The Victorian Empire II

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The Victorian Empire II


Any notion that British armies took success for granted was disproved almost as soon as Victoria became Queen. The first conflict of her reign took place in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1842. Indian Army troops, on the orders of her Government, invaded the country, seized its capital, Kabul, and installed a pro-British native ruler. They then occupied Afghanistan through a series of garrisons. Two years later, rebellion against their puppet ruler, Shah Shuja, broke out and spread. The country was too dangerous for a small and scattered British force, and their commander negotiated with the rebels the safe withdrawal of his men. They retreated south towards India, through freezing mountain passes, but rebel promises regarding their safety proved worthless and their numbers were reduced by constant attacks (the last stand of the 44th Regiment at Gandamak provided the subject for William Barnes Wollen’s heroic painting with that title, done in 1898). Only one man – Dr William Brydon – out of a force of 4,000 succeeded in reaching the safety of British-held territory in January 1842. Losses included almost 12,000 camp followers, though not all were killed. The Afghans took both soldiers and civilians hostage, and these were held throughout most of the year until a punitive force was able to release them. Though Britain won the war, the retreat from Kabul and anxiety over the hostages had been a major humiliation.

Confronting the Bear

The Crimean war broke out in the autumn of 1853, and Britain joined the following spring. While the nation’s armies could fight successfully against ill-equipped natives, they were inadequate to take on the forces of the Russian Empire – even though these too were ineptly managed and badly equipped. Once again the difficulty was not with the quality of the soldiery or the leadership of junior officers but with the bureaucracy.

The war was a disaster in terms of organization. The public, accustomed to effortless British supremacy at home and abroad, was horrified by the muddle and incompetence, and filled with resentment at the generals – who, like their naval counterparts, were relics of an older generation, a forgotten war and an antiquated mindset. Men like Lord Lucan, Lord Raglan and the Earl of Cardigan owed their positions to aristocratic influence and the sense of entitlement that the upper classes cherished for higher state positions. Commissions in the Army could be purchased, and most regiments looked with disdain on middle-class applicants. As in other European armies, the cavalry, infantry and guards regiments were aristocratic in tone. Only the artillery and engineers, in which technical ability was necessary, were open to a wider range of background, as were navies for similar reasons. (In the British Army there was no purchase of commissions in the technical branches.)

The emerging middle classes, who were used to running their businesses with punctuality and efficiency, were scandalized by the incompetence with which the War Office carried out its tasks. They hated the Army, too, for its unreformed aristocratic nature – since the 1832 Reform Bill that had restructured a similarly moribund political world had had no effect on military affairs – and for the fact that their own sons were kept out of its smart regiments.

The Crimean War was the only European conflict in which Britain was involved between 1815 and 1914. It was caused by the designs of Nicholas I, the Russian tsar, on the Ottoman Empire. Nicholas claimed the right to protect Christians in Ottoman territories, which included the Holy Land. Though the cause of the outbreak was trivial, the wider issues – who was to dominate the eastern Mediterranean? – were more serious, and both France and Britain decided to come to Turkey’s aid. Less than thirty years after fighting the Turks at Navarino, Britain was their ally. Enthusiasm for the war built up in Britain, which saw Russia – a former partner against Napoleon – as a natural enemy and a bully who needed to be faced up to. Britain declared war on 27 March 1854. Queen Victoria – and many of her enthusiastic subjects – saw off the soldiers and the ships as they set out.

The public, expecting swift victory, was disappointed. It took almost ten weeks to get an expeditionary force of 18,000 troops to the Dardanelles, and the men were felled in droves by cholera. The British plan was to cross the Black Sea to attack the Crimea and capture the port of Sevastopol. Having landed the troops, the allies enjoyed some quick successes, expelling the Russians from the heights above the Alma River within six days, and setting off a burst of triumphalism at home. Instead of following this up by attacking Sevastopol, which might well have fallen quickly, the armies proceeded to dig siege positions around the city. There was a notable lack of cooperation between the allies, or even the two British services. The Navy began bombarding the city, and the Army commander asked them to stop.

