An earlier French invasion of Ireland was said to have been thwarted in 1796, when atrocious weather conditions were thought to have scattered a large French fleet that had tried to land troops in Ireland, during which many thousands of French soldiers and sailors were said to have drowned, when their vessels were wrecked or simply inundated by the heavy seas. As has been previously noted in the chapter relating to Ireland’s long history, the British authorities there were thought to have been well aware of the intentions of the United Irishmen and were generally well prepared to deal with any sort of rebellion that might occur. However, it was only some two months after the bloody uprising began that French troops were finally despatched to Ireland, with an estimated one thousand soldiers, under the command of General Humbert, landing at Kilcimmin in County Mayo, where they met a five thousand strong rebel force on the 22nd August 1798. Unfortunately, even though this mixed force was said to have enjoyed limited initial success against the British and Loyalist forces that stood against them, within three weeks the rebel army was said to have been met and defeated by an extremely large British force commanded by Lord Cornwallis, the same military leader who had previously surrendered Yorktown in America.
Although most of the French troops who were captured, were subsequently returned to France, many of the Irish born rebels were not so fortunate, with many of their leaders being hunted down and executed for their part in the rebellion, with a few others managing to avoid capture and continue to oppose British rule in Ireland for the remainder of their lives. It was also said to have been the same year that Britain and Austria began to raise a new European military alliance to confront France, the previous military coalition having collapsed, although from a British perspective her most active campaigns against the French continued to be fought at sea, with few land troops being committed to the cause until 1801, when British and Ottoman troops were used to force the French out of Egypt. However, by 1802 and with both Britain and France both becoming exhausted by the ongoing dispute, the new First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte was reported to have begun negotiations with the British government that ultimately resulted in the Treaty of Amiens being signed by both sides in 1802.
Even though both parties were thought to have regarded the Treaty of Amiens as a temporary arrangement, one that might allow them to reorganise and reinforce their individual armed forces, between 1802 and 1804 soldiers of the British East India Company were said to have continued to undermine French interests on the Indian subcontinent, largely through the military suppression of those native tribesmen that were regarded as being favourable to France and its new national leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. It was said to be during this period that Major General Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, first began to fashion the military career that would eventually bring him to national prominence in England.
|Duke of Wellington|
Representing the first significant involvement of British land troops in fighting the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Peninsula War was said to have begun in 1807, when French troops were reported to have crossed into Spain, on their way to suppress Portugal, which as one of the two remaining neutral European nations of the time, had refused to adopt Napoleon’s clearly stated trade sanctions on British goods. Although in the first instance, the Spanish authorities had made no objections to the French invasion of Portugal, largely because they expected to benefit from the occupation, when elite French troops were subsequently sent into Spain, with orders to seize a number of the country’s most important fortresses, it quickly became apparent to the Spanish leadership that Napoleon intended to occupy the entire Iberian peninsula, not just Portugal.
With the Spanish monarchy almost immediately put under threat by French intrigues, which ended with Napoleon’s older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, taking the Spanish throne, most of the Spanish army was said to have been left leaderless and generally scattered, preventing it from offering any sort of meaningful resistance to the highly efficient and professional French troops that were taking control of their country. Although some Spanish troops and local guerrillas were able to resist the French occupiers, for the most part, these full-time forces were said to have been fairly widespread; and so it was left to the large urban populations to demonstrate Spanish resistance to the invasion of their country, instances which were often suppressed in the most brutal fashion. Eventually though, some form of command and control began to be organised between the scattered Spanish forces, resulting in a much more structured resistance movement to develop, which saw regional and provincial Spanish units, publicly declare war against Napoleon and his occupying armies.
|Admiral Lord Nelson|
Initially under the command of Lieutenant-General Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, British troops, along with their Portuguese allies, were reported to have halted French advances in large parts of the country, although their destruction was said to have been prevented when Wellesley was replaced as British commander by a much less determined officer, who allowed the French forces to withdraw from Portugal without them suffering significant loss. In neighbouring Spain, local Spanish forces were also reported to have made significant gains over the French, to the extent that Napoleon himself was said to have become increasingly concerned over the fate of the country, forcing him to return there to take personal command of his armies in order to secure the country once and for all. In part, the French leader was said to have been aided by problems within the Spaniard’s own ranks, with social divisions beginning to appear amongst the various Spanish forces and logistical problems besetting the British army based in Portugal, all of which allowed Napoleon to secure much of Spain and its main cities by the end of 1808.
At the same time that an estimated two hundred and fifty thousand French troops were suppressing Spain, in neighbouring Portugal, the new British commander, General Sir John Moore, was said to have been making preparations for bringing his relatively small British army, of around thirty-odd thousand men across the shared border into Northwest Spain. Ostensibly a move to try and save the surviving Spanish nationalist forces, by distracting the larger French army with the British incursion, ultimately the strategy proved to be a failure, as not only was Moore forced to withdraw to the Spanish coast, where his army had to rescued by the Royal Navy, but the Spanish forces he had tried to save were subsequently destroyed anyway, making the thousands of British casualties an extraordinary and unnecessary sacrifice in the overall scheme of things.
However, the actions of Moore’s forces, those of his Spanish allies and the resistance of the remaining Spanish cities which had refused to surrender to Napoleon were all thought to have bought valuable time for the Portuguese army and the other British troops that were busily preparing themselves for the inevitable French assault on Portugal. While Napoleon’s army had been crushing all opposition in Spain, Portugal’s armed forces were said to have been completely restructured by a cadre of British officers, who had not only rebuilt a regular army of some twenty thousand men, but also raised and trained various local militias numbering a further thirty-odd thousand soldiers, which would help to confront the seasoned French army that would almost inevitably be sent against them. In March 1809, the first of Napoleon’s forces were reported to have crossed the frontier, intent on re-establishing French control over Portugal, but were said to have met with stiff resistance from the Portuguese defenders who were able to prevent the French troops from extending their influence much beyond the north of the country.
|General Sir John Moore|
During the 24 hours that De la Cuesta had delayed his troops, the French army of Marshall Victor, was said to have not only been reinforced by other military units, but had also been allowed time to re-deploy his forces so that they could more easily attack the British and Spanish flanks. Initially the allied forces were reported to have come under sustained pressure from the highly experienced French troops, although towards the end of the first day, the equally disciplined British force was said to have re-established its control over its area of the battlefield, forcing the enemy to retire to its previous position. However, at the beginning of the second day’s fighting, Napoleon’s troops once again attacked the allied positions, but were finally repulsed when British infantrymen moved forward to carry out a bayonet charge against the advancing French soldiers, causing their lines to break and their men to retire.
With their soldiers repulsed, the French commander’s were said to have employed cannon to try and reduce the allied ranks, a bombardment that was said to have lasted from noon right through to the early evening and into the night, when the French made one final attempt to take the British and Spanish positions using their ground troops, an assault that was once again repulsed by the allies. During the later part of the evening, both sides were thought to have used their field guns to try and reduce each others armies, although by the following morning it quickly became evident to both Wellesley and De la Cuesta that the French cannon fire had actually been a ruse, to allow their main body of troops to retire, leaving only artillery units and wounded soldiers in the field, who were subsequently taken prisoner by the allied forces.
During the Battle of Talavera, Wellesley’s British forces were reported to have suffered significant losses with anything up to 25% of his soldiers, some five thousand men, being killed or wounded by the French opposition, who were themselves said to have lost over seven thousand troops. As it turned out, a fast moving column of British Light Infantry, numbering some three thousand men, had been sent to reinforce Wellesley’s command and having famously marched some forty miles in just over twenty four hours, they were able to replace some of the losses that the British forces had suffered at the Battle of Talavera.
|Marshall Michel Ney|
Although Wellesley and his British troops were thought to have continued campaigning in Spain for several months after the battle at Talavera, the relationship between the two sides was said to grown increasingly tense, often because Spanish commanders failed to deliver the military and logistical support that they had promised to the British. It was said to be because of these problems, the shortage of supplies and continuing pressures from the large French armies that eventually forced Wellesley decided to withdraw his troops back to Portugal in the closing months of 1809, in order that they might be rejuvenate themselves for the spring campaigns of the following year.
