Officers and Gentlemen
Whatever the social qualifications necessary to be an officer, there was no requirement for great intelligence. The British, and especially the upper classes, had a traditional antipathy toward those who thought too much, and their ideal of an officer was that he be – in a famous phrase of Henry James – ‘opaque in intellect but indomitable in muscle’. Officers were expected, during the vast amounts of time at their disposal (they were granted five months’ leave a year) to indulge passionately in sports. If they were stationed in India it was unheard of that they should not play polo, for the game was something of a secular religion. Otherwise, foxhunting was more or less compulsory in smart regiments, the more so as it was believed to sharpen officers’ skills – improving their ‘seat’ through practice, accustoming them to risk and teaching them to ‘read’ a landscape through observation. Team games were seen as useful preparation for war.
In no other army was this sporting ethos found. Officers in the Russian or Austrian service, for instance, might cultivate an aristocratic languor even greater than that in British regiments, but they regarded it as beneath their dignity to exert themselves or get dirty. Though they might ride for pleasure, their off-duty hours were spent in drinking, gambling, pursuing affairs, fighting duels and surviving the crushing boredom of small garrison towns. While British officers might be fitter, their brains were not exercised. Within their regiments, much of the training and drilling of the men was done by senior non-commissioned officers. In the Prussian Army – which after defeating France in 1871 became the dominant power in Europe and a potential future adversary – it was the officers themselves who carried out these tasks. As a result they knew their men very well, and had a firm grasp of administration and leadership, while at the same time they were required to study to pass promotion exams. The Prussian officer was often expected to be a professional. His British counterpart preferred to behave like an amateur.
Though the stereotype of the Victorian officer – and the pages of satirical magazines were filled with caricatures of them, stroking their moustaches and speaking in a languid drawl (‘fwightfully!’) – suggested that the officers’ mess was a rarified, patrician world beyond the reach of others, yet it was not impossible to rise to the highest ranks of the Army without an aristocratic background. While Wellington, Roberts and Buller were all Old Etonians, Sir Colin Campbell – later Lord Clyde – was the son of a Scottish carpenter, Sir Garnet Wolseley was the son of a small-town Irish tradesman and General Hector Macdonald (‘Fighting Mac’) made an even more spectacular ascent. Beginning life as an Inverness draper’s assistant with a passion for military history, he enlisted in 1870 as a private in the Gordons and ended his career as a major general, a Knight of the Bath and an ADC to both Victoria and Edward VII. All three were extremely popular with press and public, in an era that treated victorious generals with the same adoration as film stars now command. A glance through an antique shop will often reveal souvenirs – teapots, plates, badges – commemorating Victorian military heroes, especially those, like Roberts and Baden-Powell, from the Boer War, upon whom the nation’s hopes rested.
These men had won promotion through their abilities in the field, and every ambitious soldier, whatever his background, looked for opportunities to follow the same path. Even with a small Army and a constant succession of colonial campaigns, however, it was difficult to see action. Postings in Britain, or in Canada, New Zealand or Bermuda, for instance, might be pleasant enough but meant years of uneventful garrison duty. The same was true of India, where unless a regiment was sent to the North-West Frontier, there would be little for officers to do but play polo. Those without the patience to wait for battle experience often sought to be seconded to other units in order to go with them on campaign. The most glaring example of this type was the young Winston Churchill, whose tireless lobbying and social connections enabled him to take part in actions in both India and the Sudan by joining other regiments. When he entered the Army, in 1895, soldiers were very conscious that there had been no war against a white army since the Crimea. There was a professional curiosity to know how they would perform in a well-matched, major conflict. Churchill also dreaded seeing out his military career without gaining any medals, for his commanding officer had spent a lifetime in the Army without once seeing action. The prospect of war was therefore something to be sought out and valued – a rare opportunity to test one’s skills, gain experience and hope for distinction. In his memoir My Early Life, he wrote of this attitude:
In the closing decade of the Victorian era the Empire had enjoyed so long a spell of almost unbroken peace, that medals and all they represented in experience and adventure were becoming extremely scarce in the British Army. The veterans of the Crimea and the Indian Mutiny were gone from the active list. The Afghan and Egyptian warriors of the early eighties had reached the senior ranks. Scarcely a shot had been fired since then, and when I joined the 4th Hussars in January 1895 scarcely a captain, hardly ever a subaltern, could be found throughout Her Majesty’s forces who had seen even the smallest kind of war. Rarity in a desirable commodity is usually the cause of enhanced value; and there has never been a time when war service was held in so much esteem by the military authorities or more ardently sought by officers of every rank. How we young officers envied the senior Major for his adventures at Abu Klea! How we admired the Colonel with his long row of decorations! How we longed to have a similar store of memories to unpack and display!
