William Howard Russell was born in Tallaght, Ireland, on 28th March 1820. His father, John Russell (1796–1867) was a Protestant and his mother, Mary Kelly (1803–1840), a Roman Catholic. In the early years of William's life his father's business failed and he moved to Liverpool.
Russell was educated at private schools in Dublin. As a fifteen year old he attempted unsuccessfully to join the army. In October 1838 he entered Trinity College. Although an able student he left in 1841 without a degree in order to work for his cousin, Robert Russell, a journalist reporting on the Irish General Election. Later that year he moved to London.
In 1842 Russell became a teacher of mathematics at Kensington Grammar School. He also did some freelance writing for The Times. The editor, John Thadeus Delane, was impressed by his work that by 1843 he was employed full-time by the newspaper. This included reporting the trial of Daniel O'Connell for sedition. He also covered the subject of Railway Mania.
In 1845 he joined the staff of The Morning Chronicle. Russell held conservative political views and in April 1848, he enrolled as a special constable against the Chartists. Later that year he rejoined The Times. According to his biographer, Roger T. Stearn: "In June 1850 he was called to the bar at the Middle Temple, but never applied himself enough to succeed, though it was some years before he ceased to take an occasional brief. In 1850 he accompanied the Schleswig-Holstein forces in their campaign against the Danes and was present at the decisive Danish victory of Idstedt (25 July). Convivial and amusing company, Billy Russell spent much time at clubs, especially the Garrick, and enjoyed brandy, billiards, and whist." He also became friends with Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and Douglas Jerrold.
John Thadeus Delane, sent Russell to cover the Crimean War. He left London on 23rd February 1854. After spending time with the army in Gallipoli and Varna, he reported the battles and the Siege of Sevastopol. He found Lord Raglan uncooperative and wrote to Delane alleging unfairly that "Lord Raglan is utterly incompetent to lead an army".
Roger T. Stearn has argued: "Unwelcomed and obstructed by Lord Raglan, senior officers (except de Lacy Evans), and staff, yet neither banned, controlled, nor censored, Russell made friends with junior officers, and from them and other ranks, and by observation, gained his information. He wore quasi-military clothes and was armed, but did not fight. He was not a great writer but his reports were vivid, dramatic, interesting, and convincing.... His reports identified with the British forces and praised British heroism. He exposed logistic and medical bungling and failure, and the suffering of the troops."
His reports revealled the sufferings of the British Army during the winter of 1854-1855. These accounts upset Queen Victoria who described them as these "infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers". Prince Albert, who took a keen interest in military matters, commented that "the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country." Lord Raglan complained that Russell had revealed military information potentially useful to the enemy.
Russell reported that British soldiers began going down with cholera and malaria. Within a few weeks an estimated 8,000 men were suffering from these two diseases. When Mary Seacole heard about the cholera epidemic she travelled to London to offer her services to the British Army. There was considerable prejudice against women's involvement in medicine and her offer was rejected. When Russell publicised the fact that a large number of soldiers were dying of cholera there was a public outcry, and the government was forced to change its mind. Florence Nightingale volunteered her services and was eventually given permission to take a group of thirty-eight nurses to Turkey.
Russell's reports led to attacks on the government by the the Liberal M.P. John Roebuck. He claimed that the British contingent had 23,000 men unfit for duty due to ill health and only 9,000 fit for duty. When Roebuck proposal for an inquiry into the condition of the British Army, the government was passed by 305 to 148. As a result the Earl of Aberdeen, resigned in January 1855. The Duke of Newcastle told Russell " It was you who turned out the government".
When he arrived back in England he was treated like a national hero. In 1856 Trinity College awarded him an honorary degree. On the advice of Charles Dickens he went on a very financially successful lecture tour on the Crimean War. It is estimated that during this period he received £1,600 for his talks. Russell also published The War: from the Landing at Gallipoli to the Death of Lord Raglan (1856). This was followed by a series of books on military matters.
In December 1857 John Thadeus Delane sent Russell to report on the Indian Mutiny and to investigate rebel atrocities. Roger T. Stearn points out: "Russell... accompanied Sir Colin Campbell (Lord Clyde), who welcomed and assisted him, on the 1858 campaign, and narrowly escaped being killed by a rebel. Russell criticized British snobbery as well as attitudes to and treatment of Indians, and advocated leniency and conciliation. His Times articles were attacked by the Anglo-Indian press. Delane attributed the cessation of indiscriminate executions to Russell's first report from Cawnpore."
In 1861, The Times sent Russell to cover the American Civil War. He was paid the amazing sum of £1,200 a year and expenses. He opposed slavery and supported the Union Army. However, his criticism of their tactics at Bull Run he was forbidden to accompany the army. He returned to England in April 1862. He retired in 1863 and received a pension of £300 a year from the newspaper. However he continued to work for them on a freelance basis. This included the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). As private secretary to Prince of Wales (later George V), he went to South Africa in 1879.
Throughout this period he edited and owned the Army and Navy Gazette. In the newspaper he advocated army reforms, breech-loading artillery, and conscription. He also worked as a freelance writer for the Daily Telegraph. He was considered the best reporter in England and could command very high fees for his work. On the recommendation of Lord Rosebery he was knighted in 1895.
Roger T. Stearn has argued: "He was about 5 feet 7 inches, portly, with blue eyes. He had a pleasant baritone and retained his Irish brogue. In the Crimea and India he was bearded, later only moustached. Latterly he was overweight. Sociable, affectionate, charming, lively, amusing, and a raconteur... He was brave, impulsive, moved by indignation and pity, and sometimes outspoken. However, he was sometimes careless, unfair, and - as apparently with Raglan - motivated by a personal grudge. He continued to spend much time at his clubs, which included the Carlton and the Marlborough, and he ate and drank much. Despite his post-Crimea substantial income, he spent extravagantly and was repeatedly in debt."
Stearn adds: "Though only a small minority of his working life was spent reporting wars, Russell's greatest achievement was as a war correspondent, a term he disliked. Though not the first person to report a war for a newspaper, in the Crimea he established the concept and credibility of the war correspondent and strong public support for the role. Largely because of him war correspondence emerged as a new branch of journalism, and he largely set the pattern for British war correspondents."
William Howard Russell died at his home, 202 Cromwell Road, Kensington, on 10th February, 1907.