TOWARDS THE MIDDLE OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY POLITICAL LIFE in England was still following its long-accustomed habits, which had so far been only slightly changed by the acceptance of the great Reform Bill. The Whigs were in power under Lord John Russell, whose family had served the State since the days of Henry VII. After three and a half centuries of generally smiling fortune the Russells and their friends and connections had acquired an assurance that they knew best how to govern the country in its true interests. Whatever novel agitations might spread among working men in the industrial towns, who as yet enjoyed few votes, the Whig leaders pursued their reasonable, moderate, and undemocratic courses. Lord John’s Government, with a few upsets, survived for six years. It achieved little of lasting note, but it piloted Britain through a restless period when elsewhere in Europe thrones were overturned and revolutions multiplied.

The Tories for their part were irreconcilably split. The faithful followers of Peel and Free Trade, who included in Aberdeen and Gladstone two future Prime Ministers, were content to let the Whigs bear the heat of the day. The Liberal Party, which would presently arise from the coalition of Whigs, Peelites, and Radicals, was not yet foreseen. The opponents of the Peelites, the old Tories, were led by Lord Stanley, soon to be Lord Derby, whose forbears had played a rôle in the kingdom for even longer than the Russells. Derby was increasingly assisted in the House of Commons by his lieutenant Disraeli, whose reputation for brilliance was growing rather faster than his capacity for inspiring trust. It was Disraeli’s gradual task over these years to persuade the Tories to abandon their fidelity to the Corn Law tariff and to work out a new and more broadly based Conservative policy.

While party affairs at Westminster dwelt gently in flux, Europe succumbed to an anguished spasm. In February 1848 the French monarchy fell. The rule of King Louis Philippe had given prosperity to France, or at least to her middle classes, but it had never been accepted by the adherents of the elder Bourbon line, and it appealed neither to staunch Republicans nor to the Bonapartists, who were still dazzled by the remembered glories of the Empire. A few days of rioting sufficed to eject Louis Philippe, and a Government of romantic outlook and Socialist complexion briefly took control. This in turn collapsed, and by the end of the year a Bonaparte had been elected President of France by an overwhelming majority. Thus, after half a lifetime spent in plotting, exile, and obscurity, Prince Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Emperor, came to power. He owed his position to the name he bore, to the ineptitude of his rivals, and to the fondness of the French for constitutional experiment. For more than twenty years this amiable, dreamy figure was to play a striking and not always ineffective part upon the European scene.

The peoples of Italy had also broken into revolt against both their own rulers and the Austrian occupiers of Lombardy and Venetia. High hopes were cherished that a united Italian nation might emerge from this commotion. Pope Pius IX, who was also the temporal ruler of Central Italy, was a liberal man of patriotic feeling. To him many of his fellow Italians looked up for guidance and inspiration. But his holy office forbade him to direct a purely national crusade against the Catholic Power of Austria. Popes before had fought for local issues. Pius IX was a wiser man. His duty was not to unify a nation, but to head a universal Church. Political leadership for Italy had to come from elsewhere. In the Italian provinces enthusiastic conspirators soon found that they could not hold their own against the organised forces of Austria and her allies, nor could the army of the kingdom of Sardinia, which was the only wholly independent Italian state, make much impression on Austrian might. The Italian revolt ended in failure, but not without arousing a widespread sympathy in Britain, which was benevolently exercised when the next attempt at unity was made.

North of the Alps revolutionary nationalism was also stirring in Germany, Austria, and Poland. The Austrian Chancellor, Metternich, who had dominated Central Europe for forty years, was forced to resign by a revolution in Vienna. This aged pillar of Continental absolutism found refuge in an obscure hotel in the England of the Whigs. The Emperor was obliged to abdicate, leaving the Habsburg throne to a young Archduke, Francis Joseph, destined to live through many tribulations and witness the opening years of the First World War. Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians in turn all took up arms, and their gallant risings were eventually suppressed only with the cordial help of the Czar of Russia. In Germany itself the minor monarchs were thrown into disarray, and some into exile, by rebellions and demonstrations. A Parliament met at Frankfurt, and after lengthy debate offered the crown of a united Germany to the King of Prussia. This sovereign and his military advisers preferred repressing revolutionaries to accepting favours from them, and the offer was declined. Little came of the events of 1848-49 in Germany, except a powerful impetus to the idea of German unity, and a growing conviction that it could only be achieved with the backing of Prussian arms.