The most famous event of the war, from a British viewpoint, took place on 25 October 1854 at the small port of Balaclava, where the supplies were landed. A Russian force tried to seize it but were repulsed by Highland troops. A cavalry unit, the Heavy Brigade, counter-attacked but its counterpart – the Light Brigade – misunderstood orders to attack and advanced straight into the fire of enemy artillery. The operation was a disaster – about a third of the 673 men involved were casualties – but the public thought it a magnificent example of British courage, and it was quickly to pass into legend.

Winter came, and the war ground to a halt. The weather was extremely bitter, supplies were inadequate, especially in terms of uniforms, greatcoats and boots, and were not efficiently distributed. Men suffered, and died, in the siege-lines through lack of equipment, blankets or medicines. One of the most famous cartoons to appear in Punch – which was an unrelenting critic of the War Office – depicted two ragged, starving and bandaged soldiers in a snow-covered landscape. One says: ‘Well, Jack! Here’s good news from Home. We’re to have a medal.’ The other replies: ‘That’s very kind. Maybe one of these days we’ll have a coat to stick it on.’

The commanders came in for a great deal of public ridicule. Lord Raglan, the British commander-in-chief, was a one-armed veteran of Waterloo who had never even commanded a battalion in the field. He wore civilian clothes, and repeatedly referred to the enemy as ‘the French’, so much was he stuck in the thinking of a previous era. However out of touch with reality he may have been, he was aware of the criticism that was heaped on him by press and public at home, and of the mutterings of his men. Through the bleak winter of 1854, morale plummeted. When, the following July, Raglan died of dysentery at the age of sixty-five, he was replaced by another Napoleonic relic, Lieutenant General James Simpson, three years his junior.

The Navy did not fare much better. It too was run by men in their sixties who had had to wait decades to achieve command rank, and who had come to prominence too late. The Navy played no significant role in the conflict other than transporting men and supplies, and bombarding enemy territory. Their ships were embarrassingly outdated in comparison with those of their French allies, for they had no steam-powered vessels. Government refusal to spend, as well as nostalgia in the Admiralty, had prevented any modernization of the fleet. For the same reasons there was no rifled gunnery and there were no ironclad ships.

The uniforms worn in the Crimea, like those worn everywhere on campaign by the Army, were the same tight-fitting, conspicuous and impractical ones in which they mounted guard at home. Only under the stresses of battlefield conditions and prolonged living in the field did this begin to change. Officers, in particular, improvised warm clothing – the Balaclava helmet and the cardigan – that have seen service among both the military and civilians ever since. After the harsh winter of 1854, Highlanders were at least given permission to abandon the kilt for tartan trousers. Soldiers were, however, still required to wear a tight leather stock that severely restricted movement.

The Crimean was the first war in which the public were given a relatively clear idea of what the fighting was like. In the same way that, in the following century, television brought the Vietnam War into the living-rooms of America, the electric telegraph brought the Crimean conflict to the front parlours of Britain. It was made real for those at home by illustrated newspapers, published photographs and by the forcefully written despatches of William Howard Russell, war correspondent for The Times. There had never before been so much written and visual information available. Because the British had embraced the war with such enthusiasm, and had been so appalled by its conduct, they followed its developments attentively. They sympathized with the plight of freezing, ill-clad soldiers, felt outrage at the conditions in which the wounded were left in the hospitals, and applauded the work of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole to alleviate their suffering. This feeling of concern for the private soldier would evaporate once the war was over, but it marked something of a new departure for public opinion.

Mrs Seacole, a West Indian hotelier, travelled to the war at her own expense. She pioneered the concept of ‘comforts for the troops’ by providing them with refreshments and leisure facilities at the battlefront. She also took her considerable nursing skills into the trenches and treated the wounded within sight of the enemy. ‘Mother Seacole’ became so loved by the troops that she was cheered wherever she went.

