The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 13 No 4 - December 2005

Statistically costing the British and French armies of 1864

Philip A Talbot
Department of Management, Keele University

The War Office kept three sets of figures - one to mislead the public, another to mislead the Cabinet and the third to mislead itself. Herbert Asquith, 1852 - 1928 (Oxford Dictionary of Thematic Quotations, 2000, p 365).

About the author:

Philip Talbot is an English Chartered Management Accountant working as a lecturer in accounting and finance in the Department of Management, Keele University, England. His research interests are accounting and management history which allows him to combine his professional technical skills with that· of a trained academic historian. This led to numerous conference papers and publications focusing on the financial management of nineteenth century theatre, the British brewing industry and particularly the nationalised brewery at Carlisle as a consequence of the Great War, the accounting and management of the regular and reserve forces of the British Army past and present, and the transference of military strategy, organisational and command and control structures to a commercial environment. He has produced and had published more traditional papers on the British Yeomanry and on the British Mounted Infantry and its role during and after the Great Boer War. He is currently completing a part-time PhD at Warwick Business School on the role of accounting in British industry.

Government has perennially sought to justify the value for money in respect of the military expenditure that it incurs. Since the earliest days of recorded history until the very recent past, war has been the motor of financial change and, as Cicero observed, it is a universal truth that the 'sinews of war [are] unlimited money' (Ferguson, 2001, p 25). The British Defence Review of 2003/4 was heralded as a sweeping restructuring of the British defence forces to meet the threats of the 21st Century. However, although its advocates promoted it as a necessary move to improve operational and strategic capabilities, its detractors allege that it is in fact driven by financial considerations. A former chief of the defence staff has been quoted as stating, 'It is about money, whatever the defence chiefs say' (www// 11 December 2003).

An analysis of the unit costs of military expenditure should not be considered to be a recent phenomenon. The remarkable Colonel William Henry Sykes (1790-1872), MP, FRS, conducted an investigation in 1863/4 into the financial efficiency of the British Army that bench marked it against its immediate rival, the Imperial French Army of the Emperor Napoleon III. What lends credibility to this investigation was not only Sykes' own military antecedents, but also that he was the President of the Statistical Society, which published his findings in 1864.

Development of statistics

The understanding of what today constitutes statistics is radically different to that of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The modern definition declares statistics to be, 'any systematic collection or presentation of facts' (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 1990, p 1191). Statistics first appeared in the latter part of the eighteenth century, vaguely defined as a science that 'teaches us what is the political arrangement of all the modern states of the known world' (Cullen, 1975, p 10). By 1797, the Encyclopaedia Britannica defined statistics as a 'word lately introduced to express a view or survey of any Kingdom, county or parish' (Mackenzie, 1981, P 7). In Great Britain, by the early Victorian period, the gathering of a multiplicity of eclectic data by various agencies, the state, and other bodies was well established in what was generically labelled the 'Statistical Movement'. It is within this movement that Sykes may be located.

The 'Statistical Movement' and its members may be further located within a much wider European intellectual context identified by the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) as an example of how new disciplinary knowledge systems gradually replaced the older traditional techniques of sovereign power (Foucault, 1980, p 104).

Part of this new knowledge and disciplinary power relied on systems of continuous surveillance, and this could be achieved via detailed reports containing facts, classification and quantification. Foucault states (1997, p 148) that the first of the great disciplined operations was the constitution of 'tableaux vivants' of facts, which transformed the disorganised and dangerous multitudes into ordered multiplicities of typologies. The compilation of tables was to become the cornerstone of the 'Statistical Movement', which attempted to measure quantities and provide analysis. Sykes became adept at constructing, classifying and analysing this data.

Sykes in India

The career path that eventually led Sykes to becoming a statistician began in 1803 when, just thirteen years old, he joined the Bombay Army of the East India Company, popularly known as 'John Company'. Service in the East India Company's regiments was widely held to be socially inferior to service in the regular British Army. The Bombay Army had developed from the Bombay European Regiment formed in 1662 and was first styled the Bombay Regiment in 1688 (Haythornwaite, 1995, p 74).

It remains unclear whether Sykes served with the Bombay Regiment or with one of the nine 'Native' Regiments, but he was present at the siege of Bhurtpore between January and April 1805 (Butterfield, 1981).

The British commanding officer, General Lake, launched four unsuccessful assaults on the city that were repulsed with heavy losses. This action occurred during the Maratha 'Holkar's' offensive of 1804 that, despite briefly threatening Delhi, ultimately led to Jaswant Rao Holkar's final surrender to General Lake atAmritsar in December 1805 (Dupuy & Dupuy, 1993, pp 85961). It is possible that Sykes may have also taken part in the Third Maratha and Pindari War between 1817 and 1818. Certainly he remained in India until 1820, by which time the mysterious basis of his personal fortune had been laid down.

In 1820, Sykes returned to Europe for four years' leave, spending his time travelling the continent, pursuing scientific studies and acquiring foreign languages. It was normal practice at the time to award a furlough, usually a three-year period of leave, to company officers with ten years' service (Gourvish, 1972, pp 48-49).

