Following the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, British global supremacy went effectively unchallenged for a century. Between 1815 and 1914, Great Britain was engaged in only one conflict against a European power, the Crimean War against Russia. But continued overseas expansion—often driven by local agents against the wishes of government in London—brought increasing security commitments, not least in India and Africa. The potential for rebellion or unrest among Indigenous populations was always present. In the last quarter of the 19th century alone, the British Empire increased by 4.7 million square miles and nearly 90 million inhabitants. Acquiring, pacifying, and holding such an empire inevitably involved military action. Between 1837 and 1854 there were seventeen major colonial campaigns. Between 1872 and 1899, the British army fought another thirty-five major campaigns and a number of minor ones: there were twenty-seven separate expeditions on the North West Frontier of India alone between 1868 and 1908. The army suffered from being perceived as far less important than the Royal Navy since Britain was first and foremost a global maritime power. The army’s problem, therefore, was to meet its rapidly expanding commitments of home and imperial defense through a system of voluntary enlistment, which correlated closely with unemployment and distanced the army from wider society. No appetite for continental-style conscription existed and the soldier was generally despised, albeit that imperial expansion led to an increasing degree of militarism within society and military exploits became widely celebrated in popular culture. The impact of colonial conflicts upon popular culture in Britain, however, remains a matter of debate, as does the impact upon Indigenous peoples. Colonial campaigning posed particular problems of terrain and climate. These had to be overcome by an army not only frequently starved of resources, but also struggling with issues of professionalism that pitted traditional elements within the officer corps against those anxious to reform and modernize the army. Military reform was much discussed but, even when implemented, it invariably reflected political and, especially, financial constraints that militated against real efficiency. The army could not have met the challenges of “small wars” without soldiers harnessing advances in medicine, weaponry, and communications. Undeniably, however, such campaigns did not prepare the army for the kind of mass industrialized warfare that was to mark the 20th century, the South African War (1899–1902) being something of a precursor of the future.
It is important to understand the context within which Victorian colonial campaigns were waged. Spiers 1980 remains the only survey to consider the evolution of the army throughout the whole of the 19th century. Strachan 1984 covers the period up to the Crimean War, and Spiers 1992 that from the Cardwell reforms to the South African War. Hamer 1970 and Skelley 1977 fill in detail on the domestic context, while French 2005 explores the impact of the Cardwell reforms. Bond 1967 was a pioneering survey now updated by Miller 2021. Omissi 1994) and Roy 2013 supply detail on the Indian army that represented (at least in theory) a significant additional imperial manpower resource.
Bond, Brian, ed. Victorian Military Campaigns. London: Hutchinson, 1967.
A pioneering collection of seven essays: Anglo-Sikh Wars (1845–1846, 1848–1849), Third China War (1860), Abyssinian Expedition (1867–1868), Second Asante War (1873–1874), Anglo-Transvaal War (1881), Occupation of Egypt (1882), and reconquest of the Sudan (1896–1898). Bond contributes a highly useful introduction.
French, David. Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People, c. 1870–2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
In a forensic but complex study, French identifies the long-term advantages and disadvantages of the recruitment systems of “localization” and “territorialization” introduced by Edward Cardwell from 1868 to 1874 and Hugh Childers from 1880 to 1882.
Hamer, W. S. The British Army: Civil-Military Relations, 1885–1905. Oxford: Clarendon, 1970.
The standard account of higher administrative and organizational reform of the War Office prior to, and in the immediate aftermath of, the South African War.
Miller, Stephen, ed. Queen Victoria’s Wars: British Military Campaigns, 1857–1902. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2021.
Thirteen case studies updating Bond 1967, with new perspectives on six of the campaigns covered in that volume. It omits the Anglo-Sikh Wars and gives a new interpretation of the New Zealand Wars (1845–1872), Indian Rebellion (1857–1858), Second Afghan War (1878–1880), Zulu War (1879), Pacification of Burma (1885–1895), Tirah campaign (1897), and the South African War (1899–1902).
Omissi, David. The Sepoy and the Raj: The Indian Army, 1860–1940. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 1994.
Concentrates largely on recruitment and the issue of the “martial races” policy followed after the Indian Rebellion until its dilution to meet the challenges of two world wars.
Roy, Kaushik. The Army in British India: From Colonial Warfare to Total War, 1857–1947. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.
An overview of the development of the Indian army after the Indian Rebellion, but also including its campaigns with an emphasis upon operational and tactical methods.
Skelley, A. R. The Victorian Army at Home. London: Croom Helm, 1977.
Still an indispensable guide to army recruitment and terms of service. It gives sociocultural background to military life in Britain, covering such issues as health, desertion, and discipline.
Spiers, Edward. The Army and Society, 1815–1914. London: Longman, 1980.
The only academic study of the army through the whole of the 19th century, with due regard paid to recruitment of officers and other ranks, attempts at reform, and military performance.
Spiers, Edward. The Late Victorian Army, 1868–1902. Manchester, UK : Manchester University Press, 1992.
A detailed study of the army between the Cardwell reforms and the end of the South African War with important content on wider civil-military relations, the changing image of the army, and its training and tactics.
Strachan, Hew. Wellington’s Legacy: The Reform of the British Army, 1830–1854. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1984.
Offering important revisionism of the traditional view that, under the long shadow of Wellington’s influence, the army simply stagnated between Waterloo and the outbreak of the Crimean War.
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