Fearing that the French might attempt yet another invasion of Portugal, Anglo-Portuguese commanders were reported to have begun the construction of a highly fortified defensive position, the Lines of Torres Vedras, which was composed of a series of blockhouses, redoubts and trenches, designed to repulse any sort of large scale enemy incursions. In July of 1810, the French duly fulfilled the allied expectations by crossing the border into Portugal, where they were said to have achieved some notable gains during the first months of their campaign, although by October their advance was permanently stopped at the Lines of Torres Vedras, which had only just been completed. With the French forces contained, the Anglo-Portuguese armies were said to have been substantially strengthened by the arrival of fresh regular troops from Britain, allowing the allies to begin their own successful offensive against the French, which resulted in Napoleon’s forces being pushed back into Spain by May 1811.
|Marshall Wm Beresford|
Because the French army of Marshall Marmont was substantially larger than those at Wellesley’s disposal, initially the Anglo-Portuguese army was reported to have been forced to withdraw, with their enemy following behind, waiting for their chance to strike at the allied forces. Fortunately for Wellesley though, the left flank of Marshall Marmont’s forces was said to have become detached from the main body of his army, offering the allied cavalry an opportunity to deliver a devastating blow to these isolated French troops, which resulted in Marmont's left wing being completely routed, at the same time that the French commander and his immediate subordinate were both wounded by flying shrapnel. Although the French army’s third in command, Bertrand Clausel, was said to have ordered an immediate counterattack to the allied advance, Wellesley too was reported to have sent reinforcements forward, which helped to repulse the French assault and forced Clausel’s troops to retire.
Fought on the 22nd July 1812, the bitter and bloody engagement that is often referred to as the Battle of Salamanca, was reported to have cost the British some three thousand casualties, the Portuguese an estimated two thousand men, whilst the French losses were thought to have numbered around thirteen thousand troops, seven thousand of which were simply taken prisoner, rather than being killed or wounded during the military action. With much of their left wing annihilated, the main French force, under the nominal command of General Bertrand Clausel, was said to have withdrawn, being closely followed by Wellesley and his Portuguese allies, who were said to have temporarily liberated the city of Madrid, as a direct result of their victory, but were later forced to withdraw to Portugal once the French army had been reformed and reinforced by its commanders.
Although the allied victory at Salamanca had gained them little in terms of actual territory, the continuing see-sawing of the war was said to have compelled the French leadership in Spain, to not only reorganise their forces, but also to withdraw troops from less important regions, such as Andalucia and Asurias, effectively handing them back to local Spanish control. However, the most inexplicable French decision taken during 1812, was that of the Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, who committed the fatal mistake of not only forcing his armies to fight on two separate fronts, but also denuded the ranks of his army in Spain by an estimated thirty thousand highly experienced soldiers, who were subsequently sent to reinforce his ill-fated Russian adventure, a mistake that would be repeated some hundred and thirty years later by another European dictator, one Adolph Hitler. With the French army in Spain catastrophically weakened by the loss of these highly seasoned troops, Britain and her Iberian allies were reported to have re-doubled their efforts in Spain during 1813, slowly but surely pushing the retreating French forces towards the Pyrenees, scoring a series of spectacular military victories over the ever reducing ranks of Joseph Bonaparte’s army of occupation.
As the Peninsular War came to an end and both Spain and Portugal looked forward to rebuilding their countries after the conflict, so the battle against Napoleonic France moved into central Europe, where a growing coalition of leading powers and subject states began to work together to bring an end to Bonaparte’s vast European empire. Although the French Emperor still had an estimated six hundred thousand troops under his nominal command, in reality only about a quarter of a million men were under his direct control, a number that was said to have been reduced each and every time that they fought against a coalition of western nations that between them could often muster several times that number. Despite these odd however, Bonaparte’s sheer military brilliance and daring was thought to have turned a large number of military engagements from a likely French defeat to an inevitable French victory, often to the complete exasperation of those allied commanders who believed that they were on the brink of defeating Napoleon on several occasions, only to see events turned around by the strategy of the French commander.
Throughout much of 1813, a number of pivotal battles were fought which resulted in the French gaining either a tactical and strategic advantage over their allied adversaries, many of which were subsequently wasted by the limited abilities of Napoleon’s own commanders, who failed to capitalise on the gains that their leader had given them. As a consequence, over the period of the year, rather than managing to hold the territories, which had cost the lives of so many French soldiers, Napoleon’s armies were forced further and further back towards Paris, where on the 30th March 1814 allied troops finally managed to enter the city to demand the surrender of the French leader. The following month Napoleon was forced to abdicate his throne, before being exiled to the island of Elba, after which the coalition helped to restore the Bourbon heir Louis XVI to the throne of France, before sitting down to initiate the Congress of Vienna and to redraw the map of Western Europe.
|Gebhardt Von Blucher|
For their part, Europe’s leading nations were thought to have gathered an estimated three quarters of a million men in the first instance, with the intention of increasing that number to well over one million men under arms, as the campaign progressed. The first major engagement, between the allies and the revived Napoleonic army was said to have taken place in June 1815, when Bonaparte himself was said to have taken his ninety thousand strong Northern Army to the Belgium border, with the intention of launching a pre-emptive assault against the allied forces, which he assumed would still be organising themselves in readiness for their own advance into France. As it happened, the coalition forces were still scattered, giving Napoleon the opportunity to engage the Prussian army first, before he turned his attention to meeting the Anglo-Dutch army commanded by Arthur Wellesley.
Taking the main body of his army into battle against the Prussian army, commanded by Gebhardt von Blucher, Bonaparte ordered one of his most trusted lieutenants, Marshall Michel Ney, to detach his troops from the left flank of the Northern Army, in order to prevent Wellesley and his Anglo-Dutch forces from coming to Blucher’s aid. Although Ney was said to have failed to prevent the Anglo-Dutch troops from advancing, when Bonaparte routed the Prussians at Ligny on the 16th June 1815, Wellesley was thought to have had little choice but to withdraw his troops, retiring them to a defensive position that he had previously identified, just outside the small Belgium town of Waterloo.
Intent on confronting Wellesley’s force, Bonaparte was said to have brought his Northern Army reserves to the front, after ordering another of his subordinates, Marshal Grouchy to detach his forces on the right wing of the Northern Army and pursue the retreating Prussian troops of Gebhardt Blucher, a strategic mistake that would ultimately prove to be catastrophic for the French leader. Without realising it, Blucher’s Prussian forces had already begun to regroup and were reported to have begun a fairly leisurely and circuitous route to the town of Waterloo, where Wellesley had already stationed his Anglo-Dutch army.
Marking a position that would allow its occupants a clear field of fire against any French advance, the farmhouse and its surrounding grounds immediately became a strategic target for Bonaparte, who ordered a brigade of infantry to attack the position, in order that it could be used as a firing position for French artillery and snipers. However, although the French troops were said to have advanced through the chateau’s grounds fairly easily, the heavy artillery and musket fire of the coalition defenders within the main parts of the house was said to have caused enormous casualties amongst the French infantry, who still managed to get close enough to the allied redoubt, to force open the north gate of the defensive compound, leaving its allied garrison open to further assaults. Fortunately for the British troops and their coalition partners inside the chateau, although a party of some thirty to forty French soldiers managed to break through to the central courtyard of the farmhouse, an allied soldier subsequently managed to secure the gateway once again, leaving the enemy troops at the mercy of the British Guards, who were reported to have killed all but one of the trapped French soldiers in fierce hand to hand fighting.
Although Napoleon’s forces outside of Château d’ Hougoumont continued their assault against the property, the later arrival of additional British troops, including units of the Coldstream Guards was said to have finally dispersed the first major French attack, although throughout the remainder of the day the post continued to come under sustained attack by Bonaparte’s forces. It was only when it became clear that his troops could not take the house through the use of infantry alone that Bonaparte finally ordered the chateau to be bombarded, to help drive the allied troops out of the building once and for all, even though the attack itself was said to have destroyed most of the house in the process. According to some historians, both Bonaparte and Wellesley were thought to have regarded the Chateau d’ Hougoumont as being pivotal to the outcome of the wider battle, so much so that both commanders were said to have devoted significant human resources to either holding or capturing the house. However, for other reporters of the engagement, the fighting around Hougoumont was almost entirely a distraction which resulted from Napoleon’s own limited view of the battlefield, which made him believe that the building was of a far greater strategic value than it actually was, causing him to waste valuable time and resources in capturing the position.
At the same time that Napoleon’s soldiers were struggling to overcome the allied defenders at Hougoumont, in the centre of the battlefield the French leader was unleashing his artillery against the main body of Wellesley’s allied force that was occupying the Ridgeway, immediately facing Bonaparte’s own army. Unfortunately for him, the French Emperor’s decision making was said to have been heavily influenced by his own personal opinion of Arthur Wellesley, who Bonaparte considered to be a less than adequate leader, who commanded an allied army that was inferior to his own, a view not shared by many of his generals, especially those that had first hand knowledge of facing the British commander in the field.
|British Lines Waterloo|
With the main part of his force on the reverse slope of the hill, initially the advancing French infantrymen were able to push the allied soldiers back, not realising that as they did so, they were walking towards the coalitions own guns. Having reached a particular point on the ridge, allied commanders were then reported to have ordered their soldiers to stand up and unleash a devastating volley of shot against the French infantry, although this initial fusillade did not stop Napoleon’s troops, who not only managed to return fire, but continued with their advance up the hill and moved towards the waiting British troops. However, just as it seemed that the allied lines would break, British heavy cavalry units were reported to have moved forward in support of the infantry, driving the French soldiers back down the hill and continuing their charge along the lines of the still advancing enemy infantry, until they found themselves confronted by hastily formed defensive squares, which their horses would not approach. With the British cavalry having put themselves at risk, by galloping too far ahead of their own lines, Bonaparte was said to have ordered his own highly experienced and well equipped Dragoons and Lancers forward to confront the allied horsemen, who were reported to have suffered heavy losses at the hands of the mounted French troops.
