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The Cardwell Reforms refer to a series of reforms of the British Army undertaken by Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell between 1868 and 1874 with the support of Liberal Prime Minister William E. Gladstone. Gladstone paid little attention to military affairs but he was keen on efficiency. In 1870 he pushed through Parliament major changes in Army organization. Germany's stunning triumph over France proved that the Prussian system of professional soldiers with up-to-date weapons was far superior to the traditional system of gentlemen-soldiers that Britain used.[1] The reforms were not radical – they had been brewing for years and Gladstone seized the moment to enact them. The goal was to centralize the power of the War Office, abolish purchase of officers' commissions, and to create reserve forces stationed in Britain by establishing short terms of service for enlisted men.[2]


The starting point was a Royal Commission in 1858, established in the aftermath of the Crimean War, under Jonathan Peel, then Secretary of State for War. In addition to the obvious instances of incompetence and maladministration which had been revealed, it was evident that the provision of an army of only 25,000 in the Crimea had stripped Britain of almost every trained soldier. The lesson was reinforced by the Indian Mutiny, which once again required almost the entire usable British Army to suppress.

The Commission reported in 1862, but few of its lessons were immediately implemented. The main obstacle had been objections by the defunct British East India Company and its executors, who wished to maintain their own military establishment, and by the "die-hards", senior officers who opposed almost any reform on principle. The arch-conservatives among the Army's officers were led by the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, who was Queen Victoria's cousin, and:

"... almost the last of the typically Hanoverian characters thrown up by the English ruling dynasty, and derived his ideas on drill and discipline from Butcher Cumberland and the Prussian school of Frederick the Great." [3]

On August 2, 1870 Parliament voted for 20,000 additional men for the army and two million pounds on a vote of credit. This was followed by one of the most successful military pamphlets to appear in all Victorian England,[4] The Battle of Dorking, written by Colonel (later General) Sir George Chesney, head of the Indian Civil Engineering College. This work raised the idea that, despite the acts of Parliament during the previous year in regard to the military, Britain faced the possibility of a German invasion.

Edward Cardwell, protégé of William Ewart Gladstone and Secretary of State for War since 1868, was determined not merely to update the British military but to reform it as well. Both were to be an uphill battle, but the need was great. Even the hard lessons of the Crimea had, by this time, been dismissed, ignored, or forgotten, leaving critical needs unmet. As British historican R.C.K. Ensor wrote about that era:

"If...[no] criticism had made headway, it was that England had no notion of the art of war. British officers were expected to be gentlemen and sportsmen; but outside the barrack-yard they were...'entirely wanting in military knowledge'. The lack of it was deemed no drawback, since Marlborough's and Wellington's officers got along without it. Only the rise of the Prussian military...availed to shake this complacency." [5]

First reforms

Cardwell set about with three initial reforms:

  • In 1868, he abolished flogging and other harsh disciplinary measures in the Army during peace time. This action was opposed by nearly every senior officer, who used the opinions of The Duke of Wellington to validate their objections. Yet it was imperative to attract good quality recruits by ensuring the private soldier's life was better than a kind of penal servitude. Flogging was retained as a punishment on active service, on the pretext that extraordinary powers of punishment might be required in the field, until finally abolished in 1880.
  • In 1869, troops were withdrawn from self-governing colonies, which were encouraged to raise their own local forces. This scattering of troops over far-flung colonies was likewise a Wellingtonian policy. Its initial motives had been to avoid the traditional British suspicion of a standing army (led by the Whigs). The policy was a failure on economic practicality, and also prevented training at any level above that of battalion. By 1871, 26,000 British troops had been withdrawn from overseas territories and returned to Great Britain.
  • 1870 saw the abolition of bounty money for recruits, and the setting out of guidelines for the swift discharge of known bad characters from both army and navy.

Army Enlistment Act

As his first major legislative step towards military reform, Cardwell introduced the Army Enlistment (Short Service) Act 1870,[6] which reached the floor of the House of Commons in late spring, 1870.

From the end of the Napoleonic Wars until 1847, men were enlisted for twenty-one years, practically for life (the 7 year short service option available during the wars ended when the wars did). Together with the continued existence of flogging, it had given the army its character of a near prison. A shortfall in Army numbers had resulted in the Time of Service in the Army Act 1847, under which enlistment was for ten years, later increased to twelve; but this was still too long. On completion of their enlistment, soldiers had the choice between accepting discharge without pension or signing on for a further ten- or twelve-year term. If they chose the latter they would be rewarded with two months furlough, another enlistment bounty, and a pension on completion of their term. After many years with no trade other than that of soldiering, more than half of all discharged soldiers chose to re-enlist immediately. Of those who took a voluntary discharge, fully one in five signed on again within six months.

