On War And Warfare

The British Victorian Army in 1854

By David Hood

Copyright 1999, David Hood

The British Army during the Victorian era was caught in a time warp. As was usual for the British, the army was always ready to fight the last war, and until the 19th century this was a reasonable attitude. The Army was almost exactly the same at the beginning of the Crimean War as it was after Waterloo in 1815. But during the Crimean War, a new class of officers would emerge and herald the start of a new era in the British Army. Men like Garnet, Redvers Buller and Evelyn Wood would breathe fresh life into the staid British Army. But in 1854, one of the problems in the British Army was the men who would lead it into the Crimean war were also the men who had led it at Waterloo over 40 years before. They felt that if it was good enough to defeat Napoleon then it was good enough for the Russians now.

Until 1916, the British Army was an all-volunteer organization, and the dregs of society were the ones who joined. The pay rate of a private was one shilling a day, out of which the uniform and food costs were deducted. By comparison, the rate for a bricklayer was almost four shillings a day. Also, the term of service was 21 years or until invalidated out. Many did not live this long because service was often in very unhealthy climes overseas. Conditions were harsh, and a painful flogging was often the punishment for the most trivial infractions. At home, if you were mistreated on your job, you could quit, but in the army, quitting was punishable by death for desertion. The food was even worse. In the mid-1830s the daily diet was three-quarters of a pound of beef and one and a half pounds of bread. The meat was weighed with the bone in, so if you got a piece that was all bone, it was just bad luck, It wasn’t until the reforms undertaken after 1854 that the meat was weighed with the bone out. As a result the men in the army were of the lowest sort, those escaping poverty, criminals, tramps, and fools. As Wellington noted: “What is the consequence? That none but the worst description of men enter the regular service. You can hardly conceive such a set brought together.”

Due to the small size of Britain’s population in comparison to the rest of the continent, the manpower shortages of the army were a constant problem. The losses from combat and disease further hampered the recruitment of new men. Recruiting officers had to use their imagination to get the lads to volunteer. One of the recruitment incentives was that a man was excused of all debts up to 30 pounds upon joining the service. Thus many a bodebtors prison was emptied upon the threat of war, or to replace heavy losses. Another way was to take ever-increasingly-younger recruits. Several of the handbooks of regiments allowed that they could take boys of sixteen as long as they appeared older. There are many cases of boys being taken at thirteen and younger due to their size. During most of the 18th century the forced enlistment of vagrants was also used to swell the ranks of the army. And in the early years there were still “crimpers’, men who made a living stealing men and selling them to the recruiting officers. In 1797 thousands of orphan boys were inducted into the army and placed in experimental units to teach them their future duty.

One of the other traditions of the British Army that helped with recruiting was the regimental system. Each regiment was assigned to a county or area and had their base there. This was done to attract the local men to join that regiment out of loyalty to their locality. This also led to the easing of fears of leaving home as the men could join the local regiment with others they knew and thus not be completely out of touch with home when they were shipped off for long periods of time. This became one of the unique features of the British Army.

On the down side, the British army was not a unified army in the sense of divisions and corps sized units. It was made up of separate regimentsthat were assembled together into divisions based on the need of the time. But the independence of regiments also had the effect of increasing the loyalty of the men in a regiment. They based their loyalty on the regiment and not on the army. The regiment was their life and not the army. Thus, being kept in their local units throughout their service, they developed an undying loyalty to that regiment. Often, sons followed their fathers into the same regiment, making the recruitment easier. Sons grew up with a military life and thus the training was often easier for them and they understood the need for the discipline.

There were also two other items that helped with recruiting, but sometimes caused as many problems as it solved; uniforms and weapons. The uniform was a powerful draw in the recruiting of young men. It was common for boys being drawn to the army after seeing a regiment march down the street resplendent in their flashy uniforms. The uniforms were also attractive to the young girls. Many novels of the time have images of the young ladies swooning over a man in uniform. Often a young man went home in his uniform after joining to impress his family, and the ladies, and to show that he did amount to something. Recruiting posters also mentioned the “highly attractive clothing and accoutrements" that could be had by joining.

