Archibald Forbes may be the most-decorated war correspondent to have ever lived. From the Russian Order of St Stanislaus to the Prussian Iron Cross via awards for services in Afghanistan, the litany of medals Forbes accumulated testifies to his prolific journalistic record and the wide geographic span of his reporting.
‘NOT TOO MODEST’
Forbes was the son of a Presbyterian minister, born in Morayshire, Scotland, in 1838. There were two conventional paths that a young man of his standing could follow: the Army or the Church.
After watching a series of lectures by pioneering war correspondent William Howard Russell – the journalist who brought the events of the Crimean War home in graphic detail to the British public – Forbes eschewed his father’s calling and, in 1859, joined the Royal Dragoons.
While serving in the army, Forbes was quick to pick up his pen, dashing off articles on military subjects for The Morning Star and Cornhill Magazine. Invalided from the army in 1867, he decided to pursue writing full-time, starting up his own weekly journal, The London Scotsman, with little financial aid.
His big break was soon to follow, when he was dispatched by the Morning Advertiser to cover the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. His erstwhile source of inspiration William Howard Russell was also present to cover that war – but Forbes managed to get one up on him when it came to speed of reporting back, though his methods were on the shady side.
Forbes prioritised being the first to publish a scoop above the quality and accuracy of his writing. Sent to cover the Prussian Army’s advance on Paris in 1870, he managed to forge close connections with the commanders of the Prussian Army, including the Prussian Crown Prince.
Forbes got detailed accounts from the Prussians about plans for the impending bombardment. Before the bombardment had started, Forbes wrote up the plans as if they were happening in real-time, sent his despatch to the Daily News, and told them to hold off printing until he telegrammed to tell them that action had started – at which point they published his account immediately.
William Howard Russell, however, waited until the bombardment had actually begun before sitting down to write his despatch – so Forbes beat him to the scoop by an entire day.
Forbes’ writing, though vivid and gripping, ultimately received less accolades than Russell’s, whose sense of pathos and empathy for the ordinary soldier won over the hearts and minds of the British public; no doubt his commitment to actually witnessing the events in question before reporting back also helped.
Nevertheless, Forbes’ vast experience gave a useful and entertaining insight into military strategy. This extract from his later memoirs shows his ability to marry precise detail with engaging figurative style:
The siege of Paris may be said to have commenced on the 21st of September, on which day the left flank of the 3rd army and the right flank of the Maas army came together round Paris like the closing claws of a crab, and the grip was never relaxed till the preliminaries of peace were accepted at Bordeaux.
When it came to the gory details of hand-to-hand combat, Forbes did not hesitate to deliver, giving the following description of action at Le Bourget in October 1870:
The officers led till they fell. One went down with a bullet from a revolver, another got a bayonet right in the heart as he chested the stones of the entrenchment. As Helldorff dropped among the Mobile Guards, one of them took off a part of his ear, but fared considerably worse than Peter when he served another fellow-creature in the same way.
For this, he was commended by his contemporaries: the Western Mail described him, on 27 April 1877, as ‘combin[ing] all the qualities of a good war correspondent – pluck and dash, tempered with discretion, the knack of writing in a graphic style under any circumstances, and not too much modesty’.
Despite having received so many civilian medals, Forbes was never content. One medal he felt he surely deserved but never received was the British 1877-1879 South Africa Medal.
Forbes, famously, was the first to deliver the news of the British victory at the Zulu capital of Ulundi in 1879, the last major battle of the Anglo-Zulu War, which cemented the defeat of the Zulu nation.
Once the victory was certain, Forbes undertook a strenuous 20-hour, 110-mile ride overnight, arriving at Landman’s Drift to telegraph his despatch reporting the victory to the Daily News. His report was published by Forbes’ agency a day before the official army despatches arrived in London.
On application for the South Africa Medal, however, Forbes was refused by Lord Chelmsford on the grounds that the messages he carried for several British officers were of a personal nature, not official despatches.
This decision was not least due to the fact that Chelmsford had a bone to pick with Forbes, who had been scathing about Chelmsford’s conduct of the Zulu War, particularly in relation to the British defeat at Isandlwana.
Forbes himself was not immune to criticism, though. Commenting on the episode, the Weekly Irish Times published the following squib in its comedy section:
“EQUES,” IF EVER THERE WAS ONE. Where is the hero ever earned his spurs by service in field better than Archibald Forbes by his fifteen hours’ ride with the news of the victory of Ulundi? After such a gallop, he deserves the Knight of the Bath – if only by perspiration.
Aside from the Zulu and Franco-Prussian Wars, Forbes also witnessed fighting in Spain between the Carlists and their opponents in 1873, travelled with the Russian volunteers on the Serbian campaign of 1876, was present at the Russian invasion of Turkey in 1877, witnessed the British occupation of Cyprus in 1878, and in the same year went out to Afghanistan to accompany the Khyber Pass force on its route to Jellalabad during the Anglo-Afghan Wars.
This experience was rich stuff for his memoirs, of which he produced many. Highlights include My Experiences of the War between France and Germany (1871), Barracks, Bivouacs, and Battles (1891), The Afghan Wars, 1839-42 and 1878-80 (1892), and Battles of the Nineteenth Century (1901).
Forbes did not achieve the same level of fame as his contemporary William Howard Russell. Yet he surely deserves recognition for his emphasis on speedy news reporting. •