Putnam's Monthly Magazine, 1855

The organization of the British army is soon described.

Of infantry there are three regiments of guards, eighty-five regiments of the line, thirteen regiments of light infantry, two regiments of rifles. During the present war, the guards, the rifles, and a few other regiments have three battalions, the remainder have two - a dépôt being formed by one company in each. The recruiting, however, is hardly sufficient to fill up the vacancies caused by the war, and so the second battalions can scarcely be said to be in existence. The present effective total of the infantry does certainly not exceed 120,000 men.

Beside the regular troops, the militia form part of the infantry as a sort of reserve or nursery for the army. Their number, according to act of Parliament, may come up to 80,000, but they cannot now number more than 60,000, although, in Lancashire alone, there are six battalions called out. As the law stands at present, the militia may volunteer to serve in the Colonies, but cannot be conducted to foreign theaters of war. They can, therefore, only serve to set free the line-soldiers who garrison Corfu, Malta and Gibraltar, or, perhaps, hereafter, some of the more distant settlements.

Of cavalry there are three regiments of guards (cuirassiers), six of dragoon guards (heavies), four of heavy dragoons, four of light dragoons, five of hussars, and four of lancers. Each regiment is to be raised, on the war-footing, to 1000 sabres (four squadrons of two hundred and fifty men, beside a dépôt). Some regiments did go out with this strength, but the disasters of the Crimea in winter, the senseless charge at Balaklava, and the dearth of recruits have re-established, on the whole, the old peace-footing. We do not think that the whole of the twenty-six regiments amount, at this moment, to 10,000 sabers, or 400 sabers per regiment, on an average.

The artillery consists of the regiment of foot-artillery (twelve battalions, with ninety-six batteries), and the brigade of horse artillery (seven batteries and one rocket-battery). Each battery has five guns and one howitzer; the calibers of the guns are three, six, nine, twelve, and eighteen pounders, those of the howitzers four and two-fifth inches, four and a half inches, five and a half inches, and eight inches. Each battery, also, has two models of guns, of almost every caliber, heavy and light ones. In reality, however, the light nine pounder and twelve pounder, with four and a half inch and five and a half inch howitzer, form the field-calibers, and, upon the whole, the nine pounder may now be said to be the universally adopted gun of the British artillery, with the four and a half inch (twenty-four pounder) howitzer as an auxiliary. Beside these, six pounder and twelve pounder rockets are in use.

As the English army, on its peace establishment, forms but a cadre for the war-footing, and as it is recruited entirely by voluntary enlistment, its real force, at a given moment, can never be precisely stated. We believe, however, we may estimate its present strength at about 120,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry, and 12,000 artillery, with about 600 guns (of which, not one-fifth part are horsed). Of these 142,000 men, about 32,000 are in the Crimea, about 50,000 in India and the Colonies, and the remaining 60,000 (of whom one-half are raw recruits, the other half drilling them) at home.To these are to be added about 60,000 militia men. The pensioners, yeomanry cavalry and other useless corps, not available for service abroad, we do not count at all.

The system of recruiting by voluntary enlistment, makes it very difficult, in time of war, to keep up the efficiency of the army, and this the English are now, again, experiencing. We see again, as under Wellington, that 30,000 or 40,000 men is the very outside of what they can concentrate and keep up on a given theater of war; and as, now, they have not Spaniards for their allies but French, the "heroic little band" of Britishers almost disappears in the midst of the allied army.

There is one institution in the British army which is perfectly sufficient to characterize the class from which the British soldier is recruited. It is the punishment of flogging. Corporal punishment does not exist in the French, the Prussian, and several of the minor armies. Even in Austria, where the greater part of the recruits consist of semi-barbarians, there is an evident desire to do away with it; thus the punishment of running the gauntlet has recently been struck out from the Austrian military code.

In England, on the contrary, the cat-o'-nine tails is maintained in its full efficiency - an instrument of torture fully equal to the Russian knout in its most palmy time. Strange to say, whenever a reform of the military code has been mooted in Parliament, the old martinets have stuck up for the cat, and nobody more zealously than old Wellington himself. To them, an unflogged soldier was a monstrously misplaced being. Bravery, discipline, and invincibility, in their eyes, were the exclusive qualities of men bearing the scars of at least fifty lashes on their backs.

The cat-o-nine tails, it must not be forgotten, is not only an instrument calculated to inflict pain; it leaves indelible scars, it marks a man for life, it brands him. Now, even in the British army, such corporal punishment, such branding, really amounts to an everlasting disgrace. The flogged man loses caste with his fellow soldiers. But, according to the British military code, punishment, before the enemy, consists almost exclusively in flogging; and thus, the very punishment which is said, by its advocates, to be the only means of keeping up discipline in cases of great urgency, is the means of ruining discipline by destroying the morale and the point d'honneur of the soldier.

