This book re-examines the campaign experience of British soldiers in Africa during the period 1874–1902—the zenith of the Victorian imperial expansion—and does so from the perspective of the regimental soldier. The book utilises a number of letters and diaries, written by regimental officers and other ranks, to allow soldiers to speak for themselves about their experience of colonial warfare. The sources demonstrate the adaptability of the British army in fighting in different climates, over demanding terrain and against a diverse array of enemies. They also uncover soldiers' responses to army reforms of the era as well as the response to the introduction of new technologies of war.
This chapter emphasizes on an unprecedented challenge posed by the South African War on the Victorian army. The war eventually involved the services of 448,435 British and colonial troops in a series of major battlefield engagements, sieges, relief operations and protracted counter-guerrilla campaigns. Soldiers were chosen from the different parts of the United Kingdom as they served in distinguished local regiments and other arms, and came from localities with strong military connections, ensuring coverage of their exploits in the provincial press. The Boers launched their invasions of Natal and Cape Colony and began the investment of the strategic border towns of Mafeking and Kimberley when the war began on 11 October 1899. The 2/Gordons, 1/Gloucesters and 1/Devonshires were among the reinforcements sent from India and already deployed in Natal. The Scots and west country units would serve in the 47,000-man army corps sent from Britain under the command of Sir Redvers Buller. British soldiers had to adapt to the rigors of campaigning in South African conditions even before they faced the new realities of warfare.
British governments retained only a small army of occupation in Egypt and withdrew forces from the southern frontier, the defense of which was left increasingly to the Egyptian Army, after the failure of the Gordon relief expedition. The latter was reformed and trained by a cadre of British officers and noncommissioned officers (NCO) and was periodically supported by British units, notably a squadron of the 20th Hussars at the battle of Toski and in engagements with Osman Digna's forces near Suakin. As most of the Gordon relief expedition began to depart, Private Francis Ferguson reconciled himself to a long tour of duty in Egypt. After returning to Wadi Halfa, where Ferguson remained until May 1886, he feared the risks of illness above anything else whenever the prospect of frontier service recurred. Ferguson liked the barracks at Abbassiyeh, some 3 miles from Cairo, describing the rooms as large or lofty, each capable of holding over fifty bed cots, also describing them as cool considering the climate.
This chapter focuses on the accomplishments of Gordon, once appointed governor-general of the Sudan. Gordon felt compelled to remain in Khartoum and the Government did not have courage order him to withdraw. The Government endorsed the plans of Wolseley and his Red River veterans for an expedition up the Nile as a purportedly less expensive, less risky and less difficult option than constructing a railway from Suakin to Berber, with another 200 miles upstream to Khartoum. The ensuing expedition involved the despatch of 9,000 men and 40,000 tons of stores and munitions up the Nile. Wolseley arrived in Cairo on 9 September 1884, with plans to send his soldiers by train and steamer to Wadi Halfa, then south of the second cataract by specially designed whale-boats. Wolseley's forces remained in the Sudan until mid-summer despite failing to relieve Gordon, who was killed in the storming of Khartoum (26 January 1885), and Graham commanded another 13,000 soldiers in operations near Suakin.
Gladstone's Government established a temporary military occupation of Egypt to ensure the victory at Tel-el-Kebir. Egypt employed a retired British officer, Lieutenant-General William Hicks, to lead an army of 11,000 men against the Mahdists, an offensive that ended in spectacular failure on the plain of Shaykan, near El Obeid, where his army was annihilated with only a few hundred survivors. Gladstone's cabinet wanted to evacuate the Egyptian garrisons from the Sudan as the rebels threatened further towns, including Khartoum. Gladstone reluctantly agreed to send a British relief force to Tokar. The ensuing campaign was extremely brief, but represented the first encounter of British forces with the Mahdists and their first experience of campaigning in the eastern Sudan. Some 4,000 men, drawn from the garrisons in Egypt, Aden and India, served under Sir Gerald Graham, VC. They comprised two brigades of infantry, including a body of Royal Marine Light Infantry, a cavalry brigade under Colonel Herbert Stewart, and a naval detachment operating three Gatling and three Gardner machine-guns.
This chapter focuses on the Bechuanaland campaign, demonstrating the degree of British adaptation since the Anglo-Boer War of 1881. The expedition was occasioned by Boer freebooters exploiting the rivalry among Bantu clans along the border from Vryburg to Mafeking and proclaiming the two semi-independent republics of Goshen and Stellaland in Bantu territory. The Gladstone Government regarded these incursions as breaches of the London Convention (1884), and resolved to protect the Bantu chiefs and retain control of the trade route from Cape Colony to Central Africa. Warren was required to evict the Goshenites from Bechuanaland and re-establish order. The first units of regulars and volunteers reached Cape Town on 19 December 1884 and left by train the same day for the Orange River, disembarking near Hope Town. Warren had sufficient mule-carts, wagons and drivers to march towards the Vaal River, where a forward base was established at Barkly West by 13 January 1885.
This chapter provides the information on several interventions in Egypt that contrasted with recent campaigns in Africa and Afghanistan. The interventions in Egypt involved the largest expeditionary force despatched by Britain since the Crimean War and achieved a decisive outcome in less than two months. The campaign avoided any reverses such that Isandlwana, Maiwand or Majuba, and reflected impressive co-operation between the armed services. The intervention was a response to the growth of the nationalist movement in Egypt under the military leadership of Arabi Pasha, the Egyptian minister of war, and its burgeoning hostility towards European control over Khedive Tewfik's Government and its finances. This hostility reached a crescendo when riots erupted in Alexandria (11 June 1882), involving the so-called massacre of Christians and the flight of many Europeans. The reluctance of the Porte or France to support intervention ensured that it would be an exclusively British affair. The entire First Class Army Reserve was called out and forces were despatched from England, the Mediterranean garrisons and India.
This chapter provides the information on the Ninth Cape Frontier War (1877–78) and campaign against Sekhukhune and focuses on Anglo-Zulu War. The campaigns of 1877–78 were a series of largely desultory engagements, often involving small bodies of imperial troops and/or mounted police and their auxiliaries. The abortive campaign against Sekhukhune, undertaken over peculiarly difficult terrain by an under-strength force, had less impact upon British military thinking than did the bush fighting in the Transkei. For the Anglo-Zulu War, Lieutenant-General Baron Chelmsford duly assembled his army of 17,929 officers and men, including over 1,000 mounted colonial volunteers and some 9,000 natives, and also managed the variety of different forms of transport. Chelmsford launched an attack on Chief Sihayo's mountainous kraal above the Batshe River within a day of crossing into Zululand. Chelmsford also employed the reinforcements to relieve Eshowe and entered Zululand moving slowly across the terrain and forming wagon laagers with external entrenchments.
This chapter focuses on the understanding of the late Victorian army that has benefited from a diverse and burgeoning array of scholarship. There are major works on civil–military relations, the army and society, army reform, and imperial defense, buttressed by biographies of senior commanders, studies of war correspondents and the role of the army in imperial propaganda. The late Frank Emery revealed that Victorian soldiers had written numerous letters from earlier campaigns. Letter-writing was not an exclusive preserve of regimental officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) and private soldiers wrote many shrewd and observant commentaries. Emery spread his work over much of the Victorian period, including odd letters from the Crimea, India and Afghanistan, and so covered several campaigns in a perfunctory manner. More recent writing indicates that there is an abundance of material to sustain more focused research and writing on particular campaigns. From the Egyptian campaign onwards, the military authorities moved beyond exhortation and censored telegrams from the front.