The Military Lessons of the War: a Rejoinder

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

The Military Lessons of the War: a Rejoinder is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The Cornhill Magazine in january 1901.

This was a reply to Lieut.-Col. F. N. Maude's article : Dr. Conan Doyle and the British Army: A Reply, published in december 1900 in the same magazine.

The Military Lessons of the War: a Rejoinder

The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 43)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 44)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 45)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 46)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 47)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 48)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 49)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 50)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 51)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 52)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 53)
The Cornhill Magazine (january 1901, p. 54)

Some months ago the Editor of Cornhill was good enough to insert as a separate article the concluding chapter of my 'Great Boer War' which dealt with the lessons which might be learned from that great experience and sketched out a method by which, it seemed to me, the military forces of this country might be made more formidable without an increase of expense. Since then my remarks have been subjected to a good deal of criticism, notably by Colonel Maude in the Cornhill for December, by Mr. J. W. Fortescue in 'Macmillan' for November, and by Colonel Lonsdale Hale in the 'Times.' I should be glad to have the opportunity of dealing with one or two of the more important points which have been raised in this discussion.

And first of all allow me to say that I do not wish to approach this all-important subject in the petty spirit of a debating society. I have formed certain views upon certain facts, but I am prepared in an instant to modify them or to reverse them if I can persuade myself that I am mistaken. I do not wish to uphold a thesis for the pleasure of argument, nor do I desire to score points off any opponent. The matter is too grave for that. Discussion is always good, and if my views are unsound then even their refutation may help to clear up the question. In this spirit I have read carefully all that my critics have said, and now I find that, though I would soften down certain crudities in expression, and possibly modify some figures in my original article, there is not one of the propositions there which has been seriously shaken.

Both Colonel Maude and Mr. Fortescue come back wills persistence to the theory that military affairs should be left to military men and that civilian comments are of the nature of impertinence. 'What would Dr. Conan Doyle say if officers lectured him upon medicine?' asks Colonel Maude, and the question at first seems a just one. 'These things should be left to the professional soldiers,' says Mr. Fortescue, and the comment might appear reasonable. Let us, however, examine the matter a little more closely.

Is the science of war really an abstruse and highly specialised branch of learning like the science of medicine, or is it a matter upon which an amateur might, upon the strength of some thought and some reading, form and offer an opinion ? I have shown what the opinions of Colonel Maude and Mr. Fortescue are. But the British Constitution which places a civilian as the administrative chief does not take this exclusive view. Nor does history bear it out. The greatest reforms in the military service of many countries have been carried out by civilians. The elder Carnot organised the armies of Republican France. What were his military qualifications? Von Stein built up the Prussian army after Jena. He was a civilian statesman. Lord Cardwell has left his mark deep upon the British army. He was not a soldier. Only the other day one Bloch wrote a book on the warfare of the future which foreshadowed with great accuracy the experiences of our recent campaign. His book was read with profit and admiration by soldiers, but he himself was a civilian. The very men, De Wet, Olivier, and Botha, who have held their own so well against our generals, have had no military training. It is then surely absurd to put forward as an argument that it is an intrusion for a civilian to place his opinion upon record, so long as he gives his reasons for the faith which is in him.

Having, then, as I hope, established the right to speak at all, I would next turn to an argument which crops up again and again in Mr. Fortescue's article, but which seems to me to be always beside the point. That is that a thing has been tried before, at some remote period of our history. Bemuse the elder Pitt in 1757 could not make a thing work is no reason why it should not work now, and because dragoons became cavalry is no conclusive proof that mounted infantry have not a definite function in modern warfare. Not only has the change in weapons altered all conditions, but the national spirit has itself changed. For this reason all questions may be approached de wove and not referred back to a century-old precedent.

The chain of reasoning upon which I founded my argument is briefly as follows:—

1. Modern warfare demands greater intelligence and individual initiative in the private soldier than was needed in the past. Therefore we must endeavour to recruit from a higher class.

2. In order to get recruits from a higher class we must either have compulsory service, or we must make the pay and treatment of the soldier such as will attract the better class man.

3. The country is not yet ripe for compulsory service, though opinion seems to be moving in that direction. Therefore it is only by competing with the labour market that we can hope to get the best men.