The turmoil in Europe was viewed in England with sympathetic interest, but it went unmatched by any comparable disturbance. The Chartist movement, for some time languishing, took fresh courage from the Republican example in France. It was also stirred by a new economic crisis at home. There was half-hearted talk of revolution, but in the end it was decided to present a new petition to Parliament, reiterating all the old Chartist demands. A meeting was called in April 1848 on Kennington Common, a mile to the south of Westminster Bridge. From there the Chartist leaders proposed to lead an impressive march upon the Houses of Parliament. The Government took precautions. Troops were called out and special constables enrolled; but in the event no undue strain was placed upon their services. As Wellington remarked—still an imperturbable Commander-in-Chief at the age of seventy-eight—the English are “a very quiet people.” This is especially so when it is raining. More spectators than Chartists assembled on that wet spring day at Kennington. When the police forbade the proposed march the demonstrators quietly dispersed. Their petition was conveyed to the Commons in three cabs. Such was the measure of revolutionary feeling in London in 1848.


In the same year Thomas Babington Macaulay, who had been a Minister of the Crown and served the Government of India in high office, published the first volumes of his History of England. This great work, with all its prejudiced opinions and errors of fact, provided the historical background for the sense of progress which was now inspiring Victorian Britain. Macaulay set out to show that the story of England since the Whig Revolution of 1688 was one of perpetual and limitless advance. In his opening chapter he wrote: “The history of our own country in the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, moral, and intellectual improvement.” This was a heartening note, much appreciated by contemporary readers. Optimism reigned throughout the land. An even more shining future, Macaulay implied, lay before the United Kingdom. So indeed it did. His views were widely shared, and were soon given form in the Great Exhibition of British achievement which justly gratified the nation.

Prince Albert sponsored the idea. There had already been small exhibitions of manufactures, in which he had taken an interest. In 1849, after opening the new Albert Dock in Liverpool, the Prince had been so much impressed by the surging vigour of British industry, and its maritime cause and consequence, that he adopted with enthusiasm a plan for an exhibition on a far larger scale than had ever been seen before. It would display to the country and the world the progress achieved in every field. It would also be international, proclaiming the benefits of free trade between nations and looking forward to the universal peace which it was then supposed must inevitably result from the unhampered traffic in goods. Few people foresaw the war with Russia that was soon to break out.

For two years, against considerable opposition, the Prince headed a committee to further his project. In 1851 the Great Exhibition was opened in Hyde Park. Nineteen acres were devoted to the principal building, the Crystal Palace, designed by an expert glasshouse gardener, Joseph Paxton. Housing most of the exhibits, and enclosing whole trees within its glass and iron structure, it was to be the marvel of the decade. In spite of prophecies of failure, the Exhibition was a triumphant success. Over a million people a month visited it during the six months of its opening. Nearly fourteen thousand exhibits of industrial skill and craft were shown, of which half were British. The Prince was vindicated, and the large profit made by the organisers was invested and put to learned and educational purposes. Queen Victoria described the opening day as “one of the greatest and most glorious in our lives.” Her feelings were prompted by her delight that Prince Albert should have confounded his critics, ever ready to accuse him of meddling in national affairs, but there was more to it than that. The Queen paid many visits to the Crystal Palace, where her presence aroused in the scores of thousands of subjects with whom she mingled a deep loyalty and a sense of national pride. Never had the Throne been so firmly grounded in the affections of the people. Prosperity, however unevenly its blessings fell, gave Britain a self-assurance that seemed worth more than social legislation and further reform. From mills and mines and factories flowed the wealth that was making life easier for the country. And this the country recognised.

