Lessons of the War
by Spenser Wilkinson
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse


Being Comments from Week to Week to the Relief of Ladysmith



Westminster Archibald Constable & Company Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company.



The history of a war cannot be properly written until long after its close, for such a work must be based upon a close study of the military correspondence of the generals and upon the best records, to be had of the doings of both sides. Nor can the tactical lessons of a war be fully set forth until detailed and authoritative accounts of the battles are accessible.

But for the nation the lessons of this war are not obscure, at any rate not to those whose occupations have led them to indulge in any close study of war.

Since the middle of December I have written a daily introduction to the telegrams for one of the morning papers. Before I contemplated that work I had undertaken for my friend Mr. Locker, the Editor of The London Letter, to write a weekly review of the war.

Many requests have been made to me by publishers for a volume on the history of the war, with which, for the reasons given above, it is impossible at present to comply; but to the proposal of my old friends, Messrs. Archibald Constable and Co., to reprint my weekly reviews from The London Letter, the same objections do not hold.

In revising the articles, I have found but few alterations necessary. My views have not changed, and to make the details of the battles accurate would hardly be practicable without more information than is likely to be at hand until after the return of the troops.


March 9th, 1900

























The next six weeks will be an anxious time for the British Empire. The war which begins as I write between three and four on Wednesday afternoon, October 11th, 1899, is a conflict for supremacy in South Africa between the Boer States, their aiders and abettors, and the British Empire. In point of resources the British Empire is so incomparably stronger than the Boer States that there ought to be no possibility of doubt about the issue. But the Boer States with all their resources are actually in the theatre of war, which is, separated by the wide oceans from all the sources of British power, from Great Britain, from India, from the Australian and Canadian colonies. The reinforcements ordered on September 8th have not yet all arrived, though the last transports are due to arrive during the next four or five days. After that no further reinforcements can be expected for a month, so that during the next few weeks the whole strength of the Boers, so far as it is available at all, can be employed against a mere fragment of the British power. To the gravity of this situation it would be folly to shut our eyes. It contains the possibility of disaster, though what the consequences of disaster now would involve must for the present be left unsaid. Yet it may be well to say one word on the origin of the unpleasant situation which exists, in order to prevent needless misgivings in case the first news should not be as favourable as we all hope. There is no sign of any mistake or neglect in the military department of the Army. The quantity and character of the force required to bring the war to a successful issue has been most carefully estimated in advance; every preparation which forethought can suggest has been thought out, so that the moment the word was given by the supreme authority, the Cabinet, the mobilisation and despatch of the forces could begin and proceed without a hitch. The Army was never in better condition either as regards the zeal and skill of its officers from the highest to the lowest, the training and discipline of the men, or the organisation of all branches of the service. Nor is the present condition of the Army good merely by comparison with what it was twenty years ago. A very high standard has been attained, and those who have watched the Army continuously for many years feel confident that all ranks and all arms will do their duty. The present situation, in which the Boers start favourably handicapped for five weeks certain, is the foreseen consequence of the decision of the Cabinet to postpone the measures necessary for the defence of the British colonies and for attack upon the Boer States. This decision is not attributable to imperfect information. It was regarded as certain so long ago as December last, by those in a position to give the best forecast, that the Boers of both States meant war with the object of establishing Boer supremacy. The Cabinet, therefore, has knowingly and deliberately taken upon itself the responsibility for whatever risks are now run. In this deliberate decision of the Cabinet lies the best ground for hoping that the risks are not so great as they seem.

The two Boer Republics are well supplied with money, arms, and ammunition, and I believe have collected large stores of supplies. Their armies consist of their burghers, with a small nucleus of professional artillery, officers, and men. The total number of burghers of both States is about fifty thousand, and that number is swollen by the addition of non-British Uitlanders who have been induced to take arms by the offer of burghership. The two States are bound by treaty to stand or fall together, and the treaty gives the Commander-in-Chief of both armies to the Transvaal Commander-in-Chief, who is however, bound to consult his subordinate colleague of the Orange Free State. The whole of the fifty thousand burghers cannot take the field. Some must remain to watch the native population, which far outnumbers the burghers and is not well affected. Some must be kept to watch the Basutos, who are anxious to raid the Free State, and there will be deductions for sick and absentees as well as for the necessary duties of civil administration. The forts of Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Bloemfontein require permanent garrisons. In the absence of the accurate data obtainable in the case of an army regularly organised into tactical and administrative units, the most various estimates are current of the force that the two States can put into the field as a mobile army available for attack as well as for defence. I think thirty-five thousand men a safer estimate than twenty-five thousand. The Boers are fighting for their political existence, which to their minds is identical with their monopoly of political rights, and therefore their States will and must exert themselves to the uttermost. This view is confirmed by the action of the British military authorities, who estimate the British force necessary to disarm the Boer States at over seventy thousand men, a number which would seem disproportionate to a Boer field force of only twenty-five thousand. The British forces now in South Africa are in two separate groups. In Natal Sir George White has some ten thousand regular troops and two thousand volunteers, the regulars being eight or nine infantry battalions, four regiments of cavalry, six field batteries, and a mounted battery. He appears to have no horse artillery. In the Cape Colony there are seven British battalions and, either landed or on passage, three field batteries. A part of this force is scattered in small garrisons of half a battalion each at points on the railways leading to the Free State—Burghersdrop, Naauwpoort, and Kimberley. At Mafeking Colonel Baden-Powell has raised a local force and has fortified the place as well as its resources permit. A force of Rhodesian volunteers is moving from Buluwayo towards Tuli, on the northern border of the Transvaal. There are volunteer corps in the Cape Colony with a total of some seven thousand men, but it is not clear whether the Schreiner Ministry, whose sympathies with the Boers are undisguised, has not prevented the effective arming of these corps.

The reports of the distribution of the Boer forces on the frontiers must be taken with caution. Apparently there are preparations for the attack of Mafeking and of Kimberley, and it is open for the Boers to bring against either or both of these places forces largely outnumbering their defenders. Both places are prepared for defence against ordinary field forces. The actions at these places cannot very greatly affect the general result. Their nearness to the frontier makes it likely that the first engagements will take place on this border. On the other side of the theatre of war the Boers may be expected to invade Natal and to attack Sir George White, whose forces a few days ago were divided between positions near Ladysmith and Glencoe, places nearly thirty-five miles apart. The bulk of the Boer forces are deployed on two sides of the angle formed by the Natal border, where it meets the frontiers of the Transvaal and of the Free State. From the Free State border Ladysmith is about twenty-five miles distant in a straight line, and from the Transvaal border near Vryheid to Ladysmith is about twice that distance. If the Boers move on Thursday morning they would be able easily to collect their whole force at Ladysmith on Sunday morning, supposing the country contained no British troops. By Sunday, therefore, the Boer commander, if he knows his business, ought to be able to attack Sir George White with a force outnumbering the British by something like two to one.

If I were a Cabinet Minister I should not sleep for the next few days, but as an irresponsible citizen I trust that the Boers will be shocked to find how much better the British soldier shoots in 1899 than he did in 1881.


October 18th, 1899

When the Boers sent their ultimatum they knew that fifty thousand British troops were under orders for South Africa, and that for six weeks the British forces in the theatre of war could not be substantially increased. As they were of opinion that no settlement of the dispute satisfactory to England could possibly be satisfactory to themselves they had resolved upon fighting. If we assume, as we are bound to do, that they had really faced the situation and thought it out, they must have had in their minds some course of action by which if they should begin the war on October 11th they would be likely to gain their end: the recognition of the sovereignty of the Transvaal. They could hardly expect to disarm the British Empire and dictate peace, but they might hope to make the occupation of their country so difficult that Great Britain would be tired of the effort before the moment of success. The Boer defence taken altogether could hope to do no more than to gain time, during which some outside embarrassment might cripple Great Britain; there might be a rising at the Cape, or some other Power might interfere.

If before the arrival of Sir Redvers Buller and his men the Boers could destroy a considerable fraction of the British forces now in South Africa, their chance of prolonging the struggle would be greatly improved. These forces were in two groups. There was the small army of Sir George White in Natal, something more than fifteen thousand men, and there were the detached parties holding points on the colonial railway system, Naauwport, De Aar, Orange River, Kimberley and Mafeking. These detachments, however, are largely made up of local levies, and the total number of British troops among them can hardly amount to three thousand. The whole set might be captured or otherwise swept from the board without any material improvement in the Boer position. Sir Redvers Buller is not tied to the line of railway which most of the detachments guard, and the disappearance both of the railway and of its protectors would be merely a temporary inconvenience to the British. But if during the six weeks' respite it were possible to destroy Sir George White's force the position would be very substantially changed. The confidence of the Boers would be so increased as to add greatly to their fighting power, the difficulties of Sir Redvers Buller would be multiplied, the probability of outside intervention might be brought nearer, and the Army of invasion to be eventually resisted would be weaker by something like a quarter. For these reasons I think Sir George White's force the centre of gravity of the situation. If the Boers cannot defeat it their case is hopeless; if they can crush it they may have hopes of ultimate success. That was the bird's-eye view of the whole situation a week ago, and it still holds good. The week's news does not enable us to judge whether the Boers have grasped it. You can never be too strong at the decisive point, and a first-rate general never lets a single man go away from his main force except for a necessary object important enough to be worth the risk of a great failure. The capture of Mafeking, of Kimberley, and even of Mr. Cecil Rhodes, would not compensate the Boers for failure in Natal. Neither Colonel Baden-Powell nor Colonel Kekewich would be likely to make a serious inroad into Boer territory. I should therefore have expected the Boers merely to watch these places with parties hardly larger than patrols and to have thrown all their energy into a determined attack on Sir George White. But they seem to have sent considerable bodies, in each case several thousand men, against both Mafeking and Kimberley. This proves either that they have a superabundance of force at their disposal or that they have failed to grip the situation and to concentrate their minds, their will, and their troops upon the key of the whole position. I believe the latter to be the true interpretation.

