heroism. Tennyson’s poem and the memoirs by “Crimean celebrities” have created a lasting collective memory of the self-sacrifice the soldiers endured for their country. It truly was "The Peoples War".73


  1. Stefanie Markovits, The Crimean War in the British Imagination, p. 15.
  2. Ulrich Keller, The Ultimate Spectacle: A Visual History of the Crimean War (New York: Routledge, 2001), p. ix.
  4.  The Sketch, 19 September, 1894.
  5. Ibid. 
  7. Alan Farmer, The Experience of Warfare in Britain: Crimea, Boer and The First World War 1854-1929, 49.
  8. T. C. W Blanning, The Nineteenth Century: Europe 1789-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 1.
  9. Markovits, 15.
  10. Farmer, 69. 
  11. Andrew Hosking and Ben O’loughlin, War and Media: The Emergence of Diffused War (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 3.
  12. Farmer, 49.
  13. Aled Jones, Powers of the Press: Newspapers, Power and the Public in Nineteenth-Century England (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1996), xi.
  14. William Russell, The Times, 18 December, 1854, cited in Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History, 98.
  15. Jones, xi.
  16. Farmer, 50.
  17. Matthew Paul Lalumia, Realism and Politics in Victorian Art of the Crimean War, 48.
  18. Russell, William, The Times, 18 December, 1854 cited in Marien, 98.
  19. Farmer, 51.
  20. Markovits, 21.
  22. Ibid. 
  23. Ibid. 
  25.  The Sketch, 19 September, 1894.
  26. Farmer, 50.
  27. Markovits, 45.
  28. Dallas, letter to his family, 1 February, 1855, in Michael Mawson, Eyewitness in the Crimea: The Crimean War Letters (1854-1856) of Lieutenant Colonel George Frederick Dallas, 84, cited in Markovits, 43.
  29. Kate Mithell, “Golden, Catherine J. 2009. Posting It: The Victorian Revolution in Letter Writing (review)”, Textual Cultures 5, no. 1 (2010): 139.
  30. Ibid. 
  31. Markovits, 45.
  32. William Howard Russell, The Times, 23 December, 1854, cited in Farmer, 51.
  33. Markovits, 15.
  34. Ibid, 47. 
  35. Ibid, 49. 
  36. Ibid. 
  37. “W” letter to the editor, The Times, 4 December, 1854, 5, cited in Markovits, 51.
  38. Ibid. 
  39. Ibid. 
  40. Stefanie Markovits, “Rushing into print: Participatory Journalism During the Crimean War”, Victorian Studies 50, no. 4, (2008): 582-559.
  41. Ibid. 
  42. Ibid. 
  43. Ibid. 
  44.  The Sketch, 19 September, 1894.
  45. George Frederick Dallas, letter to his family, 14 January, 1855, cited in Mawson, 71.
  46. Matthew Paul Lalumia, Realism and Politics in Victorian Art of the Crimean War, xx and Markovits, The Crimean War in the British Imagination, 12.
  47. Markovits, The Crimean War in the British Imagination, 7.  
  48. Ibid. 
  49. Keller, ix.
  50. Markovits, The Crimean War in the British Imagination, 1.
  51.  Alfred Tennyson, "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in The Examiner, 9 December, 1854, from the British Newspaper Archive.
  52. Farmer, 33 and Markovits, The Crimean War in the British Imagination, 123.
  53. Tennyson.
  54. Ibid. 
  55. Markovits, The Crimean War in the British Imagination, 159.
  56. Ibid. 
  57. Ibid, 3. 
  58. Rudyard Kippling, “The Last of Light Brigade” in Waddington, “Theirs But to Do and Die”, p. 170.
  59.  Keller, ix.
  60.  Markovits, The Crimean War in the British Imagination, 54.
  61. Zachary Cope, "Alexis Soyer and the Crimean War", The Proceedings of The Nutrition Society 18, no. 1 (1959): 6.
  62. Farmer, 61.
  63. “‘Crimean from before Sebastopol”, letter to The Times, 16 January, 1855, cited in Cope, 6.
  64. Ibid. 
  65. Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 3.
  66. Alexis Soyer, Soyer’s Culinary Campaign, 377.
  67. Dawson, 3.
  68.  Markovits, The Crimean War in the British Imagination, 54.
  69. Keller, ix.
  70.  The Sketch, 19 September, 1894.
  71. Lalumia, xx.
  72. Farmer, 33
  73. Markovits, The Crimean War in the British Imagination, 15.

Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.

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