The British Army, 1855

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‘The British Army’ is extracted from ‘The Armies of Europe’, originally published in 1855, as a series of articles in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, N.Y., USA. The series was published in three parts, in the August, September and December 1855 issues. Although unaccredited at the time, the author was Frederick Engels.

The British Army, 1855 > Dress and Equipment > Notes

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 war1, 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 Balaklava2, 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 Wellington3 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.4

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 Inkermann5 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 signal 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.