The mid-century marks the summit of Britain’s preponderance in industry. In another twenty years other nations, among whom industrial progress had started later, had begun to cut down her lead. Until 1870 Britain had mined more than half the world’s coal, and in that year her output of pig-iron was still greater than the rest of the world’s put together. Foreign trade stood at a figure of nearly 700 millions sterling, as compared with 300 for the United States, 340 for France, and 300 for Germany. But the proportions were rapidly changing. Railways greatly assisted the growth of industry in Germany and America, where coal and iron resources were separated from each other by considerable distances. A challenge was also presented to British agriculture, now that prairie-grown American wheat could be carried to American ports by railroad and shipped across the ocean to European markets. Nevertheless there was no slowing down of industry in Britain. Textiles, the backbone of British exports, filled an insatiable demand in Asia, and the future of the mighty steel and engineering industries seemed assured for a long time to come. In England the rapidly expanding Midlands and North were blackened by the smoke and dust of the pits and forges.

Critics were not wanting of the age of mass production that was now taking shape. Charles Dickens in his novels revealed the plight of the poor, holding up to pity the conditions in which many of them dwelt and ridiculing the State institutions that crudely encompassed them. John Ruskin was another. In the midst of his long life he turned from the study of painting and architecture to modern social problems. His heart lay in the Middle Ages, which he imagined to be peopled by a fraternity of craftsmen harmoniously creating works of art. Peering out upon the Victorian scene, this prophetic figure looked in vain for similar accomplishment. Bad taste in manufacture, bad relations between employers and men, aroused his eloquent wrath. His was a voice that cried the way both to new movements in the arts and to socialism in politics.


Foreign affairs and the threat of war now began to darken the scene. Turkey had troubled the statesmen of Europe for many years. Preoccupation with the conflicts and intrigues of Court and harem had so distracted the Sultans at Constantinople and their chief advisers from the duties of government, and event of defence, that the military empire, which for three centuries had dominated the Eastern world from the Persian Gulf to Budapest, and from the Caspian to Algiers, seemed now on the edge of disruption and collapse. What then would become of its vast territories? To whom would fall the wide, fertile Turkish provinces in Europe and Asia? The urgency and imminence of such questions were sharpened by the evident determination of Russia to seize the Danubian lands, Constantinople, and the Black Sea. England could not ignore the threat: the shadow of Russia, already a formidable Asiatic Power, appeared to be creeping over India. The anxiety and apprehension of the governing circles of England marched with a widespread and hearty dislike of the whole political system of which Nicholas I—the “icy Muscovite” and “o’ergrown Barbarian of the East,” in Tennyson’s phrases—was the principal prop and pillar in Europe. The contemporaries of Palmerston looked upon the police state of the Czar as “the corner-stone of despotism in the world,” the oppressor of the Poles, the ally of reactionary Austria, a fatal obstacle to the liberation of nations and the realisation of the great hopes which had sprung from the Liberal revolutions of 1848.

The need to resist Russia was plain to most British observers, though Radicals like Cobden strongly opposed this view. British diplomacy was confused about the best way of achieving its aims. For it was also necessary to keep an eye on the French, who had ambitions for extending their influence in the Levant. Canning had planned to head Russia off from South-East Europe, not by direct opposition, but by founding on the ruins of the Turkish Empire a bloc of small independent states who would stand firm and if necessary fight for the sake of their own survival. With such a programme of emancipation he had hoped to associate not only France, but Russia herself. The creation of the kingdom of Greece was the first and only result of his efforts. But twenty years had gone by and the ruling politicians of England had forgotten the example of Byron, who had died for Greek freedom. They reversed the policy of Canning, and now attempted to check Russian expansion by the opposite method of propping up the decaying system of Turkish rule in South-East Europe. In the execution of this plan the Government was much assisted by Stratford Canning, later Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, the British Ambassador at Constantinople in the 1840’s. He was a cousin of George Canning, with a wider knowledge of Turkey, which he had first visited in 1808, than any other Englishman of his day. Proud, difficult, quick-tempered, he enjoyed immense authority with the Turks. He had no illusions about the character of the Ottoman Empire, which he described as “hastening to its dissolution,” but he hoped to induce the Sultan to make such reforms as would “retard the evil hour” when it would finally collapse; and so postpone a general war for possession of its territories. For years Stratford struggled with the laziness, corruption, and inefficiency of the Turkish administration. Whether he was wise to do so is another matter, since any tightening up of central authority would have increased tension between Constantinople and the provinces. It was the very laxity of the régime that made it bearable by the subject peoples. Stratford however was unconvinced of this, and when he left Constantinople in 1852 he had little hope that the “evil hour” could be delayed much longer.

