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Historical perspectives

Dying for the Empire, 1885

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

A dispatch from our archive…

Thomson Reuters Memorial Book is dedicated to the memory of Reuters journalists who lost their lives while covering war and conflict for our news and television services. Copies are on display in larger offices around the world. The first name listed is that of Frank Roberts who died 128 years ago on May 15, 1885.

Plaque in St. Paul's Cathedral dedicated to fallen special correspondents of the campaigns in the Soudan
Plaque dedicated to the memory of the men who in the discharge of their duty as Special Correspondents fell in the campaigns in the Soudan 1883 – 1884 – 1885

The above plaque – a large one – is to be found in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral in London and is dedicated specifically to the memory of the gallant men who in the discharge of their duty as Special Correspondents fell in the campaigns in the Soudan 1883 -1884- 1885. The plaque was unveiled in June 1888. Chief speaker was General Sir Garnet Wolseley, overall commander of British forces in the Soudan. The seventh and last name is that of Frank J L Roberts of Reuters. Today few pause to read it. For those who do, the campaigns in the Soudan are a distant memory. Why were the men there; what did they regard as their duty; how did they lose their lives?

Reuters Special Correspondents in Soudan

Frank Roberts, Reuters special correspondent that died in the Soudan
Mr. Frank Roberts: Reuters Special Correspondent and Suakim. Died of Typhoid Fever at Suakim, May 15.

In 1885, Frank John Lamplow Roberts was assigned as Reuters Special Correspondent to the British expeditionary force to the Soudan. He was twenty-five years old. The force commander was Lieutenant-General Sir Gerald Graham. A veteran of many colonial wars, Graham’s orders were to defeat the forces of Muhammad Ahmad ibn Abdallah, known as ‘The Mahdi’, a charismatic leader who was challenging British interests in Egypt and Soudan. Although not formally parts of the British Empire, Britain saw the political stability of both countries as vital. Insurgency could have a damaging effect on the shipping link to India – the ‘Jewel in the Imperial Crown’- via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. For the British Army, the 1880s remained a time of the ‘thin red line’ and the cavalry charge – by then underpinned by modern rifles and heavy artillery.

Khartoum, the capital of the Soudan, had fallen to the Mahdi’s soldiers on 26th January 1885 after a siege of ten months. General Charles Gordon, a British national hero and the only Briton there, had been killed. Britain and its vast Empire was plunged into deepest mourning. In February 1885 Graham and his troops arrived at Suakim on the Red Sea Coast of the Soudan where they remained until May.

General Sir Garnet Wolsley and his war correspondents

As an accredited war correspondent with the British forces, Roberts was a new type of journalist. Nobody was quite clear what his status was. Things had to be worked-out as he went along. War correspondents had to make their own arrangements for food and horses. They required a permit from military headquarters. Yet, to the regular soldiers they seemed little more than would-be experts, lacking in practical experience. General Sir Garnet Wolseley was openly dismissive and distrustful. He was even known to exploit the correspondents by feeding them false information with the intention of misleading the enemy.

Poor Frank Roberts never had the chance to prove himself. He covered no battle and never even left Suakim. He died of typhoid fever on May 15 and was buried the following day in a communal grave in the sand. Admittedly, his chances of dying of typhoid would have been much the same had he remained in Victorian London. But, undoubtedly, he had gone to the Soudan as Reuters Special Correspondent to cover ‘war and conflict’. Very little is known about Frank. His birth certificate and a census entry tell us that he was the fifth child of a lawyer living in what is now central London but was then the suburb of Bloomsbury.

General Sir Garnet Wolsley died in March 1913: he is buried in the crypt of St Paul’s. In the light of what is now known of Wolsley’s views regarding war correspondents, his agreement to be chief speaker seems disingenuous.

Some things never change.

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