The little titbits of fighting which the Indian frontier and the Soudan were soon to offer, distributed by luck or favour, were fiercely scrambled for throughout the British Army. But the South African War was to attain dimensions which fully satisfied the needs of our small army. And after that the deluge was still to come!
The excitement both of young officers looking for action and of a public reading about their exploits at the breakfast table suggests a confident assumption that events would always turn out in Britain’s favour. In reality there was a good deal less complacency than this image suggests. For one thing, the British did not always win. In 1879 the expedition of Lord Chelmsford against King Cetawayo suffered 1,329 fatalities when Zulus overran their camp at Isandlwana, and only the valour of defenders at Rourke’s Drift on the same day – for which seven Victoria Crosses were awarded – saved Britain from humiliation. Two years later, the Queen’s soldiers faced South African Boers after the latter refused to accept British rule over the Transvaal. British columns suffered terrible losses from the superb marksmanship of their opponents, and after securing the summit of the strategic Majuba Hill on 26 February 1881, they embarrassingly lost it the following day, being driven down the slopes in confusion and suffering heavy casualties.
Another factor was that even glory did not make the army popular enough to entice young men to join. It was said in the countryside that ‘Jack Frost was the Army’s best recruiter’, for only failed harvests or harsh winters could bring men into the ranks in numbers. Unlike her Continental neighbours, Britain did not have a standing army, and recruiting was an uphill struggle, even during the depression of the 1870s. In order to make the military profession more attractive, and to eliminate the worst abuses, reforms had been carried through at the beginning of the decade. The purchase of commissions had been abolished, and enlistment, which had been for a period of twenty-one years, had been reduced to twelve, of which only six were spent on active service. The branding of deserters – an especially barbaric practice – was discontinued in 1871, and flogging was abolished a decade later. This notwithstanding, the pay of private soldiers could not compete with the wages of civilian tradesmen or skilled labourers, and the Army remained too small to fulfil its worldwide commitments.
One solution was increasing reliance on units of local troops under the command of British officers. Throughout the Empire a number of these – often with highly specialist roles – came into existence during the latter half of the century, and caused a good deal of interest when they sent contingents to London for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee: the Gold Coast Hausas, the Singapore Engineers, the Hong Kong Regiment, the Sierra Leone Frontier Force, the British Guiana Constabulary, the Mauritius Royal Artillery, the Malta Submarine Mine Engineers. Numbers of these soldiers could be sent around the Empire to fill gaps where British troops were withdrawn, or simply to support a particular campaign. British punitive expeditions in West Africa relied heavily on black soldiers of the West India Regiment, who proved very able, one of them winning the VC. When in 1882 Wolseley, the hero of West Africa, landed a force at Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt to protect the Suez Canal from anti-European unrest, Indian Army native troops took part. When Egypt itself became a British protectorate shortly afterwards, local units of British-trained men were raised. These in turn helped to defeat the armies of the Khalifa at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898.
Egypt was officially part of the Ottoman Empire, but in practice the Sultan’s government did not have the power, or the will, to run it effectively. The Sudan, a vast area of desert to the south of it along the Nile, was an Egyptian fiefdom – a colony of a colony, as it were – and here a rebellion against Egyptian rule was fomented in the early 1880s by a self-appointed local leader who called himself the Mahdi, or messiah. His followers, ‘dervishes’, were Muslim fanatics of a sort once again familiar. They were heavily armed, though with obsolete weaponry, and without mercy to those, whether locals, Egyptians or Europeans, who fell into their power. They were a major, and growing, threat to the whole region.