If the cardinal principle is to put all your strength into the decisive blow, its corollary is that you should deliver the blow as soon as you can, for in war time is as precious as lives. Here again it is not easy to judge whether the Boer Commander-in-Chief is fulfilling his mission. When the ultimatum expired his forces were spread along the border line of the Free State and the Transvaal, so that a forward movement would concentrate them in the northern triangle of Natal. The advance has not been resisted, and at the end of a week the Transvaal wing of the combined army has reached a point a few miles north of Glencoe, while the bulk of the Free State wing is still behind the passes. The movement has not been rapid, but as the ground is difficult—marches through a mountainous country and in bad weather always take incomparably longer than is expected—the delay may be due not to lack of energy but to the inevitable friction of movement. The mere lapse of time throws no light on the Boer plan, for though sound strategy counsels rapidity in the decisive blow, rapidity is a relative term, the pace varying with the Army, the country, and the weather.

Sir George White's object is not merely to make the time pass until Sir Redvers Buller's forces come upon the scene. He has also to prevent the Boers from gaining any great advantage, moral or material. Time could be gained by a gradual retreat, but that would raise the courage of the Boer party, and depress the spirits of the British. Accordingly Sir George White may be expected to take the first opportunity of showing the Boers that his men are fighters, but he will avoid an engagement such as might commit a fraction of his force against the Boer main body. The detachment which was a few days ago near Glencoe may be expected, as the Boer advance continues, to act as a rear guard, of which the business is to delay the enemy without running too great a risk of being itself cut off, or as an advance guard, which is to be reinforced so soon as the general drift of the Boer movements has been made out. The next few days can hardly pass without an engagement in this quarter of Natal, and the first serious engagement will throw a flood of light upon the aims of both generals and upon the quality of the troops of both sides. Meantime the incidents of last week, the wreck of the armoured train, and the attacks which have probably been made upon Mafeking and Kimberley, are of minor importance.

A very serious piece of news, if it should be confirmed, is that the Basutos have begun to attack the Free State. The British authorities have exerted themselves to the utmost to prevent this and to keep the Kaffir population quiet. The mere fact of the existence all over South Africa of a Kaffir population outnumbering Boers and British together made it an imperative duty of both white races to come to a peaceful settlement. This was as well known to the Boers as to the British, and forms an essential factor in any judgment on the action which has caused and precipitated the conflict.


October 25th, 1899

The Boer Commander-in-Chief has beyond doubt grasped the situation. His total force seems to be larger than was usually expected and to exceed my own rough estimate of thirty-five thousand men, the balance to his advantage being due probably to the British efforts to keep the Basutos from attacking the Free State. Thus the Boers have been able to overrun their western and southern borders in force sufficient to make a pretence of occupying a large extent of territory in which only the important posts specially prepared by the British for defence continue to hold out. Of these posts, however, Mafeking and Kimberley are as yet the only ones that have been attacked or threatened.

For operations in the northern corner of Natal the Boer commander was able to collect some thirty thousand men, who on the eve of hostilities were posted in separate columns upon the various routes leading from the Free State and from the Transvaal into the triangle of northern Natal. This triangle is like a letter A, the cross-stroke being the range of hills known as the Biggarsberg, which is intersected near the centre on a north and south line by the head-stream of the Waschbank River forming a pass through which run the railway and the Dundee-Ladysmith road. North of the Biggarsberg the gates of the frontier are Muller's Pass, Botha's Pass, the Charlestown road, Wool's Drift, and De Jager's Drift, of which Landman's Drift is a wicket-gate. At each of these points, except perhaps Muller's Drift, of which I have seen no specific mention, the Boers had a column waiting. South of the Biggarsberg are on the east Rorke's Drift, and on the west the passes of Ollivier's Hoek, Bezuidenhout, Tintwa, Van Reenen, De Beers, Bramkock, and Collins. At all these points there were Boer gatherings, though on the west the Free Staters, having their headquarters at Albertina, were likely to put their main column on the road leading through Van Reenen's Pass to Ladysmith.

By Thursday morning the Boer advance had developed. The columns from Botha's Pass, Charlestown, and Wool's Drift had advanced through Newcastle, where they had converged, and moved south along the main road. The Landman's Drift column had moved towards Dundee, the Rorke's Drift column had pushed some distance towards the west, and the forces from Albertina had showed the heads of their columns on the Natal side of the passes.

The British force was divided between Dundee and Ladysmith. The Biggarsberg range, the cross-line of the A, is about fifty miles long. It is traversed from north to south by three passes. In the centre runs the railway through a defile. Twelve miles to the west of the railway runs the direct Newcastle-Ladysmith road; eight miles to the east runs the road Newcastle-Dannhauser-Dundee-Helpmakaar. A third road runs from De Jager's Drift through Dundee to Glencoe and thence follows the railway to Ladysmith. Dundee is about five miles from Glencoe on a spur of the Biggarsberg range. Between the two places by the Craigie Burn was the camp of Sir Penn Symons, who had under him the eighth brigade (four battalions), three batteries, the 18th Hussars, and a portion of the Natal Mounted Volunteers, in all about four thousand men. Thirty-five miles away at Ladysmith, the junction of the Natal and Free State railways, as well as of the Natal and Free State road systems, Sir George White had a larger force, the seventh brigade, three field batteries, a mountain battery, the Natal battery, two or three cavalry regiments, the newly-raised Imperial Light Horse, and some Natal Mounted Volunteers. It is not clear whether there were more infantry battalions and it seems probable that one battalion and perhaps a battery were at Pietermaritzburg. The Ladysmith force was at least six thousand five hundred strong, and its total may have been as high as eight thousand.

The Boer plan was dictated by the configuration of the frontier and of the obstacles and communications in Northern Natal. The various columns to the north of the Biggarsberg had only to move forward in order to effect their junction on the Newcastle-Dundee road, and their advance southwards on that road would enable them at Dundee to meet the column from Landman's Drift. The movement, if well timed, must lead to an enveloping attack upon Sir Penn Symons, whose brigade would thus have to resist an assault delivered in the most dangerous form by a force of twenty thousand men. From the point of view of the Boer Commander-in-Chief, the danger was that the Glencoe and Dundee force should escape his blow by retiring to Ladysmith, or should be reinforced by the bulk of the Ladysmith force before his own combined blow could be delivered. It was essential for him to keep Sir George White at Ladysmith and also to cut the communications between Glencoe and Ladysmith. Accordingly, on Wednesday, the 18th, the Free State forces from Albertina, the heads of whose columns had been shown on Tuesday, moved forward towards Acton Homes and Bester's Station, and led Sir George White to hope for the opportunity to strike a blow at them on Thursday, the 18th. At the same time a detachment from the main column was pushed on southwards, and was able on Thursday, while Sir George White was watching the Free State columns, to reach the Glencoe-Ladysmith line near Elandslaagte, to break it up, and to take position to check any northward movement from Ladysmith. Everything was thus ready for the blow to be struck at Dundee, but by some want of concert the combination was imperfect. On Friday morning the Landman's Drift column, which had been reinforced during the previous days by a part of the Newcastle column, was in position on the two hills to the east of Dundee, and began shelling the British camp at long range. At the same time the column from the north was within an easy march from the British position. Sir Penn Symons decided promptly to attack the Landman's Drift column and to check the northern column's advance. Three battalions and a couple of batteries were devoted to the attack of the Boer position, while a battalion and a battery were sent along the north road to delay the approaching column. Both measures were successful. The attack on the Boer position of Talana or Smith's Hill was a sample of good tactical work, in which the three arms, or if mounted infantry may be considered a special arm, the four arms, were alike judiciously and boldly handled. The co-operation of rifle and gun, of foot and horse, was well illustrated, and the Boer force was after a hard fight driven from its position and pursued to the eastward. Unhappily, Sir Penn Symons, who himself took charge of the fight, was mortally wounded at the moment of victory, leaving the command of the force in the hands of the brigadier, Lieut.-Colonel Yule. The northern Boer column seems to have disappeared early in the day. Possibly only its advance guard was within striking distance and had no orders to make an independent attack on the British delaying force.

On Saturday morning Sir George White sent a small force of cavalry and artillery to reconnoitre along the line of the interrupted railway. Some two thousand Boers were found in position near Elandslaagte, and accordingly during the day the British were reinforced by road and rail from Ladysmith, until in the afternoon the Boer position could be attacked by two battalions, three batteries, two cavalry regiments, and a regiment and a half of mounted infantry—about three thousand five hundred men. The Boers were completely crushed and a large number of prisoners taken, including the commander and the commanding officer of the German contingent. The British loss, however, as at Glencoe, was heavy, especially in officers. The force returned on Sunday to Ladysmith.

