Caroline Wyatt: reportage in war

| by Caroline Wyatt

Caroline Wyatt reflects on the role of reportage in making sense of the human experience of war

From the Crimean War, through the Great War to the many conflicts of today, reportage remains one of the most powerful weapons in any writer’s armoury, whether that writer is a journalist, soldier or civilian. Each tries to tell his or her own truth, acting as the reader’s eyes and ears on the field of battle.

Take for instance this account by a young British soldier, which takes us straight into the frontline trenches. Even today, almost a century on, his voice has the immense power and immediacy of the eye-witness report, albeit one that was written down only many years later. 

 “We set to work to bury people. We pushed them into the sides of the trench but bits of them kept getting uncovered and sticking out, like people in a badly-made bed. Hands were the worst; they would escape from the sand, pointing, begging – even waving! There was one which we all shook when we passed, saying ‘Good Morning’, in a posh voice. Everybody did it. The bottom of the trench was springy like a mattress because of all the bodies underneath…. We were all lousy and we couldn’t stop shitting because we had caught dysentery. We wept, not because we were frightened but because we were so dirty.”[1]

This transports us straight to the horror and the pathos, and the deep black humour that helps the living deal with the dead.

Soldiers or former soldiers have written some of the most vivid reportage, and continue to do so today. Anthony Loyd of The Times newspaper is one former officer-turned-journalist whose dispatches from frontlines around the world compel the reader to continue, however painful the content:

“Something was missing from the doctor’s eyes, so that his gaze seemed strangely blank and fixed. Though he smiled from time to time, he did so in brief flickering stabs and his face was impossibly lined for a man of 34, creases adding a decade to his age. “I’ve seen so many bodies, so many wounded... — thousands — that I feel I have lost some of my own humanity and feeling,” Yasser Darwish said.

The world’s focus was on Geneva as we spoke in Atarib, northern Syria, on the eve of the US-Russian deal to secure and dispose of the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stocks.

Yet in the shadows beyond the diplomatic spotlight, the war continued unchanged. The daily horrors witnessed by medical staff … seemed unlikely to be altered in any way by the latest political spectacle abroad.”[2]

Loyd’s voice in his reportage is as powerful and evocative as that of his illustrious predecessor at The Times, William Howard Russell in his reports on the war in Crimea from 1854 to 1856. The ‘miserable parent of a luckless tribe’ of war correspondents, as he put it, had made himself deeply unpopular with both generals and politicians with his first-hand reports on the horrors and the failings of that campaign.  

“Am I to tell these things?” Russell wrote to his editor in London, “or am I to hold my tongue?” To which John Delane replied: “continue to tell as much truth as you can.” Like Russell's, the best reportage is a first draft of history, though Loyd reminds his readers in an interview with Press Gazette that however compelling the reportage: “There is always a chasm between you and the people in whose country you are working because as one person is observing, another is enduring.”[3]

The intent of much reportage is to shine a light on conflict, and its impact on everyday lives: on people just like you and me, wherever we may live. We all have families and friends, and thanks to the power of skilfully-chosen words, we can all be made to imagine how it feels to live or to die amidst the shells or the gas, or be forced to forage for the family’s food amid the rubble.

Reportage’s great strength, and its great weakness, is its power to stir emotion. As we sit reading such despatches comfortably over breakfast at home, we can feel sad, indignant, angry, and not least relieved that we are not there, that we are not among the dispossessed or the disenfranchised. 

Yet reportage will rarely contain the analysis of how and why the war began, nor the quieter behind-the-scenes diplomacy, nor any idea of how it might end – even as its author may issue a siren call for the world to act, to do something, anything, to end the suffering. But then, if the world does act… then comes the backlash in equally powerful measure: unintended civilian casualties, perhaps, or a war that is fought but perhaps can never be won by the involvement of foreign troops.

And what of the writer: do they tell the whole truth? Could anyone ever hope to? My war is not your war. I may visit your frontline and your life (or perhaps even your death) for a day or a week or a month. Yet, even as I tell your story, I can never truly write from anyone’s perspective but my own – observing, as you and your family endure.

There is a danger in that, too, of voyeurism. Of war stories that are told in order to boost newspaper sales or viewing figures, or reportage that serves as propaganda for whichever side. Not to mention the well-known dangers for journalists who embed with their own country’s forces, or those of others, who must fight not to have their writings compromised or censored until they no longer tell any truth at all.

