In matters accessory to the War in South Africa, two stand conspicuous, as worthy of note by such as interest themselves in clearly comprehending those contemporary facts of which the import is not merely local, but universal. As in all theatres of war, and in all campaigns, there exist in South Africa particular conditions, permanent or transient, to utilise or to overcome which introduces into the character of the forces employed, and into their operations, specific variations, distinguishing them from methods elsewhere preferable. Such differences, however, being accidental in character, involve questions strictly of detail—of application—and do not affect the principles which are common to warfare everywhere. To the casual reader, therefore, they are less important to master and to retain in mind, however necessary to be observed, in order to apprehend the relative advantages and disadvantages of the parties to the conflict, and so to appreciate the skill or the defects shown by either in the various circumstances that arise.
In South Africa such specific differences are to be found, not only in the features of the country, which are more than usually exceptional, or in the contrast of characteristics between the two races engaged, which from the military point of view is very marked, but notably in the uncertainties and impediments attending the lines of communication by which the British army must be sustained nearly a thousand miles from the sea. These embarrassments are manifest in the great length and small capacity of the single-track railroad—750 miles to Bloemfontein and over 1,000 to Pretoria; in the difficulty and slowness of transport by all other means; in the problems of water, and of pasturage, as affected by the wet and dry seasons; in the effect of all these upon mobility, and in the influence on questions of transport, and of all mobile services, exercised by the regional sickness that rapidly destroys the greater part of non-acclimated horses.
Communications dominate war; to protect long lines of communication from serious interference by raids demands an ample mobile force.
These are general principles of warfare, universally applicable. The questions of water, pasturage, and horse sickness are special to South Africa, as is also in some degree the inadequate railway system; and these constitute conditions which modify the local application of general principles. Two factors, however, have appeared in this war which, while they characterise it especially, are gravely significant to those who would fain seek in current events instruction for the future, whether of warning or of encouragement. These are the almost complete failure of the British Government and people to recognise at the beginning the bigness of the task before them; and, in the second place, the enthusiasm and practical unanimity with which not South Africa only but the other and distant British colonies offered their services to the mother country. The philosophical reflector can scarcely fail to be impressed with this latter political fact; for it has illustrated vividly the general truth that, when once men's minds are prepared, a simple unforeseen incident converts what has seemed an academic theory, or an idle dream, into a concrete and most pregnant fact.
The naval battle of Manila Bay will to the future appear one of the decisive events of history, for there the visions of the few, which had quickened unconsciously the conceptions of the many, materialised as suddenly as unexpectedly into an actuality that could be neither obviated nor undone. What Dewey's victory was to the over-sea expansion of the United States, what the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861 was to the sentiment of Union in the Northern States, that Paul Kruger's ultimatum, summarizing in itself the antecedent disintegrating course of the Afrikander Bond, was to Imperial Federation. A fruitful idea, which the unbeliever had thought to bury under scoffs, had taken root in the convictions of men, and passed as by a bound into vigorous life—perfect, if not yet mature. In these months of war, a common devotion, a common service, a common achievement, will have constituted a bond of common memories and recognised community of ideals and interests. To a political entity these are as a living spirit, which, when it exists, can well await the slow growth of formal organisation, and of compact, that are but the body, the material framework, of political life.
It is evident enough that the Transvaal War was the occasion, not the cause, of the manifested unity of purpose which resulted in immediate common action between communities so far apart, geographically, as the British Islands, Canada and Australasia. As early as July 11 the Governor of Queensland had telegraphed that in case of hostilities the colony would offer two hundred and fifty mounted infantry, and on September 29 the Governor of New Zealand sent a message of like tenor. Before the Boer ultimatum was issued, Western Australia and Tasmania had volunteered contingents. The other colonies rapidly followed these examples. There were, indeed, here and there manifestations of dissent, but they turned mainly upon questions of constitutional interpretation and propriety, and even as such received comparatively little attention in the overwhelming majority of popular sentiment.