4. Since we have continually to send men to the other ends of the earth, and as their transport and maintenance cost large sums of money, it is false economy to send any but a highly trained and first-class man, even if you have to pay him more.

5. Therefore it is necessary, and also expedient, that we pay him more.

6. If we are to make a noticeable increase in the men's pay — two shillings a day clear would seem to me to be the minimum — then we must do with fewer men, unless our army estimates are to absorb an undue proportion of the revenue.

So far, I think, we are dealing with matters of fact, and not of opinion. But now we come upon the very controversial question as to how far quality can make up for quantity. By.making the army a profession for life, not merely by better pay, but by snore comfort and privacy in barracks, more intelligent drill, less polish and less pipeclay, you would cause a keen competition for entrance, and you would keep your man when you had him. The recruit would hunt for the sergeant, instead of the sergeant hunting for the recruit, and the dismissal of a worthless man would be a very real punishment. Every name on the roll would be a fighting man, ready for anything, and we should not be compelled when we went to war to leave a hundred thousand men behind because they were not fit to send out. Is it better policy or sounder business to keep up a smaller force, every man of whom is highly effective, or a larger one, nearly half of whom are useless in the hour of need ? It is surely wiser and more honest to strike this bad debt off the ledger, instead of retaining figures which look imposing, but which we have tested and know to be worthless. By spending the money which is now wasted upon the inefficients in increasing the pay of the others, we could have an army which would be smaller upon paper, but larger and more formidable in the field.

Supposing that I have established my position so far, and that the reader is convinced that it would be better to have a smaller but better paid and more efficient army, there are certain consequences which we shall have to face. In my first discussion of this subject I named a hundred thousand as the figure, but I am inclined now to think that my critics are right, and that this is too few. Let is suppose that there are a hundred and thirty thousand, including a powerful artillery, and at least thirty thousand mounted infantry or light cavalry armed with rifles, and trained to fight on foot. Surely such a force is ample for the ordinary needs of the Empire, and capable, without reinforcement, of bringing any ordinary war to a successful issue. By abolishing all second battalions, and having mere recruiting depôts for the territorial regiments, a large part of the reduction could be effected without entirely changing the present system.

But if the army proper consisted of only 130,000 men, it is obvious that the needs of India and of South Africa must absorb the great majority of these, and that Great Britain will be left denuded. Therefore any such change must be supplemented by some system of home defence which will make the heart of the Empire secure. Mr. Fortescue and others accuse me of having made no proper allowance for the garrisoning of the. Empire. I had the problem always before my mind, but it is possible that I underrated the numbers required. With a marked improvement of quality, and an increase of mounted infantry, fewer men should suffice. But now with this enlarged estimate of 130,000 men, we could spare nearly as many as are on foreign service at present, so that objection is finally met. But how about the defence of the island?

There is no doubt that the actual landing of an invading force becomes year by year more possible. Steam has been all in favour of the attack and against the defence. No longer will the west wind, England's old ally, tie hostile squadrons to their moorings when her coast lies open. The element of uncertainty has dis-appeared, and the enemy only needs a clear waterway to come across. Both the French and the German merchant fleets have increased to an extent which would enable them to find transport at very short notice for a large army. The three chief continental powers have all voted large sums for their navies, and a coalition between the three — which is by no means outside the range of practical politics — might enable them to gain the command of the North Sea and of the Channel.

Again, any single power might catch us napping with some invention which might overwhelm our navy. The French have certainly been encouraged by their experiments with submarine vessels, since they have increased the number of them in their service. Air ships are also developing, against which a man-of-war might prove to be powerless. In marine matters we have seldom been inventors, but have usually waited and adopted the inventions of others. Steamers, ironclads, propellers, torpedoes — all are of foreign origin. Some day we may be caught as the blockading squadron of wooden ships at Hampton Roads was caught when the home-made ironclad steamed out at them. It is not probable, but it is very possible. And therefore invasion is also very possible, and we should be prepared for it.

But while the chances of invasion seem to me to have increased with time, the possibility of successful invasion if we take reasonable precautions appears to have diminished to an extent which should make it a very desperate enterprise. The Boer War has shown how great are the advantages of the defence, and it is no answer to point out, as some of my opponents have done, that we beat the Boers in spite of them. We beat the Boers because we had a great preponderance of numbers, which enabled us to out-flank them, and a much better artillery. If we had been inferior in numbers to them we could never have conquered their country. We must therefore have such a number of armed and trained men in Britain that we shall be numerically far superior to any force which could be landed. Then, acting on the defensive, we could make it absolutely impossible for them to penetrate into the country. Had we a million men in arms; backed by good artillery, it is inconceivable that we should be in any danger. With such a force available, and a nucleus of Regulars with the Guards at home, we could devote our small army to the service of the Empire.