Ultimately, reportage tells us the story of human suffering, and of man’s inhumanity to man, and just occasionally, the flashes of humanity on the battlefield, the ceasefire as the wounded are tended or the dead are buried.

And it is, for the most part, the men waging the wars. The women are – often – the onlookers. They are the silent ones, until they are given voice in reportage, and their tears of despair, or howls of rage and anguish ring out as their children and husbands are maimed and killed.  Relatively few women war correspondents have had children of their own - perhaps seeing too much death is inimical to motherhood.

The late, great war reporter Marie Colvin’s last despatch from Syria in 2012 before she was killed captures just such a scene, which focuses our attention on the plight of mothers caught up in the chaos of war:

“They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.

 “We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”[4]

Yet Syria today is one example of how reportage is changing. Many broadcasters and newspapers are starting to use the words and the images emerging from blogs and social media from those directly involved.

No longer silent, young women post passionate first-hand eye-witness accounts on Facebook and other sites, telling of the horrors they are witnessing or subject to, while doctors working in  makeshift medical facilities treating the wounded tell of their rage and horror at the toll of war. 

Younger soldiers use helmet-mounted cameras or take ‘selfies’ showing themselves on the battlefield, sometimes with unintended consequences - from a murder charge for a Royal Marine in Helmand, to the Russian soldier unwittingly giving away his true location in Ukraine. Young British jihadis in Syria and Iraq on Twitter mix horror with bathos as their own 21st century communications move swiftly in 140 characters from jubilant beheadings to homesickness, or the trials of a summer without their favourite ice cream.

Unlike the soldiers of the Great War, or those serving in today’s armies or rebel groups, the traditional reporter still defines him or herself as an observer, rather than participant: there to act as the eyes and the ears of the outside world, and offer a mediated truth. Yet the job of mediation is always complex: it means selecting the information to convey, and sometimes at least, trying to assess what it might all mean or where it may lead to in a wider context. 

That remains a challenge for the reporter whose eye-witness account from their trench, cellar or rooftop can offer, at best, only a limited view. And all reporters must work out how to interpret what they see, not always easy, not least when one’s own nation is doing the fighting amid the swirling ‘fog of war’.

The BBC insists on impartiality in its reporting. Yet in war, as in so many things, you cannot (as the late journalist James Cameron wrote) write from ‘nobody’s point of view’. The ideal of impartiality in reporting and reportage is both noble and admirable, yet like every human and thus imperfect endeavour, we are bound to fall short. As the police know all too well when they come to the scene of a crime, the eye-witnesses all see different things, with many versions of the truth. In the end, all you can do is try to be fair, and report what you saw, as you saw it. Better to bear partial witness, maybe, than none at all.  

And perhaps better that readers are aware that reportage contains something of a truth, rather than the truth. The truth was, is and will always be a slippery customer, not to be pinned down in any single account, however compelling its narrator. What is represented can only be one small ray of light shone into a dark place; a sliver of truth in a shattered land.

But perhaps reportage at its best is a reminder, if any were needed, of what it means to be human: to suffer and to bleed, to feel terror or sudden relief, to fail and sometimes to triumph. 

We may come from different tribes, hold different faiths dear; we may speak different languages, but we are all, under the skin, human beings. And reportage reminds us that we are all - in our common humanity - in need of greater understanding.

In war, and in peace, we shall always need the storytellers, whoever they may be, who can begin to tell the stories of our age, our struggles, our conflicts - and perhaps show another generation in a hundred years’ time how we came to live, to fight or to die. And those stories must be told before we and our brief span on this earth fade from living memory, and we join the ranks of those who have gone before us, only their voices able to live on so vividly thanks to the written word. 


[1] From Leonard Thompson ‘A Suffolk Farmhand at Gallipoli’, June 1815, quoted in The Faber Book of Reportage’ edited by John Carey in 1987, from an oral history collected in Ronald Blythe’s ‘Akenfield’ published in 1969

[2] Doctor in Syria tells of wounds that talks cannot heal: by Anthony Loyd, The Times: 16 Sept 2013

[4] Marie Colvin, Sunday Times, Syria, 19th February 2012


Caroline Wyatt is the religious affairs correspondent for BBC News and was formerly the defence correspondent for more than ten years.

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