The British force at Dundee-Glencoe was thus still isolated, and until now no detailed account of its movements has reached England. On Saturday it was again attacked and, there is reason to believe, it again repulsed a large Boer force, probably the main northern column. On Sunday also the attack seems to have been renewed, this time apparently by two columns, one of which may have been composed of Free State troops from Muller's Pass. Either on Sunday or Monday General Yule determined to withdraw from a position in which he could hardly hope without destruction to resist the overwhelming numbers brought to bear against him, especially as the Boer forces, either from the direction of Muller's Pass or from Bester's Station, were threatening his line of retreat by the Glencoe-Ladysmith road. Accordingly, leaving in hospital at Dundee those of his wounded who could not be moved, he retired along the Helpmakaar road, which he followed as far as Beith, about fourteen miles from Dundee, and near there he bivouacked on Monday night. On Tuesday he continued his march from Beith towards Ladysmith, expecting to reach Sunday's River, about sixteen miles, by dark. Sir George White, informed of this movement and of the presence of a strong Boer force to the west of the Ladysmith-Glencoe road, set out on Tuesday morning to interpose between this force and General Yule, and by delivering a smart attack at Reitfontein was able for that day to cover the retreat of General Yule's brigade.

The Boer Commander-in-Chief has thus, apparently, failed in his attempt to crush one wing of the British force, and has accomplished no more than bringing about its return to the main body, which must have been a part of the original British plan, unless it was thought that a British brigade was capable of defeating four times its own number of Boers.

The net result hitherto seems to be that the Boers have had the strategical and the British the tactical advantage. The British troops have proved their superiority; the Boers have shown that even against troops of better training, spirit, and discipline, numbers must tell, especially if directed according to a sound though not always perfectly-executed plan.


November 1st, 1899

The first week's campaign, dimly seen through scanty information, gives a peculiar impression of the two armies. The British force seems like an athlete in fine training but without an idea except that of self-preservation, while the Boer army resembles a burly labourer, clumsy in his movements, but knowing very well what he wants. The British force at first is divided upon a front of forty miles, each of its halves looking away from the other, so that there is little attention to the weak point of such a front, the communication between its parts. The first event is the cutting of this communication (on the 19th), and not until the 21st is there an attempt to clear it, and that attempt, though it leads to a severe blow against the interposing Boer force (Elandslaagte), is not successful, for the communication has eventually to be sought on another route behind the direct one. The Boer idea is, after severing the connection between the British halves, to crush the weaker Dundee portion; but the execution is imperfect, so that Sir Penn Symons has the opportunity, which he seizes instantly, to defeat and drive off one of the columns before the other can assist it. His successor, General Yule, the heir to his design, is no sooner convinced by this move to Glencoe that his line of junction with Ladysmith is threatened with attack by a great superiority than he sets out by the nearest way still open to him to rejoin the main body. The Ladysmith force covers this march by a shielding movement (Reitfontein) and the junction of the two British halves is effected. From Dundee to Ladysmith is forty miles, and General Joubert unopposed would have covered the distance in three days. He was before Dundee on Saturday, the 21st, and there was no sign of him before Ladysmith until Saturday, the 28th, or Sunday, the 29th. The original division of the British force and the Battle of Glencoe thus produced a delay of several days in the Boer advance: more could not have been expected from it. This first impression ought to be supplemented by a consideration of Sir George White's peculiarly difficult position, on which I will venture a word or two.

The Government, by its action in the first half of September, decided that Sir George White must defend Natal for about five weeks[A] with sixteen thousand men against the bulk of the Boer army, which was likely to be double his own force. It was evidently expected that he should hold his ground near Ladysmith and thereby cover Natal to the south of the Tugela. This double task was quite disproportionate to his force. If Ladysmith had been a fortress, secure for a month or two against assault, and able to take care of itself, the field force using it as a base could no doubt have covered Natal. But in the absence of a strong place there were only two ways by which a small force could delay the Boer invasion. The force might let itself be invested and thereby hold a proportion of the Boer army, leaving the balance to raid where it could, or the campaign must be conducted as a retreat from position to position. For a general with ten thousand men and only two hundred miles of ground behind him to carry on a retreat in the face of a force double his own so as to make it last five, weeks and to incur no disaster would be a creditable achievement. Sir John Moore is thought to have shown judgment and character by his decision to retreat before a greatly superior force, commanded it is true by Napoleon himself. Moore when he decided to retreat was about as far from Corunna as Dundee is from Durban, and Moore's retreat took nineteen days. He had the sympathy if not the effective help of the population, and was thought to have been clever to get out of the trap laid for him. Sir George White seems to have been expected as a matter of course to resist the Boer army, to prevent the overrunning of Natal by the Boers, and to preserve his own force from the beginning of October to the middle of November.[B] The Government expected the Boers to attack as soon as they should hear of the calling out of the Reserves, that being the reason why the Reserves were not called out earlier. Therefore Sir George White's campaign was timed to last from October 9th to November 15th (December 15th). I conclude that the force to be given to Sir George White was fixed by Lord Lansdowne at haphazard, and that the calculations of the military department were put on one side, this unbusinesslike way of playing with National affairs and with soldier's lives being veiled from the Secretary of State's mind by the phrase, "political reasons." But the "political reason" for exposing a Nation's troops to unreasonable risks and to needless loss must be bad reason and bad policy. Mr. Wyndham has had the courage to assert that there was no haphazard, that his chief knew quite well what he was doing, and that "the policy which the Government adopted was deliberately adopted with the fullest knowledge of possible consequences." If these words in Mr. Wyndham's speech of October 20th mean anything, they mean that Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Wyndham intended Sir George White to be left for a month to fight against double his number of Boers; that they looked calmly forward to the terrible losses and all the risks inseparable from such conditions. That being the case, it seems to me that it is Mr. Wyndham's duty, and if he fails, Lord Lansdowne's duty, to tell the country plainly whether in that deliberate resolve Lord Wolseley was a partner or an overruled protester. Ministers have a higher duty than that to their party. The Nation has as much confidence in Lord Rosebery as in Lord Salisbury and the difference in principle between the two men is a vanishing quantity. A change of ministry would be an inconvenience, but no more. But if the public comes to believe, what I am sure is untrue, that the military department at the War Office has blundered, the consequences will be so grave that I hardly care to use the word which would describe them.

I accept the maxim that it is no use crying over spilt milk or even over spilt blood, but the maxim does not hold when the men whose decision seems inexplicable are in a position to repeat it on a grander scale. The temper of the Boers as early as June left no doubt in any South African mind that if equality of rights and British supremacy were to be secured it would have to be by the sword. The Government alone among those who cared for the Empire failed to realise this in time. That has been admitted. The excess of hope for peace has been condoned and is being atoned for on the battlefields of Natal. But to-day the temper of Europe leaves no room for doubt that, in case of a serious reverse in Natal, Europe if it can will interfere. Have Mr. Goschen and Lord Lansdowne worked out that problem, or is there to be a repetition in the case of the continental Powers—an adversary very different from the Boers—of patience, postponement, and haphazard? It is not the situation in South Africa that gives its gravity to the present aspect of things, but the situation in Europe. Upon the next fortnight's fighting in Natal may turn the fate not merely of Natal and of South Africa, but of the British Empire. That this must be the case was plain enough at Christmas, and has been said over and over again. Yet this was the crisis which was met by sending to the decisive point a reinforcement of ten thousand men to do the best they could along with the six thousand already there during a five weeks' campaign.

After reconnaissance on Friday and Saturday (October 27th-8th) Sir George White, finding a large Boer force in front of him at Ladysmith, determined to hit out on Monday. Suppose Ladysmith to be the centre of a compass card, the Boers were spread across the radii from N. to E. Sir George meaning to clear the Boers from a position near N.E. prepared to move forward towards N.E. and towards E., sending in each direction about a brigade of infantry and a brigade division of field artillery. He sent two battalions and a mounted battery towards N. The party sent to N. started after dark on Sunday; the other parties, making ready in the night, set forward at dawn. There was no enemy in position at N.E. The force sent towards E. pushed back a Boer force, which retreated only to enable a second Boer force to take the British E. column in flank—apparently its left flank. The N.E. column had to be brought up to cover the retirement of the E. column. When these two columns returned to Ladysmith the N. column was still out. Long after dark Sir George White learned that the N. column, which had lost its battery and its reserve rifle ammunition by a stampede of the mules, had been surrounded by a far stronger Boer force, had held its ground until the last cartridge was gone, and that then the survivors had accepted quarter and surrendered.

Sir George White manfully takes upon himself the blame for this misfortune. His portentous blunders were in sending out the party to a distance and in taking no steps to keep in communication with it or to support it. The detachment of a small party to a distant point is a habit of Indian warfare. It is out of place against an enemy of European race, for the detachment is sure to be destroyed if the enemy has a capable commander. Every man in the Ladysmith force will have felt on Tuesday that the commander had make mistakes which he ought not to have made. The question is what effect this consciousness will have upon the spirits of the force.

