January 5th, 1900
There has been no substantial, visible change in the military situation since the battle of Colenso on December 15th. The actions of General French at Colesberg and of Colonel Pilcher at Sunnyside are valuable mainly as evidence that with sound tactics the Boers are by no means invincible, and that British troops only require intelligent leading to be as capable of the best work as any troops in the world. General French, however, until the hour at which I write had not finished his wrestle with the Boers at Colesberg, and until it is over no military action can be classed either as success or failure. Colonel Pilcher's opponents were colonial rebels, probably not as good as Transvaal Boers, who have had in peace more rifle practice. The losses were small, proving that the resistance of the enemy was by no means desperate, and as the retreating force was not pursued the defeat was not crushing. Colonel Pilcher by the temporary occupation of Douglas reaped the fruits of his victory, but the whole small campaign is of no very great importance, as the possession of the triangle between the railway and the Riet and Orange Rivers depends in the ultimate issue not upon the event of local skirmishes, but on the issue of the decisive fighting between the British Army and the forces of the Republics. Lord Methuen's communications appear to be now well organized and guarded, so that his position need cause no special anxiety. A good deal depends on the outcome of the struggle between General French and the Colesberg Boers, for, while a Boer defeat would render the line from the Cape to Orange River quite safe, a Boer victory would endanger not only Naauwpoort but De Aar. General Gatacre's cue should be to risk nothing. If he waits where he is and merely holds his own until the sixth division is ready for use no harm will have been done; if he makes any mistakes the consequences may be more than the sixth division can remedy. The centre of interest still lies between Ladysmith and Frere. The tone of the telegrams from Ladysmith, which declare that though the bombardment has been more effective since Christmas, and through dysentary and enteric fever are busy, "all is yet well," proves that the situation of Sir George White's force is critical, and may at any moment become desperate. The Boers by occupying and fortifying positions south of the Tugela have taken the best means of making sure that Sir Redvers Buller's advance, even if successful, shall be delayed and the time taken over it prolonged. The Boer commander sees clearly that his present object is to delay Sir Redvers Buller, so as to gain the time needed to bring about the fall of Ladysmith. If that can be secured the next question will be how to damage Sir Redvers Buller. Of the prospects of Sir Redvers Buller's attack no estimate can be made. He is stronger than he was by the greater part of Sir Charles Warren's division, and it is to be hoped, by plenty of heavy artillery and by an organised transport; but the Boers are stronger than they were by a new position, by three weeks of fortification, and by the consciousness of their last victory. Upon Sir Redvers Buller's fate depends more than anyone cares to say. If he wins and relieves Ladysmith the success of Great Britain in the war will be assured, though the operations may be prolonged for months; but if he should again fail there is no prospect of success except by exertions of which the Government as yet has not shown the faintest conception. His action can hardly be completed in a single battle or in a day; the first telegrams, therefore, need not necessarily be taken as giving the result; more probably his operations, except in the most unfavourable case, will be continuous for something like a week.