The attitude of the Imperial Government throughout was strictly and even scrupulously correct. The action of the colonies was left to be purely voluntary, the aid accepted from them being freely proffered, and the expenses of equipment and transportation by themselves voted. Not till the landing of the colonial troops in Africa were they taken into pay as an integral part of the Imperial forces, to which they were assimilated also as regards support in the field, and in matters of pension for wounds and other compassionate allowances.
The rapidity which characterised the movements on the part of the various colonies affords the most convincing proof, not only of the cordial readiness of their co-operation, but of the antecedent attitude of thoughtful sentiment toward the home country and the interests of the Empire, which is a far more important matter than the relatively scanty numbers of men sent. Imperial Federation is a most momentous fact in the world's history, but in material results it concerns the future rather than the present.
On the 9th of October the Boer ultimatum was issued. On the 23rd the contingent from British Columbia left Vancouver, to cross the continent to Quebec, where the Canadian force was to assemble; and from that port, on the 30th of the same month, the "Sardinian," of the Canadian line, sailed with 1,049 officers and men. The New Zealanders and part of those from New South Wales had already started, and by the 5th of November there was left in Australia but one small steamer's load, of less than one hundred men with their horses, which was not already at sea speeding for Cape Town. To what was known officially as the First Colonial Contingent the Australasian colonies contributed 1,491 officers and men.
It is impossible to an American reading these facts not to recall that there was a day when troops, from what were then North American colonies, fought for Great Britain in the trenches at Havana, and before Louisburg in Cape Breton, as well as in the more celebrated campaigns on the lines of Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence. But—and herein is the contrast between past and present that makes the latter so vitally interesting—neither mother country nor colonies had then aroused to consciousness of world-wide conditions, for which indeed the time was not yet ripe, but by which alone immediate and purely local considerations can be seen in their true proportions, and allowed proper relative weight. From those old wars the mother country expected but an addition to her colonial system, to be utilised for her own advantage; the colonists, outside the love of adventure inherent in their blood, were moved almost wholly by the jealousies and dangers of the immediate situation, as the South African colonists have in part been in the present instance. American concern naturally, inevitably as things then were, did not travel outside the range of American interests, American opportunities, American dangers, while the British Government regarded its colonies as all mother countries in those days did. Consequently, when the wills of the one and the other clashed, there was no common unifying motive, no lofty sentiment—such as that of national Union was in 1861 to those who experienced it—to assert supremacy, to induce conciliation, by subordinating immediate interest and conviction of rights to its own superior claim.
After making due allowance for mere racial sympathy, which in the present contest has had even in the neutral United States so large a share in determining individual sympathies, the claim of an English newspaper is approximately correct, that the universal action of the colonies, where volunteering far exceeded the numbers first sent, "indicates what is the opinion of bodies of free men, widely separated by social and geographical conditions, concerning the justice and necessity of the quarrel in which we are now engaged." But this takes too little account of the much more important political fact that cold opinion was quickened to hot action by the sentiment of the unity of the Empire, an ideal which under different conditions may well take to Imperial Federation the place that the Union occupied in American hearts and minds in 1861. Alike in breadth of view and in force of sentiment, nothing exceeds the power of such an ideal to lift men above narrow self-interest to the strenuous self-devotion demanded by great emergencies. Should this be so in the present case, and increase, Imperial Federation and the expansion of the United States are facts, which, whether taken singly or in correlation, are secondary in importance to nothing contemporaneous.
Nowhere was the failure of the British Government to comprehend the largeness, at once of the current struggle and of its Imperial opportunities, more evident than in the wording of its momentary rejection of the second proffered help from the self-governing colonies. To the offer of the Canadian Government on November 3, the British Ministry on the 8th replied that circumstances then were such that the necessity of a second contingent was not apparent. It may be that, to quote again a contemporary utterance, "It has been decided that the forces so contributed shall rather serve to assert a principle than to constitute a serious burden on the colonies"; and it is doubtless more judicious to accept less, and charily, of a too eager giver than to overtask his benevolence. Nevertheless, a more guarded and contingent refusal would have shown better appreciation of current conditions, and of the Imperial possibilities involved in the continued and increased participation of the colonies in an Imperial war.