General Charles Gordon, a distinguished soldier, was sent by Gladstone’s government to evacuate civilians from the Sudan. He arrived in the principal city, Khartoum, but after organizing one evacuation he decided to remain and defy the rebels. He had Khartoum turned into a fortress, and by March 1884 it was under siege. Gordon was hugely popular at home, and the public expected a relief expedition to go at once to his aid. Gladstone, who hated such measures and whose trust Gordon had betrayed by abandoning his original mission, procrastinated for several months as British outrage rose to fever pitch. When at length Wolseley led a British force to the Sudan, time had run out. It was necessary to fight the dervishes on the way, and in one action, at Abu Klea, the rebels overran a British defensive square. British gunboats arrived offshore on 28 January 1885 to find that two days earlier the Mahdi’s forces had broken through the defences and wiped out those within. Gordon’s body was never found. The Mahdi died a few years later but a new leader – the Khalifa – took his place, and the dervish threat remained.
Far from feeling complacent about exotic wars and imperial adventures during the last decades of Victoria’s reign, the public was highly anxious. Majuba and Khartoum were international disgraces that cried out to be rectified. The Boers – who had proved the most charming of enemies (they treated the British wounded, and the defeated commanders, with outstanding kindness) – were regarded as backward farmers, while the dervishes were the most rapacious and savage opponents Britain had faced since the Indian Mutiny. Both enemies must be dealt with for the sake of national honour, but long years passed, and it was only after a change of government that opportunities for revenge could be found.
Firstly, the dervishes. General Kitchener, the ‘Sirdar’ or commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Khedive’s forces and another military celebrity, led an expedition to occupy the Sudan in 1896. He slowly and carefully built and equipped an Anglo-Egyptian force that set out off southwards at a leisurely pace. Gunboats sailed up the Nile, while engineers constructed a railway over the desert to move supplies. It was not until September 1898 that his force arrived within sight of Khartoum and, opposite it, the city of Omdurman. The dervish army was not in the city but out in the desert, and the Sirdar had time to organize a formidable defensive position with its back to the Nile. The battle was fought on his terms.
It began the following morning, 2 September. The dervishes – like some other peoples whom the British encountered in colonial wars – believed that they could not be killed by bullets. Their whole army therefore made a frontal attack on the Anglo-Egyptian defences, with a result afterwards described by a war correspondent as ‘not a battle but an execution’. The defenders had artillery as well as the gunboats that were firing from offshore. They had well-disciplined, volley-firing infantry and were equipped with Maxim guns. The dervishes were shot down in droves, the number killed being somewhere between ten and eleven thousand (Kitchener’s casualties were 80 dead, 472 wounded). Khartoum was captured and the Mahdi’s tomb blown up – by Gordon’s nephew. Rebellion simmered for a few years afterwards, but Mahdism was a dead letter.
Although Gordon was now avenged, the public was not as euphoric as might be expected. Some elements of opinion felt that the enemy should not have been shot down wholesale, as if it were unfair to use modern technology against medieval weapons. There was also some outrage at the desecration by Kitchener of the Mahdi’s tomb. The Sirdar was rumoured to have carried off the head as a trophy – an act which won him a personal rebuke from Queen Victoria. Versions of the story state that he meant to have it made into a drinking vessel, that he returned it for burial or that he donated it to the Royal College of Surgeons. Whatever the truth, this was not in keeping with the sense of moral superiority with which the British had endowed themselves.
The Boer conflict resurfaced in 1899, following the discovery of gold in the Transvaal. This brought thousands of British prospectors to the area, where their presence and behaviour put them at odds with the devout and simple Boers. The latter believed – with perfect justification – that there were British plans, though perhaps only unofficial, to annex their republic. If enough of the incomers qualified to vote and opted for union with the neighbouring British territories, the Transvaal was finished as an independent state. To prevent this, the Boers stiffened the qualification for citizenship, enabling the British to see themselves as a persecuted minority whom it was the duty of the mother country to help. Others shared this view, including the vastly influential Cecil Rhodes, and when the Boers asked for negotiations the British sought to ensure that they failed. War broke out in October, but did not result in the quick victory that the public had expected.
The Boers were well equipped, for their country’s gold reserves enabled them to buy sophisticated weaponry that was often superior to that of their enemy. They fought in small, mobile units called commandos, but also had artillery, which they used to effect. They possessed an excellent knowledge of the country, an ability to move fast and live off the land, and the same skill in marksmanship that they had displayed at Majuba.
