Glittering uniforms, fine traditions, staunch loyalties: this was the image of the army cherished by the public and steadfastly upheld by most officers. But adulation concealed gross inadequacies. Military glory had been won too easily against half-naked natives in distant corners of the Empire. Even then the army sometimes failed!.
The story of the British Army in the 19th Century is the story of the Empire’s wars. The army fought Chinese, Afghans Abyssinians, Maoris, Zulus and Sudanese, Boers and Canadians. Its battle-honours are nothing less than a roll-call of Empire; or more prosaically a gazetteer of Africa, the Near East and Asia. Indeed the British professional army owes its very existence to the growth of the British Empire.
The traditional English military institution was the Militia which any able-bodied citizen could join. Until the early 18th Century the British were consumed with a violent hatred and suspicion of professional standing armies, which they regarded as obedient instruments of royal tyrants for the destruction of Parliamentary government and political liberty. Throughout the 17th Century, when European monarchies had already created highly organised standing armies, the English parliament resisted all attempts by the Stuart kings to create a permanent royal standing army under their direct control.
The Militia, being merely English society with a weapon in its hand, presented no political dangers; indeed, it was, and was seen to be, a safeguard of national liberties against potentially absolute kings. Militarily it was perfectly adequate for the home defence of an island kingdom with a strong navy - adequate that is in the simple era of the longbow for task s like repelling the Scots or putting down local rebellion.
From 1713 onwards there was a graduation to a proper standing professional British Army - much against the wish of Parliament, which continued to pretend that the army was just an emergency creation which could be abolished once normal times returned. However, “normal times” never did return. For in the 18th Century there were not only four more great conflicts with the French monarchy, but also a steady expansion of the British Empire: in India in North America, in the Caribbean. It was these foreign wars and and colonial conquests which finally forced a permanent professional army down the throat of the British. The colonial conquests, once made, required garrisons: a function beyond the compass of part time citizen forces.
It was already in effect, an imperial army. Though the American colonies were lost in 1783, by then India was ready to replace America as Britain’s greatest imperial possession, with some 6,000 troops of the Crown as part of its garrison. Ireland, Britain’s oldest and most disaffected colony, demanded 12,000; the other parts of the Empire drew in another 15,000 men. In England, Scotland and Wales, there were no more than some 17,000 men.
Wellington’s victory at Waterloo in 1815, ended the need for an army capable of serving as a field force in major European wars. For the prestige of Wellington’s victory gave British diplomacy an unbeatable leverage that lasted until the creation of a united Germany in 1871. The British Empire on the other hand, kept on expanding by a self-perpetuating process that governments seemed powerless to stop. In the haphazard imperial expansion of the Victorian Age, it was the army rather than the navy which now became the tangible instrument of British Power.
So completely was the British Army an imperial instrument that it was too weak to protect the United Kingdom itself, and too weak to lend any support to British policy in Europe. In 1846, when war with France seemed imminent, it was reckoned that Britain could only scrape together a field force of between 5,000 and 10,000 men. Lord Palmerston the then, Foreign Secretary, stated that “this Empire was existing, only by the forbearance of other powers”
Thanks to the professional, volunteer army scattered across the globe, the Victorians as a whole, never felt the burdens of world power. The middle classes in their prosperous suburbs were not called upon to furnish officers to die in China, the Gold Coast or Egypt; the respectable lower middle classes in their neat redbrick streets were not called upon to furnish non-commissioned officers or privates to expire of enteric fever cholera or heat-stroke in the Sudan, India or South Africa.
If the British citizenry, in general had been obliged to go and fight in small wars, or endure tedious years in its hot garrison stations , it way well be doubted whether Britain would ever have acquired the Empire at all, let alone hold on to it.
The imperial role of the army moulded more than attitudes to Empire: it also moulded the character of the army itself. In the first place, its organisation was totally unlike that of continental armies in the 19th Century. It hardly existed as an “army” in the sense of a large field force organised into divisions and corps, under a single chain of command headed by a general staff. Instead it was scattered throughout the Empire. Where a battalion might be in a remote coaling station, a couple of battalions elsewhere pacifying some dissidents, a brigade would be engaged thousands of miles away on some punitive expedition.
In operation, the imperial army was highly specialised. It laid emphasis on the variety of its work; on the smallness of scale; on overwhelming superiority of equipment, making little provision for fighting an enemy of equal strength; on minute casualties and easy victories.