The immediate source and origin of the conflict which now came to a head between Turkey and Russia lay in Jerusalem, where the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches disputed the custody of certain shrines. The quarrel would have been unimportant had not the Czar supported the Greek pretensions, and Louis Napoleon, now the Emperor Napoleon III, been anxious to please French Catholics by championing the Latins. After long negotiation the Czar sent his envoy Menschikoff to Constantinople to revive his claims for a general protectorate over the Christians in the Turkish Empire. This, if granted, would have given Russia authority over the many millions of Rumanians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks, and Armenians within the Ottoman domains. The balance of power, for which British Governments always sought in the Near East, as elsewhere, would have been destroyed.

Menschikoff was tactless and his demands angered the Turks. The electric telegraph, recently invented, only reached to Belgrade. Upon Stratford, once more British Ambassador, much depended. He was the man on the spot, with considerable freedom from Cabinet control and with strong views on the Russian danger and the need to support Turkey. At home Lord Derby, after a brief spell in office, had been succeeded by Lord Aberdeen, who presided over a coalition Government of Whigs and Peelites, far from united in their opinions. The Prime Minister himself and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Clarendon, were hesitant and favoured appeasement. But Stratford could count on Palmerston, the most popular man in the Cabinet, and on the general hostility in England towards the Russians. Stratford’s dispatches do not support the charge that he exceeded his instructions: he recommended the Turks to continue negotiations and not to take too stiff an attitude. But the Turks knew their man, they knew they had his sympathy, and they knew that in the last resort the British Fleet would protect Constantinople and stop Russia seizing the Straits. They accordingly rejected the Russian demands, and on June 2, 1853, the Russian attitude had become so menacing that the Cabinet ordered the British Fleet to Besika Bay, outside the Dardanelles. Napoleon III, eager for British approval and support, agreed to provide a French squadron.

The Fleet reached Besika Bay on June 13. In early July Russian troops crossed the river Pruth and entered Turkish Moldavia. The British Cabinet was still divided, and neither warned the Russians nor promised help to the Turks. The Turks ended the matter by rejecting an offer of mediation by a council of ambassadors. Stratford disapproved of this proposal, known as the Vienna Note, but there is no evidence that he failed to carry out his instructions to advise the Turks to yield. This they could not do since feeling ran so high at Constantinople that the Sultan had little choice but to refuse.

War was not yet certain. The Czar, alarmed at Turkey’s resistance, sought a compromise with the help of Austria, but by September Aberdeen and his Cabinet had become so suspicious that they rejected the offer. On October 4 the Sultan declared war on Russia, and soon afterwards attacked the Russians beyond the Danube. Such efforts as Aberdeen and Stratford could still make for peace were extinguished by a Russian onslaught against the Turkish Fleet off Sinope, in the Black Sea. Indignation flared in England, where the action was denounced as a massacre. Palmerston sent in his resignation in December on a domestic issue, but his action was interpreted as a protest against the Government’s Eastern policy and Aberdeen was accused of cowardice. Thus England drifted into war. In February 1854 Nicholas recalled his ambassadors from London and Paris, and at the end of March the Crimean War began, with France and Britain as the allies of Turkey. To the last Aberdeen vacillated. “I still say that war is not inevitable,” he futilely wrote to Clarendon in February, “unless, indeed, we are determined to have it; which, for all I know, may be the case.”

