The Present Condition of The English Army—Tactics, Uniform, Commissariat, &c.

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written June 1854

First published in the New York Daily Tribune, No. 4102, June 10;
reprinted in the New York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 944, June 13, 1854
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 13 (pp.208-214), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): New York Tribune
Keywords : England, Army

This article was written by Engels on May 25, 1854 at the request of Marx and his wife in view of Marx's illness. The article was mailed to New York on May 26, 1854 as is testified by the entry in the Notebook: "26. Mai. Freitag. Abuses in the Army. Wellington." The New York Semi-Weekly Tribune reprinted it without any title.

London, Friday, May 26, 1854

If the war in the East is good for nothing else it will at least demolish a portion of the military renown of the late Duke of Wellington. Whoever knew England during the lifetime of this much over-estimated General, will recollect that it was considered an insult to the British nation to speak even of Napoleon as of a soldier approaching in any way the invincible Iron Duke. This glorious Duke is now dead and buried, after having had the command of the British army, at least virtually, for the last forty years. Never was a man more independent or irresponsible in the exercise of command. The "Duke" was an_ authority above all authorities, neither king nor queen[1] daring to contradict him in professional matters. Well, after enjoying many a year of those honors and comforts which usually fall to the lot of happy mediocrity, and which so strongly contrast with the tragic revulsions generally belonging to the career of genius Napoleon for instance the Iron Duke died, and the command of the British army fell into other hands. About eighteen months after his death, the British army is called upon to enter on a campaign against the Russians, and before the first regiment is ready to embark, it is found that the Iron Duke has left the army in a state entirely unfit for active service.

The "Duke," in spite of his generally sound English sense, had but a small and narrow mind in many respects. The unfairness with which he habitually alluded to the part his German allies bore in the decision of the struggle at Waterloo, taking to himself all the credit of a victory which would have been a defeat but for the timely appearance of Blücher, is well known. The pettishness with which he stuck to all abuses and absurdities in the English army, replying to all criticism: "Those abuses and absurdities made us victorious in Spain and Portugal" perfectly agrees with his conservative notion that a certain degree of traditional absurdity and corruption was essential to a proper working of the "demonstrably best" of Constitutions. But while in politics he knew how to give way upon important points in critical moments, in military matters he clung all the more stubbornly to antiquated notions and traditional Tory fooleries. There was not one single important improvement introduced into the British army during his lifetime, unless it was in the purely technical department of the artillery. Here it was simply impossible that the rapid progress of manufacturing industry and mechanical science should have been left entirely unnoticed. The consequence is, that though the British army has the best artillery material in existence, the organization of that artillery is as clumsy as that of the other arms; and that in the dress, general armament, and organization of the British forces there is not a single item in which it is not inferior to any civilized army in Europe.

I must again call the attention of your readers to the fact that the direction of military affairs is not confided, as in other countries, to a single branch of the administration[2]. There are four departments, each clashing with and independent of the other. There is the Secretary of War, a mere paymaster and accountant. There is the Commander-in-Chief at the Horse Guards[3], who has the infantry and cavalry under him. There is the Master-General of the Ordnance, who commands the Artillery Engineers, and is supposed to have the general direction of the materiel of the army. Then there is the Colonial Secretary, who apportions the troops to the various foreign possessions, and regulates the distribution of war-material to each. Beside these, there is the Commissariat Department; and lastly, for the troops in India, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in that empire. It is only since the death of Wellington that the absurdity of such an arrangement has been publicly alluded to, the report of the Parliamentary Committee of 1837 having been superseded by the Duke's authority. Now that war has begun, its inefficiency is felt everywhere; but change is deprecated as being liable to upset all possibility of order and regularity in the transaction of the business.

As an instance of the confusion created by this system, I mentioned, on a former occasion, that there are hardly two articles for which a regiment is not obliged to apply to different and independent administrations. The clothing is supplied by the Colonel, but the great-coats by the Ordnance; the belts and knapsacks by the Horse Guards; but the fire-arms again by the Ordnance. On any foreign station, military officers, ordnance officers, storekeepers and commissariat employers are all more or less independent of each other, and responsible to distinct and independent boards at home. Then there is the nuisance of the "clothing colonels." Every regiment has a titular colonel, a general officer, whose duty it is to pocket a certain government allowance for clothing his regiment, and to spend a portion only for the purpose. The balance is considered as his wages for the trouble.

