The Victorian Empire I

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire

The Age of Confidence

In 1853 an American author, George Stillman Hilliard, published a description of the English tourists he encountered in the streets and museums of Rome. His comments capture the essence of the Victorian abroad and sum up the Briton’s view of his country’s place in the world:

They walk over the land as if it were their own. There is something downright uncompromising in their air. They have the natural language of command, and their bearing flows from the proud consciousness of undisputed power. A new sense of the greatness of England is gathered from travelling on the Continent, for, let an Englishman go where he will, the might and majesty of his country seems to be hanging over him like an unseen shield. Let but a hand be laid upon an English subject and the great British lion begins to utter menacing growls. An English man-of-war seems to be always within one day’s sail of anywhere. If there be even a roll of English broadcloth or a pound of English tea to be endangered thereby, within forty-eight hours a frigate is pretty sure to drop anchor in the harbour.

This confidence was evident in British travellers up to the time of the First World War and even beyond. It was the product of centuries of conditioning. In Elizabeth’s reign the Protestant English had seen themselves as a chosen people and their defeat of the Armada as evidence of divine endorsement. They had become the world’s foremost naval power. Over subsequent centuries, numerous victories at sea consolidated a maritime supremacy that came to be taken for granted at home, and which accustomed British subjects to the notion that their government could reach out to the farthest corners of the globe. After the defeat of both France and Spain at Trafalgar in 1805 this confidence increased, for the country’s two traditional enemies, and closest rivals, were now removed from the scene. Neither was ever seriously to menace British coasts, or interests, again, and no other power was to threaten British dominance until the end of the century.

While the Royal Navy saw itself as the world’s only maritime superpower, the Army was also highly regarded. Entirely composed of volunteers, it was far smaller than the great conscript forces with which Napoleon had fought, and its size was to remain a source of derision for Europeans with mass armies at their disposal (Bismarck once sneered that, if the British Army invaded Germany, he would send the Berlin police to arrest them). Nevertheless, it had centuries of success to its credit. In pursuit of Britain’s traditional foreign policy, which was to prevent any one of the European nations becoming powerful enough to dominate the Continent, it had been victorious against the French and Spanish throughout the eighteenth century as well as against Napoleon, and had suffered defeat only from fellow Britons in America.

‘Johnny Foreigner’

The attitude of the British to those near neighbours who had been their recent foes was one of smug superiority (the impertinence and disrespect accorded many native-born French masters at English schools throughout the era was typical). It was taken for granted that most other races were lazy and effete, and that they could not compete either in trade or in arms with Anglo-Saxons. As Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations had said of the 1820s: ‘Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything.’ This attitude was equally characteristic of the rest of the century.

Among foreigners, those from northern Europe were the most respected by the British. They were similar in race and religion, and the efficiency of Scandinavians, Dutch and, above all, Germans was admired. These countries were trading nations too, though they were too small, or too little industrialized, to pose any significant threat. Germany had many and obvious links with Britain’s Royal Family, and even when in 1871 its disparate states combined to form a powerful nation, Britons saw no cause for alarm. It was only in the last years of Victoria’s reign, when the Kaiser’s navy began a programme of ambitious expansion, that Germany began to replace France as the most likely opponent in a future war.

Britons viewed Latin nations, whether they were southern Europeans or South Americans, as quaintly amusing. These peoples, their enterprise sapped by hot climates and the over-abundance of nature, were seen as lacking the necessary qualities of discipline and determination to deserve prosperity, for great powers must be able to lead by example. Where such countries had colonial empires – as did the Spanish and Portuguese – their colonies were badly run and in decay. When, in 1898, Spain’s overseas empire was taken over by the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ United States, it was assumed that the territories concerned would now flourish.

The colonial peoples themselves rated below even Latins in the pecking order of nations. Despite the fact that British imperial subjects included members of ancient – and undeniably great – civilizations such as China, India and Burma, these peoples were regarded as incapable of self-government. Britain, like France, saw its empire not only as an economic resource to be used for the benefit of the mother country but as the setting for a civilizing mission. Anglo-Saxon efficiency, enlightened religion, British values, sports and education would eventually render indigenous peoples fit to manage their own affairs, but this was not expected to happen soon. The British founded some excellent schools and colleges throughout their Empire – Raffles Institution in Singapore and Mayo College in India are examples – and these created a native elite with the skills and expectations appropriate to an educated class. That there were no opportunities for them to serve in higher administrative, academic or commercial posts created a frustration that was to increase throughout the period of British rule. Uninterested in their colonies until the latter half of the reign, the Queen’s subjects discovered an enthusiasm for the Empire only gradually. The title Empress of India, assumed by Victoria in 1877, awakened some pride, and the popularity of Empire increased so much in the following two decades that the Diamond Jubilee was treated more as a celebration of the country’s colonial might than of its ruler’s sixty-year reign.

The rush to acquire territories by other powers, including the new nations Germany and Italy, spurred Britain to action; the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the eighties and nineties was expected to be followed by a Scramble for China, as Europe fought over any land or resources that became available. Though the British Government often did not want to take on the administration of further territories, it might do so to protect commercial interests, to acquire strategic positions or simply to prevent other nations from seizing them. Seeing their country as the heir to Ancient Rome, the British thought themselves better suited to the task of running other parts of the world than any nation. Their attitude was, frankly and unapologetically, that the more of the globe that was run by their countrymen, the better for civilization.

In many respects they were right. However fashionable it has since become to hate ‘colonialism’, a visit to any former European colony will indicate a legacy of roads, bridges, schools, churches and hospitals that has often served these communities very well. Planting and irrigation schemes have, often, similarly given lasting benefits to the territories concerned (the tea industry in India and Ceylon, for instance). What must be remembered is that, from the seventies onwards, when candidates for colonial administrative posts began to be selected by highly competitive examinations, the young men going out to run overseas territories were of the highest calibre that Britain could produce (the same was broadly true of the other great powers). They must not only have wisdom, common sense and adaptability, but be able to live under the constant gaze of the local and expatriate population, setting an example of incorruptible impartiality as representatives of the Crown. To an overwhelming extent they succeeded, providing one of the finest and fairest administrative bodies the world has seen.

A Worldwide Network

Britain’s confidence was built on commercial, even more than military strength. As a seafaring nation and the discoverers of whole continents, the British had learned to make themselves at home all over the world. As a manufacturing nation they had built a vast network of trading links that had given them dominance over entire regions, as in East Asia. The country’s commercial network was far greater than its formal empire, covering places, such as Argentina, that were never British territory. No matter where an Englishman went, he would find British products, British traders or agents or representatives. He was always surrounded by familiar goods, accents, uniforms or faces. The knives and forks in a Russian hotel would prove to be from Sheffield. The boat that carried him up a West African river was likely to have been built on the Clyde. The house in which he stayed in Malaya might have been shipped from Birmingham in a crate and then assembled. The railway locomotive that carried him over the Andes might well have been made in Crewe, and the engine driver, the general manager and the engineers would be found to speak in the rich tones of British regions. In any corner of the earth, there was a chance that a Briton would meet some old acquaintance.

As well as the considerable – and expanding – number of territories throughout the world that were governed and garrisoned by Britain, there were informal communities of expatriates to be met with all over the globe. Apart from those who inhabited the French Riviera, or the hills around Florence, there were Welsh settlers in Patagonia who still spoke their native language, and in the Oporto region of Portugal there were English families that had lived for generations among the vineyards whose produce they exported to their homeland. In many instances the trappings of life in Britain – gentlemen’s clubs, foxhunts, Anglican churches, cricket teams – were successfully transplanted in foreign soil.

Leading Nation

The country’s trade had made Britain the world’s richest nation. This position was not to last, but for most of the nineteenth century Britain’s financial confidence, and pre-eminence, were unchallenged. Their nation’s wealth and financial know-how guaranteed respect for British merchants and, by extension, all of their compatriots. An Englishman abroad would expect the locals to honour his credit notes without demur, and he might well find, in banks or shipping agencies in foreign cities, a young clerk from Yorkshire or Scotland learning the ropes.

The British were not, of course, the only trading nation, but they had an important edge in their reputation for honesty and efficiency. With simple logic, they had long since decided that reliable service and financial probity were the best guarantee of satisfied customers and further orders, and they had succeeded in spreading all over the world this notion of themselves. In parts of South America the expression ‘hora Inglese’ (English hour) is still used to indicate punctuality. Because of Britain’s industrial pre-eminence, the goods they sold were usually as dependable as their timekeeping. The image they projected to others was one that they liked to believe themselves. A book that looked back at the nineties summed up their attitude to the rest of the world, and the way in which commercial and military might were often linked in the minds of others:

The vision of a Germany in arms had not [yet] come to discomfort. Nor had the sun of these United States. Pugilists and pork-packers and cowboys it might produce. Financiers–never!

