Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha wearing the Golden Fleece, painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1842.
Queen Victoria’s husband was not a military man. But the Crimea turned him into a zealous army reformer.
As an armchair strategist, Prince Albert displayed an acute insight into the basic realities of the Crimean conflict. ‘Russia is not to be conquered,’ he wrote to his brother Ernest in Germany, ‘but financially she can be ruined. The one and a half million troops they keep will be a great help in this affair. If only we could take Sevastopol!’
The Prince’s battle plan was to be shown sound when Britain and her French ally deployed precisely these methods – an economic blockade and conquest of the key port city – to bring the war to a successful conclusion.
But at the outset of the war, Albert had been in great distress over what he perceived to be the country’s lack of preparedness for a conflict that was to change the face of modern warfare – with ironclads replacing sailing ships at sea, and trench warfare widely adopted on land. Albert once again confided his concerns to his brother: ‘We have much trouble with the Ministry. Aberdeen still lives in 1814, Lord John in 1830, Palmerston in 1848. Parliament and the Press have suddenly become born generals.’
An alarming report produced less than three years previous by the Ministry of Defence had come to Albert’s attention. It laid bare Britain’s lack of preparation to defend itself against an invader, much less fight a war in foreign lands. ‘We have on our side, in our present condition, no land force in the country… nor a possibility of raising one. The relative condition of our military strength would be the cause of very great and well founded alarm on the breaking out of a war, when the eyes of the public would be suddenly opened to these facts. Between the years 1818 and 1844, every military establishment was reduced to the lowest ebb.’
Not really an ‘army’ at all
Even as the battle raged at Sevastopol, Albert’s thoughts were focused on the post-war reorganisation of the army. Early in 1855, Albert drafted a memorandum to Lord Aberdeen that in later years was to have a profound effect on the shape of Britain’s land forces. While he extolled the victories the Army had won against the Russians, the Prince identified a deeply embedded flaw in the country’s military system.
‘I hazard the opinion that our Army, as at present organised, can hardly be called an army at all, but a mere aggregate of battalions of infantry, with some regiments of cavalry, and an artillery regiment.’ The inherent deficiency in the Army’s structure, as Albert put it, was that ‘we have nothing but distinct battalions’.
Granted, these were ‘admirable’ fighting units, but there was nothing beyond this old-fashioned military order. ‘We have, in consequence, no generals trained and practised in the duties of that rank… no general staff or staff corps… no field commissariat, no field army department, no ambulance corps, no baggage train…’. In short, nothing remotely resembling the large standing armies of Continental Europe, which were organised under a unified command structure – certainly nothing that could be matched against the army of neighbouring France, the perennial potential enemy poised in the wings.
Albert was absolutely correct: in the 19th century, the British ‘Army’ was composed of up to 153 loosely connected regiments whose colonels would typically identify more closely with their regimental colours than with the national flag.
Creating a united national force
The remedy lay in reorganising the British Army into brigades and divisions, and the Prince proposed a detailed plan of 34 brigades and 17 divisions for the existing 103 battalions of infantry, and a further eight brigades for the 23 regiments of cavalry. Under this scheme, each of the 17 divisions would have its proper complement of artillery permanently attached to it.
Albert also insisted on the need for weekly reports from the field commanders, to keep the Government informed not only of progress on the battlefield, but likewise the number of serviceable guns, how the troops were secured against weather, and the level of stores and horses. This plan was endorsed by the War Office, and Lord Raglan was required to furnish the information in weekly dispatches.
As early as 1847, Albert had written to the Duke of Wellington proposing a provisional training camp for the army, necessarily with a railway link for the swift movement of troops to the coastal defences. The idea met with a cool reception from the Duke, mainly on grounds of cost. But when, in 1852, there was sabre-rattling across the Channel by the Emperor Napoleon III, Lord Hardinge, Wellington’s successor, agreed to acquire a few acres of flat ground in Chobham, Surrey, to serve as a training camp.
Almost overnight, Albert had become an enthusiastic army man: one wall of his study was covered with maps of the Black Sea and the Crimea, and he scrutinised them until he knew the whole area like the back of his hand. And he was not satisfied with the temporary facility at Cobham; he was convinced of the Army’s need for a long-term headquarters.
The Prince went back to the Government to plead passionately for the purchase of a 3,000-acre tract of heathland around Aldershot, to be set aside as a permanent base – the garrison town that is still the home of the British Army today. Albert became closely involved with the development of Aldershot.
Shortly after the end of the Crimean War, he established and endowed the Prince Consort’s Library, which is still a major research and education facility. The Prince paid the £4,000 cost of the building himself, and in 1859 he wrote to the Secretary of State for War, stating his wish to present 1,000 books from his personal collection to the officers at Aldershot.
Work on the library began in September 1859, and the building was officially opened a year later. The library was founded to contribute to the education of soldiers in the British Army, and it now stands as one of the country’s foremost facilities specialising in the provision of information on current military topics, political subjects, and international relations in support of operations, intelligence, training, and education in the armed forces.
The Victoria Cross. Image: CC BY-SA 1.0/Richard Harvey, Bearbeitung
One of Albert’s most memorable legacies, however, was the creation of the Victoria Cross, which could rightly be called the ‘Albert Cross’, for it was the Prince’s proposal that a new medal be awarded ‘for valour in the face of the enemy’.
This was in keeping with Albert’s European outlook on all things military, for it did not escape his notice that Britain was the only great power lacking an award that did not discriminate on the basis of class or rank – an award like France’s Légion d’Honneur or Holland’s Order of William. The Prince stipulated in a memorandum that, if approved, the award should be open to all ranks. The first medals, designed by Albert himself, were struck on 4 March 1856.