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.

Parent Category: Books
Category: Wilkinson: Lessons of the war
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