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December 14th, 1899

The failure of Lord Methuen's attack at Magersfontein has brought home to every mind the extreme gravity of the situation in South Africa, and it seems most likely that in the western theatre of war the crisis has issued in a decision unfavourable to the British cause.

It is well to keep the whole before our eyes even when examining a part, so I begin with a bird's-eye view. In Natal Sir Redvers Buller seems to be ready, and to be about to strike, for the advance of Barton's brigade towards Colenso must be the prelude to the advance of the main body to the right or the left to cross the Tugela above or below the broken railway bridge. If Sir Redvers Buller is so fortunate as to bring the principal Boer army to an action and to defeat it so thoroughly as seriously to impair its fighting power, the balance in the eastern theatre of war will have turned, and attention may be concentrated upon the restoration of the position in the west. There the balance has turned the wrong way. General Gatacre's defeat at Stormberg would not be a very serious matter, for his force was small, were it not that it damages the credit of British generalship, and that it must have given a great stimulus not only to the Free State army but to the rebellion of the Cape Boers. For the Boers Stormberg is a great victory, which will encourage them to fresh enterprises in a country where at least every second Dutch farmer is their friend and ally. They may, therefore, be expected to turn their attention as soon as they can to Lord Methuen's communications. This probability rendered Lord Methuen's position at Modder River doubly critical. On Sunday he was ready, and set out to test his fate. On Tuesday he was back again in his camp, the measure of his defeat being given by his assurance that in his camp he was in perfect security. Those are ominous words, for they have not the air of the man who does not know that he is beaten, and who means to try again at once. It is, however, conceivable that, as the defeat seems to have been caused by an inexplicable blunder, the marching of a brigade in the dark in dense formation close up to the muzzles of the enemy's rifles, the effort may be made to attack again with better dispositions. A second attack would, of course, be attended with twofold risks, but if it has no chance of success the defeat already suffered must be reckoned a disaster. If Lord Methuen is definitely beaten, Kimberley must be set down as lost, and the question is of the safety of Lord Methuen's division. In that case to remain at Modder River is to court investment, which would last for many weeks. The risk would not be justified unless there is in the camp an ample store of supplies and ammunition, and even then it is not clear what purpose it would serve. If, therefore, the defeat is decisive the proper course is a retreat to a position of which the communications can be protected, and which cannot easily be turned. The whole situation, then, is failure in the Cape Colony on both lines, coupled with an impending action in Natal, of which, until it is over, a favourable result, though there is reason to hope for it, had better not be too lightly assumed. Yet the British purpose of the war is to establish the British power in South Africa on a firm basis: the only way to prepare that basis being to crush the military power of the two Republics. The British forces now in South Africa are clearly not strong enough to do their work. What is the Nation to do in order to accomplish the task which it has undertaken?

A nation can act only through its Government, and, as at this moment the British Nation is united in the resolve to fight this war out, the Government has, without looking back, to give a lead. The first thing is for the Cabinet to convince the public that it is doing all that can be done, and doing it in the right way. But the public does not trust its own judgment. That much-talked-of person the man in the street does not fancy himself a general, and is not over-fond of the military critic--the unfortunate man whose duties have compelled him to try to qualify himself, to form a judgment about war. There is a sound instinct that war is a special business, and that it should be managed according to the judgment of those who are masters of the trade; not those who can write about it, but those who have practised it and proved their capacity. But those men, the generals who are, believed to have a grasp of the way to carry a war through, are all outside the Cabinet. The Cabinet has its chosen expert adviser, the Commander-in-Chief; but rumour or surmise hints that his advice has been by no means uniformly followed. Surely the wisest course which the Cabinet could now adopt would be to call Lord Wolseley to their board as an announcement and a guarantee that in the prosecution of the war his judgment was given its true place, and that nothing thought by him necessary or desirable was being left undone. If the military judgment holds that more force is required the extra force must be provided. There are, after the Regular Army and the Marines, the whole of the Militia, the Volunteers, and thousands of trained men in the British colonies. There is no difficulty, seeing that the Nation is determined to keep on its course, about drawing upon these forces to any extent that may be required. If there are constitutional forms to be fulfilled they can be fulfilled; if Parliamentary sanction is needed it can be had for the asking.

At the present rate of consumption the fifth division will hardly have been landed before its energies will be absorbed, and unless Sir Redvers Buller is peculiarly fortunate during the next few days, the fifth and sixth divisions together will not be enough to change the present adverse situation into one of decided British preponderance. There should be at the Cape a reservoir of forces upon which the British Commander should be able to draw until he can drive the enemy before him. When that stage comes the flow of reinforcements might be suspended, but to stay or delay it before that stage has been reached is to court misfortune.

Something might probably be done to block the channel through which the enemy derives some of his resources and some of his information. The telegraph cable at Delagoa Bay might with advantage have its shore end lifted into a British man-of-war. There must be ways and means of stopping all intercourse through Portuguese territory between the Transvaal and the sea. That this is desirable is manifest, and to such cases may be applied the maxim, "Where there is a will there is a way."

The idea seems to be spreading that this war must lead to a thorough overhauling and recasting of the British military organisation. But if you are to make a bigger army, an army better suited to the times and to the needs of the Nation, you must begin by getting a competent army-creating instrument. You cannot expect a Cabinet of twelve or eighteen men ignorant of war to create a good war-fighting machine. You cannot entrust the organisation of your Army to any authority but the Government, for the body that creates your Army will govern you. The only plan that will produce the result required is to give authority over the making and using of the Army to a man or men who understand War--War as it is to-day. In short, a Nation that is liable to War requires men of War in its Government, and, in the case of Great Britain, the place for them is in the Cabinet. The traditional practice of having a civilian Minister inside the Cabinet with all the authority, and a soldier with all the knowledge outside the Cabinet, was devised for electioneering purposes, and not for war. The plan has answered its object very well for many years, having secured Cabinets against any intrusion of military wisdom upon their domestic party felicity. But now that the times have changed, and that the chief business of a Cabinet is to manage a war, it seems unwise to keep the military judgment locked out. Party felicity was valuable some years ago when there was a demand for it; but the fashions have changed. To-day the article in demand is not eloquence nor the infallibility of "our side," whichever that may be; the article in demand to-day is the organisation of victory. That is not to be had at all the shops. Those who can supply it are very special men, who must be found and their price paid. The Nation has given bail for the production of this particular article, and if it is not forthcoming in time the forfeit must be paid. The bail is the British Empire.

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