Miss Nightingale became a national heroine. The condition of the wounded was the greatest scandal of the war, and she managed to rectify the situation almost single-handed. Though she was assisted by a band of nurses, it was she who organized their transport, brought the funds and equipment that created clean and pleasant wards, and dealt tactfully with the senior Army administration, while undertaking in person an exhaustive amount of nursing and cleaning. Because this work received a great deal of attention she gained, in the process, recognition for nursing as an honourable profession, and established principles of hygiene and patient care that were adopted thereafter. These women represented yet another Victorian revolution, the only useful legacy of a pointless and harrowing war.

The public was aware of the hardships faced by the troops, but they were, through the same channels, also aware of the bravery of many individuals. Medals were not yet commonplace in the British Army. The first generally available one had been awarded to those who fought at Waterloo. In 1847 a Military General Service Medal was authorized for those who had served in the Napoleonic Wars. A similar award was struck for naval personnel to cover actions up to the bombardment of Acre in 1840. A campaign medal was to be given for the Crimea, but in 1856 a new gallantry award was instituted. Conceived by Prince Albert but named after the Queen, the Victoria Cross was to be given to men of any rank who performed a single act of valour. The creation of this medal had been inspired by a particular deed. On 21 June 1854, HMS Hecla was attacking the Bomarsund fortresses in the Baltic. The ship was only 500 yards offshore when a live shell clattered onto the deck, its fuse hissing. Charles Davis Lucas, a twenty-year-old Irishman, picked up the red-hot projectile and threw it overboard seconds before it exploded. He received the first of the new medals almost exactly three years later, though he did not lack other rewards, for he had been promoted immediately from mate to lieutenant. He was ultimately to become a rear-admiral.

As the Queen stated, the medal was not an order like those that were in her gift. It brought with it no title and had no classes (unlike its French equivalent, the Legion of Honour). It could not be gained through position or privilege, and this was significant, given the aristocratic nature of the Army leadership. Not even the sovereign herself was entitled to it, and no member of the Royal Family has ever held it. Victoria Crosses were bestowed by the Queen in public ceremonies, in Hyde Park or at Horse Guards, and the actions for which they were given were extensively detailed in the press, a process which strengthened the bond between the armed forces and society.

The siege of Sebastopol was the largest event of the war. It lasted a year, from September 1854 to September 1855, before the Russians withdrew from the city. The whole enterprise had been pointless, wasting vast quantities of ammunition and causing needless death and misery among the troops encamped around its defences. It was somehow characteristic of this hopelessly muddled war that, though the fighting was over, it was a further six months before peace was signed.

Though the soldiery might still have merited Wellington’s dismissive comment, they did not compare badly with their counterparts in the mass armies of Europe, the French and Prussians. They were of noticeably higher quality than many of their opponents, as one Russian officer – the writer Leo Tolstoy – observed when he encountered wounded British and French prisoners while serving in the artillery at Sebastopol:

Every soldier among them is proud of his position and has a sense of his value, he feels he is a positive asset to his army. He has good weapons and he knows how to use them, he is young, he has ideas about politics and art and this gives him a feeling of dignity. On our side; senseless training, useless weapons, ill treatment, delay everywhere, ignorance and shocking hygiene and food stifle the last spark of pride.

They also showed the combination of aggressiveness and endurance that had typified them for generations. As so often before and since, it was Highland soldiers that made the greatest impression on the enemy. The sight of kilted soldiers, advancing to the slow and menacing tunes of bagpipes, with their tall feather bonnets and short ‘skirts’ was so outlandish that it caused panic among the Russians. (When ‘kilties’ again saw action in the Indian Mutiny their opponents, watching them advance in the distance, believed that the British had run out of men and were sending women. This impression will not have lasted long, for Highlanders were as fierce as they looked.)