Sir George White was reinforced before and during the action, a battalion of rifles having arrived in the morning and a party of bluejackets with heavy quick-firers coming up during the day. Further reinforcements were sent towards him from the squadron after the action, so that his force is still about sixteen thousand. If he does not elect to retreat, a course which might demoralise the troops, he may well be able to defend Ladysmith until relieved; but the first business of the troops now on their way out will be to relieve him, and until that has been arranged for, it is to be feared that Mafeking and Kimberley must wait.


[Footnote A: Thirteen weeks, as we now (March) know from the official correspondence.]

[Footnote B: I should have said December.]


November 8th, 1899

The war is doing us good. It is giving us the beginnings of political education in a department that has been utterly neglected. It may be worth while to review the whole situation of to-day, and to ask how the man in the street can lend a helping hand.

The British Government, primarily representing the people of Great Britain, has for many years been an affair of party; the dominant idea of the party leaders has been when out of office to get in, and when in to stay. The way to manage this was to cajole the man in the street, and as he was a busy man getting his living and not much concerned about watching the whole globe, the party leaders made bids for his support; votes to be distributed on the principle that one man was as good as another; taxation to be made light for him, and, consequently, as the money had to be found, heavy for some one else. Each party offered what it sincerely believed to be for the general good; but the kind of general good thought of was the personal improvement or comfort of each individual or of a mass of individuals. While this was going on in British towns and counties, something was happening on the neglected globe. There was a large part of the British Nation living on other continents without votes in any British town or county, yet looking to the British Government to champion something they loved, which has come to be called the Empire. There were also great nations emulating the British in the notion that the world was their inheritance, and that they would take possession of a fair share of it. Their quarrels had driven them to perfect their armies and to build navies. Each of them was annoyed to find that in the scramble for the heritage some one had been before them. On the best plots the British flag was flying, yet Great Britain had not much Army and was very careless about her Navy. The strong powers began to elbow her a little. The British Government was not disturbed by these hints from the globe. A Government made by a Parliament in which every member represented a town or a county or a scrap of a town or county, and in which no one represented the Nation, no one the Empire, and no one the Globe, felt bound to keep its eye upon towns and counties, the Opposition benches, and the next election. Why should it stand up for the British outside, and why concern itself about other Powers looking round the globe for claims to peg out? The colonists who looked to the British Government for championship were snubbed; the foreign Powers working for elbow-room were politely made way for, or if they brushed against the British coat-sleeve and caused an exclamation received a meek apology. This was the normal frame of mind of British party leaders and ministers, from which they have never quite emerged. They were asleep, dreaming of a parochial millennium.

But outside of cabinets there were a few men who used their eyes. Sir Charles Dilke took a turn round the globe, and when he came back said "Greater Britain." That was an idea, and ideas are like the plague—they are catching. Sir John Seeley took a tour through the history of the last three centuries, and said "Expansion of England"; that meant continuity in the Nation's life not merely in space but in time. Whatever the cause, a few years ago there set in an epidemic of fresh ideas, tending to reveal the Nation as more than a crowd of individuals and the Empire as the Nation's work and the Nation's cause. The Government did all it could to resist the infection. Instead of standing up for the Empire it was bent on passing measures in the sense of its own party. It ran away from Russia, from France, and from Germany. But the new ideas grew; every globetrotter became a Nationalist and an Imperialist, and shed his party skin. Then came Fashoda, and Lord Rosebery's action in that matter killed what was left of party.

The case of the British in South Africa cried aloud for British action. But the Government was still hidebound in bad traditions, thinking that democracy means the tail wagging the dog, not seeing that if the statesman leads straight along the path of duty the Nation is sure to follow him. Happily, a statesman was sent to Cape Town, probably because the Cabinet hardly realised how big a man he was. Sir Alfred Milner mastered his case, thought out his cause, and at the opportune moment put it before the Government. The first result was the Bloemfontein conference. There, with the prescience and the strength of a Cavour or a Bismarck, Milner put the issue: either the minimum concession which will secure the political equality of the two races or war. Kruger's obstinate refusal of the concessions required showed plainly that it would be war. There was only one possible way of averting war; if fifty thousand men had been at once sent to South Africa, Kruger and his people would have known where they were, and might have accepted possible terms, those offered at Bloemfontein. The moment of the breaking off of the conference was the crisis, and to appreciate men you must watch them in a crisis. Mr. Balfour expressed his unbounded confidence in Kruger's sweet reasonableness and in the justice of the British cause; he could not believe there would be war. Mr. Chamberlain entered into ambiguous negotiations, beginning in a way that made everyone, especially Kruger, imagine that the Government would accept less than the Bloemfontein minimum. Of preparing to coerce the Boers there was no sign. The Boers began to get their forces in order. In England big speeches were made; "hands" were "put to the plough"; but at the end of July no military force was made ready. At length, when Natal appealed for protection against the Boer army, ten thousand men were ordered so as to bring up the garrison of the colony to some seventeen thousand. After the ten thousand not another man was sent until October 20th.

The present situation is the necessary outcome of the Government's action between the beginning of June and October 7th, when the orders for calling out the Reserves and for mobilisation were issued. The Cabinet's decisions involved that Sir George White with his small force should have to bear the brunt of the Boer attack from the outbreak of hostilities until the time when the Army Corps should be landed and ready to move. That was at least five weeks[C] of which three have elapsed, and in the three weeks Sir George White, after one or two initial mishaps of no great consequence by themselves, is invested at Ladysmith, while Mafeking and Kimberley are waiting for relief, and the Free State Boers are invading the northern provinces of Cape Colony and trying to enlist the doubtful Dutch farmers. This is not a pleasant situation for the Nation that declares itself the paramount Power in South Africa. Three questions may be discussed with regard to it: What are the risks still run, what are the probabilities, and how can we help to prevent such a situation from recurring?

To see what has been risked on the chance that the force under Sir George White may hold its own we must look from the Boer side. The Boer commander hopes, or ought to hope, to destroy Sir George White's force before it can be relieved. He has a chance of succeeding in this, for an investing force has with modern arms a great advantage over the force it surrounds. The outside circle is so much larger than the inside one that it can bring many more rifles into play; it exposes no flanks, and the interior force cannot attack it without exposing one or both flanks. With anything like equal skill and determination the surrounding force is sure to win in time. But if the time is limited the surrounding force must hurry the result by assaults, in which it loses the advantage of the defensive. If Joubert and his men have the courage and determination to make repeated assaults it may go hard with the defenders of Ladysmith. But the defenders hitherto have had the counterbalancing advantage of a superior artillery. I think it reasonable to expect that with the better discipline of his force, its greater cohesion and mobility and the high spirit which animates it, Sir George White will be able to defy the Boers for many weeks. But suppose the unexpected to happen, as it sometimes does in war, and Sir George White's resistance to be overcome? Such a victory would have a tremendous effect upon the hopes and spirits of the Boers. It would almost double the fighting value of their army, and would probably bring to their side many of their colonial kinsmen. Joubert would become more daring, and, if Sir Redvers Buller had divided his force, would attack its nearest portion with a prospect of success. The failure of Sir Redvers Buller would then not be outside the bounds of possibility. What that would involve there is no need to expound—the Empire would be in peril of its existence. We may feel pretty sure that things will not come to such a pass; that another week will show Sir George White well holding his own and a part of the Army Corps preparing to move. Yet it would be prudent to guard against accidents by sending further troops to the Cape. Ten thousand men ordered now would be at Cape Town by the middle of December; but every delay in ordering them will mean, in case they should in December be wanted, a period of suspense like that through which we are now passing.

The moral of the present situation seems to me to be that we should scrutinise our political personages, noting which of them have betrayed their inability to see what was happening and to look ahead, bringing down their figures in our minds to their natural size, and exalting those who have shown themselves equal to their tasks. The man in the street might do well to consider whether the great departments of Government, such as the War Office and the Army, should for ever be entrusted to men who have not even a nodding acquaintance with the business which their departments have to transact, the business called War. Success in that as in other business depends on putting knowledge in power.


[Footnote C: We now know that the time was thirteen weeks.]


November 15th, 1899

October 11th saw the opening of hostilities, and of the first chapter of the war, the conflict between Sir George White with sixteen thousand men and General Joubert with something like double that number. The first chapter had three sections: First, the unfortunate division of Sir George White's force and the isolation of and unsuccessful attack upon his right wing; secondly, the reunion of his wings at Ladysmith; thirdly, the concentration of the Boers against the force at Ladysmith and the surrounding or investment of Sir George White. This third section is not yet ended, but the gathering of the forces at Cape Town and at Port Natal points to its conclusion and to the opening of the second chapter. The arrival of the first portion of the transport flotilla is the only important change since last week.

I thought from the beginning that the division of Sir George White's force was strategically unsound, and the position of Ladysmith a bad one because it lent itself to investment. It is now known that the division of forces and the decision to hold Ladysmith, even until it should be turned and surrounded, was due not to strategical but to what are called political considerations. The Government of Natal thought that if the troops were withdrawn from Glencoe—Dundee, or the whole force collected, say at Colenso instead of Ladysmith, the appearance of retreat would have a bad effect on the natives, the Kaffirs, and perhaps the Dutch farmers. Accordingly, out of deference to the view of the local Government, the General consented to do his work in what he knew to be the wrong way. This is a perfect specimen of the way in which wars are "muddled"—I borrow the expression from Lord Rosebery—and it deserves thinking over.

