This article was first published in the January 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine


It's official; we’re all touchy-feely liberals now! One of the dangers inherent in political correctness, however, is that as a nation we start to lose our capacity for objective interpretation of our own past. Inevitably the history of the British Empire is susceptible to revisionist misrepresentation. It was refreshing, therefore, that when the usual suspects tried to use slavery to berate us, the man in the street was savvy enough to stand up and make himself heard: hold on – this is about celebrating our part in abolition, not political posturing over the original sin, which was addressed two centuries ago.

Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun, and they have not
Hilaire Belloc (1898)

In a similar vein, as a military historian specialising in the Victorian era, I am sometimes perturbed by the myth of “native-bashing”, the mischievous fallacy propounded by advocates of the Left which would have it that the military history of the Empire was all about the application of crushing industrialised might to hapless indigenous peoples. The flip side of the same coin is that in almost any scenario the British must by definition be the baddies. All too often in this modern age of ours, these closely twinned precepts combine to produce highly subjective interpretations of Britain’s colonial past.

The most common technique for imparting spin is to judge the people of yesteryear by the ethical or moral standards of today, and to be unremittingly one-sided in so doing. My concern, as a military historian, is to prevent the story of “Tommy”, the ordinary British soldier, being overlooked or misrepresented, for in truth his story is one of extraordinary hardship, dogged determination and, often, breathtaking courage. As it is the story of our great grandfathers, the least we can do is tell it fairly and well, recognising that, as Kipling was to put it, not all were “plaster saints”. As importantly, an overly politically correct portrayal of Queen Victoria’s enemies as helpless victims of imperialism serves only to demean the often sophisticated indigenous societies of the time. In military terms it belittles their intelligence, their fighting spirit and their capacity for a degree of guile as highly developed, if not more so, than that of their British opponents.

Arguably the military historian enjoys something of an edge when it comes to objectivity, for the emphasis of his studies is on conflict itself and less so on its origins. Even a passing acquaintance with the history of war quickly compels a perception of mankind as just one more beast of the forest, for it is clear that empires, alliances, nation-states, ethnicities, religions, creeds, regions, tribes and clans all share a fatal compulsion to compete for supremacy. Because war is about move and countermove, the military historian also knows instinctively that there are always two sides to every story. Sometimes, of course, battles or wars are won because one side skilfully out-soldiers the other, sometimes because the opposition throws it all away through ineptitude or folly.

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A word on where the Victorian era sits in the wider context of the art of war is appropriate at this juncture. As far as the British are concerned, the “horse and musket” era will end in October 1854, when Lord Cardigan leads the remnants of his brigade through the smoke-shrouded Russian guns at Balaclava. The “modern” military age will dawn 45 years later with the onset of the Anglo- Boer War. The intervening period is one of transition, in which the rifled breechloader, quick-firing artillery, smokeless powder and the machine gun will all make their debut. The British Army will be preoccupied with the “Small Wars” of empire throughout. Crucially the global arms trade, surely a contender as the world’s second oldest business, is doing a roaring trade.

Let us turn for the first of our snapshots to the dawn of the Victorian age, still well within the confines of the horse and musket era. In India the East India Company has a firm hold on the southern and central swathes of the subcontinent, but to the north west the Punjab is still an independent and militarily powerful entity. The Sikh Army is armed and equipped in imitation of its European counterparts and has been well trained by French soldiers of fortune. There will be many campaigns on the subcontinent during the course of the Queen’s long reign, but the three most serious conflicts will be the Sikh Wars, the Mutiny and the Second Anglo-Afghan War. In none of them did “Tommy” enjoy either a technological or a numerical advantage. Indeed it is often difficult to identify any kind of advantage, be it physical, moral or conceptual. On 13 January 1849, for example, the 24th Regiment of Foot, armed with the smoothbore Tower musket, was ordered to make a frontal attack on an entrenched Sikh position at Chillianwallah. The jungle ahead was bristling with artillery:

On, on, we went… the fire which had opened, growing every minute heavier, on by cattle tracks, and through water, all cohesion, touch and formation being rapidly lost. The men beginning to cheer, were now in crowds, then scattered, grape and canister ever tearing through the ranks, leaving long lines of dead and wounded. How strange it is that one never notices the bodies of those who fall, the maddening intoxication is so terrible, the eagerness to press forward so keen… My company was near the centre, where the colours were as a target to aim at. One discharge of grape seems to have swept away my right section – for a moment I am alone…

Captain Andrew John Macpherson

A thousand strong when it attacked, the 24th would come out of action with a quarter of its number dead and another quarter seriously wounded. Nobody who fought in the Peninsula or the Crimea had been exposed to a heavier fire: suffice it to say that when an onlooker at Balaclava expressed horror at the destruction of the Light Brigade, a nearby officer was heard to scoff, “Pah! It is nothing to Chillianwallah”.

