On The Front Line!
Dedicated to my colleagues…
Thomas William Bowlby (January 7, 1818 – September 22, 1860), a British correspondent for The Times in Germany and China in the 19th Century, had arrived in Beijing to cover the Second Indo-Chinese War when India was a colony of the British Empire. The people used to wait eagerly for the pieces of information that were sent by him. James Bruce (popularly known as Lord Elgin (July 20, 1811 – November 20, 1863)) – a British Diplomat, and later the Viceroy of British India (1862-63) – reportedly relied heavily on Bowlby’s coverage in order to prepare his war strategy. However, Bowlby was alone and unarmed, when the Chinese Forces had detained him. The inhuman torture that was repeatedly inflicted on him lasted for three days… and Bowlby’s body was found in the outskirts of Beijing on October 17, 1860. However, his identity was almost unrecognisable as the body was severely mutilated.
From adolescence, Georgette Louise Meyer (March 14, 1919 – November 4, 1965), popularly known as Dickey Chapelle, wanted to become a war correspondent. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the US Military Commanders had created troubles for her. However, Chapelle decided to battle sexism through her life, and started clicking images of the War after making friendship with some top US Navy officers. On a number of occasions, the Navy rescued her from the battlefield. However, adverse situations could not stop her from taking pictures of the war. She used to say that she would like to die on duty… during a process of Operation. Her dream came true one day, as the American photo-journalist was killed in a bomb-blast, during a combat operation with the US Navy in South Vietnam, in 1965. With this, she became the first female war correspondent to be killed in Vietnam, as well as the first American female reporter to be killed in action. Her last moments were captured in a photograph by Henri Huet.
Indian photo-journalist Danish Siddiqui (May 19, 1983 – July 16, 2021) breathed his last in the battlefield very recently. Before his demise while covering clashes in Spin Boldak District in Afghanistan’s Kandahar, Siddiqui tweeted for the one last time, saying: “The Humvee in which I was travelling with other special forces was also targeted by at least three RPG rounds and other weapons. I was lucky to be safe and capture the visual of one of the rockets hitting the armour plate overhead.” Usually, war correspondents perform their duties on foreign soils with the support of the Armed Forces, and not independently. Otherwise, the risk of being abducted is very high. Siddiqui, who used to head the national Reuters Multimedia team, was with the Afghan Army. Still, he failed to dodge the death.
Siddiqui rose to the stature of a National Hero for his critical work within India. He routinely exposed the shortcomings of the Government of India. In 2019, his images crushed the false narrative that students protesting in New Delhi against an anti-Muslim Citizenship Law were instigating violence. It was Siddiqui who clicked the photo of an unarmed Muslim man being beaten by a Hindu mob in New Delhi as the Indian capital was engulfed in Hindu-Muslim riots. Most prominently, Siddiqui was among the first to shoot images of crematoriums packed with pyres of Hindus who died of the Coronavirus in 2021. His footage and photographs revealed the extent of the crisis unfolding in India and brought the world’s attention to it. As expected, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained silence upon Siddiqui’s death.
Journalists have been covering wars from Ground Zero for long, and they have always been accompanied by terrible danger and fear of death. As per a report prepared by Reporters Without Borders, 147 journalists were killed in battlefields in 2012 and 80 in 2018, worldwide! In 2019, 325 media-persons were detained in various jails in different parts of the globe, including Turkey, Syria, Vietnam and Yemen. The number has increased in the last couple of years.
It is not that journalists or photo-journalists are killed by external enemies while covering wars… whenever their coverage has unveiled the mask of the State, the Government has harassed them, and tried to censor news contents. However, the State Power has failed to suppress the Media in most of the cases.
When his Chief Editor forcibly sent Irish journalist Sir William Howard Russell (March 28, 1820 – February 11, 1907) to Crimea in 1854, the former promised that he would allow Sir William to spend the Easter with his family after two months. Little did anyone of them had any idea that the journalist would not be able to return to England in next two years. Upon his arrival in the battlefield, Sir William strongly criticised the British Defence Policy and Military officers. He wrote that the English Generals were more concerned with dress code and etiquette than with war strategy or the death of ordinary soldiers. In his writings, he portrayed the inhuman suffering of the wounded soldiers, who had to live in an unhealthy environment. Majority of them had suffered from cholera. The British Forces had insufficient ambulances to evacuate them from the battlefield. Often, they were laid on the ground or on benches. The English Generals harassed Sir William a lot for constantly writing against them. The war correspondent spent many nights in the battlefield without proper food and shelter.