The operations were ill-planned and ill-conducted on both sides. With the exception of two minor naval expeditions to the Baltic and the White Sea, fighting was confined to Southern Russia, where the great naval fort of Sebastopol, in the Black Sea, was selected as the main Allied objective. The necessity for this enterprise was questionable: the Turks had already driven the Russians out of the Danube valley, there was little danger of an attack upon Constantinople, and it was folly to suppose that the capture of Sebastopol would make much impression on the vast resources of Russia. However, the British expeditionary force was encamped in Turkish territory and some use had to be made of it. Orders from London dispatched it to the Crimea against the wishes of its commander, Lord Raglan. The Allied fleet sailed close by Sebastopol harbour and ceremonial salutes were exchanged between the belligerents. A landing was made at the small town of Eupatoria, to the north-west. The Russian Governor declared that the armies might land, but according to regulations ought immediately to be placed in quarantine. Nobody took any notice of this precaution.

Sebastopol might have been entered by an immediate attack from the north, yet after an initial victory on the Alma in September 1854 the French commander, St Arnaud, who was a sick man and a political appointment, insisted on marching round to the south and beginning a formal siege. With this step Raglan reluctantly concurred; it was against his better judgment. The Russians were thus permitted to bring up reinforcements, and strengthen the fortifications under the direction of the famous engineer Todleben. Unable to complete their investment of the town, the Allies had to beat off fresh Russian field armies which arrived from the interior. The British Army, holding the exposed eastern wing of the lines, had twice to bear the brunt. At Balaclava in October the British cavalry distinguished themselves by two astonishing charges against overwhelming odds. The second of these was the celebrated charge of the Light Brigade, in which 673 horsemen, led by Lord Cardigan, rode up the valley under heavy fire, imperturbably, as if taking part in a review, to attack the Russian batteries. They captured the guns, but only a third of the brigade answered the first muster after the charge. Lord Cardigan calmly returned to the yacht on which he lived, had a bath, dined, drank a bottle of champagne, and went to bed. His brigade had performed an inspiring feat of gallantry. But it was due, like much else in this war, to the blunders of commanders. Lord Raglan’s orders had been badly expressed and were misunderstood by his subordinates. The Light Brigade had charged the wrong guns.


The Battle of Inkerman followed, fought in the mists of a November dawn. It was a desperate infantry action, in which the British soldier proved his courage and endurance. Russian casualties were nearly five times as many as those of the Allies. But Inkerman was not decisive. The Russians outnumbered the Allies by two to one, and it became plain that there was no hope of taking Sebastopol before the spring of 1855. Amid storms and blizzards the British Army lay, without tents, huts, food, warm clothes, or the most elementary medical care. Cholera, dysentery, and malarial fever took their dreadful toll. Raglan’s men had neither transport nor ambulances, and thousands were lost through cold and starvation because it did not occur to the Government of the greatest engineering country in the world to ease the movement of supplies from the port of Balaclava to the camp by laying down five miles of light railway. Nearly half a century of peace had dimmed the glory of the army which defeated Napoleon. Its great chief, Wellington, had died amid national mourning in 1852. During his long reign as Commander-in-Chief at the War Office nothing had changed since Waterloo. Nor could his successors in office see any need for reforming the Army which the Duke had led. The conditions of service were intolerable; the administration was bad, the equipment scanty, the commanders of no outstanding ability. The French and British between them had only 56,000 troops in the Crimea in the terrible winter of 1854-55. Nearly 14,000 of them went to hospital, and many died for want of medical supplies. Most of these casualties were British. The French were much better provided for, while the Russians, who accepted official mismanagement as a matter of course, perished in uncounted numbers of the long route marches through the snow southwards to the Crimea. Fighting the war for the sake of Sebastopol imposed a heavy burden upon the Government of the Czar. He might have been wiser to have withdrawn his troops into the interior of Russia, as his brother had done in the days of Napoleon’s invasion. But neither side in the Crimean War was inspired by large strategic views.


