Tim Coates, author of “Delane’s War”: Article in The Times, Saturday 31st October

  • November 02, 2009 10:35
  • Katy Scholes

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


On consulting Scientists

  • November 02, 2009 10:19
  • Katy Scholes

If you consult the public, having already made up your mind, you break one of the key principles of The Art of Consultation, for ‘Integrity’ demands that you are open to being influenced.

The row over Professor Nutt illustrates how difficult it can sometimes be to apply this rule. No doubt the Home Secretary (the ‘consultor’ in this case) would claim to be open to advice on many aspects of the problem from its own Advisory Committee (or consultee), but quite correctly asserts for himself the final decision on any specific policy aspect. That is exactly how consultation works.

The problem is that the Professor says that the decision had already been taken, and quotes the Prime Minister to prove the point. If that is indeed the case, then clearly no valid consultation can happen. But is there, I wonder a grey area where politicians feel the need to state a firm policy, whilst still being open to persuasion? Might the Committee’s work still be valuable in stating an alternative view?

If all the Government’s Advisory Committees were sacked this morning just because there was a firm policy which was not quite in line with their thinking, we would see a significant contribution to our looming public expenditure cuts! It won’t happen but we could do with a better understanding of how to consult the scientific community

Rhion H Jones
Elizabeth Gammell

The Art of Consultation is published by Biteback Publications on 16 Nov


Mavis Batey, author of Dilly: The man who broke enigmas

  • October 30, 2009 11:42
  • Katy Scholes

Normally an obituary in The Times would provide a framework for a biography of an important person in any given field, but that simply wasn't true of the one written for my boss at the British wartime codebreaking base at Bletchley Park. This was the wonderfully eccentric but outstandingly brilliant Alfred Dillwyn Knox, known to his many friends and admirers simply as ‘Dilly’.

George Steiner, the American writer and philosopher, has described the codebreaking achievements that took place at Bletchley Park as ‘the single greatest achievement of Britain during 1939-1945, perhaps during the 20th century as a whole’. If that is true, then Dilly’s own achievements must be ranked among the greatest in their own right.

Dilly’s work on the various Enigma ciphers was certainly among the most important and significant carried out at Bletchley. Enigma was not one single cipher machine, as is often suggested, but a family of many different ciphers and it was Dilly and his research section, of which I was a proud member, who were asked to find a way into each new cipher as it appeared.

The failure of his obituary in The Times to do him justice when he died in early 1943 was caused by the absolute secrecy surrounding the work on Enigma. The obituary mentioned that his father was a former Bishop of Manchester; that his brother was Monsignor Ronald Knox, a famous Catholic theologian; and that another brother, ‘Evoe’, was editor of Punch. It also mentioned his work as a Classicist reconstructing the mimes of the Greek poet and playwright Herodas.

What it could not mention was that he was one of the leading members of Room 40, the Admiralty’s celebrated codebreaking section during the First World War, broke Bolshevik ciphers during the 1920s and 30s, and Enigma ciphers during the Spanish Civil War and Second World War. What it would certainly not have been possible to mention, even without the understandable secrecy, was that Dilly’s greatest triumph had not even taken place when the obituary was written.

Shortly before he died, in great pain from the cancer, Dilly broke the Enigma cipher used by the German secret service, the Abwehr. It was this that allowed MI5 and MI6 to manipulate the intelligence the Germans were receiving through the Double Cross System and fool them into leaving too few troops in Normandy to counter the allied landings.

Now that many more previously secret records have been released into the archives, I have at last had the chance to give my old boss the credit he deserves. I felt a strong sense of déjà vu in seeing once more the same secret enemy messages that we handled over sixty years ago, but then the secrecy was such that even I was unaware of the effect Dilly’s work had on the allied success in the war. I was determined in writing this book to ensure that what Dilly did was never forgotten.


Rhion Jones, co-author of The Art of Consultation

  • October 27, 2009 13:25
  • Katy Scholes

The Art of Consultation was a book waiting to be written!

Over ten thousand public servants in the UK – and many others in the private and voluntary sectors – engage in formal consultations, and it’s time their efforts were celebrated, and their challenges properly addressed.

There’s a multi-million pound industry out there, currently asking us what we think. Lots of this is public money, and we believe much of it is wasted. Whilst a great deal of consultation is seriously effective, some of it is downright dishonest; decision-makers have already made up their minds. If they then consult, it’s a waste of everyone’s time; they are just going through the motions. That’s all!

In The Art of Consultation, we’ve tried hard to describe the consultation culture that has engulfed us all. We’re honest about what goes wrong, but we’re also enthusiastic in seeing so much that goes right. There is a positive future for the best in consultation, and we finish our analysis in optimistic mode, for only by engaging with people – as customers or citizens, can some of our most intractable social and political problems be fixed. That makes it important for everyone involved in these decisions. This book is for them ... and for all of us who wish to influence them.


Tim Coates, author of Delane's War

  • October 22, 2009 12:26
  • Katy Scholes

I imagine most writers sit, like I do, at the laptop wondering what comes next- until it comes in a bus load. Delane's War took a long time to write. It started when I came across some official Government reports about Florence Nightingale which complained, with evidence to support the objections, that she was procuring huge quantities of port wine for the use of her patients in the hospital at Scutari during the Crimean War.They were drunk to avoid the pain of death. Those comments come from a Select Committee report of 1855 which is in five volumes, in the last few paragraphs of which she is named as one of the handful people who had acted, in the view of the Committee members, honourably in the appalling events into which they had been asked to inquire.

I followed the trail back, not just for her but for the other people on that short list, of whom I had never heard. There was the Reverend and Honourable Sidney Godolphin Osborne, who turned out to be the vicar of a tiny parish church in Dorset, but who wrote letters to The Times and frequently had them printed. Augustus Stafford the independent MP for Northampton who had travelled to the Crimea to observe for himself the appalling events in the war zone, and John MacDonald the printing engineer of The Times newspaper who had been sent out to administrate The Times Fund - which had been set up by the editor to help bring comfort to the soldiers injured and made sick in the war. The assembly of the stories of all the people gave many possibilities for the tale that needed to be written; the Rev Osborne, when asked about supplies that failed to reach the Crimea, told the committee that he believed that the whole subject should be handed to the police to investigate.

Florence Nightingale, from what I was reading, was most certainly not the angelic lady of the lamp we have all been told about in school and the writings and speeches of Augustus Stafford could hold their own anywhere. But the siftings and tellings of the story in the end all pointed to the person who was driving the moral backlash against the government and the army and he, too, was someone lost in the obscurity of Victorian history: John Delane the editor of The Times, who never put his own name to any article. I then read the daily editions of the great newspaper in the original copies that are held, neatly and magnificently bound in the basement of the London Library, from July 1854 to March 1855. And from these the real story became clear: it was the editor who had fought his own war against the Government of the day, in a way that showed courage almost beyond our experience and conception. I was writing this at the same time that the Blair Government and Alastair Campbell were locked in battle with the BBC and Andrew Gilligan over the reporting of the Iraq war, and the story each day was almost identical -- except that in the version of 1855, the journalists held out to win, which sadly was not the case one hundred and fifty years later.