Sir William was successful in creating a strong Public Opinion in England with his writings. His write-ups on the Battle of Balaclava caused a stir between the Government and the Opposition. The battle was fought on October 25, 1854 during the Crimean War, as it was a part of the Siege of Sevastopol (1854-55), an Allied attempt to capture the port and fortress of Sevastopol, Russia’s principal naval base on the Black Sea. The British Government vehemently denied the fact, claiming that the Irish journalist had received special advantages from the enemies for distorting facts! The Government also made an attempt to suppress the circulation of his daily. The Chief Editor of the paper started distributing his personal letters about the war in the Parliament. Under pressure, the Government changed its war strategy. Sir William also visited India a few days after the Sepoy Mutiny (1857-59). The Sepoy Mutiny – also commonly known as the Indian Mutiny, Indian Rebellion, or amongst an older generation of nationalist historians, India’s First War of Independence against the British – was an armed uprising that began in locally raised units of the East India Company‘s Bengal Army (the other two Armies of the East India Company were the Madras Army and the Bombay Army). The Irishman covered the restoration of Lucknow in 1858, too.
Restrictions were there on journalists during the First World War. Britain used to decide exactly how much they would report from the battlefield. Correspondents were not allowed to publicly reveal the naked truth of the war! When the British and French troops retreated at the initial stage, journalist William Arthur Moore (1880-1962) wrote that the morale of the soldiers was intact, despite the temporary defeat. A few days later, six journalists from different papers were nominated to cover the war. Interestingly, they were accompanied by some Army personnel during their coverage, and even during breakfast, lunch and dinner. Harassed and insulted journalists had to wear military uniforms in the battlefield.
The Battle of Somme began on July 1, 1916. Three million soldiers took part in the five-month battle, and one million of them either received serious injuries or lost their lives. The British Government not only suppressed the fact, but also asked well-known English journalist Sir Philip Armand Hamilton Gibbs (May 1, 1877 – March 10, 1962) to write that it was a good day for Britain and France, as soldiers of the two countries killed a huge number of enemies on the very first day of the battle! Later, both the countries had to suffer the consequences of this. Seven years after the end of the First World War, English author and journalist Sir William Beach Thomas (May 22, 1868 – May 12, 1957) admitted that the British intelligence used to provide them with false information, and he conveyed untrue news to his countrymen. Sir William felt he had failed as a journalist. American journalists Marie Catherine Colvin and William D ‘Bill’ Stewart, German Jewish photo-journalist Greta Taro and many others perished at battlefields.
Journalists have always faced trouble for writing against the State or criticising the Government. Bernard B Fall (November 19, 1926 – February 21, 1967) was a prominent American war correspondent, historian, political scientist, and expert on Indo-China during the 1950s and 1960s. Noam Chomsky praised his articles and analyses during the Vietnam War. However, Fall was a fierce critic of the US-backed Ngo Dinh Diem Government. Although his positive comments received a huge appreciation, Washington DC criticised him whenever he wrote against the US policy towards Vietnam.
Ernest Taylor Pyle (August 3, 1900 – April 18, 1945) was a notable name in journalism during the Second World War. The Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and war correspondent is best known for his stories about ordinary US soldiers. The day after D-Day, Pyle wrote: “It extends in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach… here in a jumbled row for mile on mile are soldiers’ packs. Here are socks and shoe polish, sewing kits, diaries, Bibles and hand grenades. Here are the latest letters from home, with the address on each one neatly razored out – one of the security precautions enforced before the boys embarked.” He added: “Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. Here are pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers, and bloody, abandoned shoes… torn pistol belts and canvas water buckets, first-aid kits. I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier’s name in it, and put it in my jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach. I don’t know why I picked it up, or why I put it back down.” Pyle further wrote: “In every invasion, you’ll find at least one solder hitting the beach at H-hour with a banjo slung over his shoulder. The most ironic piece of equipment making our beach – this beach of first despair, then victory – is a tennis racket. It lies lonesomely on the sand, clamped in its rack, not a string broken.” (‘The historic coast of Normandy in the country of France’).
It was seen that towards the end of his life, Pyle suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Once, he said that he would never cover any war, as the sound of a bullet or the scream of a soldier would drive him crazy. He was mentally not prepared to take-up any new assignment. However, he had to cover naval action during the Battle of Okinawa, the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. On April 17, 1945, Pyle came ashore with the US Army’s 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, on Ie Shima (now known as Iejima), a small island northwest of Okinawa. The following day, Pyle was traveling by jeep with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B Coolidge, the Commanding Officer of the 305th and three additional officers toward Coolidge’s new command post, when the vehicle came under fire from a Japanese machine gun… a machine-gun bullet entered his left temple just under his helmet, killing him instantly. An image of Pyle’s body came to light in 2008. In the image, it is seen that his body is lying in peace at the bottom of a hillock, with folded hands. The neck is unusually curved. One of his glasses is broken, and a thin stream of blood is flowing down from the corners of his lips. The image of Pyle’s body probably tells a thousand of untold stories.
It seems that as for the much-adored and educated reports from the fields of action, for most, only the Light in the form of the events exists, and not the Pain and Darkness, also associated with it. Darkness and pains are only for those journalists, who send images and information from the battlefield…
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