Charging towards the coalition’s lines with an estimated five thousand cavalrymen, on seeing their approach allied commanders simply ordered their troops to form into defensive squares, which provided them with the sort of protection that was used against enemy cavalry charges. Time and time again Ney’s horsemen tried to break the allied squares, but without the support of artillery or infantry they were unable to break through the almost impenetrable lines of musket ball and bayonets, yet all the time the numbers of French cavalrymen were reduced by the highly disciplined volleys of allied gunfire. Seemingly unable to comprehend the futility of his mounted assault, rather than withdrawing, Ney was reported to have simply ordered even more cavalry units to sacrifice themselves against the allied square, until at last the final French cavalry units had wrecked themselves on the coalition positions. Each and every time Napoleon’s horsemen retired to regroup for yet another charge against the battle squares, so allied gunners would rush out to reload their guns and decimate the approaching lines of French horsemen, wreaking carnage amongst the ranks of horses and riders alike, leaving the battlefield littered with the dead and dying, in scenes that shocked even the most hardened professional soldiers. Rather belatedly, French commanders were said to have arranged for a combined attack by cavalry, infantry and artillery, which initially proved to be highly effective, causing significant losses amongst a number of allied regiments, although ultimately the casualties suffered by the French forces earlier in the battle eventually began to tell on Napoleon’s limited resources.
By four thirty in the afternoon, the first units of Field Marshal Blucher’s Prussian forces had begun to arrive in the area, helping to reinforce the left flank of the allied army and attempting to attack the rear of Bonaparte’s battle line. With the arrival of these fresh coalition troops, Napoleon had little choice but to send out more of his own limited forces to try and neutralise this emerging Prussian threat, beginning yet another engagement which was centred around the settlement of Plancenoit and that would involve successive assaults on the town by both sides. However, by around seven thirty in the evening and having sent some twenty thousand infantrymen to secure the township, Napoleon determined that this was the perfect opportunity to launch one last major offensive against Wellesley’s centre, with the intention of rolling it back and forcing his coalition allies to withdraw from the battlefield.
|Napoleon & Guard|
According to some sources, most French troops were said to have made for Bonaparte’s headquarters which was based around the village of La Belle Alliance, where the two remaining regiments of Old Guards, who were the Emperor’s Imperial bodyguards, were still located. As the French retreat turned into a rout, Bonaparte still hoped to rally his remaining forces behind his Old Guard, although eventually even he was persuaded by members of his retinue that the battle was lost and that he should retire to Paris, leaving his soldiers to make whatever peace they could.
The Battle of Waterloo was said to have cost Arthur Wellesley an estimated seventeen thousand men, killed, wounded or missing, of which around two and a half thousand were said to have died during the battle itself, with hundreds of others dying in the following days and weeks. Unlike his main ally, the Prussian commander, Field Marshal Blucher, Wellesley did not hurry to pursue the remnants of the French Army back to Paris, but instead was reported to have allowed his own troops to regain their strength, before marching them across the border into France. Despite believing that he could still defeat the coalition, eventually Napoleon was eventually forced to accept that his own position was now untenable and he agreed to abdicate his throne for a second time, on the 24th June 1815, after which the Bourbon monarch King Louis XVIII was once again restored as the ruler of France.
|Captain Frederick Maitland|
With the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in June 1815, the series of European conflicts that had dogged the continent for the best part of twenty-odd years, were brought to an end, allowing much of Western Europe to settle down into a period of comparative peace, during which Britain was able to concentrate its efforts on overseeing and expanding its vast overseas Empire. However, even though Europe itself remained relatively peaceful from 1815, until the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853, Britain’s armed forces were known to have been involved in a number of military conflicts, especially in and around the Indian subcontinent, where British interests faced an almost constant threat from native rulers, some or all of whom were supported by agents of the Russian Empire, in what commonly became known as the “Great Game”.
Unfortunately, apart from changes in tactics, armaments and regimental titles, following the successful outcome of the Battle of Waterloo, for the most part, very little was thought to have changed within the ranks of Britain’s land forces and it remained a military service dominated by squalid conditions, social inequality, overbearing cruelty and poor leadership. Apart from the common soldiers who were required to serve in the most onerous circumstances, in theatres from Ireland to Afghanistan, the widespread habit of selling commissions to the sons of well-to-do families, regardless of their abilities, ensured that very often the best troops might be led by the very worst officers, creating levels of distrust and antipathy that doubtless had a negative effect on the army’s overall morale and performance. Promotion within the service was also said to have been earned on the basis of time served, meaning that it was often the worst sorts of candidates, those who had nowhere else to go, who were prepared to wait, or who had the right sort of connections, who were often promoted above those that were far more capable military commanders.
Outside of Britain and in British India particularly, regular army units were thought to have played a secondary role to the private commercial forces of the British East India Company, which up until 1858, was the body charged with administering the country, for and on behalf of the British authorities. Apart from its own European officers and men, who were generally recruited and trained in Britain, the East India Company relied very heavily on the numerous native levies that were recruited from the various regions and states of India, where the company already had commercial interests.
Before 1858, military rule within India was exercised by one or all of the Company’s three native armies, which were centred round the organisations main commercial centres, or Presidencies, of Madras, Bombay and Bengal. Even within these private armies though, the same British class structures existed, with native soldiers being unable to progress much beyond the ranks of NCO’s and the British officers who led these native troops often acquiring their promotion, as a result of time served, rather than through any sort of personal ability. However, having managed to secure large parts of the country over the previous centuries, largely through political manoeuvrings, military alliances and even plain bribery, by the start of the 19th century, the British East India Company were not only eager to protect the gains that they had made thus far, but were keen to continue their expansion in the wider subcontinent. It was as part of these dual objectives and whilst Napoleon Bonaparte was still exiled on Elba that the British company began a dispute with the kingdom of Nepal, a conflict which would bring them into contact with the Gorkha, or Ghurkha people, who would later go on to serve with such distinction within the ranks of the regular British Army.
Unfortunately, although the military leadership had agreed to a peace settlement, the Nepalese national council was reported to have failed to ratify the treaty by November 1815, causing the British to send a second, larger military force into the country, once again made up mainly of Indian Sepoy’s. However, rather than risk having to face the Ghurkha troops head on, the British commander, Lord Moira, was said to have sent his forces in a much more circuitous route, which allowed them to attack the Ghurkhas from the rear, inflicting a heavy defeat on the native Nepalese army. With their army defeated and the British forces being supported by other anti-Nepalese factions, Lord Moira was able to successfully launch attacks on the Ghurkha strongholds of Makwanpur and Hariharpur, at the same time threatening the capital of Katmandu, which compelled the Nepalese national council to accept the earlier peace treaty without further delay. It was said to be as a result of their determined defence of their homelands that Ghurkha fighters had displayed during their resistance to the Company forces that their martial abilities were first recognised by British commanders, who were keen to recruit such high calibre warriors into their own ranks and incorporated the right to recruit Ghurkhas as part of the Treaty of Segauli in 1815. Initially founded as the Nusseree Battalion under the command of a Lieutenant Ross in April 1815, these first Ghurkha recruits later evolved into the 1st King George’s Own Ghurkha Rifles and this force, along with subsequent Ghurkha regiments later became an intrinsic part of the British Indian Army.
Securing and expanding its control within the wider Indian subcontinent remained a priority for the British East India Company during the first half of the 19th century and any possible threat to its continuing commercial exploitation of the region was always likely to be treated extremely seriously. Just as the Company had responded vigorously to the perceived danger posed by the Gorkha people of Nepal, so the growing influence of the expanding Russian Empire in both Afghanistan and Persia was thought to have caused enormous concerns in India, where the British Governor-General, Lord Auckland, was said to have become increasingly anxious about the intentions of Russia and its envoys.
Using this incident to support his own claims that Russia represented a direct threat to British India, Auckland was reported to have ordered some twenty thousand Company troops into Afghanistan to not only drive out the Persian and Russians forces, but at the same time install his preferred pro-British candidate, Shuja Shah Durrani, as the new ruler of Afghanistan. Arguing that Durrani was a legitimate candidate for the Afghan throne, Auckland publicly refuted any suggestion that his actions represented an unwarranted invasion of Afghanistan and stated that British forces would be withdrawn from the country once Durrani was successfully installed as its new ruler.
