The Mammoth Book of Combat: Reports from the Frontline


Edited by Jon E. Lewis

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This extensive collection presents vivid pieces of stunning, first-hand accounts from the front lines of some of the most historically significant battles of all time. A must-read for any military history buff, including Martha Gellhorn on the Battle of the Bulge, Michael Herr at Khe Sanh, John Pilger on the fall of Saigon, and more.




‘‘Those newly invented curse to armies who eat all the rations of the fighting man and do no work at all.’’

So famously wrote Sir Garnet Wolseley in The Soldier’s Pocket Book of 1869. The “curse”, of course, were the war correspondents who gathered to observe and report the military endeavours of Victorian Britain. And sometimes find those endeavours wanting, hence the spleen in Wolseley’s words.

War correspondents, though, weren’t quite a Victorian invention. One Henry Crabb Robinson was employed by The Times to report on Napoleon’s campaign along the Elbe in 1807. But by the time Robinson’s dispatch “from the seat of war” had wended its leisurely postal way to London three weeks later it wasn’t news. It was olds.

Real war journalism needed something else. It needed technology, some means of instantly communicating the story back to the paper. This came with the invention of the telegraph in the 1840s, first used for reports of war by William Howard Russell of The Times in the Crimea in 1854. Moreover, whereas Robinson had written up his accounts from very second-hand sources – he didn’t actually deign to visit Napoleon’s front line – Russell was “eyewitness” to the war in the Crimea, living and marching with the troops (and, yes, eating their rations). With combat reportage plus instant communication, the era of the war correspondent had arrived, fathered in by the bearded Irishman Russell. It is difficult to underestimate Russell’s impact on his times or the business of reporting war. His dispatches highlighting military bungling and the lack of proper food and clothing afforded the British troops resulted in public outrage and eventually in reform. Sales of The Times shot up and soon every major newspaper in the Western world had a combat correspondent aboard to satisfy the readers’ seemingly insatiable appetite for news of war. After all, war is the ultimate press story – human interest plus the destiny of nations. Nothing compares to it.

Successful as Russell was, he was also bedevilled by the dilemmas that would face all who walked in his bootsteps. There were vociferous charges that his dispatches provided the enemy with information and undermined public and military morale. Stung by the criticisms of succouring the enemy, Russell offered his reports up for vetting. This was refused, but the problems of Truth v National Security would always henceforth haunt the war correspondent, as Russell himself found a decade later when he was chased out of America for writing – accurately – of Union soldiers running away at Bull Run. Meanwhile, his prophecy that the Confederacy would lose the struggle angered the readers of the pro-South Times. Abused on all sides, Russell handed in his resignation and began his own newspaper, the Army and Navy Gazette.

Of course, not a few war correspondents when the bullets have started flying have forsaken objectivity for propaganda, spinning lies for political causes and masters. More still have found the reporting of war hampered by censorship and a tight-lipped military. These are the occupational hazards of war journalism. Some wars, though, have been “freer” than others. Censorship in the First World War was gargantuan. At first Kitchener branded war correspondents “outlaws” and barred them from the front line, before cleverly integrating them into the war machine as semi-official mouthpieces. The slaughters on the Western Front went almost unknown on the Home Front because war journalists would not or could not report them. The years 1914–18 were the dog days of the craft. To get a good story one American journalist, Floyd Gibbons, resorted himself to going “over the top” at Belleau Wood in 1917 and losing an eye in the process.

Fast-forward fifty years to Vietnam, arguably the freest war to report. Sure, there were the heavy-handed official briefings in Saigon known – by the typewriter boys and girls – as “The Five O’Clock Follies”, but MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) did little to put obstacles in the correspondents’ way. Hell, MACV even flew “warcos” to the front line. Turn up and climb aboard, no questions asked. For journalists, Vietnam was the Good War. Of course when the USA lost the match v Ho Chi Minh’s pyjama-clad warriors, the warcos got the blame. Their vivid, painful reports, went the military’s let-out, had plunged a pen into America’s back and bled her of the morale needed to fight the “gooks”.

Russell would have recognized the brass’s complaint.

