Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 October 2019
The remarkable effectiveness of the British army from Crimea to the Boer War reflected an institutional culture almost perfectly adapted to Victorian soldiers’ social origins, the tasks they were called upon to perform, and the colonial arenas in which they were asked to perform them, but also a culture increasingly out of step with its own society and evolving military technologies, methods, and challenges. Instead, fortified by the army’s success at its colonial tasks, and despite efforts by politicians and even some of the army’s own brightest intellectual lights, it survived – one might almost say defied – one institutional reform after another, until in South Africa in 1899, a string of calamitous defeats at the hands of what amounted to well-armed farmers upended both the army’s confidence and that of the British people in its professional competence. The institutional soul-searching that followed finally began transforming the British Army from what had become in many ways a military anachronism into a modern fighting force. That transformation came just in time to enable it to survive the bloody opening engagements of World War I and in the process help avert the rapid and decisive defeat of the Allied armies in France.