Other empires might or might not have gone the way of all flesh. Not so the British Empire. Who was it that had been set over half the world? England. Who was it that knew how to manage the Indian or the African? England. Who had produced General Gordon, with a cane and a prayer instead of a gun and a curse? England. To whom did the Foreigner pay the secret adulation that vice pays to virtue? Victoria – that is, England. And about this there was a magnificent assurance which precluded hypocrisy. The British Business Man of that day may have been many things – he was never a hypocrite, and though an envious world called him that, it respected him and it especially respected his navy.

While British traders and proconsuls presented the world with an façade of unshakeable self-confidence the reality was somewhat different. The country’s greatest asset had been the head start given it by the Industrial Revolution. This had enabled British firms to mass produce and export items that in other countries were still made, slowly and laboriously, by hand. It was inevitable, however, that any country that possessed sufficient raw materials and was able to raise, or attract from elsewhere, the requisite funds could have an industrial revolution of its own. This happened in France during the post-Napoleonic decades. It happened with increasing speed in Germany after the country’s unification (the German steel industry, in particular, became a serious and growing rival to Britain’s). It was most evident in the United States, which had been industrializing since the end of the eighteenth century. By the last years of the nineteenth it was evident that the future belonged to America. Their early advantage had made the British complacent, and they found themselves as the century went on in an increasingly crowded market-place. Foreign goods were often cheaper because labour costs were lower and quality less important. The Paris Exhibition of 1867 showed how quickly France was catching up with British manufactures, and the Annual Register of that year lamented that the United Kingdom:

Owes her great influence not to military successes but to her commanding position in the arena of industry and commerce. If she forgets this, she is lost: not perhaps to the extent of being conquered and reduced to a province, but undoubtedly to the extent of giving up the lead, and ceasing to be a first-rate power. The signs, for those who can read, can be plainly seen.

In 1870 James Anthony Froude, the historian and commentator, wrote that:

English opinion is without weight. English power is ridiculed. Our influence in the councils of Europe is a thing of the past. We are told, half officially, that it is time for us to withdraw altogether from the concerns of the Continent: while, on the other side of the Atlantic, Mr Emerson calmly intimates to an approving audience that the time is not far off when the Union must throw its protecting shield over us in our approaching decrepitude.

This was, perhaps, somewhat alarmist. Britain was not a Continental power and did not expect her opinions there – unless she held the balance in wartime – to carry great weight. Disraeli, in any case, was to prove an influential figure at the Congress of Berlin in 1877. In the matter of America, Froude was nearer the mark, for that country’s power was increasing so relentlessly that even a long and costly civil war had not arrested its progress. The United States had apparently limitless natural resources, and despite possessing more than enough living space for its large population, by the end of the century it had begun to acquire overseas territories. The famous poem by Rudyard Kipling in which he urged ‘Take up the white man’s burden’ was addressed to America, as a plea for the world’s new great power to take on the same role of benevolent responsibility as had the old.

Guardians of Empire

With the defeat of Napoleon, Britain’s Empire had been expanded by several strategic new territories, including the Cape of Good Hope and Malta. The Royal Navy, which protected these colonies, was the strongest anywhere. The Army, though small by Continental standards, had seen off the French. Yet once the war was over complacency quickly set in, and the military establishment became the target for cuts. The British did not like standing armies or large peacetime navies and it has always been the practice to disband these forces as soon as possible. A standing army of 150,000 was no longer necessary, and the country in any case was suffering from a recession in the aftermath of the war. The Navy, too, was burdening the taxpayer. One task alone – that of guarding Napoleon in his mid-Atlantic prison at St Helena – was costing £300,000 a year. Retrenchment followed swiftly, with the Navy being reduced by 107,000 men by 1817. The Admiralty also continued to believe in the value of Britain’s traditional sailing ships and to resist any suggestion that it convert to steam power.

Throughout the century the Royal Navy was to enjoy immense prestige in the world. The skills of its sailors in manning a ship and in gunnery were unmatched by any rival. It acted as a highly successful international policeman, and no stretch of water in the world was beyond its reach. With no feasible opponent to challenge it, the Navy devoted its efforts for several decades to stamping out the slave trade, not only stopping slaving ships on the high seas but raiding the assembly ports along the West African coast. As a result, more than 150,000 slaves were freed over a period of fifty years. Pirates were another problem. In 1816 British vessels forced the surrender of Algiers, a hornets’ nest of piracy for three hundred years. The last battle fought by British sailing ships was at Navarino Bay in October 1827. They, together with French and Russian fleets under overall British command, were assisting the Greeks in their struggle for independence from Ottoman rule, and the Turkish fleet was wiped out. The British public expected its sailors to give equally short shrift to any other international bully.


Between 1830, when he became Foreign Secretary, and 1865, when he died, Britain’s foreign policy was dominated by the personality of Lord Palmerston. Twice Prime Minister, he took a view of the world that was common among the upper and middle classes. He epitomized the smug confidence of the world’s richest nation and the home of the world’s most powerful fleet. He would brook no insult to the British flag anywhere in the world, and had no qualms about exercising his trademark ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in defence of national interests. This was no mere cliché. A British vessel sent to lie at anchor off a foreign coast was not only a threat of impending violence, but a symbol of the might that could be summoned to reinforce it.

On 30 November 1840, Acre, a Turkish possession in the Middle East, was bombarded with devastating effect, for one projectile hit the gunpowder magazine and blew up the entire port. The local Turkish ruler, Mehmet Ali, withdrew from all his conquests in the region. Infamously, Britain also engaged the Chinese, who were attempting to end the opium trade that was being forced on them by the East India Company. After the seizure of an opium cargo in the Chinese port of Canton by local authorities, Palmerston sent a letter of protest. This was returned. There followed a period of insult and counter-insult, and punitive action by the British then began. The Navy bombarded Canton and several other ports. The island of Hong Kong was seized and the Chinese were forced, by the Treaty of Nangking in 1842, to accept a humiliating peace that opened several ports to British trade and ceded Hong Kong – a valuable entrepôt that would come to dominate trade in the region – to Britain for ever. The result of the opium wars was to confirm British mercantile dominance in the region, a position the United Kingdom would keep until the Second World War.


The Royal Navy was, on the whole, popular with the public. While the Army was used to quell civil disorder (most notoriously in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester in 1819, when cavalry broke up a demonstration and killed a number of civilians), the Navy did not impinge on the life of those ashore – except in the occasional form of the press gang. This system of compulsory recruiting, the scourge of Britain’s coastal towns during the Napoleonic Wars, had often brought misery to those affected, but had benefited the majority by making it unnecessary to introduce conscription. In the decades after 1815 the press gang remained theoretically in existence, but with the reduction in ships it was no longer necessary to fill crews by these methods. However the harsh shipboard discipline of Nelson’s era, based largely on floggings, remained, and ensured that the Navy was kept in a state of sullen efficiency. The public loved the sentimental image of the sailor (as opposed to the soldier, whom they usually mocked and disliked). One of the bestselling books of 1841 was a collection of the naval songs of Charles Dibdin, with illustrations by the Dickens illustrator George Cruikshank, of which Queen Victoria bought fifty copies and the Admiralty five hundred.

Flogging, like the press gang, declined in use rather than being abolished (the last flogging in the Royal Navy took place in 1880) as conditions gradually improved. In 1831, small pensions were granted to sailors with twenty-one years’ service. Regular long-term engagements for sailors were introduced in 1853, and all who signed on for these were entitled to pensions. Though there was a Naval Hospital at Greenwich for the care of old and wounded sailors this closed in 1867, for the Navy had been involved in so few major actions by that time that there were not enough veterans to make it worthwhile. The pensioners were sent home and paid what was owing to them there. For officers, there was no question of superannuation. They did not retire, for they held commissions for life. They were put on ‘half-pay’ (in practice often less than half) and sent home, in theory to be called back when circumstances required. Because no officers left the Navy except through death, junior men – whether able or otherwise – could not gain promotion except on the principle of dead men’s shoes, and many naval officers remained captains, lieutenants, or even midshipmen, throughout their careers. Those at the top, in the Admiralty, could retain their posts in perpetuity. The result was a moribund and ineffectual body that had no taste for innovation and did not grasp the importance of new technology. Only in 1860 – presumably after the last Napoleonic relic had left the Admiralty – did the Navy have its first ironclad warship. The conversion to steam was followed through, slowly and late, for the same reason.


