The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 4 No 6 - December 1979

Army in Transition

by S. Monick

In the Military History Journal of June, 1979 (Vol 4, No 5) there appeared an article (“Profile of an army; the Imperial and Colonial Regiments of the Zulu War of 1879”) which documented those Imperial and Colonial regiments which participated in the Zulu War of 1879. The following article is a sequel to that study. It endeavours to examine the administrative structure of the Imperial Army which served in the Zulu War, and the complex interplay of political forces which created profound problems for this Army. The latter part of the twentieth century has witnessed the manifold and complex problems associated with military organisation (in Britain, the U.S.A., Canada and elsewhere), centring upon such issues as the integration of different arms of the services (as in Canada), regimental amalgamation (a feature of British military administration in the 1960s), and the consequences of ending conscription (faced by Great Britain in the early 1960s and the U.S.A. a decade later). It is of special interest, therefore, to study the administrative and organisational infrastructure of the Victorian Army which served in the Zulu War of 1879, dominated by the related problems of recruitment and regimental reorganisation; problems which were to recur in the following century.

At the time of the Zulu War the British Army was in the midst of a period of transition occasioned by Cardwell’s army reforms (initiated in 1870). The organisational infrastructure of the Army had been moulded by the War Office Act (1870); the Army Enlistment Act (1870), that replaced 12 years long service with the Colours by 6 in the Colours and 6 in the Reserves - and the Localization Act (1873), by which all the Infantry battalions were affiliated in pairs, and localized, for the purposes of recruiting and training, in brigade areas, of which there were originally 70.

With regard to the reorganisation of the War Office, one should observe that great improvements were effected as a result of the unhappy Crimean experience. The offices of Secretary at War and Master-General of the Ordnance were abolished, and their political responsibilities absorbed by the Secretary of State for War, who became independent of the Colonial Office. The Commander-in-Chief assumed the military command of the Artillery and Engineers from the Master-General of the Ordnance and the War Office took over the Commissariat from the Treasury, and the Militia from the Home Office. The major unsolved problem — the relationship between the Secretary of State for War and Commander in Chief — was solved and an Order in Council dated 4 June in the same year, (theoretically at least) by the War Office Act of 1870. The Commander in Chief (the Duke of Cambridge) was subordinated to the Secretary of State for War as his principal military advisor. This reform was tangibly (and humiliatingly) demonstrated by the enforced removal of the Duke of Cambridge’s office from the Horse Guards to the War Office (even though the Duke insisted on a separate entrance and obstinately headed his letters, ‘The Horse Guards, Pall Mall’). The Horse Guards and War Office were henceforward to constitute a single department (although remaining physically separate). The work of the combined departments was divided between three executive officers: - the Officer Commander-in-Chief (the strictly military aspects of all regular and irregular forces); the Surveyor-General of the Ordnance (all aspects of supply and equipment); and, thirdly, a Financial Secretary, responsible to the Secretary for War for pay, for all estimates and accounting, and for checking expenditure. However, one should not assume that the arch-conservative Duke of Cambridge (the ‘bow and arrow general’, as he was referred to by Wolseley) was completely vanquished. His membership of the Royal Family (he was first cousin to the Queen), permitted him to continue to exercise a powerful influence on military affairs, For example, he stubbornly opposed the creation of a General Staff, and none appeared until 1904, nine years after his retirement. Moreover, he continued to plague successive Secretaries of State with petty details concerning parades, drill, etc.

The process of centralization extended also to the Militia. The Regulation of the Forces Act of 1871 (which also abolished purchase of commissions) transferred control over the Militia and Volunteers from the Lords-Lieutenant back to the Crown (and hence to the Secretary of State for War). The Regular Army and Militia had finally been absorbed into one military system and the Lords-Lieutenant had been deprived of their Tudor raison d’être.

The essential aspect of the Localization Act was that normally, in each double-battalion regiment, one battalion should be abroad and one at home. The latter would supply the former with drafts of trained men until it relieved its sister battalion overseas. The Militia and Volunteers were included in the localization scheme in so far that, together with the two line battalions, they comprised the ‘brigade’, and were attached to the same HQ, termed the ‘brigade depot’. Theoretically, this scheme seemed perfectly attuned to the current organization of the British Army. Two fifths of the pre-Cardwell regiments already possessed two battalions, and since 1825 all battalions had been so divided so as to provide a number of companies for duty abroad (the service companies) and one or more for duty at home (the depot companies). The fundamental objective of the scheme was a trained Reserve for the Regular Army. There remained the problem of single-battalion regiments. Since the British regiment was a self-contained, homogeneous unit, single-battalion regiments, reasoned Cardwell, could not be combined to create full-strength battalions. (By contrast, the Royal Artillery, whose units had never been self-contained, could move men freely where needed.) However, in the 1870s, because of the strength of sentiment attached to the infantry regiments, embodying unique traditions and history, it was considered to be out of the question to form a Corps of Infantry upon the pattern of the RA. (In Britain, since the early 1960s, all such scruples have vanished.) Cardwell hoped to resolve the problem by linking single-battalion regiments in pairs, one to be at home as a training and drafting unit, the other abroad, in alternation. In the discussion of the Imperial Regiments in this previous issue of the Military History journal it is of interest to note the high proportion of regiments which, in 1881, amalgamated to form the first and second battalions of the merged regiments. This was the result of the efforts of Hugh Childers, the succeeding Secretary of State for War, in pursuit of Cardwell’s programme.

