The French army was superior to the British in many ways. Its schools for officers had produced a whole new class of military professionals, who were technically more advanced, tactically superior and socially far closer to their men than the aristocratic officers of the British army. Armed with the advanced Minié rifle, which could fire rapidly with lethal accuracy up to 1,600 metres, the French infantry was celebrated for its attacking élan. The Zouaves, in particular, were masters of the fast attack and tactical retreat, a type of fighting they had developed in Algeria, and their courage was an inspiration to the rest of the French infantry, who invariably followed them into battle. The Zouaves were seasoned campaigners, experienced in fighting in the most difficult and mountainous terrain, and united by strong bonds of comradeship, formed through years of fighting together in Algeria (and in many cases on the revolutionary barricades of Paris in 1848). Paul de Molènes, an officer in one of the Spahi cavalry regiments recruited by Saint-Arnaud in Algeria, thought the Zouaves exerted a ‘special power of seduction’ over the young men of Paris, who flocked to join their ranks in 1854. ‘The Zouaves’ poetic uniforms, their free and daring appearance, their legendary fame – all this gave them an image of popular chivalry unseen since the days of Napoleon.’
The experience of fighting in Algeria was a decisive advantage for the French over the British army, which had not fought in a major battle since Waterloo, and in many ways remained half a century behind the times. At one point a third of the French army’s 350,000 men had been deployed in Algeria. From that experience, the French had learned the crucial importance of the small collective unit for maintaining discipline and order on the battlefield – a commonplace of twentieth-century military theorists that was first advanced by Ardant du Picq, a graduate of the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, the élite army school at Fontainebleau near Paris, who served as a captain in the Varna expedition and developed his ideas from observations of the French soldiers during the Crimean War. The French had also learned how to supply an army on the march efficiently – an area of expertise where their superiority over the British became apparent from the moment the two armies landed at Gallipoli. For two and a half days, the British troops were not allowed to disembark, ‘because nothing was ready for them’, reported William Russell of The Times, the pioneering correspondent who had joined the expedition to the East, whereas the French were admirably prepared with a huge flotilla of supply ships: ‘Hospitals for the sick, bread and biscuit bakeries, wagon trains for carrying stores and baggage – every necessary and every comfort, indeed, at hand, the moment their ship came in. On our side not a British pendant was afloat in the harbour! Our great naval state was represented by a single steamer belonging to a private company.’
The outbreak of the Crimean War had caught the British army by surprise. The military budget had been in decline for many years, and it was only in the early weeks of 1852, following Napoleon’s coup d’état and the eruption of the French war scare in Britain, that the Russell government was able to obtain parliamentary approval for a modest increase in expenditure. Of the 153,000 enlisted men, two-thirds were serving overseas in various distant quarters of the Empire in the spring of 1854, so troops for the Black Sea expedition had to be recruited in a rush. Without the conscription system of the French, the British army relied entirely on the recruitment of volunteers with the inducement of a bounty. During the 1840s the pool of able-bodied men had been severely drained by great industrial building projects and by emigration to the United States and Canada, leaving the army to draw upon the unemployed and poorest sections of society, like the victims of the Irish famine, who took the bounty in a desperate attempt to clear their debts and save their families from the poorhouse. The main recruiting grounds for the British army were pubs and fairs and races, where the poor got drunk and fell into debt.
If the British trooper came from the poorest classes of society, the officer corps was drawn mostly from the aristocracy – a condition almost guaranteed by the purchasing of commissions. The senior command was dominated by old gentlemen with good connections to the court but little military experience or expertise; it was a world apart from the professionalism of the French army. Lord Raglan was 65; Sir John Burgoyne, the army’s chief engineer, 72. Five of the senior commanders at Raglan’s headquarters were relatives. The youngest, the Duke of Cambridge, was a cousin to the Queen. This was an army, rather like the Russian, whose military thinking and culture remained rooted in the eighteenth century.