No popular delusion is more extraordinary and none more widespread than the notion that there are two ways of looking at a war, one the military aspect and the other the governmental or civil aspect, that both are legitimate, and that, as the Government is above the general, in case of a clash the military view must fall into the background. This notion is quite wrong, and the more important the position of the men who have got it into their heads, the more harm it does. There is only one right way of looking at war, and that consists in seeing it as it is. If two men both take a true view of an operation of war, they will agree, whether they are both soldiers, both civilians, or one a soldier and the other a civilian. It does not matter what you call their view, but, as a soldier who knows his business ought to have true views about it, the proper name for the true view is the military view. If the civil view is a different one it must be wrong. In this case the belief that a retreat from a position to which troops had been sent would have a bad effect was no doubt founded on fact. But for that reason the troops ought not to have been sent there until it was ascertained that the forward move was consistent with the best plan of campaign. Some person other than the general charged with the defence of Natal had been arranging his troops for him without consulting him, and had done it badly. Then came the question of moving them back, and the probable "bad effect" was raised as a scarecrow. But the reply to that was that the bad effect of retreat is not half so bad as the bad effect of defeat, or of the embarrassments of a position which, being strategically wrong, may involve mishaps.

When a civil government moves troops in connection with war it ought to move them to the right places; that is according to sound strategy or sound military principles. In short, whoever deals in war ought to understand war. The reader may think that a commonplace, but in reality it is like too many commonplaces—a truth that very important people forget at critical moments. The first principle of action in war is to have two men to one at the decisive point. How comes it, then, that for six weeks Sir George White has to defend Natal with one against two? Evidently the first principle has been violated. It came about exactly in the same way as the putting one of Sir George White's brigades at Dundee. The Government managed it; it was a fragment of the civil view of war. How long, then, the reader may ask, should the civil view of war be allowed scope and when should the military view be called in? Let me be permitted to alter the labels and instead of "military view" to say "view based upon knowledge"; and instead of "civil view" to say, "view not based upon knowledge." I think that all dealings in war should be guided by the view based upon knowledge and that the other view should be for ever left out of account.

My unpopular belief that nobody should meddle with the management of a war unless he understands it is, I admit, most uncomfortable, for as a war is always managed by the Government I am obliged to think that every Government ought to understand war. But in this country the Government is entrusted to a Committee of Peers and Members of Parliament, none of whom is supposed to be able to take a military view of war. If my belief is right, a British Cabinet is very liable to take a civilian view, and the consequences might be awkward. In fact they are awkward, as the South African war up to date abundantly reveals.

The military view of war is that it consists in the employment of force to compel an adversary to do your will. The employment of force is required in the management of a Nation's affairs when the Nation has quite made up its mind to have something done which another Nation or State has made up its mind shall not be done. When there is this point-blank conflict of wills, and neither side can give way, there must be war; and the military view is that when you see war coming you should get your troops into their places, because the first moves are the most important, and a bad first move is very apt to lead to checkmate.

In the case of South Africa the true view was taken at the right time by Sir Alfred Milner. He was instructed that Great Britain would take up the Uitlander's cause, and sent to Bloemfontein to see whether President Kruger was prepared for an equitable settlement. He proposed such a settlement, and, as President Kruger declared the terms impossible, he made it plain that if there were no settlement on such lines as he had suggested, there must be war. That was the true view, and the moment when the conference was broken off was the moment for Great Britain to get her forces ready with all convenient speed. But Mr. Balfour on the day when he heard the news took a civilian view; instead of looking the war in the face he expressed the hope that President Kruger would change his mind. That hope the Government cherished, as we now know, until the end of the first week of September, when the Boer forces were so far on in their preparations that Natal had been begging for protection. The Government then sent ten thousand men, making the sixteen thousand of Sir George White. Yet the Government at that time had before it the military view that to compel the Boers to accept Great Britain's will seventy thousand men would be required. Evidently, then, the sending of the ten thousand arose not from the military view, but the civil view that war is a disagreeable business, and that it is to be hoped there will be none of it, or at any rate as little as possible.

The misfortunes in Natal will probably be repaired and the war in time brought to its conclusion—the submission of the Boers to Great Britain's will. But suppose the dispute had been with a great Power, and that in such a case the military view had been shut out from the day the negotiations began until the great Power was ready? The result must have been disaster and defeat on a great scale. Disaster and defeat on a great scale are as certain to come as the sun to rise to-morrow morning unless the Government arranges to take the military view of war into its midst. There will have to be a strategist in the Cabinet if the British Empire is to be maintained. This is another unpopular view and is hateful to all politicians, who declare that it is unconstitutional. But it does not, in fact, involve any constitutional change, far less change than has been made since 1895 at the instance of Mr. Balfour; and it would be better to alter a little the system of managing the Nation's affairs than to risk the overthrow of the Empire.


November 22nd, 1899

The six weeks of anxious waiting are over, and to-day the second chapter of the war begins. On either side of the Boer States a division of Sir Redvers Buller's force is now in touch with the enemy, and at either point there may be a battle any day.

The small British forces sent out or organised on the spot before the declaration of war have kept the enemy's principal forces occupied until now, so that he has been unable to make any decisive use of the margin of superiority which he possessed over and above what was needed to keep the British detachments where they were. The resisting power of these detachments is, however, not inexhaustible; they have kept at bay for a considerable time forces much more numerous than themselves, and the first move required of the fresh British forces is to take the pressure off them and to combine with them. The centre of gravity is in Natal, for there is the principal Boer army, probably two-thirds of the whole Boer power, and there, too, a whole British division is invested. A palpable success here for either side must go far to decide the issue of the war.

General Joubert's force in Natal is so strong that while keeping his grip upon Ladysmith, where Sir George White has not less than ten thousand men, he has been able to move south with a considerable force, perhaps fifteen thousand men, to oppose Sir C.F. Clery's advance. Sir C.F. Clery has already at least seven, and possibly nine, strong battalions, to which within a day or two three more will be added, and perhaps as many as thirty-six guns, with parties of bluejackets and various Natal levies. His interest is to delay battle until all his force has come up. The advanced troops seem to be spread along the line from Mooi River to Estcourt, and the Boer forces are facing them on a long line to the east of the railway from a point beyond Estcourt to a point below Mooi River. The Boers are on the flank from which their attack would be most dangerous, and seem to aim at interposing between the parts of Sir C.F. Clery's force, and at a convergent attack in superior strength upon his advance guard at Estcourt.

I should have expected the advance parties of Sir C.F. Clery's force to have fallen back as the Boers approached. The attempt to keep up the connection between the parts of a concentrating force by means of the railway strikes me as very dangerous from the moment that the enemy is in the neighbourhood. The important thing for Sir C.F. Clery is not whether his battle takes place twenty miles nearer to Ladysmith or twenty miles farther away, but that it should be an unmistakable victory, so that after it the Boer force engaged should be unable to offer any further serious hindrance to his advance. To gain an end of this kind a general should not merely bring up all the troops from the rear, falling back for them if necessary, but should take care that none can be cut off by the enemy in his front. A decisive victory by Sir C.F. Clery or by Sir Redvers Duller, who may feel this action to be so important as to justify his presence, would leave no doubt as to the issue of the war. An indecisive battle would postpone indefinitely the relief of Ladysmith and leave the future of the campaign in suspense. Defeat would be disastrous, for it would probably involve the ultimate loss of Sir George White's force. For these reasons I regard the battle shortly to be fought in Natal as the first decisive action of the war, and am astonished that a larger proportion of Sir Redvers Buller's force has not been sent to take part in it.

The whole business of a commander-in-chief in war is to find out the decisive point and to have the bulk of his forces there in time. If he can do that on the half-dozen occasions which make the skeleton of a war he has fulfilled his mission. He never need do anything else, for all the rest can be done by his subordinates. Not every commander fulfils this simple task because not every one refuses to let himself be distracted. All sorts of calls are made upon him to which he finds it hard to be deaf; very often he is doubtful whether one or another subordinate is competent, and then he is tempted to do that subordinate's work for him. That is always a mistake because it means neglect of the commander's own work, which is more important.

The task, though it appears simple is by no means easy, as the present war and the present situation show. While the fate of the Empire hangs in the balance between Ladysmith and Pietermaritzburg, a good deal depends on the course of events between Kimberley and Queenstown. In the northern part of Cape Colony the Dutch inhabitants are naturally divided in their sympathies, and the loyally disposed have been sorely tried by the long weeks of waiting for some sign of Great Britain's power. None has yet been forthcoming. They know that Kimberley is besieged and that the British Government has done little for its defence. During the last week or two they have been threatened by the Free State Boers, and have seen Stormberg and other places evacuated by the British. At length the Free State Boers have come among them, marched into their towns, proclaimed the annexation of the country, and commandeered the citizens. If this goes on the Boer armies will soon be swelled to great dimensions by recruits from the British colony, a process which cannot go on much longer without shaking the faith of the whole Dutch population in the supremacy of Great Britain. Some manifestation of British strength, energy, and will is evidently urgently needed in this region. Moreover, Kimberley is hard beset, and its fall would seem to the whole countryside to be the visible sign of a British collapse. No wonder, then, that Sir Redvers Duller has sent Lord Methuen as soon as he could be ready to the relief of Kimberley. The column consists of the Brigade of Guards, the Ninth Brigade, made up of such battalions as were at hand to replace Hildyard's brigade (sent to Natal), of a naval detachment, a cavalry regiment, and two or three batteries, besides local levies. Kimberley is five or six days' march from Orange River, and at some point on the way the Boers will no doubt try to stop the advance. I feel confident that Lord Methuen, whom I know as an accomplished tactician, will so win his battle as not to need to do the same work twice over.