However, the linked-battalion scheme was never a success, and at the heart of the failure was the problem of recruitment. Had sufficient numbers of fit and mature men volunteered, the home battalions would not have deteriorated, and the system might have succeeded. Recruitment figures for the years 1860-1900, which rose steadily, if slowly, from 19 453 in 1867 (the best year in the 1860s) to 41 659 in 1892 (the best year in the 1890s) belie the true state of affairs. Two related factors conspire to render these statistics futile as a criterion of the state of the Army’s strength, viz., wastage, and the poor quality of the troops obtained. General Sir Lintorn Simmons, a member of Lord Airey’s Committee on Army Reorganization (1879-80) summarized the committee’s findings on wastage:- of any 1000 recruits over six years, 123 would be lost to the service within one year, a further 246 within two years, and a further 290 within three. Hence, in the infantry alone, less than one quarter of the recruits completed three years’ service. The main categories of wastage were death, desertion, imprisonment, and purchase of discharge. The effect of these losses, combined with the operation of short service, can be clearly seen in the number of men sent home from India (after 1870, following the wholesale evacuation of overseas garrisons from the Empire, the principal theatre of foreign service). Whereas the Indian establishment remained at 56 000 men, annual replacements rose from 3 608 in 1871 to 8 596 in 1877.

The problem of wastage was compounded by the quality of troops with regard to medical fitness. Lord Airey’s Committee went to a great deal of trouble to investigate the sickness and deaths in the South African and Afghanistan campaigns (1877-80), and the evidence left no doubt whatsoever that men under 20 years of age were unfit to stand the rigours of active service (even though the climate of South Africa was considerably healthier than that of other theatres of war). This poor quality was largely the result of War Office ‘flexibility’ in the selection of recruits (especially in times of poor recruitment). Hence, under the old regime (and this was still applicable in 1870), 5’8” [1.73m] had been the standard height. By 1873 it had fallen to 5’4.5” [1.64m] and thenceforward was altered at least once every year until it fell to 5’4” [1.63m] in 1881 (5’ =1,524 m).

The recruitment problem (numbers never being sufficient to overcome wastage) had its roots in social status, living conditions, pay, and prospects of civil employment. With regard to social status, although the Crimean War had considerably raised the estimation of the Army in the public mind, and the most brutal punishments were modified (flogging in peacetime was abolished in 1871), the social status of the Army remained low, as Kipling testifies in one of his poems (e.g., soldiers were banned from certain public entertainments). Colonel William Mure, who made a special study of the civil employment of ex-soldiers, informed Lord Airey’s Committee that a prison warder whom he had interviewed told him that, in advising released prisoners, he said to incorrigible criminals, 'Join the Army’ (Minutes of Evidence 2608). John Holms, MP, an authority on the employment of ex-servicemen, drew the attention of the committee to the fact that the lowest pay in the Army, the infantry private’s 13s 5.75d. per week, compared most unfavourably with that of railway porters, whose lowest pay was 15s per week (although one should note that the private’s pay had been recently increased by 1s per day, in addition to free meat and bread). Moreover, this meagre pay was liable, until the mid-1890s, to stoppages for food, clothing, transport and barrack damages, which could leave the soldier penniless. With regard to living conditions, barracks were often bleak and insanitary, and in 1879 Aldershot was a slum of wooden shacks, with no married quarters. The fact that virtually no effort whatsoever was made to assist the civil employment of ex-soldiers further discredited the Army. Reservists, especially, suffered, as due to frequent mobilization they were the first unskilled labourers to suffer during a depression.

As a result of this profound problem of recruitment, the home battalions deteriorated seriously. The Zulu War, in common with the small campaigns between 1877 and 1882 fought against the Afghans, Transvaal Republicans, and Arabs, was sufficient to stop the delicate machinery which had been creaking ominously in peacetime. The home battalions had become mere training units for those abroad, and were more than half-full of youths and ineffectives who could not be sent abroad. By 1878 there was not one home battalion ready for active service, and when contingents of the 2nd Battalion of the 24th arrived in Natal in March, 1879, members of the 1st Battalion looked with disdain upon their 2nd Battalion comrades and Chelmsford objected to the untried quality of the 2nd Battalion recruits. Lord Chelmsford wrote to the Duke of Cambridge in 1878, informing him that over 60 per cent of the recruits from the 2nd Battalion had less than 4 months service, had never attended a musketry course, and had not even completed their basic drill instruction. The decline in the home establishment was reflected in the fact that there were always more battalions abroad (mainly in India) than at home. When the scheme began in 1872 there were 70 battalions at home and 71 abroad, and recurrent military crises in the Empire soon placed an intolerable strain upon this equilibrium. For example, the Ashanti War of 1873-4 soon altered the balance to 69 to 72, and by 1879 it was tilted hopelessly at 59 to 82. (The very fact that both battalions of the 24th Regiment were simultaneously absent from Britain, due to the pressures of a limited campaign in the Eastern Cape, is an index of the inadequacy of the linked battalion scheme.) One finds it difficult to justify a system which collapses under such slight and predictable strain. Short service had exacerbated the problem of the home battalions supplying drafts to the larger number of units abroad, not only because of the greater turnover of men than formerly, but also because it did not pay (either in terms of finance or physical fitness) to send men to distant stations if they had only a year or two to serve.