There is the sale of commissions, which puts all the higher posts in the army at the almost exclusive disposal of the aristocracy. After a few years' service in the capacity of lieutenant, captain, and major, an officer is entitled, on the first vacancy occurring, to buy up the next rank which becomes vacant, unless there should be an officer of the same rank, and of older standing, inclined to anticipate him. The consequence is, that a man with ready money can advance very rapidly, as many of his seniors have not the means to buy the vacancy as soon as it occurs. It is clear that such a system greatly narrows the class of useful men from which the corps of officers is recruited, and the advancement or active employment of general officers being subject almost exclusively to seniority or aristocratic connection, the circle from which these are drawn must necessarily exclude a large mass of talent and knowledge from the higher commands. It is, no doubt, attributable to this system chiefly that the mass of British officers are so lamentably deficient in the general and more theoretical branches of military science.

The number of officers is disproportionately large for that of the men. Gold lace and epaulettes abound in a British regiment to an extent unknown anywhere else. Consequently, the officers have nothing to do, and their esprit de corps hardly admitting of any degree of study, they pass their time in all sorts of extravagant amusements, trusting that if it comes to fight, native bravery and "Her Majesty's regulations" will be quite sufficient to carry them through all difficulties. Yet when the Chobham camp[4] was formed, the helplessness of very many of the officers was conspicuous enough to anybody who could judge a little better of the maneuvers than the poor enthusiastic penny-a-liners who, with true cockney spirit, admired everything in the strange spectacle which they saw for the first time of their lives.

The drill regulations and system of exercise are of the most old-fashioned character. The maneuvering is exceedingly clumsy, all the movements being complicated, slow, and pedantic. The old system of movements in line, which has been maintained in the British longer than in the Austrian army, as the grand form of all tactical maneuvers, has a few well-known advantages where the ground allows of its application; but there is more than one way to counterbalance this, and above all it is applicable under very exceptional circumstances only. The system of evolutions in column, especially in small columns of companies, as introduced into the best regulated continental armies, insures a far greater mobility and an equally rapid formation of lines when required.

The armament of the British soldier is of good material and capital workmanship, but disfigured in many cases by old-fashioned regulations. The old muskets of smooth bore are well made, of large caliber, but rather more heavy than is necessary. The old Brunswick rifle was good of its kind, but has been superseded by better arms. The recently introduced Pritchett rifle, considered an improvement upon the French Minié rifles, appears to be a capital weapon, but it has only been after a hard struggle that this arm has been forced upon the authorities. As it is, it is very irregularly and unsystematically introduced; one-half of a regiment carries muskets, and the other half rifles, thereby deranging the whole armament. The swords of the cavalry are good, of a better shape for thrust and sharp edge blows than those of Continental armies. The horses are also first-rate, but the men and equipments are too heavy. The materiel of the field artillery is the best in the world, admirably simplified in some respects, but indulging in too great a variety of calibers and guns of different weight, by which different charges of powder are necessitated.

The dress, on the contrary, and the general accoutrement of the British soldier is the greatest nuisance in existence. A high, tight, stiff stock round the neck; a shabby-looking, close-fitting coatee with swallow-tails, badly cut and uncomfortable; tight trousers; disgraceful looking great-coats; an ugly cap, or shako; a system of strapping and belting, of carrying ammunition and knapsack, the like of which even the Prussians cannot show—all this has been of late the theme of so many newspaper comments that a mere allusion to it is .sufficient. Besides the almost intentional discomfort of the dress, it must not be forgotten that the British soldier carries a far heavier weight than any other in the world; and, as if to make mobility the ruling principle of the army, it has a far more considerable train of impediments dragging along with it than any other. The clumsiness of the commissariat arrangements contributes a great deal to this, but even the regimental train, and particularly the great amount of officers' luggage, surpasses anything known out of Turkey and India.