The advance of Lord Methuen's division renders imperative the protection of the long railway line from Cape Town to Orange River. This seems to be entrusted to General Forestier-Walker's forces, reduced to two battalions, and to General Wauchope's Highland brigade. One battalion only is with General Gatacre at Queenstown, and two battalions of General Lyttelton's brigade which have reached Cape Town are as yet unaccounted for in the telegrams.

How, then, if all his forces are thus employed could Sir Redvers Buller, by taking thought, have added anything to Sir C.F. Clery's force on the Mooi River? The answer is that a commander's decision must usually be a choice of risks. To have sent on to Natal a part of the troops now in Cape Colony would have been to have increased the danger of the Cape Dutch going over to the Boers. Which was the less of two possible evils—the spread of disaffection in the Cape Colony or the loss of Sir George White's force? No one at home can decide with confidence because the knowledge here available of the situation in either colony is very limited. Subject to this reserve, I should be disposed to think the danger in Natal the more serious, and the chance of losing Colonel Kekewich's force a mere trifle in comparison with the defeat of General Joubert, for the effect of Joubert's defeat would be felt on the Orange River, whereas the relief of Kimberley can hardly produce an appreciable effect on the situation in Natal.

The difficult problem of which General Buller is now giving his solution has been created for him by the Government, which from June to October was playing with a war which according to its own admissions it did not seriously mean. "Mistakes in the original assembling of armies can hardly be repaired during the whole course of the campaigns, but all arrangements of this sort can be considered long beforehand and—if the troops are ready for war and the transport service is organised—must lead to the result intended." So wrote Moltke in 1874 in one of the most famous passages ever published. If last spring the Government or even the Secretary of State for War alone had been in earnest, had been doing what plain duty required, the nature and conditions of the South African war would have been thought out, and the military judgment which was to conduct it would have been set to devise the proper opening. That would have consisted in landing simultaneously, thirty thousand men at Durban and forty thousand at the Cape. These forces would not have moved forward until they were complete and ready, and though the Boers might meantime have overrun their borders, the British advance when it came would have been continuous, irresistible, and decisive. Instead of that the Government gave the Boers notice in June that there might be war, so that the Boers had the whole summer to get ready.

When in September the Government began to think of action the only idea was defending Natal. But this defence was not thought of as part of a war. The idea never seems to have occurred to the Government that the need for defence in Natal could not arise except in case of war, and that then to defend Natal would be impracticable except by beating the Boer army. Accordingly, the handful of troops in Natal were posted without regard to the probable outlines of the war, and therefore, wrongly posted. The consequence was that when war came they could not be concentrated except at the cost of fighting and loss, and of a retreat which gave the enemy the belief that he had won a victory. Even then the point held—Ladysmith—was too far north and liable to be turned. All these mistakes, made before Sir George White arrived, were evident to that general when he first reached Ladysmith, but they could not then be remedied, and he had to do, and has done, the best he could in the circumstances. The fact of Sir George White's investment compels Sir Redvers Buller to begin his campaign with the effort to relieve him, and the fact that Kimberley is held by a weak force compels him to divide his force when his one desire certainly must have been to keep it united. In the expected battle at Mooi River Sir Redvers Buller will be trying to make up for the faulty arrangements of September. The desire to hold as much of the railway as possible—also due to the false position of Sir George White's force—has, perhaps, led General Hildyard to spread out his force over too long a line. But, in spite of the difficulties created by errors at the start, I am not without hopes that these remarks will soon be put out of date by a decisive British victory.


November 29th, 1899

Two factors in the present war were impressed upon my mind at the beginning: first, that the British Army was never in better condition as regards the zeal and skill of its officers, the training and discipline of the men, and the organisation of the field services; secondly, that the Government had deliberately handicapped that Army by giving the Boers many weeks' clear start in which to try with their whole forces to overwhelm the small British parties sent out at haphazard to delay them. The whole course of events up to now has been underlining these two judgments. The British troops gave proof of their qualities at Talana Hill, at Elandslaagte, and on the trying retreat from Dundee. There is no more difficult task in war than a frontal attack upon a position defended by the repeating rifle. Good judges have over and over again pronounced it impossible. But the British troops have done it again and again. General Hildyard's attack on Beacon Hill, an arduous action for a definite purpose which was effected—the re-opening of the railway from Estcourt towards the south—was a creditable achievement on the Natal side. On the Cape side Lord Methuen's advance from Orange River is an example of the greatest determination and energy coupled with caution on the part of the general, and of the most brilliant courage on the part of the troops. I thought it probable that so skilful a tactician as Lord Methuen would combine flank with frontal attacks. It seems that the conditions gave him little or no opportunity to do that, and he has had three times to assault and drive back a well-posted enemy. At Belmont, on the 23rd, and at Enslin, on the 25th, Lord Methuen had a numerical superiority large enough to justify an attack in which heavy loss was to be expected. The losses were not exceptionally great, and this fact proves that the British troops are of very much higher quality than their adversaries. At Modder River, on the 28th, the numbers were practically equal. The Boers were strongly entrenched and concealed, and could not be out-flanked. That they were driven back at all is as proud a record for our troops as any army could desire, for the attacking force ought to have been destroyed. The engagement may well have been "one of the hardest and most trying in the annals of the British Army," and if the victory is a glory to the soldiers, the resolve to attack in such conditions reveals in Lord Methuen the strength of character which is the finest quality of a commander.

If it is well that we at home should appreciate the splendid results of many years of good teaching given to the officers and men of the Army, results to be attributed in great part, though not exclusively, to the efforts of Lord Wolseley and his school, it is no less our duty to face squarely the fact that the Nation has not done its duty by this Army. The Nation in this sense means the people acting through the Government. To see how the Government has treated the Army we have only to survey the situation in South Africa. Fifty thousand men were ordered out on October 7th,—an Army Corps, a cavalry division and troops for the line of communications. The design was that, with the communications covered by the special troops sent for that duty, the Army Corps and the cavalry division, making together a body of forty thousand men, should cross the Orange River and sweep through the Free State towards Pretoria, while Natal was protected by a special force there posted.

But long before the Army Corps was complete this plan had been torn to pieces by the Boers. Sir George White's force, being hardly more than a third the strength of the army with which the Boers invaded Natal, could not stop the invasion, though it could hold out when surrounded and invested.

Accordingly the first task of Sir Redvers Buller was to stem the flood of Boer invasion in. Natal and to relieve Sir George White. For this purpose he is none too strong with three out of the six infantry brigades that make up the Army Corps. The remaining three brigades could not carry out the original programme of sweeping through the Free State, and meantime the Boers have overrun the great district between Colesberg and Barkly East, between the Orange River and the Stormberg range. General Gatacre with a weak brigade at Queenstown is watching this invasion which as yet he seems hardly strong enough to repel. The rest of the troops are required in the protection of the railways, of the depot of stores at De Aar, and the bridge at Orange River. But Kimberley was invested and Mafeking in danger, and the effect of the fall of either of them upon the Cape Dutch might be serious. Something must be done. Accordingly Lord Methuen with two brigades set out towards Kimberley. His task is both difficult and dangerous; he has not merely to break the Boer resistance by sheer hard fighting, but to run the risk that Boer forces from other quarters, perhaps from the army invading Cape Colony, may be brought up in his rear, and that he may in this way be turned, enveloped, and invested. The scattering of forces is due to the initial error of sending too small a force to Natal, and of making no provision for its reinforcement until after a six weeks' interval. The consequence is that instead of our generals being able to attack the Boers with the advantage of superior numbers, with the concomitant power of combining flank and frontal attacks, and with the possibility of thus making their victories decisive by enveloping tactics or by effective pursuit, the British Army has to make attack after attack against prepared fronts, which though they prove its valour can lead to no decisive results, except at the cost of quite disproportionate losses.

It is possible, and indeed we all hope that the Boer forces, at first under-estimated, may now be over-estimated, and that Sir Kedvers Buller, whose advance is probably now beginning, will not have to deal with superior numbers. In that case his blows will shatter the Boer army in Natal, so that by the time he has joined hands with Sir George White the enemy will feel himself overmastered, will lose the initiative, and begin to shrink from the British attacks. That state of things in Natal would lighten Lord Methuen's work. But it would be rash to assume such favourable conditions. We must be prepared for the spectacle of hard and prolonged fighting in Natal, and for the heavy losses that accompany it. The better our troops come out of their trials the more are we bound to ask ourselves how it came about that they were set to fight under difficulties, usually against superior numbers, though the British force devoted to the war was larger than the whole Boer army? The cause of this is that a small force was sent out on September 8th, and nothing more ordered until October 7th, and the cause of that arrangement was that the Government, as Mr. Balfour has naively told us, never believed that there would be a war, or that the Free State would join the Transvaal, until the forces of both States were on the move. Our statesmen negotiated through June, July, and August, talked in July of "putting their hands to the plough," and yet took no step to meet the possibility that the Boers would prove in earnest and attack the British colonies until the Boer riflemen were assembling at Standerton and patrolling into Natal. Does not this argue a defect in the training of our public men, a defect which may be described as ignorance of the nature of war and of the way in which it should be provided for? Mr. Balfour admits that his eyes have been opened, but does not that imply that they had been shut when they ought to have been open? If the members of the Government failed to take the situation seriously in June, what is to be thought of the members of the Opposition, some of whom even now cannot see that the choice was between abandoning Empire and coercing the Boers? The moral is that we should, if possible, strengthen the Government by sending to Parliament representatives of the younger school, which is National and Imperialist rather than Conservative or Liberal.