Moreover, the principle of localization did not accord, in practice, with the continuity of regimental traditions. Brian Bond, in his article, The effect of the Cardwell Reforms on Army organization, 1874-1904 writes:-

‘The principles on which localization was adopted in 1873 seemed admirable. The nominal connection of regiments with counties, dating from 1782, would at last be realized. As in Prussia the territorial unit (in the brigade area) would be self-sufficing, recruiting from its own area, and training its recruits at the depot.'

However, in actual practice, only on rare occasions was a home battalion lodged in the district whose name it carried, and a case in point is the 24th Regiment itself. In 1879, many of the 1st Battalion emanated from Birmingham but from 1873 the Regiment was based at Brecon, and recruited in South Wales and along the Welsh border. The change in designation, in 1881, to the South Wales Borderers, demonstrated this process. Thus, the regional affiliation of the 1st Battalion, stationed in South Africa since 1874, no longer coincided with that of the 2nd. Underlying this process was the transition in the distribution of population, occasioned by the Industrial Revolution, and the consequent emergence of new urban concentrations (and thus centres of recruitment) which had not existed in 1782. (The depots failed to take cognizance of this transition in population patterns. Whereas the great majority of recruits came from the industrial north, most of the great barracks — such as those at Colchester and Parkhurst — were located in the south of England.)

Thus, three major problems confronted the Imperial Army that served in Zululand in 1879, which may be characterized as those of national attitude, division of powers, and administrative hierarchy. All three testify to the imperfect nature of Cardwell’s reforms.

The question of national attitudes underlies the entire problem of the failure to create an adequate Reserve. The Empire required two armies, a long-service army to police the Empire, and a short-service army to build a Reserve. To obtain a long-service army required either conscription (political suicide), or attractive conditions which could compete with industry. If short service was to fulfil its purpose in building a Reserve it had to be properly trained and in effect a Reserve for the Line in War. Cardwell’s reforms represented an unworkable compromise between the two. The necessity for such a compromise exemplified the national attitude towards the Army, faithfully embodied in Parliament, that the Empire should be allocated the absolute minimum of financial support. This is apparent in the clamour that arose at the conclusion of every campaign for a reduction in the annual army estimates. The British Army was not a popular institution in the manner of Prussia’s, and the public remained mildly censorious or apathetic to the Army except in times of crisis (Isandlwana being an obvious example), during which a new ''jingoistic’ popular journalism excited popular sentiment. The governmental embodiment of this attitude was reflected in the fact that, apart from Irish Secretary, the War Office was the least coveted seat in the Government.

With regard to division of responsibilities, this problem was not totally solved by the War Office Act of 1870. Whereas, after 1870, it was clear, at least in principle, that the Secretary of State for War was politically responsible for the control of all military operations (except those organized entirely from India), in actual fact the division of responsibilities was far from coherent. The Zulu War of 1879 represents a perfect illustration of the complex division of powers that might occur in any campaign. The command in South Africa was divided among four men:- Sir Bartle Frere as High Commissioner held the supreme civil power in both British and Native territories; Sir Henry Bulwer was Lieutenant Governor in Natal — Shepstone, succeeded by Colonel William Owen Lanyon, was Administrator of the Transvaal, and Lord Chelmsford held the military command. Moreover, to compound the problem, these responsibilities overlapped and conflicted. It has been discussed already how Bulwer was able to obstruct Chelmsford in the latter’s design to raise Native contingents (strictly speaking a military matter), due to the design’s political implications within a colonial context. Bulwer finally consented, be it noted, after the Colonial Secretary (not the Secretary of State for War) had refused to provide Imperial reinforcements. No institution existed at the time to facilitate co-ordination. (The permanent Defence Committee of the Cabinet was not founded until 1895 and the Colonial Defence Committee had been established only in 1878).

With reference to the administrative hierarchy, the resistance that the Army encountered from public sentiment and in Parliament was intensified by the cliques and pressure groups that appeared to be a permanent scourge of the army administrators. The conflict between Royal prerogative and Parliamentary authority, personified in the clash between the Duke of Cambridge and successive Secretaries of State for War was compounded by the pacifist and commercial aspects of Liberal foreign policy, that manifested themselves in a ‘civil war’ between the Treasury and the War Office.


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