How The Times went to war with a government over Crimea

Tim Coates

The combined British, French and Turkish armies, with a fleet of 700 ships, invaded the Crimean peninsula on September 15, 1854. John Delane, Editor of The Times, reported the landings from the troop ship Britannia.

The Times had criticised the delay in bringing the troops ashore and was particularly harsh in its assessment of Admiral Dundas, the commander of the fleet. Delane — who had been made Editor at the age of 23 — and the Times correspondent William Russell had written of Dundas's incompetence and lack of foresight.

This criticism was typical of reports that revealed how ill-equipped the army was, the incompetence of commanders that resulted in the loss of the Light Brigade and the conditions at the military hospital in Scutari. It was as a result of a later appeal in The Times that Florence Nightingale and her nurses went to Scutari, the first such newspaper appeal on record.

The Crimean War was an attempt by the two great Western powers to prevent Russia continuing the invasion of Turkey. Czar Nicholas had claimed that Christians in Turkey needed the Russian Government to protect them against Turkish Muslims.

In 1853, Lord Aberdeen, the Prime Minister — a friend and political contact of Delane — and The Times believed that the problem should be solved by diplomacy.

When reports that the Russian navy had destroyed the Turkish base with a massacre of civilians at Sinope arrived in December 1853, Delane sensed the mood of the people had changed. The death of many English soldiers at the battle of Alma brought on Delane’s first attack on the collective of ministers.

On November 11, 1854, the story of the loss of the English cavalry at Balaklava reached London when Russell’s letters to Delane arrived. Delane was unforgiving: "If it were an accident it would have been tolerable: but it was a mere mistake, evidently a mistake and realised to be such when it was too late to correct it. Two great armies saw seven hundred British Cavalry proceed at a rapid pace and in perfect order to certain destruction."

In his view, the cause lay in the aristocratic control of the army. Raglan, Lucan, Cardigan and Nolan — commanders of the Army and the Light Brigade — behaved with such foolish hauteur that we are able, from a distance of time, to laugh at their blunder; but for Delane what was at stake was not only the fate of the Army, but the whole essence of Britain.

On November 29 The Times began to question the competence of the Government. Financial reports were telling of a situation far worse than that which Mr Gladstone, the Chancellor, had described.

Parliament was recalled. On Friday, December 15, the Prime Minister proposed a Bill to create 15,000 foreign mercenaries to be based in Britain whose presence would allow the soldiers based at home to fight abroad. The Opposition and the entire country were outraged.

The onslaught from The Times provoked hostility but, unknown to Delane, also produced the first serious disagreements in Cabinet. Lord John Russell went to Lord Aberdeen and complained about the incompetence of the War Office. He offered to resign if the Duke of Newcastle was not replaced.

On 26 December The Times printed long articles from [William] Russell and Chenery. The leading article said: “We believe we have fallen into considerable disgrace among well-fed gentlemen in well-warmed houses and well-aired beds from the taking of what they are pleased to call a ‘croaking’ tone about the state of affairs in the East ... it does force itself on our recollection that the most terrible disaster that has fallen upon British arms during the present generation happened just at this time of year. It was in a merry Christmas that a large British force disappeared in Kabul.”

He was referring to the complete annihilation of the British Army in Afghanistan at Christmas 1841.

On New Year’s Day the paper declared itself against the commanders of the Army: “No excuse will be admitted against immediately superseding in their commands those who have proved themselves to be incapable of performing the duties to which favour, seniority or mistake has advanced them. Let every officer be sent home who is not thoroughly up to his work.”

Some 21,097 men died in the first four months of the war: 2,755 in action, 1,619 of wounds and 16,273 of sickness not related to fighting. The number sent home ill or injured was 14,901. In a total of 50,000 men, 35,598 died or were incapacitated, fewer than 5,000 died as a result of fighting.

Parliament gathered on Tuesday, January 23. Delane’s leading article carries the weight of history that day: “The session of Parliament will decide: is England henceforth to be a military power? We cannot even cope with the elements, never mind a respectable foe. The immense organisation of war, which costs us twenty millions each year, is a snare and a delusion because we cannot make them work. Our result is failure, failure, failure ... The Ministers of War, the Commander in Chief in the Crimea, the Commander in Chief at home, down to the purveyor of stores at Scutari and the miserable lad dozing, hungry, naked and frostbitten in the trench are all equally dummies. They can do nothing.”

The request by John Roebuck, the MP for Sheffield, to set up an inquiry seemed to have little significance. Lord Aberdeen intended to reject the idea. However, on Monday, January 29, the debate took place. The House divided: those in favour of Mr Roebuck, 305; those against 148. It was the largest defeat of a Government in history. It took 12 days for a Government to be formed.

The Times increased its daily sale during the Crimean War by nearly 100 per cent in a year, from just over 30,000 copies to just under 60,000. Delane remained Editor of The Times until 1877.

From Delane's War by Tim Coates, Biteback, £19.99