When Victoria came to the throne, the British Army was largely still a relic of the Napoleonic Wars, its recruits drawn, in the Duke of Wellington’s much-quoted phrase, from ‘the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink’. Fully a quarter of its manpower came from the poorest part of the United Kingdom – Ireland – and one of them described it as: ‘the dernier resort of the idle, the depraved and the destitute’, adding that ‘the larger part . . . make good soldiers, and useful, if not valuable, servants of the state.’

The Queen’s reign would see constant warfare, though most of it would be minor. Only in a single year – 1862 – would her soldiers not be involved in conflict somewhere in the world. These actions would accustom British troops to fighting on all continents and in all conditions, and render them the world’s most battle-hardened army. There would be a steady evolution in their tactics, weaponry, organization, planning and quality throughout the Victorian era, though the reign would end in military ignominy with the Boer War, and the quality of the British soldier – in terms of initiative rather than bravery or doggedness – would still leave something to be desired. Only two years before the outbreak of the South African conflict, Besant wrote what he may have assumed would be an end-of-term report on Victoria’s Army. His choice of battles is interesting, for several of those he mentions were embarrassing debacles, while others are entirely forgotten. One of them, the landing at Tel-el-Kebir, was not even opposed:

If, during this period, our Navy has proved our ‘first line of defence’, it is equally true that of our Army that it has been employed as our ‘first line of offence’ in almost every quarter of the globe., and in no era of our history of the same length have our soldiers reaped so many laurels. They have had their reverses, their checks and their disasters; but their colours have also been blazoned with some of the proudest victories in history. Alma, Balaclava, Inkerman, Sevastopol, what heroic memories do these not recall! They have quelled the unruly tribes of the Niger, broken the military power of the brave savages south of the Zambesi, subdued an Egyptian rebellion on the Nile, and inspired with a wholesome dread of the British name the death-despising hordes of the Soudan; and the Queen’s troops are prouder of no victories than those of Tel-el-Kebir, El-Teb, Tamai, Abu-Klea, Kirbekan, and Tofrek.

In peacetime the Army was scattered throughout the world, manning garrisons in colonies and protectorates and spheres of influence. The forces involved varied in size from the vast armies (mainly native) in India to the single soldier – a bombardier – garrisoning Tristan da Cunha in 1841. Like other armies in colonial situations, they were not only soldiers but policemen and engineers, creating roads, towns and bridges and surveying territory. Units would be sent around the world as circumstances required, postings perhaps including Ireland, Canada, India, South Africa and Bermuda as well as spells at home in stations like Aldershot, Colchester or Hounslow.

In 1854 the total number of men in the British Army was 140,043, of whom 29,208 were in India and 39,754 in other colonies. From the 1870s onward, local forces in the self-governing colonies took a more prominent role in the defence of their territories, freeing British troops from some of this duty. In 1860 the members of Volunteer units totalled 124,000.

At the beginning of Victoria’s reign the Army was reduced to the level at which it had been after the defeat of Napoleon. It was to be built up again only when circumstances made this necessary, at the time of the Crimean War and Indian Mutiny, and when the Boer War broke out. In between, many regiments were reduced to a single battalion.

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!

The Victorian Empire III

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.

South Africa

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.


Initially known as Cromwell III, the Meteor-engined version of the A27 design was designated A27M (M: Meteor engine). The Meteor engine as adapted from the Merlin for tank use had about 80 % of its component parts identical to the aircraft engine, thus greatly facilitating production for tanks. Rolls-Royce converted a batch of Merlins for use in tanks, and during 1941 two Crusader tanks had Meteor engines installed in place of their Liberty power plants for exhaustive test running. This enabled positioning of auxiliary components, wear and tear, oil consumption, and so on to be determined at an early date while design work on the A27 itself proceeded. Birmingham Carriage & Wagon delivered the first mild steel prototype to the Army for trials on March 1, 1942, actually ahead of the Centaur pilot model. Two more pilot models were delivered by the end of 1942, and teething troubles on tests proved relatively minor-mainly detail points concerned with clutch, gears, and cooling. The idea of using the powerful Meteor engine was handsomely vindicated by results, and ample power was available for any forseen developments of the A27 type. Cromwell production started in January 1943, by which time Leyland had become the design and production “parents” for the entire A27 series. This embraced all subcontractors for component parts as well as plants building Cromwells.

Meanwhile, War Office policy with regards to tank armament had changed considerably since the “heavy cruiser” requirement resulting in the A24/A27 series had been formulated. Fighting in the Western Desert, coupled by the decisive appearance of the American-built M3 and M4 Medium tanks in that theatre led to a requirement for a gun with “dual-purpose” capability-able to fire HE or AP shot-as fitted in the very successful M3 and M4 mediums. Work on a British designed version of the 75mm gun virtually a bored-out development of the British 6pdr able to fire American ammunition, was put in hand in December 1942 and Cromwells from Mk IV onward were produced with this weapon in place of the 6pdr. The first vehicles so equipped were delivered in November 1943, but there were many initial defects in this gun, including unsatisfactory semi-automatic cams in the breech, which were not entirely put right until May 1944.

The Cromwell was numerically the most important British-built cruiser tank of World War II, forming the main equipment of British armoured divisions in 1944-45 together with the American-built M4 Sherman. However, even with a 75mm gun it was still, by 1944 standards, inferior to contemporary German tanks like the Panther and late-model PzKw IVs. With its Meteor engine it was the fastest and most powerful of British tank designs until that period, but physical limitations (mainly the narrowness of the hull) prevented its being upgunned further and considerable redesign was necessary to turn it into a vehicle capable of carrying the very desirable 17pdr gun armament -see the Challenger and Comet for further details.

All the A24/A27 series were structurally similar, with a hull and turret of simple box shape and composite construction-an inner skin with an outer layer of armour bolted on. Driver and co-driver/hull machine gunner sat in the forward compartment, and the turret crew consisted of the commander, gunner and loader who was also the radio operator. Tracks were manganese with centre guides, and the engine and transmission were at the rear. Numerous detail modifications were incorporated during the Cromwell’s production run, which ended in 1945. These are noted below. Most important innovation was the introduction of all-welded construction in place of rivetting on later models, thus further simplifying mass-production.



Cromwell I: Original production model with 6pdr gun. Similar in external appearance to Centaur I.

Cromwell II: Mk I modified by removal of hull machine gun and fitting of wider tracks-15tin in place of 14in.

Cromwell III: Centaur I re-engined with Meteor to bring it to A27M standards. Originally designated Cromwell X.

Cromwell IV: Centaur III with 75mm gun re-engined with Meteor.

Cromwell IVw: As Mk IV but with all-welded hull, and built with Meteor engine.

Cromwell Vw: As Mk IV but with all-welded hull.

Cromwell VI: As Mk IV but with 95mm howitzer replacing the 6pdr for the close support role.

Cromwell VII: Cromwell IV re-worked with applique armour welded on hull front, 15 ½ in tracks replacing 14in tracks, stronger suspension, and reduced final drive ratio to govern down maximum speed to 32mph.

Cromwell VIIw: Cromwell Vw modified as above.

Cromwell VIII: Cromwell VI modified as above.

Cromwell ARV: Vehicle with turret removed, winch fitted in turret space, and demountable A-frame jib. Appearance as Centaur ARV.

Cromwell Command/OP: Mk IV, VI or VIII fitted with dummy gun and extra radio equipment for use of formation commander or artillery observation officers.

Cromwell CIRD: Vehicle with fittings to take Canadian Indestructible Roller Device (CIRD) mine exploding equipment. Few only converted.

Cromwell “Prong”: Standard vehicle fitted with Cullin Hedgerow Cutting Device, Normandy 1944. This equipment, at first, extemporised in the field, then manufactured in limited quantities, was fitted to some Cromwell and Sherman tanks in June-August 1944 to assist in breaking through the extensive hedges and foliage of the “Bocage” country of Normandy which otherwise tended to restrict movement to the roads.

Charioteer: Post-war (1950) conversion of existing Cromwell chassis with new turret and 20pdr gun. Several experimental or trials models of Cromwells were produced to test installations or proposed modifications. Three of these are illustrated. Also projected was a Cromwell Crocodile, still under development at the war’s end. It was similar to the Churchill Crocodile.

