Victorians and war: which conflicts were fought during the Victorian era?
Queen Victoria's reign witnessed a massive expansion of the British empire and her rule was marked with conquests, invasions and battles. Emma Slattery Williams shares a quick guide to the conflicts and how they were sparked…
Throughout the 19th century, the British Empire continued to grow, though at a cost – and there is not one decade of Victoria’s reign that did not see some form of conflict in the empire. During Queen Victoria's time on the throne, British and Imperial soldiers faced battle across India, Africa, South-East Asia and Eastern Europe. Here, we examine three of the most famous Anglo-conflicts of the era, which continue to resonate – whether for their privations or political implications – along with a brief timeline of the era's other confrontations…
The Crimean War (1853-56)
A conflict that changed the control of power within Europe – weakening Russia
In 1853, Russia invaded the Danubian Principalities (modern Romania), causing the Ottoman empire (a state and caliphate that controlled much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia, and Northern Africa) under Sultan Abdulmejid I, to declare war. Britain and France, wary of Russian expansion, joined the Ottomans, taking part in an 11-month siege of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula. Thousands of soldiers died from diseases such as typhoid and dysentery and the harsh winter, as well as the brutal battles of Alma, Inkerman and Balaclava. Peace was finally achieved when Austria threatened to join against Russia – the Ottoman Empire maintained hold of its territories, and Russia was forbidden from keeping a navy on the Black Sea.
During the Crimean War's battle of Balaclava, the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade saw around 670 British cavalrymen charge headlong into Russian fire with little chance of survival – all due to a miscommunication of orders. The disastrous incident would later inspire poet Lord Tennyson and even heavy metal band Iron Maiden.
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The one constant in this period of unprecedented expansion, always at the centre of the imperial web, was the formidable figure of Victoria herself: shaping, supporting and sometimes condemning her government’s foreign policy – but never ignoring it. Though British monarchs no longer had the power to make or break governments, they still had, in the words of Walter Bagehot, the great constitutional historian, “three great rights”: to be consulted, to advise and to warn. Aided and abetted by her hugely underrated husband, Prince Albert, Victoria made full use of these rights to influence government policy.
Read more about Victoria, the 'warrior queen'
The Indian Rebellion (1857-58)
The rebellion started with Indian soldiers against their commanders – though unsuccessful, it bolstered calls for independence
Since the 17th century, the East India Company had gradually been carving out territory in India, ultimately becoming the country’s leading power at the expense of existing Indian rulers. In 1857, rebellion broke out among the Company’s sepoys (Indian infantry) in Meerut – ostensibly over gun cartridges (see below) but fuelled by wider resentments about the erosion of Indian culture – which rapidly spread to Delhi and beyond. The rebellion was quashed and the East India Company was nationalised; direct rule was imposed over India, ushering in the British Raj.
The Indian Rebellion began when a rumour spread that the cartridges of the Bengal Army’s new rifle – a Pattern 1853 Enfield – had been coated in pig and cow fat. Since cartridges had to be opened by mouth, the fat coating was offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. It was the jailbreaking of 85 men of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry – who had refused to use these cartridges – on 10 May 1857 that sparked a wider rebellion amongst the sepoys.
South African Wars (sometimes known as the Boer Wars; 1880-81 & 1899-1902)
During the late 19th century, Britain tried to gain control of modern-day South Africa
In 1877, tensions between the Boers (descendants of Dutch, German and Huguenot settlers) and the British became strained after the British annexed the Transvaal (the British name for the Boers’ South African Republic), and erupted into war in December 1880. The fighting was short-lived, with the Boers securing victory (and partial independence) in March – although it remained under British suzerainty. Relations soured again in 1899, a result of the discovery of gold in the region. A longer, bloodier war followed, the last two years of which the Boers fought as a guerilla campaign. The British responded by rounding up Boer women and children into camps (where many died of starvation) and deployed ‘scorched earth’ tactics – Boer territory was deliberately and systematically devastated to deprive the guerrilla fighters of food and shelter. The Boers eventually conceded; the treaty that followed ended Boer independence.
At least 400,000 soldiers from Britain and the empire are believed to have been involved in the Second South African War, including up to 30,000 black Africans.
A timeline of other Victorian conflicts1873–74 Third Anglo-Ashanti War
1878–80 Second Anglo-Afghan War
1879 Anglo-Zulu War
1880–81 First South African War
1882 Anglo-Egyptian War
1885 Third Anglo-Burmese War
1895–96 Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War
1899–1902 Second South African War
1900 Fifth Anglo-Ashanti War
A version of this article first appeared in the October 2020 issue (86) of BBC History Revealed magazine and has since been edited for web use