They besieged three towns – Kimberley, Ladysmith and Mafeking – and thus added another epic to the annals of Victorian heroism. In fact these encirclements were carried out with the usual Boer good humour (on Christmas day 1899 they sent plum puddings to those inside Ladysmith) and bore no resemblance to the horrors of Lucknow. The British Army, meanwhile, suffered three defeats within five days, a period christened ‘Black Week’. At Stormberg a failed British attack left 600 men prisoners. At Colenso ten artillery pieces were captured – though others were rescued – and Lord Roberts’ son won a posthumous VC in trying to save them. Worst of all, at Magersfontein British troops attacking a ridge and expecting to find the enemy at the top found them dug in at the bottom instead, from where their withering fire caused such casualties that the attackers turned and ran. Though not a familiar name in Britain, Magersfontein was considered the country’s worst military defeat for a century.
With the customary British talent for turning defeat into epic, the ‘Saving of the Guns at Colenso’ was presented as an act of heroism that outweighed the embarrassment of losing a number of them. Meanwhile war fever gripped the British public. The soldier, a despised figure in years of peace, suddenly once again became a hero, immortalized – through a reference to a line of Kipling’s – in countless gimcrack ornaments as the ‘Absent-Minded Beggar’ and depicted with bandaged head and bayonet fixed, ready to resist any threat. Kipling brilliantly captured the mood in his lines:
It’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’
But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.
Britain not only lost battles but a good deal of face. Her Continental neighbours could barely restrain their glee at the sight of the world’s greatest power being tied in knots by a small nation of farmers. At the same time considerable hatred was evident in many quarters. Feeling ran so high in France that the Queen was obliged to cancel her annual visit to the Riviera. In the Netherlands, where the Boers were regarded as relatives, anyone who looked or sounded like an Englishman was likely to be abused or mobbed in the streets. In Germany, where Britain was increasingly regarded with envy and dislike, there was open rejoicing. Volunteers from these countries, and from America, Ireland and Russia, went to join the Boers or sent declarations of support. Britain used a phrase at this time to describe her status in the world – ‘splendid isolation’ – which suggested a power so great that it needed no foreign alliances to keep it in place. In fact it was making a virtue of necessity.
The news continued to be bad. In January 1900 the Boers inflicted another defeat – and over a thousand casualties – at Spion Kop on the Tugela River as Buller’s forces attempted to get through to Ladysmith. In the same month Britain’s most popular soldier, Lord Roberts (‘Bobs’), arrived in South Africa to take charge. Matters began to improve almost at once, for increasing numbers of troops were being sent, not only from Britain but from elsewhere in the Empire. Kimberley was relieved in February, the Tugela Heights were captured, enabling Ladysmith to be freed, and a British victory at Paardeberg resulted in the surrender of Cronje, one of the Boers’ most able commanders. Bloemfontein was occupied in March, Mafeking was relieved on 16 May (causing a disproportionate amount of rejoicing in Britain) and in June British forces entered Johannesburg and Pretoria.
The war, however, went on. Roberts had rejected any question of negotiations, insisting that surrender must be unconditional. As in all such cases, this stiffened the enemy’s determination to fight, and the Boers continued to wage guerrilla warfare from remote areas while their President, Paul Kruger, eluded the British and escaped to Europe to drum up support. Though fighting still went on, there were no further major battles, and both Roberts and Buller had gone home before the end of the year. When the Queen died the following January, the conflict seemed to a large extent over.
In fact, it had changed from full-scale war to a police action. Kitchener had been left in command, and his task was to mop up remaining resistance. Because the Boers received considerable assistance – in terms of shelter, supplies and information – from their families and from other non-combatants in the countryside, the Army had made a policy of burning farms and scattering livestock that might be used to feed the enemy. Another method was to round up local civilians and accommodate them in ‘concentration camps’. These were communities of huts within barbed-wire enclosures. They were basic, but in theory adequate, though it was not long before overcrowding and lack of sanitation, and resulting deaths from disease, made them notorious (it is thought that up to 20,000 died in them – an appalling statistic). Lurid artists’ impressions of the camps were shown in illustrated papers all over the world, pushing Anglophobia to unprecedented levels. Their existence also caused outrage among sections of opinion at home. Concentration camps were not a British invention. They had been used by the Spanish authorities in Cuba during the rebellion in the 1890s, but they became a symbol of British oppression. Visited, and condemned, by both British and foreign observers, they were eventually closed down. They had, in any case, proved somewhat counter-productive. By freeing the Boer guerrillas of responsibility for their families, they had made it easier for many of them to pursue the war.