Mass27.6 long tons (28.0 t)
Length20 ft 10 in (6.35 m)
Width9 ft 6 12 in (2.908 m)
Height8 ft 2 in (2.49 m)
Crew5 (Commander, gunner, loader/radio operator, driver, hull gunner)
Armour3 inches (76 mm) on Mk.IV, 4 inches (100 mm) on Mk.V
Ordnance QF 75 mm
with 64 rounds
2 x 7.92 mm Besa machine gun
with 4,950 rounds
EngineRolls-Royce Meteor V12 petrol
600 hp (450 kW)
Power/weight21.4 hp (16 kW) / tonne
TransmissionMerritt-Brown Z.5 gearbox (five forward and one reverse gear) driving rear sprockets
SuspensionImproved Christie
Ground clearance16 inches (410 mm)
Fuel capacity110 imp gal (500 l) + optional 30 imp gal (140 l) auxiliary
170 miles (270 km) on roads, 80 mi (130 km) cross country[3]
Maximum speed40 mph (64 km/h) with 3.7:1 final reduction drive

William Pitt’s Vision, of Global Supremacy

On September 13, 1759, the British under General James Wolfe (1727-59) achieved a dramatic victory when they scaled the cliffs over the city of Quebec to defeat French forces under Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham (an area named for the farmer who owned the land). During the battle, which lasted less than an hour, Wolfe was fatally wounded. Montcalm also was wounded and died the next day.

The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775. Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) The third war between Austria and a rising Prussia for control over Silesia, the culmination of the long Anglo-French struggle for colonial supremacy, and the last major conflict before the French Revolution to involve all the traditional great powers of Europe. There were three principal theaters of this war. Great Britain helped support Frederick of Prussia in battling Austria, France, and Russia and their allies: British finances helped purchase mercenary troops to augment Prussia’s army. The British navy battled the French navy in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as well as the Mediterranean and Caribbean Seas. Finally, augmented by colonial militia, the British made a determined and ultimately successful effort to destroy French power in North America. When the Seven Years’ War ended, Frederick gained Silesia, though with significant manpower losses; the British gained territory in India and all of French Canada (save for tiny St. Pierre and Miquelon Islands off the Newfoundland coast).

William Pitt’s vision, of global supremacy, seemed within reach. The early course of the Seven Years War was wholly changed by the victories of Frederick of Prussia, the ally of England, who soon acquired a reputation as the Protestant hero of Europe. In November 1757, at Rossbach in Saxony, he defeated the combined armies of France and Austria. A month later, at Leuthen in Bavaria, Frederick defeated a much greater Austrian army and seized Silesia. As if emboldened by these victories another allied commander, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, chased the French out of Hanover and pushed them back across the Rhine. Chesterfield, so doleful before, conceded that ‘the face of affairs is astonishingly mended’.

Pitt was now free to pursue a continental strategy, with his enemy in retreat, but already he had more extensive ambitions. In the spring of 1758 an allied force captured the French fort of St Louis in Senegal; its principal commodity of slaves was now secure for the British Crown. At the end of the year an English force took Gorée, an island off the coast of Dakar, which thirty years later would contain the notorious ‘House of Slaves’. So from the boiling and fever-stricken coastlines of West Africa came slaves and ivory, gum and gold dust, that were packed for the Caribbean or for England and then stored in factories with armed guards supplied by the local chieftains.

News came in this year, also, that Robert Clive had emerged victorious from the battle of Plassey and had taken control of Bengal, with its 30 million inhabitants, in a campaign Clive himself described as a medley of ‘fighting, tricks, chicanery, intrigues, politics and the Lord knows what’. The victory led directly to British domination of South Asia and to the subsequent extension of imperial power. Yet not all welcomed these developments. There was a sense of unease over this meddling with exotic and alien foreign lands. There seemed to be no sure foundations on which to build. Only in the nineteenth century were these doubts resolved.

Within three years the French had been compelled to leave India. Without effective sea power they were destined for disappointment. The East India Company soon had all the trappings of an oriental state, with its own police force and native army. It was the tiger in the jungle, dripping with blood and jewels. India became the cockpit in which it was shown that trade was war carried on under another name. In the poetry of the period, in fact, allusions to Africa and India became commonplace; they had become part of the imagination. Yet there was still no talk of empire.

The West Indies had become the most profitable possession, even if the prize had to be shared with the French, the Spanish and the Dutch. An expedition sailed in the winter of the year and took Guadeloupe, the home of cotton, sugar and molasses; for Pitt the island of sugar was a greater prize than Canada, so much stronger were commercial than territorial ties. It sent forth each year 10,000 tons of sugar and in return required 5,000 slaves. It was considered to be a fair bargain. In the hundred years after 1680 some 2 million slaves were forcibly removed from their homes to the work camps of the West Indies.

The conditions of the enslaved workers were notorious. Another sugar island of the Indies, Jamaica, was described by Edward Ward in Five Travel Scripts (1702) ‘as sickly as an hospital, as dangerous as the plague, as hot at hell, and as wicked as the devil’. The slaves could not breed in these torrid conditions, so even more had to be transported. These were the least of the slaves’ torments. Many of England’s overseas possessions were no more than penal colonies rivalling any of those in Stalinist Russia.

Slaves were simply beasts of burden. They were already suspended on a cross of three points, known as ‘triangular’ trade: they were purchased on the west coast of Africa with the proceeds of cloth or spirits before being transported across the ocean where they were sold to the plantation owner; the merchant seamen then returned with their holds filled with sugar, rum and tobacco. It was simplicity itself. A few local difficulties sometimes marred the smooth running of the enterprise. The slaves were manacled to the inner decks with no space to move, with women and children forced promiscuously among the male prisoners. When a ship was in danger of foundering, many of them were unchained and thrown into the sea; when some of them hit the water they were heard to cry out ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ The putrid and malignant diseases from which they suffered, in close proximity to one another, spread all over the vessel. The ‘middle passage’ across the ocean often created the conditions of a death ship.

Yet the church bells were ringing all over England. Even as the stinking and putrescent slaves were marched onto Jamaican or Bajan soil the new year in England, 1759, was being hailed as an ‘annus mirabilis’. The early capture of Guadeloupe was only the harbinger of overseas victories that guaranteed England’s global supremacy. Horace Walpole remarked that the church bells had been worn thin by ringing in victories, and wrote to Pitt ‘to congratulate you on the lustre you have thrown on this country . . . Sir, do not take this for flattery: there is nothing in your power to give what I would accept; nay there is nothing I could envy, but what you would scarce offer me – your glory.’ That had always been considered the French virtue above all others; gloire and le jour de gloire were later to be immortalized in the second line of ‘La Marseillaise’. But in 1759 they had been snatched away.

After the capture of Guadeloupe, Dominica signed a pact of neutrality with the victors. Canada, or New France as it was then known, was to come. In June General Amherst captured Fort Niagara and, in the following month, Crown Point. These victories were followed by the fall of Quebec in the autumn, when Major-General James Wolfe stole up the Heights of Abraham like a thief in the night. The capital of the French province lay on a precipitous rock at the confluence of the St Lawrence and St Charles rivers. Early assaults had come to nothing against what seemed to be an impregnable position. Wolfe wrote in his dispatches that ‘we have almost the whole force of Canada to oppose’.

Do or die. He planned to land his force on the bank of the St Charles, to scale what seemed to be the insuperable heights, and then to attack Quebec from the relatively undefended rear of the town. Recovering from their surprise at the success of the enterprise the French attacked but were beaten back. The French commander, Montcalm, was shot as he stood; Wolfe received a wound in the head, followed by two other bullets in his breast and his body. Yet in death his was the victory. The beaten and demoralized French army evacuated much of Canada and retired to Montreal; a year later the garrison at Montreal also surrendered, and Canada joined the list of England’s overseas territorial possessions.

The consequences of human actions are incalculable. With the threat of the French removed from the British settlers over the ocean, they began to resent the presence of English soldiers. Who needed the protection of the redcoats now that the enemy was gone? And so from small events great consequences may arise. An action that Voltaire derided as a conflict ‘about a few acres of snow’ gave rise in time to the United States of America.

The events in the European theatre were no less promising. The threat of French invasion was diverted. The reports of an invasion force, complete with flat-bottomed boats for landing, provoked Pitt into calling out the militia to guard the shores. At Quiberon Bay in November 1759, off the coast of southern Brittany, the French navy was caught and for all purposes destroyed. There would be no further threat of a French invasion.

And that, it might seem, was that. England had achieved maritime supremacy and gathered up more territorial possessions than ever before. The economic strain at home was beginning to show, however, with multifarious taxes imposed to bolster the revenues for the war. Yet if there was a sense of war weariness, it was not evident to the first minister. Pitt had been successful in Canada, the East Indies and the West Indies but he was determined to guide the destiny of Europe and confirm the strength of his country’s global trade. The duke of Newcastle wrote to a colleague that ‘Mr Pitt flew into a violent passion at my saying we could not carry on the war another year; [he said] that that was the way to make peace impracticable and to encourage our enemy; that we might have difficulties but he knew we could carry on the war and were one hundred times better able to do it than the French . . . in short, there was no talking to him’. Pitt knew that his colleagues were now in favour of a negotiated peace; negotiation meant, for him, compromise with the French. He would not rest until their most important possessions were in his hands. But the most carefully laid plans do not always come to fruition.

