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 The Government of Natal thought that if the troops were withdrawn from Glencoe--Dundee, or the whole force collected, say at Colenso instead of Ladysmith, the appearance of retreat would have a bad effect on the natives, the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.