How are we then to get a million men at home? The militia, volunteers, and yeomanry can furnish four hundred thousand. The militia has had much hard work but little chance of distinction in South Africa, but the numerous volunteer companies and the large force of Yeomanry have shown that they can shake down rapidly into excellent soldiers. The general effect of the War has been to greatly increase our respect for and our confidence in the reserve forces. But it may be admitted that the men who went out were picked men and not fair samples of the force. Were all of the same value, then four hundred thousand should be an ample estimate for the protection of the island. But we cannot afford to run chances in such a matter, and therefore it would be wise to increase the total armed force at home to a round million, some proportion of which could go to swell the ranks of the regular army when necessary. How then are we to get the extra six hundred thousand men?

Captain S. L. Murray has discussed the problem in an admirable pamphlet, 'The Electors of Great Britain, and the Defence of the Country.' Captain Murray's work only fell into my hands after I had written the final chapter in The Great Boer War,' which is the basis of this controversy, but I was much encouraged to find that in many essential points his conclusions were similar to mine. His proposal for home defence is to apply the militia ballot universally, and so pass the whole manhood of the country through the ranks for one year. Personally I think that the proposal is an admirable one, and that both the men and the country would be the better for it. But a government cannot act in advance of public opinion, and it would require strong pressure from without to induce any government to introduce so sweeping a measure as this. The present Government is strong enough, perhaps, if it had the courage, but, on the whole, I fear that it is not within the range of practical politics.

The alternative is to get the men voluntarily. I have no doubt that both the militia and the volunteers could, with a little care and expense, be further developed. A volunteer reserve, by which the trained man can be registered, and so made available in time of need, is a very necessary improvement. But there is one source of military strength in this country which has never been tapped at all, but which is quite capable, with a minimum of expense, of furnishing the men who will make up our million of defence. This lies in the very large class who are as patriotic as their neighbours, but who cannot, or will not, join a volunteer corps. They are the main -body of the men of the country. Some live at a distance from any volunteer company. Some cannot fit in the hours of drill. Some have never had their attention called to the matter. These are the men who would willingly learn the use of the rifle, and who would be the reserves to the volunteers and the militia.

Few men find pleasure in drill. Most men find pleasure in rifle practice. Therefore it is far easier to find men for the latter than for the former, and I repeat that the lesson of this war has been that a brave man with a rifle which he can use is a soldier. On the one band we have the State, which would be the stronger if it had these riflemen. On the other hand we have the men perfectly willing to serve if it be made possible for them. All that is wanted now is a little organisation and encouragement, and the thing will be done. Military critics may sneer at 'hedge-row defence,' as once they sneered at volunteers, but is there any reasonable man who will not agree that Great Britain would be stronger if she had six hundred thousand more riflemen within her borders; and is there any who will doubt that the people would acquire more dignity and self-respect when they felt that they also were sharing in the duty of the defence of the country ?

It has been urged that such a movement would hurt the volunteers. That I cannot believe. It would act the other way; for when a rifleman had acquired some taste for military things; his instinct would be to join the volunteers or militia, or even, when his standard was very high, the army.

The first thing for raising such a force is to have targets in every parish, and to provide the men with two or three rifles with which they can take turns to practise. The funds could be suet by local subscription. [1] If the men give their time the rich should give their money, since it is for the common good. Where proper targets cannot be obtained a Morris-tube range can always be fitted up. When the men are proficient at targets let them be practised at dummy heads out of trenches at unknown ranges. Finally, let them pass a Government standard, and be presented with a rifle and a bandolier in reward for their patriotic exertions. In this way you will rapidly form large numbers of local commandoes who will know little of drill and have no uniform save a soft-brimmed hat, but who will be good shots and formidable from their spirit and their numbers. In that direction Britain has a huge reservoir of military strength.