The Army's existing system of enlistment therefore produced an army of experienced or even veteran soldiers, but no class of reserves which could be recalled to serve in case of a national emergency. The lesson of the Franco-Prussian war was the absolute necessity of a trustworthy army reserve of well trained men in good health and vigour. Almost every British soldier served more than half his enlistment abroad, most often in tropical climates such as India. After returning to Britain their physique was seldom good.

Cardwell therefore brought before Parliament the idea of "short service". The Act of 1870 allowed a soldier to choose to spend time in the reserves rather than the regulars and be paid fourpence a day, in return for a short period of training each year and an obligation to serve when called up. Men now enlisted for a maximum term of twelve years, but usually for six. The minimum length of service varied, but on discharge a soldier would now remain with the reserves for the remainder of the twelve-year term.

There was opposition to short-term enlistment both in Parliament and among the Army's senior officers. The Queen is said to have signed the Act into Law "most reluctantly",[7] but the system worked, producing an immediate increase in the army's strength.

Localisation scheme

Cardwell then passed the comprehensive Regulation of the Forces Act 1871. Previously, soldiers had enlisted for General Service, and were liable to be drafted into any regiment regardless of their own preferences, another factor which had made service harsh and unpopular. It had been recognised as early as 1829 by Lord Palmerston that:

"...there is a great disinclination on the part of the lower orders to enlist for general service; they like to know that they are to be in a certain regiment, connected, perhaps, with their own county, and their own friends, and with officers who have established a connection with that district. There is a preference frequently on the part of the people for one regiment as opposed to another, and I should think there would be found a great disinclination in men to enlist for general service, and to be liable to be drafted and sent to any corps or station."[8]

Nevertheless, the Army had insisted for years that it could be administered only on the basis of General Service.

Under Cardwell's localisation scheme, the country was divided into 66 Brigade Districts (later renamed Regimental Districts), based on county boundaries and population density. All line infantry regiments would now consist of two battalions, sharing a depot and associated recruiting area. One battalion would serve overseas, while the other was stationed at home for training. The militia of that area then (usually) became the third battalion.

The senior twenty-five regiments of the line already consisted of two battalions, but almost all the higher-numbered regiments had only one battalion. Many regiments were amalgamated to produce two-battalion regiments, a complicated internal process involving much debate over regimental traditions and seniority which was not finally completed until the ensuing Childers Reforms. Nevertheless, Cardwell's measures quickly produced far more cohesive and homogenous units.

Other reforms

In addition to his two major pieces of legislation, Cardwell also introduced a number of reforms through Orders in Council or other Statutory Instruments.

  • An Order of 1871 abolished some little-used disciplinary practices such as branding;
  • The sale of commissions was abolished, as were the subaltern ranks of cavalry Cornet and infantry Ensign, replaced with Second Lieutenant. (In practice, the style "Cornet" is still used for Second Lieutenants in the Blues and Royals and the Queen's Royal Hussars, and the term "Ensign" is still used by the Foot Guards regiments, for instance during the ceremony of Trooping the Colour.)
  • Units were placed on the same establishment whether serving at home or overseas. (To an extent, this was made possible by steamship transport and the Suez Canal.) Units serving overseas had previously had a larger establishment, to cater for losses to disease or climate which would be hard to replace, but this left the units at home chronically understrength as they were stripped of soldiers to bring units departing overseas up to their authorised strength. With the separate establishments removed, the home units could now be used to form an effective expeditionary force.

Cardwell also reformed the administration of the War Office, preventing infighting and bickering between the various departments and abolishing the separate administration of the Reserves and Volunteers. The defence policy of Canada, Australia and New Zealand was devolved to those dominions, and several small garrisons were replaced by locally-raised units.

These reforms started to turn British forces into an effective Imperial force. A change of government put Cardwell out of office in 1874, but his reforms stayed in place despite attempts from the Regular Army to abolish them and return to the comfortable and familiar old post-1815 situation.

Further reforms of the British Army


  1. Robert Ensor, England, 1870-1914 (1936) pp. 7-17
  2. Albert V. Tucker, "Army and Society in England 1870-1900: A Reassessment of the Cardwell Reforms," Journal of British Studies (1963) 2#2 pp. 110-141 in JSTOR
  3. McElwee, p. 73
  4. Ensor (1936), p. 7
  5. Ensor (1936), p. 10
  6. Ensor (1936), p. 16
  7. Williamson, p. 107
  8. McElwee, p. 79


  • Ensor, R.C.K. (1936) England 1870-1914, The Oxford history of England 14, New ed., Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-285261-2
  • McElwee, W.L. (1974) The art of war : Waterloo to Mons, London : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, ISBN 0-297-76865-4
  • Tucker, Albert V. "Army and Society in England 1870-1900: A Reassessment of the Cardwell Reforms," Journal of British Studies (1963) 2#2 pp. 110–141 in JSTOR
  • Williamson, J.A. (1931) The Evolution of England: a commentary on the facts, Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 481 p.

See also

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