Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Changing Attitudes to Warfare

by Fred Lilley

The profession of soldiering is necessary, not so much to make war, but in order to keep the peace. If there were no good men studying the science of warfare then the evil dictators that crop up from time to time would hold sway or in the words of Elgar “brutes and braggarts would have their little way”.

In the second half of the nineteenth century there was a rich variety of villains requiring some drastic up-rooting.

There was for example Hung Hsiu-Chuan who claimed to be no less than the half-brother of Jesus Christ and formed a league of Chinese worshippers of the Christian God. Then, when he had ten-thousand gullible followers, like any other worthwhile religious scam-monger, he made excessive demands on them. He started to prohibit things. Singing and all forms of merry-making were forbidden but surprisingly converts still continued to flock to his side. He announced the inauguration of Taiping Tien-Kwo or the “Heavenly Dynasty of Perfect Peace”. All private property was to be confiscated and the land was to be equally divided amongst the Chinese peasantry. This was the kind of policy that appealed to people who owned nothing and followers of the “Heavenly Half-brother of Jesus Christ” grew into millions. Daily edicts were then announced prohibiting more and more normal daily activities, with the penalty of beheading for non-compliance. Throughout Taiping-held territory heads began to fall at a rate never seen in China before.

The task of nipping the activities of this madman in the bud fell to a humourless young British officer called Charles George Gordon (later to be known as “Chinese” Gordon and later still to die at the siege of Khartoum).

Other all-round demented scoundrels requiring British attention included the ruler of Abyssinia, Emperor Theodorus who laboured under the delusion that he was descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

At one point Emperor Theodorus boasted to Queen Victoria that he had slaughtered fifteen hundred men “to demonstrate his feelings” for her. He had the unpleasant habit of having any of his subjects who incurred his displeasure thrown over a cliff to their death. He also started to imprison many foreign hostages (including British) requiring the dispatch of a British Expeditionary Force under General Napier to secure the hostages release at vast expense (the expedition cost the British tax payer a staggering six million pounds, an unimaginable sum at that time).

Then there was Chief Cetshwayo of the Zulus who it has been fashionable to wrongly describe as a noble savage whom we misunderstood and ill-treated. Let us put this assessment right. Cetshwayo was actually a debased and tyrannical homicidal maniac who took pleasure in killing people including his own subjects.

Other nineteenth century tyrants included King Koffee of the Ashantees and the Mahdi of the Sudan. The world was a better place after these individuals had been despatched – a task that inevitably fell to the British.

But warfare in the nineteenth century was an altogether more civilized occupation than it has become. Generally speaking the civilian populations were not involved and the methods of killing one’s enemy was altogether more civilised. There was a sporting code to be followed between worthy foes.

The invention of the rapid-firing Gatling gun was the turning point. This was the forerunner of the machine gun and enabled the mass slaughter of one’s enemies with a deadly spray of bullets.

By the time the Boer War broke out things had changed drastically. War was no fun anymore.

General Sir Redvers Buller, commander of the British Field Force, bless him, was from the old school. He had known happier times and really had no place in a modern war such as the South African one.

Buller was a veteran of the war in the Sudan where he had done well. Those brave “Fuzzie-Wuzzies”, as he used to refer to the Mahdi’s troops, were not scared of being shot at. They didn’t cower away, he reminisced, like the Boers do, but charged in full view like men.

He had once said “I do believe that warfare is wicked and brutal, but I cannot help it; there is nothing in this world that stirs me up quite as much as a good fight”.

To his mind the war in South Africa was not a good fight. Things were not normal and the Boers did not understand the rules of the game. “The blasted Boers never stand up to you like gentlemen but are always running away on their little ponies”.

And another thing that annoyed him was all the bobbing up and down the Boers did. In his opinion a real soldier would do the decent thing, stand his ground in the face of the enemy fire and take his chances not lie down, stand up to fire and then lie down again. There were certain civilized standards that had to be maintained in battle and in his humble view the Boers were not playing to the rules.

One can only sympathise with General Buller; he was a refugee from a gentler world. Some of his views were so bizarre that they beggar belief in this modern world of weapons of mass destruction. He insisted, for example, that no trenches should be dug for fear of disfiguring the countryside. He also forbade soldiers from taking cover by lying on the ground for fear of getting their uniforms dirty.

His high standards called for a British officer to always be imperturbable. He should never duck or wince under fire but react with no more than the casual adjustment of his monocle. That way he would set a good example to his men.

But his most ridiculous contention of all was his insistence that in an ideal world hostile activities be confined between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. so as not to interfere with the social life of his officers.

Perhaps it was little wonder that we were doing so badly in the early stages of the Boer War.

The British had suffered setbacks at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso before Buller was finally replaced by Lord Roberts and the tide turned.

After the Battle of Magersfontein General Buller was heard to remark in disgust “beaten by a bunch of scruffy men who don’t wash very often!”.

It was during the Boer War that the British finally abandoned their highly visible bright red tunics in favour of a less obtrusive khaki uniform and warfare was never to be the same again. The twentieth century was still in its infancy when we became involved in the horrors of the First World War with its dastardly weaponry such as Mustard Gas and as the century progressed terrible new methods of killing our fellow humans by nuclear and biological means were discovered.

More about the nature of Britain’s nineteen century wars in my book Beyond the Call of Duty.


In his early twenties, the author went to work as a "mercantile assistant" in Malaya which at the time was torn by a vicious guerrilla war euphemistically called the "Emergency". Following eleven happy years as a civilian in this war zone, he accepted a commercial post based in yet another of the world's trouble-spots - Beirut. This was followed by eleven years island-hopping in the Caribbean and finally ten years in the Arabian Gulf. Now, after 40 expatriate years, he has retired to West Sussex to write, study history and rediscover his roots. His publications include Red-Haired Devil, the experiences of a civilian living in Malaya during the "Emergency", West Sussex in Character, a glimpse at some of the county's more colourful personalities and Sussex Celebrities, a gallery of icons, eccentrics and one or two rogues.


  1. "But warfare in the nineteenth century was an altogether more civilized occupation than it has become. Generally speaking the civilian populations were not involved and the methods of killing one’s enemy was altogether more civilised. There was a sporting code to be followed between worthy foes." I can't really let this one go. The aftermath of the Indian Mutiny was just one example of mass killing of civilians: check out my blog at

  2. This is an amazing blog with endless information worth a readers time. It is a real work of love as you lead folks like myself who enjoy learning new things, everyday! Thank you.

  3. Another non-fiction book on the Second Boer War based on official reports and also eye-witness accounts by the author and others, is 'The Great Boer War' by Arthur Conan Doyle, who served in that war as a field surgeon and thus had first-hand experience there.

    My personal view of General Buller is that he was another of those incompetent officers responsible for the death of thousands of British troops. He should have been removed from that theatre of war sooner rather than later.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.