It is said sometimes that we distract attention from the fleet by developing the land forces, but surely the argument is exactly the opposite. If the land can take care of itself then the fleet is free to act, but it will always be at a disadvantage so long as it is bound to protect our own shores. It is also urged that if the enemy had command of the sea they could starve us out, and no system of land defence would be of any avail. I do not think that this argument is sound. To blockade the ports of Great Britain many hundreds of ships would be necessary, and the operation would be a gigantic one. Prices would rise very much, of course, and great hardship would result, but these high prices would attract food from all over the world, and no blockade could keep it out. I am told that the actual food in the island itself at any one time is sufficient to keep the population for six months. To sum up, then, I hold that we mu get the greatest value from our military forces by paying more for a higher article. The old system, it must be confessed, supplied at times the very highest. No payment could attract better troops than some of those in South Africa. But these were the fine flower, and the large residue were left at home. If we pay more we must have fewer, but We can make up for that by extending the voluntary system at home. That is the general thesis which I have endeavoured to defend.

With Mr. Fortescue's chief objection I have already dealt. It is that I have not made sufficient provision for foreign garrisons. The hundred thousand, which I chose as a symmetrical number for the purpose of argument, need not be closely adhered to. If thirty thousand more are needed for the garrisons it does not seriously affect the principle for which I am contending. Of course when he takes for granted that because the present garrison of India is 70,000 it must still be 70,000 however much the quality or mobility of the soldier be improved, he is disregarding my whole argument. I do not, as he says, practically presuppose the existence of another 100,000 men. These difficulties are all of his imagination. For garrison duty and for small wars the regular army, as I have sketched it out, would, I believe, be ample. When serious trouble came they would be strongly reinforced from the militia and volunteers, just as the regular American army, which is a small body, could be raised to millions. It is a waste of money to pay for a larger force than you need, if you can devise a means of increasing it on the few occasions when it needs increase.

Turning from this general scheme Mr. Fortescue then criticises my view that the cavalry of the future will be what we now call mounted infantry — my reason being that I look upon the magazine rifle as the master weapon. It is said frequently that the lesson of this campaign will not apply to other campaigns. But when the fighting was among the hills of Natal we said that cavalry would have a better chance on the plains of the Orange. Free State. And yet on those plains it was found that the rule still held good, and that the irregular burghers — the men of all others who should theoretically have been the victims of the cavalry — were able with their rifles to hold their owns. It was not the fault of our horsemen, who were very keen and gallant, but it lay deep in the altered conditions of war. I by no means agree with Mr. Fortescue when he says that a mounted infantry man upon his horse is practically an unarmed man. A body of them riding among a crowd of fugitives and firing right and left could do as much execution as any lancers — and, personally, since Mr. Fortescue presents the unpleasant alternative, I had rather be pursued by the lancer than by the rifleman. The one I might possibly knock off his horse, but I should be powerless against the other unless I had myself a rifle.

Mr. Fortescue has several other criticisms to make upon points of detail. I agree with him that the pay of officers would be raised, but on the other band there would be fewer of them with a smaller regular army. He ends by his old text that these things are much better left to the professionals.' The whole lesson of the war is that we cannot have too open a discussion of them, and that there is no reason at all why they should be left to the professionals. We left the infantry shooting to professionals, and they served out two hundred cartridges a year. We left the choice of guns to professionals. They rejected the 'pom-pom' and they gave us field pieces with half the range of those of our opponents. A civilian should certainly express his opinion temperately, and be prepared to give his reasons, and to listen with respect to all objections, but surely the time for this argument of leave it to the professionals' is over.

Colonel Maude's paper consists largely of the same plea. His chief attack upon me is based upon the idea that my proposals are subversive of discipline. Far from this being the case I should hope to find in the highly paid professional the most perfect discipline and esprit-de-corps that the world has ever seen. In the days when soldiers were largely drawn from the uneducated classes, discipline and cohesion depended largely upon drill. It became, in fact, mechanical. The higher discipline, however, may prove to proceed from the reason and from the self-respect of the individual men, rather than from the exercises of the parade ground. Those very American soldiers, whose deeds Colonel Maude quotes with approval, would appear undisciplined and almost mutinous if judged by our standards. The saluting of officers, the simultaneous wheeling of a line of men, or the firing of a volley which sounds like a single shot are not the essentials of soldiering. The essentials are the spirit of the men, the pride they take in their regiment, their devotion to their country, and the self-respect which forbids them to yield. These things make for cohesion and discipline, and they are in accordance with the spirit of our race. The Canadian regiment of infantry, for example, was formed from militiamen drawn from many parts of Canada, and could hardly be expected to excel in drill. Yet their discipline (founded upon self-respect) was so high that the whole regiment was deeply disturbed by the fact that one of their number had been accused of looting a fowl. I heard them speak of the trifle with snore distress than they showed when discussing their losses at Paardeburg. Colonel Maude is mistaken if he thinks that I underrate the power of discipline, but I believe that it is not necessarily so closely connected with drill as he imagines.

