DESPITE the fact that so much has already been written on the subject, I feel assured that this little contribution to the history of the struggle in South Africa needs neither explanation nor excuse. It is the story of how, at a time when their comrades of the land service were in dire need of help, the seamen hastened to place their ships' guns on improvised carriages, took them ashore, and in the nick of time enabled our military forces to cope on equal terms with the Boer artillery.
Many years will elapse before we can forget the surprise and dismay occasioned at home when, after the apparent successes of Talana Hill and Elandslaagte, it became known that the enemy had put into the field heavy guns of high velocity, large calibre, and long range, brought on travelling carriages from the forts at Pretoria and Johannesburg. These guns inevitably outranged and overmatched the British field artillery, rendering position after position untenable, until, within three weeks of the outbreak of the war, Ladysmith itself was in danger from the heavy pieces of ordnance mounted on the encircling hills. Then came the delight and the immediate sense of relief when the news was received of the dramatic and unexpected appearance of the naval guns in the beleaguered town. To the remarkable prescience and ingenuity of Capt. Percy Scott, the admirable energy and promptitude of Capt. the Hon. Hedworth Lambton, and the zeal and resourcefulness of all the officers and men associated with them, it was due that the Naval Brigade, with guns of equal power to those possessed by the Boers, was able to reach the front before the investment was complete, or, as Sir George White said, 'when it became evident that I was not strong enough to meet the enemy in the open field.'
Outside Ladysmith, both during and after the siege, in the Gape Colony and in the hostile States, the entry of naval detachments upon the field of action was not attended by circumstances such as had made the appearance of the 'Powerfuls' brigade so significant and dramatically effective. But the part played was quite as important, the work performed was fully as arduous, and the difficulties surmounted demanded an equal amount of smartness, endurance and courage. The description of the share taken by the naval guns in the relief of Ladysmith demonstrates most clearly the tremendously heavy calls made upon the little force, and the excellent manner in which all responded. The energy which the bluejackets infused into their performance of duty, their high spirits and their magnificent marksmanship, earned the commendation of all the military officers they served under. As one General said of the seamen who were helping him, ' They were worth their weight in gold.'
The Naval Brigade on the Western line of operations, first under Lord Methuen, and then accompanying the Field Force to Bloemfontein, Pretoria, and eventually to Komati Poort, was perhaps not called upon so frequently to meet artillery of equal power, but it conclusively proved that heavy guns, even on roughly constructed mountings, could keep up with infantry marching at unusual speed. At Graspan it had the opportunity of doing a splendid bit of work worthy of the highest traditions of the service. In the march from Poplar Grove across the veldt, after the terrible bombardment of Cronje's laager, often for considerable distances without water and always on reduced rations, the zeal, the cheerfulness and the discipline of all were beyond praise. And then that wonderful movement of Grant's guns over a thousand miles, including a seventeen days' chase of De Wet, during which, as we are told, it was never necessary to bring a man before the commanding officer for any crime, neglect of duty, slackness, or other offence whatever! This constitutes a record that must ever be remembered to the credit of those immediately concerned, as well as of the Navy itself.
The words of Lord Roberts might well find an echo through the Empire: ' I wished Capt. Bearcroft and the Naval Brigade good-bye to-day. They leave for Cape Town to-night, carrying with them the thanks and good wishes of the Army in South Africa for the able assistance they have afforded throughout the war.' The two services had worked together harmoniously from the beginning—a circumstance abundantly gratifying, but bringing with it no surprise. They were inspired by the same ideals and the same patriotic spirit, and were fighting for the same national end.
The narrative of the experiences of the bluejackets and marines, as it appeared in the despatches, is most thrilling. But still more interesting is the tale as here told by those who participated in the dangers and difficulties of the campaign, who were eyewitnesses of the events they describe, and who have interspersed their descriptions with anecdotes and sketches which could find no place in official documents. AS was the case in the brigades themselves, so with the writers in this volume, nearly every branch of the service is represented, and members of the gallant sea regiment which lost so heavily at Graspan conjoin forces in its pages with executive, engineer, and medical officers, as they did in their work in the field.
Even so we are only shown a portion of the share which the Navy has taken in the war. The work of the brigades was the outward and visible sign of the influence exerted by our Naval strength in every sea, and of that silent pressure exerted upon foreign opinion which assured for us the neutrality of the world.
Our maritime security throughout the struggle has been a great source of confidence at home, while the circumstances in connection with the transmission of our soldiers thousands of miles across the sea, with as much safety as if they were but crossing our own territory, has been a wonderful object lesson of the vital importance of the Navy to the Empire. That is the indirect but nevertheless most important share of the Navy in the war. A direct share was that provided by the blockading squadrons and the ships patrolling the South African waters. Theirs was perhaps the most arduous and least recognised work, demanding on some occasions diplomatic discretion and tact, any lack of which might easily have precipitated international complications, and it was fraught also with peril, for the ships were short-handed, while often it was utterly unexciting and monotonous. A description of the proceedings at sea and upon the coasts might have enhanced the value of the book as an historic record of events, but limitation of size has precluded this, and I must be content with merely the bare mention of that most useful work.
There never has been a time in the history of the Navy when we could not point to the use of seamen landed for the purpose of assisting their soldier comrades, but this feature of naval life has naturally become more common and more prominent owing to the increase of our responsibilities in many distant and isolated parts of the world. If the time should come when the Navy again has to fulfil its primary function in the clash and clang of action, our seamen may find, not only in the prowess of their ancestors under Blake and Hawke and Nelson, but in the gallant deeds of those who recently served in the brigades in Africa and China, example and incentive to emulate them, and to add still more brilliant pages to our naval history.
I have had very great pleasure in writing the introduction to this volume. It was my good fortune to be able to bring the writers together, and I would commend their work as descriptive of a little known aspect of the South African war.
CHAS. N. ROBINSON.
CASTELNAU: November 1901.