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December 28th, 1899

War is the Nation's business and, when it comes, the most important part of the Nation's business. A Nation that for many years neglects this branch of its affairs is liable to suffer to any extent. The proverb, "a stitch in time saves nine," gives a very fair idea of the proportion between the amount of effort required in a properly-prepared and well-conducted war, and the amount required when there has been previous neglect.

There must be some way in which a national affair of such importance can be properly managed, and just now it might be well to consider how a nation can manage a war. Certainly not by the methods of political decision to which recent developments of democracy have accustomed us. You cannot fight a campaign by consulting the constituencies or even the House of Commons before deciding whether a general shall move to his right or his left, shall advance or retire, shall seek or shall avoid a battle. Neither can you settle by popular vote whether you will make guns of wire or of fluid compressed steel, what formations your infantry shall adopt, whether the soldier is to give six hours a week to shooting and one to drill, or six to drill and one to shooting.

Yet all these questions and many others must be settled, some during peace and some during war, and they must be settled correctly or else there will be defeat. In political matters the accepted test of what is correct is the opinion of the majority as expressed by votes in a general election, but in war the test of what is correct is the result produced upon the enemy. If his guns out-range yours, if his troops at the point of collision defeat yours, there has been some error in the preparation or in the direction, unless indeed the enemy is a State so much stronger than your own that it was folly to go to war at all, and in that case there must have been an error of policy. The decisions upon which successful war depends turn upon matters which have no relation to the wishes or feelings of the majority; matters not of opinion but of fact; matters about which eloquence is no guide, and in regard to which the truth cannot be ascertained from the ballot box, but only by the hard labour of prolonged study after previous training. For success in war depends upon the troops being armed with the best weapons of the day, upon their being trained to use them in the most appropriate manner, upon the amount of knowledge and practice possessed by the generals; upon a correct estimate of the enemy's forces, of their armament and tactics, and upon a true insight into the policy of the Powers with which quarrels are possible.

A year ago it was known to many persons in this country, and the Government was informed by those whose, special duty it was to give the information, that the Boer States aimed at supremacy in South Africa, that they were heavily armed, that a large force would be required to defeat them, and that to postpone the quarrel would make the inevitable war still more difficult. It was well understood also that the difficulty lay in the probability that if a small force were sent it would be exposed to defeat, while if a large one were sent its despatch would precipitate the war. These were the facts known more than a year ago to those who wanted to know. Is it not clear that the Government's management has been based upon something other than the facts; that the Government was all the time basing its action not upon the facts but upon speculations as to what might come out of future ballot-boxes? They were attending to their own mission, that of keeping in office, but neglecting the Nation's necessary business, that of dealing promptly with the Boer assault upon British supremacy in South Africa. The explanation is simple. Every man in the Cabinet has devoted his life since he has been grown up to the art of getting votes for his party, either at the polls or in Parliament. Not one of them has given his twenty years to studying the art of managing a war.

But a war cannot possibly be well managed by anyone who is not a master of the art. Now and then there has been success by an amateur--a person who, without being a soldier by profession, has made himself one; such a person, for example, as Cromwell. Apart from rare instances of that sort, the only plan for a Government which does not include among its members a soldier, professional or amateur, is to choose a soldier of one class or the other and to delegate authority to him. But this plan does not always succeed, because sometimes a Government composed of men who know nothing of war postpones calling in the competent man until too late. There have been in our time two instances of this plan, one successful and the other a failure. In 1882 Mr. Gladstone's Cabinet drifted against its will and to its painful surprise into the Egyptian war. The Cabinet when it saw that war had come gave Lord Wolseley a free hand and he was able to save them by the victory of Tel-el-Kebir. A year or two later, being anxious to avoid a Soudan war, they drifted slowly into it; but this time they were too late in giving Lord Wolseley full powers, and he was unable to save Gordon and Khartoum solely because he had not been called upon in time. The best analogy to the course then pursued is that of a sick person whose friends attempt to prescribe for him themselves until the disease takes a palpably virulent form, when they send for a doctor just in time to learn that the patient's life could have been saved by proper treatment a week earlier, but that now there is no hope. For war requires competent management in advance. There are many things which must be done, if they are to be done in time, before the beginning of hostilities, and the more distant the theatre of war the more necessary it may be to take measures beforehand.

The management of a war can never be taken out of the hands of the Government, because the body which decides when to make preparations is, by the fact that it has the power of making that decision, the supreme authority. If, therefore, a Nation wishes to have reasonable assurance against defeat it must take means to provide the supreme authority with a military judgment. The British system for a, long time professed to do this by giving the Secretary of State for War a military adviser who was Commander-in-Chief. Such a plan might have worked on condition that the Secretary of State kept the Commander-in-Chief fully informed of the state of negotiations with other Powers, and invariably followed his advice in all matters relating to possible wars. The condition has never been fulfilled, and for many years, as there were no serious wars, the mischief of the neglect was not apparent except to the few who understood war, and who have for many years been anxious. But in 1895 the present Cabinet began its career under the inspiration of Mr. Balfour, who knows nothing of war, by giving the Secretary of State absolute authority over the Army and all preparations for war so far as the Army is concerned, and by formally declaring that the Secretary of State could please himself whether he followed the advice of the Commander-in-Chief. Thus the Nation in its indifference allowed the fate of its next war to be entrusted to hands not qualified to direct a war, and allowed itself to be deprived of the means of knowing whose advice was being followed in regard to the preparation of its defences. At the same time a Committee of Defence was formed of members of the Cabinet, a committee of untrained men, to settle the broad lines of the Nation's preparations for the maintenance of the Empire. The results of these remarkable arrangements are now manifest, and yet the cry is that there is to be no change in the Government.

But unless there is a thorough change as soon as possible, unless steps are taken to find a man competent in the management of war and to give him a place in the Cabinet, where he can keep the naval and military preparations abreast of the policy, or check, a policy for the execution of which adequate preparation cannot be made, what guarantee can the Nation have that it will not shortly have a second war on its hands, or that the war now begun will be brought to a successful end?

But if war as a branch of the Nation's affairs ought to be entrusted to a man competent in that branch, what about the tradition that any politician of eminence in the party is fit to be the Cabinet Minister at the head of any branch of the public service? Is it not the truth that this tradition is bad and should be got rid of, and that every branch of the Nation's business has suffered from the practice of giving authority for its direction to a minister who has not been trained to understand it? The war will have been a great benefit if it leads to the universal recognition of the plain fact that Jack of all trades is master of none, and that no branch of the public service can possibly be well directed unless its director is thoroughly conversant with the business with which he is entrusted. So soon as the Nation grasps the idea that democracy can fulfil its mission only when the electors are resolved to choose leaders by their qualification for the work they have to do, the British Nation will resume the lead among the nations of the world.

 

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