Arguably, the greatest effect of the Crimean war came not from the advancement of new military technology, nor from medical or nutritional reforms but directly from the incredible inefficiency of its military organization. The failures of the army started to become apparent during the Crimean war, when WH Russell of The Times reported extensively and critically on the poor logistics and command system, led by many aristocratic officers who were completely inept.
Edward Cardwell was Secretary of State for War between 1870 and 1874 and his name has become synonymous with the military reforms that he initiated. Indeed, seeing them through all but killed him. To put it mildly, the Crimean War (1854-6) had highlighted the shortcomings of the Commissariat and supply departments and had demonstrated that reforms were essential.
The underlying driving force of reform was the Liberal government. Gladstone’s policy was to attack privilege where it merely masked inefficiency and Cardwell became the instrument of this principle. A second driving force was even more potent: It had become abundantly clear that Bismarck had created a new, very professional and effective military power in Europe. It could be seen in the easy victory of the Prussian army Austria in the Seven Weeks’ War (1866) and over the French in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Something had to change – and quickly.
Cardwell undertook the task of modernising the army through a series of measures. In 1870, as an initial –and vital- step, the War Office Act reorganised the War Office itself. The various sections of the War Department were all combined in the same building; the Horse Guards were included under the jurisdiction of the War Office; the Commander-in-Chief was made subordinate to the Secretary for War. The Army Enlistment Act fixed the term of enlistment to 12 years, part on active service, part on reserve. Prior to this, enlistment was for ‘life’. The length of service overseas was limited to six years followed by six years in the reserve. The Martini-Henry breech-loading rifle was introduced as the main weapon of the infantry.
In 1871, the purchase of Commissions was abolished; the selection and promotion of officers was to be by merit rather than money and influence; and flogging in peacetime in the Royal Navy was suspended. The Purchase System of commissions had existed since the time of the Restoration, being based on usages going back to king William I. There had periodically been efforts to change the system to promotion based on merit (notably during the time of King George III) but conservatives, and those with a vested interest successfully opposed reform. These ‘Cardwell Reforms’ instituted a radical change to granting military rank and promotion: men now had to earn their rank.
When the Regulation of the Forces Act came into effect on 1 November 1871 there were 6,938 army officers with vested rights, and all these men had to be compensated.
In 1872, the regimental structure was reorganised on the basis of two ‘linked’ battalions, one serving overseas and one serving at home. Britain was divided into 69 districts, each with its own county regiment and were called by that name (for example, the York & Lancs, the Warwickshires) regiments were given a local attachment for recruitment purposes. This had a pervasive effect: changing their designations from the numerical to the territorial created a long-lasting local pride in regiments which now carried names like ‘The Manchester Regiment’. Such tradition made consolidation of the regiments in the late 1900s even more difficult. For example, the 23d Foot, a line infantry regiment which originated in Wales, became known by the official title of “The Royal Welch Fusiliers.”
Further reforms took longer. Some years l;ater, in 1879 flogging in war time was suspended in the Royal Navy, and in 1881, finally, flogging in the army was abolished and the regular and milita battalions of the army were amalgamated into territorial regiments with local names and local depots.
Here’s Victoria’s warrant for the abolition of the Purchase of Commissions::
The Royal Warrant
dated 20 July 1871
Whereas by the Act passed in the session holden in the fifth and sixth years of the reign of King Edward VI, chapter 16, intitled ‘Against buying and selling of offices’, and an Act passed in the forty-ninth year of the reign of King George III, chapter 126, intitled ‘An Act for the prevention of the sale and brokerage of offices’, all officers in our forces are prohibited from selling or bargaining for sale of any commission in our forces, and from taking or receiving any money for the exchange of any such commission, under the penalty of forfeiture of their commissions and of being cashiered, and of diverse other penalties, but that last mentioned Act exempts from the penalties of the said Act purchases or sales or exchanges of any commission s in our forces for such prices as may be regulated and fixed by any regulation made or to be made by us in that behalf.
And whereas we think it expedient to put an end to all such regulations, and to all sales and purchases and exchanges for money of commissions in our forces, and all dealings relating to such sales, purchases or exchanges.
Now, our will and pleasure is that on and after the first day of November in this present year, all regulations made by us or any of our royal predecessors, or any officers acting under our authority, regulating or fixing the prices at which any commission in our forces may be purchased, sold, or exchanged, or in any way authorizing the purchase or sale or exchange for money of any such commissions, shall be cancelled and determined.
Given at our court at Osborne, this twentieth day of July in the thirty-fifth year of our reign.
By Her Majesty’s command,