Home About Sources Topics Background

Crimean texts

The Times 7.12.1854 p 6

Leading article (2nd. leader)

Strong objections have been expressed in quarters that claim our highest respect to the free publication of letters from the East containing news likely to be serviceable to the enemy. That we have gone to the verge of prudence in satisfying the curiosity or the scientific interest of our readers we cannot deny, and on a cursory perusal of our columns it might seem, at first sight, that we had conveyed a dangerous amount of information. We have described the positions of the camps of the different divisions, and of the head-quarters, the number of the guns mounted in the several batteries, the unexpected and untoward diminution of our forces by disease, the difficulty of getting up ammunition, the roads, and the various speculations afloat as to the manner and success of the siege. We have even remarked on the fact that the distinguishing uniforms of our officers had drawn upon themselves, and particularly on the staff, the fire of the enemy. More we have told that might seem of a dangerous character. We say we have told all this, but the fact is, the letters of private correspondents contain quite as much detail, and in some instances more detail, of a military character than the more picturesque descriptions of our own correspondent. Moreover, it is not only we, but the whole newspaper press, that has done the same; and, if we have given fuller and more particular information, it is only in accordance with our usual habit. But the newspapers have not done more, nay, in our opinion, not nearly so much, as the mapsellers, who have done their best to ascertain and publish the disposition of the besieging forces with an exactness impossible to the pen. Indeed, when every mail from the East brings many thousand letters, when not only every subaltern pretends to be a tactician, but every corporal has his budget of military gossip, and when there are several hundred newspapers in this country ready to pick up every stray scrap of information that they can call their own, it is evident that the evil complained of is gigantic — that is, it is commensurate with the whole British public and people. In fact, it is nothing more nor less than that publicity which is the life not only of freedom, but equally of all political action in this country. It is not this journal or that, or all the journals, or the whole literature of England, but the very atmosphere in which we live, and which, with all its advantages, may now and then have a drawback, or seem to have one.

In the first place, we candidly admit that it is possible for information from the seat of war to be too full and particular — needlessly so for the interest of the general reader, and of real use only to the enemy. We have seen private letters that we should certainly have hesitated to publish. Of our own accord we have struck out passages from the correspondence in our hands for publication, even when the writer had already observed as much abstinence as he thought of any use. A contemporary has published the exact position of the mines prepared by the besiegers, and that information has actually led to countermines, and consequently to the sacrifice of the labour in those mines thus discovered to the enemy. We have rigorously abstained from giving any hints of this sort. Indeed, we have ever had in our eye the fact that there are Russian agents and partisans in this country, who peruse the newspapers every morning in quest of hints for their employers, and who, by means of the telegraph, can communicate what they may think of any service to Berlin, and thence to Warsaw, before The Times is in the hands of the London readers. We are too well aware of the fact that during the whole of the war the shortest road from Sebastopol to London, and consequently from London to Sebastopol, has been through St Petersburg. Without any undue presumption, we think we may claim to have almost invariably avoided even the appearance of needless disclosure in the character of our information. Some of the earlier letters of our correspondent necessarily referred to the disposition of the army, but subsequently they have been narratives of actions and other incidents such as a spectator on either side might have written. In a battle both sides are so near and so intermixed that nothing can be seen by one which is not equally conspicuous to the other; and it will be found accordingly that we have received as full and exact accounts of the Russian troops and their movements as we have of our own. By the same rule, we believe the Russian Generals at Sebastopol could give quite as full an account of the several engagements as they could find in these columns.

The most serious charge that could be brought against the press is, that in aiming at the picturesque, or in bringing the scene more minutely before the eye of the reader, it has called attention to the distinguishing uniforms of the officers, and so led to their very great comparative loss in action. That this loss has been so greatly beyond all proportion to that of the rank and file as to excite painful inquiry, we admit with much concern. But there is, and there always has been, this disproportionate loss of officers in the British army, wherever the mode of warfare at all admitted of it. It was so in the American war. It has been so wherever there was a rifle or a marksman in the ranks of the enemy. It will continue to be so, as long as we choose to continue the absurdity of dressing up our officers so conspicuously that they may be distinguished a mile off. The loss of officers was quite as great at the Alma as at Balaklava or Inkermann. Indeed, for years past, long before Russia broke loose over Europe, the question of officers’ uniforms has been discussed in these columns, and numerous instances have been cited to show that officers paid for their finery on parade a double chance of casualties in war. What has happened, then, in the Crimea, is only what we have always pointed out — as it now appears, to little purpose. If officers must wear cocked hats and white plumes, — if they must be dressed in blue, while the common soldiers are in scarlet; and if they must be on horseback among their infantry, let no one throw on the press at home the blame of their speedy recognition. In the last terrible action many of the men had their greatcoats on, and therefore formed a still stronger foil to the brilliancy of the officers and staff. In fact, the necessities of war are in this country most cruelly sacrificed to the caprices of peace. We dress our officers for parade, we give them up to Royal tailors who never smelt powder except in a preserve or a field-day at Woolwich. As to the supposition that the Russian marksmen were at first disposed to overlook the men with cocked hats and white plumes, supposing them to be merely the commissariat, we believe that to be entirely a mistake, for we cannot conceive the commonest soldier, or the merest savage in the Russian army, to make so absurd and gratuitous a blunder.

But, even if publicity should have seemed to serve the cause of the enemy in one or two instances, that is not worth mention compared with the immense service rendered to the army by bringing the force of public opinion to bear on the authorities at home. Would reinforcements and supplies have been sent so promptly and so abundantly and in so many new kinds, but for the public exposure of the state of things in the army? It may hurt our pride and try the temper of our rulers to have the sufferings and peril of our army in the Crimea made known to their countrymen. We might attempt to deceive the enemy and gratify our own conceit by drawing a flourishing account of whole legions living comfortably in warm weatherproof habitations, enjoying the luxury of a good larder, a good kitchen, and a healthy digestion. We might describe fabulous guns with inexhaustible magazines mysteriously situated beyond the reach of hostile shells. We might so represent the state of our troops that on the day of disaster there would be the stereotype verdict that it was nobody’s fault, and no account could be given of it, except the visitation of GOD. But it is quite clear such a course would be treason to our country, and we should think the greatest possible unkindness to the army and its officers. Vain would be their most urgent applications for assistance, were they not backed by the voice of public opinion at home. Ministers and functionaries of every degree would sit and talk, and reckon the cost, and demur, and delay, and do nothing till all was over, and nothing remained but to gloss over the consequences of procrastination. At this moment everything is being done that a great nation can do, but in how many instances would nothing have been done at all but for the terrible light which the press has thrown on every stage of the expedition? While we admit the propriety of great reserve as to information which may possibly be of use to the enemy, and while we declare our intention of maintaining that reserve, we beg that our services may not be forgotten, and that we may still be permitted to tender those services by making known at home from time to time the true state of the allied armies and their heroic deeds.

Home About Sources Topics Background