The Lessons of the South African War (6 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 6 november 1900.

See also the first letter on the same topic: The Lessons of the South African War (1 november 1900).

The Lessons of the South African War

The Times (6 november 1900)


Sir, — I hesitate to trouble you with another letter, but perhaps you will permit me to say a few words in answer both to "Custos" and to the second letter of Colonel Lonsdale Hale.

It is evident that "Custos" has read my letter but not the article to which that letter was supplementary. He is under the impression that I advocate a merely defensive army. He will see, if he refers to the last chapter of my Great Boer War, that this is not so. I maintain that our Regular Army should be the most efficient, the most highly trained, and the best equipped in the world. This I propose to effect by roughly halving their numbers, doubling their pay, and keeping them entirely for the foreign service of the Empire. Under such a system every man would be worth feeding, paying, and transporting. We should not when the pinch comes be compelled to leave 92,000 men at home because they were too immature to go upon active service. By saving the pay and keep of these useless men we could raise the rest of the Army to the highest standard. "Custos" will see, therefore, that he has misunderstood me in thinking that I favour only defensive measures.

But if this highly-trained force is to be entirely available for the service of the Empire, then we must take our own measures against invasion at home. It would be a good thing for the country and for individuals that every man should be made to understand that he is not to trust to others, but to himself, for protection. I see several reasons against compulsory military service, but I see none against compulsory rifle practice, if the authorities would take the question of ranges seriously in hand. Without compulsion, however, I believe that a very large force of riflemen could be enrolled, apart from the Volunteers and Militia. With such a force, and a strong artillery, I am still of opinion that the Regular forces could be set free with perfect safety for offensive purposes.

I am sorry that Colonel Lonsdale Hale derived a wrong impression from a sentence of mine. It was certainly expressed too loosely. I did not mean to assert that if unlimited invaders were permitted to land under their own conditions we could beat them off, but I meant that, given the actual conditions, the temporary loss of command of the sea or the absence of most of our Regular Army would not be fatal to us if we had a million men accustomed to the use of the rifle in the island. This I still think.

Colonel Lonsdale Hale thinks that our task of subduing Boer militia is very much more difficult than the task of an invader in subduing English militia because the distance is greater. His argument here appears to me to be unsound. It is true that we had a far greater distance to convey our men and stores, but having got there we found ourselves at a friendly base where we could organize before advancing, with a population from which we were able to raise 15,000 excellent troops. The invader of England, on the other hand, lands under our guns and has no foothold save what he can win for himself. I think the invasion of England far the more difficult operation, and, if carried out against an armed and organized population, an impossible one.

With apologies for my frequent trespasses upon your space,

Yours faithfully,

Reform Club, Pall-mall, S.W.