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Archibald Forbes, War Correspondent and Author

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. (“War Reporters: Archibald Forbes.” The Past: Military History. September 14, 2019)

Archibald Forbes was born on April 17, 1838, in Morayshire, Scotland, to Lewis William Forbes DD (1794–1854), minister of Boharm, Banffshire, and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1852, and his second wife, Elizabeth Mary Leslie, daughter of Archibald Young Leslie, 12th of Kininvie. He attended Aberdeen University but ran into debt and left without graduating. (Badsey, Stephen. 2014. The Franco-Prussian War 1870–1871. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.)

In 1859, he enlisted in the 1st Royal Dragoons and rose to acting quartermaster-sergeant. While in service, he wrote for the pacifist daily newspaper Morning Star and monthly Cornhill Magazine, edited by William Makepeace Thackeray. He was discharged due to injury in 1864. In 1867, he started a weekly journal called the London Scotsman until 1870 when he was hired as a war correspondent by the Daily News to cover the Franco Prussian war. He was first imbedded with the Prussian Second Army under Prince Frederick Charles and reported on battles at Spicheren, Gravelotte and Sedan. He went on to accompany Royal Headquarters and then the 4th East Prussian Grenadier Regiment.


According one historian: “The Franco-Prussian War began a golden age for war correspondents, and Forbes explained why: the direct link by telegraph, and the fact that with longer-range weapons to see a battle meant being placed in great danger, required both a new style of reporting and a remarkable man to do it. (Badsey, Stephen. 2014. The Franco-Prussian War 1870–1871. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.) He elaborated that “Many war reporters have been flamboyant characters, and it is sometimes hard to separate fact from embellishment in Forbes' writings.(Ibid.) For example, “Forbes was an eyewitness to the battle of Mars-la-Tour on 16 August, making the comparison between the Death Ride and the Charge of the Light Brigade.” (Ibid.)


Forbes found continued success as a war correspondent with the Carlist War in Spain from 1872 to 1876; the Serbian War of 1876; the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 and 1878, the Second Afghan War from 1878 to 1880 and the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.

Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, commanded the British forces and suffered a defeat at the hands of a Zulu force at the Battle of Isandlwana. However, he was victorious in the Battle of Ulundi which ended the war. Forbes volunteered to send the dispatch (along with his report of the victory) to the closest telegraph office. He was celebrated for his riding 110 miles by horseback in 14 hours over rough and dangerous countryside. On August 9, 1879, the Illustrated London News published a full-page illustration of Forbes representing his ride. The accompanying article called him a “bold, unwearied dauntless, solitary horseman.” The article continued: “This gentleman, who has served in a cavalry regiment, is equally distinguished, among those who follow military campaigns in the service of journalism, for his practical knowledge of warfare, his literary powers of description and spirited narrative, and his extraordinary feats of rapid travelling through the roughest country and braving the most obvious personal dangers, to send off his letters or telegrams at the earliest possible moments.”


Over the next twenty years, Forbes lectured around the world. In Hartford, Connecticut, on November 17, 1881, he was introduced by no less than Samuel Clemens who used the pen name Mark Twain. In his introduction, Clemens remarked that “My office here is only to make you acquainted with a man whom you already know perfectly well -- a man who has heard the roar and thunder of battle in many and widely separated lands around and about the globe; a man whose record is filled with brilliant achievements in war and with the pen; a man who has fairly earned, not merely once, but several times, that rarely-granted badge of supreme daring, the coveted Victoria cross; a man who has smelt the breath of dissolution on many a field, and is as familiar with it as is our Angel of Death who presides over the malarious mission of our river Styx and from the dome of the Hartford capitol, yonder -- Archibald Forbes, soldier and war correspondent.” (Hartford Daily Courant, November 18, 1881, p. 2, "The War Correspondent")

Mark Twain was not the only noted author that respected Forbes. Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the Sherlock Holmes novels, penned a letter to Forbes, along with a copy of his book, The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard. In response to Forbes’s comments about his Brigadier Gerard stories, Doyle writes n 1896, “I know no one whose opinion on a such a point has the same weight” and I have just been reading your Havelock with enthusiasm.” (“Hand Written Arthur Conan Doyle Letter Found in College Archives.” St. Aloysius College. January 16, 2023.)


During his travels, he met his future wife, Louisa Rodgers Meigs (1854–1922), who was born in Washington, D.C. She was the youngest daughter of Montgomery C. Meigs, a career United States Army officer and civil engineer, who served as Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during and after the American Civil War. They were married at St. Johns Church in Washington, DC, on June 19, 1886.


In his final years Forbes continued to lecture, compiled his memoirs, published many several biographies, and wrote many books and articles on military history. On March 30, 1900, Forbes died in London and was buried in the Allenvale cemetery, near Aberdeen. In May 1902, friends and admirers placed a tablet with a medallion portrait in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral in the city of London.


Works


Glimpses through the Cannon Smoke (1880)


“The United States Army” (North American Review, August 1882)


Souvenirs of some Continents (North American Review, 1885)


Chinese Gordon (1886)


“Christmas-Tide with the Germans Before Paris” (The Harpers Monthly, January 1886)


William I. of Germany: a Biography (1888)


Emperor William II (1889)


Havelock (English Men of Action Series, 1890)


Barracks, Bivouacs, and Battles (1891)


The Afghan Wars, 1839–80 and 1878-80 (1892)


“Abraham Lincoln as a Strategist, Part I” (North American Review, July 1892)


“Abraham Lincoln as a Strategist. Part II” (North American Review, August 1892)


“The Death of the Prince Imperial” (The Century Magazine, June 1893)


“The Outlook for War in Europe” (North American Review, March 1894)


Czar and Sultan (1894)


"After Sedan” (McClure's Magazine, June 1895)


Colin Campbell, Lord Clyde (English Men of Action Series, 1895)


Memories and Studies of War and Peace (1895)


The Black Watch (1896)


The Life of Napoleon the Third (1898)


Famous Battles of the Nineteenth Century: 1875 – 1900 (Published 1902)

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