An inexperienced writer, more expert with arms than with the pen, I do not know if I have described all these events in a manner sufficiently clear and coherent to convey a distinct impression. I shall therefore try to sum up on a few broad lines the ideas I have been able to form after the experiences I have recorded.
First of all, two great questions seem to present themselves: Why, in spite of all their qualities, have the Boers been beaten? Why are the English, with over 250,000 men, held in check by a handful of peasants?
These two questions are closely connected, for, though this seems a paradox, the chief cause of the defeat of the Boers is also the cause of their long resistance. I will explain.
I think we must attribute the defeat of the federated troops mainly to their absolute lack of military organization, for in spite of the legend of the volunteers of 1792, no undisciplined force, however brave, will ever prove a match for a regular army.
Resistance may be more or less prolonged, phases more or less heroic, but the issue is foredoomed.
This lack of organization, of discipline--that is the great thing--explains the absence of cohesion, of combined action, of rational leadership.
I have already sufficiently pointed out the evils of suffrage as applied to the election of commanders. In addition to this, what enthusiasm or confidence can these feel, when they know that half the men of their commando will leave them on the road if they feel so inclined? And even if they do not actually do so, the leader's confidence is put to a rude test!
Yet these same Boers who have fought like lions on occasion, and on occasion have fled without firing a shot, are capable of education in the art of war.
The Johannesburg Politie is a striking proof of this. With the elementary discipline that obtains among them, this corps held their own for a whole day against Lord Roberts's 40,000 men on two occasions, at Abraham's Kraal on March 10, and near Machadodorp on August 27, almost unsupported. And each time at the price of a third of their number!
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To this chief and primordial cause we must add another, not altogether inexcusable, but very harmful under the circumstances. I mean the dread and hatred of the foreigner.
Not inexcusable, I say, for, for nearly a century, the foreigner has been to the Boer the invader, the robber, and the enemy!
The Boers therefore, as a whole, could never believe that for love of a noble cause, or a passion for adventure, men of every nation should have come to espouse their cause against the United Kingdom quite disinterestedly.
In the unfortunate state of mind that prevailed among them, the eulogies of a well-intentioned but maladroit press had the most disastrous effect.
What sort of respect, indeed, could these primitive people feel for Europeans when Lombroso and Kuyser had written in all good faith: 'As 63 per cent. of Boer blood is Dutch, 12 per cent. French, 12 per cent. Scotch, and 3 per cent. German, this mixture of the best nations of Europe ought to constitute a centre of liberty and civilization, a race superior to any in Europe!'
Why, when one belongs to 'a race superior to any in Europe,' should one follow the advice of officers of the European armies, and, consequently, of the inferior races?
And, indeed, when we consider the remarkable campaign now being carried on by De Wet and Botha, we may well ask whether Europeans could obtain better results. Under present conditions, I think, it would be hard to do better.
But if General de Villebois' advice had been taken from the first, it is very probable that the guerilla war would never have been inaugurated. The campaign would have been over long ago; for whereas the Boers were content to hold the English in check, the Europeans wanted to beat them.
Not satisfied with successful engagements that gave no solid advantage, they wanted to push forward, with the enthusiasm that surprises a demoralized enemy, creates a panic, and results in total rout.
Haunted by the names that gleam in the folds of our banners--Jemmapes, Valmy, Marengo and Austerlitz--we dreamed of great victories. And if the Boers had wished it, this dream might have been realized!
We now come to the reason why the English, with over 250,000 men, are held in check by a handful of peasants.
I have said that this question is closely bound up with the cause of the Boer defeat--the absence of discipline. For how is it possible to surround, to conquer, and to crush adversaries who will never be drawn into a battle, and who make off directly a blow is struck at them?
Are they closely pressed by the enemy? Each man goes off as he chooses in a different direction, and the commando of 500 men which attacked a little convoy yesterday has melted away before the column of 2,000 sent in pursuit of it.
Far away in the bush, to the east, a horseman disappears on the horizon, another on the west--and that is all.
If one of these men should have been too closely engaged in the English lines, the first farm he comes to offers him an asylum. His rifle is thrust under a plank in the flooring, his horse turned out to graze, the white flag floats over the house, and Her Majesty has no more inoffensive subject than my Burgher--for the next twenty-four hours.
If need be, when the English authority is too near, an old gun--I once saw a flintlock--will be handed to him in sign of submission, and the oath of neutrality taken.
This explains the enormous number of arms that have been given up, while the Burghers have retained their good Mausers and Martini-Henrys, and still use them.
But as soon as the English, pleased at a fresh submission, have gone off, the rifle--the good one this time--is brought out, the horse stealthily mounted, and the Burgher is abroad once more.
The dispersions are merely momentary, and very often a rallying-point among the hills has been fixed on in advance. Eight days later the commando, concentrating again, appears on the scene with some unexpected stroke. This kind of thing may go on for a long time.
'Egaillez-vous, les gas!' was the cry of the Vendeen chiefs; and it is this manoeuvre, and the rally which follows it, that regular troops cannot execute.
This kind of warfare is obviously very painful and fatiguing for the invader. But it is a purely defensive method, and cannot have any decisive success, unless the invading army should give up the struggle.
For which side does Fortune reserve her final favours? It is certain that the English are weary, very weary, and that they have been so for some time.
Ten months ago, at the beginning of January, a soldier of the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment wrote with mournful resignation:
'We shall all be thankful when this war is over, and this horrible butchery at an end!'
Another, less disciplined and more easily discouraged, a yeoman, wrote after Colenso:
'If I come through alive, the army will have seen the last of me! I have had enough of it, and I bitterly regret having rejoined my regiment.'
I do not say that these sentiments are general, but they indicate the weariness of the combatants. And this lassitude seemed to me to be creeping over all, from the general to the private, among those I met between Springs and Cape Town.
The army itself will not be consulted, of course, but I wish to note this state of mind, which seems to me serious.
On the other hand, British prestige is too deeply engaged for the English to retreat without losing caste.
What will happen? It would be foolhardy to prophesy. 'If in doubt, refrain,' says the sage. I will take his advice, offering for the consideration of those who have followed me so far this melancholy sentence from the Westminster Gazette of last March:
'Each Boer will have cost us £2,000 to subdue, and no one can yet say what each will cost us to govern.'