Research Press

Historical Firearms, Long Range Target Shooting & Military History

Main Menu

British Military

Research Press


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 Schleswig6 proved to the Danes what a capital mark to the enemy is offered by a red coat and white cross-belts.

The new dress-regulation7 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 rifle8, as improved by Pritchard9. 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 officers10. 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 Balaklava11. 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.