Even the War Office was a little shaken by the incompetence and suffering. The Times, under its great editor J. T. Delane, sent out the first of all war correspondents, William Russell, and used his reports to start a national agitation against the Government. Aberdeen was assailed from every quarter, and when Parliament reassembled in January a motion was introduced by a Private Member to appoint a commission of inquiry into the state of the army before Sebastopol. It was carried by a majority so large that when the figures were announced they were greeted, not with the usual cheers, but with surprised silence, followed by derisive laughter. The Government had been condemned, as a contemporary wrote, “to the most ignominious end of any Cabinet in modern days.” Aberdeen resigned, and was succeeded by Palmerston, who accepted the commission of inquiry. Palmerston did not at first command wide confidence, and it was at this moment that Disraeli wrote privately of him, “he is an impostor, utterly exhausted, and at the best only ginger-beer and not champagne, and now an old painted pantaloon.” Disraeli was wrong. Palmerston soon proved himself the man of the hour. The worst mistakes and muddles were cleared up, and at the War Office Sidney Herbert struggled manfully to reform the military administration.

By the summer of 1855 the Allied armies had been reinforced and were in good heart. An assault on Sebastopol was mounted in June, but it failed. This was too much for Raglan. Worn out by the responsibilities of the campaign, he resigned, and ten days later he died. Raglan had been ill-served by his Government and by his quarrelsome subordinates, and he too readily let his good judgment be overridden. This disciple of Wellington, who had lost an arm at Waterloo, deserves a higher niche in military history than is sometimes accorded him. He was brave, loyal, and had the misfortune frequently to be right when others took the wrong decision.

The victory that should have been his due was won by his successor, Sir James Simpson, in conjunction with the French Marshal Pélissier. In September Sebastopol at last fell. The futility of the plan of campaign was now revealed. It was impossible to invade Russia from the Crimea. What should the next move be? France by now had four times as many troops in the field as England, and Napoleon III was threatening to withdraw them. A peace party in Paris was making its views felt. The French Emperor was inclined to negotiate, meanwhile reducing operations against Russia to a mere blockade. If the war were to continue, he felt, other Powers would have to be drawn in, and an appeal made to the national sentiments of Poles, Swedes, and other hereditary enemies of the Czar. This was too grandiose even for Palmerston. He privately denounced the French peace party as “a cabal of stock-jobbing politicians,” but he realised the war must stop. Threatened by an Austrian ultimatum, Russia agreed to terms, and in February 1856 a peace conference opened in Paris.

The Treaty of Paris, signed at the end of March, removed the immediate causes of the conflict, but provided no permanent settlement of the Eastern Question. Russia surrendered her grip on the mouths of the Danube by abandoning Southern Bessarabia; her claims to a protectorate over the Turkish Christians were set aside; the Dardanelles were closed to foreign ships of war during peace, as they had been before the war; and Turkey’s independence was guaranteed by the Powers, in return for a promise of reforms not worth the paper on which it was written. Russia accepted the demilitarisation of the Black Sea, but repudiated her undertaking when Europe was absorbed by the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. For the time being her expansion was checked, but she remained unappeased. Within twenty years Europe was nearly at war again over Russian ambitions in the Near East. The fundamental situation was unaltered: so long as Turkey was weak so long would her empire remain a temptation to Russian Imperialists and an embarrassment to Western Europe.

With one exception few of the leading figures emerged from the Crimean War with enhanced reputations. Miss Florence Nightingale had been sent out in an official capacity by the War Minister, Sidney Herbert. She arrived at Scutari on the day before the Battle of Inkerman, and there organised the first base hospital of modern times. With few nurses and scanty equipment she reduced the death-rate at Scutari from 42 per hundred to 22 per thousand men. Her influence and example were far-reaching. The Red Cross movement, which started with the Geneva Convention of 1864, was the outcome of her work, as were great administrative reforms in civilian hospitals. In an age of proud and domineering men she gave the women of the nineteenth century a new status, which revolutionised the social life of the country, and even made them want to vote. Miss Nightingale herself felt that “there are evils which press much more hardly on women than the want of the suffrage.” Lack of education was one, and she favoured better girls’ schools and the founding of women’s colleges. To these objects she devoted her attention, and by her efforts half the Queen’s subjects were encouraged to enter the realms of higher thought.

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