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Oh faithful and loyal City—when the tale of the War is done, And wheat waves white in the furrows where bloodstain'd fields
When Peace with her healing fingers has bound up the wounds of strife,
And, cleansed by fire, the Nations shall rise into purer life—
In praise to the Lord of Battles for the Heroes of Mafeking!
SURPRISES IN WAR: THEIR REASONS AND REMEDY.
AMONG the many varied incidents of the present war, with its ups and downs, its successes and reverses, there are surely even now some lessons to be learnt, some morals to be drawn. Of course the chapter has not yet been closed, the authentic and detailed history of any portion of the campaign has not yet been written, hence there is a danger of jumping at hasty conclusions, of bestowing indiscriminate praise or equally indiscriminate blame. Nevertheless, it would seem that there are one or two features already so clearly defined that we can discuss them without fear of hazarding premature judgment or of jumping at hasty conclusions.
If there is one point more than another which we must regard with the least satisfaction, and which we should lay seriously to heart, it is the frequency with which our troops have been surprised, and the lamentable results which have only too frequently followed. Before, however, attempting to ascertain whether this succession of unfortunate mistakes can be traced, as in my belief it can in a great measure be traced, to radical defects in our system of military training in the past, it is only fair to point out that probably no country in the world has greater natural advantages for the laying of traps than the portion of South Africa in which our troops have been engaged, and that no enemy,
civilised or uncivilised, are more skilful than the Boers in that special kind of warfare. Surprises, moreover, must occur, and always have occurred in all warfare from the beginning of time, no matter how highly trained are troops or how skilful and watchful are the officers who command them. Human nature remains human nature all the world over : men come in tired and weary, after, say, a twenty miles' march, exhausted from want of food, and are immediately sent on outpost duty,-perhaps they have had but a few hours' sleep for several days and nights: is it astonishing if, under such circumstances, a picquet sentry falls asleep, and the army is surprised?
Apart, however, from such natural and, it is to be feared, inevitable accidents, it would seem as if our troops during the present war have had more than their fair share of such misfortunes. Take some instances that we know: there may be many others of which we have never heard. Our very first fight, that of Talana Hill, was of the nature of a surprise, since it is said that the first intimation of the presence of the Boers was given by their big gun dropping a shell into the camp at Dundee. Then the " untoward incident" at Nicholson's Nek was no doubt a surprise of the most unfortunate description. Similarly, at the battle of Colenso on December 15, which
resulted in the loss of eleven and, had he possessed some
guns and over eleven hundred hors de combat, it was undoubtedly a surprise to find a number of concealed trenches and the bed of the river swarming with Boers. Of the remaining operations in Natal, culminating in the relief of Ladysmith, at present we know but few details, except that there was great loss of life and several failures, which in the face of an enterprising enemy might have been converted into crushing disasters. There seems, however, no reason to doubt that several of the attempts at relief were rendered abortive by ignorance of the features of the ground and of the enemy's dispositions. Whether, however, this ignorance was caused by the absence of proper maps, by the extreme difficulty of obtaining reliable information through the medium of spies, or by the want of proper scouting, now rendered a duty of extreme difficulty and danger from the long range of modern firearms, it is impossible to say as yet. Sir Redvers Buller in one of his despatches, which I cannot think was ever intended for publication, comparatively early in the campaign, animadverted in very strong terms on the neglect of proper scouting by the officers under his command, so it is to be feared that this all-important service cannot have been entirely perfect.
Let us now turn to the other theatre of war. From all accounts, at Belmont we scored a distinct success, and Lord Methuen caught the Boers napping, his victory was complete,
more cavalry and a couple of batteries of horse artillery, the defeat of the Boers would have been converted into rout. Unfortunately, at the Modder river the conditions were reversed as regards surprise. It was not suspected that the banks of the river were occupied at all, so much so that the troops had started to march on empty stomachs, being told that they would breakfast on the other side of the river: hence the force fought until night, so it is said, without having had any food since the previous day. One regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which had been hurried up by rail the night before and had missed their dinner, were absolutely without food for thirty-six hours. That the battle was won under such conditions, fighting, as the troops did, from sunrise to sunset in the heat of a tropical sun without food or water, is a striking testimony to the tenacity, bravery, and discipline of the British soldier, officer and man.
Of Magersfontein it is scarcely necessary here to speak, or of the terrible disaster which befel the Highland Brigade, due undoubtedly to a surprise of the most sudden and fatal description. How it happened, or who was to blame, we know not,-it matters little. Many gallant men, among them some relatives and dear friends of my own, have gone to their long rest. Nearly all might now have been alive had matters gone differently.
