Article in Politics
Lessons from the clash between the two great superpowers of the nineteenth century. "Will somebody please learn from our history? Because we don't seem to be able to."

"History may not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes a lot."

- Oscar Wilde

In that most northern corner of England called Northumberland, on the outskirts of the tiny village of Rothbury lies the estate of Cragside and the rambling gothic mansion that is Cragside House. Home to Lord William Armstrong it was here, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, that the government of Her Majesty Queen Victoria played out a game of influence and intrigue. The goal? To defend Great Britain's interests in the east from the growing threat of the Russian Empire - in particular her trade routes to India and to her colonies in Australia and New Zealand.

For one hundred years, these two great superpowers of the nineteenth century had sought to protect their interests and extend their influence in an international conflict whimsically referred to in the British press, as "The Great Game". Both powers were cautious. Rarely did this conflict result in open hostilities. And when it did turn into direct conflict, during the Crimean War (1853-1856), the result was a more or less inconclusive stalemate with cholera and the cold Russian winter accounting for most of the casualties.

During the Crimean War, Britain allied for the first time with her centuries old adversary France. Until the Crimean War, the British Chief of Staff, Lord Raglan, had spent most of his career fighting the French. Understandably then, it was not always easy for him to remember that the French were now his allies. As a result he would often cause immense confusion at joint chiefs of staff meetings by constantly referring to the enemy positions as the ‘French’ postions.

For the most part though, these two superpowers played out their game in the buffer nations between them. The playing fields of the Great Game were in Afghanistan, Tibet, China, Japan and Persia - now Iran and Iraq.

Threatened by growing Russian influence in these buffer nations Britain embarked upon more or less disastrous military interventions in Afghanistan (twice) and in Tibet - where the Dalai Lama was forced to flee the country and seek asylum in Mongolia. But for the most part Great Britain sought to limit Russian expansion in the Far-East by maintaining trade relations with China - using force if necessary - and actively supplying guns and warships to the emerging Japanese nation.

Ultimately this policy was to lead to the humbling of the Russian navy at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 ending the Russo-Japanese War. And in Britain, the proud boast was that every ship and every gun in the Japanese navy at the Battle of Tsushima was Made in Great Britain. The Japanese commander, Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō was hailed in the British press as the "Nelson of the East".

Which brings us back to Cragside and to Lord Armstrong. For Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō was just one of the many guests to visit Lord Armstrong at Cragside. And it was Lord Armstrong who supplied those ships and those guns from his Elswick factories on the banks of the River Tyne in Newcastle, England.

William Armstrong was an inventor and engineer. Reading in The Times of the difficulties experienced by the British Army in manoeuvring its heavy field guns during the Crimean War, Armstrong designed a lighter, more mobile field gun, with greater range and accuracy. A breech-loading gun with a strong, rifled barrel made from wrought iron wrapped around a steel inner lining Armstrong surrendered the patent for the gun to the British government, rather than profit from its design. This was a gift so significant that Queen Victoria knighted William Armstrong and he became Lord Armstrong.

Lord Armstrong established his seat at Cragside about thirty miles north of his Elswick shipyard and the factories of the growing Armstrong Whitworth armaments enterprise. Purchasing the estate as a hunting and fishing retreat, Cragside became a place to relax and entertain. And it was here at Cragside that Great Britain sought to extend its influence, and Lord Armstrong the fortunes of his manufacturing empire, by cementing relationships and securing arms contracts to 'friendly' nations. Armstrong had no qualms about his trade. He developed weapons but entrusted their use to the politicians. He considered it his patriotic duty. In some conflicts he seems to have adopted an essentially neutral position. During the US Civil War, for example, he was happy to supply arms to both sides. (By the way, sorry about that everyone)

And so it was that the rich and powerful beat a path to Cragside.

Today in a corner of the Cragside estate there stands a small group of trees. Not especially remarkable since Armstrong planted more than seven million trees at Cragside – he was big on trees! Moreover, this small group of trees does not feature any especially remarkable specimens - they are certainly dwarfed by many of the much finer trees in the nearby arboretum. However, the thing that makes these trees special is the names of the people who planted them at the tree-planting ceremonies to commemorate their visits. For those names include many of the visiting dignitaries of the time who made their way to Cragside. The Shah of Persia, the King of Siam, the Prime Minister of China, the Prince of Wales and future King of Great Britain, and even the future Emperor of Japan all made their way to Cragside to be entertained and to build relationships between nations.

Those people are now long gone. But the trees they planted still stand in this remote and beautiful corner of England.

There's an old saying about those who forget history. I don't remember it, but it's good.

- Stephen Colbert


So what happens when two superpowers collide?

  • They seek more power and further resources
  • They avoid direct confrontation
  • They support (or install) friendly (or puppet) governments
  • They engineer regime changes to support their own interests
  • They seek to extend their influence indirectly through other states
  • They engage in limited conflicts indirectly through those other states.

And these actions come back to haunt you.

Politics, n. Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.
Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) The Devil's Dictionary


The Great Game

Hopkirk, P. 1994 The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. Kodansha America Inc.

Lord Armstrong

Dougan, D. 1992 The Great Gunmaker: Life of Lord Armstrong. Sandhill Press.

Heald, H. 2010 William Armstrong: Magician of the North. Northumbria Press.

The Russo-Japanese War

Olender, P. 2010 Russo-Japanese Naval War 1905 Volume 2. Mushroom Model Publications.

The Crimean War

Hibbert, C. 1999 The Destruction of Lord Raglan. Wordsworth Editions.

Sweetman, J. 2001 Essential Histories: The Crimean War. Osprey Publishing. to Shut Down Permanently on December 31, 2017

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