The ‘regimental’ approach’ forced upon the army by its far-flung commitments led to the relative neglect of the intellectual and organisational requirements necessary for the conduct of a modern war. The Sikh’s of India , for example, were among the most disciplined and formidable of the enemies the British met during the Victorian Age, yet to beat them did not call for any of the tactical and technical skills needed for success in combating a European army.
In the Sudan campaign of 1898, little had changed in the British Army’s style of fighting, despite the invention of the machine-gun, quick-firing field-artillery, the bolt-action magazine rifle, and smokeless powder. Drawn up at Omdurman in lines as at Waterloo, the army destroyed the Dervishes with formal volleys. Yet European armies, led by Germany, had long abandoned such parade-ground tactics in favour of small dispersed groups of men making the best use of cover, and firing individually
How hopelessly out of touch with modern tactical developments the imperial role had left the British army was shown during the first stages of the Boer War in 1899, when all the courage and discipline of the British line could not avail against the accurate, long-range rifle-fire of the almost invisible Boers, lying prone in the folds of the veldt. The British soldiers mindless obedience was defeated by the intelligence and initiative of the Afrikaners.
In higher leadership, and organisation in the field, too, the Imperial role caused the British military outlook and method to diverge further and further from those of other great powers After 1870, especially, European military chiefs became concerned with a single great professional task; the perfecting of the fast mobilisation and deployment of a mass army for a great continental war. The British continued to concentrate on how to meet a succession of more or less minor emergencies in different parts of the world.
There was nobody else quite like Fredrick Gustavus Burnaby, in the Victorian army. An officer in the elite and fashionable Royal Horse Guards, the Blues, where military duties were light and leave was generous, he was also widely known as a traveller, politician balloonist and journalist. Reputedly the strongest and at 6 foot 4 inches, the tallest - of the Queen’s soldiers, he once bent a poker harmlessly round the neck of the Prince of Wales when he came to dine wit the regiment. In 1875, hearing that Asiatic Russia was closed to foreigners, he set off to explore it.
Armed with a vast sleeping-bag and accompanied by a malevolent tartar dwarf, he braved blizzard and snow-drift in an epic ride to Khiva, south of the Aral Sea, a story he told well in his best-selling book. Travel both on his own account and as a war correspondent for the Times subsequently led to Fred Burnaby to take a great interest in politics. It was an age when the house of Commons was liberally sprinkled with serving officers, and he entered the political arena as a Tory candidate. Scorning a safe Irish seat, Fred then 38, chose to run for office in the Liberal stronghold of Birmingham In the 1880 election he polled 15,000 votes, a startling figure for a Tory in such a hot-bed of radicalism, but not enough to win.
The difficult and dangerous, drew Fred Burnaby like a magnet. Turning his surplus energies to ballooning, he conceived an ambition to cross the Channel. Despite one hair-raising descent with a burst gas-bag over London, he eventually succeeded in 1882.
When politics palled, and ballooning lost its appeal, he returned to his first love, fighting. He found that active service helped him to forget an excruciatingly painful liver condition, not helped by an unhappy marriage to an Irish heiress. He had some ;‘rare fun’ fighting the Dervishes in the Sudan in 1884. Back home in peaceful England his spirits flagged, and he determined to join the expedition to relieve General Gordon, besieged by the Mahdi in Khartoum.
Depressed, ill and filled with premonitions of death, the giant cavalry-man, did not have long to wait. On January 22nd 1885, at the Battle of Abu Klea, Fred Burnaby was killed.
When England heard of his death it mourned him like a national hero and the Daily Telegraph, voicing the sorrow of the nation, asserted that his name would live in the annals of Empire “as long as valour and faithfulness unto death remain watchwords of the sons of the Island Queen”.
While the British Army in the 19th Century adequately met the demands of the imperial role - despite the occasional disaster - it became less and less fit to fight a modern war against a great power. At the same time, since fewer of the army’s imperial foes took advantage of its want of professionalism, colonial victories created a dangerous impression at home that wars were distant and exotic adventure stories, combats to be won by a hero, and all essentially painless to the nation as a whole. Like the British Army itself, the Victorian public lost its sense of proportion. The defence of Rorke’s Drift by 130 men against 20 times that number of Zulus in 1879, became the work of a Wellington, and the miniature victories won by Kitchiner, Roberts and Wolseley were hailed as triumphs of a latter day Marlborough.