Colonel William Henry Sykes, MP
Illustrated London News, 23 May 1857, p 499).

It seems likely that it was during this furlough that Sykes obtained a knowledge and passion for statistics and, in 1824, recently married, he returned to India with the rank of captain.

The Lieutenant Governor of Bombay, the Hon Monstuart Elphinstone (1779-1859), appointed Sykes as 'Statistical Reporter' to the Bombay Presidency. He was promoted to the rank of major in 1826, but due to financial retrenchment, the office of Statistical Reporter was abolished in 1829. Nonetheless, Sykes' personal wealth allowed him to continue to work gratuitously in that role until June 1833. During this period, Sykes completed a census of the Deccan, two statistical reports and a catalogue of birds and mammals of the area. He subsequently published his natural history that included 56 birds new to science, in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society in 1832, as well as writing other natural history papers.

Sykes the statistician

At the age of 42, Sykes retired from the East India Company Army with the rank of colonel, and returned to England. In 1834, he became a founder member of the Statistical Society of London (eventually rising to become a vice-president). He was appointed a council member in 1837. Monstuart Elphinstone was one of the new society's trustees, and his powerful influence, coupled with Sykes' natural abilities and talent, may have helped Sykes' advancement. His growing reputation was such that he had also been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1834 and, in the following year, he was appointed as one of the unpaid Metropolitan Lunacy Commissioners whose report was instrumental in the passage of the Lunacy Act of 1837. In 1840, he published a statistical report on the London licensed houses and was appointed a director of his former employer, the East India Company, eventually becoming Chairman.

Statistics and the British Army

In 1863/4 Sykes returned to military matters with a statistical examination and comparison of the British and French armies. Statistical analyses of the British Army were not unique. In 1835 the Secretary of State for War, Viscount Howick, had commissioned an enquiry under the Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals, Henry Marshall, into the health of troops following concern at the high army mortality rates especially amongst overseas garrisons (Cullen, 1975, pp 45-6). Marshall published an article on French Army health statistics in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal in 1835.

Lieutenant Tulloch (later MajorGeneral Sir Alexander Tulloch, 1803-1864, who became famous as an investigator into the military maladministration of the British Army during the Crimean War) had also written several statistical articles in 1835 for the United Service Journal, and undertook most of the original research under Marshall's supervision (Tulloch, 1835, Part 1, p 166 and Part II, pp 145-72). Tulloch would undoubtedly have known Sykes, having presented his papers to a meeting of the Statistical Society and having his work published in the society's journal in 1838 (Tulloch, 1838, July, pp 129-42, August, pp216-30, and November, pp 428-43). Marshall and Tulloch's efforts resulted in the implementation of both medical and logistical reforms that lowered troop mortality rates. Sykes conducted similar research on the health of British troops stationed in the Madras Presidency of India between 1842 and 1846 which was published in the society's journal in 1851 (Sykes, 1851, May, pp 109-52). A further paper concerned with the mortality rates and diseases in the Bombay Army in 1848/9 was published in 1852 (Sykes, 1852, pp 100-7). However, what distinguished Sykes' later statistical investigation into the French and British armies from those that had preceded it was that he applied a new financial metric.

Table 1:

Sykes' innovative attempt at a meaningful comparison between the British and French military, given the problems of international currency conversion and military organisational differences, represents a significant movement forward in calculative practices. Sykes (1864, Part I, pp 1-2) said his objective was 'to place before the English [sic] in juxtaposition the total charge of the English [sic] and French armies, effectives and noneffectives, the average cost per man and the total charge of each army, and then to follow the average cost per man in the several branches of outlay for pay, clothing, provisions, barracks, manufacturing establishments etc, as far as the classification and arrangement of charges in the respective armies would permit.' (Sykes )nvariably used the term 'English' when the more accurate term should have been 'British', or confusingly mixed these terms within the same sentence. This was common practice amongst the Victorian middle and upper classes.)

The technique applied in this exercise was similar to those of the earlier statistical investigations but with the novel introduction of unit costs to facilitate monetary comparison and to formulate meaningful economic conclusions. The raw data was obtained from both countries' military budgets of 1863/ 4. The material is contained in 28 detailed tables. They are presented as appendices consisting of both armies' composition through costs and manpower, horses, transport, artillery, etc. The number of troops formed the basis of the statistical cost calculations based on the type of expenditure incurred. An abridged example of this published statistical data is provided in Table 1 as an illustration of the method employed.

Table 2:

• The proportion of officers in the French force led the author to explain without further analysis that 'consequently there is nearly one officer more to every 100 men in the French army than in the English' (Sykes. 1864. p 4).