In order not to revert again to the matter of colonial participation, it may be well to state here that the reverse of Methuen at Magersfontein, on December 11, occasioned a casual suggestion in the London Times of the 14th that "the colonies, whose forces are especially suited for the exigencies of the present struggle, have already offered in some instances to increase the strength of their contingents ... and should now be invited to do so." Official invitation was not awaited. The colonies took the initiative by asking if reinforcements would be acceptable, and upon an affirmative reply the additional troops and sums required received the votes of men of all parties; Buller's first repulse at Colenso, and the news of Roberts' appointment to the chief command in South Africa, contributing simultaneously to harden determination and to swell enthusiasm. Whatever may be thought of the judgment of the Ministry in the first refusal, which but reflected the slowness with which both it and the nation it represented aroused to the magnitude of their task, there can be little doubt that the general outcome was favourable beyond all antecedent probability to nurturing the growth of the Imperial sentiment. In the second effort Canada sent 1,969 officers and men, Australasia 1,843. From the number of horses accompanying them it is evident that these were chiefly, if not all, mounted troops; the kind especially needed for the seat of war.
The figures given yield a grand total of 6,352 sent from the Canadian and Australasian colonies in the more formal organization. To these are to be added from New Zealand and Australia some 2,700 irregular horse, raised from among the men who live there in the open, not previously enrolled, and corresponding in general characteristics to the Rough Riders of our recent war in Cuba. India also sent a contingent of 2,437 men and officers. Up to this moment of writing, no certain account of the number of colonial troops furnished by the South African colonies has been accessible to me. Speaking in public recently, Mr. Chamberlain has said that more than 30,000 men had been offered by the self-governing colonies. Early in December it was estimated that, including the forces in Kimberley, Mafeking, and Rhodesia, Cape Colony had already 10,000 in service. In February, an official, but incomplete, and therefore a minimum, list attributed 7,158 at that time to Natal. Combining these various statements, and reckoning at 12,000 the contingents from the other self-governing colonies (excluding India), at the time of Chamberlain's speech (May 11), it seems probable that British South Africa put into the field from 20,000 to 25,000 men. This conclusion agrees substantially with one furnished to the author from an independent source, using other data.
In its entirety, the contribution of some 12,000 troops—more or less—from the greater remote dependencies does not indeed loom very large alongside the truly gigantic figure of 166,277 officers and men, who, between the 20th of October and the 31st of March, were despatched for South Africa from the ports of the United Kingdom; in which number are not included those drawn from India and from England prior to the earlier date, and who constituted the bulk of the force shut up in Ladysmith under Sir George White. But the practical importance of a common sentiment—of a great moral fact—is not to be measured by figures only. The idea of Imperial Federation justifies itself to the intelligence as well as to the imagination, resting upon the solid foundation of common interests as well as of common traditions.
In the adjustment of relative importance in men's intellects—which must precede any useful adjustment of mutual relations, benefits and responsibilities, by former political agreement—the colonies on the one hand will have to recognize the immensely greater burden, as indicated by the above figures and by the size of the fleet, borne by the United Kingdom. The latter on its part must acknowledge, as in practice she has done, not merely the right of the colonies to their local administration and self-government, but also the indispensable contribution to the mutual interests of all parts in the Federation, that results from local naval bases of operations in many decisive parts of the world, resting everywhere upon the one sure foundation for such bases—an enthusiastically loyal, self-dependent, and military population. Military power, in analysis, consists principally of two factors—force and position—and if the greater wealth and population of the home country causes it to exceed in the former, the dispersion and character of the dependencies contribute decisively to the latter.
The transportation of the above immense body of soldiers, with all the equipment and supplies of war needed for a protracted campaign a distance of 6,000 miles by sea, is an incident unprecedented, and in its success unsurpassed, in military history. The nature of the war, it is true, removed from the undertaking all military or naval risk; there was in it nothing corresponding to the anxious solicitude imposed upon the British generals, by the length of their thin railroad line and its exposure in numerous critical points to a mobile enemy. But as a triumph of organisation—of method, of system, and of sedulous competent attention to details—the performance has reflected the utmost credit not only upon the Admiralty, to which, contrary to the rule of the United States, this matter is intrusted, and which is ultimately responsible both for the general system in force and for the results, but also upon the Director of Transports, Rear-Admiral Bouverie Clark, to whose tenure of this office has fallen the weighty care of immediate supervision. To success in so great an undertaking are needed both a good antecedent system and a good administrator; for administration under such exceptional conditions, precipitated also at the end by the rapid development of events, means not merely the steady running of a well-adjusted and well-oiled machine, but continual adaptation—flexibility and readiness as well as precision, the spirit as well as the letter. When a particular process has had so large a share in the general conduct of a war, a broad account of its greater details is indispensable to a complete history of the operations.