Financial stringency coupled with the army’s low prestige among the lower classes as a career or occupation, coloured the whole military life. But the army still attracted its officers from the apex of the Victorian social pyramid. Wellington., as Commander-in-Chief, sought officers who were landed gentlemen of substance, as a safeguard against the political dangers he believed inherent in a professional officer corps. The officer’s pay, ever since the days of Cromwell’s army, had never been sufficient to live on. The officers always had to be able to dip into their own pockets to support themselves; many of them went further and used their own funds to clothe and equip their regiments above the regulation scale.
The paramount position of the wealthy, upper class among the officers was finally assured by the peculiar institution of “purchase.” Commissions and the command of regiments were bought and sold - for anything up to £14,000 - until the abolition of purchase in 1872. It was a survival of a custom in government services that had been universal throughout Europe in the 17th Century, though the Prussian and French armies had long since abolished it.
The combination of rich upper class origins with the peculiarly limited professional horizon of the regiment produced an officer with high natural qualities of leadership, ideal for commanding the simple type of man in the rank and file: brave and hardy in the field and adequate to the demands of the unsophisticated, small-scale warfare of imperial conquest.
However the British officer was largely lacking in intellectual curiosity, in the wider study and understanding of war, and in all that is implied by a professional outlook. Too much of the British officers time and attention were occupied with the social aspects of army life: hunting, polo, dinners and balls.
It was noticeable that the officers of the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery, corps to which purchase had never applied, and which always had a more professional and middle-class character, were the most efficient in the army and that the cavalry were at once the most fashionable and highly-bred, and the most incompetent branch. There was too little formal training for those who entered a regiment directly. However the courses at Royal Military Academy, Woolwich were narrowly technical whilst those at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst a polite farce.
The training of staff officers and the higher study of warfare were both neglected during the Victorian epoch. But after the terrible muddle of the Crimean War exposed the inadequacies of methods and training good enough for beating spear carrying natives, what had been the Senior Department of the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, burgeoned forth in 1857 as the Staff College. However the courses were in general too limited and technical, rather than managerial and strategic in the handling of great armies as taught in the French and German Staff Colleges.
Great Britain won her vast Empire by force of arms of the right type, introduced at the right time. The progression from smooth bore flintlock to the repeating-rifle and machine-gun, from horse-pistol to Webley revolver, from muzzle-loading cannon to high-velocity field piece.
The Brown Bess musket (above), was said to have first been ordered by the Duke of Marlborough in 1702. A 46 inch smooth bore weapon with an effective range of 80 yards, it remained in service with the British Army until 1840. “Brown” probably referred to the stained walnut stock “Bess” was either a nickname or a corruption of the German word for flintlock “Buchse”.
SIDE ARMS FOR GENTLEMEN. In the melee of battle , pistols, reserved for use by officers - were prized, for they were deadly at close range , an din desperate hand to hand combat they could be used as clubs. The flintlock pistol invented in 1675, was the standard officers weapon for a little over 150 years, until in the mid 19th Century, Samuel Colt, an American invented a pistol that combined the newly introduced percussion-cap with revolving cylinder mechanism. The War Office bought large numbers of Colt’s revolutionary six-shooters for their reliable and rapid firing. Other gunsmiths added their improvements, culminating in the Webley. Adopted by the army in 1887, successive models of the Webley served generations of British officers right through two world wars.
QUEEN OF BATTLES. The British Army set up a permanent artillery corps as early as 1716, and thus anticipated Napoleon’s tribute to the cannon as the “Queen of Battles”. By 1727, this branch was christened the Royal Regiment of Artillery and it grew into a seasoned force during the war-torn 18th Century. But essentially gunnery changed little between the Middle-Ages and 1881. Only then did breach-loading cannon with their rifled barrels finally displace the honoured but obsolete smooth-bore muzzle-loader. Modern guns had been given a trial between 1859 and 1870, but officials, deciding that the breach-loading mechanism was both complicated and expensive.
A HAIL OF LEAD. The British Army acquired its first machine gun -the Gatling- in 1871. An American invention, it consisted of a cluster of manually loaded barrels that were rotated and discharged by cranking a handle. In a few years the Gatling was put to deadly effect in colonial wars. But it was a cumbersome weapon and faulty cartridges often lead to jams, disadvantages that were rectified when the Maxim machine-gun was adopted in 1891. The weapon, invented by Hiram Maxim, American born but a naturalised Briton , was the first to use the force of recoil to load, fire and eject cartridges that were fed continuously on a webbing belt.
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