Drill was another item that the army inflicted upon the soldier in great and intense measure. Drill was often done three to four times a day, especially during the first couple of months of the soldiers training. This was often accompanied by to music. When on parade, the soldiers’ movements were perfectly coordinated to the others and to his dress. This was repeated over and over again until the soldiers, upon hearing drill music, instantly changed their bearing, even off the parade ground, The drill and uniformity were carried down to the smallest detail. The feeling was that if the drill and uniform were taken seriously then men would not get into trouble when off duty. Also, the soldier had to spend so much of his time keeping his uniform perfectly turned out that he would not have time for drink and brawling. It didn't always work out that way.

The attention to the details of the uniforms and the constant drill were required to mold the men into the fighting machine that was disciplined amidst the chaos of combat. The idea was to make the soldiers obey, instinctively, each and every command. In the confusion and fear of the battlefield, it was essential that soldier instantly obey orders. It could mean the difference between winning and losing a battle. Thus, the soldiers were drilled and dressed for the effect that it had on them. The message was basic to the Victorian army: that systematic uniformity and implicit obedience were essential. This was so effective that the soldier was unable to maintain a unsoldierly appearance even when out of uniform. Walking down the streets in England old soldiers could always he spotted, as they would still walk with a military bearing.

No discussion of the British Army would be complete without mentioning the British East India Company; the John Company, for short. A Royal Charter incorporated the Company on December 31, 1600. In 1610 the Company started to set up trading posts in India. But it was Charles II who gave the Company the power it would wield for the next 300 years. He allowed the John Company to acquire territory, build forts, raise armies, make war, coin its own money and set up its own laws and courts. By the end of the 19th century fully half of British military strength was found in the John Company army. Most of the Company regiments were native units with British officers, but some were mercenary units from Europe. The Company would also hire regular army units for duty in India. These units would serve in India for twenty years or more and often he used in conjunction with the Company and native units. Officers in the “Queen’s” regiments looked down on the “Indian Officers” who were regarded as little more than mercenaries.

The other element that made the British Army what it was, was the officer corps. These were mostly drawn from the upper classes in British society. This was for several reason: one was that the British felt that the nobility was born to lead, and the other was that the lower classes could often not afford to maintain the lifestyle required of an officer. The uniform, the mess and other costs often required more cash than some members made in a year. The British officer was often in debt, especially to his tailors. The officers were required to pay for the food and wine that was consumed in the officers’ mess and often they had to provide certain comforts to their regiments. Many officers were appalled at what their men were forced to eat and wear and supplemented these out of their own pockets. The British felt that the world was in need of British customs and leadership. They felt that everyone wanted and needed British

guidance and, as such, the nobility was not only the ones going to give it to them but also to lead the regiments into battle to bring the English way of life to the rest of the world.

The entry of Great Britain into the Crimean War brought to the forefront a new class of British officers, The army was still being run by men who had fought in the Napoleonic wars of 1790-1815. The army had not made much progress in the intervening years. The thought was that if it had been good enough then it was good enough now. War, though, had changed a lot in the 40 years since Waterloo. The guns had gotten better and so had staff work on the continent. The British Army still felt that the bravery of an officer was the determining factor in whether a battle was won or lost. In an unconscious way, the high causality rates of the officer corps were seen as an indicator of how good the officers were. All this was about to change, a new group of officers was coming on the scene. The bravery factor would still he there, but careful planning would begin to replace sheer courage.

This, then, was the army that entered the Crimean War in 1854. As usual, the army was set to fight the last war. Nut this was a different kind of warfare. Even though the British Army had been fighting continuously since the beginning of Victoria’s reign, they had not fought a European-style war since 1815. Even though their junior officer corps were experienced fighters and used to commanding men, they would not be allowed to join the expedition to the Crimea. This was because the commander of the army going to the Crimea was Lord Raglan, and he had an undying hatred for “Indian Officers.” That they were the most experienced men in the British Army had no effect on him and he would not have any use for them. This would come back to haunt him throughout the campaign.

The dismal failure of the old generation of officers in the Crimea led to a new generation of officers gaining prominence for the rest of the 19th century. Even though the British would make many more mistakes in the coming years and wars, they never again fought a war based on the last one. The new officers brought new reforms into the army and began to turn it into the fighting force that would take the field in World War I, a much different force than had fought at Waterloo. With the death of Victoria in 1901 there ended an era in the British Army that was both glorious and sad. It brought many great men to the forefront but also cost a lot of young men their lives fighting in places that most of the public had never heard of. But through all the trials, the British public was proud of its army and the men who both commanded it and fought in it. It was the height of British strength and pride. Never again would Britain rule the waves and soon after the sun would set on the Empire.

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