Though it has been commonplace since the end of the Crimean War to see it as a scarcely mitigated disaster, modern scholarship has offered a more positive view. So much was weighted against the British – the distance from home, the bad communications, the hostile terrain – that any success (they and their allies won, after all!) seemed an outstanding achievement. There were unquestionable, and serious, shortcomings in supply and medical care, but these were largely solved, for lessons were quickly learned. Though the British were not as successful in the war as the French, their army was brought to a state of – relative – efficiency and even excellence by its end. War, as always, is the quickest and most effective teacher of armies.

It was increasingly clear that efficiency was hampered by the purchase system through which commissions were obtained, for they were seen as creating an officer corps that was untested, aloof, arrogant and uneducated. Prices varied according to the social ‘smartness’ of the unit, but at the time of the Crimean War a captaincy cost about £3,500. A majority was in the region of £5,000 and the rank of lieutenant colonel might cost up to £9,000 if it were in the Guards. When the scale of Crimean ineptitude became apparent, there was talk of abolishing the sale of commissions, but it took an entire generation – until 1871 – before this was done. It must be said that purchase of rank by no means inevitably led to incompetence. Many members of old military families had imbibed enough from their backgrounds to make adequate officers. For those who did not enter a regiment directly by recommendation there was training provided at military schools – Woolwich and Sandhurst. The former, if not the latter, was adequate.


The Crimean conflict was followed by an even more distressing event farther from home. The sub-continent of India – like all other British territories in the East – was governed by the Honourable East India Company, a commercial enterprise that had first traded with, and then administered, these countries. Based in London, the Company had such power that it minted its own coinage, protected its merchant fleet with its own warships, and garrisoned its provinces with its own army. The soldiery – a private soldier was called a sepoy – was recruited from among the native peoples. The officers were British, trained at the Company’s military college in Addiscombe. They were despised by officers of the regular British Army (‘Royals’), who saw them as social inferiors, for there was no purchase of commissions in the Indian Army, but most were effective officers. Their troops were also largely loyal and efficient, though there were issues that caused discontent among the disparate castes and religions: they resented attempts to convert them to Christianity; they objected to a number of land reforms; they were annoyed by the discontinuation of certain allowances.

The final straw was the introduction of new cartridges that were alleged to be greased with cow or pig fat. One animal was sacred to Hindus, the other unacceptable to Moslems. All cartridges were paper-covered and the end had to be bitten off before use. For adherents of either religion this was unthinkable. The authorities realized this, and sought to ensure that the cartridges were issued only to British troops, but it was too late to change the perception. On 9 May 1857, Indian soldiers in Meerut refused to load their rifles and were jailed. The next day, the sepoys in the garrison mutinied and the first of several hideous massacres began.

The uprising spread from Meerut to Delhi and then Cawnpore, where two hundred women and children were murdered after British troops had surrendered. At Lucknow, both soldiers and civilians survived only because they succeeded in barricading themselves inside the Residency, where they sat out a lengthy siege until relieved by British forces. Delhi was recaptured only after bitter street fighting, and it was the summer of 1858 before order was restored.

The Mutiny had not drawn in all Indian troops. Indeed only the sepoys of Bengal were involved. The ferocity of these rebels, however, had persuaded opinion at home that the whole management of India would have to be reconsidered. The East India Company was liquidated, its military element transferred into the British Army and its administration given over to government civil servants answerable both to a Viceroy and to the India Office in Whitehall. The Queen issued a proclamation that treated the rebels with some clemency – guaranteeing, for instance, freedom of worship and respect for religious customs, and these things became enshrined in the India Act of 1858.

For those who had taken part in the Mutiny, however, there was a rougher kind of justice. Not only was British feeling understandably outraged by their atrocities, but it was thought necessary to stamp out any similar tendencies for the future. Rebels were executed with a savagery that matched their own, though the British pointed out, as evidence of their greater civilization, that they spared women and children while their opponents had not. The Lucknow Residency – ruined and pock-marked by shells but with the Union Flag flying above it – was preserved as a memorial until the British departed in 1947. A monument at Cawnpore, built on the site of a well into which the bodies of women and children had been thrown, also remained until Independence. No Indian was allowed to enter it.