For the most part, the 101 war dispatches collected here are by those journalists who were fearless of death and bureaucracy and brought the truth home. There are a few curiosities – a Red Army correspondent’s high-patriotic account of the Battle of Berlin, George Warrington Steevens’s imperial pomp at the re-interring of Gordon’s bones in the Sudan, the New York Post’s politic editorial on the 1940 draft – but the remainder tell us of the world’s wars over 150 years in words as full of authenticity as they are of understanding, imagery and feeling. War journalism is reportage, is poetry, is the first draft of military history. They say that a picture can paint a thousand words, but a thousand words by Michael Herr, by Richard Harding Davis, by John Reed, by Ernie Pyle, will tell you everything, everything you ever wanted to know about a certain historical situation. Plus the nature of war itself. And what a nature. War is hell, but it is also a prodigality of other things. Death, life, suffering, nobility, depravity, courage, torture – small wonder that the craft of war correspondence has not only attracted the best journalists but some of the best writers period, drawn to war like moths to a flame. Those authors who have done their tour of duty as a warco include Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, Rudyard Kipling – to name but four heavyweights.

Of course, sometimes the flames burn. Reporting the wars has cost the lives of a small legion of correspondents, among them Ernie Pyle and Nick Tomalin, both of whom are represented on the following pages.

War correspondence is a dangerous job, but someone has got to do it.

The readers demand it. Need it. Warfare has changed much since Russell’s day, so has the technology of war journalism, from telegraph to sat phone, and live commentary as you watch war-u-like on the tube. (The dispatches in this book are arranged in chronological order, to catch and reflect these developments.) The readers’ hunger for war news has changed too. It’s even greater. In the Information Age the one information you can’t do without is Mars’s latest havoc.

Somewhere, a war correspondent is dying to give it to you.

Part I

The Age of Empire and Emancipation, 1854–1913

The Crimean War


The Battle of Balaclava

An Irishman who fell into journalism by accident, Russell was employed by the London Times to accompany the British army on its 1854 mission to Crimea. The job appeared a pleasant jaunt – the army believed it had only to rattle its sabres to deter Russia from spreading southwards – but turned into a two-year tour of grinding journalistic duty, during which Russell’s accurate and clear dispatches made him the most famous war reporter of the Victorian era. His criticisms of the army’s system of command, its unsuitable clothing and its poor food, led to sweeping reform. After the Crimean War, Russell reported the Indian Mutiny, the American Civil War (where his candid account of Union cowardice at Bull Run obliged him to leave the country), the Franco-Prussian War and the Zulu War. He was knighted for his services to journalism.

Russell pioneered the use of the telegraph, although many of his pieces were written as long descriptive letters, including his celebrated account of the Battle of Balaclava, 25 October 1854. This proved the major engagement of the Crimean War, and is forever remembered for its melancholic “Charge of the Light Brigade”.

The Times, 14 November 1854

If the exhibition of the most brilliant valour, of the excess of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected lustre on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy.

I shall proceed to describe, to the best of my power, what occurred under my own eyes, and to state the facts which I have heard from men whose veracity is unimpeachable, reserving to myself the exercise of the right of private judgement in making public and in suppressing the details of what occurred on this memorable day . . .

It will be remembered that in a letter sent by last mail from this place it was mentioned that eleven battalions of Russian infantry had crossed the Tchernaya, and that they threatened the rear of our position and our communication with Balaclava. Their bands could be heard playing at night by travellers along the Balaclava road to the camp, but they “showed” but little during the day and kept up among the gorges and mountain passes through which the roads to Inkermann, Simpheropol, and the south-east of the Crimea wind towards the interior. It will be recollected also that the position we occupied in reference to Balaclava was supposed by most people to be very strong – even impregnable. Our lines were formed by natural mountain slopes in the rear, along which the French had made very formidable intrenchments. Below those intrenchments, and very nearly in a right line across the valley beneath, are four conical hillocks, one rising above the other as they recede from our lines . . . On the top of each of these hills the Turks had thrown up earthen redoubts, defended by 250 men each, and armed with two or three guns – some heavy ship guns – lent by us to them, with one artilleryman in each redoubt to look after them. These hills cross the valley of Balaclava at the distance of about two and a half miles from the town. Supposing the spectator then to take his stand on one of the heights forming the rear of our camp before Sebastopol, he would see the town of Balaclava, with its scanty shipping, its narrow strip of water, and its old forts on his right hand; immediately below he would behold the valley and plain of coarse meadowland, occupied by our cavalry tents, and stretching from the base of the ridge on which he stood to the foot of the formidable heights on the other side; he would see the French trenches lined with Zouaves a few feet beneath, and distant from him, on the slope of the hill; a Turkish redoubt lower down, then another in the valley, then in a line with it some angular earthworks, then, in succession, the other two redoubts up Canrobert’s Hill.