By the summer of 1901 the Orange Free State was entirely under British control, and in the Transvaal resistance was slowly eradicated. Negotiations led to an eventual settlement, signed at Vereeniging on 31 May 1902, that gave the Boers many of the guarantees and concessions they had wanted, and paid for the reconstruction of their country. It occurred to many of those who had fought on the British side that their efforts had therefore been in vain. The Empire had won, eventually, though only after deploying almost 450,000 troops, of whom more than 21,000 had died. Boer combatants suffered about 4,000 fatalities from a strength of 70–80,000. It was victory, but only just. This had been as much of a trauma as the Crimean War fifty years earlier, and it caused a great deal of national soul-searching.
The Old Enemy
Unlike all of her Continental neighbours, Britain did not have military service, and as a result had a domestic army that was pitifully small in comparison to those of the European powers. The country’s defence posture was based on the notion that the Royal Navy – by far the largest fleet in the world – would deal with any potential invader before he reached the British coast. Despite their outward confidence and the apparent complacency that victory in the Napoleonic Wars had given them, Victorians did not see themselves as living in a climate of international calm. France had indeed been defeated but was still rich and powerful, and it was taken for granted that she would seek revenge at a moment of her own choosing, probably with an attack upon Britain’s shores. The country’s defence relied upon the Royal Navy, and the strength of the Navy had lain in the skill of its sailors. They were unmatched in the world at the speed and accuracy of their gunnery and in their ability to handle a sailing ship. With the advent of steam, this latter skill, however, was suddenly rendered worthless and redundant. Their advantage was nullified by new technology, for now it was no longer necessary to wait for winds and tides before launching an invasion. The French navy had converted to steam while the Admiralty in London was still only considering the idea. France was therefore in a position to attack at any time.
The Duke of Wellington, commander-in-chief of the British Army and living in old age at Walmer Castle on the Kent coast (he was created Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1829 and held the post until his death in 1852), looked out on the English Channel from his windows. Nearby was a pleasant beach on which he could walk, but he did not like to do so. The conqueror of Napoleon expected at any time to see the tell-tale black smoke on the horizon that would signal an approaching enemy fleet. If this was the view of the country’s senior military officer, it must have been shared by many others below him in the hierarchy. This fear continued in spite of improving relations with France. In the 1840s King Louis-Philippe visited England, as did his successor, Napoléon III. France and Britain were allies in the Crimea, but Napoleon was a military adventurer (he involved France in four major wars during twenty-two years in power), and if his people wanted war with Britain it was unlikely that he would allow personal friendship to prevent it.
By the late fifties, paranoia on the subject of an expected invasion had reached fever pitch. The signs of this climate of fear can still be seen in and around Portsmouth. The immense, round stone fortresses that dominate the Solent, nicknamed ‘Palmerston Forts’ after the Prime Minister whose government had them built, and the equally impressive defences on the heights at the back of the city, would have made this important naval base impregnable, though they were never used. They remain as evidence that the ‘mid-Victorian calm’ was not as serene as we may think. These measures were not undertaken lightly, for naturally the need for them had to be accepted by Parliament. The signs were there that invasion was more than a possibility. Odo Russell, a Foreign Office official, was told by Pope Pius IX in 1859: ‘Prepare and take care of yourselves in England, for I am quite certain the French Emperor intends sooner or later to attack you.’
A generation later, in 1882, it was suggested that a railway tunnel be built under the Channel by a British company. Instead of greeting this with the enthusiasm that such ‘wonders of the age’ usually generated, there was considerable concern in Parliament and the press regarding the risk of invasion that it would bring. It was argued in the House of Commons that the only way of ensuring the safety of such a venture would be to build the tunnel so that the English end of it was inside a major fortress, with gun barrels pointing at the arriving trains. This might well have been stipulated – if the scheme had been allowed to go that far. The whole notion of a tunnel link with France created a climate of such invasion hysteria that politicians scrambled to dissociate themselves from a scheme that was seen as ‘unpatriotic’, and public opinion became so hostile that a London crowd broke the company’s windows. The project was shelved.
Among Britain’s rivals, none was in a position to challenge British hegemony until the end of the era. Prussia, which became the strongest power on the Continent, was preoccupied with the creation of a united German Empire. France, defeated by this same empire in 1870–1, was preoccupied with national recovery and revenge. The United States was preoccupied with civil war and with westward expansion (though, in spite of ties between Britain and America, there was almost war between the two in 1895, over opposing interests in Venezuela). Russia, which Britain had fought more or less successfully in the Crimea, remained a likely opponent, for the interests of both countries clashed in Central Asia. No pretext for outright war presented itself, however, and the backward Russian state could not have sustained a major conflict.