Suddenly all was changed. On 15 October 1760, George II rose early to drink his chocolate; he then felt the need to visit the water closet from which the valet-de-chambre, according to Horace Walpole, who seems to have known the most arcane secrets of the royal family, ‘heard a noise, louder than royal wind, listened, heard something like a groan, ran in’ and found the king on the floor with a gash on his forehead. The king expired shortly afterwards, bequeathing a new king to a not necessarily grateful nation.

‘Destroy At All Costs’, December 1918

HMS Vendetta, June 1919 (IWM Q73903).

Thirty-five-year-old Johan Laidoner had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Estonian Armed Forces on 23 December 1918. From the time of his arrival two weeks beforehand, he had set to work with a will, using the breathing space that Alexander-Sinclair’s attack had brought him to organise his forces and plan a counter Bolshevik campaign. By the day of his promotion to CinC he could boast a force of 600 officers and 11,000 volunteers.

December 23rd was also the day Laidoner began the fight back. Escorted by HMS Calypso and the destroyer Wakeful, he landed 200 men at Kunda, in the Bolshevik rear; they caused panic, destroyed supplies and severed communications before retreating, all the time covered by gunfire from the Royal Navy. By 1900, the ships were safely back in Reval harbour, without any interference from the Red navy.

This assault, and the previous destruction of the railway and bridge by Cardiff and Caradoc, occurring as they did so close to the Baltic Fleet’s base at Kronstadt, infuriated Trotsky. He ordered the immediate annihilation of the vessels at Reval, stating ‘they must be destroyed at all costs’. Kronstadt was a formidable fortress, a major source of protection for the Soviet fleet. In 1919 it was probably the best protected fleet base in the world. Built initially by Peter the Great, and developed over the succeeding centuries, it lay on the southern side of Kotlin Island. To the west of the base there were minefields stretching to the shore, with only one swept channel. Closer in, the northern channel around the island was spanned by a line of forts linking Kotlin to the mainland. These forts had a chain of submerged breakwaters between them. The main, southern, approach and the River Neva also had several sea forts. On the high ground overlooking the narrow neck of the bay were large fortified gun batteries mounting heavy artillery, including the 12in guns of the major fortress of Krasnaya Gorka. The Tolbukhin lighthouse commanded a view of all approaches to the island. And behind these impressive defences lurked the Baltic Fleet.

Numerically the fleet was strong and significantly overmatched Alexander-Sinclair’s forces. There were three battleships, Andrei Pervozvanni of 1910, a pre-dreadnought armed with four 12in and fourteen 8in guns; and the dreadnoughts Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol, sister-ships armed with twelve 12in guns, and already met in the ‘Ice Voyage’. In addition, there were two cruisers, Oleg of 1903, twelve 6in and twelve 12pdrs, Aurora, eight 6in, and Pamiat Azova, launched in 1888 but now in use as a depot ship. Another cruiser, Gromoboi, was laid up there. Of smaller vessels there were eight destroyers, five modern submarines and an old minelayer. The guns of the battleships and the cruisers were a significant threat to the ships of the 6LCS and their consorts.

The Imperial Russian Navy had long been deficient in training, however, and the situation had worsened since the revolution. The crews at Kronstadt had joined the October Revolution with enthusiasm, some officers had been murdered and most others had fled or been imprisoned. The ships were largely controlled by Soviets of sailors and discipline was practically non-existent. As a fighting force, they were possibly less formidable than first appeared.

This was in part demonstrated by their intelligence-gathering work. The Russians believed that two battleships had covered Laidoner’s landing on 23 December; and, despite reconnaissance by three submarines in November and December, they understood the British ships at Reval to number four battleships and up to ‘fifty or sixty vessels’.

The task of fulfilling Trotsky’s wish for the destruction of the British forces was allotted to Member of the Revolutionary War Soviet (the Revvoeyensovet) of the Red Navy at Kronstadt, Deputy Commander of the Seventh Army and Commissar of the Baltic Fleet, 26-year-old Fyodor Fyodorovich Raskolnikov, previously a midshipman (michman) in the Tsar’s navy.

His plan was for a task force comprising the battleship Andrei Pervozvanni, cruiser Oleg and destroyers Spartak, Avtrovil and Azard to undertake the operation. The destroyers, under Raskolnikov’s direct control, would enter the Reval roads and bombard the port, bringing to action any ships therein. If superior forces were encountered, they were to retire on Oleg with the battleship further back as heavy support. The action was slated for Christmas Day.

At the appointed hour, only Spartak and Andrei Pervozvanni left port, the others being either away or out on patrol. When they all finally rendezvoused, Azard was found to be out of fuel and Avtrovil delayed by an engine breakdown. The operation was put back until the 26th.

Accordingly, at 0700 on St Stephen’s Day, Raskolnikov, aboard Spartak, declared his intention to start the attack; but first he stopped to fire on Wulf (Aegna) and Nargen (Naissaar) Islands (both of which lie across the entrance to Reval harbour and had been fortified in the nineteenth century), ostensibly to see if they were occupied and armed; he then captured a small Finnish steamer which was sent to Kronstadt under a prize crew. These delays were to prove his undoing.

Meanwhile, at Reval, the local authorities had decided to hold a noontime banquet for the Royal Navy officers and crews to thank them for their support. Ladies were to be provided ‘for hire’ as dancing partners. But the preparations for the festivities were interrupted by the sound of gunfire – the attack on the defensive islands – and then by the unpleasant noise of shells dropping in the harbour. Urgently, the ‘recall’ signal was given; sirens blared continuously and British sailors ran for the quayside and their ships. Thesiger had held his command at two hours’ notice for sailing and soon the first vessel left the harbour. It was the destroyer HMS Vendetta; as she passed Caradoc the cruiser’s crew cheered her on. Shortly afterwards Vortigern followed her and then Wakeful, which had lived up to its name. Calypso and Thesiger were immediately behind and Caradoc weighed and went to full speed at 1205, by which time Vendetta had already opened fire.

When Raskolnikov saw the smoke of the three destroyers leaving port he immediately turned Spartak away, heading for Kronstadt, perhaps intending to hide in the Finnish Skerries or find protection under the guns of Oleg.

Wakeful opened fire on Spartak at around 1220 and Wulf Island was passed fifteen minutes later. There was chaos on board the Russian ship. Shells were falling around them, a blast damaged the charthouse and bridge, charts were lost, and the engines proved unreliable. Then with a sudden bang she ran aground on the Divel shoal and stranded. Raskolnikov despatched a final signal to his base; ‘All is lost. I am chased by English’. At 1245, Spartak ran up the white flag.

Thesiger put a boarding party on board. She was leaking badly, with her propellers and rudder torn off. The ship was filthy and the crew generally happy to be prisoners. Vendetta towed her back to port. Once anchored, Spartak was still filling with water so the crew were instructed to raise steam for the pumps; they decided to hold a ship’s Soviet meeting to decide if they should. Armed Royal Marines convinced them of the necessity. As for the Soviet Navy’s commissar and mission commander, Raskolnikov was discovered hiding under twelve sacks of potatoes and taken prisoner. It was rumoured that he had on his person photographs of himself ‘torturing and murdering the old aristocracy’.

Around 1700 the British ships landed their ‘entertainment parties’ and the banquet, delayed but nonetheless mightily enjoyed, took place.


When Thesiger returned from the festivities, he had an interpreter tell him what information the papers captured with Spartak revealed. This informed him that Oleg was at Hogland (an island in the Gulf of Finland about 112 miles west of Petrograd) with orders to bombard Reval. This gave him the usual problem; the squadron’s orders, vague as they were, did not directly give permission to attack enemy ships. But he also found in the captured papers a transcript of a message from Trotsky saying the British ships should be sunk. This seemed to Thesiger to be a sufficient casus belli and he gave orders for an immediate departure.

At 0050 on the 27th Calypso weighed anchor and, in company with Caradoc and Wakeful, set out to find the enemy. Around 0500, Thesiger observed a destroyer passing on the reverse course; it did not see the British ships and Thesiger resisted pleas to open fire, for he thought that in the dark the destroyer may well be able to mount a torpedo attack unobserved. But he did order Vendetta and Vortigern to depart Reval and find her.

Hogland was a disappointment; there was no sign of the Red cruiser. Thesiger set up a patrol line, Caradoc to the north, Calypso south and Wakeful in the middle and in that formation began to cruise back to Reval; if the destroyer sighted earlier turned around she would run into his line of advance.