At the distance of two or two and a half miles across the valley there is an abrupt rocky mountain range of most irregular and picturesque formation, covered with scanty brushwood here and there, or rising into barren pinnacles and plateaux of rock. In outline and appearance, this position of the landscape is wonderfully like the Trossachs. A patch of blue sea is caught in between the overhanging cliffs of Balaclava as they close in the entrance to the harbour on the right. The camp of the Marines pitched on the hillsides more than one thousand feet above the level of the sea is opposite to you as your back is turned to Sebastopol and your right side towards Balaclava. On the road leading up the valley, close to the entrance of the town and beneath these hills, is the encampment of the 93rd Highlanders.

The cavalry lines are nearer to you below, and are some way in advance of the Highlanders, and nearer to the town than the Turkish redoubts. The valley is crossed here and there by small waves of land. On your left the hills and rocky mountain ranges gradually close in toward the course of the Tchernaya, till at three or four miles’ distance from Balaclava the valley is swallowed up in a mountain gorge and deep ravines, above which rise tier after tier of desolate whitish rock garnished now and then by bits of scanty herbage, and spreading away towards the east and south, where they attain the alpine dimensions of Tschatir Dagh. It is very easy for an enemy at the Belbek, or in command of the road of Mackenzie’s Farm, Inkermann, Simpheropol, or Bakhchisarai, to debouch through these gorges at any time upon this plain from the neck of the valley, or to march from Sebastopol by the Tchernaya and to advance along it towards Balaclava, till checked by the Turkish redoubts on the southern side or by the fire from the French works on the northern side, i.e., the side which in relation to the valley of Balaclava forms the rear of our position.

At half past seven o’clock this morning an orderly came galloping in to the headquarters camp from Balaclava, with the news that at dawn a strong corps of Russian horse supported by guns and battalions of infantry had marched into the valley, and had already nearly dispossessed the Turks of the redoubt No. 1 (that on Canrobert’s Hill, which is farthest from our lines) and that they were opening fire on the redoubts Nos. 2, 3 and 4, which would speedily be in their hands unless the Turks offered a stouter resistance than they had done already.

Orders were dispatched to Sir George Cathcart and to HRH the Duke of Cambridge to put their respective divisions, the 4th and 1st, in motion for the scene of action, and intelligence of the advance of the Russians was also furnished to General Canrobert. Immediately on receipt of the news the General commanded General Bosquet to get the Third Division under arms, and sent a strong body of artillery and some 200 Chasseurs d’Afrique to assist us in holding the valley. Sir Colin Campbell, who was in command of Balaclava, had drawn up the 93rd Highlanders a little in front of the road to the town at the first news of the advance of the enemy. The Marines on the heights got under arms; the seamen’s batteries and Marines’ batteries on the heights close to the town were manned, and the French artillerymen and the Zouaves prepared for action along their lines. Lord Lucan’s little camp was the scene of great excitement. The men had not had time to water their horses; they had not broken their fast from the evening of the day before, and had barely saddled at the first blast of the trumpet, when they were drawn up on the slope behind the redoubts in front of the camp to operate on the enemy’s squadrons. It was soon evident that no reliance was to be placed on the Turkish infantrymen or artillerymen. All the stories we had heard about their bravery behind stone walls and earthworks proved how differently the same or similar people fight under different circumstances. When the Russians advanced the Turks fired a few rounds at them, got frightened at the distance of their supports in the rear, looked round, received a few shots and shell, and then “bolted”, and fled with an agility quite at variance with the commonplace notions of oriental deportment on the battlefield. But Turks on the Danube are very different beings from Turks in the Crimea, as it appears that the Russians of Sebastopol are not at all like the Russians of Silistria.

Soon after eight Lord Raglan and his staff turned out and cantered towards the rear of our position. The booming of artillery, the spattering roll of musketry, were heard rising from the valley, drowning the roar of the siege guns in front before Sebastopol. As I rode in the direction of the firing over the thistles and large stones which cover the undulating plain which stretches away towards Balaclava, on a level with the summit of the ridges above it, I observed a French light infantry regiment (the 27th, I think) advancing with admirable care and celerity from our right towards the ridge near the telegraph house, which was already lined with companies of French infantry, while mounted officers scampered along its broken outline in every direction.

General Bosquet, a stout soldierlike-looking man, who reminds one of the old genre of French generals as depicted at Versailles, followed, with his staff and small escort of Hussars, at a gallop. Faint white clouds rose here and there above the hill from the cannonade below. Never did the painter’s eye rest upon a more beautiful scene than I beheld from the ridge. The fleecy vapours still hung around the mountain tops and mingled with the ascending volumes of smoke; the patch of sea sparkled freshly in the rays of the morning sun, but its light was eclipsed by the flashes which gleamed from the masses of armed men below.

