In venturing on a judgment of the British soldier, from a military point of view, I may be told that only the man who has had a military training is competent to express an opinion upon the individual capacity of a soldier, be he Boer or Briton. That may be true, as long as people only go theoretically to work; but after my two and a half years of practical experience, my military friends may be gracious enough to allow me to express my simple opinion concerning this important factor, which is undoubtedly fundamental to the efficiency of any army. At the same time I promise to be as impartial in my judgment of the Boer as of the Briton as a fighter, or, at least, as impartial as can be expected from a fallible Boer.
As an officer in the Boer army I encountered the British soldier in many capacities and in many circumstances. The officer of the regular British troops was always prepared to notify that he had no high opinion of the officers of the irregular troops. At the same time the volunteer officer was equally ready to heartily reciprocate the compliment when it was passed upon him by the regular. To be honest, I must say that I specifically give preference to the regular officer, whom I regard as having more initiative, and as being more practical and less artificial than his colleague, the irregular Imperial officer. As regards courage I saw little to choose between them. I certainly can draw no great distinction, since I have never been in a position to fight on the same side as they.
Generally speaking, I consider the British officer a very brave man, though I do think he sometimes is guilty of excess in that respect—that is to say, that he goes impractically to work, and, the young officer especially, is driven by ambition to do desperate and stupid things. To this foolhardiness may be largely attributed the heavy losses in officers suffered by the British Army in the War.
Since I fell into British hands I have found the officers to whom I had been opposed on the battlefield treat me with the utmost magnanimity. After having been in personal contact with a considerable number of officers of various regiments I must plainly say that the British officer is to be encountered in only two species: He is either a gentleman or—the other. The officer of the first species is prepared to be charitable to his antagonists, and generally assumes an attitude of dignity and humanity; whereas the latter possesses all the attributes of the idiot, and is not only detestable in the eyes of his antagonists, but is also despised by his own entourage.
There have been unfortunate British officers in this War, and there have been occasions when a disaster to the British has been immediately attributed to the acts or the tactics of the commanding officer. In this connection I will cite the regrettable instance of General Gatacre at Stormberg. I do not think this reverse is to be attributable to stupidity, or indiscretion, or cowardice.
There is a great deal of luck attached to any adventure in the field, and ill-luck had pursued General Gatacre persistently. But undoubtedly where bad luck pursues a commander on more than one occasion it is not only expedient but necessary to dismiss such an officer, because his troops lose confidence in him, and their spirit is undermined. It has occurred in this War that incapable officers with good men and much luck have performed wonders.
The British soldier, or "Tommy," who draws a very poor daily pay, for which he has to perform a tremendous lot of work, is, if not the most capable fighter, the most willing in all circumstances to offer himself as a sacrifice at the altar of duty, or of what he considers his duty, to his country. But if "Tommy" by any accident be asked to deviate from the usual routine in which he has been trained, he is a thoroughly helpless creature. This helplessness, in my opinion, is caused by exaggerated discipline, and by the system under which "Tommy" is not allowed to think for himself or to take care of himself, and this individual helplessness has undoubtedly been one of the shortcomings of the British soldier during the War. As regards the fortitude of the ordinary British soldier, I must repeat what I have already said—that he is a courageous, willing and faithful warrior, and that it is to his fidelity and patriotism that the British Army may attribute its success. I believe this to be a truism which will defy even criticism.
There are, of course, exceptions to the courageous "Tommy." If I were to draw any comparison between the nationalities, I would say that of the soldiers with whom I was brought into contact on the battlefield, the Irishmen and the Scotsmen were better fighting men than the others. In regard to British soldiers generally, I would remark that, if they could add good shooting and ability to judge distances to their courage, then they would be perhaps perfect soldiers, and certainly be doubly dangerous to their foes.
Taken as a whole "Tommy" is a very warm-hearted fellow, though as regards humanity some distinction must be drawn between the regular soldier and the enlisted volunteer, for the latter is less humane than the former. This was too clearly shown by his conduct in the transporting of women and children and in the plundering of prisoners-of-war. But nevertheless "Tommy," generally speaking, whether regular or irregular, was sympathetic with regard to our wounded, and showed great kindness of heart to a maimed opponent.
I consider that the British infantry bore the brunt of the fighting of this War, especially in its earlier stages. Where the cavalryman failed to break through our lines the infantryman stepped in and paved the way for him. We found we could always better stand an attack from cavalry than from infantry, for this latter, advancing as it did in scattered formation, was much less visible to our marksmen. When advancing to the attack the British foot soldiers were wont to crawl along on their faces, seeking cover whenever that was available; thus advancing, and especially when they were supported by artillery, these men proved very difficult indeed to repulse. In my opinion a cavalryman has no chance against a good marksman when this latter occupies a good position and is able to await attack. The British cavalry horses are such stupendous creatures that given a good rifle and a keen eye it is difficult for one to miss them. They certainly make most excellent targets. It is my firm opinion that for usefulness the cavalryman cannot be compared to the mounted infantryman. Indeed, my experience during the last 14 months of my active participation in the War taught me that the British mounted infantry was a very hard nut to crack. Of course everything depended upon the quality of the man and the horse. A good rifleman and a horseman, especially if he were able to fire when mounted, was a very formidable foe. As for horses, I may say that I do not wonder that the great unwieldy horses for which the British cavalrymen have such a predilection cannot be compared to the Basuto ponies with which we went to work. The African pony has, in fact proved itself to be the only useful horse during the campaign. The British cavalryman might have used elephants with almost as much advantage as their colossal horses. Further, in my opinion, the cavalrymen might just as well be discontinued as a branch of an army, for there can be no doubt that the infantry, artillery, and mounted infantry will be the only really useful and, indeed, practicable soldiers of the future.
While I was writing the above a book was placed in my hand written by Count Sternberg, with an introduction from the pen of Lieut-Colonel Henderson. I doubt very much whether Colonel Henderson read the manuscript of the Count's book before penning his introduction, for I cannot suppose that he holds such small-minded and fantastic ideas regarding South Africa as the Count expresses. In this memorable work some extraordinary tales are told of the galloping and trotting feats of the Basuto ponies. The confession that the Count makes that he did not care upon which side he fought so long as he fought is indeed extraordinary. That he ever fought at all the Boer officers who knew him strongly doubt, and none of them will wonder that the Count's bitterest experience in South Africa was that on one occasion some naughty German ambulance people deprived him of a box of lager-beer. This and other amateurs have already overwhelmed the reading public with so much so-called criticism about this War, that I venture upon delicate ground in offering my opinion. I will confine myself to commenting upon what I saw and I know personally, for I know nothing about the topography of Europe and I am not acquainted either with the composition of the European armies or with their manner of fighting.