The Navy, gradually but successfully, adapted to the needs of the age, building steam-powered, ironclad, screw-driven vessels that kept British maritime supremacy unchallenged until the twentieth century. The evidence of this might was put on show, on 26 June 1897, at the Diamond Jubilee Review at Spithead. Though other nations sent ships to participate in this tribute to the Queen, the Royal Navy effortlessly outshone its guests. Anchored in lines that were seven miles long (the total length of the fleet was thirty miles) were one hundred and seventy ships, including fifty-three ironclads (the French navy had only thirty-two). It was the Admiralty’s boast that not one ship had had to be withdrawn from a foreign station to take part in the spectacle. It was by far the largest navy in history and the British public, gazing on the rows of masts and funnels from Southsea Common or Gosport, could surely not imagine that this power would ever fade. As a children’s alphabet book of the time put it:
N is the Navy we keep at Spithead. It’s a sight that makes foreigners wish they were dead.
For home defence, Britain traditionally relied on the goodwill of part-time volunteers. In the wars against France from the 1790s to 1815, counties had raised units of militia (infantry) and yeomanry (cavalry), but the militia was disbanded in 1814, before the war had ended. In the year 1859, when there was a sudden fear of invasion by the French, there was a surge of recruiting for part-time rifle units, and the Volunteer officer, usually gorgeously attired but militarily inept, became a stock character in music hall and in the pages of satirical papers. Many present-day Territorial Army regiments were first raised as a direct result of this fear. The Artists’ Rifles is today an SAS unit, but its origins were very different. Founded in 1859 by painters and sculptors, its commanding officer throughout the late nineteenth century was Lord Leighton, one of the country’s most eminent artists, and President of the Royal Academy.
Such amateur bodies were expected only to defend the homeland in time of emergency and were not allowed to serve overseas. This situation changed only with the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899. Short of manpower, the War Office accepted contributions of troops from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other parts of Greater Britain (even West Indian soldiers were used for guarding Boer prisoners), and also used short-term volunteers from the United Kingdom. This was the first time that civilians had been able to enlist for military service for the duration of a campaign, setting a precedent that would be followed on a vastly greater scale in the two World Wars.
The Yeomanries of many counties were deployed, and – most famously – the City of London raised a regiment (the CIV or City Imperial Volunteers) to serve in South Africa. These formations did much to foster respect for the Army on the part of the public, for previously soldiering had been a despised profession attracting misfits and petty criminals. The Army was sceptical and reluctant to invite civilians into its ranks, and many members of the public shared the view that amateurs would be of little value. Galsworthy’s character Timothy Forsyte expresses this attitude when he exclaims: ‘Volunteer-in’, indeed! What have we kept the Army up for – to eat their heads off in time of peace! They ought to be ashamed of themselves, comin’ on the country to help them like this! Let every man stick to his business, and we shall get on.’
Britain’s army would never catch up in size with those of its Continental counterparts until, in the middle of the First World War, conscription was introduced for the first time in the nation’s history. What it lacked in size, however, it made up in the breadth of its experience. When conflict broke out in 1914 and the British Expeditionary Force was dispatched to France to halt the German drive on the Channel coast, it was the army of Queen Victoria that succeeded in doing so, for many officers and men who took part in the fighting were veterans of the Boer War or the North-West Frontier. Their enemy paid grudging tribute to the accuracy of their fire and to their ability to fight effectively in small units – traits learned in numerous small-scale colonial conflicts.
The Victorian Empire was maintained – in more or less equal measure – by the pound sterling and the Martini-Henry rifle. While the entrepreneurial drive of British merchants can easily be seen by critics as ‘exploitation’, and the wielding of military might as ‘imperialism’, there was, of course, a positive aspect to British power. It created a prosperous worldwide community of countries that preserves – as the Commonwealth of Nations – a strong sense of mutual empathy. It brought vast benefits – transport and engineering, medicine, Christianity, education – to large areas of the world, and these things are more appreciated in the countries that received them than perhaps critics of Empire are aware. Whatever the excesses of the Victorian age, and whatever the faults – individually or collectively – of Victorians, their era was one of progress, enterprise, compassion and civilization. Their achievement deserves our pride and our gratitude.