Looking to the left towards the gorge we beheld six compact masses of Russian infantry which had just debouched from the mountain passes near the Tchernaya, and were slowly advancing with solemn stateliness up the valley. Immediately in their front was a regular line of artillery, of at least twenty pieces strong. Two batteries of light guns were already a mile in advance of them, and were playing with energy on the redoubts, from which feeble puffs of smoke came at long intervals. Behind the guns, in front of the infantry, were enormous bodies of cavalry. They were in six compact squares, three on each flank, moving down en échelon towards us, and the valley was lit up with the blaze of their sabres and lance points and gay accoutrements. In their front, and extending along the intervals between each battery of guns, were clouds of mounted skirmishers, wheeling and whirling in the front of their march like autumn leaves tossed by the wind. The Zouaves close to us were lying like tigers at the spring, with ready rifles in hand, hidden chin deep by the earthworks which run along the line of these ridges on our rear, but the quick-eyed Russians were manoeuvring on the other side of the valley, and did not expose their columns to attack. Below the Zouaves we could see the Turkish gunners in the redoubts, all in confusion as the shells burst over them. Just as I came up the Russians had carried No. 1 redoubt, the farthest and most elevated of all, and their horsemen were chasing the Turks across the interval which lay between it and redoubt No. 2. At that moment the cavalry, under Lord Lucan, were formed in glittering masses – the Light Brigade, under Lord Cardigan, in advance of the Heavy Brigade, under Brigadier-General Scarlett, in reserve. They were drawn up just in front of their encampment, and were concealed from the view of the enemy by a slight “wave” in the plain. Considerably to the rear of their right, the 93rd Highlanders were drawn up in line, in front of the approach to Balaclava. Above and behind them on the heights, the Marines were visible through the glass, drawn up under arms, and the gunners could be seen ready in the earthworks, in which were placed the heavy ships’ guns. The 93rd had originally been advanced somewhat more into the plain, but the instant the Russians got possession of the first redoubt they opened fire on them from our own guns, which inflicted some injury, and Sir Colin Campbell “retired” his men to a better position. Meantime the enemy advanced his cavalry rapidly. To our inexpressible disgust we saw the Turks in redoubt No. 2 fly at their approach. They ran in scattered groups across towards redoubt No. 3, and towards Balaclava, but the horse-hoof of the Cossacks was too quick for them, and sword and lance were busily plied among the retreating band. The yells of the pursuers and pursued were plainly audible. As the Lancers and Light Cavalry of the Russians advanced they gathered up their skirmishers with great speed and in excellent order – the shifting trails of men, which played all over the valley like moonlight on water, contracted, gathered up, and the little peloton in a few moments became a solid column. Then up came their guns, in rushed their gunners to the abandoned redoubt, and the guns of No. 2 redoubt soon played with deadly effect upon the dispirited defenders of No. 3 redoubt. Two or three shots in return from the earthworks, and all is silent. The Turks swarm over the earthworks and run in confusion towards the town, firing their muskets at the enemy as they run. Again the solid column of cavalry opens like a fan, and resolves itself into the “long spray” of skirmishers. It laps the flying Turks, steel flashes in the air, and down go the poor Muslim quivering on the plain, split through fez and musket-guard to the chin and breast-belt. There is no support for them. It is evident the Russians have been too quick for us. The Turks have been too quick also, for they have not held their redoubts long enough to enable us to bring them help. In vain the naval guns on the heights fire on the Russian cavalry; the distance is too great for shot or shell to reach. In vain the Turkish gunners in the earthen batteries which are placed along the French intrenchments strive to protect their flying countrymen; their shots fly wide and short of the swarming masses. The Turks betake themselves towards the Highlanders, where they check their flight and form into companies on the flanks of the Highlanders.

