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The British Army[112]

Karl Marx

We have now before us the report of some dozen sittings of the famous Committee appointed by the House of Commons to investigate the condition of the British army in the Crimea. Witnesses have been examined of every rank and station, from the Duke of Cambridge down, and their testimony is surprisingly unanimous. All departments of the administration have been passed in review, and all have been found to be not only deficient, but scandalously so. The staff, the medical department, the purveyor's department, the commissariat, the transport service, the hospital administration, the sanitary and disciplinary police, the harbor police of Balaklava, have one and all been condemned without an opposing voice.

Bad as every department was in itself, the full glories of the system were, however, developed only by the contact and cooperation of all. The regulations were so beautifully arranged that as soon as they came to be put in force, when the troops first landed in Turkey, nobody knew where his authority began nor where it ended, nor to whom to apply for anything; and thus, from a wholesome fear of responsibility, everybody shifted everything from his own shoulders to those of somebody else. Under this system, the hospitals were scenes of infamous brutality. Indolent neglect did its worst upon the sick and wounded on board the transports and after their arrival. The facts revealed are incredible; indeed, there was nothing more horrible in the retreat from Moscow[a]. And yet, they actually happened at Scutari, within sight of Constantinople, a large city, with all its resources in labor and material comforts. They happened, not on a hasty retreat, with the Cossacks at the heels of the fugitives and cutting off heir supplies, but in the course of a partially successful campaign, at a place sheltered from all hostile attack, at the great central depot where Great Britain had heaped up her stores for the army. And the authors of all these horrors and abominations are no hard-hearted barbarians. They are, every one of them, British gentlemen of good extraction, well-educated, and of mild, philanthropic and religious dispositions. In their individual capacity, they no doubt were ready and willing to do anything; in their official capacity, their duty was to look coolly and with folded arms upon all these infamies, conscious that the case was not provided for in any part of her Majesty's regulations affecting themselves. Perish a thousand armies sooner than infringe upon her Majesty's regulations! And Tantalus-like, the soldiers had to die within sight, almost within reach of the comforts which would have saved their lives.

Not a man on the spot had the energy to break through the net-work of routine, to act upon his own responsibility as the necessities of the case demanded, and in the teeth of the regulations. The only party who has dared to do this is a woman, Miss Nightingale. Having once ascertained that the things wanted were in store, she is reported to have taken a handful of stout fellows and to have actually committed a burglary upon the Queen's store-houses! The old women in authority at Constantinople and Scutari, far from being capable of such daring, were cowards to a degree we could scarcely credit, were it not openly admitted by themselves. One of them, Dr. Andrew Smith, for a time chief of the hospitals, was asked if there were in Constantinople no funds to buy, and no market to supply, many of the things wanted?

"Oh, yes," he replied, "but after forty years' routine and drudgery at home, I assure you I could hardly for some months realize the idea that I actually had funds placed at my command!"[b]

The very blackest descriptions of the state of matters which had been given in both newspapers and Parliamentary speeches, are far outdone by the reality, as it now is brought before us. Some of the most glaring features had been broached, but even these now receive a gloomier coloring. Although the picture as yet far from complete, we can see enough of it to judge of, the whole. Excepting the female nurses sent out, there is not one redeeming feature in it. One group is as bad and as stupid as the other, and if the Committee, in their report, have the courage to speak out according to evidence, they will be embarrassed to find in the English language words strong enough to express their condemnation.

