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The next six weeks will be an anxious time for the British Empire. The war which begins as I write between three and four on Wednesday afternoon, October 11th, 1899, is a conflict for supremacy in South Africa between the Boer States, their aiders and abettors, and the British Empire. In point of resources the British Empire is so incomparably stronger than the Boer States that there ought to be no possibility of doubt about the issue. But the Boer States with all their resources are actually in the theatre of war, which is, separated by the wide oceans from all the sources of British power, from Great Britain, from India, from the Australian and Canadian colonies. The reinforcements ordered on September 8th have not yet all arrived, though the last transports are due to arrive during the next four or five days. After that no further reinforcements can be expected for a month, so that during the next few weeks the whole strength of the Boers, so far as it is available at all, can be employed against a mere fragment of the British power. To the gravity of this situation it would be folly to shut our eyes. It contains the possibility of disaster, though what the consequences of disaster now would involve must for the present be left unsaid. Yet it may be well to say one word on the origin of the unpleasant situation which exists, in order to prevent needless misgivings in case the first news should not be as favourable as we all hope. There is no sign of any mistake or neglect in the military department of the Army. The quantity and character of the force required to bring the war to a successful issue has been most carefully estimated in advance; every preparation which forethought can suggest has been thought out, so that the moment the word was given by the supreme authority, the Cabinet, the mobilisation and despatch of the forces could begin and proceed without a hitch. The Army was never in better condition either as regards the zeal and skill of its officers from the highest to the lowest, the training and discipline of the men, or the organisation of all branches of the service. Nor is the present condition of the Army good merely by comparison with what it was twenty years ago. A very high standard has been attained, and those who have watched the Army continuously for many years feel confident that all ranks and all arms will do their duty. The present situation, in which the Boers start favourably handicapped for five weeks certain, is the foreseen consequence of the decision of the Cabinet to postpone the measures necessary for the defence of the British colonies and for attack upon the Boer States. This decision is not attributable to imperfect information. It was regarded as certain so long ago as December last, by those in a position to give the best forecast, that the Boers of both States meant war with the object of establishing Boer supremacy. The Cabinet, therefore, has knowingly and deliberately taken upon itself the responsibility for whatever risks are now run. In this deliberate decision of the Cabinet lies the best ground for hoping that the risks are not so great as they seem.

The two Boer Republics are well supplied with money, arms, and ammunition, and I believe have collected large stores of supplies. Their armies consist of their burghers, with a small nucleus of professional artillery, officers, and men. The total number of burghers of both States is about fifty thousand, and that number is swollen by the addition of non-British Uitlanders who have been induced to take arms by the offer of burghership. The two States are bound by treaty to stand or fall together, and the treaty gives the Commander-in-Chief of both armies to the Transvaal Commander-in-Chief, who is however, bound to consult his subordinate colleague of the Orange Free State. The whole of the fifty thousand burghers cannot take the field. Some must remain to watch the native population, which far outnumbers the burghers and is not well affected. Some must be kept to watch the Basutos, who are anxious to raid the Free State, and there will be deductions for sick and absentees as well as for the necessary duties of civil administration. The forts of Pretoria, Johannesburg, and Bloemfontein require permanent garrisons. In the absence of the accurate data obtainable in the case of an army regularly organised into tactical and administrative units, the most various estimates are current of the force that the two States can put into the field as a mobile army available for attack as well as for defence. I think thirty-five thousand men a safer estimate than twenty-five thousand. The Boers are fighting for their political existence, which to their minds is identical with their monopoly of political rights, and therefore their States will and must exert themselves to the uttermost. This view is confirmed by the action of the British military authorities, who estimate the British force necessary to disarm the Boer States at over seventy thousand men, a number which would seem disproportionate to a Boer field force of only twenty-five thousand. The British forces now in South Africa are in two separate groups. In Natal Sir George White has some ten thousand regular troops and two thousand volunteers, the regulars being eight or nine infantry battalions, four regiments of cavalry, six field batteries, and a mounted battery. He appears to have no horse artillery. In the Cape Colony there are seven British battalions and, either landed or on passage, three field batteries. A part of this force is scattered in small garrisons of half a battalion each at points on the railways leading to the Free State--Burghersdrop, Naauwpoort, and Kimberley. At Mafeking Colonel Baden-Powell has raised a local force and has fortified the place as well as its resources permit. A force of Rhodesian volunteers is moving from Buluwayo towards Tuli, on the northern border of the Transvaal. There are volunteer corps in the Cape Colony with a total of some seven thousand men, but it is not clear whether the Schreiner Ministry, whose sympathies with the Boers are undisguised, has not prevented the effective arming of these corps.

The reports of the distribution of the Boer forces on the frontiers must be taken with caution. Apparently there are preparations for the attack of Mafeking and of Kimberley, and it is open for the Boers to bring against either or both of these places forces largely outnumbering their defenders. Both places are prepared for defence against ordinary field forces. The actions at these places cannot very greatly affect the general result. Their nearness to the frontier makes it likely that the first engagements will take place on this border. On the other side of the theatre of war the Boers may be expected to invade Natal and to attack Sir George White, whose forces a few days ago were divided between positions near Ladysmith and Glencoe, places nearly thirty-five miles apart. The bulk of the Boer forces are deployed on two sides of the angle formed by the Natal border, where it meets the frontiers of the Transvaal and of the Free State. From the Free State border Ladysmith is about twenty-five miles distant in a straight line, and from the Transvaal border near Vryheid to Ladysmith is about twice that distance. If the Boers move on Thursday morning they would be able easily to collect their whole force at Ladysmith on Sunday morning, supposing the country contained no British troops. By Sunday, therefore, the Boer commander, if he knows his business, ought to be able to attack Sir George White with a force outnumbering the British by something like two to one.

If I were a Cabinet Minister I should not sleep for the next few days, but as an irresponsible citizen I trust that the Boers will be shocked to find how much better the British soldier shoots in 1899 than he did in 1881.

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