SCARCELY a soldier who has been to the front speaks well of the Boer as a man. He may be brave, but he is cruel, and like the untutored savage of the land, he thinks deception a virtue; that is, speaking of the average Boer. Hence arose the general opinion that our treatment of them was soft. They were continually tricking us, and yet we trusted them.
A hot-blooded critic took the English nation to task for its leniency. We kept cool heads, he says, when Kruger's hordes were carrying everything before them, and British war counsels were as chaos. We were equally cool-headed when Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, evolving order out of confusion, changed the course of events, and gave us victory for reverse. We were not losing our equanimity now, when, after the enemy's capitals and other principal places were captured, his commandoes raid an extensive range of the Orange River Colony, destroy many miles of railway, make prisoners of Imperial Yeomanry and Regulars by a battalion at a time, and practically "hold up" British Generals possessing far superior forces.
It says a great deal for the moral fibre of our English folks that they receive a succession of such irritating incidents—or, to use Lord Roberts's phrase, " unfortunate occurrences "—with such supreme self-possession. Of course, they knew well enough that these misfortunes, though not minor misfortunes by any means, could not prevent the ultimate triumph of our arms. Yet there were now murmurings, " not loud but deep" at disasters of which there has never yet been adequate explanation, and disasters, too, which have been repeated on precisely similar lines at various points and at various periods of the campaign.
Take one instance out of many. How comes it that the country has never yet been officially informed of the officer in charge of the force which, like a grouse drive on the moors, was headed down into the Boer trap at Sanna's Post? We have had controversy to repletion over Spion Kop, but not an officer who did wrong or did right has been left unnamed. Yet there have been affairs like that snare which De Wet set so successfully for the advance column of Colonel Broad-wood's force, the responsibility for which has never yet been directly fixed. It is admitted that there may be reasons for "making fish of one and flesh of another"; but the British public does not like it, and does not hesitate to say so.
The average Briton has about as little of the bloodthirsty in his composition as the representative of any living race. John Bull takes a great deal of provoking to goad him into a fight; but when " in't he makes an end on't."
We have been carrying on this conflict on what is called " the highest moral principles." Some call it " making war with kid gloves." It is nice to hear the dignitary of a great Church describing the British Commander-in-Chief as "the most humane general of our time." But, after all, the most humane thing in war is to get it over as soon as possible.
Over and over again our men have been snared and shot down under the white flag. How often has retribution followed upon the murderers? Our troops enter a rebel country, and the rebels are out-numbered. A proclamation is issued that if they surrender their arms, all will be well. What do they do? They bring in a handful of old weapons; or, if at a pinch, they give up a Mauser, they know they have others stored away at home. A gleam of success to the Boer arms, and the man who surrendered is back again to the shooting game.
Had we commandeered their horses, as well as their rifles, at the outset, many a valuable life would have been spared, and districts long disturbed by strife would have been as contented as Bloemfontein and Johannesburg.
The armistice trick, too, has been played for all it was worth. Cronje tried it with Lord Kitchener, and received the sharp response—" Not for an instant."
But the Bothas—" the gentlemen of the Boer Commandants" — succeeded where Cronje failed. General Buller was good enough to tell the Botha opposed to him that his Boers were surrounded, and could uot possibly get away, that, therefore, he had better surrender, and amazingly easy terms were offered him— " Back to your farms, leave your big guns, and await Lord Roberts's decision."
Botha demurred, and then General Buller graciously invited him to take three days to think it overl The Boer took the three days, and used them to get his force away, guns and all 1 Could there have been more sarcastic commentary on the British General's confidence that the Boers were " surrounded"? There were 30,000 British soldiers and 3,000 Boers. Ten to one 1 Yet not a man or a gun was captured. Reverse the conditions —30,000 Boers and 3,000 British—how many of ours would have escaped?
And even Lord Roberts himself permitted the Commandant-in-Chief—the other Botha—to play a somewhat similar game. According to the " Times" correspondent, in the battle outside Pretoria an important operation was stopped on Sunday to negotiate with Botha through his wife, who went out for the purpose. Botha, we are told, took advantage of the respite to improve his position, and seize hills which Broadwood would have taken if he had not been restrained from headquarters.
On Sunday evening Botha rudely repudiated the overtures. What was the result? A murderous fire was opened on the British, and although we were victorious the^ price of victory was all the dearer for Botha's “slimness."
