Victorian Britain was both the greatest power in the world and the least militarised, with a standing army far smaller and less influential in public life than those of France, Prussia, Austria or Russia. Its military shortcomings were starkly revealed by the disastrous Crimean War (1854–6) and Boer Wars (1880–81 and 1899–1902).
In the 1840s and 1850s the army of the East India Company – the trading company which had controlled large parts of India since the mid-18th century – extended the frontiers of British rule in the Indian subcontinent and beyond into south-east Asia.
The shocking 1857 rebellion (‘Mutiny’) by the Company’s native soldiers led to the British government taking full control of the Indian Empire. Soldiers from the subcontinent were deployed in conflicts fought in China, Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and, less successfully, Afghanistan.
CRIMEA AND REFORM
By contrast, only one war was fought in Europe during Victoria’s reign: the Crimean War of 1854–6. It dramatically exposed the weakness of an army mainly led by amateur officers. So many soldiers died of disease and neglect that the army was rendered largely ineffective. The British population, made aware of the disaster by the pioneering investigative journalism of The Times, were profoundly shocked.
Conditions for soldiers at home were scarcely better. In 1859 the Army Sanitary Commission condemned much of the existing military accommodation in England, like the barracks at Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland, which lacked ventilation and washing facilities of any kind.
Reform proceeded slowly, but there were steady improvements in military technology, and the army reforms of 1879 introduced professional training. The officer class continued to be dominated by county families. Ties to the counties also remained strong through the regiments and their bases, as at Carlisle Castle, Cumbria.
THE ROYAL NAVY
The Royal Navy was larger and more celebrated than the army. It had a much higher global profile, with bases such as Portsmouth and Chatham dockyards at home, and Gibraltar, Malta and Bombay (Mumbai) overseas.
From the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 until the final years of the 19th century the navy enjoyed unchallengeable superiority, playing a vital role in safeguarding trade networks, exerting British power, and combating the slave trade.
France was viewed as the main potential enemy. Germany, with its strong ties to the royal family, was seen as a friendly power and culturally much closer to Britain.
From the 1850s England and France were caught up in a race for military advantage. There were spectacular advances in weaponry with vastly increased firepower: examples can be seen at Hurst Castle, Hampshire, and Pendennis and St Mawes castles in Cornwall.
The vast scale of the ‘Palmerston forts’ (such as Fort Brockhurst) built in the 1860s around Portsmouth and Plymouth, the expansion of the Western Heights at Dover, and improvements to earlier defences such as Landguard Fort, Suffolk, all testify to febrile anxieties about invasion.
A GRAND ILLUSION?
The British Empire and its armed forces became a source of intense public awareness and pride for the Victorians. Only occasional setbacks, such as the ‘martyrdom’ of General Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1885, reminded the public of the knife-edge on which British power was sometimes balanced.
The successful resiistance of the Afrikaner settlers in southern Africa in the Second Boer War (1899–1902), and revelations about the poor quality of recruits to the army from the industrial cities, were reminiscent of the shocks of the Crimea.
By 1901 British power was in some respects a grand illusion. British dominance was no longer unchallengeable; and Germany, after 1871 incontestably the leading power on the Continent, was now looking ominously strong both on land and at sea.