December 21st, 1899
A week ago, while we were thinking over failure in the Cape Colony on both lines of advance, we could still hope for success on what circumstances had made the most important line, in Natal. But now there has been failure in Natal also.
Of the battle of Colenso Sir Redvers Buller's telegraphic despatch, though it probably does the commander less justice than he would have received at the hands of any other narrator, gives an authoritative if meagre account. The attack seems to have been planned rather as a reconnaissance in force, to be followed up in case it should reveal possibilities of victory, than as a determined effort on which everything was to be staked. In all probability this form of action was inevitable in the conditions. The Boers held a strong position, covered in front by a river fordable at only two points. Such a position can hardly be reconnoitred except by attack. It could not be turned except by a long flank march, which, if successful would have occupied several days, during which the camp and railhead would have to be strongly guarded. There is reason to believe that the force in Natal has not the transport necessary to enable it to leave the railway for several days, during which it would be a flying column. Moreover, the Boers, being all mounted, could always place themselves across the path of any advance. Accordingly it is at least premature to assume that any course other than that which he adopted was open to Sir Redvers Buller. The mishap to a portion of the artillery will be better understood when the full story of the battle is accessible. Meanwhile Sir Redvers Buller's withdrawal of the troops when he saw that success was unattainable has preserved his force, and he is now awaiting reinforcement before again attempting an advance. The critical element in the position of affairs in Natal lies in the fact that time runs against the British. Sir Redvers Buller and the Government no doubt know pretty accurately the date up to which Sir George White can hold Ladysmith. If by that date he has neither been relieved nor succeeded in fighting his way to the Tugela his situation will be desperate.
Lord Methuen has probably been as much hampered as Sir Redvers Buller by want of transport. He, too, will not forget the importance of preserving his force and his liberty of action, and will retire rather than await investment.
Through the mists which always shroud a war during its progress the fact is beginning to be visible that the British generals have been from the beginning paralysed not, as anxious observers are always prone to conclude, by any want of knowledge or energy, but by the nature of the implement in their hands. They have to fight an enemy of unprecedented mobility. The Boers are all horsemen and can ride from point to point more than twice as fast as the British infantry can march; they live in British territory by requisitions or loot, and therefore can limit their transport train. But the British forces are restricted to a little more than two miles an hour and to twelve or fifteen miles a day according to the ground. There is everywhere a deficiency if not a complete lack of transport, said to be due to the action of the Treasury during the summer, and therefore every column is dependent for its food and ammunition upon a line of railway, which a handful of Boers may at any moment and at any point in its hundreds of miles temporarily interrupt. These considerations should be kept in view not merely in reviewing the conduct of the campaign and the work of the British generals, but above all in the preparations now being pushed forward throughout the Empire. The project of a Corps of Imperial Yeomanry is a step in the right direction. If it is to contribute to success due importance must be given in the selection of the men to straight shooting, without which good riding can be of little use. Equally important, too, is the selection of leaders. The home-trained officer, however good, must not be exclusively relied upon. Every local war we have had, beginning with the campaigns against the French in America which led to the Seven Years' War, has proved the necessity of giving full scope to local experience and local instincts. Old and new instances abound of the way in which the neglect of the feelings of colonists and of their special qualifications for special work rankles in breasts of a colonial population. If, then, the new Yeomanry are to be of real service in South Africa and to deserve the name Imperial a proportion of their officers of all grades should be men of colonial birth and colonial experience. The South African troops now at the front have done fine service, and some of their officers might be promoted and transferred to the new Yeomanry, their places being filled by promotions in the corps which they leave. The preparation of transport ought not to lag behind the despatch of reinforcements. At the earliest possible moment the attempt should be made to send into the enemy's territory a great raid of horsemen, on the model of the raids of the American Civil War. A body of several thousand mounted men should march right through a part of the Free State, living upon the country, consuming every scrap of food, and clearing out every farm of all its provisions. If that operation can be repeated two or three times a belt of country will be left across which the Boers without transport will not be able to move, while the British, properly equipped, will not be delayed by its exhaustion.
The plan adopted by the authorities for raising a volunteer contingent is more significant for the future of the National defences than has yet been realised. Each volunteer battalion is to supply a company to its line battalion in the field and to keep a second company ready at home in reserve. Thus the volunteer force is to be used by being absorbed into the Army. That leads inevitably to the amalgamation of the volunteers with the regular Army, and is a death-blow to the specific character of each of them. It means that henceforth the British Army, like other armies, will be homogeneous, containing no other categories than men with the colours and men in reserves, classified according to the immediacy of their liability to be called up. The volunteer commanding officer disappears, and with him the volunteer officer as such. For now that it is known that the Government will employ non-professional officers only as company officers under professional field officers, no one will take a volunteer commission with the idea of serving for many years from subaltern to commanding officer. What has hitherto been the volunteer force will therefore become a force administered by professional paid officers. It will cost more, and it will become a branch of the Army. In short, the Government has unwittingly taken a step of which the inevitable consequence is conscription.
But from this follows another change, equally unsuspected by the Ministry. The day that the Nation discovers, as it is now beginning to discover, that war makes its claims on every man and on every household, there will be no more toleration of the unskilled management that is inseparable from the practice of choosing a. Secretary of State for War for his ignorance of the subject. The British Nation is at length opening its eyes to the truth that war is a serious matter, and that the neglect of it in peace is costly in blood and perilous to the body politic. When its eyes are wide open it will insist on putting knowledge in power over the Army and the Navy. Thus is coming about, to the infinite benefit of the community, the overthrow of that noxious sham, the party politician.
Late in the day, when the position has become what it is, the Government has thought of the elementary principle that if you want to carry on a war you should begin by finding a commander in whom you have confidence. Accordingly at the eleventh hour Ministers have remembered that the Nation trusts Lord Roberts. This is proof positive that the Government was not in earnest before the late reverses, for had they been serious they would have appointed Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener at the outset. The precedent is useful by what it suggests; for, if during a war you can strengthen the military direction by giving the authority to the man recognised as the most competent, you may also strengthen the political direction by a similar procedure. The Cabinet has thus, perhaps without suspicion of what it was doing, set before the Nation the true problem: "Wanted, a Ministry competent in the management of war."