I will not refer to the reverse
at Stormberg: the details are well known. Enough has been said about it already.
We now come to the two last surprises, perhaps the most unaccountable, I will not say the most inexcusable, of any I allude to Koorn Spruit, where seven guns with a valuable convoy were lost, besides a large number of prisoners; and the disaster of Reddersburg, where an entire
entire column, marching apparently "en l'air," was surrounded by a force of Boers and entirely wiped out, every single man being put hors de combat or taken prisoner. We have at present no idea who were to blame for these most lamentable incidents: it is, however, safe to conclude that some one was to blame in both cases. It would be alike ungenerous and premature to suggest that those actually in command of these different bodies thus lost were in fault. No doubt in course of time we may hear more details, and the unfortunate officers who are held responsible will only too soon meet with their punishment. There is, however, one point which, even at the present stage of the war, seems to require explanation. How did it happen that so large a force of Boers, stated to number from 6000 to 8000 men, were allowed to approach so close to Bloemfontein without their presence being discovered, and without time being given either to withdraw or to reinforce Broadwood's Brigade? How, also, did it occur that the presence of so formidable a body of the enemy near this ill-fated marching column was never
even suspected? These are questions which no doubt will be answered some day at present they are certainly puzzles. Of course it must be remembered that, although Lord Roberts had nominally a very large force of mounted men at his disposal when these unfortunate incidents occurred, the great proportion of this force was practically dismounted, so that the efficient screen of cavalry covering the front and flanks of the army could not be properly maintained. As soon as remounts were provided, it was made clear that our cavalry and mounted men can show as much enterprise and as much observation, and can perform their duties quite as efficiently, as those of any other army.
Still it must be admitted that we have had some very severe lessons, and the succession of "untoward incidents" that has occurred-very many, if not all, avoidable-caused in the first instance a violent outburst of depreciatory criticism to be levelled against our officers, their training, and their intelligence. The correspondent of the 'Times' at Cape Town in the first instance led the attack, and his example was followed by many letter-writers and other amateur critics and strategists. No one has ventured to question the devoted bravery, zeal, and unflinching determination of the officers of our army; but they have been accused of being "stupid." Not very long since it was suggested in the House of Commons that what we required was a professional and
not a "pleasure-seeking" army, or words to that effect. Nothing could be more unjust or untrue than such an accusation. As regards actual intellectual power, it is only necessary to refer to the severe competitive examination which, until this war broke out, every candidate for a commission had to undergo. There is no calling in civil life which exacted a more severe and searching test of intellectual capacity: whether this test was judicious, or calculated to secure the best possible material for officers, is quite another question. As regards the disinclination of officers at the present day to study their profession, none but the most ignorant could cast such a reflection on them.
Then why, it may very pertinently be asked, have such mistakes been made? The answer is simple. The science of war requires constant practice, like every other science, and the opportunity of this constant practice has not been afforded by the Government to the larger proportion of our officers and men. Foreign countries have long since recognised that only by annual manœuvres, and by constant exercise of every portion of troops in small bodies, can any army be trained efficiently to fulfil the part which they will be called to play in the event of war. How differently have we treated our soldiers! It is true that after the French and German war we had a hot fit for a couple of years, a Manoeuvre Act was passed, and a certain sum of money voted by Parliament to carry out these exer
cises. But the hot fit passed away very quickly, and until 1898 no general facilities have been given to our army at home to render themselves efficient for the condition of actual warfare. The general officers cannot be blamed: no powers were given them by Parliament to manœuvre over ground; and as regards money they were miserably stinted, so much so that in the exercises, which they managed with much energy and by dint of great tact and trouble to carry out, it was found necessary to lay it down as a condition that officers attending them as staff, umpires, and suchlike should bear all their own expenses. It frequently happened that many officers, quartered in various parts of the country, were very anxious to improve their professional efficiency, but could not afford the expense which attendance at manœuvres without forage or allowances entailed. Can any one realise such short sighted parsimony even from a purely commercial point of view! It would be difficult to estimate how much some of these "untoward incidents" have cost the country, quite apart from the valuable lives sacrificed. It is computed that the war now costs the country two millions a week. Each one of these reverses has most probably prolonged the war at least half a week, and at the lowest estimate has cost the country a million. The ruinous effect of such a policy, in which the training of officers was starved and stinted, does not seem to have occurred either to the military or civilian side of the War Office in former years.