The British forgot that the Boer has no sense of honour. Then an agitation was got up in favour of Kruger, the archplotter of all the mischief. He does not want to go to St. Helena. He is excessively anxious to remain "in his own dear country," and surely, writes one of his panting sympathisers in a pro-Boer paper, " we ought to let him remain in his own country." But it is no longer " his own country." He has forfeited all claim to " more than six feet of Transvaal soil," says this caustic scribe. The blood of thousands is upon his head, and if he were free to return to the place where he and his corrupt Executive have tyrannised and plundered to a degree unparallelled in our days, we should never be free from intrigue and trouble.
We must not forget one thing. Our difficulties will not close with the war. The racial hatred will remain for years. The Cape Colony rebels, " willing to wound, but yet afraid to strike," may lie low for a season, but should we be involved in a great war which strained our resources, they might risk another effort to achieve Dutch supremacy. In fact, that is what the Boer delegates to America threatened.
The presence of Kruger in the land would appeal to them. Even after Kruger, there would remain his disciples, eager to pick up the mantle he dropped. No, there can be no security for peace in the land so long as the chief breaker of it is there. Kruger must go. St. Helena need not be his home. But it should not be anywhere in South Africa.
With all our christian tenderness we must be firm and sensible. We have paid 6,000 lives for supremacy in the interests of righteousness, let us not be cheated out of the prize by a Boer trick at last.
Then as to our generalship. The tolerant British public does not like too severe a criticism of our officers, nevertheless the lessons of the war should be taken to heart. Our blunders have been terrific. We have owed success partly to the splendid courage of our soldiers, and partly to the supreme military genius of Lord Roberts. But we have also owed it in" a great degree to our superior numbers and the profound depths of the national purse.
"There can be little doubt that if the Boers had been braver and wiser, we should have sustained checks of the most serious kind, if not a final defeat. They might have easily gone as far as Cape Town, and led the Dutch people to rebellion. If they had followed up their early victories, they might have driven us to the sea. If they had been willing to lose the necessary number of men, they might have taken Ladysmith and Mafeking, and perhaps Kimberley also."—So writes an expert.
We have, indeed, escaped by the skin of our teeth, and the only proper mood for us is sobriety. There is no occasion for sackcloth and ashes, but there is just as little occasion for an exuberant pride.
The defects of our military system have been so glaringly exposed that we shall be very foolish if we do not alter it. An officer has written a striking little book, "An Absent-Minded War," containing a strong indictment, very few of the counts in which can be successfully challenged. He does not allow us to forget the terrible beginnings of the war. They were due, (he says), almost entirely to preventable causes. If the proper steps had been taken, the war, he thinks, might have been ended in two months at an immeasurably smaller expenditure both of money and of life. As it was, we were disgracefully repulsed by a nation of peasants, whom we had despised, and were exposed to the derision of the world. We lost thousands of prisoners, and sustained the most humiliating defeats. The incapacity of our officers became a byeword, as reputation after reputation found a South African grave. No doubt, as has been said, the men were splendid, so far as courage and dash was concerned, though they had to receive the most of their training on the spot. No doubt, also, Lord Roberts, in the glorious sunset of his life, has showed himself a soldier of the very first order. His achievements place him alongside of our greatest commanders. Not a word can be said against the courage of our officers; but as to their inefficiency, their want of brains, this has been the weakness and the fault. These weaknesses arise from causes that can be easily traced, causes that make them inevitable. And the question for the British people is whether they are prepared for radical army reform.
It seems that officers are still compelled to make the deepest study of the Franco-German War, and this at a time when war has been revolutionised by magazine rifles, smokeless powder, and quick-firing field guns. There has been no study of military problems likely to become adlual. The proof of this is found in the fact that our Intelligence Department, controlled by Staff College graduates, had no military map of Natal or Cape Colony which was at all adequate to the necessity. Another destructive abuse is that fashionable influences, or, in other words, smart society seems practically omnipotent in the appointment of officers. The author of 'An Absent-Minded War' says: ' I know of one talented lady who can obtain any vacant appointment for any of her friends.' This statement had been made before in the columns of the Westminster Gazette, and no attempt has apparently been made to challenge it. Another great evil is that only wealthy men can hope for employment in the rank of a general officer. Of course, when the choice is restricted to wealthy men, incapacity is positively welcomed. There are not so many able- and willing to come forward as to allow of a selection being made. It may be replied to all this that the military genius is still to be found among us, and the names of Roberts, Kitchener, Buller, Baden-Powell, and others, may be quoted. To this the reply is that all these have been forced, while young men, to act upon their own responsibility. They have by circumstances been freed from the paralysing features of red tape. They have defied the traditions of the effete War Office, and are, in consequence, in exceedingly bad odour in that old shrine of mediocrity.