Enthroned as the new Afghan ruler in August 1839, Durrani and his British supporters were reported to have been deeply unpopular with the majority of the native tribesmen; making the remaining eight thousand Company troops feel increasingly anxious about their ability to retain control of the vast and generally lawless country. Although the former ruler, Dost Muhammad and his supporters attempted to drive the British garrison out of the country, ultimately his tribal army was no match for the much more effective Company forces and having been captured by the British in 1840 was subsequently exiled to India shortly afterwards. With such a large military garrison to support, rather than risk housing their troops in a number of existing Afghan forts, British commanders were reported to have ordered the construction of one single large military encampment on the outskirts of Kabul, which was said to have been so extensive that it was virtually impossible for its inhabitants to fully protect the entire perimeter.
As time passed and with the Company troops becoming more and more disenchanted with their enforced occupation of the country, the British agent in Kabul, William Hay MacNaghten was said to have granted permission for his soldiers to bring their families to Kabul, in an attempt to stave off the loneliness and tensions that such prolonged separations were likely to cause within the military ranks. However, by 1841, nearly two years after the British had first arrived in Afghanistan; the country was still thought to have remained generally unsettled, with increasing numbers of local tribal leaders choosing to support the cause of Dost Muhammad’s son, Mohammed Akbar Khan, who continued to oppose the rule of Durrani, who he regarded as simply a puppet of the British East India Company. It was reported to be in November 1841 that this deep-seated native resistance to the British presence in the country first exhibited itself, when a British officer and his aides were killed by an angry mob in Kabul, although MacNaghten’s subsequent failure to hand out any sort of communal punishment for the deaths was said to have merely emboldened local resistance fighters.
The man in charge of the British armed forces in Afghanistan, Major General William Elphinstone, a sixty-year-old Company officer, was not thought to have been widely respected by most of his immediate subordinates, many of whom regarded him as totally unsuitable for the post that he held, with some reports describing him as incompetent, weak and indecisive, personal qualities which were exacerbated by a generally sickly disposition. By the time that William Hay MacNaghten and his three aides had been murdered by Akbar Khan on the 23rd December 1841, Elphinstone was already said to have lost control of some of his troops, a contributing factor in the death of MacNaghten, when British soldiers assigned to protect the envoy simply failed to arrive, leaving him and his small party defenceless. However, even following MacNaghten’s murder, Elphinstone failed to take any sort of retribution against the Afghan tribesmen, but instead agreed to a form of surrender that forced him to hand over all of his army’s gunpowder reserves, their very latest muskets and most of their cannons, in return for being granted safe conduct out of the country.
As his garrison assembled itself on the 6th January 1842, to begin its journey back across the border into British India, Elphinstone was said to have headed a column of some seven hundred British soldiers, three and a half thousand Indian Sepoys and over twelve thousand civilians, including large numbers of women and children, the families of the Company’s troops, who had been allowed to come to Kabul by MacNaghten. Any wounded Company personnel who could not undertake the retreat were reported to have been left behind in Kabul, on the understanding that they would be cared for by Akbar Khan and his followers, although in reality, as soon as Elphinstone left the city virtually all of those who were left behind were killed and their bodies disposed of.
Intending to take his garrison to the city of Jalalabad, some ninety-odd miles from Kabul, even as the long journey began, Elphinstone was reported to have failed to take proper measures in order to fully protect his troops and their dependants, by neglecting to put out scouts that might forewarn him of any potential danger. In addition to this obvious failure, the British commander was also thought to have allowed the column to travel at such a slow rate that any enemy wishing to pursue them, could have done so quite easily, which was exactly what happened later in the day. As they travelled towards the Khord Kabul Pass, which marked the route through to India, large numbers of Afghan tribesmen were said to have passed the British column and taken up position in the hills and settled down to await the arrival of the slow moving refugees.
|Gen William Elphinstone|
As the refugee caravan grew weaker and more desperate, so Akbar Khan was said to have sent out envoys to try and persuade the British members of the column to surrender themselves, promising them fair treatment, in return for their use as hostages in any future negotiations. On the 11th January, some five days after they had been forced to leave Kabul, a large number of the women and children were said to have been surrendered to the Afghan leader’s care, although it later transpired that only the European families survived, as they had some intrinsic value, unlike those of the Indian Sepoys, whose families were not and were subsequently murdered as a result. Later the same day, Elphinstone himself and his second-in-command, Major Shelton were also reported to have surrendered themselves to Akbar Khan, in the mistaken belief that this would guarantee their own lives and those of the surviving column, which it did not. Kept as a prisoner for a number of days, the extremely ill and completely disillusioned British commander was said to have survived until the 23rd January 1841, when he finally died, still a prisoner of his Afghan adversary.
What remained of the British column was said to have continued on, trying to reach Jalalabad, although as they approached the village of Gandamack, they were reported to have faced a large force of Afghan tribesmen, who were blocking their way, forcing the Company troops to fight a bloody advance that claimed many more of their numbers. Only around forty men were thought to have survived this bitter engagement and those that did quickly found themselves surrounded by a large body of enemy fighters, who demanded that they should surrender and be taken prisoner. Being aware of the fate that awaited them, despite a desperate shortage of food, water and ammunition the British officer leading this last surviving contingent was reported to have rejected the Afghan calls for their surrender and carried on fighting. According to some reports, only nine men survived this final encounter, all of whom were subsequently captured by the Afghan tribesmen who then took them as hostages.
The chief architect of the Afghan invasion, the British Governor-General, Lord Auckland was said to have collapsed from a stroke upon hearing the news that nearly seventeen thousand men, women and children had been annihilated by the Afghan leader and his tribal supporters. Almost immediately, Auckland’s successor, Lord Ellenborough, put plans in place to raise an “Army of Retribution” that would be sent into Afghanistan to exact full revenge against those who were deemed to be responsible for the action, an army that was already on the move by August 1842. Under the command of Generals Nott and Pollock, two heavily armed British military columns were said to have set out from Kandahar and Jalalabad heading for Kabul, where they quickly overcame Akbar Khan’s forces. Having secured the release of the few remaining British hostages, those who were fortunate to have survived the massacre, Nott and Pollock set about levelling Kabul as an act of vengeance against the Afghan people.
Although Khan himself escaped being killed by the British, in 1847 he was reported to have died in fairly mysterious circumstances, possibly as a result of his being poisoned by his father, Dost Muhammad who was released by the British authorities at the end of 1842, after they had already decided to play no further part in the country’s internal power struggles. According to some reports, Akbar Khan was said to have incited his tribesmen to kill every member of the retreating British garrison, even though he must have known that the British authorities would send a second, much larger military expedition to avenge such an atrocity. However, the fact that William Elphinstone was deemed to be the main culprit behind the disaster, which had led to one of Britain’s most humiliating and catastrophic defeats, ensured that British reprisals were quite restrained; bearing in mind the losses that had been suffered by the East India Company in the first place.
|General Sir Geo Pollock|
Having withdrawn all of their forces from Afghanistan by the end of 1842, the British East India Company were reported to have continued to expand their sphere of influence within the subcontinent, bringing them ever closer to the borders of the independent Sikh kingdom of the Punjab. Ruled by the Maharaja Ranjit Singh until his death in 1839, up until that time relations between the East India Company and Ranjit Singh were said to have been cordial, but cautious, with the Sikh ruler maintaining a relatively strong native army in order to defend his kingdom from all potential enemies, including the British, if that ever became necessary. However, Ranjit Singh was not simply content to hold and defend his existing territories, but like other native rulers was always ready to exploit any obvious weakness amongst his immediate neighbours, which might allow him to annexe additional or disputed lands. During his reign, Ranjit Singh was reported to have conquered and incorporated a number of disputed regions into his own Punjabi kingdom, including the Afghan province of Peshawar and the neighbouring states of Jammu and Kashmir, all of which helped to further enlarge his already powerful and expansive independent kingdom.
However, when he died in 1839, he was said to have been succeeded by his legitimate heir, Kharak Singh, who was said to have been so ineffective and unpopular that within a matter of months he had not only been overthrown, but had also died in fairly mysterious circumstances. Replaced by his own son, Kanwar Singh, he too was reported to have died quite suddenly, leaving the kingdom without any sort of legitimate royal heir to succeed to the throne, as a result of which an illegitimate son of Ranjit Singh, Sher Singh, was said to have been put forward as the most legitimate candidate. Unfortunately, his ascension to the Punjabi throne was thought to have divided the kingdom, allowing extremists and zealots within the extremely powerful Punjabi army to take control of certain units and bring the entire country to the brink of almost complete anarchy.
