The Role of the War Correspondent

War has been reported on by intrepid war correspondents for many years, over time their role has changed, some times given a free rein, at others absolutely fettered, and under strict control and censorship by Head Quarters.

Still photographs made reports more graphic, then the movie camera came to bring yet another dimension, as news reels, full length documentaries came to our theatres. Television ushered instant war into the very living room, and now satellite TV will do its bit to mould public opinion, and perhaps turn a once popular war into a hated one.

Some war correspondents over the years.
In the days of only print media being available for their platform, war correspondents have followed wars, individuals battles to file their dispatches. Not only did the war correspondent report what he saw, but he could then influence public opinion about lack of equipment, excessive casualties, poor command, planning and control. This in turn could move governments to act, sack Generals, promote others, powerful stuff indeed.

The Boer soldiers were for the largest part farmers who had taken up weapons as volunteers
The Boer soldiers were for the largest part farmers
who had taken up weapons as volunteers

Winston Churchill.
Winston Churchill always on the lookout to pick up some extra money, and with a nose for self promotion was a late 19th. Century War Correspondent. Having entered the British Army in 1894, whilst serving in India he made some pocket money by writing for the London Morning Post.

He went to Sudan, seconded to the 21st. Lancers with Lord Kitchener's punative expedition against the Mahdi. He took his place in the last great cavalry charge in British history. He wrote a book The River War, a riveting story of his time in the Sudan with Lord Kitchener.

Two years later he was off to South Africa to cover the Boer War, some how filling both the role of a Lieutenant in the Army and as a war correspondent for a London newspaper. He was captured by the Boer Commandoes, imprisoned, escaped to make his way across 300 miles of hostile territory, and then send off his colourful dispatch to the Morning Post. This escapade brought him fame.

Boer Wanted poster
Boer "Wanted" poster in Dutch, with translation.
Churchill won international fame with a price on his head.
On the night of December 12, 1899, the twenty-five-year-old war correspondent
escaped from Boer captivity by climbing over the wall of the
States Model School in Pretoria, where he was held prisoner.
A reward of £25 was issued for his recapture.
A description circulated by the Boer authorities noted that
he could not speak a word of Dutch. Despite this, and
after some adventures, Churchill made it to safety.

Censorship at Army Head Quarters.
During WW1, Lord Kitchener who despised War Correspondents and called them "drunken swabs," had burdened them with a conducting officer who travelled with his own correspondent, read all dispatches, and controlled just where and when he visited the front. Kitchener sent out orders making it a shooting offense to be caught taking photographs in the trenches.

With the United States entering the war, General John J. Pershing in command of the Allied Expeditionary Forces applied censorship to all American correspondents. The Chicago Tribune's Floyd Gibbons bucked Pershing's limiting edict on unauthorised visits to the front, but paid the price by being machine gunned by German soldiers as he joined a platoon of Marines at Belleau Wood in June of 1918, and lost an eye as a result.

Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman: 2 September 1898
Charge of the 21st Lancers at Omdurman: 2 September 1898

It took two weeks for Australians at home to even hear about the landings at Anzac Cove on April 25th. in 1915, and then they had to rely on a British correspondent for news. Charles Bean was the only Australian war correspondent to stay on the Gallipoli Peninsula for the total length of that campaign.

Keith Murdoch from the Melbourne Herald visited there but briefly on his way to London to take up a position there. He strongly critiscised the top British Command at Gallipoli, was quite scathing about General Hamiliton in his letter, about conditions and decisions made at Gallipoli which was provided for the Dardanelles Committee, eventually the House of Lords recommended the removal of Hamiliton and that Gallipoli be evacuated. The power of a correspondent's pen being really demonstrated.

Australian correspondent Chester Wilmot was a great reporter on Europe, his book " The Struggle for Europe" became a best seller, but Wilmot died in an aircraft accident in the Mediterranean on June 10yh. 1954.

Another well known and respected Australian, Alan Moorehead covered the North African campaign with style and succinct dispatches, he wrote a best seller too, " Desert War, the North African Campaign 1940-1943."

Ernest Hemingway reported on WW2 in France, but tended to do his own thing, he had his own jeep following the exploits of a group of French Resistance fighters.

Ernie Pyle
Ernie Pyle

Eisenhower attracted a large press corps at his HQ in Europe, they mostly reported the big picture, but the celebrated US correspondent, Ernie Pyle wrote a column that was used in 300 daily papers and 10,000 weeklies in the United States, so one may well imagine the clout he carried. His forte was to concentrate on individual soldiers, the average Grunt, doing it the hard way, as he marched across France and then Germany. He wrote articles using phrases such as: " I love the Infantry because they are the underdogs."

Pyle went on to follow the island hopping US Marines in the Pacific war, and on Ie Shima was killed on April 8th. 1945 with the war having but a few more months to run. He was one of 37 American correspondents to die in WW2.

In the struggle of Australian and US troops in New Guinea against a fanatical Japanese foe, the famed Australian photographer Damien Parer shot some superb black and white footage, recording the plight of our struggling soldiers in the awful conditions of mud, jungle, malaria, before he too was struck down.

War photographer Damien Parer
War photographer Damien Parer photographed with two diggers in the Mubo sector,
New Guinea, 1943-08. This picture was taken shortly after Parer had distinguished himself
by helping to carry a badly wounded soldier to safety during an attack on Goodview Junction.
Acknowledgment Australian War Memorial
Negative Number 044147

Post WW2.
With the advent of Vietnam, it became the first time that war was beamed by Telivision directly into our living rooms all across the world. This method of reporting was probably responsible for building up a public dislike for an unpopular war that seemed we could not win, eventually the public at large caused a withdrawal from that war zone.

There after governmental control of war correspondents tightened, in the Gulf War we saw the arrival of the embedded correspondent, shackled to a specific unit, and basically reporting what the Commanders want us to hear.

In Iraq, correspondents are even further isolated, many stuck in the Green Zone in the capital Baghdad, reporting on the ever present car bombings.

Over time, the role of the front line war correspondent relying on his wits, ability, and taking the same risks as the fighting man in the thick of the action, has changed dramatically, we now seek the instant report by satellite, like that provided by CNN.

For the lack of War Correspondents of the calibre and independence of Pyle, Wilmot, Moorehead, and Parer we are indeed the poorer.


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