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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 circ.u.mstances. 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in spite of the difficulties created by errors at the start, I am not without hopes that these remarks will soon be put out of date by a decisive British victory.
FIGHTING AGAINST ODDS
_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 p.r.o.nounced 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 a.s.sault 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 a.s.sume 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 a.s.sembling 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.
THE DELAY OF REINFORCEMENTS
_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 a.s.sumption 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 pa.s.sage 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 prompt.i.tude 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.
THE NATION’S PROBLEM
_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 princ.i.p.al 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 a.s.surance 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 a.s.sumed. 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 const.i.tutional 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 sh.o.r.e 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 circ.u.mstances 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 a.s.sume 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 p.r.o.ne 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 hors.e.m.e.n 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 b.r.e.a.s.t.s 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 hors.e.m.e.n, 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 sc.r.a.p 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.
The plan adopted by the authorities for raising a volunteer contingent is more significant for the future of the National defences than has yet been realised. Each volunteer battalion is to supply a company to its line battalion in the field and to keep a second company ready at home in reserve. Thus the volunteer force is to be used by being absorbed into the Army. That leads inevitably to the amalgamation of the volunteers with the regular Army, and is a death-blow to the specific character of each of them. It means that henceforth the British Army, like other armies, will be h.o.m.ogeneous, containing no other categories than men with the colours and men in reserves, cla.s.sified according to the immediacy of their liability to be called up. The volunteer commanding officer disappears, and with him the volunteer officer as such. For now that it is known that the Government will employ non-professional officers only as company officers under professional field officers, no one will take a volunteer commission with the idea of serving for many years from subaltern to commanding officer. What has. .h.i.therto been the volunteer force will therefore become a force administered by professional paid officers. It will cost more, and it will become a branch of the Army. In short, the Government has unwittingly taken a step of which the inevitable consequence is conscription.
But from this follows another change, equally unsuspected by the Ministry. The day that the Nation discovers, as it is now beginning to discover, that war makes its claims on every man and on every household, there will be no more toleration of the unskilled management that is inseparable from the practice of choosing a. Secretary of State for War for his ignorance of the subject. The British Nation is at length opening its eyes to the truth that war is a serious matter, and that the neglect of it in peace is costly in blood and perilous to the body politic. When its eyes are wide open it will insist on putting knowledge in power over the Army and the Navy. Thus is coming about, to the infinite benefit of the community, the overthrow of that noxious sham, the party politician.
Late in the day, when the position has become what it is, the Government has thought of the elementary principle that if you want to carry on a war you should begin by finding a commander in whom you have confidence. Accordingly at the eleventh hour Ministers have remembered that the Nation trusts Lord Roberts. This is proof positive that the Government was not in earnest before the late reverses, for had they been serious they would have appointed Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener at the outset. The precedent is useful by what it suggests; for, if during a war you can strengthen the military direction by giving the authority to the man recognised as the most competent, you may also strengthen the political direction by a similar procedure. The Cabinet has thus, perhaps without suspicion of what it was doing, set before the Nation the true problem: “Wanted, a Ministry competent in the management of war.”
THE NATION’S BUSINESS
_December 28th_, 1899