As the Punjab teetered on the edge of the abyss, which would result in an out and out civil war between the various rival factions, the assassinations of various military and political leaders in the region, was said to have compelled the British East India Company to station increasing numbers of its own troops along the border of the Punjab, ostensibly to ensure that the conflict did not spread into British India itself. However, even though the East India Company was thought to have lacked the resources to simply invade the Punjab and to take control of the country, the very fact that it had stationed large numbers of troops and military equipment on the edges of the kingdom was thought to have caused even greater tensions to arise within the royal courts.
|Sir Hugh Gough|
Forced to wait for a full two days, for a second British division to arrive, by the 21st December 1845, both Gough and Hardinge were said to have been convinced that they now had the forces to overcome the enemy position and in the late afternoon of the 21st began their advance towards the Punjabi village of Ferozeshah. As they approached in the dimming light, the British troops were reported to have come under sustained attack by the well trained Punjabi artillery units, which caused significant casualties amongst the British and Indian troops who were advancing against their gun emplacements. However, despite the shot rained down on them, the British infantry continued on and by nightfall some units were even said to have overcome the Punjabi artillery’s forward positions, even though other British infantrymen had been forced back to their own lines. By the next morning though, Gough and Hardinge were able to encourage their men forward once again, until this time they were able to force the Punjabi army from the field once and for all.
Even though he and his men were exhausted by the bloody battle, Sir Hugh Gough was determined to hold his ground, until such time as his position was reinforced by additional British troops, which is exactly what he did, despite repeated efforts by the Punjabi army to dislodge him from his position and sever his lines of communication.
Whilst the British managed to rest their troops and consolidate their position, awaiting even more reinforcements from British India, the defeated Punjabi army units were said to have withdrawn further west to a place called Sobraon, where they too, were reported to have been joined by additional troops, including a number of their most formidable soldiers. Intent on constructing an insurmountable obstacle to the British forces that would subsequently attempt to conquer the whole of Punjab.
|Sir Henry Hardinge|
Although initially achieving some level of success, Dick’s forces were eventually driven back by the Sikh troops and the British commander killed, causing his men to fall back even further. However, the British advance was said to have been resumed as Bengali, Ghurkha and British troops began to successfully assault the entire Punjabi line, breaking through in several places and forcing the Sikh soldiers to withdraw back towards the pontoon bridge over the Sutlej River. Unfortunately, as the retreat turned into a rout, the increasing numbers of Sikh and other Punjabi troops on the already weakened crossing point was said to have caused the bridge to collapse, allowing it to be swept away and trapping some twenty thousand of their troops on the same side of the river as the advancing British forces. Left with little option but to either surrender, or to fight to the death, most of the Sikh units were reported to have chosen the latter, although large numbers were also said to have tried to swim across the river to safety and were subsequently swept away, or simply shot by the British troops positioned along the river bank. Whichever choice these Punjabi troops made, according to some contemporary reports of the Battle of Sobraon, an estimated ten thousand Sikh and Punjabi soldiers were said to have been killed or wounded during the engagement, as opposed to the two thousand or so British troops, who were reported to have died or been injured.
In the aftermath of the Battle at Sobraon, the Punjabi army was said to have been largely destroyed, even though significant numbers of Sikh troops were thought to have survived beyond the disaster to continue the conflict, had they been ordered to do so. However, the Punjab’s native leadership, in the form of the Lahore “Durbar” or council was reported to have chosen to seek terms with the British, rather than risk seeing their kingdom utterly destroyed by an even larger British army that would almost certainly result from continuing native resistance. As part of the Treaty of Lahore, which was signed by both sides on the 9th March 1846, the kingdom of Punjab agreed to surrender certain vitally important agricultural lands to the British East India Company, reimburse the company for its financial losses and permit British agents to be stationed in all of its major cities. Unfortunately, as was often the case with generally unequal peace treaties of the time, almost inevitably they would be refuted by one or other party, either because the terms of the agreement were thought to be too severe, or otherwise too lenient.
So it was with the Treaty of Lahore that was signed in 1846, which not only allowed the British East India Company to place agents in every major city within the Punjab, but also ensured that a British Resident was installed in Kabul, who could essentially dictate the policy of the entire country. This loss of native power was said to have been exacerbated by the loss of the Kashmir region to the Maharajah of Jammu, Gulab Singh, who was reported to have paid seven and a half million rupees for the territory, all of which was said to have been paid to the East India Company, as part of the Treaty of Amritsar, which was signed in March 1846. With the Company holding almost complete control of the country and the running of the Punjab left almost entirely in the hands of British officers and agents, resentment towards British rule was said to have increased steadily after 1846, to the point that individual tribal leaders were reported to have begun conspiring together to rise up against the Company and force them out of the Punjab.
Although other British East India Company officers were said to have taken steps to put down the initial outbreak of disorder, when the two British officers were murdered, it was said to have taken several weeks for the Company forces to fully confront the rebels and even then some of the rebellious Sikh troops were said to have withdrawn to the fortified city of Multan, where they were beyond the reach of the British soldiers. However, the uprising in and around Multan was said to have finally compelled the British Resident in Kabul, Sir Frederick Currie, to take some form of affirmative action in response to the unrest, although even then he was said to have simply contented himself with contacting Sir Hugh Gough, the military commander in Bengal, requesting additional Company units to be sent into the region. Unfortunately, given the time and money involved in launching such a major military expedition, both Gough and his immediate superior, the Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, both refused to despatch any sort of large scale force into the region and settled for a much smaller contingent of Bengal troops to be sent in to the Punjab to support Currie.
Commanded by a General Whish, this mixed force of British and native troops were reported to have made their way to Multan to join the siege of the city fortress, although it quickly became clear that the rebellion had the potential to become a much wider ranging dispute, if it was not handled in the most effective and judicious manner. In several other towns throughout the Punjab, other potential rebellions were reported to have been prevented, or at least delayed, by the proactive approach of local British officers, who were thought to have had the experience and initiative to carry out pre-emptive actions against potential rebels, thereby preventing the possible rebellion from engulfing the entire Punjab.
The two main leaders of the Sikh rebellion were reported to have been Chattar Singh Attariwalla, the Sikh Governor of Hazara and his son, Sher Singh, both of whom were members of the Sikh nobility and experienced military commanders, who felt aggrieved about the continuing control of their country by the British East India Company and its agents. In the months following the murder of the two British officers at Multan in April 1848; and before any significant Company forces could be brought into the Punjab to suppress the wider rebellion, large numbers of Sikh commanders and soldiers were said to have joined Sher Singh’s rebel army, which was reported to have been rallying in the centre of the Punjab. It was only towards the end of 1848, after the seasonal monsoons had ended that Sir Hugh Gough was able to bring elements of his Bengal Army into the Punjab in order to try and confront Sher Singh and his still growing native army, although this did not prove to be as straightforward as British commanders had first hoped.
Upon hearing about the surrender of the garrison at Attock, the British Governor-General, Lord Dalhousie, immediately sent word to Gough to locate and attack Sher Singh’s army, before it could grow into an even greater threat to the Punjab. In the late afternoon of the 13th January 1849, the British commander was reported to have unexpectedly stumbled across Sher Singh’s formidable army, but rather than wait until the following day to launch his assault, the rather “bullish” Gough was said to have ordered his forces to advance, just as the light was beginning to fade. The resulting Battle of Chillianwala turned out to be something of a disaster for the British forces, which were said to have been sent forward through fairly dense undergrowth and into well prepared enemy defences, which included artillery positions that decimated the British ranks with round after round of grapeshot.
At the forefront of Gough’s assault against Sher Singh’s positions was the British infantry brigade, the 24th Foot, which had only just arrived in the country and although they were reported to have reached the Sikh positions, such were their casualties that they were subsequently forced to withdraw. Not only were they thought to have lost over five hundred of their number, either dead or wounded from enemy actions, but were also said to have lost their regimental colours, which was a humiliating loss for any British infantry unit. Although some of Gough’s cavalry forces were thought to have successfully breached the Sikh lines, the failure of other supporting units to achieve similar successes, was said to have allowed the Sikh’s to reorganise themselves and drive back the British horsemen, some of whom were reported to have fled with great haste. Seeing that his main assault was largely unsustainable, Gough was thought to have ordered a general withdrawal to his own lines, leaving many hundreds of British troops, both British and native, wounded and abandoned in the surrounding undergrowth, many of whom were reported to have been subsequently murdered by roving bands of Sikh fighters, who were scouring the surrounding countryside. By the end of the battle, both sides were reported to have retired to their initial positions, although sometime during the following hours, Sher Singh was said to have withdrawn north to meet up with his father, Chattar Singh, while Gough’s troops were said to have maintained their positions for the next few days, as they tried to recover their dead and wounded from around the battlefield.
|Sir Frederick Currie|
As it turned out though, by the time that Villiers had been despatched from Britain, to take over command of the army in the Punjab, Gough had already been reinforced by troops who had previously been employed in the Siege of Multan, which General Whish had successfully completed, bringing the city and its fortress back under British control. With these additional forces at his disposal, Hugh Gough, then advanced in pursuit of Sher Singh, who had already moved north to link up with the Sikh troops commanded by his father Chattar Singh, who had previously escaped from Hazara, with the help of the Afghan ruler Dost Muhammad. Father and son were reported to have joined up at Rawalpindi, but quickly found their large force was unable to find sufficient stores in the area that might sustain them for any period of time, forcing Sher and Chattar Singh to contemplate facing their enemy once again, in the hope of defeating them once and for all.