Colonel Maude states incidentally what he himself considers to have been the lessons of the war, and I confess that my heart sank as I read them. The first is that good shooting is not a matter of much importance. 'I should have thought,' he writes, 'that nothing could more effectively have demolished the theory of the crack-shot school than our recent experience.' The second is that troops should not be encouraged to seek cover. 'I hold that we have devoted too much attention to individual cover for Many years past.' The third is that after a sufficient artillery preparation the enemy's fire becomes unaimed, and your attack may then be made as safely in column as any other way. Under those circumstances he says that 'no arrangement of men in lines, groups, or columns can have any effect on the individual's chances of being hit.' Are these then the three lessons which we have gained from a year of warfare! I wonder how many South African officers would endorse them.

Colonel Maude regards Paardeburg as the blot upon the campaign, not because the attack was made, but because it was not pushed home, even if it cost us five hundred killed. Five hundred killed would with rifle fire mean over three thousand casualties, and what should we have gained which we did not get by a little patience? Colonel Maude says that it would have saved five thousand men who died of enteric. But this is a very wild statement. The Paardeburg cases came to Bloemfontein, and the total number of deaths altogether in that town was well under two thousand. Of these the greater number were in May, and could have had no connection with Paardeburg. The wells in Bloemfontein have always been polluted, and the cutting off of the water supply had probably far snore to do with the epidemic than the delay at Paardeburg.

Colonel Maude complains that the British attack was checked by a loss of 3 per cent. in their numbers. Here also his figures will not bear examination. There were, so far as I know, only four brigades under fire in the attack on Paardeburg. They were Macdonald's, Knox's, Stephenson's and Smith-Dorrien's. Twelve thousand men would be a fair estimate of their numbers. More, than 1,200 were hit, so that the proportion works out at not less than 10 per cent — which is very different from Colonel Maude's statement. That 'no power on earth could induce the men to move forward' from behind the ant-hills is, I believe, equally erroneous. The casualty list is in itself sufficient to disprove it. Men who lie tight behind ant-hills do not lose 10 per cent. of their number.

All this has little to do with my original thesis, but I am following Colonel Maude in his attempt to illustrate the three lessons which he has drawn from the war. He then discourages the suggestion that a corps d'élite of mounted infantry could be formed. 'You cannot select men in peace for employment in war' I should have thought that the formation of Guard regiments and other special corps in every army would tend to show that it is not as difficult. A better class of man with better pay will on the average give a better soldier. In Colonel Maude's desire that the general conditions of life of the working classes should be improved, we are of course all of one mind. These things depend, however, upon deep-lying economic causes which are not readily altered.

There is only one sentence of Colonel Maude's article to which I take serious exception. He says, 'I protest against the tone which Dr. Conan Doyle and most other correspondents adopt when speaking of our officers.' The 'other' is superfluous, as I was not a correspondent, but I should like to know which passage of my book it is to which Colonel Maude refers. Is it this 'The slogging valour of the private, the careless dash of the regimental officer — these were our military assets'? Or is it 'The British colonels have led their men up to and through the gates of death'? Perhaps it is 'a braver man than the British officer, or one with a more indomitable and sporting spirit, is not to be found.' This is my tone about the British officer against which Colonel Maude protests, and he quaintly enough ends his protest by the assertion, which I believe to be a great exaggeration, that one-third of them are not what they should be. I can assure Colonel Maude that the honour of the British officer is as dear to me as it can be to him. Many of my ancestors have lived and died in the service. My only brother belongs to it. Affection and esteem for a body of men does not necessarily exclude all criticism, but it at least forbids the adoption of a tone to which any reasonable man could take exception.


  1. 1. Where the land is given the thing can he done for thirty pounds — crede experto.