The Pre-Victorian period

The British army in the past, like all armies, was used to further the foreign policy of the British Government. The difference lies in the nature of the Britain of the twenty-first century and that of the past. Today, Britain is a middle rank, relatively minor power. In the past Britain was a major, aggressive imperialist power. As the first industrial society, sources of raw materials, markets for finished goods and room for population expansion were wanted. As a consequence Britain established the 'old' colonies in North America, Australasia and the West Indies. As this empire emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Royal Navy and the army were used to support the establishment of colonies, protect trading posts and suppress the activities of rivals such as the Dutch, Spanish and, most of all, the French.

Britain's wars throughout this period were usually the result of imperialist rivalry, such as the Anglo-Dutch wars in 1667, or the control of colonies such as the American War of Independence. They were never about the defence of the home country. Even the Napoleonic wars from 1793 to 1815, in the end, was a struggle between two imperial states. The threat of invasion by Napoleon was part of this struggle. Waterloo, with its defeat of Napoleon, was the last battle in mainland Europe that British troops were to fight until 1914. The Congress of Vienna was seen by the British Government as being the end 100 years of costly involvement in the affairs of mainland Europe.

Changes in the organisation and role of the army

Prince George William Frederick Charles, 2nd Duke of Cambridge by Adrian Jones. Prince George, a member of the British royal family, served as commander-in-chief from 1856 to 1895. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Britain turned its attention away from Europe and toward colonial expansion. Sometimes the British co-operated with other powers as in China; more often they clashed and had to agree a compromise as in Africa. Prior to the Crimean war, the army was often used as a police force in the United Kingdom to deal with popular unrest. This included riot control as in the case of the Peterloo riots in 1819.

Although Peel set up the Metropolitan Police in 1829, not until 1856 did the new Police Act established a properly organised civilian police force for the entire country, and the policing role of the army in the United Kingdom came to an end. The army was then only used in times of civil emergency such as the National Strike in 1926.

The organisation and structure of the army hardly changed from the end of the Napoleonic war up until the Crimean war, The Crimean war revealed serious deficiencies in the organisation and management of the army. More soldiers died of hunger and disease in the Crimea than died as a result of enemy action. As a result of this, the army went through a period of reorganisation. The Medical service was overhauled along lined suggested by Florence Nightingale. The supply service, which so disastrously let down the troops, was reorganised as the Army Commissariat. Buying commissions was ended, proper training instituted, and the treartment and equipment of the the common soldier improved: flogging was outlawed, he had better weapons, such as breech-loading guns. Overall, the army was put on a more professional basis. It was much more able to fulfil the role it was to be given in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Colonial wars

From the end of the Crimean war until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Britain was not engaged in a war with any of its European rivals, however, it was involved in a long series of colonial wars. Some of these wars were wars of conquest, such as the Zulu war in 1879 [Follow for Trollope's comment on this colonial conflict.]. Other wars were fought to suppress rebellions such as the Indian mutiny in 1857.

An army regiment or corp might see action in a dozen or more different places in a forty-year period. Charles Gordon career from 1854 to 1871 typified the world wide nature of military service. When he was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1854, he served in Wales, he moved on to service in the Royal Engineers depot in Chatham in Kent. Next, he saw service in the Crimea, from there he served as a boundary commissioner in Turkey. He then went to China with the Allied Expeditionary force. Then he returned to Gravesend to supervise the building of defensive works from 1865 to 1871. Gordon's subsequent career consisted of service on the Danube, India, Southern Africa and in the Sudan. This mixture of combat duty, administration and home defence can be observed in the career of other prominent Victorian officers such as Kitchener.

Colonial policemen

When not engaged in combat, the Army was often used as armed police in the colonies. The Indian Army was often used to suppress uprisings, keep order as well as guarding the frontiers. With modern weaponry, the army was easily able to deal the threat posed by native armies. For example, although they met initial success against Lord Chelmsford army in 1879, the Zulu armies were eventually defeated by the British. The defence of Rorke's Drift, made famous by the film Zulu, during which 11 Victoria Crosses were won, was successful because the 2nd Warwickshires (later known as the South Wales Borderers), commanded by Lieutenant Chard, were able to effectively muster their repeating rifles against the charging Zulus. The Dervish armies, successful against Gordon at Khartoum, were routed by Kitchener's well equipped army at Omdurman in 1897.