Unfortunately, Sher Singh’s original plan to flank the British column and attack it from the rear, proved to be impossible, as the Chenab river, which they intended to cross, was too swollen to allow them safe passage and was also being patrolled by British native cavalry. With few other options open to him and his army, Sher Singh was said to have withdrawn his Sikh army to the city of Gujerat, where he hoped to draw Gough and his forces into another well laid trap, assuming that the British commander adopted his usual headlong rush to attack. Unfortunately for the Sikh leader, Gough’s approach was thought to have been tempered by the disaster at Chillianwala and no doubt stung by the criticism he had received within India, from Lord Dalhousie and the decision to replace him with Charles Villiers, which had been taken back in London. Rather than employing his ground troops to assault the Sikh positions at Gujerat, instead Gough determined to attack his enemy with the artillery pieces that he had brought with him and the large siege guns that had previously been employed in breaching the fortress walls at Multan.
Even though Sher Singh had his own cannons, which had been used to great effect at Chillianwala, this time they were not only outranged by Gough’s heavy siege guns, but also outnumbered by them, so that by the end of the three hour artillery exchange, the Sikh gunners had been forced to abandon their cannon and retire from the battlefield. With Sher Singh’s artillery neutralised, Gough was reported to sent his infantry forward, quickly followed by his artillery, which once again began bombarding the Sikh positions further back, until eventually they broke and began to retire at speed. With his foot soldiers being used to overcome the Sikh lines, Gough was then reported to have ordered his cavalry units and Dragoons forward to pursue the Sikh troops who were said to have fallen back over a significant distance. During the next ten days or so, Sher Singh’s forces were thought to have been ruthlessly pursued by Gough’s British troops, until eventually both Sher and Chattar Singh were left with little option but to surrender themselves and their remaining troops to the British East India Company.
Although India was and remained the Jewel of Britain’s vast overseas empire, British forces remained committed to other parts of the world, including neighbouring Europe, where the continent had been regularly convulsed by numerous wars and conflicts for hundreds of years. However, by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, much of Europe had remained relatively peaceful, as international conventions and treaties were employed to bring about some semblance of peace to the many and varied states, which had first been conquered and then freed by military might. It was said to have been the nephew of the first Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who began the next great European conflict, when he initiated a coup d’etat against the government of the Second French Republic in 1851, before declaring himself and ascending the French throne as Emperor Napoleon III on the 2nd December 1852. Intent on being granted sovereign authority over all of the Christian places in the Holy Land, which were then controlled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Napoleon III was said to have applied significant diplomatic pressure to the Ottoman leadership, even though previous treaties had granted the same authority to the Russian Empire, in the form of its own Orthodox Christian Church.
However, not to be refused, Napoleon was said to have used bribery and even the threat of military force to try and persuade the Ottoman ruler in the region, Sultan Abdul Mecid I, to grant him control of the various vitally important Christian sites, including the Church of the Nativity, which the French ruler intended to pass into the care of the Roman Catholic Church. Under enormous pressure, eventually the Ottoman Sultan agreed to a new treaty that would place the shrines into Napoleon’s care, with the result that Tsar Nicholas I put his own military forces on alert. Prepared to confront the Ottoman Empire through force of arms if necessary, Nicholas was keen to ensure that in the event he attacked the Ottoman’s over the issue, then neither Britain, nor France would interfere in the conflict, or indeed ally themselves together to attack Russia. Despite their best efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the increasingly escalating situation, as tensions rose between the French, Ottomans and Russians, Britain’s apparent refusal to deploy Royal Navy assets to help reduce any threat of armed conflict was thought to have convinced the Tzar that Britain would not interfere in any future conflict. On that basis and in the belief that Austria would have no real objections to him seizing the Ottoman controlled regions of Moldavia and Wallachia, along the Danube, Nicholas was reported to have sent Russian troops into the two areas, ostensibly on the basis of forcing the Ottomans to restore the Russian Church’s protection of Christianity’s most holy places.
|Sultan Abdulmecid I|
Ordering his Ottoman forces to attack Tzar Nicholas’ troops along the Danube and in the Caucasus, in these initial engagements the Ottoman’s were reported to have achieved some degree of success, largely as a result of two notable military commanders, Omar Pacha along the Danube and Imam Shamil in the Caucasus. However, the Russian leader, seemingly undeterred by these early setbacks was said to have ordered a number of his warships to attack and destroy Ottoman naval patrols in and around the Black Sea, in what became known as the Battle of Sinop which occurred on the 30th November 1853. It was thought to have been the destruction of the Ottoman frigates, which gave Britain and France the basis for declaring war against Russia, although it was only when Tzar Nicholas refused to withdraw his forces from Moldavia and Wallachia that the two countries finally lost patience with the Russian Emperor and formally declared war on his country. Unable to rely on the neutrality of other European states, which might just ally themselves to the French, British and Ottoman cause, Nicholas was said to have relented and withdrawn his troops from the disputed territories along the Danube, including Moldavia and Wallachia, essentially removing the cause of Britain and France’s declaration of war.
Unfortunately, having compelled the Tzar to comply with their initial demands, the two allies were then reported to have issued even more demands for the cessation of hostilities, some of which the Russian ruler found to be completely unacceptable, thereby setting the Crimean War in motion.
The first overtly hostile action that took place between British and Russian forces was said to have occurred in March 1854 when Russian guns, based in the port of Odessa, fired on the Royal Navy frigate HMS Furious, which was patrolling the waters just outside of the harbour. Returning fire, the Royal Navy fleet was reported to have caused considerable damage to the port and its surrounding buildings, before withdrawing back into the Black Sea to resume its task of protecting and re-supplying allied forces in the region. British naval units were also reported to have helped transport land troops to the Bulgarian city of Varna in June 1854, although with Russian forces having been withdrawn from that particular area around the same time, most of these same British forces were later re-embarked and transported to the Crimea, to begin a siege of Sevastopol.
Having taken several weeks to construct their siege works, by the middle of October 1854, the allies were thought to have had well over one hundred heavy guns to begin bombarding the city, although the Russian defenders were said to have had at least three times as many, most of which had been taken from their naval vessels that the Russians had previously scuttled. Beginning on the 17th October 1854, the siege of Sevastopol began with devastating artillery barrages fired by both sides, but within a matter of days, was said to have developed into the sort of grinding trench warfare that would only be repeated some sixty years later, on the battlefields of Flanders.
At the same time that British and French engineers were building their siege works outside of Sevastopol, additional British troops commanded by Lord Raglan, were reported to have been making their way further south, well to the east of Sevastopol, in order to position themselves for an attack on the city’s southern defences and to take advantage of the other regional port facilities that would allow them to be re-supplied. As they made their way south however, Raglans forces, along with the accompanying French and Ottoman troops were said to have been badly affected by the oppressive heat, shortage of fresh water and regular outbreaks of cholera, all of which were thought to have been endemic to this particular region. Moving towards the relatively small port of Balaclava, the entire allied force was said to have been too large to be accommodated there, so the British, French and Ottoman commanders decided between themselves who would occupy Balaclava and the nearby ports of Kasich and Kamiesch, with Lord Raglan being advised to choose Balaclava.
As they settled down to await the final construction of the siege works at Sevastopol, Lord Raglan and the other allied commanders set about securing the immediate areas surrounding their own positions, apparently aware that the main Russian army, which had previously been withdrawn from Sevastopol, was stationed to the east of their own positions and therefore posed a significant danger to the allied army which was now accommodated at the three southern Russian ports. Unfortunately for Raglan, having chosen Balaclava as his main port, the fact that it lay furthest east and therefore closer to the Russian army quickly began to dawn on him, forcing him to establish additional defensive positions and draw upon his dwindling forces, in order to protect his British troops from a direct enemy attack.
Beginning at around six o’clock in the morning, the outlying village of Kamara and a number of other allied sentry posts were assaulted by the first elements of the Russian force and it was only the quick reactions of one or two sentries who managed to signal the enemy attack, which prevented the Russian advance going unnoticed until it was far too late. These early warning, not only allowed some of the outlying sentries to retreat to the much more formidable defensive redoubts, but also gave sufficient notice to the British commanders back in Balaclava that a large scale enemy attack was underway. As the Ottoman guns on the hills overlooking the port, opened up on the advancing Russian troops, British commanders in Balaclava, including Lord Lucan, the commander of the British cavalry, were reported to have mustered their forces in order to repulse the enemy assault. Taking command of his Heavy Brigade, Lucan was said to have ordered his mounted troops forward in an attempt to discourage the Russian attack, but seeing that his attempt at intimidating the enemy soldiers was having no real effect, Lucan simply wheeled his men around and rode back to his original starting position, close to the Light Brigade.
