Jun 1, 1981

The Strategy and Logistics of Empire

“The defects of the Victorian military system are clear enough from the history of both [the Egyptian and Zulu Wars.]

Howard Bailes
Colchester Institute

“Technology and Imperialism: A Case Study of the Victorian Army in Africa.” Victorian Studies 24 (Autumn 1980): 83–104.

Writing in 1902, shortly after the early disasters of the South African War, Leopold Amery opened The Times History of the War in South Africa with an oft quoted indictment of the Victorian army. It was less a fighting force, he wrote, than an institution for elaborate pageantry and display. For two generations, Amery’s criticisms and those of other contemporary proponents of reform have tended to color the lens through which historians view the Victorian army. In his paper, Prof. Bailes proposes a somewhat different view. Examining the conduct of two contrasting small wars (the Zulu War of 1879 and the Egyptian expedition of 1882), he argues that, despite the constraint under which the soldiers acted and the formidable logistical problems they faced, the Victorian army could be a highly effective and economical instrument of imperialism.

Among contemporary reformers, the Zulu War was generally regarded as a typical performance of the old school, characterized by ad hoc preparations and inital defeats which were then followed by hasty makeshifts at unwarranted expense. The part played by new-school strategist Sir Garnet Wolseley, who superseded Lord Chelmsford as high commissioner in eastern South Africa in May 1879, was limited to mopping-up operations, the capture of the Zulu king Cetewayo, and the suppression of the Basuto chief Sekukuni. The Egyptian expedition, on the other hand, was viewed as a campaign par excellence of the Wolseley school. To the general public, Wolseley’s achievement seemed to be flawless—a repetition on a greater scale of his swift, economical performance on the Red River in 1870 and in Ashanti three years later.

Nonetheless, in comparing the failures and successes in supply, transport, and strategy of both campaigns, Prof. Bailes concludes that the Egyptian and Zulu wars were two of a kind, both sharing the chief features of Victorian warfare. Both were campaigns against distance and natural obstacles more than against man. In both we see organizations created for the moment and the deficiencies of the home contingents rectified by a variety of external assistance (native recruits, etc.). These operations also illustrate the gradual improvement in the imperial system of supply for expeditionary forces. They directly contributed, for example, to the formation of the Army Service Corps, a wholly military body established to conduct all executive duties of supply and transport.

The defects of the Victorian military system are clear enough from the history of both wars. One major weakness was that military reserves could be called out only by Parliament in the event of a national emergency. Thus, minor expeditions had to be provided for by various expedients: by volunteers called upon from regular and reserve units, by reducing standing garrisons, or by drawing upon the Indian army—in other words, by robbing Peter to pay Paul. Reformers continually pleaded for legislation to allow partial muster of the reserves whenever a home contingent was sent abroad. Until 1898, the reluctance of politicians to contemplate such a measure proved insurmountable. In that year, a new act allowed 5,000 reservists voluntarily to render themselves liable, in return for a small remuneration, to twelve months service in any expeditionary force.

Despite this belated and insufficient recognition of the needs of colonial campaigning, the Victorian army still faced formidable logistical and economic problems, which required continual improvisions in war. Nonetheless, Prof. Bailes concludes, Victorian soldiers could be quite capable of exploiting with intelligence and foresight their local resources and of discharging swiftly and effectively the aims of policy. After all, one final resemblance between the Zulu and Egyptian operations was that they were both victories for the British army and for the empire.