Sykes' conclusions

The French franc was valued at ten British pence, or 25 francs to the pound Stirling, and the author acknowledged that this was for convenience and rather unfavourable to the French, making the divisions slightly less than they should have been (Sykes, 1864, Part I, pp58-61). The calculation of a financial metric witnessed a further development in the evolution of Foucaultian disciplinary micro-technology. Statistics had been used to convert men into financial numbers so that what had previously been invisible had now been made visible by 'substituting for the individuality of the memorable man the calculable man' (Foucault, 1997, p 193). Sykes' overall analysis demonstrated that the annual cost of one British soldier was £33 15s 3d whereas the average French soldier cost £16 13s 4d. The author concluded that the apparently more expensive average English [sic] soldier was not a matter of undue concern: 'I was quite prepared to find that the French army was maintained at considerably less cost per man than the English [sic] army, owing to the smaller pay to officers and men, cheaper provisions, cheaper labour and the habitual employment of the soldiers in military works. But I was not prepared for the startling result of the primary comparison, which shows that the French Government maintains two soldiers for a trifle more than it costs the English Government to maintain one soldier!' (Sykes, 1864, p 2).

Sykes explained that this discrepancy in unit costs was attributable to the French having a smaller administration than the British military establishment. Modern advances in accounting practice reveal that he was unaware of cost behaviour patterns and the relationships between fixed and variable costs, but this was almost universally unknown at this period. Consequently Sykes' analysis would have been distorted in favour of the French since the latter's unit costs were spread over a wider organisational and capita base compared to the traditionally smaller British Army establishment. Arguably the British costs may have been inflated by having a higher proportion of its manpower stationed in overseas garrisons, but equally it may be argued that these expenses were lower than at home and, indeed, military costs incurred in the sub-continent were met from taxation levied in India (Sykes, 1864, p 4).

As well as comparing financial costs within the main body of the text, Sykes calculated some nonfinancial relationships within the data - the proportions of each arm to the overall military establishments, the proportions of officers to men, the proportions of cavalry and artillery in both armies - that are summarised in Table 2. Sykes made some minor comments on these but accorded no significance to these ratios.

Nonetheless, the statistical costs, however imperfect, permitted attention to be directed and focused towards areas of concern. Sykes' analysis cannot be seen as either self-regarding or Francophobe and his overall conclusions are not without criticism of Britain's military organisation: 'It remains only for me to say that no Englishman can for a moment begrudge the proper outlay for securing the British soldier comfort, health, efficiency and self respect: but Englishmen have a right to insist that whatever public money is given for the maintenance of the efficiency of the British army should be devoted in the most economical manner to the purposes for which it is given, and the result of the comparisons in the preceding paper lead to the conclusion that such is not the case, particularly in the clothing, barrack, and warlike stores departments of the British army.' (Sykes, 1864, p 25).

Sykes' paper appears to have made little impact in the wider military sphere, probably because, unlike his and Tulloch's earlier army medical research, this investigation had no official sponsorship. Also, judging by modern standards, the calculations are crude and arguably the basis of qualitative comparison is questionable, but this methodology represented best practice at the time.

Later research

Nevertheless, Sykes' statistical costing was unprecedented and predicated the recognisably modern accounting practices in the Regular Army with the ephemeral 'Costing Experiment' of 1917 to 1925 (Black, 2001, pp 145-62). However, Sykes' methodology also appears to have been uniquely applied by the Bass Rifle Volunteers, 1 st Battalion, North Staffordshire Rifle Volunteers, between 1879 and 1907, whereby the annual financial accounting information of the unit was transformed into unit costs and bench marked to improve the financial efficiency of the unit (Talbot, 2000, pp 115-23). Within the wider intellectual framework, Sykes had fulfilled a further Foucaultian discipline in that 'Government is possible only when the strength of the state is known ... The state's capacity and the means to enlarge it must be known. The strength and capacity of other states, rivals of my own state, must also be known ... A certain specific knowledge is necessary: concrete, precise and measured knowledge as to the state's strength. The art of governing ... is intimately bound up with the development of what was called from this moment political arithmetic.' (Martin, Gutman & Hutton, 1988). In this case, political arithmetic is simply another way of saying statistics within its earlier meaning. The construction ofthese statistical tables had allowed the analysis and effects of these 'facts' to be recorded and measured so that Foucaultian schemata permitted that 'the product of the various forces is increased by their calculated combination' (Foucault, 1997, p 167).

Later career

Sykes did not pursue military matters any further and he remained an influential force within the Statistical Society for the rest of his life and he became the President of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1858. In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny (1857-8) and the passage of the India Act (1858), the Crown took over responsibilities from the East India Company for Indian Administration so that Sykes was the Company's last chairman (Wild, p 180). He then took to politics and became Member of Parliament for Aberdeen in 1857, a seat which he held until his death in 1872. Sykes' ornithological research was rewarded in India where the Sykes Crested Wagtail was named after him. In Britain, the Blue-Headed Wagtail was given the more common name of Sykes' Wagtail in 1907 (Mearns & Mearns, 1988).

However, the link Sykes identified in 1864 between the value for money of military expenditure and financial economy continues into the twenty-first century.


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www// - 11 December 2003.

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