This explains two very curious facts: first, the great number of English deserters before Sebastopol. In winter, when the British soldiers had to make superhuman exertions to guard the trenches, those who could not keep awake for forty-eight or sixty hours together, were flogged! The idea of flogging such heroes as the British soldiers had proved themselves in the trenches before Sebastopol, and in winning the day of Inkermann in spite of their generals! But the articles of war left no choice.

The best men in the army, when overpowered by fatigue, got flogged, and, dishonored as they were, they deserted to the Russians. Surely there can be no more powerful condemnation of the flogging system than this. In no former war have troops of any nation deserted in numbers to the Russians; they knew that they would be treated worse than at home.

It was reserved to the British army to furnish the first strong contingent of such deserters, and, according to the testimony of the English themselves, it was flogging that made the men desert. The other fact is, the singal failure of the attempt to raise a foreign legion under the British military code.

The Continentals are rather particular about their backs. The prospect of getting flogged has overcome the temptation of the high bounty, and good pay. Up to the end of June, not more than one thousand men had enlisted, where fifteen thousand were wanted; and this much is certain, if the authorities attempt to introduce flogging even among these one thousand reprobates, they will have to encounter a storm which will force them either to give way, or to dissolve the foreign legion at once.

The dress and equipments of the British soldiers are a model of what they should not be. Up to the present time, the dress in common wear is the same as armies used to wear as long ago as 1815. No improvement has been admitted. The old swallow-tail coatee, disfigured by ugly facings, still distinguishes the British from every other soldier. The trowsers are tight, and uncomfortable. The old cross-belt system for fixing bayonet-scabbard, pouch and knapsack, reigns supreme in almost all regiments.

The cavalry wear a better fitting dress than the infantry, and far superior; but, for all that, it is much too tight and inconvenient. Besides, the English are the only nation who have maintained in their army the red coat, the "proud red coat" as Napier calls it. This coat, which makes their soldiers look like dressed-up monkeys, is supposed by its brilliancy to strike terror into the enemy.

But alas, whoever has seen any of the brick-colored British infantry must confess that their coats, after four weeks' wear, inspire every looker-on with an incontrovertible idea, not of frightfulness, but of shabbiness, and that any other color would be far more terror-inspiring, if it only could stand dust, dirt, and wet. The Danes and Hanoverians used to wear the red coat, but they dropped it very soon. The first campaign in Schleswig proved to the Danes what a capital mark to the enemy is offered by a red coat and white cross-belts.

The new dress-regulation has brought forward a red coat of the cut of the Prussian coat. The infantry wear the Austrian shako, or the képi; the cavalry the Prussian helmet. The cross-belt accoutrements, the red color, the tight trowsers, are more or less maintained. Thus, the improvement amounts to nothing; and the British soldier will only look as strange as ever in the midst of the other European armies, dressed and accoutred, as they are, a little more in accordance with common sense.

Nevertheless, one improvement has been carried out in the British army, which far surpasses anything that has been done in other countries. This is, the arming of the whole of the infantry with the Minié rifle, as improved by Pritchard. How the old men, at the head of the army, men generally so obstinate in their prejudices, could come to so bold a resolution, it is difficult to imagine; but they did it, and thus doubled the efficiency of their infantry. At Inkermann, there is no doubt that the Minié rifle, by its deadly certainty of aim and great power, decided the day in favor of the English. Whenever an English line of infantry delivers its fire, the effect must be overpowering to any enemy armed with the common musket, for the English Minié rifle loads as quickly as any smooth-bored gun.

The cavalry are fine men, well horsed, armed with swords of a very good model; and what they can do, they have shown at Balaklava. But, on the whole, the men are too heavy for their horses, and, therefore, a few months of active campaigning must reduce the British cavalry to nothing. The Crimea has given us a fresh example of this. If the standard for heavy cavalry was reduced to five feet six inches, and for light cavalry to five feet four or, even, two inches, as, we believe, it is now for the infantry, a body of men might be formed far more suitable for their actual field duties. But, as it is, the horses are too heavily loaded, and must break down before they can be used, with effect, against the enemy.

