The Irish Times - Tuesday, December 22, 2009

HENRY KELLY BOOK OF THE DAY: Delane’s War: How Front-line Reports from the Crimean War brought down the British Government , By Tim Coates, Biteback, 259pp £19.99

EARLY IN this fascinating book, Tim Coates tells us what he’s up to: “The four months in 1854 and 1855 about which the pages of this book are to be filled are like items in a treasured box. One might picture this as a little casket upon the top of which is painted the picture of John Delane at his writing desk . . . persons named and a number of others made a contribution to the contents and when the lid is opened their efforts will be available to see.”

John Delane became editor of the London Times at the age of 21. His family lived in Bracknell, Berkshire, where their neighbour was John Walter, the wealthy man who owned the newspaper. Walter’s father had employed Delane’s father as financial manager and when the young Delane showed intelligence and energy, Walter gave him a job.

In almost the blink of an eye, Delane was telling a friend: “By Jove, what do you think has happened? I am editor of the Times !”

Branches of the Delane family were originally from Kilkenny and Roscommon. When Coates catches up with the family it is the journalist who takes his attention. And it is Delane, not just as a writer himself but as an editor with foresight, who saw to it that English Victorian society came to know that its government had sent an ill-prepared, poorly equipped army to war in a remote land.

No, this is not Afghanistan today, this is the Crimea 150 years ago. Delane himself never set foot on the battlefield, but had the good sense to send as reporter a man who had already annoyed the establishment with his reports from Ireland of the 1840s famines. This was an Irish barrister, William Howard Russell.

Russell was the same age as Delane and had impressed him with his humane style from Ireland.

Delane’s view had been that, to be the greatest newspaper, the Times had to have on its staff the best writers, academics and analysts to be found.

Although he was a lawyer, Russell had a brilliant observer’s eye and had so annoyed the English establishment with his famine reports that they referred to him in society as “that wretched fat little Irishman”.

To read Delane’s War is to be led by Coates into a Victorian England where Dickens was writing for the Times and Florence Nightingale was demanding medical supplies for her work in the Crimea; where the industrial revolution, Arctic exploration, the development of electrical phenomena and telegraphic communication were the talking points of the time.

That casket on the top of the desk which Coates keeps an eye on through this book opens to reveal Raglan, Cardigan and Lord Aberdeen, then home secretary who from the outset was the man who provided Delane with accounts of what was going on in government. A home secretary briefing the leading newspaper of the day against his own government? Now there’s a thing.

At the heart of Delane’s War is the awfulness of the Crimea and its most infamous event, the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Coates gives us Russell’s despatch, a description of “the most terrible events in military history”.

Delane’s leading article based on his field reporter’s work was unforgiving. You read it and shudder, remembering maybe that, bearing in mind the mess we are all in today, the only thing men learn from history is that men learn nothing from history.

Hats off and balaclavas too for Coates: a brilliant read with insight, not just into terrible war, but into Victorian society as a whole