The Indian Army was rebuilt, though many of the old officers, disgruntled at the pay and status they were offered, departed. It had much to do in the northern reaches of the sub-continent. In this mountainous terrain there were constant feuds, skirmishes and minor rebellions that necessitated the sending of punitive expeditions to restore order or simply show the flag (between 1858 and 1897 there were thirty-four of these). Had they not been deadly affairs – for the tribesmen were extremely warlike, as well as crack shots – there would have been something of a sense of fun about these expeditions. They were certainly regarded by ambitious young officers as a means of earning both medals and promotion. The most testing campaigns in the region were those against Afghan tribesmen.

This mountain kingdom was not a British possession, simply a neighbour that had to be kept under control. The country lay between British India and the Russian Empire which, expanding south-eastwards by the 1880s at a rate of twenty-five miles a day, posed a serious threat. Afghanistan was impossible to conquer or to police effectively, and even its borders were not defined. Britain wanted this buffer state between its own and Russian territory, and to ensure friendly relations insisted on sending an envoy to the court of the Amir. When this request was refused, the British sent an expedition to install him. He was murdered a few months later, and another expedition was then sent to invade the country. Commanded by Lieutenant-General Roberts, this force advanced on the capital, Kabul, in December 1879. They defeated an Afghan army and put in place a more sympathetic Amir. Hearing that another British force was besieged in Kandahar, in the south of the country, Roberts’ men set off at once on an epic speed-march through rough terrain and fierce extremes of temperature. Arriving exhausted, they nevertheless drove off the attackers and raised the siege. Roberts – who had already won the VC in India – became a hero in Britain, and was made a baronet.


It must be remembered that, from the 1870s (by which time memory of the Crimea and the Mutiny had faded) until the rude shock of the Boer conflict, war came to be seen by many Britons as something of a lark. With no ‘civilized’ enemy to fight, for Russia – the obvious candidate for several reasons – was unwilling to pick a quarrel, the Queen’s soldiers devoted their energies to colonial conflicts. For the public at home these were distant, small-scale affairs which they expected their soldiers to win without difficulty. Casualties were light, because the enemy were always at a disadvantage. The British troops, after all, had not only discipline and valour on their side but modern weaponry – which by 1889 included the Maxim machine gun.

Colonial wars provided excitement, cheaply won victories, enhanced prestige and a sense that Britain’s mission in the world was being fulfilled. The exploits of generals and young officers were thrillingly told in fiction (With Kitchener in the Sudan, With Buller in Natal) and newspaper reports made celebrities of many commanders. Sir Garnet Wolseley, who defeated the armies of the Asanti king in West Africa and whose troops made yet another epic march in abominable conditions, was a textbook example. A dapper little man of distinguished appearance, he became highly popular, and was commemorated in contemporary slang with the expression ‘All Sir Garnet!’, meaning that all was well.

The public could see that the Army was changing. Not only did weaponry improve, but appearances altered. The Guards might still wear bearskins and scarlet tunics at Buckingham Palace, but finery of this sort was vanishing from the battlefield. The last occasion on which troops wore scarlet in action was the Egyptian campaign of 1882. The previous year, fighting the Boers in South Africa, colours had been carried in battle for the last time. Uniforms – at least those worn on battlefields – were khaki, a pale-brown shade that had been created in India at the time of the Mutiny, allegedly by dyeing the cloth in tea. It was extremely practical for overseas service, though the public at home did not become fully aware of it until large numbers of troops marched through their streets on the way to the Boer War. Two of Galsworthy’s female characters illustrate what may have been a common civilian reaction, when discussing such a spectacle:

My dear, but they’ve been so progressive. Think of their having given up their scarlet. They were always so proud of it. And now they all look like convicts. They must feel it very much. Fancy what the Iron Duke would have said!

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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