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Historical perspectives

Remembering our fallen war correspondents

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

John Entwisle  Corporate Historian, Thomson Reuters

Sunday marked Remembrance Sunday in the UK, followed by Armistice Day and Veterans Day in the U.S. Let’s take a moment to remember our reporters on the front line of conflicts around the world.

In Memoriam – Remembering our colleagues

Over the past 130 years, twenty nine of our correspondents and photographers have lost their lives while covering conflicts in different parts of the world. Our Thomson Reuters “In Memoriam” book lists each name and tells us something about each individual. The book first came into being in 1994, twenty years ago.

Reuters correspondent Frank Roberts
Mr. Frank Roberts

It opens with Frank Roberts, who died during the now almost-forgotten Sudan campaign of 1885. His name appears on a bronze plaque in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, dedicated to the seven correspondents who lost their lives in the war. The next casualty was Dick Sheepshanks, killed at Teruel in 1937 while reporting from General Franco’s Nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War. Fifty-two troubled years separate the two correspondents. But now the demands and expectations placed on journalists and photographers have changed dramatically since the early days. Sadly, such demands also bring with them a much greater element of personal risk.

Reuters covered most major wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But, apart from Roberts, the agency did not lose a single correspondent. By comparison, during the conflicts of the later 20th and early 21st centuries, it lost 28.

What makes war reporting more dangerous in the 21st century?

Today’s correspondents and photographers report from the thick of the action to provide an on-the-spot account of unfolding events. A hundred years ago, war reporting meant something quite different.

Reuters employed no photographers. This eliminated one category which now features in the book with tragic regularity. Furthermore, few of our reporters ever expected personally to witness any fighting. Remaining well back from the front line, correspondents accepted official communiqués which strongly ‘suggested’ what they should report. In most cases they questioned no further. Very few had any real opportunities to do so.

Death announcement for Frank Roberts, Reuters Correspondent

Frank Roberts body is lowered from the garrison in this archive photoFrank Roberts died at Suakim on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. A large garrison was being assembled to protect British interests in Egypt and Sudan, then an important part of the British Empire. Poor Frank never actually got to report anything at all. He caught typhoid fever and died within a few days of his arrival. He was buried the following day.

The First World War and censorship by omission

Some might have hoped that the First World War (1914-18) would provide Reuters with one of its finest hours. The agency fielded its two star reporters; Herbert Russell and Lester Lawrence. In reality, both were kept well back from the front line and neither witnessed much actual combat.
At best, their reporting could today be termed ‘censorship by omission’. With minimal further questioning, they painted only that part of the picture most favourable to the Allies. It was, of course, taken for granted that a ‘right-thinking’ newspaper-reader in Britain or its Empire would automatically be on the ‘right’ side. Consequently, on the Western Front in France and Belgium, an advance by the Allies of 20 feet (about six metres) was a ‘victory’. If the Germans advanced the same distance, it usually went unreported.Remembering our colleagues

Reuters tailored its reporting to the requirements of the military commanders at the front and the British Government at home. And in this role it rendered itself essential to the war effort. Thus, when the company almost went bankrupt in 1916, the Government was prepared to bail it out. On 8 January 1918 Roderick Jones, Reuters Chief, was gazetted as Knight-Commander of the newly-created Order of the British Empire. At the war’s end Russell received a knighthood.

War correspondents on the front line

But by the time Dick Sheepshanks was killed in 1937, expectations and reporting styles had altered radically. Change would continue to accelerate through the Second World War, through the Vietnam War (when Reuters lost Bruce Piggott and Ron Laramy) and through the many conflicts since. Today, the concept of correspondents staying well back from the action, relying on official communiqués which ‘suggest’ what they should report, seems laughable.

But of course all things have a price. And that price is the roll-call of 27 names added since 1937. To the sacrifice of each one of them, the “In Memoriam” book bears witness.

Retired Reuters journalist Peter Mosley has written every entry since the book’s inception. All of us at Thomson Reuters are grateful to him for reminding us of those colleagues who gave everything for a cause in which they truly believed – accurate and balanced war reporting.

Learn more

Browse our company history dating back to 1799 or contact our archive staff directly for a deeper dive into the Thomson Reuters Archives.

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