Another living nightmare for the infantry was the 1857 storming of Delhi, the decisive action of the Mutiny. Captain Charles Griffiths was among the 5,000 British and Indian infantrymen who set out to eject more than 30,000 mutineers and rebels from the city:

How can I describe that terrible street fighting, which lasted without intermission the whole day? From every window and door, from loopholes in the buildings, and from the tops of the houses, a storm of musketry saluted us on every side, while every now and then, when passing the corner of a street, field guns loaded with grape discharged their contents into the column. Officers and men fell fast…

Captain Charles Griffiths

If we leap forward a generation, we find ourselves in the era of the Afghan, Zulu and Sudan campaigns. Surely now, with massed charges by the fearless age-grouped regiments of Zululand, the fanatical ghazis of Southern Afghanistan, and the Beja peoples of Eastern Sudan we are in the heyday of "native-bashing". Surely all "Tommy" has to do now is to ply his breech-loading Martini-Henry with a modicum of skill and mow down the hapless "savages". I covered the Maiwand disaster in the December 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine, so I shall not dwell on the subject beyond commenting that 2,500 British and Indian soldiers took on six times their number, and that the Afghans fielded no fewer than 30 well-handled artillery pieces. History relates that it was the Afghans who did the bashing that day.

What then of the Sudan in the mid-1880s? Because their fundamentalist faith drove the Mahdists to make blood-curdling charges in confident expectation of divinely inspired victory, it is sometimes imagined that they had no other tactical options. In fact they had captured many thousands of modern Remington rifles from the oft-defeated Egyptian garrison (see panel on page 32) and quickly became skilled in their use. Here Bennet Burleigh, covering the Gordon Relief Expedition for the Daily Telegraph, describes the hours preceding Abu Kru, the second of two battles fought in a fraught 48-hour period by Sir Herbert Stewart's camel-borne "Desert Column". Stewart, one of the most promising soldiers of his generation, had already been mortally wounded by a shot in the groin.

As stretcher after stretcher with its gory load was taken to the hospital, the little place was found too little, and the wounded had to be laid outside. Surgeon Major Ferguson and Doctor Briggs and their colleagues had their skill and time taxed to the utmost. Want of water hampered their operations; doctors and patients were alike exposed to the enemy's fire. More harrowing battle scenes in the course of a long experience I never saw.

Bennet Burleigh, a Daily Telegraph journalist

Of course the Khartoum expedition met with failure and it was not until 1896, the very brink of the modern military era, that the British set about the reconquest of the Sudan. It is only at this point, with the Queen Empress in her dotage, that superior weapons technology will really make itself felt. Kitchener's Anglo-Egyptian force, 17,000 strong, was equipped with quick-firing artillery, magazine-fed rifles and belt-fed machine guns. On the other side of the Omdurman battlefield is the Khalifa Abdullah and a host of 60,000 dervishes. The ensuing slaughter is notorious. Was this then a bona fide example of "native-bashing"? Could Kitchener have lost? The panel (left) provides the answer.

There are indeed always two sides to every story. It is only right in closing, therefore, to recognise that after the nightmare assault on Delhi, many of the shell-shocked soldiers took to the bottle and perpetrated drunken atrocities. Additionally, the ill-fated “Shangani Patrol” notwithstanding, it is impossible to consider Cecil Rhodes’s private enterprise operations as anything other than “native-bashing”, as the Matabele were quite unable to contend with the Maxim, an infinitely more deadly machine gun than its unreliable predecessors, or the new magazine-fed rifles. Finally, it is important to recognise that few colonial campaigns were waged without atrocities being perpetrated on both sides.

War is about move and countermove, so we know there are two sides to every story

But with one or two exceptions from the last decade of the century, the broad message is that to dismiss the Victorian Army’s campaigns as wholly one-sided affairs is to do a disservice both to the British participants and to the extraordinary range of fearless and canny opponents who met them in battle. In truth these campaigns tested the courage and endurance of the British soldier to the limit and rank as some of the most challenging operating environments ever faced by our Army. I can but commend further study of this fascinating era to the reader.

Lieutenant Colonel Mike Snook MBE is a member of the military staff at the Defence Academy and author of How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandlwana Revealed (2005), Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift (2006) and Into the Jaws of Death: British Military Blunders 1879–1900 (2007).

The Arms Trade in Zululand

By 1879 the Zulus had been trading in firearms for more than three decades. With Europe upgrading to breechloaders, the global arms trade was flooded with obsolescent models. The trader John Dunn brought in firearms by the wagonload, while Delagoa Bay in Portuguese Mozambique trafficked whole shiploads. In 1878 it was estimated that there were 20,000 weapons in Zululand. Of these perhaps 40 per cent were rifles and 60 per cent muskets. King Cetshwayo stored large quantities of gunpowder at his capital.

Egyptian weaponry lost to the Mahdi

Defeat of Rashid Bey: 400 rifles

Battle of Massa: up to 4,000 rifles

Fall of El Obeid: 5 artillery pieces, 6,000 rifles

Fall of Bara: 2,000 rifles

Hicks Disaster: 8,300 rifles, 4 Krupp guns, 10 mountain guns, 6 Nordenfeldt machine guns

Defeat of Kassim Bey: 500 rifles

Defeat of Mahmud Tahir: 500 rifles

Baker Disaster: 2,000 rifles, 2 Krupp guns, 2 Gatling guns, 2 rocket troughs

Fall of Khartoum: 6,000 rifles, 12 artillery pieces

Omdurman – The Khalifa’s Options

1. Make a night attack on Kitchener's position, aiming to neutralise his firepower and achieve surprise.

2. Fall back into the city to defend it street-bystreet, thus engaging a technologically superior enemy on equal terms.

3. Retreat into the deserts of Kordofan, where the British would be unable to follow.

4. Trust to Allah and attack a strong defensive position across an open plain in broad daylight.