The plan worked. The Soviet destroyer, which was the Avtroil, seeking Spartak, ran into Vendetta instead, fled from her and came across Vortigern. She then turned east for Kronstadt and met Wakeful, went north and ran into Caradoc and finally south where she was intercepted by Calypso. Thesiger had previously ordered that he wanted to capture the Russian vessel; Caradoc had fired on her at 1135 and Calypso at 1150; ten minutes later, now surrounded by five Royal Navy ships, the Soviet destroyer hoisted a white flag. A prize crew took her back to Reval.

The Estonian navy to that point had comprised one vessel, an ex-Russian gunboat Bobr, now the Lembit, capable of only 12 knots and armed with two 4.7in guns and four 11pdrs. Päts had pleaded with Alexander-Sinclair for two Royal Navy destroyers, a request refused by the admiral. But Thesiger was now able to oblige him. He presented the two captured Russian destroyers to Johan Pitka, a former merchant seaman and owner of a small chandler’s shop in Reval. In the 1914–18 war his son had been sent to Siberia for subversive activities amongst the British and Imperial Russian sailors in the Baltic but the family now seemed unconcerned about the past. Pitka had been appointed the Estonian naval commander-in-chief. At a stroke he gained two modern, fast ships and an actual navy to command; he named the new recruits Wambola (ex-Spartak) and Lennuk (ex-Avtroil).

But the Gulf was freezing over; Reval would soon be ice-bound, as would Petrograd, locking the Soviet fleet harmlessly in the base. In Reval, the next two days were spent refuelling and embarking refugees; Britons, Danes and the wife and family of the British consul, together with some prisoners of war and Raskolnikov.

Meanwhile Cardiff docked at Reval, inbound from Copenhagen, with Alexander-Sinclair and a further consignment of arms for the Estonian arsenal; 1,960 rifles and 1,380,000 rounds of ammunition. There also arrived some 200 Finnish soldiers on board an icebreaker, the first of an expected force of 2,000.

Back in London, Fremantle was concerned for the safety of the Baltic ships. At the 31 December 1918 War Cabinet meeting the minutes noted that:

Admiral Fremantle wished to know whether the Imperial War Cabinet wished to withdraw the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron, or to face intervention on a larger scale. There was a danger of our being drawn into operations from which it would be difficult to disentangle ourselves. A decision would have to be come to quickly, as the ships would have to leave Riga before the middle of January if they were not to be ice-bound there. From the Admiralty point of view, it was certainly desirable to get the ships away from the whole of that area, both because of the damage they would suffer from the ice, and because of the danger that the ice would obliterate the navigation marks through the minefields. In this connection he mentioned that the port of Libau, further south, was ice-free, and, as there was no Bolshevik trouble there, as at Riga and Reval, there was not the same danger of entanglement if a ship stayed there. He wished to add, however, that it was probable that if we withdrew the ships from Riga the local Bolsheviks would massacre all their political opponents.

6th Light Cruiser Squadron, under R/Adm Edwyn Alexander-Sinclair, aboard his flagship HMS Cardiff, sailed from Rosyth for the Baltic & the newly independent republics there “to show the British flag & support British policy as circumstances dictate”

Eventually, the Cabinet decided that ‘the Admiralty should instruct the Admiral in Command of the 6th Light Cruiser Squadron to withdraw his ships from Riga and Reval, owing to the danger of their being shut in by the ice, but that one ship might be left at Libau ready to be withdrawn at short notice’.

Thesiger thought that they should give one last piece of assistance before leaving. Firstly, on 3 January he took two cruisers and two destroyers to transport refugees to Helsingfors and bring Finnish troops back. Caradoc embarked 100 troops and landed them in Reval on the 4th. The ice was already too thick for the destroyers to complete the journey. Indeed, an icebreaker had to be used to take the British ships in and out of Helsingfors port, the ice being 6in thick in places. Stuart Stapleton found it ‘rather funny to see men walking on the ice about 50 yards from the ships, as we were proceeding up harbour’.

Then, after returning to Reval on the 5th, Thesiger took his cruisers and a destroyer on a patrol close to the Russian island of Hogland, expecting the Russians there to report the ships’ presence to Kronstadt such that the Russian ships might be deterred from venturing out. Finally, on the way back to Reval, he made a further bombardment of the Bolshevik positions to the east of the city. ‘This time we managed to blow up a row of houses and set them on fire, otherwise we don’t know what result our fire had,’ noted Stapleton. Caradoc returned to Reval long enough to pick up more refugees and then set out to join the admiral.

As per his orders, Alexander-Sinclair assembled his ships and departed for home, via Copenhagen and thence to Rosyth, where they arrived between 8 and 10 January 1919. They would not return.

Scapegoat: Brigadier George Taylor DSO and Bar Part I

A British Centurion tank similar to those used at Maryang San

George Taylor, C.O of 5/DCLI seen here as a Major with the Worcester Regiment.

The Battle of Maryang San

October 1951

‘Am writing these notes in a special aircraft. Felt very important when it was sent until I remembered that the last special aircraft was to remove a Brigade Commander who was getting the sack!’ Thus wrote Brigadier William Pike in a letter home from Korea on 10 November 1951. He was commander of the 1st Commonwealth Division artillery and had escorted Brigadier Taylor to Major General Cassels for his final interview, from which he did not return.

After the Second World War, Korea, a Japanese colony since 1910, was to be occupied north of the 38th parallel by Soviet Russia. The South would be under United States administration. In the North, the Soviets backed a Stalinist regime under Kim Il-sung and created the North Korean People’s Army, equipped with Russian tanks and artillery. The American-trained South Korean Army was limited to a lightly armed gendarmerie, with no tanks or combat aircraft and only a small amount of field artillery. After several years of frontier incidents along the 38th parallel, the Republic of Korea was invaded by the North Korean People’s Army on 25 June 1950.

As the North Koreans swept south, overwhelming all opposition, the US successfully called on the United Nations Security Council to invoke the United Nations Charter and label the North Koreans the aggressors. Member states were urged to send military assistance. American troops were immediately deployed to stiffen the resolve of the South Koreans. The British responded similarly with ships of the Far East Fleet. The North Koreans advanced rapidly south, aiming to take the vital port of Pusan. American troops initially fared badly against the North Koreans, but General Walton Walker, commanding the Eighth United States Army, managed to hold the Pusan perimeter securely enough to allow reinforcements to arrive. In August 1950, the first British troops—the 1st Battalion The Middlesex Regiment and 1st Battalion The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders—landed at Pusan and were immediately sent into action.

In mid-September, General MacArthur, in a spectacular indirect approach, landed two divisions behind enemy lines at the port of Inchon. The landing was a decisive victory, and X (US) Corps quickly overcame the few defenders and threatened to trap the main North Korean army in the south. MacArthur recaptured Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and the North Koreans, virtually cut off, rapidly retreated northwards. A few weeks later, following the landing at Inchon, UN forces broke out of the Pusan bridgehead and quickly advanced north. Joined by the 3rd Battalion The Royal Australian Regiment, the British units formed the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade and took part in the pursuit of the enemy into North Korea. Meanwhile, a strong brigade had been mobilised in England and several thousand reservists were recalled to active service. The 29th Brigade set sail in October 1950, reaching Korea a month later.

The Eighth (US) Army, with the South Koreans, drove up the western side of Korea and captured Pyongyang in October. By the end of the month, the North Korean army was rapidly disintegrating and the UN took 135,000 prisoners. MacArthur ordered pursuit across the 38th parallel and deep into North Korea. As UN forces drew near the Manchurian border, there were strong indications that Communist China would intervene to defend its area of influence. The Chinese, with some justification, did not trust MacArthur to stop on the Yalu River, the border between North Korea and China. Indeed, many in the West thought that spreading the war to China would be necessary and that since North Korean troops were being supplied from bases in China, they should be attacked. In October, MacArthur met President Harry Truman to persuade him that a massive UN effort would conclude the war by Christmas.

No sooner had this offensive been launched in November than the Chinese strongly reacted by invading North Korea on a massive scale. The 27th Brigade held them off from their positions on the river Chongchon but the Chinese broke through elsewhere. In freezing conditions, the UN forces carried out a fighting retreat across extremely difficult terrain. On 25 December 1950, the Chinese entered South Korea and in early January they captured Seoul. The 27th Brigade was now joined by the 29th Brigade, comprising the 1st Battalions, The Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, The Gloucestershire Regiment (Glosters) and The Royal Ulster Rifles, together with the tanks of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars and the guns of the 45th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. The two brigades acted as a rearguard until a defensive line was established on the river Han. The UN forces withdrew in disorder and, by New Year 1951, were defending a line well to the south of Seoul. Morale sank to a dangerous level but the new US commander, General Ridgway, revived spirits and, encouraging his army, advanced slowly north. In March 1951, a UN counter-offensive pushed the Chinese back and recaptured Seoul. As winter cleared, the UN forces dug in close to the 38th parallel and in early spring advanced a few miles north in order to create a buffer in front of Seoul. On 22 April, the Chinese counter-attacked, aiming to break through to the South Korean capital. They were held by the 27th Brigade near Kapyong and by the 29th Brigade on the Imjin River, where the last stand by the Glosters helped to break the Chinese advance but resulted in heavy casualties. The UN line held, then moved north again, the position stabilising in the general area of the 38th parallel.

