The aim of this book is to look at the changes in military technology during the reign of Queen Victoria and see what impact that had on the battlefield, at least as experienced by the British army. This was a period that saw dramatic advances in military technology – at the start of Victoria’s reign the army was still using a smoothbore musket, although the flintlock had gone, but by the end of it the infantry was armed with bolt action magazine loaded Lee-Metford rifles and machine guns and supported by fast firing modern artillery.
Rather worryingly for a book based on changes in weaponry, we begin with quite a major mistake. In his description of the post-Napoleonic army the author gets the Brown Bess and the Baker Rifle mixed up, stating that the Brown Bess was officially the Baker Rifle (Brown Bess was actually the general nickname given to the smoothbore Land Pattern musket and its derivatives), giving the production dates of the rifle, but incorrectly describing it as a smoothbore weapon when it actually had eight grooves. The low accuracy figures given also appear to come from Brown Bess rather than the Baker Rifle. He also comments that the Baker Rifle was highly regarded by the elite Corps of Riflemen, but was less effective in the hands of the normal infantry – presumably this would have been because the normal infantry actually used the India Pattern smoothbore musket until it was replaced by the early percussion muskets! The same confusion comes with their replacement weapons, where there is some confusion between the Brunswick Rifle, again ordred in small numbers for the riflemen, and the Pattern 1838 and Pattern 1839 percussion muskets.
Luckily he gets the key elements of the weapons in general use during the First Anglo-Sikh Wars correct, so his account of that conflict remains useful – most of the the British troops were armed with a mix of flintlock and percussion smoothbore muskets, with a slow rate of fire, limited accuracy and short range.
After this unfortunate start the accuracy of the book greatly improves as we work through the key developments of the 19th century – the Enfield percussion rifle, the breach loading Snider and Martini-Henry and the bolt action, magazine loading Lee-Metford (the precursor to the famous Lee-Enfield and SMLE rifles of the World Wars), as well as the arrival of the machine gun and the development of the artillery barrage. For these later weapons we get good accounts of their development, which was often a complex process involving several designs coming together to produce the final working weapon, as well as the impact they had on the battlefield.
One interesting feature of this period is that it began and ended with the British army facing opponents using equal or better technology – the Sikh army in the First Anglo-Sikh War had the same sort of smooth bore muskets as the British and superior artillery, while the Boers had Mauser rifles and modern artillery. Between that we see ever-better equipped British troops facing increasingly badly equipped opponents – in the Crimea the Russians largely had older muskets to face Enfield rifles, and Omdurman saw a British army equipped with Let-Metfield rifles, machine guns and artillery facing an army often described as being the last medieval army.
This does tend to exaggerate the impact of the new British weapons. In other conflicts of the period technological advantages didn’t have such a big impact – the most famous example being the Franco-Prussian War, where the French Chassepot rifle was superior to the Prussian Dreyse needle-fire gun, but the Prussians still won.
Despite the unfortunate start, this is a useful book that helps demonstrate the massive impact that technology had on the 19th century battlefield, and the ever increasing advantage it gave the British in most colonial conflicts. It also helps to disprove the idea that the British army of this period was conservative and unwilling to adapt, even if its leadership was often uninterested in the more theoretical aspects of their profession.
1 – The Bayonet – Sobroan, 10 February 1846
2 – Percussion Rifled Muskets – The Crimean War, 1854-6
3 – Breech-loading Rifles – Amoaful, 31 January 1874
4 – The Martini-Henry Rifle – Gingindlovu, 2 April 1879
5 – A Wall of Bayonets and Fire – The Sudan Campaign, 1884-5
6 – Technological Slaughter – Omdurman, 2 September 1898
7 – Barrage – Pieter’s Hill, 27 February 1900
Conclusion – Lessons Forgotten
Author: Stephen Manning
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military