In view of these disclosures it is impossible to repress a strong glow of indignation and contempt not only for the immediate actors, but above all for the Government which arranged the expedition, and which, with the facts staring it in the face, had the impudence to declare they were mere fictions. Where, now, is that great Coalition of All the Talents[113], that galaxy of statesmen with whose advent the Golden Age was to dawn upon England? Between Whigs and Peelites, Russellites and Palmerstonians, Irishmen and Englishmen, Liberal Conservatives and Conservative Liberals, they have been huckstering and bargaining among themselves, and every man they have put into place turns out to be an old woman or an unmitigated fool. These statesmen were so sure the machine they had been managing for thirty years would work admirably, that they did not even send out a person invested with extraordinary powers for unforeseen circumstances; unforeseen circumstances, of course, could never occur under a well-regulated Government! Subalterns by nature and by habit, these British ministers, suddenly placed in a position of command, have achieved the utter disgrace of England. There is old Raglan, all his life a head-office-clerk to Wellington; a man that never was permitted to act upon his own responsibility; a man bred to do just as he was bid, up to his 65th year; and this man is all of a sudden appointed to lead an army against the enemy, and to decide everything at once and for himself! And a pretty mess he has made of it. Vacillation, timidity, total absence of self-confidence, firmness and the initiative, mark every one of his steps. We know now how feebly he behaved in the council of war where the Crimean expedition was resolved upon. To be taken in tow by a blustering blackguard like St. Arnaud, whom old Wellington would have silenced forever with one dry, ironical word! Then his timid march to Balaklava, his helplessness at the siege[c] and during the sufferings of the winter, when he found nothing better to do than to hide himself. Then there is Lord Hardinge, equally subaltern in character, who commands the army at home. An old campaigner as he is, one would judge from his administration, and the way he defends it in the Lords, that he had never been out of his barracks or his office. To say he is totally ignorant of the very first requisites of an army in the field, or too lazy to recollect them, is the most favorable aspect that can be given to his case. Then come Peel's clerks—Cardwell, Gladstone, Newcastle, Herbert, and tutti quanti. They are well-bred, good-looking young gentlemen, whose elegance of manners and refinement of feeling do not permit them to handle a thing roughly, or to act with even a show of decision in the matters of this world. "Consideration" is their word. They take everything into consideration; they keep everything under consideration; they hold everybody in consideration; in consideration of which they expect to be held in consideration by everybody. Everything with them must be round and smooth. Nothing is so objectionable as t he angular forms which mark strength and energy.

Whatever reports came from the army as to its being ruined by mismanagement were impudently denied by these mild, veracious and pious gentlemen, who being a priori convinced of the perfection of their Government, had the best authority for such denials; and when the subject was persevered in, and even the official reports from the seat of war compelled them to admit part of these statements, their denials were still made with a degree of acrimony and passion. Their opposition to Roebuck's motion for an inquiry is the most scandalous instance on record of public perseverance in untruth. The London Times, Layard, Stafford, and even their own colleague, Russell, gave them the lie[d], but they persevered. The whole House of Commons, by a majority of two out of three, gave them the lie, and they still persevered. Now they stand convicted before Roebuck's Committee; but, for aught we know, they are persevering still. But their perseverance has now become a matter of small account. With the truth disclosed to the world in all its horrible reality, it is impossible that there should not be a reform in the system and administration of the British Army.

Written on March 28, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4364, April 14, 1855
Re-printed in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1032, April 17, 1855 as a leading article
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] Of Napoleon's army in 1812.—Ed.

[b] "The State of the Army before Sebastopol", The Times, No. 22007, March 21, 1855.—Ed.

[c] Of Sevastopol.—Ed.

[d] This refers to the speeches made by Layard, Stafford and Russell in the House of Commons on January 26 and 29, 1855 during the discussion of Roebuck's motion for setting up a committee to inquire into the condition of the army at Sevastopol. The Times, Nos. 21962 and 21964, January 27 and 30, 1855.—Ed.

[112] This is an altered English version of Marx's article "The Committee of Inquiry" written for the Neue Oder-Zeitung (see this volume, pp. 124-27).

[113] A reference to Aberdeen's coalition ministry of 1852-55. This "Cabinet of All the Talents" included Whigs, Peelites (see Note 6↓) and representatives of the Irish faction in the British Parliament.

[6] The Peelites were a group of moderate Tories supporting Robert Peel, who advocated economic concessions to the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie as a means of maintaining the political rule of the big landowners and financiers. In 1846, he secured the repeal of the Corn Laws (see Note 14↓). This move, favouring the industrial bourgeoisie, was bitterly resented by the Protectionist Tories and led to a split in the Tory party and the emergence of the Peelites as an independent group. The Peelites were represented in Aberdeen's coalition government (1852-55) and joined the Liberal party in the late 1850s and early 1860s.

[14] The Corn Laws, the first of which were passed as early as the fifteenth century, imposed high import duties on agricultural products in order to maintain high prices for these products on the domestic market. The Corn Laws served the interests of the big landowners. The struggle between the industrial bourgeoisie and the landed aristocracy over the Corn Laws ended in their repeal in June 1846.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.128-131), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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