February 15th, 1900
In war, as in other great enterprises, the first element of success is unity of direction in a strong hand. The reason is that whenever the co-operation of large numbers is involved the needful concentration of purpose can be supplied only by the head man, the leader or director. Concentration of purpose means in war the arrangement in due perspective of all the various objectives, the selection of the most important of them, the distribution of forces according to the importance of the blows to be delivered, of which some one is always decisive. To the decisive point, then, the bulk of the forces are directed, and at other points small forces are left to make shift as well as they can, unless, indeed, there is a superabundance of force--not a common phenomenon.
The same principle of concentration prescribes that action when once begun should, at any rate at the decisive point, be sudden, rapid, and continuous. These fundamental ideas are illustrated by the practice of all the great commanders, and there is perhaps no better definition of a great commander than one whose action illustrates the simple principles of war. Lord Roberts is once more revealing to his countrymen the nature of these principles. The tangled mass of the war has suddenly become simplified, and there is clearness where there was confusion.
The Commander-in-Chief reached Cape Town on January 10th, and found large forces dispersed over a front of two or three hundred miles, the reinforcements at sea, and the transport still in a state very like confusion. By February 6th, two or three weeks earlier than was anticipated by those at home who had the most perfect confidence in him, he was on his way to the front, enabling those at home to draw the certain inference that all was ready, the divisions assembled, and the transport in order. While he was travelling the six hundred miles from Cape Town to the Modder River various preliminary moves which he had ordered were in course of execution. There had been a large display of British infantry near Colesberg, covering the withdrawal of General French and the cavalry division. This had the effect of causing the Boers to reinforce Colesberg, probably by detachments from Magersfontein. The British infantry, however, was there only to lure the Boers; it was composed of parts of the sixth division on the way further north, and only a small infantry force was left to hold the reinforced Boers in check. The next move was a reconnaissance in force from Modder River to Koodoosberg Drifts, which drew Commandant Cronje's attention and some of his troops to his right flank. The reconnaissance had the further object of inspiriting the Highland Brigade which had been so badly damaged at Magersfontein, and of establishing good relations between these troops and their new commander, General Mac Donald. On their return to camp a short address from Lord Roberts had the effect upon them that Napoleon's proclamations used to produce on the French troops. A day or two was spent in completing the organisation of the force at Modder River, where a new division, the ninth, had been formed probably of troops brought up from the communications. The mounted infantry were also brigaded, as had been those at Orange River Station. Meantime various movements had been going on of which the details as yet are unreported. Two infantry divisions, the sixth and seventh, the last two from England, were moving towards the Riet River to the East of Jacobsdal. The point or points from which they started are not known, nor the direction of their march, which was screened by the cavalry division and perhaps also by a brigade of mounted infantry. At any rate on Sunday, the 11th inst., Hannay's brigade of mounted infantry from Orange River, on the march to Ramdam, had to cover its right flank against a party of Boers. Ramdam is not to be found, but if it is on the Riet above Jacobsdal the probability is that Hannay's brigade was covering the right flank of the infantry divisions.
On Monday French with his cavalry brigade seized a drift or ford across the Riet ten or a dozen miles above Jacobsdal, and the two infantry divisions were so close behind him that on Tuesday Lord Roberts could report them both encamped beyond the river. On Tuesday French was off again to the north with a cavalry brigade, a mounted infantry brigade, and a horse artillery brigade, a second cavalry brigade, under Colonel Gordon moving on his right. By half-past five French was across the Modder River, having forced a drift and seized the hills beyond so as to secure the passage for the infantry, while Gordon had seized two drifts further to the west. Between them the two cavalry commanders had captured five Boer laagers, and the slightness of the opposition they encounter proves that the Boers were completely surprised. On Wednesday morning the sixth division was on the march to follow the cavalry, and the seventh division was to take the same direction on Wednesday afternoon.
These are all the facts reported until now, Thursday afternoon. Let us see what they mean. First of all, Lord Roberts has chosen his objective, the Boer force before Kimberley, on the right flank of the Boer front Stormberg--Colesberg--Magersfontein. A blow delivered here and followed by a march into the Free State places Lord Roberts on the communications of the Boers now at Stormberg and Colesberg and between the two halves of the Boer army, of which one is on the border of Cape Colony and the other in Natal. The objective, therefore, has been chosen with strategical insight. In the next place forces have been concentrated for the blow. Lord Roberts has four infantry divisions, a cavalry brigade, and at least one brigade of mounted infantry, his total strength amounting to at least fifty thousand men. Then there has been a skilful and successful attempt to distract the enemy's attention, to conceal from him the nature of the movement and the force to be employed, and last, but not least, there has been the suddenness and the rapidity of movement essential to surprise. These are the proofs of that breadth and simplicity of conception and of that mastery in execution which are the marks of the best generalship.
But there is in the best work more than breadth of mind and strength of hand. The details fit in with the design and repay the closest scrutiny. The march of twenty-five thousand men round Jacobsdal towards the Modder tactically turns the Boer position at Magersfontein, so that it need not be carried by a frontal attack. But it also places the British force on the direct line of the Boer communications with Bloemfontein, and if Commandant Cronje values these communications he must either make a precipitate retreat by Boshof, offering his flank during the process to attack by French, or must attack the sixth and seventh divisions on their march from the Riet to the Modder. But in either case he has to reckon with the Guards and ninth divisions which are not mentioned in the telegrams, but which are assuredly not idle. Lord Methuen has long held a crossing on to the peninsula or Doab between the two rivers, and the advance of a division into this peninsula must compel the prompt evacuation of Jacobsdal or bring about the ruin of any Boer force there, while at the same time it would increase the weight of troops that intervene between Magersfontein and Bloemfontein. A single division is a more than ample force to cover the British railhead at Modder River. Commandant Cronje may elect to fight where he is, which would be to court disaster, for he would be attacked from the east in great force, with no retreat open except to the west away from his base, and with a considerable river, the Vaal, to cross. Such a retreat after a lost battle and under the pressure of pursuit would be ruin to his army. He may move off by Boshof, but that would be impracticable unless the start were made soon after the first news of the British advance. On Wednesday he would have only the mounted troops to deal with; even on Thursday (to-day) the sixth division could hardly be used with effect on the north bank of the Modder, but on Friday he would have the sixth and seventh divisions to reckon with. Probably his best course would be to retire before he can be attacked to Barkly, on the right bank of the Vaal. He would there be in a position most difficult to attack, and yet his presence there on the flank of any British advance either to the north or to the east would make it impossible to neglect him. His decision has been taken before now, or this opinion would have been suppressed out of deference to the anxiety of those who imagine that strategical advice is telegraphed from London to the Boer headquarters.
Of the effect of the new move upon the general course of the war it would be premature to enlarge. We must wait and see the close of the first act. The most effective issue of this week's movements would be a battle leading to the thorough defeat, the military destruction, of the Boer army before Kimberley. A less valuable result would be the raising of the siege of Kimberley without fighting, a result which is not to be preferred, because a force that retires before battle has to be fought later on. For this reason the true Boer game is to retreat in time.
It will be interesting to watch the effect of the new campaign upon the ripening resolve of the British Nation to have, its Army set in order. Upon many minds, and no doubt upon Ministers and their adherents, the impression made by success in the field will be that reform is needless. The true impression would be that it is as urgent as before, and that the right way to begin is to give authority to the right man, the commander who is now revealing his strength.