Military Engineers

The Royal Engineers are the scientific and engineering specialists of the British army. They had their origins in the siege trains set up during the Medieval period. They were used to carry out siege work such as undermining defences by digging tunnels under them and then collapsing them — an example of this was the siege of Rochester carried out in 1215. This brought down the walls of castles. They also built defensive works such as those at Berwick upon Tweed.

The Royal Engineers were divided into two groups, one was the non-commissioned officers — the sappers and miners who carried out the siege work. Then there was the Corp of Engineers, the officers who commanded the Sappers. These officers saw themselves as the professional elite of the army. They were responsible for a large number of scientific and technical developments throughout the Victorian period. The two groups were eventually amalgamated into the Royal Engineers. Their nickname is 'the Sappers'.

The Royal Engineers were the World's first aviators — the early balloon and aircraft pilots all came from their ranks. They developed signalling equipment such as heliographs (a signalling system using sunlight reflected by mirrors) and telegraphs. They also developed the first torpedo system, the Brennan torpedo. They went on to devise the gas warfare devices deployed in the First World War. The skills of the Royal Engineers were put to use all over the British Empire building canals, roads, railways, telegraph systems and docks. Much of the railway system of modern India owes its origins to the system put in place by the Royal Engineers in the late nineteenth century. The Royal Engineers were also responsible for carrying out surveying work. Charles Gordon made his name surveying the Russian trenches in the Crimea. The modern Ordnance Survey in the United Kingdom owes its origins to the surveys carried out by the Royal Engineers. They carried out similar surveys, initially for military purposes, all over the Empire.

With their responsibilities for dealing with siege works, the Engineers were often the first 'through the breech' and often carried out great acts of heroism. The Commander of Rorke's Drift, Lieutenant Chard was a Royal Engineer. He was in charge of building a bridge for Lord Chelmsford's column when he assumed command of the defences. He was able to effectively build up the defences and deploy his troops repeating rifles. He won one of the 11 Victoria Crosses.

Administrators and Governors

By 1914 Britain ruled an empire that covered nearly a quarter of the World's land surface because they effectively deployed a relatively small professional army of about 2 million men (about ten times the size of the modern army). The British also used large numbers of native troops, such as the Sepoys in India. The Indian army was largely made up of Indian soldiers led by British officers.

This leadership role enabled the British officers to gain considerable administrative expertise which could be put to use in other roles. Senior army officers were often appointed as governors of colonies. Charles Gordon served as Governor General of the Sudan twice, similarly, Viceroys of India were often high ranking military officers (the last Viceroy in 1947 was Lord Louis Mountbatten, an admiral in the Royal Navy). More junior officers might serve as what might now be seen as 'civil servants, such as district commissioners, political agents or controllers of customs.

The need for further change

The last great colonial war Britain fought was the Boer war that lasted from 1899 to 1902. Faced with a determined enemy, defects in the organisation of the army were once again revealed. Instead of relatively ill disciplined troops, the British were faced with a determined army of well trained Boer (the Afrikaan speaking population of South Africa) soldiers.

The early part of the war was marked by sieges such as those at Ladysmith. The Boers realised that they could not defeat the British in open battle, so they resorted to Guerilla tactics — hit and run raids. These tactics enabled a relatively small army to tie down considerable numbers of British troops. A change of tactics on the part of the British was called for.

The Boers were eventually defeated because the British cut off their sources of supply. The British burnt down the Boer's farms and herded the Boer women and children into 'concentration camps' were many thousands died as a result of the appalling conditions. The British also divided up the country by using a system of block houses linked by fences, barriers and communication systems. This enabled them to report on the movements of the Boers and anticipate their movements. This was the first war fought by what might be seen as 'modern' tactics. The civilian population became deliberate targets, as opposed to 'victims'.

The British army that fought the First World War was led by men that had experience of these colonial wars. The British commanders from 1914 to 1918, such as Kitchener and Haig, did not understand that the conditions in France and Belgium differed so radically from those they had had met in colonial wars that they needed fundamentally new tactics. Their failure in understanding lad to an appalling loss of life amongst the British in that war. An anticolonialist might argue that Britain's nineteenth-century imperial ambitions indirectly produced the slaughter of its young in the twentieth.

Related Web Resources


Victorianism Overview Victorian History British Empire

last modified 8 August 2003.
Thanks to Philip Page for providing the original name of South Wales Borderers.