Armistice negotiations began at Kaesong in July 1951. Largely static fighting then followed. British troops were deployed on a rotational basis, defending hill positions and carrying out patrols. However, set-piece operations did from time to time occur, as both sides sought to control key areas of terrain and win a success that might improve their negotiating position. On 28 July, the 1st Commonwealth Division, comprising the 28th Commonwealth Brigade, 29th Brigade and 25th Canadian Brigade, was formed under the command of Major General James Cassels.

Cassels was an inspired selection. He had fought during the Second World War in north-west Europe, being awarded a DSO for his leadership of a brigade in operations around Le Havre, the Ardennes, the Reichswald, the crossing of the Rhine and the advance into northern Germany. After the war, he commanded the 6th Airborne Division in counter-insurgency operations in Palestine. As a major general, he was appointed Chief United Kingdom Liaison Officer in Melbourne, Australia, in December 1949. With a tall, commanding presence, ‘Gentleman Jim’ got on easily with his Australian colleagues and soldiers, often through his love of and skill at cricket.

Despite his natural good manners, he found the Americans in Korea difficult, mainly through the differences in planning and procedures. Often the poor relation, his division lacked numbers of men, serviceable equipment and robust transport, much of which dated from the last war. Thus he was forced to rely on American largesse and boost his numbers with South Koreans. His relations with corps commander Lieutenant General John W. ‘Iron Mike’ O’Daniel were uneasy. Cassels once described him as a ‘“Two-Gun Patton” type . . . always wanting to undertake foolhardy stunts which had no serious military purpose. . . . On many occasions I was ordered, without any warning, to do things which I considered militarily unsound and for which there was no apparent reason. . . . I am being harassed and ordered by Corps to produce a prisoner every third day, regardless of cost. As we know quite well what enemy divisions are in front of us I cannot see the point in this and have said so.’ On 4 September 1951, O’Daniel addressed his divisional commanders and staff in the following terms, ‘Everyone must continue to be alert, sharp. Men must be made to eat, sleep, live “killing” so as to be able to destroy this barbaric, cunning enemy whose wish is to “distribute poverty”. This enemy will bring us down to his level if he can.’ O’Daniel was later reassigned to a less stressful appointment.

It was vital to deny the enemy access to ground strategically important to the armistice talks. Cassels’s orders were to ‘restore international peace and security in the area’. To do this he decided to establish patrol bases on the far side of the Imjin River. Once he had secured the crossings, he moved the division across and established defensive positions from which he could dominate no-man’s-land with patrols. Unfortunately, the Chinese 191st Division was able to maintain observation not only over the crossings and no-man’s-land but also all along the front held by the US I Corps. It became essential therefore to occupy the entire area up to and including the line of ridges from which the Chinese could overlook the area. This ridgeline contained two formidable hills—Kowang San at 355 metres (1,165 feet) and Maryang San at 317 metres (1,040 feet). To take these objectives, Operation Commando was planned with some urgency.

But what of the man who was to not only lead his brigade in this operation but also be sacked as a result? George Taylor was born on 17 September 1905, the fourth of six sons of Colonel Thomas Taylor. In 1929 he was commissioned in the West Yorkshire Regiment, then stationed in Northern Ireland. Taylor went with the West Yorks to the Caribbean, then Egypt and on to Quetta, where a massive earthquake occurred in May 1935. Throughout the 1930s Taylor, very fast for his bulk, played rugby for the army, for Lancashire and finally for the Barbarians, which brought him an England trial. At the outbreak of war in 1939, he joined the BEF in France. In 1940 he became embroiled in the ill-fated Norwegian operation. He was a staff officer in 1942 in Madagascar with the Combined Operations Reserve Force, which was soon sent to the North-West Frontier.

This was a frustrating period until, to his delight, he managed to get himself posted as second in command to the 1st Worcestershire Regiment in the 43rd Wessex Division, which landed on the beaches in Normandy on D-Day. He was still in his thirties, experienced but never having been under fire until then. His moment came after four weeks, when two commanding officers of the 5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (5 DCLI) were killed and the battalion decimated. Taylor became their third commanding officer since landing in Normandy. His priority now was to absorb reinforcements, galvanise the survivors and create an effective fighting force from disorder. Taylor, an experienced trainer of men and a charismatic leader, set about the task with vigour and panache. He then led 5 DCLI with an outstanding record until the end of the war. The Wessex Division lost thirty-six commanding officers during that time, but he was never a day out of the line until the Armistice. Taylor’s intelligence officer, David Willcocks MC, who had been with 5 DCLI since 1940 described ‘not only his great courage and inspiring leadership, but also the care with which we reconnoitred and planned every attack or defensive engagement, in order to minimise casualties . . . his courage and concern called forth in all ranks a deep loyalty and affection’.

The first Tiger tank ever to fall into British hands was captured by 5 DCLI in one of Taylor’s initial night battles, conducted with cunning after careful daylight reconnaissance. German self-propelled guns, tanks and personnel fell into 5 DCLI hands. Taylor was awarded an immediate DSO and began to acquire a reputation for coolness under extreme stress, and for communicating that coolness to his men. Taylor’s second immediate DSO came through his actions in Arnhem in September. Working furiously to close the gap between its own column and the beleaguered parachutists, 5 DCLI ultimately linked up with the Polish Parachute Brigade, after being infiltrated by German Tiger tanks. Despite this, the Battalion managed to supply the Poles with much-needed rations, ammunition, petrol and medical stores.

Taylor was a man of drive and daring rather than caution but knew what he could ask of his men, and they responded to that. Interestingly, this was not just confined to his own battalion—his fellow commanding officers also held him in high regard and had great respect for him. His delightful autobiography of his wartime experiences, Infantry Colonel, demonstrates a straightforward, uncomplicated man with a love of soldiering and a deep respect for his men.

In 1950 Taylor was promoted temporary brigadier to command the 28th Infantry Brigade in Hong Kong; from there, in April 1951, he took the brigade to Korea where it became the 28th Commonwealth Brigade in the 1st Commonwealth Division. General Sir Brian Horrocks, Taylor’s old corps commander in the drive for the Arnhem bridges back in 1944, wrote to him on 17 July on being told of Taylor’s promotion to command the brigade, ‘I can think of no better choice, as nobody knows more about the sharp end of the battlefield than you.’ The brigade then consisted of the 1st King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (1 KSLI) (Lieutenant Colonel Barlow), the 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers (1 KOSB) (Lieutenant Colonel MacDonald) and the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) (Lieutenant Colonel Hassett).

Taylor had an unusual relationship with Field Marshal Sir William Slim, then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, with whom he exchanged personal letters. Nowadays, senior officers might find it irksome to the chain of command for a commanding officer to write directly to the chief but no harm was done and Bill Slim, of course, being very much a ‘front line’ soldier himself probably relished the direct and unvarnished reports from the fighting edge. However, it might be relevant to what happened later. The following is an extract from a letter Taylor wrote to him on 18 May 1951:

My Dear Field Marshal,

I took over the Commonwealth Brigade in the closing stages of the Kapyong battle, when the 27th saved the day for the 9th Corps.

My two Battalions, 1 KOSB and 1 KSLI, have joined us from Hong Kong and we are now 28th British Commonwealth Brigade. Both Battalions are finding their feet and morale is high, and they will soon be as good, or even better, than the fine 3 Royal Australian Battalion, who fought like tigers in the last action (One Section killed 55 Chinese).

We are under command 24 Division and get on well with the Americans, but there is something the matter with them. They have as an Army lost confidence in themselves and it is rather pathetic to see the trust and confidence they have in our two small Brigades. Van Fleet seems a good man and a sound General, and there are other good fighting men in the ranks, but not enough. We seldom get a ‘Warning Order’ and they have little conception of the time and space factor. They are apt also often to be ‘Yes men’ and they do not query unsound orders from above.

As regards ourselves, these are some of the conclusions I’ve rapidly come to:

1.   No unit should be asked to serve more than nine months in this theatre, or an individual more than a year.

2.   Carriers are of little use, they are always having track trouble. The Jeep and trailer is the answer for this boulder strewn country.

3.   (a) The Sten is too unreliable to trust men’s lives to. The Australian Owen’s gun is a much better weapon.