Now see how this army managed when the troops reached Turkey. The French soldiers, having permanently incorporated into their army system all the arrangements found to be of practical utility in their Algerian campaigns, had no sooner landed than they made themselves comfortable. They carried everything with them which they wanted, little as it was, and whatever was deficient was soon supplied by the inborn ingenuity of the French soldier. Even under the joint-stock swindling Administration of Louis Bonaparte and Saint-Arnaud, the system was found to work smoothly enough. But the English! They came to Gallipoli before their commissariat stores had arrived; they came in numbers four times greater than could encamp; there were no preparations for disembarking, no portable ovens for baking, no properly responsible administration. Orders and counter-orders succeeded each other, clashing most fearfully, or rather ludicrously. There was many an old sergeant or corporal who had made himself comfortable in the Kaffir Bush, or in the burning plains of the Indus; but here he was helpless. The improved arrangements, which each foreign commander on a campaign might have introduced, were made for the duration of the campaign only; the different regiments once separated Her Majesty's old-fashioned regulations were again the only rule, and the administrative experience of the campaign was totally lost.

Such is the glorious system to which the Iron Duke stuck with iron tenacity, and which was necessarily the best, because with it he had beaten Napoleon's generals in the Peninsula. The British soldier, when strapped in his leather cuirasse, with 60 or 70 pounds weight to carry over the steppes of Bulgaria, creeping along under occasional attacks of ague, badly supplied by neglectful and unbusinesslike commissariat officers, may well be proud of his glorious Iron Duke, who has prepared all these benefits for him.

The mischievous results naturally flowing from the Duke's traditionary routine are still aggravated by the oligarchic character of the English Administration, which intrusts the most important offices to men who, although their parliamentary support may be needed by the set of place-hunters just in power, are altogether destitute even of elementary professional knowledge and fitness.

Take for instance Mr. Bernal Osborne, the Coalition Clerk of Ordnance[5]. Mr. Bernal Osborne's nomination was a concession made to the Mayfair Radicals[6], represented in the ministry by Sir W. Molesworth, the "humble" editor of Hobbes. Mr. Bernal Osborne

"Pecks up wit, as pigeons peas,

And utters it again when Jove doth please:

He is wit's pedlar; and retails his wares

At wakes, and wassails, meetings, markets, fairs."[7]

But although a small trader in stale jokes, Mr. Bernal Osborne is hardly competent to distinguish a common musket from a Minié rifle, and, nevertheless, he is Her Majesty's Parliamentary Clerk of Ordnance.

Your readers will remember that some time ago he applied to Parliament for a grant of money to enable the Board of Ordnance to manufacture all the small arms required for the army and navy. He asserted that in the United States of America, Government manufactories supplied the arms at a cheaper rate than could be done by private industry, and that on several occasions serious difficulties had arisen from the contractors failing to deliver the arms at the time agreed upon.

The vote of the House was, however, postponed on the motion of M. Muntz, to appoint a Select Committee "to inquire as to the cheapest, the most expeditious, and the most sufficient mode of obtaining fire-arms for Her Majesty's service." The report of this Committee is now before the public[8], and what are the conclusions it has come to? That the private manufacturers had failed to supply the arms at the time contracted for,

"because of the vexatious manner of the view of their work, as required by the Board of Ordnance, and its habit of employing different contractors for each individual part of the numerous pieces which compose a musket."

The report states further that

"the Board of Ordnance had scarcely any knowledge of either the price at which muskets were made in America, or the extent to which machinery was used in their manufacture, and had never seen any fire-arms which had been made at any of the Government manufactories of that country."

Finally, we learn from the report that

"from the manufactory the Government intended to build, not a musket could be issued for eighteen months."

These extracts from the Parliamentary Report may suffice to characterize the professional abilities of Mr. Osborne, the Coalition's own Clerk of Ordnance. Ex ungue leonem.[9]

  1. William IV and Victoria.—Ed.
  2. See The War (May 1854).—Ed.
  3. Horse Guards—an old building in London erected in the mid-eighteenth century in the district of government offices between St. James' Park and Whitehall; general headquarters of the English army at that time.
  4. The reference is to the army camp and military manoeuvres at Chobham, near London, from June 21 to August 20, 1853 in connection with preparations for the war against Russia.
  5. Inaccuracy in the text: from 1852 to 1858 Ralph Bernal Osborne was Secretary of the Admiralty first in the Aberdeen Coalition Ministry and then in the Palmerston Ministry.
  6. The Mayfair Radicals, nickname given to a section of English aristocracy (Molesworth, Bernal Osborne, and others) who made advances to democratic circles. Mayfair is a former aristocratic district east of Hyde Park.
  7. Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost, Act V, Scene 2.—Ed.
  8. Report from the Select Committee on Small Arms; together with the proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix, [London,] 1854.—Ed.
  9. By his claw one may recognise the lion.—Ed.