The number and varied distribution, in place and in climate, of the colonial or foreign posts occupied by the British army at the present time, and the extensive character of its operations abroad, during war and peace, for two centuries have occasioned a gradual elaboration of regulation in the transport system, to which, by the necessity of frequent changes of troops, are added an extent and a continuity of practical experience that has no parallel in other nations. These have vastly facilitated the unprecedented development demanded by the present war. A leaven of experimental familiarity, by previous personal contact with the various problems to be solved, suffices to permeate the very large lump of crude helplessness that may be unavoidably thrown upon the hands of regimental officers; and even where such personal experience has been wholly wanting to a particular ship's company, the minuteness of the regulations, if intelligently followed, gives a direction and precision to action, which will quickly result in the order and convenience essential to the crowded life afloat. Nowhere more than on board ship does man live ever face to face with the necessity of order and system, for there always the most has to be disposed in the least space.
When a ship is engaged for the government service wholly—but not otherwise—she is known officially as a "transport"; when passage for troops is taken, but the ship is not entirely at the government's disposal, she is a "troop freight ship." In the former capacity, to adapt her to her new employment, she passes under the charge of designated naval officers for particular fitting; the time for which, in this war's practice, has not exceeded two weeks for infantry or four for cavalry transports. Upon preparation completed ensues an immediate inspection by a mixed board of army, navy, and medical officers before the ship proceeds to the place for embarkation. The aim necessarily is to keep this process well in advance of the mobilisation of the troops, and incites to beneficial rivalry the War Office and the Admiralty, between which there must be full mutual understanding and prevision, as to the readiness of the transports, the ports of assembly, the numbers and quantities of men, of horses, and of material of all kinds, to be carried in each vessel.
When an embarkation is to take place, the position and arrangement of the ships at the docks, the number and regiments of men assigned to each are arranged, have been arranged, often many days before. The system and manner are laid down by regulation, from the time the detachment leaves the post where it has been stationed until the ship is ready to cast off from the dock and go to sea. Each man takes with him in the car, from the starting point, his sea kit and immediate personal equipment, from which he is not permitted to part until it is handed aboard for stowage in the precise place assigned to it in the vessel. The muskets, when carried by the men on the journey, are marked each with a label corresponding to the rack where it is to stand in the ship. Upon arrival at the port, and during the operation of transferring, a naval officer is in charge so far as general direction on the dock and on board the ship is concerned, but without superseding the military ordering and management of the troops by their own officers. The same general arrangement continues at sea. That is, the discipline, routine, and supervision of the troops are in the hands of the military officers, as though in a garrison; but they can give no orders as to the management or movements of the ship to the sea captain who commands her. On board, the mode of life is fixed by regulation—subject, of course, to the changes and interruptions inseparable from sea conditions. The hours for rising, for meals, for drills, for bed, and all the usual incidents of the common day are strictly prescribed.
With such forethought and method, ripened by long experience, results were obtained differing greatly from the headless scene of confusion attending the embarkation of our troops at Tampa, as described by witnesses. Only experience can fully meet the difficulties of a great operation of this character, and we were without experience; nor can experience like that of British officials ever be expected among us, for neither we nor any other nation has or will have the colonial responsibilities of Great Britain. The large number of seasoned sergeants and corporals, who had embarked and disembarked half a dozen times before, contributed immeasurably to the order and rapidity of the process in each shipload that went to make up the 166,000 that left England for South Africa. But while so much falls naturally to the military element, and can best be discharged by them, because by their own self-helpfulness alone it can be carried out, the choice and equipment of ships, the entire preparation and internal arrangement of them as well as the direction of their movements, coaling, etc., belong most fitly to the Navy, for the simple reason that equipment and supervision of this character are merely a special phase of the general question of naval administration and management; and no specialty—in whatsoever profession—is so successfully practised as by a man who has a broad underlying knowledge of, and wide acquaintance with, the profession in its general aspect. To this unimpeachable generalization the settled practice of the nation, whose experience in this matter transcends that of all others combined, gives incontrovertible support.