(b) We require in defence an extra 4 Brens per company to meet the Mass Night Attacks. This is based on the Australians experience, who have extra weapons.

4.   I require a Deputy Commander. I am fairly fit and robust, but the physical strain, not to mention the mental side, is very great. I insist on seeing the forward companies and the ground in some detail. This means a lot of hill climbing, even though one tries to cut this down by flying in a light plane or helicopter. He should be on the young side, under 40, have been a Commanding Officer in World War II.

5.   Half of our transport inherited from 27 Brigade is in a very poor condition owing to hard usage.

We expect to fight a big battle in a few days time. There are signs of the enemy’s approach. He is about 10–20 miles to the north. I’m confident that the Brigade will do well. I am getting the Battalions to go in for night patrolling which people seem afraid of doing. With skill and luck hope to catch the mass night attacks forming up, with our artillery. The enemy put in a strong attack last night on the US Regt on our right.

With every good wish

Yours most sincerely

George Taylor

Field Marshal Sir William J. Slim GCB. GBE. DSO. MC.

Chief of the Imperial General Staff

The War Office

P.S. Please do not from the above remarks consider I’m Anti-American, far from it, my personal relations with them are good. In spite of expressing my opinions in an outspoken way, where operational matters are in dispute. We must as two Nations stick together. Aubrey Coad who arrives home early June would give you valuable information about the Korean campaign.

Characteristically, on 31 May, Slim replied: ‘I have heard excellent reports of your Brigade and am glad all goes well’, with assurances that he would take up Taylor’s points.

To return to Operation Commando, Cassels’s plan was to carry out the attack with the Commonwealth and Canadian Brigades, each reinforced with a battalion from the 29th Brigade, the remainder of which was to be kept in reserve. The Commonwealth Brigade would lead the assault on the northern flank to take the ridgeline including Kowang San (Point 355) on D day (3 October). The following day, the Canadians would take the lower-lying hills overlooking the Sami-chon valley. By having two phases, Cassels could support both brigades on each day with the complete divisional artillery. On D+3, both brigades would secure the remaining features which, for the Commonwealth Brigade, included Maryang San (Point 317). The Brigade was to be reinforced for Operation Commando by elements of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars (8 H) (Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Lowther) in Centurion tanks and the 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (1 RNF) (Lieutenant Col Speer). Indirect fire support was to be provided by the 16th Regiment, Royal New Zealand Artillery (16 RNZA) (Lieutenant Colonel Moodie).

In outline, Taylor’s brigade would take Points 210 (689 feet) to 355 on D day, with 1 KSLI on the left, 1 KOSB centre and 3 RAR on the right. On D+1, they would take Point 317.

On what was to become, as described by Professor Robert O’Neill, the official historian of Australia’s involvement in the Korean War, probably the greatest single feat of the Australian Army during the Korean War, it is instructive to hear the views of the Commanding Officer (CO) of 3 RAR prior to the attack:

I thought the Brigade plan was good tactically, if ambitious. I kept my reservations to myself as there was no point in disturbing others. Not so my fellow battalion commanders.

In later years the Brigade Commander told me that each had separately protested, one claiming that the Brigade would suffer a thousand casualties. I thought the Brigade Commander to be an experienced infantryman and skilled tactician. If he set ambitious tasks then one had the comfort of knowing that he knew what it was all about and would not ask for anything that he was not prepared to do himself.

This is a good illustration of the isolation of command. The Brigadier had been told to take 355 (Little Gibraltar) and 317 (Maryang San). He had given his plan. Nobody came up with anything different. He had two concerned COs. The third, myself, was still a ‘new boy’, still under scrutiny. In the event, the matter was sorted out with the British COs. I was not involved.

At first light on 3 October, 1 KSLI moved to secure the ridgeline between Points 210 and 227 (745 feet). The battalion initially made good progress but their supporting tanks trailed behind due to the difficult going. Taylor told them to push on without them; they were always considered a bonus anyway. By the end of the day they had covered 12,000 yards in twelve hours. Taylor was disappointed but told them to go firm and complete their tasks the following day. In the centre, 1 KOSB was not so lucky in trying to capture two intermediate features to cover the eventual assault on Kowang San. This resulted in one of its companies having to withdraw in order to resume the attack later in the day. Well forward as was his style, Taylor visited both commanding officers in their command posts to give them direction and encouragement. Additionally, he managed to speak twice to Cassels on the telephone but not over the radio. By the evening the south-west spur of Kowang San had been captured and 1 KOSB was able to reorganise and rest before continuing the next day. 3 RAR had set off at three o’clock in the morning to capture Point 199 (653 feet) as a preliminary to assaulting Maryang San on 5 October. It took five hours to go 3 miles but success was achieved when it deployed its reserve company and could then support the KOSB attack on Kowang San with its heavy machine guns. The accompanying Centurions of 8 H could bring fire to bear on the two 220 Points (722 feet).

Taylor issued clear orders for operations on 4 October by signal at 6.20 that evening. But Kowang San was still in the hands of the enemy by D+1, making life difficult for the Canadian Brigade, so, at Taylor’s request, Cassels delayed their start time by five hours to enable his artillery to continue to support the Commonwealth Brigade in its final push onto its objective. Under pressure of time, Taylor ordered 3 RAR to take the twin Points of 220 on 4 October to assist 1 KOSB in its attack on Kowang San. This was not popular. Hassett wanted to preserve his battalion’s energies for the attack on Maryang San on 5 October, which he knew was going to be a struggle. However, he did not want to approach Maryang San with Point 355 still occupied by the Chinese artillery observation posts, which could bring fire down on his assault troops. So at three in the afternoon on 4 October, the Australians advanced to the north-east to the first of the two 220 Points and, having taken that, moved onto the second.

Meanwhile, one company of 1 KOSB had pushed up the spur south-west of Kowang San by first light on 4 October. Unknown to them, the Australians having successfully dealt with Points 220 had established themselves on the eastern slope of Kowang San and cleared the enemy from there by 1215. So, although not entirely planned like that, the outcome was a highly successful pincer movement. 1 KSLI had taken Point 210 by 1010 hours and Point 227 by the evening. Taylor thought it was slow but said, ‘after the battle I let the cloak of victory obscure this stickiness’. The Commonwealth Brigade’s occupation of Kowang San (Point 355) was now complete. At the same time, the Canadian Brigade had a relatively easy time in the Sami-chon valley.

Maryang San (Point 317), as everyone anticipated, was going to be a very difficult task. The feature was steep, riddled with spurs and ravines and false crests. The Chinese had dug themselves in well, making much use of reverse slope positions, in order to catch their enemy coming over the crest. They had considerable artillery and mortar support and were known to have brought up large quantities of ammunition. This, clearly, was going to be too much for one battalion, so Taylor reinforced 3 RAR with 1 RNF.

Dawn on 5 October was heavy with mist, making direction-finding difficult, and life was made more stressful by unreliable radios. The two leading companies of 3 RAR came under heavy effective fire and, at one stage, when he could get through to his commanding officer, one company commander had to admit he was lost. Hassett realised the threat to his men and reinforced with his reserve company. This enabled the exhausted battalion to get onto a feature about 1,000 yards east of the objective, which finally fell to the Australians at five in the evening.

The Chinese were still in possession of the south-west spur, however, and forced 1 RNF back under heavy fire onto its original start line, carrying its casualties with it. Consequently, the men had to reorganise themselves and Taylor ordered them to take Point 217 (712 feet) on 6 October. He then instructed Speer to pass one company through 3 RAR and exploit to the head of Point 217 spur from the north. The commanding officer realised this would mean a very difficult approach through deep gullies and ravines and raised his objections. Taylor accepted his view and the order was rescinded.

The Chinese put in strong counter-attacks onto the Australian positions on 6 October and early the following morning Hassett ordered an attack on the Hinge, a feature directly above Point 217. This achieved success, with heavy artillery and tank support, by 0920 hours. One Australian was heard to comment, ‘I’ll never be rude about Gunners again.’ Possession of the Hinge was vital—without it the Chinese would not be able to recapture Maryang San.

1 RNF again had a go at Point 217 but was forced back without success, sustaining heavy casualties when caught in the open once the mist cleared. While the least effective of the battalions in the brigade in this particular operation, the Fusiliers had been in Korea a long time and were on the point of going home which may have made them, understandably, more cautious. Nevertheless, they had, although repulsed, occupied a significant number of Chinese for two days, who, without their attacks, would have been deployed elsewhere. On 9 October, 1 KOSB relieved the weary 3 RAR on Maryang San and then realised the Chinese had abandoned Point 217, so sent a company to occupy it. The final tally was 58 killed and 257 wounded against the Chinese of 474 killed, 241 wounded and 93 taken prisoner.