Bringing their own heavy guns to bear, the Russian artillery were thought to have targeted the allied guns that were firing on them from the hills, as well as the allied redoubts that were blocking the route to Balaclava, both of which were said to have suffered significant damage from the Russian gunners and riflemen, who were firing on their positions. It was thought to be as a result of the much heavier Russian guns that the Ottoman and British artillery were very quickly damaged or forced to withdraw, leaving those allied troops who were charged with holding the forward redoubts vulnerable to enemy assaults, which began at around seven thirty in the morning and by eight o’clock had forced the allied troops to retreat back to Balaclava.
With all of the forward redoubts and trenches having been captured or abandoned, the allied forces at Balaclava, as well as those besieging the southern suburbs of Sevastopol, were now at risk from the advancing Russian army, forcing Lord Raglan to order infantry units from Sevastopol to march eastward, in order to help support the remaining allied troops at Balaclava. Unfortunately, given the distances involved, these British infantry units would have to complete a gruelling two hour march to relieve Balaclava, during which time, the beleaguered allied troops at the port, comprising just over two thousand men, would have to defend Balaclava as best as they could.
At the northern end of the valley, the Russian commanders were said to have watched as the allied forces repositioned themselves ready for their assault and having identified the position of the British Highland infantry regiment, which had been posted to prevent the enemy advance, some four hundred Russian Hussars were ordered forward to attack the British infantry line. As the Russian cavalry thundered towards them, the Highlander’s commander, Colin Campbell was said to have informed his troops that there would be no retreat and that if necessary they must die where they stood, compelling one observer of the scene to describe the legend of the “thin red line”, a view of British troops that eventually achieved almost mythical status in later years.
However, even though several hundred mounted Russian Hussars were bearing down on them at speed, Campbell’s men never threatened to break, but merely fired volley after volley into the advancing Russian line, until at last, it was they that broke, retiring back up the hill in some disorder. At the same time that the Russian Hussars withdrew, so the remainder of the Russian cavalry, thought to have comprised around two thousand horsemen, plus a number of field guns, were finally identified by the commander of the British Heavy Brigade, General James Scarlett. Ordering his four mounted regiments into two lines facing the Russian cavalry, once they were in perfect alignment, Scarlett was said to have instructed his trumpeter to sound the charge, sending his two lines of heavy horse towards the enemy positions. However, as the British mounted troops advanced, so their Russian adversaries began to move towards them, ensuring that neither force were riding at full speed when the two sides finally met in the field. With their superior training and more than an element of good fortune, as the opposing cavalrymen struggled for dominance over one another, slowly but surely, Scarlett’s British cavalrymen began to gain control of the engagement, cutting and hacking their way through the Russian ranks, until finally the first few enemy Hussars began to fall back, until eventually it became a full scale retreat. As the Russians retired, many of their men were reported to have passed close to the British Light Brigade, commanded by the Earl of Cardigan, who rather than ordering his troops to attack the enemy cavalry, was said to have instructed them to maintain their positions, thereby allowing the Russians to escape the field relatively intact.
Considered by many of the British officers in the field as a missed opportunity, Cardigan’s decision not to inflict even greater casualties on the retiring Russian cavalry by attacking them with his Light Brigade, was reported to have caused much criticism of him as a military leader, although it was his actions later on in the day, which would guarantee his being regarded as one of the most incompetent British commanders of the age.
Informing Lord Lucan, the commander of the cavalry that his forces were to advance with the support of infantry, which was still to arrive from Sevastopol, Raglan’s order was thought to have been so ambiguous that it caused confusion amongst British cavalry commanders, who assumed that they should first move forward, but then wait for infantry support, before engaging the enemy directly. However, as the Heavy Brigade were positioned to move forward in one direction and the Light Brigade in another, Russian movements on the hills overlooking Balaclava forced Raglan to issue yet another vague command, this time instructing Lord Lucan to move his cavalry forward to prevent the Russians removing the allied guns that had been abandoned on the hilltop redoubts. Unfortunately, by the time the message had been delivered to Lord Lucan, the precise location of the guns being referred to was unclear and with no artillery in plain sight, it was reported to have been Raglan’s messenger who pointed Lucan in the direction of the Russian gun emplacements at the far end of the valley, rather than those guns that were still being dragged away from the top of the hills.
As he looked down towards the Russian positions, which had guns to the front and on both sides of the valley, Lucan knew that for cavalry to attack such a position was likely to be a suicidal task, but despite his reservations, he was reported to have ridden over to the Light Brigade’s position and spoke to its commander, the Earl of Cardigan. Both men recognised the dangers of such an assault, although believing that this was what Lord Raglan had intended, were prepared to follow their orders, regardless of the risks involved. Forming his Brigade up into two lines of attack facing the enemy guns, at around eleven o’clock in the morning of the 25th October 1854, Cardigan ordered his Lancers and Dragoons to move forward, beginning their journey into what later became known as the “Valley of Death”.
For those British observers watching Cardigan’s advance from an elevated position, it quickly became clear that the Light Brigade were intent on charging the Russian batteries at the far end of the valley, rather than pursuing the captured allied guns, which were still being removed from the hilltops, but by then, it was far too late for anyone to prevent the suicidal cavalry assault. With Cardigan’s horsemen breaking into a trot and then into a canter, there was little anyone could do, other than to watch as the British Brigade rode into the shellfire, which began to rain down from the equally astonished Russian gunners positioned on the sides of the valley. As the Light Brigade moved forward, Lord Lucan then ordered the men of his own Heavy Brigade to begin their advance and almost immediately began to receive fire from the same enemy gunners and sharpshooters that had already devastated Cardigan’s troops. Fortunately for Lucan’s force, the timely intervention of French cavalry, who attacked and overran a number of the Russian positions, helped to limit the damage to the Heavy Brigade, but far too late to prevent hundreds of British Lancers and Dragoons being blown to bits as they steadfastly advanced towards the Russian batteries waiting at the end of the valley. However, the saving grace for Lucan’s Heavy Brigade, was the British commander himself, who was said to have finally realised the futility of the British assault, which had already cost the lives of the Light Brigade and might very easily cost him every one of his own men. Bringing his Heavy Brigade to a sudden stop, Lucan was thought to have looked down the valley, perhaps momentarily regretting that he could not offer any further support to those surviving members of Cardigan’s Brigade, who even then were beginning their final charge towards the waiting Russian ranks.
|Charge of the Light Brigade|
With no reinforcements to bolster their position and with the Russian’s quickly realising that they outnumbered the Light Brigade by some margin, Cardigan and his surviving troops were left with little option but to escape along the same perilous route that they had previously advanced down. With Russian Lancers and Hussars now blocking their line of retreat; and enemy sharpshooters firing down on them from the nearby hills, the British cavalrymen were left with little choice but to fight their way out of the Russian trap, in an attempt to get back to the safety of their own lines. Such was the valour of the members of the Light Brigade that even those men who were wounded refused to surrender to the Russians and as a result dozens of them were said to have perished, rather than be taken prisoner by the enemy.
By the time the last members of the Light Brigade had managed to get back to the allied lines, less than an hour after their initial advance had begun, just under a half of the unit were reported to have been lost, having been killed, wounded or taken prisoner during the engagement. Quite apart from representing a completely useless waste of life, given the mix up between Raglan, Lucan and Cardigan, the loss of the Light Brigade as an effective fighting unit was said to have limited Raglan in his attempts to force the Russian army to retire and compelled him to use his much needed infantry units from Sevastopol to guard the allied lines against further Russian assaults.
Interestingly though, none of the three British commanders involved in the disastrous charge was publicly held accountable for the loss of life, with Cardigan seen as being generally blameless, as he had simply been following orders given to him by his immediate superior, Lord Lucan. Lord Raglan and Lucan were reported to have blamed one another for the disaster, although ultimately neither of them was publicly censured for their part in the event, but Lucan was never to see active service again, despite being promoted to the rank of General and then Field Marshal in later life.
|Alfred, Lord Tennyson|
Instituted in January 1856, the Victoria Cross outranks any other medal awarded by Britain’s Armed Forces and since its inception has been awarded just over thirteen hundred times. During the previously mentioned Charge of the Light Brigade alone, some nine Victoria Crosses were subsequently awarded to members of the British Light and Heavy Brigades, including John Berryman, Alexander Dunne, John Farrell, James Grieve, Joseph Malone, James Mouat, Samuel Parkes, Henry Ramage and Charles Wooden. As a matter of record, the first man to officially receive the new Victoria Cross was Charles Davis Lucas, an Irish born sailor, who was serving aboard HMS Hecla in the Baltic during June 1854, when a live enemy shell landed on the deck of his ship, threatening to cause significant damage to the vessel and its British crew.