A brief detail of the methods of the first departure, October 20, 1899, will facilitate comprehension and serve for all others. That day four transports lay at Southampton Docks, to take on board Major-General Hildyard, with the first brigade of the first division of the army to be commanded by Sir Redvers Buller. The trains ran down to the wharf near the ships, the troops remaining in them until the usual officers, alighting, had placed the markers to indicate the positions for each company. At the signal the companies fell in; the regiments in quarter column. The companies then advanced successively, forming in line abreast their ship, between two gangways—one forward and one aft—along each of which was stretched a chain of men, who thus sent on board, one set the rifles, the other the sea kits and valises, which, passing from hand to hand, reached certainly and without confusion the spot where their owner knew to seek them. The company then moved off, clearing the ground for its successor, and was next divided into messes; which done, each mess, under charge of its own non-commissioned officer, went on board by a third gangway, to the living or "troop" deck. This unceasing graduated progress completed its results for the first ship by 2 P.M., when she cast off her lines and steamed out. The three others were then nearly ready, but were delayed a short space to receive a visit and inspection from the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, with a number of the distinguished higher staff-officers. Thus five thousand troops, who had slept inland the previous night, were before dark at sea on their way to South Africa.
The same scene was repeated on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday following. By the latter evening—October 23—21,672 men had sailed, the order for mobilisation having been issued just a fortnight before. Of this number more than half were of the Army Reserve; men, that is, who had served their time, gone into civil life, and now rejoined the colours.
The specific methods are sufficiently illustrated by the above, but it may be interesting to note the numbers sent in each succeeding month, for they show, on the one hand, the continuousness and magnitude of the operation, viewed as a whole, and also, incidentally, the December return indicates the slackening of the current, due to the unwarranted confidence of the people and of the government in the sufficiency of their preparations, and their underestimate of the difficulties before them. We in the United States during the Civil War more than once made a like mistake, discontinuing enlistments and discouraging volunteering.
In October, from the various ports of the United Kingdom, were despatched 28,763 officers and men; in November, 29,174; in December, 19,763; in January, 27,854. In the short month of February the spur of the December disasters began to show its results, for then the figures rose to 33,591; in March, with which month my information ends, 27,348 went out. The grand total, 166,277, may in its effects be summarized by saying that from October 20 to March 31, 162 days, an average of over one thousand men sailed daily from Great Britain or Ireland for the seat of war.
Some illustrations of the capacity of great ocean steamers for such service may also be interesting. Thus the "Cymric" carried a brigade division of artillery, 18 guns, 36 wagons, 351 officers and men, 430 horses, with all the ammunition and impedimenta, besides a battalion of infantry; in all nearly 1,600 men. Another, the "Kildonan Castle," took on an average 2,700 officers and men, on each of three voyages. The greatest number in any one trip was by the "Bavarian"—2,893.
In effect, although embarkation was not wholly confined to the great shipping ports, the vast majority of the vessels sailed from Southampton, the Thames, and the Mersey. At each of these was stationed a captain on the active list of the Navy, representing the Director of Transports at the Admiralty, and having under him a numerous staff of sea officers, engineers and clerks, by whom the work of equipment, inspecting, and despatching was supervised. After sailing, the vigilant eye of the Transport Department still followed them by further provision of local officials at foreign and colonial ports, and by the network of submarine telegraphs which has so singularly modified and centralised the operations of modern war. At Las Palmas in the Canary Islands, and at St. Vincent in the Cape de Verde, the intermediate coaling ports, a ship of war was kept always after October, the captains of which watched over the transports, cabling arrivals and departures, deciding questions of coal requirement, repairs, delays, and generally, no doubt, discharging the function noted by the midshipman, who explained that he must be going because he saw the first lieutenant's glass was turned his way.
At Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and Durban were other local representatives—naval captains with staffs similar to those of the home ports—so that, to use a phrase of the Director of Transports, the ships were "well shepherded." It was, in fact, much the position of a man who with ten fingers manipulates the several keys of a piano. If the end crowns the work it may be said, although the end is not quite yet, that the work of transportation has been crowned. No loss of human life by preventable cause has occurred, nor has complaint been heard of serious hitch of any kind. The numbers speak for themselves.
The carriage of animals necessary for an army of the numbers transported would in any case be a weighty and troublesome task, but it has been rendered doubly so by the scanty resources of the scenes of war, by the terrible horse-sickness, and by the length of the voyage, which enfeebles the animals in a proportion ever increasing with the passage of the days. The evil becomes yet greater from the pressing needs at the front, and the importunate urgency to hasten the animals forward, over a railroad journey of hundreds of miles, without first giving them time to regain the fulness of their strength.
The importance and embarrassing nature of this factor in the campaign are hard to overestimate. The insufficient number of horses and their debility have doubtless accounted for much of the delay and seeming languor of action, which has appeared otherwise inexplicable; the utter weakness of the poor beasts having indeed been expressly alleged as the reason for failure of cavalry or of artillery in more than one critical moment. That the supply forwarded has been large, if nevertheless falling short of the demand, is shown by the transport figures, according to which, in round numbers, 50,000 horses and 39,000 mules had been shipped by the end of March. Half of the former, and the greater part of the latter, were drawn from North and South America, from Australia, and from the Mediterranean. To these figures is to be added another, yet uncertain because future, but which, when ascertained, will probably double the number of horses and mules actually used in the war, raising it, including those obtained in South Africa itself, to nearly 200,000. The monthly waste has been roughly reckoned at 5,000.
The size and multiplicity of these various operations enforce the homely, but always to be remembered, maxim that "War is business," and that in all its aspects; business in which, like every other, the aim must be the best results with the least expenditure—of money, of labour, and of life. An intermediate difficulty in the problem of getting men, horses, and supplies from England to the front of operations, and one which probably would not antecedently occur to a person inexperienced in such transactions, was the inadequate facilities at Cape Town itself, as well as of the railroads, for handling the mass of freight, animate and inanimate, unexpectedly thrust upon them. A third-class port cannot be suddenly raised to the business of one of the first class, and be found either competent or convenient. Consequently, the congestion at the docks, wharves, and railroads was very great. Many ships were kept waiting two months, or even more, for discharge; a fact which means not merely expense, though that is bad enough, but delay in operations, which in turn may be the loss of opportunity—and the equivalent of this again is prolongation of war, loss of life, and other miseries.
The practical lesson of this embarrassment at Cape Town should not be lost to those who assume too lightly that the traffic of the Suez Canal can in time of war be turned to the Cape route. The question of necessity for coaling at Cape Town, and the facilities for it should at least be exhaustively studied before accepting this solution as final, or even probable. It is evident that, for the operations of this war, the use of Port Elizabeth, Port Alfred, and East London, although they have no docks at which steamers can lie and discharge, would to some extent relieve Cape Town; but that such relief should be effective at the front, it was necessary also that the railroads from them should be securely held up to their junctions with the main line. This was not the case at first.
It may be added, for the benefit of American readers, that this question of local congestion, and of consequent dislocation and delay of traffic and of transport, is worthy of consideration by those among us who may think that the interruption of our coasting trade, or the blockade of one or two principal harbours, can be met by transferring the business, of the former to the railroads, of the latter to other ports not blockaded. This is not so, because the local conveniences and methods, which have developed under the sifting tests of experience and actual use, cannot be transferred at short notice; and until such transfer has been made, distribution cannot proceed. The body economic and commercial will be in the state of the body physical whose liver is congested, whose blood therefore circulates poorly, with consequent imperfect nutrition and general disorder of the system; much where little ought to be, and little where much.
Footnote 5: More have sailed since the above information, but exact figures are wanting to the author.
Footnote 6: The distance from Southampton, the chief though not the only port of departure, to Cape Town is 5,978 miles.