For the Nation there is a question even more vital than the fate of Sir Redvers Buller, and more practical. Nothing that was at home can do can affect the impending battle by the Tugela. The issue of that battle, as of the war, though it is not yet known and can be revealed only by the event, is in reality already settled, for it depends on the proportion of the forces of the two sides, which has been determined by British strategy and cannot now be modified, upon the qualities, armament, and training of the troops, which are the results of the conditions of their enlistment, organisation, and education, and upon the judgment and will of Sir Redvers Buller, also the outcome of his training and of the Army system. But whatever happens on the Tugela the British Nation has its to-morrow, a very black one in case of a defeat, and a very difficult one even in case of victory, for all the great Powers are for ever competitors for the possession and government of the world, and Great Britain having shown a weakness, expected by others though unsuspected by her own people, will in future be hard beset. The Russians have just moved a division from the Caucasus towards the Afghan frontier, which portends trouble for India. The Austrians, as well as the Germans are setting out to build an extra fleet--what for? Because the Austrian Government, like the German and Italian Governments, know, what our recent Governments have never known, that Great Britain has for two or three centuries been the balance weight or fly-wheel of the European machine, by reason of the prescience with which her Navy was handled. Those Governments now see that statesmanship has gone from us; they divine that the great Navy we now possess cannot be used by a timid and ignorant Government, and that no reliance can be placed upon Great Britain to play her own true game. Accordingly, they see that they must strengthen their own navies with a view to the possible collapse of the British Power. In the near future the maintenance of the British Empire depends upon the Nation's having a Government at once far-seeing and resolute, capable of great resolves and prompt action. Of such a Government there is, however, no immediate prospect. The present Cabinet has given its testimonials: a challenge sent to the Boers by a Government that did not know it was challenging anyone, that did not know the adversary's strength, nor his determination to fight; and a war begun in military ignorance displayed by the Cabinet, and carried on by half measures until the popular determination compelled three-quarter measures. Does anyone suppose that this Cabinet, that did not know its mind till the Boers declared war, knows or will know its mind about the conflict with Russia in Asia, or about any other of the troubles, foreseen and unforeseen, which await us? A victory in Natal would save the Cabinet and drown the voices of its critics; and in that case the present leaders will infallibly go halting and irresolute into the greater contests that are coming. A defeat in Natal would destroy the Government at once if there were before the public a single man in whose judgment and character there was confidence; but there is no such man, and, as the Opposition leaders are discredited by their conduct in regard to the quarrel with the Boers, the present set will remain at their posts to continue the traditional policy of waiting to be driven by public opinion. The Nation, therefore, has before it a necessary task as urgent as that of reinforcing the Army in the field, which is to find the man in whose judgment as to war and policy as well as in whose character it can place confidence.
The man to be trusted is, unfortunately, not Lord Wolseley. I have for years fought his battle by urging that the Government ought to follow the advice of its military adviser, a theory of which the corollary is that the adviser must resign the moment he is overruled. I have never meant that the adviser is to be a dictator, nor that the Cabinet should follow advice of the soundness of which it is not convinced. The Cabinet has the responsibility and ought never to act without full conviction. The expert who cannot convince a group of intelligent non-experts that a necessary measure is necessary is not as expert as he should be; and if he still retains his post after he has been overruled on a measure which he regards as necessary he has not the strength of character which is indispensable for great responsibility. Now, though the relation between a Cabinet and its advisers ought to be secret, in the present case each side has let the cat out of the bag. Lord Wolseley's friends defend him by declaring that he has been overruled. But that defence kills him. If he has been overruled on a trifle it does not matter, and the defence is a quibble; if he has been overruled on an essential point why is he still Commander-in-Chief? No answer can be devised that is not fatal to his case. Lord Lansdowne's friend, for such Lord Ernest Hamilton may be presumed to be, says: "Supposing, for the sake of argument, that the short-comings of the War Office in and before the present war were due not to neglect of military counsels, but to the adoption of such counsels, contrary to the more far-seeing judgment of the civil side." That is a condemnation of the civilian Minister and of the Cabinet, for no man in charge of the Nation's affairs ought to take the responsibility for a decision of the soundness of which he is not convinced. If Lord Lansdowne disagreed with Lord Wolseley and was not prepared to ask for that officer's retirement, why did he not himself retire rather than make himself responsible for measures which he thought wrong or mistaken? These are not personal criticisms or attacks. Lord Wolseley and Lord Lansdowne have both of them in the past rendered splendid services to the Nation. But the Empire is at stake, and a writer's duty is to set forth and apply the principles which he believes to be sound, without being a respecter of persons yet with that respect for every man, especially for every public man, which is the best tradition of our National life. What at the present moment ought not to be tolerated is what Lord Ernest Hamilton suggests, an attack upon the generals at the front, to save the War Office or the Cabinet; and what is needed is that the Ministers should choose a war adviser who can convince them, even though to find him they have to pass over a hundred generals and select a colonel, a captain, or a crammer.