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18 September 2014
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Towards Britain's Standing Army

By Professor Richard Holmes

Image of officers in the Crimea, 1855
Officers of the 48th Regiment of Foot in the Crimea, 1855 ©
Much impetus for reform was created by the Crimean War (1854-56), especially because of the hard-hitting articles written by WH Russell in The Times, who has some claim to being the first real war correspondent.

Convinced that the British soldier was the helpless victim of administrative incompetence, his articles left their readers in no doubt of the sufferings endured by those who fought in the Crimea. His report of the state of the camp at Gallipoli, before the campaign had begun, gave a foretaste of what was to come.

'The men suffered exceedingly from cold. Some of them, officers as well as privates, had no beds to lie upon. None of the soldiers had more than their single regulation blanket… The worst thing was the continued want of comforts for the sick. Many of the men labouring under diseases contracted at Malta were obliged to stay in camp in the cold, with only one blanket under them, as there was no provision for them at the temporary hospital.'

Things were even worse on the freezing uplands round the Russian fortress of Sevastopol.

'Hundreds of men had to go into the trenches at night with no covering but their greatcoats and no protection for their feet but their regimental shoes. The trenches were two or three feet deep with mud and snow, and half frozen slush. Many when they took off their shoes were unable to get their swollen feet into them again, and they might be seen bare-footed, hopping about the camp, with the thermometer at twenty degrees and snow half a foot deep upon the ground.'
Russell's Despatches from the Crimea 1854-56, Nicolas Bentley

The Crimean War did produce some much-needed reforms, but when the war ended the pressure for change diminished. This, too, is a feature of the army’s development - sustaining reform in peacetime when money is scarce and public interest reduced is rarely easy.

Published: 2005-02-28

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