The Lessons of the South African War (1 november 1900)

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Lessons of the South African War is a letter written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Times on 1 november 1900.

See also the second letter on the same topic: The Lessons of the South African War (6 november 1900).

The Lessons of the South African War

The Times (1 november 1900)


Sir, — I have read Colonel Lonsdale Hale's letter in your columns disagreeing with my views upon military reform. I can assure him that I have no desire to "teach" professional soldiers, but my contention is that free discussion should be permitted and encouraged upon military matters. A civilian's argument cannot be disposed of by merely writing "(sic)" after it.

I think that Colonel Lonsdale Hale does less than justice to the manhood of his countrymen when he fears for the result of an invasion unless we had an army of professional soldiers to oppose it. The little country of Switzerland is surrounded by four great military Powers, and yet for centuries it has preserved its independence. For its defence it depends upon a militia force, but an attack upon it would be regarded, even by Germany, as a very serious military operation. In South Africa we have ourselves experienced how difficult has been the task of conquering a militia of 50,000 men. Now an essential part of the scheme which I outlined in the last chapter of my "Great Boer War" was that the number of riflemen in the country should be raised to a million and that they should be supported by a strong artillery. The numbers of an invading force must be limited, and it must be hampered for want of transport and supplies. It could not make flanking movements against the masses of men who oppose its advance, and it could not, on the other hand, afford the losses which must come from a series of frontal attacks. At the same time it must move or starve. I cannot picture the situation of such an army without repeating, even at the risk of Colonel Lonsdale Hale's displeasure, that I believe that the bugbear of invasion is for ever past.

Critics will reply that it would be impossible to raise a million riflemen. If necessary, we could do so compulsorily by an extension of the Militia Act, and I believe that there would be little popular opposition to such a measure if an appeal were made to the patriotism of the people. But it is probable that the numbers could be obtained without any compulsion. Apart from the Militia and Volunteers, there is a great untapped source of military strength in that large portion of the population who would willingly learn the use of the rifle, but who are unable to join any organized body of Volunteers. In most country villages it is impossible for the peasant to become a Volunteer, but he would willingly spend a couple of hours in shooting upon a Saturday afternoon if facilities were offered to him. But the Government must encourage such a movement. It must appoint inspectors to go round the country and to confer with the local authorities as to the opening of parish butts, and it should not sell but give a rifle to every man who will join a rifle club and learn to shoot. There are few places where a 200 yards range cannot be opened, and with modern low trajectory rifles a man who shoots really well at that range will be of some use at any range. Where proper butts cannot be erected a Morris tube range can always be started, and the men grounded in the use of fire-arms. I am myself at present engaged in organizing such a range upon Hindhead, on the model of one started near Guildford by my friend Mr. St. Loe Strachey. I believe that I shall have no want of members and that we shall soon be able to form a local corps of irregular riflemen from among men who could not serve as Volunteers. Should such a movement spread all over the country there would be no difficulty in getting the million men for home defence. I grant that they would be raw levies, but they would be formidable in numbers and in spirit, and the strongest lesson of the Boer war seems to me to be that a brave man with a good rifle very soon makes a formidable soldier.

As to the other details of this scheme, I shall not enumerate them, but must refer those who are interested to the chapter in which I deal with them. The substance of it all is that the professional soldiers should be fewer in number, more highly paid more highly trained (especially in shooting), and that they should be used entirely for the defence of the outer Empire, since the island can very well take care of itself. The advantage would be that at the point of contact we should always have an absolutely efficient force, that there would not be the waste which there is at present, when we are always feeding and paying large bodies of men who are seldom wanted, and that we should have a reserve from which at any time we could construct a very much larger army than our present system can give us. I think that all this could be done on the lines which I have indicated, but I realize that I talk as an amateur, and I am anxious for professional criticism, whether it be favourable or adverse.

As to the question of the Imperial Light Horse, which seems to me to be the type of the mounted soldier of the future, Colonel Lonsdale Hale may call him cavalry or mounted infantry. It is immaterial which he is (Major Karri Davis, who raised the corps, calls them mounted infantry), but the essential thing is that they should look upon the rifle as their weapon and be trained to fight on foot. It is new to me that any dismounted cavalry ascended Elandslaagte Hill with the Imperial Light Horse — but that also is immaterial.

Yours faithfully,

Reform Club, Pall-mall, S.W.