Thursday, 24 October 2013

War Reporting in the Victorian Era

The following quote is from the National Army Museum Website:
Military activities were nearly always of interest to the local press. Newspapers can often provide details of the activities of regiments stationed in the locality. County Record Offices may hold copies of local newspapers; the British library newspaper collection holds over 52,000 titles; some going back to the eighteenth century.

War reporting during the Victorian era was unique. The 19th Century was the British Century. Never before, and never again would Britain dominate every field of human endeavour. The 20th Century was American, and the Chinese are casting a long shadow over the 21st.

The Crimean War

A recurring theme throughout Russian history is the search for warm weather ports. This impetus also reared its head during the Soviet Union. Not since Napoleon's Invasion of 1812 and not until Hitler's of 1941 would the Russian speaking world be in such danger of being overwhelmed.

The coalition against Russia included the following: the British Empire, the French Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Austo-Hungarian Empire. The victors possessed superiority in manpower, weaponry, ships, and industry. The tactics displayed by the Russian military proved their inferiority to all participants save the Turks. As in both World Wars, the Allied victory was an inevitable conclusion.

The Crimean War was the first in history which was photographed. The Victorians, the most technologically knowledgeable participants in the conflict, took the most pictures. The war was brought home to Britain in a way which it never was before.

As in the Seven Years and Napoleonic Wars, British naval power played an important role in victory. Although the Russian fleet (shown here), was superior to the Ottoman one, it was outnumbered and outclassed by the Anglo-Franco coalition. Great Britain remained the dominant naval power in the world until the 1930s when it was surpassed by the United States and Japan.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death
This picture was taken by James Fenton. He was dispatched by the British Home office to chronicle the events in the Crimea. Cannonballs cover the ground. Apparently, all the bodies have been removed. Mr. Fenton unintentionally became the first modern reporter and historian. His work also proved the importance of photography in reconnaissance.

Roger Fenton, The valley of the shadow of death.

This is a published letter of an officer in the Crimea. Through it, the British public got a personal feel about what it was like to be at the front. Coupled with the Fenton pictures, it was the BBC of the day.
The Sepoy Rebellion
What started the conflict? Indians had multiple grievances against the Raj: economic, religious, and political. There was belief that Britain was enriching itself at the expense of India. Such complaints against the crown were similar to those voiced a century earlier in America. Indian princes were upset that they were supplanted by British officials. On a religious note, the Company was using parts from cows and pigs in the manufacture of products. Hindus and Muslims found this offensive.
 (James 233-235).
The rising occurred mainly in Northern and Central India. The main centers for revolt were Delhi, Cawnpore, Lucknow, and Jhansi. The British had only about 35,000 troops in the whole subcontinent, and they were widely scattered. Reinforcements didn't arrive for months
(National Army Museum).
This war in India was brutally repressed by the British government. In the British press, the Indians were demonised. The East India Company and the British Army repeatedly committed war crimes; however, the edited press glossed over this. The actions taken against India received the full blessing of the Crown and Parliament. The following quote from Sir William Kaye describes the suppression: Native histories, or, history being wanting, in Native legends and traditions, it may be recorded against our people, that mothers and wives and children...fell miserable victims to the first swoop of English vengeance; and these stories may have as deep a pathos as any that rend our own hearts (James 251).

The price of Mutiny: skeletons of rebellious sepoys litter the courtyard of the Lucknow residency in 1858 (James 339). This brutality is reminiscent of the treatment of Native Americans under
President Grant, and the treatment of Jews under the Third Reich. The "Pax Britannia" was indeed a paradox.

Most British newspapers, such as the Victorian Quaterly, acknowledged that anti-British sentiment was present in India; however, they were instructed to show that their government was in charge and would speedily remedy the situation. The Rebelling Indians were also demonised. It is reminiscent of Allied propaganda during both world wars.

The American Civil War

"The rebellion would collapse in a week the workshops of Britain weren't keeping it going."
-Abraham Lincoln, US President

Throughout the conflict, Britain was the chief armourer to the Confederacy. The most common rifle in the Confederate Army was the British Enfield. Nearly all Confederate warships were made in British ports such as Liverpool (Tsouras). Throughout the duration of the conflict, America and Britain nearly came to blows twice. The first instance occurred in 1861, when the British mail packet Trent was intercepted by an American warship. It was carrying diplomatic envoys bound for London and the court of Napoleon III. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmertson, was outraged,
"You may stand for this, but damned if I will." He strengthened military forces in the North American theatre and dispatched 11,000 men to Canada- ready for action. President Lincoln wisely backed down and released the diplomats. "One war at a time," he stated (Burns). The newspaper below depicts American Captain Wilkes and the two diplomats bound for England and France, respectively.

The Boer War

"When was a war not a war? When it was carried on by methods of barbarism."
-Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal politician, 1901
The Boers fought in vain to retain their independence. They could not match what Britain brought to the fight: a fifth of the world's land mass, a quarter of the world's population, the world's largest industries, and the world's largest navy (James).

The Boer War was the last conflict which the British Empire engaged in during the Victorian Era. Britain ended the 19th Century, the era of the "White Man's Burden," ironically combating other whites. In the conflict, future Prime Minister Winston Churchill was captured, but he ultimately escaped. The above newspaper article tells the story in his own words.

The British response to the Boers claims for independence was swift and hard. It is comparable to Hitler's takeover of Yugoslavia and President Bush's invasion of Iraq. The lack of a standing military, industry, and the inability to receive foreign aid made the defeat of the Boers a foregone conclusion.

The British press had learned to harness photography in the Crimea and India. Coupled with stories such as Sir Winston Churchill's, they served very successfully as propaganda.

All Napoleon succeeded in doing was putting Wellington's England in the saddle for a century (James). During the Victorian Era, Britain was undefeated. It was a period unparallelled in it's long history. A standing army of 200, 000 men, the largest navy in the world, heavy industry and advances in medicine ensured that British causalities during the period were relatively light. Britain's decisions to stay neutral during the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian war were debatable ones. They allowed the United States to become they predominant power in the Americas and Germany to become the predominant power in Europe. The unparallelled period of military success and economic stability allowed the British "to view the world as their oyster" (Schama). Following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the British Empire began to unravel. It would take two world wars to shatter the myth of British invincibility and to hand the crown of world domination from one Anglo-Saxon power to another.

Works Cited
Burns, Ken. The Civil War. PBS, 2011. DVD.
James, Lawrence. Crimea, The War With Russia in  Contemporary Photographs. Print.
James, Lawrence. The Iron Duke, A Military Biography of the Duke of Wellington. Print.
James, Lawrence. Raj, The Making and Unmaking of British India. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Print.
James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 1994. Print.
James, Lawrence. Warrior Race- A History of the British at War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007. Print.
National Army Museum, London.
Schama, Simon. A History of Britain. PBS, 2001. DVD.
Tsouras, Peter. Britannia's Fist. Print.

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