As the Russian cavalry on the left of their line crown the hill, across the valley they perceive the Highlanders drawn up at the distance of some half-mile, calmly awaiting their approach. They halt, and squadron after squadron flies up from the rear, till they have a body of some 1500 men along the ridge – Lancers and Dragoons and Hussars. Then they move en échelon in two bodies, with another in reserve. The cavalry who have been pursuing the Turks on the right are coming up the ridge beneath us, which conceals our cavalry from view. The heavy brigade in advance is drawn up in two columns. The first column consists of the Scots Greys and of their old companions in glory, the Enniskillens; the second of the 4th Royal Irish, of the 5th Dragoon Guards, and of the 1st Royal Dragoons. The Light Cavalry Brigade is on their left in two lines also. The silence is oppressive; between the cannon bursts, one can hear the champing of bits and the clink of sabres in the valley below. The Russians on their left drew breath for a moment, and then in one grand line dashed at the Highlanders. The ground flies beneath their horses’ feet – gathering speed at every stride they dash on towards that thin red streak topped with a line of steel. The Turks fire a volley at 800 yards, and run. As the Russians come within 600 yards, down goes that line of steel in front, and out rings a rolling volley of Minié musketry. The distance is too great. The Russians are not checked, but still sweep onwards with the whole force of horse and man, through the smoke, here and there knocked over by the shot of our batteries above. With breathless suspense everyone awaits the bursting of the wave upon the line of Gaelic rock; but ere they came within 150 yards, another deadly volley flashes from the levelled rifles, and carries death and terror into the Russians. They wheel about, open files right and left, and fly back faster than they came.

“Bravo Highlanders! Well done!” shout the excited spectators; but events thicken. The Highlanders and their splendid front are soon forgotten. Men scarcely have a moment to think of this fact that the 93rd never altered their formation to receive that tide of horsemen.

“No,” said Sir Colin Campbell, “I did not think it worth while to form them even four deep!”

The ordinary British line, two deep, was quite sufficient to repel the attack of these Muscovite chevaliers. Our eyes were, however, turned in a moment on our own cavalry. We saw Brigadier-General Scarlett ride along in front of his massive squadrons. The Russians – evidently corps d’élite – their light-blue jackets embroidered with silver lace, were advancing on their left at an easy gallop, towards the brow of the hill. A forest of lances glistened in their rear, and several squadrons of grey-coated dragoons moved up quickly to support them as they reached the summit. The instant they came in sight the trumpets of our cavalry gave out the warning blast which told us all that in another moment we would see the shock of battle beneath our very eyes. Lord Raglan, all his staff and escort, and groups of officers, the Zouaves, the French generals and officers, and bodies of French infantry on the height, were spectators of the scene as though they were looking on the stage from the boxes of a theatre. Nearly everyone dismounted and sat down, and not a word was said.

The Russians advanced down the hill at a slow canter, which they changed to a trot and at last nearly halted. The first line was at least double the length of ours – it was three times as deep. Behind them was a similar line, equally strong and compact. They evidently despised their insignificant-looking enemy, but their time was come.

The trumpets rang out through the valley, and the Greys and Enniskillens went right at the centre of the Russian cavalry. The space between them was only a few hundred yards; it was scarce enough to let the horses “gather way”, nor had the men quite space sufficient for the full play of their sword arms. The Russian line brings forward each wing as our cavalry advance and threaten to annihilate them as they pass on. Turning a little to their left, so as to meet the Russians’ right, the Greys rush on with a cheer that thrills to every heart – the wild shout of the Enniskillens rises through the air at the same moment. As lightning flashes through a cloud the Greys and Enniskillens pierced through the dark masses of the Russians. The shock was but for a moment. There was a clash of steel and a light play of sword blades in the air, and then the Greys and the redcoats disappear in the midst of the shaken and quivering columns. In another moment we see them merging and dashing on with diminished numbers, and in broken order, against the second line, which is advancing against them to retrieve the fortune of the charge.

It was a terrible moment. “God help them! They are lost!” was the exclamation of more than one man, and the thought of many. With unabated fire the noble hearts dashed at their enemy – it was a fight of heroes. The first line of Russians which had been smashed utterly by our charge, and had fled off at one flank and towards the centre, were coming back to swallow up our handful of men. By sheer steel and sheer courage Enniskillen and Scot were winning their desperate way right through the enemy’s squadrons, and already grey horses and redcoats had appeared right at the rear of the second mass, when, with irresistible force, like one bolt from a bow, the 1st Royals, the 4th Dragoon Guards, and the 5th Dragoon Guards rushed at the remnants of the first line of the enemy, went through it as though it were made of pasteboard, and dashing on the second body of Russians, as they were still disordered by the terrible assault of the Greys and their companions, put them to utter rout. This Russian horse in less than five minutes after it met our dragoons was flying with all its speed before a force certainly not half its strength.

A cheer burst from every lip – in the enthusiasm officers and men took off their caps and shouted with delight, and thus keeping up the scenic character of their position, they clapped their hands again and again . . .


On Sale
May 28, 2013
Page Count
512 pages
Running Press