HE WIELDED PEN AND SWORD

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 11:56

In keeping with many other books by forgotten or no longer popular authors, those written by Lionel James, although available from some libraries, have to be exhumed from their storerooms. In addition to several volumes of short stones, some of which probably had appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine to which, among others, he was known to have contributed, his literary output comprised thirteen, the originals of which are in the Bodleian Library. Published under his own name were With the Chitral Relief Force, The Indian Frontier War, Side Tracks and Bridle Paths, With the Conquered Turk, A History of King Edward’s Horse, Times of Stress, and under various pseudonyms On the Heels of De Wet, The Boy Galloper, A Subaltern of Horse, The Yellow War, Green Envelopes, and A History of the Russo-Japanese War. When The Times History Of The South African War was being compiled he collaborated on Volumes 2 and 3. Born in India in 1871, Lionel was a younger son of the by then retired Lieutenant Colonel L.H.S. James of the Royal Artillery, who had joined the Indian Army in 1858, and Emma (née Batson).

Despatched to England at the age of nine to be educated, his family’s finances being insufficient to cover a public school’s fees, he was sent to Surrey County School (later Cranleigh) a good boarding school that provided a classical education and taught also practical subjects with emphasis on  science. Surprisingly, given his brilliance in adult life, during his six year sojourn there his performance was barely mediocre. Showing no talent on the playing fields and no interest in other pursuits, he failed to pass the South Kensington Science Examinations.

Recalled to India when sixteen, he immediately became employed on an indigo estate in Behar where he worked for ten years near Muzzaffarpur. Playing polo for recreation, he acquired a string of ponies, and enlisted in the volunteer Behar Mounted Rifles. Having still plenty of spare time, he developed his ability as an artist and writer. By 1895 two of his books of short stories had been published after appearing in English language newspapers, and his drawings of local life were being accepted by the London Graphic.

When in 1894 a bet on his own horse made on the Allahabad racecourse landed him in debt, in order to settle with his creditors he began what was to be a successful career as a war correspondent by working for the Calcutta-based proprietor of The Englishman who needed someone to cover the Chitral campaign, and also for Reuters and The Times of India.

When giving a résumé of James’ character, Dr George Ernest Morrison a Times correspondent said he was ‘good, simple, hot-tempered, impatient, self-willed, and able’, thus omitting the fact of his being extremely courageous and willing to imperil his life in order to give editors the truth of what was taking place on battlefields, by actually being under fire with the troops involved. Only one other correspondent, William Howard Russell, who reported the Crimean War, took such risks.

That what was lacking in the schoolboy was compensated for in the man was proved by the initiative he showed and the ingenuity of the methods he used to outwit rival journalists. When, for instance, Ladysmith was besieged and it was almost impossible to send news from there to Johannesburg, he decided to use carrier pigeons. Unfortunately these too were intercepted, and a Boer with a sense of humour wrote to thank him for an enjoyable meal.

In order to dash with the good news to a telegraph office after the relief force arrived, James, accompanied by his courier, Adin Coates, and a Kaffir guide, left under the cover of darkness on a perilous trek which entailed feeling their way and leading their horses as quietly as possible,  for although the investing ring had been pierced Boer snipers still occupied their original positions.

Having arrived at Pieter’s Hill, where Sir Redvers Buller had his headquarters, he was able to have the news cabled to England in time for it on the following day (Saturday) to appear only in The Times and The Standard.

From his great-grandson, Mr Nicholas E. Blackwell, we learn that his ancestor, realising the potential of the wireless, which was still in its infancy, was the first correspondent to use it. This was during the Russo-Japanese War. Having chartered a steam-boat suitably equipped, he transmitted the report of a sea battle to his private wireless station at Wei-Hai-Wei in China while steaming regardless of danger in close proximity to the opposed fleets.

When, presumably, he had earned enough to pay his creditors, the intrepid correspondent would have been content to remain an indigo planter had he not in 1895 met Margaret Crane, the sister of a friend, whose relatives, biased by his current financial straits, regarded James as an impecunious gambler. Further proof of his resourcefulness was in evidence when, in 1897, Margaret was returning from India to England. Aware that to win her quick action was necessary, he raced on horseback to Bombay from where the ship had just departed. Without a thought for his safety, he swam after the vessel, climbed aboard, and proposed.

When employed by Reuters as their War and Special Correspondent (1894-1898), the campaigns he covered were the Chitral (1894-5), the Mohmund, Malakand, and Tirah (1897-8), and Soudan (1898). Exceeding the call of duty on one occasion, he became involved in a fight at the Malakand Pass, supporting and rallying the British soldiers – an action for which, although a journalist, he was mentioned in despatches.

From 1899 to 1913 as the Special and Principal War Correspondent for The Times, his work took him to Egypt (1899), South Africa (1899-1910), America and Macedonia (1903), Japan and Manchuria (1904), India (1907-8), Persia and Turkey (1907-8), and the Balkans (1909). Also in 1909 he was with the Spanish Army in Morocco. 1910 found him with the Turkish Army in Albania. In 1914 he accompanied the French Army to Fez and was with the Italians in Tripoli. In 1914 he again joined the Turks and the following year the Bulgarians – both missions taking him to Thrace.

The asset that gave him advantage over his contemporaries was his extensive knowledge of the armies of the world, their organisation and modus operandi which he had gained by studying and experience in the field.

On the 3rd of January 1911, as a change from foreign missions he was sent to the East End of London to report on the Siege of Sydney Street where the situation was serious enough to warrant the presence of Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary. In appreciation of James’ vivid account of the affair which was printed the next day, he received a letter from the editor, George Buckle.

As so often happens when newspaper proprietors make changes, in 1913 the sterling service rendered by Lionel James was ignored by Lord Northcliffe and his salary of £600 per annum was reduced to £200 and so much a column. Having by that time made enough money to be independent, James resigned, and, as he wrote to his friend, George Morrison, after whom he named one of his sons, he never darkened the doors of Printing House Square again.

Following his distinguished career as an author and journalist, during the 1914-18 War he added lustre to his name by his achievements as a soldier. Formerly the King’s Colonials which he had joined a year after it was formed in 1901, by 1914 it had become King Edward’s Horse with only he and another of the original complement still in it.

With the British Expeditionary Force, during the Battle of the Somme, Colonel James leading a depleted regiment against heavy odds, he won renown for the King Edward’s Horse, and the D.S.O. for himself by rescuing the leaderless remnants of two other British regiments and, after reorganising the men, by employing brilliant tactics, against body-slicing machine gun fire drove the Germans from their strongly held position. Twice during that war he was mentioned in despatches, and for his services in that country was given the Crown of Italy.

Unwilling to lead a sedentary life after leaving the Army, in 1929-31 he was managing a racing stable and stud farm – a job for which, possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of horses, he was eminently suited. From 1930 to 1942 he was a governor of the Imperial Services College, Windsor, and in 1942 he was a governor of Haileybury after joining the Berkshire County Council in 1940. When in his middle seventies he retired from public service in 1946, he did occasional broadcasts for the BBC, and reviewed various sporting and serious books for several leading journals.

On May 30th,1955 Colonel Lionel James, C.B.E., D.S.O., whom Punch designated ‘One of the Princes of the golden age of War Correspondence’ died at the age of 84, depriving this country of a fine writer with a world wide reputation and a great warrior about whom a new biography is long overdue.

N.B. The late Mr Morrison L. James of Sandown, Isle of Wight, was one of his sons.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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