December 7th, 1899

The conditions in South Africa are still critical; indeed, more so than ever. There are three campaigns in progress, and, though there are good grounds for hoping that in each case the balance will turn in favour of the British, the hope rests rather upon faith than upon that numerical superiority which it is the first duty of a Government to give to its generals.

Lord Methuen's advance came to a pause after the battle of Modder River, now nine days ago. There appear to have been good reasons for the delay. First of all, it is necessary that when, or soon after, Kimberley is reached the railway to De Aar should be available both for the removal of non-combatants, and for the transport of provisions, ammunition and guns. This involves the repair in some way of the bridge at Modder River. Next, it was proved-by that battle, in which the Boer force was large enough to make the victory most difficult, and by the arrival after the battle of fresh Boer forces, that Lord Methuen's force was not strong enough for its work. If a whole day and heavy loss were needed to bring about the retreat of eleven thousand Boers from a prepared position it might be impracticable for Lord Methuen without more force to drive away fifteen or eighteen thousand Boers from a prepared position at Spytfontein, and the possibility of such a body of Boers being at that point had to be reckoned with. Lord Methuen needed more infantry, more artillery, and more cavalry. Of none of the three arms had General Forestier-Walker any abundant supply. If he has sent on, besides a cavalry regiment, the whole of the Highland brigade and three batteries of artillery, Lord Methuen would be none too strong. It is essential that, having started, he should defeat the Boers again and reach Kimberley, for a failure would be a disaster. I have great confidence in Lord Methuen and his troops; what determination and bravery can do they will accomplish, and I feel pretty sure that in a day or two we shall have news of another victory and of the relief of Kimberley. But why has the paramount power in South Africa sent a fine general and splendid troops to face heavy odds and to run the risk of finding themselves over-tasked by superior numbers?

If we put the most liberal construction on General Walker's account of what he has done to reinforce Lord Methueh there are now fifteen battalions, five batteries, and two cavalry regiments north of De Aar. To protect the great depot of military stores at De Aar and the railway from that point to the Cape a considerable force is needed, and to stem the tide of Boer invasion and Dutch disaffection, which has spread from the Orange River to Tarkastad and Dordrecht, from Colesberg to Barkly East, a further large force is badly wanted. But in the whole of Cape Colony south of the Orange River there appear to be only nine battalions, perhaps a couple of regiments of cavalry, and on the most favourable assumption five batteries. Of these battalions Sir William Gatacre has half-a-dozen on the lines running north from Algoa Bay and East London, the greater part at Putters Kraal, north of Queenstown. This is a tiny force with which to clear an invaded and disaffected area of twelve thousand square miles. We may be perfectly certain that Sir William Gatacre will do the best that can be done with his force, and if that should be more than his numbers alone would lead us to expect the reason will be that Lord Methuen's victories will have made the Free State Boers uneasy about their road home. A fresh victory near Kimberley and the effectual relief of that place will lighten Sir William Gatacre's load.

The centre of gravity is in Natal, where the greater part of the Boer army and the greater part of the British force in South Africa are confronting one another. There are three British divisions, strong in infantry but weak in artillery, and there is cavalry enough for a strong division. But one of the divisions has been invested and bombarded with more or less persistence since the beginning of November, and the other two are not yet known to be quite ready to move. Sir George White's force is reported to be on short rations, and some of the messages from correspondents in Ladysmith declared a week ago that it was high time for relief to come. The force can hardly be as yet near the limit of its resisting powers, but it is evidently nearing the stage when after relief it will need rest and recuperation instead of being ready for a vigorous and prolonged advance. General Buller with two divisions will shortly set out to force the passage of the Tugela and to fight his way round Ladysmith, either on the east or on the west, so as to cut off either the retreat to the Free State or that to the Transvaal of the Boer army. If Sir Redvers Buller can in this way win a victory in which the enemy is not merely pushed back, but controlled in his choice of the direction of his retirement, the issue of the campaign in Natal will be settled, and the British Commander will be able to consider his great purpose—the crushing of the Boer armies. The long wrestle between Sir George White and the Boers has no doubt produced a state of exhaustion on both sides, and by the time the decision comes exhaustion will be turned into collapse. If, as we trust, it should be a Boer collapse, Sir Redvers Buller's best policy, if practicable, will be to follow up a success with the utmost promptitude and vigour, to push on through the mountains, and open a doorway into the country beyond them. A check to Sir Redvers Buller's advance would be disastrous. He can take no more troops from the Cape. The fifth division can hardly be at his disposal before Christmas, for the first transport did not start till November 24th, and the last has not yet left. But a check means insufficient force, and is as a rule to be made good only by reinforcement. It is clear, then, that Sir Redvers Buller must not be checked; he must cross the Tugela and must win his battle. I think that with his twenty thousand men he may be trusted to do both, even if the Boer force is as large as the highest estimates that have been given.

The four decisions pending—at Kimberley, north of Queenstown, at Ladysmith, and on the Tugela—are here represented as all doubtful. I do not expect any of them to go wrong, but it is wise before a fight to reckon with possibilities, and where the enemy, stubborn, well-armed, and skilful, has also the advantage of numbers, it would be folly not to consider the possibility that he may hold his ground. There are elements of success on the British side that should not be forgotten. The British soldier to-day, as in the past, proves to be a staunch support to any general. To-day, however, he has leaders who, taking them all round, are probably better qualified than any of their predecessors. The divisional generals are all picked for their known grip of the business of war; among the brigadiers there are such devoted students of their profession as Lyttelton and Hildyard, and the younger officers of to-day are more zealous in their business and better instructed than at any previous period. There should be less in this war than in any that the British Army has waged of that incompetence of the subordinates which in past campaigns has often caused the commanders more anxiety than all the enemy's doings.

Yet at every point the Boers appear to outnumber our troops. The question arises how this came about; either the Government has not sent troops enough, or the force given to the Commander-in-Chief has been wrongly distributed. Sir Redvers Buller has done the best he could in difficult conditions. Ladysmith had to be relieved, and he has taken more than half of his force for the purpose. He might have wished to take a third division, but if he had done so Kimberley might have fallen, and the rising at the Cape have spread so fast and so far that the defeat of Joubert would not have restored the balance. Accordingly the smaller half of the force was left in the Cape Colony. Here also there were two tasks. To push back the invasion was a slow business, and if meantime Kimberley had fallen, the insurrection would have become general. Accordingly a minimum force was set to stem the invasion and a maximum force devoted to the relief of Kimberley. The difficulties, therefore, arose not merely from the strategy in South Africa but from the delay of the Government to send enough troops in time. The fact that Sir George White with a small force was left for two months unsupported produced the rising at the Cape, and compelled the division of the British Army Corps, in, consequence of which the whole force is reduced to a perilous numerical weakness at each of four points. But the Army Corps, the cavalry division, and the force for the line of communications, have now to wait three weeks before they can be strengthened. It was known to the Government before the end of October that Ladysmith would be invested and need relief, that the Cape Dutch would rise, and that unless Kimberley were helped the rising would become dangerous. Yet the despatch of the first transport of the fifth division was delayed until November 24th. Has the Government even now begun to take the war seriously? Do the members of the Cabinet at this eleventh hour understand that failure to crush the Boers means breakdown for the Empire, and that a prolonged struggle with them carries with it grave danger of the intervention of other Powers? Does Lord Lansdowne continue to direct the movement of reinforcements according to his own unmilitary judgment modified by that of one or more of his unmilitary colleagues? I decline to believe that Lord Wolseley has arranged or accepted without protest this new system of sending out the Army in fragments, each of which may be invested or used up before the next can arrive.


December 14th, 1899

The failure of Lord Methuen's attack at Magersfontein has brought home to every mind the extreme gravity of the situation in South Africa, and it seems most likely that in the western theatre of war the crisis has issued in a decision unfavourable to the British cause.