The artillery, too, is composed of taller men than it should be. The natural standard of size for an artillery-man is, that he should be big enough to unlimber a twelve pound gun, and five feet two to five feet six inches are ample for this purpose, as we know from abundant personal experience and observation. In fact, men of about five feet five, or six, inches, if stoutly made, are, generally, the best handlers of guns. But the British want a crack corps, and their men, therefore, though tall and elegant to look at, lack that compactness of body which is so necessary to a really useful artillery-man. Their artillery material is first-rate. The guns are the best in Europe, the powder is acknowledged to be the strongest in the world, the shot and shell are of a smoothness of surface unknown any-where else. But, for all that, no guns in the world have as much windage, and this shows by what sort of men they are commanded. There is hardly an artillery in Europe officered by men of so deficient professional education as the British. Their information very seldom goes beyond the mere elements of the science of artillery, and, in practice, the handling of field-guns is as much as they understand, and that but imperfectly. Two qualities, in both officers and men, distinguish the British artillery: un-commonly good eye-sight, and great calmness in action.

Upon the whole, the efficiency of the British army is sorely impaired, by the ignorance, both theoretical and practical, of the officers. The examination which they are now expected to under-go, is actually ridiculous - a captain examined on the first three books of Euclid! But the British army is mainly instituted for the stowing away, in respectable situations, of the younger sons of the aristocracy and gentry, and the standard of education for its officers must, therefore, be regulated, not by the requirements of the service, but by what little information is commonly expected in an English "gentleman." As to the practical military knowledge of the officer, it is equally insufficient. The British officer believes he has only one duty to perform: to lead his men, on the day of battle, straight against the enemy, and to give them an example of bravery. Skill in handling troops, seizing favorable opportunities, and the like, is not expected from him; and as to looking after his men and their wants, why, such a thing hardly ever enters his head.

One half of the disasters of the British in the Crimea arose from this universal incapacity of the officers. They have, however, one quality which fits them for their functions: being, most of them, passionate huntsmen, they possess that instinctive and rapid appreciation of advantages of ground, which the practice of hunting is sure to impart. The incompetence of the officers nowhere creates greater mischief than on the staff. As no regularly educated staff-corps exists, every general forms his own staff from regimental officers, ignorant of every part of their duty. Such a staff is worse than none. Reconnoitering, especially, is always done in a slovenly manner, as it must be, when done by men who know little of what is expected from them.

The education of the other special corps is rather better, but far below the standard in other nations; and, in general, an English officer would pass as an ignoramus amongst men of his class in any other country. Witness the military literature of the British. Not a work hardly, but is full of blunders which would not be forgiven anywhere else, to a candidate for a lieutenancy. Every statement of facts is given in a slovenly, unbusiness-like, and unsoldier-like manner, leaving out the most important points, and showing, at once, that the writer does not know his business. The consequence is, that the most ridiculous statements of foreign books are credited at once. We must, however, not forget to state that there are some honorable exceptions, amongst which W. Napier's "Peninsular War," and Howard Douglas's "Naval Gunnery," rank foremost.

The administrative, medical, commissariat, transport, and other accessory departments are in a deplorable state, and have experienced a thorough breakdown when put to the test in the Crimea. Efforts are made to improve them, as, also, to centralize the administration, but little good can be expected while the civil administration, and, in fact, the entire governing power, remains altogether the same.

With all these enormous drawbacks, the British army manages to hobble through every campaign, if not with success, yet without disgrace. There is a loss of life, a deal of mismanagement, a compound of blunders which astonish us when compared with the state of other armies under the same circumstances; yet there is no loss of military honor, there is seldom a repulse, almost never a complete defeat. It is the great personal bravery and tenacity of the troops, their discipline and implicit obedience, which bring this about. Clumsy, unintelligent, and helpless as the British soldier is when thrown upon his own resources, or when called upon to do the duty of light troops, nobody surpasses him in a pitched battle where he acts in masses. His forte is the action in line. An English line of battle will do what has scarcely ever been done by other infantry; receive cavalry in line, keep their muskets charged to the last moment, and fire a volley when the enemy is at thirty yards, and in almost every instance with perfect success.

The fire of British infantry is delivered with such a coolness, even in the most critical position, that it surpasses, in effect, that of any other troops. Thus, the Highlanders, in line, repulsed the Russian cavalry at Balaklava. The indomitable tenacity of this infantry was never shown to greater advantage than at Inkermann, where the French, under the same circumstances, would certainly have been overwhelmed; but, on the other hand, the French would never have allowed themselves to be surprised, unguarded, in such a position. This solidity and tenacity in attack and defense, form the great redeeming quality of the British army, and have alone saved it from many a defeat, well-merited and all but intentionally prepared by the incapacity of its officers, the absurdity of its administration, and the clumsiness of its movements.

The above article is extracted from "The Armies of Europe," and originally published in 1855.

The armies covered are:

Smaller Armies of:-

Smaller Italian Armies