Having been ordered to lay flat on the deck, in order to escape serious injury, Lucas was said to have rushed forward, scooped the shell up in his hands and then threw it overboard, where it exploded, just before hitting the water. In recognition of his selfless action, Lucas was granted an immediate promotion to Lieutenant and over the period of his following career with the Royal Navy was reported to have achieved the rank of Rear Admiral, as well as being recognised for his bravery with the receipt of the Victoria Cross.
Although the Russians would make yet another attempt to capture the British held port of Balaclava, in order to undermine the allied siege of Sevastopol, ultimately their attempts to defeat the British forces and to retain possession of their main base would prove to be unsuccessful, as Sevastopol fell to the allied armies in September 1856, having been blockaded and attacked for the best part of a year. During that same period, the two sides were said to have fought one another in a number of theatres, including the Baltic, Pacific, Caucasus and in Europe, although the Russian’s largely conscript army, with its inferior training and weaponry, ultimately struggled to cope with the generally professional and mainly volunteer armies of the western allies.
Unlike today, where nursing is generally seen as a mainstream professional career and one that is governed by pay and conditions, during the 19th century, medicine was very much regarded as an entirely masculine area of expertise, with women playing very much a peripheral role. On the battlefield, most casualties would have been treated by whatever surgeon or male medical assistant happened to be available and only after a battle had been lost or won, allowing the dead and injured to be transported back to the nearest field hospital. Although female camp followers, or wives and daughters are thought to have nursed injured soldiers for hundreds of years, the first official female nurses employed by the British Army were the thirty eight volunteers trained by Florence Nightingale and her aunt, Mai Smith, who were asked to tend to those soldiers injured during the Crimean War, by the British Secretary of State for War, Sidney Herbert, who was a close personal friend of Nightingale.
Having taken the decision to become a nurse in 1844, when she was about twenty four years old, Florence was said to have undertaken extensive studies to achieve her aim, including periods of training in a number of medical institutions to gain practical experience. By 1853 she was reported to have been appointed as the Superintendent of the Institute for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen in London, where she began a nursing program to train new nurses. It was said to be a number of these same nurses that she took with her to Turkey in October 1854 to take care of the allied wounded who were being held at the main military hospital in Scutari, which is now known as Uskadar in modern day Istanbul.
Finding thousands of badly injured allied soldiers being treated there, often in the most atrocious conditions, Nightingale and her volunteers attempted to improve their situation by ensuring that the patients were properly fed and that their surroundings were kept clean and tidy. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the lack of vital medication, poor sanitation and ineffective ventilation meant that large numbers of men continued to die, forcing the British authorities to send an inquiry team to the camp, to try and identify the underlying causes. Having identified the hazardous drains and poor ventilation as two of the major reasons for the regular outbreaks of dysentery, typhus, typhoid and cholera, once these problems had been resolved; death rates amongst the patient population began to drop. Although the underlying causes of these highly communicable diseases had been unknown to Florence and her nurses prior to their arrival in the Crimea, in the aftermath of the Crimean War, the evidence that she and others collected, very quickly identified poor sanitation as a major cause of the high death rates, allowing her to incorporate this knowledge into her later training programs back in Britain.
Even though she had offered her nursing services to the British War Department when they requested volunteers for the Crimea, it seems likely that because of her colour, she was refused any sort of employment position or financial aid, simply because of the racial prejudice that existed within the corridors of power at that time. However, not to be discouraged, Seacole was said to have formed a partnership with a business acquaintance and set out to establish what would later become the British Hotel, a place where allied servicemen could buy themselves a range of goods, have a meal, or simply a well earned rest, as well as receiving treatment for a range of medical ailments. Not simply trying to profit from the conflict by selling commodities to the thousands of soldiers who were posted around the region, according to most reports Seacole would regularly travel around the various allied defensive positions, helping to treat the injured soldiers, who had recently been wounded, or those suffering from ailments that the military did not consider to be serious enough to justify hospitalisation.
Unfortunately, when the war came to a sudden end in 1856, Seacole was said to have found herself in a fairly dire financial circumstances, which resulted in her having to rely on her supporter’s generosity to get her back to Britain, where she was said to have achieved a degree of celebrity for the nursing work that she had undertaken in the Crimea. Counting a number of Britain’s leading figures as personal friends and acquaintances, in subsequent decades her humanitarian achievements during the conflict were reported to have been largely overshadowed by the service of Florence Nightingale and her nursing staff, although in recent years, the selflessness of Seacole is finally beginning to be recognised by a much wider audience.
Towards the end of the 19th century and as a result of the British Army’s performance during the Crimean War and the later Indian Mutiny of 1857, a full scale review of Britain’s land forces was undertaken by a Royal Commission, which helped to produce what became known as the Cardwell Reforms. Beginning in 1858, the intention of the Commission, led by Jonathan Peel, the Secretary of State for War was to investigate the various incidents of incompetence and malfeasance that were known to have occurred during the two great events and to review the performance of Britain’s standing army of twenty five thousand men, which had only just managed to fulfil its role during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, both of which had very nearly brought Britain’s armed forces to near total collapse. Completed by 1862, the resulting report from Jonathan Peel, was reported to have produced no real change in the short term, largely because of the efforts of both the British East India Company which wanted to retain its own military forces and a number of highly placed officers within the British Army, who felt that any reform of the army was unnecessary and possibly dangerous.
On the basis of Peel’s report however; and the real fear that Britain’s land forces lacked the numbers to withstand any future military confrontation, Parliament was said to have authorised the enlargement of the army by around twenty thousand men and an increase in the War Department’s budget to cover the cost of these extra troops. However, the report itself was thought to have produced no real reforms as to the treatment and training of Britain’s soldiers, a fact that Edward Cardwell, the Secretary of State for War from 1868 onwards was determined to introduce. Amongst the reforms introduced by Cardwell, was the abolition of flogging during peacetime, a measure that was strongly opposed by most officers, who believed that corporal punishment was a necessary measure to retain discipline within the ranks. In Cardwell’s opinion though, the outlawing of flogging during peacetime would help to attract a better quality of recruit to the army, men that would otherwise be dissuaded from enlisting if they thought that such brutality was a normal part of everyday life within the service, although Cardwell was forced to retain flogging as a regular form of punishment during wartime.
In addition to the reforms introduced by Cardwell, the Secretary of State for War, was also reported to have drafted two specific pieces of legislation, which were not only designed to improve the lives of the individual servicemen, but also to bring some sort of order to the actual recruitment of Britain’s fighting men. The Army Enlistment (Short Service) Act of 1870 was an attempt by Cardwell to rationalise the length of time that any individual soldier was forced to spend in frontline service, which as a rule could often be for a ten or twelve year period, perhaps longer if the man kept re-enlisting after each period of service. As a result of such practices, Britain’s army was thought to have been manned by large numbers of older soldiers, who lives and health had often be blighted by years of arduous service and who had few skills that would allow them to pursue a civilian career, as and when their enlistment came to an end.
For many young potential recruits, the idea of having to sign up for ten or twelve years of unremitting military service, half of which would be served in foreign lands, was thought to have been such an unattractive prospect for many of the country’s young men that only the very worst or most desperate candidates would choose to enlist within the British forces. In Cardwell’s view, the way forward was to offer new recruits the opportunity to vary their terms of service, so that although they would still serve ten or twelve years in the army, a significant part of that time might just as easily be spent as part of a reserve force, where soldiers were paid a part time wage, for their part time service, something akin to our modern day territorial army services. Caldwell thought that such arrangements would not only help the country to develop a fighting reserve, a force that could be called upon in a national emergency, but also that these new “short term” enlistments would help attract greater numbers of better quality candidates into the army’s ranks, a view that later proved to be the case, as the number of new recruits climbed steadily after the Act was passed in 1870.
The second piece of legislation, the Regulation of the Forces Act 1871, was intended to address the problems caused by the “General Service” employment status of all new military recruits, one that failed to guarantee them a posting to a local regiment and which was thought to have been a major concern for many young men, who might otherwise have considered joining the British forces. In order to resolve this problem, Cardwell proposed that the whole country should be divided into sixty six regimental districts based around county boundaries and population centres, within which the various military forces, including local militias, would be amalgamated and reorganised to form a single regiment, composed of anything up to three battalions. Each of these sixty six regiments were to be based at a central training depot and were expected to recruit new troops from within their own geographical area, helping to ensure that most new soldiers were located in and around their home areas, retaining the social, cultural and linguistic heritage that were so important to new recruits during their first few months of service.