It is well to keep the whole before our eyes even when examining a part, so I begin with a bird's-eye view. In Natal Sir Redvers Buller seems to be ready, and to be about to strike, for the advance of Barton's brigade towards Colenso must be the prelude to the advance of the main body to the right or the left to cross the Tugela above or below the broken railway bridge. If Sir Redvers Buller is so fortunate as to bring the principal Boer army to an action and to defeat it so thoroughly as seriously to impair its fighting power, the balance in the eastern theatre of war will have turned, and attention may be concentrated upon the restoration of the position in the west. There the balance has turned the wrong way. General Gatacre's defeat at Stormberg would not be a very serious matter, for his force was small, were it not that it damages the credit of British generalship, and that it must have given a great stimulus not only to the Free State army but to the rebellion of the Cape Boers. For the Boers Stormberg is a great victory, which will encourage them to fresh enterprises in a country where at least every second Dutch farmer is their friend and ally. They may, therefore, be expected to turn their attention as soon as they can to Lord Methuen's communications. This probability rendered Lord Methuen's position at Modder River doubly critical. On Sunday he was ready, and set out to test his fate. On Tuesday he was back again in his camp, the measure of his defeat being given by his assurance that in his camp he was in perfect security. Those are ominous words, for they have not the air of the man who does not know that he is beaten, and who means to try again at once. It is, however, conceivable that, as the defeat seems to have been caused by an inexplicable blunder, the marching of a brigade in the dark in dense formation close up to the muzzles of the enemy's rifles, the effort may be made to attack again with better dispositions. A second attack would, of course, be attended with twofold risks, but if it has no chance of success the defeat already suffered must be reckoned a disaster. If Lord Methuen is definitely beaten, Kimberley must be set down as lost, and the question is of the safety of Lord Methuen's division. In that case to remain at Modder River is to court investment, which would last for many weeks. The risk would not be justified unless there is in the camp an ample store of supplies and ammunition, and even then it is not clear what purpose it would serve. If, therefore, the defeat is decisive the proper course is a retreat to a position of which the communications can be protected, and which cannot easily be turned. The whole situation, then, is failure in the Cape Colony on both lines, coupled with an impending action in Natal, of which, until it is over, a favourable result, though there is reason to hope for it, had better not be too lightly assumed. Yet the British purpose of the war is to establish the British power in South Africa on a firm basis: the only way to prepare that basis being to crush the military power of the two Republics. The British forces now in South Africa are clearly not strong enough to do their work. What is the Nation to do in order to accomplish the task which it has undertaken?

A nation can act only through its Government, and, as at this moment the British Nation is united in the resolve to fight this war out, the Government has, without looking back, to give a lead. The first thing is for the Cabinet to convince the public that it is doing all that can be done, and doing it in the right way. But the public does not trust its own judgment. That much-talked-of person the man in the street does not fancy himself a general, and is not over-fond of the military critic—the unfortunate man whose duties have compelled him to try to qualify himself, to form a judgment about war. There is a sound instinct that war is a special business, and that it should be managed according to the judgment of those who are masters of the trade; not those who can write about it, but those who have practised it and proved their capacity. But those men, the generals who are, believed to have a grasp of the way to carry a war through, are all outside the Cabinet. The Cabinet has its chosen expert adviser, the Commander-in-Chief; but rumour or surmise hints that his advice has been by no means uniformly followed. Surely the wisest course which the Cabinet could now adopt would be to call Lord Wolseley to their board as an announcement and a guarantee that in the prosecution of the war his judgment was given its true place, and that nothing thought by him necessary or desirable was being left undone. If the military judgment holds that more force is required the extra force must be provided. There are, after the Regular Army and the Marines, the whole of the Militia, the Volunteers, and thousands of trained men in the British colonies. There is no difficulty, seeing that the Nation is determined to keep on its course, about drawing upon these forces to any extent that may be required. If there are constitutional forms to be fulfilled they can be fulfilled; if Parliamentary sanction is needed it can be had for the asking.

At the present rate of consumption the fifth division will hardly have been landed before its energies will be absorbed, and unless Sir Redvers Buller is peculiarly fortunate during the next few days, the fifth and sixth divisions together will not be enough to change the present adverse situation into one of decided British preponderance. There should be at the Cape a reservoir of forces upon which the British Commander should be able to draw until he can drive the enemy before him. When that stage comes the flow of reinforcements might be suspended, but to stay or delay it before that stage has been reached is to court misfortune.

Something might probably be done to block the channel through which the enemy derives some of his resources and some of his information. The telegraph cable at Delagoa Bay might with advantage have its shore end lifted into a British man-of-war. There must be ways and means of stopping all intercourse through Portuguese territory between the Transvaal and the sea. That this is desirable is manifest, and to such cases may be applied the maxim, "Where there is a will there is a way."

The idea seems to be spreading that this war must lead to a thorough overhauling and recasting of the British military organisation. But if you are to make a bigger army, an army better suited to the times and to the needs of the Nation, you must begin by getting a competent army-creating instrument. You cannot expect a Cabinet of twelve or eighteen men ignorant of war to create a good war-fighting machine. You cannot entrust the organisation of your Army to any authority but the Government, for the body that creates your Army will govern you. The only plan that will produce the result required is to give authority over the making and using of the Army to a man or men who understand War—War as it is to-day. In short, a Nation that is liable to War requires men of War in its Government, and, in the case of Great Britain, the place for them is in the Cabinet. The traditional practice of having a civilian Minister inside the Cabinet with all the authority, and a soldier with all the knowledge outside the Cabinet, was devised for electioneering purposes, and not for war. The plan has answered its object very well for many years, having secured Cabinets against any intrusion of military wisdom upon their domestic party felicity. But now that the times have changed, and that the chief business of a Cabinet is to manage a war, it seems unwise to keep the military judgment locked out. Party felicity was valuable some years ago when there was a demand for it; but the fashions have changed. To-day the article in demand is not eloquence nor the infallibility of "our side," whichever that may be; the article in demand to-day is the organisation of victory. That is not to be had at all the shops. Those who can supply it are very special men, who must be found and their price paid. The Nation has given bail for the production of this particular article, and if it is not forthcoming in time the forfeit must be paid. The bail is the British Empire.


December 21st, 1899

A week ago, while we were thinking over failure in the Cape Colony on both lines of advance, we could still hope for success on what circumstances had made the most important line, in Natal. But now there has been failure in Natal also.

Of the battle of Colenso Sir Redvers Buller's telegraphic despatch, though it probably does the commander less justice than he would have received at the hands of any other narrator, gives an authoritative if meagre account. The attack seems to have been planned rather as a reconnaissance in force, to be followed up in case it should reveal possibilities of victory, than as a determined effort on which everything was to be staked. In all probability this form of action was inevitable in the conditions. The Boers held a strong position, covered in front by a river fordable at only two points. Such a position can hardly be reconnoitred except by attack. It could not be turned except by a long flank march, which, if successful would have occupied several days, during which the camp and railhead would have to be strongly guarded. There is reason to believe that the force in Natal has not the transport necessary to enable it to leave the railway for several days, during which it would be a flying column. Moreover, the Boers, being all mounted, could always place themselves across the path of any advance. Accordingly it is at least premature to assume that any course other than that which he adopted was open to Sir Redvers Buller. The mishap to a portion of the artillery will be better understood when the full story of the battle is accessible. Meanwhile Sir Redvers Buller's withdrawal of the troops when he saw that success was unattainable has preserved his force, and he is now awaiting reinforcement before again attempting an advance. The critical element in the position of affairs in Natal lies in the fact that time runs against the British. Sir Redvers Buller and the Government no doubt know pretty accurately the date up to which Sir George White can hold Ladysmith. If by that date he has neither been relieved nor succeeded in fighting his way to the Tugela his situation will be desperate.

Lord Methuen has probably been as much hampered as Sir Redvers Buller by want of transport. He, too, will not forget the importance of preserving his force and his liberty of action, and will retire rather than await investment.

Through the mists which always shroud a war during its progress the fact is beginning to be visible that the British generals have been from the beginning paralysed not, as anxious observers are always prone to conclude, by any want of knowledge or energy, but by the nature of the implement in their hands. They have to fight an enemy of unprecedented mobility. The Boers are all horsemen and can ride from point to point more than twice as fast as the British infantry can march; they live in British territory by requisitions or loot, and therefore can limit their transport train. But the British forces are restricted to a little more than two miles an hour and to twelve or fifteen miles a day according to the ground. There is everywhere a deficiency if not a complete lack of transport, said to be due to the action of the Treasury during the summer, and therefore every column is dependent for its food and ammunition upon a line of railway, which a handful of Boers may at any moment and at any point in its hundreds of miles temporarily interrupt. These considerations should be kept in view not merely in reviewing the conduct of the campaign and the work of the British generals, but above all in the preparations now being pushed forward throughout the Empire. The project of a Corps of Imperial Yeomanry is a step in the right direction. If it is to contribute to success due importance must be given in the selection of the men to straight shooting, without which good riding can be of little use. Equally important, too, is the selection of leaders. The home-trained officer, however good, must not be exclusively relied upon. Every local war we have had, beginning with the campaigns against the French in America which led to the Seven Years' War, has proved the necessity of giving full scope to local experience and local instincts. Old and new instances abound of the way in which the neglect of the feelings of colonists and of their special qualifications for special work rankles in breasts of a colonial population. If, then, the new Yeomanry are to be of real service in South Africa and to deserve the name Imperial a proportion of their officers of all grades should be men of colonial birth and colonial experience. The South African troops now at the front have done fine service, and some of their officers might be promoted and transferred to the new Yeomanry, their places being filled by promotions in the corps which they leave. The preparation of transport ought not to lag behind the despatch of reinforcements. At the earliest possible moment the attempt should be made to send into the enemy's territory a great raid of horsemen, on the model of the raids of the American Civil War. A body of several thousand mounted men should march right through a part of the Free State, living upon the country, consuming every scrap of food, and clearing out every farm of all its provisions. If that operation can be repeated two or three times a belt of country will be left across which the Boers without transport will not be able to move, while the British, properly equipped, will not be delayed by its exhaustion.

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse