Some Military Lessons of the War
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Some Military Lessons of the War is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Great Boer War (23 october 1900, Smith, Elder & Co.). The article was removed after the twelfth impression of the book (26 august 1901) and replaced by 10 more chapters and a new conclusion.
- in The Cornhill Magazine (october 1900 [UK])
- in McClure's Magazine (october 1900 [US]) as Some Lessons of the War
- in The Great Boer War (23 october 1900, Smith, Elder & Co. [UK])
Some Lessons of the War
BASED ON ENGLAND'S EXPERIENCE IN THE SOUTH AFRICAN CAMPAIGN.
EDITOR'S NOTE. — The following article is taken from Dr. Doyle's book, "The Great Boer War," published by McClure, Phillips & Co. It is of interest particularly to Americans, because the lessons learned by Great Britain in South Africa are the same as we learned in the Spanish and Filipino wars. The problems now confronting Great Britain and the United States as to the reorganization of the army are also similar. Both nations have learned some things and ought to profit by them in future. Dr. Doyle was with the British army as a surgeon during most of the important fighting. He writes with knowledge and great candor. His history of the war is by far the ablest contribution to literature on this great event in modern British history.
The very first of all the lessons of the war, as it seems to me, is that there must be no more leaving of the army entirely to the professional soldier and to the official, but that the general public must recognize that the defense of the empire is not the business of a special warrior caste, but of every able-bodied citizen. It is an enervating thing for a nation when it comes to be accepted that its protection depends upon a small special class. With modern weapons every brave man with a rifle is a formidable soldier, and there is no longer the need for a hard training and a rigid discipline which existed when men fought in platoons and performed complicated evolutions upon the field of battle. With his pen, with his voice, and with his rifle every man who has the privilege of a vote must do what he can to strengthen the fighting force of his country. How many criticisms made by civilians in the last few years have been proved by the stern test of this war to have been absolutely justified! It is the fresh eye, undimmed by prejudice or tradition, which is most likely to see clearly. From the War Office, declaring that infantry and not cavalry were necessary for the campaign, to the general on the spot who considered that with 10,000 men he could march to Pretoria, our professional soldiers have not shown that they were endowed with clear vision. In the face of their manifest blunders and miscalculations, a civilian need not hesitate to express his own opinion. A few strong impressions were left upon my mind by what I heard and saw of the war, and these, for better or worse, I shall endeavor here to place upon record.
One of the most certain lessons of the war, as regards ourselves, is once for all to reduce the bugbear of an invasion of Great Britain to an absurdity. With a moderate efficiency with the rifle the able-bodied population of this country could, without its fleet and without its professional soldiers, defy the united forces of Europe. A country of hedgerows would with modern weapons be the most terrible entanglement into which an army could wander. The advantage of the defense over the attack, and of the stationary force against the one which has to move, is so enormous, and has been so frequently proved by the Boers against ourselves, as well as by ourselves against the Boers, that the man who still dreads .the invasion of Kent or Sussex must be either the most nervous or the most stupid of his sex. So much national consolation can we draw from the ordeal through which we have passed.
While we can depend for the defense of our own shores upon some developed system of militia and volunteers, we can release for the service of the empire almost all the professional soldiers. The lesson of the war, as I read it, is that it is better and cheaper for the country to have fewer soldiers which shall be very highly trained than many of a mixed quality. If, in order to secure that keenness and individual push and intelligence which modern warfare demands, you have to pay your soldier half a crown or three shillings a day, you can by securing a higher type do with fewer numbers, and so save in transport, clothing, accoutrements, and barrack accommodation. At such a wage you could pick your men carefully, eliminate the unfit, insist upon every man being a highly proficient marksman, and make dismissal from the service a very real punishment. In the wars of the future, where a soldier has to be conveyed to the center of Africa, the interior of China, or the frontier of Afghanistan, it is most necessary that the army so conveyed should be of the highest quality. It costs as much to convey and feed a worthless man as a good one. If he is not a dead shot with a rifle what is the use of carrying him 7,000 miles in order to place him in a firing line? One man who hits his mark outweighs ten who miss it, and only asks one-tenth of the food and transport. If by paying three times as much we can secure that one man, it is an obvious economy to the country to do so. Eliminate the useless soldiers and increase the pay of the useful ones, even if it reduces our army to 100,000 men. With our reserves, our militia, and our volunteers we can always fill up the ranks if it is necessary to increase their numbers.
To take the various arms of the service in turn, our infantry has shown itself to be as good as ever it was. The generals have winced long before the soldiers have done so, and whether it was in such advances as those of Talma Hill and Elandslaagte, or in such passive acceptance of punishment as at Spion Kop or Modder River, they have shown all their old qualities of dash and steadiness. Their spirit was extraordinarily good. I do not know where in our military history we can match the fact that the troops who were hurled backwards at Colenso in December, who were cut to pieces at Spion Kop in January, who were driven off Valkrantz early in February, were the same men who went roaring over the Boer entrenchments in the last week of that month. Nothing could demoralize or even dishearten them. As to their patient endurance of pain and of hardship, one could not be a witness to it in the hospitals without a higher sense of the dignity of human nature. Their marching was unexpectedly good. With burdens of forty pounds they covered their twenty miles a day with ease, and on occasion they rose to greater efforts. The forty miles done by the Guards before Bloemfontein, and the marching of Yule's retiring column, and of the Queenslanders and Canadians who joined'Plumer before the relief of Mafeking, were all very fine performances.
So much for the men themselves, but it is in their training that there is the room for criticism. The idea that an infantry soldier is a pikeman has never quite departed in our army. He is still to march in step as the pikemen did, to go steadily shoulder to shoulder, to rush forward with his pike advanced. All this is mediaeval and dangerous. There is only one thing which wins a modern battle, and that is straight shooting. To hit your enemy and to avoid being hit yourself are the two points of the game, and the one is as important as the other. After the lessons which we had in the first Boer war, the musketry instruction in the British army has been simply disgraceful. The number of cartridges served out annually for practice varies from fifty in the militia to 300 in a few select regiments. Three thousand should be the absolute minimum. If a man is not a marksman he should be cast from the army; for why should a useless man be paid and fed by the country?
The taking of cover, the most important of all infantry exercises, appears to be even more neglected than our musketry. In the Salisbury Plain manceuvers of 1898 I saw with my own eyes lines of infantry standing and firing upon each other at short ranges, without rebuke either from their officers or from the umpires. A colonel who stood upon the position to be attacked, and praised or blamed the company officers according to their success in concealing their men in their advance, would soon teach them to use cover. A sleet of Mauser bullets has the same effect, but it is hard that our peace training should have so small a relation to war.
Intrenching also is one of the weak points of our infantry. As Mr. Bennet Raleigh has observed, the sappers have a bad influence upon the infantry, for they teach the foot soldier that he will have things done for him which he should be able to do for himself. Every infantry officer should know how to plan trenches, and every infantry soldier how to make them. All through the war our trenches have been the merest rabbit scratchings compared with those of the amateur soldiers who were opposed to us. Sometimes they were even ludicrous, like some which I saw myself — in a position which might well have been attacked — where the sides of the loopholes in the parapet were made of empty jam pots. At Spion Kop, at Reddersberg, at Nicholson's Nek, at Lindley — on these and many other occasions better intrenching would have saved lives, if not the day.
Better shooting, better knowledge of cover — these are the main desiderata in our infantry. The latter will in the near future be attained, I believe, by some portable bulletproof shield. There are many smaller improvements which will be wrought by the war. Never again should the most valuable lives be exposed by the fatuous idea of giving them a different dress. The officer will carry a rifle like his men. And, above all, the officer must take his profession more seriously. He must remember that the lives of his men are in his keeping, and that if through any fault of his they are lost his guilt is not far removed from murder. A braver man than the British officer, or one with a more indomitable and sporting spirit, is not to be found. But he treats his work too lightly. Military conversation, though commoner than it once was, is still much too rare. During six months' intercourse with officers I have only once seen one of them reading a professional book. Young lawyers and young doctors cannot take their profession in this dilettante spirit. As a point of honor it is surely indefensible to accept certain duties and to be paid for them without carrying them out with all the industry and energy that is possible. A young officer must remember that if he leaves all the thinking to his superiors, and refuses to use his own mind, he will have lost the power of doing so by the time that he comes to be a superior himself. Our junior company officers should be constantly encouraged to think and to act for themselves.
Passing on to the cavalry, we come to the branch of the service which appears to me to be the most in need of reform. In fact, the simplest and most effective reform would be one which should abolish it altogether, retaining the household regiments for public functions. One absolutely certain lesson of this war is that there is — outside the artillery — only one weapon in the world, and that weapon is the magazine rifle. Lances, swords, and revolvers have only one place — the museum. How many times was the lance or the sword fleshed in this war, and how many men did we lose in the attempts, and how many tons of useless metal have our overburdened horses carried about the country? But if these various weapons are discarded, and we come down to the uniformity of the rifle, then of course we must teach the trooper to use his rifle on foot and dress him so that he can do so. So in an automatic and unavoidable way he becomes mounted infantry.
But when I say mounted infantry, I do not mean the vamped-up horseman who is converted by battalions as Charlemagne converted the Saxons. Considering his genesis, this man has done very well; but, as Albrecht remarked, it is some time before he has ceased holding his hat on. What I mean are regiments of the type of the Imperial Light Horse, as well horsed and as highly trained in peace time as our cavalry are now. We have not yet realized what first-class mounted infantry can do, for we have never trained any first-class mounted infantry.
When we compare the doings of cavalry and of mounted infantry in this war, we must remember that it is not a fair comparison, as the one force was highly trained while the other was rapidly improvised. But even so the comparison may be sustained by the junior branch.. I have more than once asked cavalry officers whether they could point to any single exploit in the whole war which could not have been as well done by equally well-horsed mounted infantry. The relief of Kimberley, the heading off of Cronje, the pursuit after Elandslaagte — there is not one which is essentially a cavalry exploit. But, on the other hand, the mounted infantry did things which cavalry as at present constituted could never have done — such as the ascent of Elandslaagte, or the surprise of Gunhill. Let us preserve all our old historic regiments, with their traditions and their esprit de corps — and let them be called cavalry also, if the name is dear to them — but let them have only a rifle, and let them be trained to fight on foot. Then, if less ornamental, they will become more workmanlike and more formidable. Boer tactics with British courage would make a combination which would carry everything before it.
In dealing with our artillery it must be acknowledged that for personal gallantry and for general efficiency they take the honors of the campaign. Nothing could exceed the devotion with which officers and men stood to their guns under the most deadly fire. The accuracy of our shooting left something to be desired, but in some actions it reached a very high standard.
Our gunners, however, were always from the beginning paying the penalty of being the attacking party. As a rule they were firing at guns which were in a position higher than their own, and they were continually engaging guns which they could not see. That the Boers were at the beginning of the war able to bring on to the battlefield very much heavier guns than we could set against them must have been foreseen by our military authorities, who knew, by the report of the Intelligence Department, that they possessed four heavy Creusots and sixteen 4.7 howitzers. To some extent these were neutralized by our own use of naval guns — a most dangerous and hand-to-mouth expedient. Outside these special guns, which were not field guns at all, our 15-pounders were as good as anything which the Boers could set against them. In quality of ammunition we had an immense advantage. Had the Boer forces been as good as their guns and their gunners our losses would — especially in the early part of the war — have been much more severe.
We imagined that we possessed another advantage in the possession of lyddite, but it appears that a careful inquiry should be made into this substance before we commit our artillery further to its use. Its destructive power upon buildings, etc., is beyond doubt, but it is by no means equally fatal when used against troops in an open. formation. I have spoken to several. Boers upon the subject, and none of them expressed a high opinion of it. We imagined that there was a considerable area of destruction round each bursting shell, but I know of at least one case where a shell burst within seven yards of a man, with no worse effect than to give him a bad headache.
But the very great advantage which the Boers possessed — one which enabled half a dozen Boer guns to hold as many British batteries — was that their cannon were as invisible as their rifles. The first use which a Boer makes of his guns is to conceal them. The first use which a British major makes of his is to expose them in a straight line, with correct interspaces, each gun so near its neighbor that a lucky shell dropping between them might cripple the crews of each. The artillery are a highly educated scientific corps, so the outsider must conclude that there is some deep reason for this arrangement; but whatever the reason may be, it most certainly does not apply to a war like this'. From first to last it has put us at a most serious disadvantage. Sometimes it is unavoidable that the attacking force should be in the open, but it is seldom that some broken ground, bushes, bowlders, or other cover cannot be found if the officer will be content to scatter his guns a little and to break his symmetrical line.
Another prejudice which may be quite justified in European warfare has exercised an evil influence upon our artillery in the campaign. This is the extreme reluctance of commanding officers to split up a battery and to act with any unit less than six guns. "One gun is no gun," says an artillery maxim, but there have been occasions in the campaign when a single gun would have saved us from disaster. While majors preserved their perfect six-gun batteries the troops at Reddersburg, at Lindley, at Roodewal, at Honning's Spruit, were all in dire need of the two guns which might easily have been spared them. The Boers sent their small parties about the country with guns, we sent ours without; and when the parties met, we were at a fatal disadvantage. And the root of the matter lay in the disinclination of our officers to divide up a battery.
There is another subject so painful that one would be tempted to avoid it but for its vital importance. It is the danger of the artillery firing into their own infantry, as occurred again and again in the campaign. At Talana Hill our guns opened with shrapnel, at less than 2,000 yards, upon our own stormers, and drove them with some loss off the crest which they had captured. Surely officers could be provided with a glass which would make it impossible to mistake Boer for Briton at so close a range. At Storm-berg the same thing happened, with tragic results. So also at Colenso.
As far as our equipment goes most artillery officers seem satisfied, in spite of all criticism, with the 15-pounder field gun, and argue that any gun which fires faster fires too fast to be controlled by its commander. A battery at present can discharge from fifteen to twenty shots a minute. They hold, also, that any increase in weight of the gun must be at the expense of mobility. On the other hand, they have learned that the shrapnel time fuses are too short, and that batteries should be provided with common shell for use against sangars, houses, and other solid defenses.
It is for a committee of inquiry to decide whether such small changes as these are all which we can gather from our experience in this war. A certain conservatism and loyalty prompt a man to stand by the weapons which he knows how to handle as against those of which he has no experience. But surely it must be admitted that one gun which fires very rapidly is equal to several guns which fire slowly, and offers a smaller mark. Also that a difference of mobility, which may or may not be of any importance, is more than atoned for by the certain fact that with the heavier gun you can hit your enemy a mile beyond the range at which he can hit you. The 12-pounder Elswick gun, for example, cannot be much less mobile than the service weapon, and yet its effective range is nearly double the distance. In the wars of the future it is certain that very much heavier guns will be employed than in the past.
The lesson of the war as regards the effect of artillery is that while it is comparatively harmless where troops are extended or in-trenched, it is most deadly when, through faulty leadership or the accident of the ground, troops are compelled to bunch. Spion Kop was won entirely by the Boer artillery — the one example in the war where infantry have been mastered by guns. The small Vickars-Maxim quick-firer established an evil reputation there and elsewhere; but as the war went on it was appreciated that its shells might as well be solid, as they have small penetrating power after their explosion, and are usually only to be feared on direct impact.
The engineers in every branch have done splendidly in the war. The balloon department was handicapped by the height of the scene of operations, which only gave them a narrow margin (a few hundred feet) of elevation. But in spite of this they did fine work, and their presence will become more essential as the trench and the hidden gun become universal in the battles of the future. The pontoon section also did well, but it is the railway sappers Who have really won the first honors of the campaign upon the side of the British. They were, of course, immensely assisted by the presence of the Pioneer Regiment, with its skilled officers and trained workers, and also by the presence of cheap black labor; but the energy and ingenuity with which every difficulty was surmounted and the line was kept up to the army will always remain a wonder to those who saw it and a glory to those who did it. One branch of the service which proved to be most useful, and which might well be enlarged, is the mounted engineer. As the horseman threatens to play so great a part in the wars of the future,. it is necessary to have your horse-sapper who will keep up With him, tap telegraphs, break bridges, cut lines, and get the full advantage out of each advance.
There remains that Medical Department upon which so fierce a light has beaten. It has had less than justice done to it, because the desperate nature of the crisis which it had to meet was not realized by the public. For reasons of policy the grave state of the army in Bloemfontein was never made known, and at the moment when the public was reading optimistic reports the town was a center of pestilence and the hospitals were crammed to their utmost capacity. The true statistics of the outbreak will probably never come out, as the army returns permit the use of such terms as " simple continued fever" — a diagnosis frequently made, but vague and slovenly in its nature. If these cases were added to those which were returned as enteric (and they were undoubtedly all of the same nature), it would probably double the numbers and give a true idea of the terrible nature of the epidemic. Speaking roughly, there could not have been fewer than from 7,000 to 10,000 in Bloemfontein alone, of which 1,800 died.
At the time of this terrible outbreak the army depended for its supplies upon a single precarious line of rails, which were choked with the food and the remounts which were absolutely necessary for the continuance of the campaign. The doctors had the utmost difficulty in getting the tents, medicines, and other necessaries for their work. They were overwhelmed with cases at the very moment when their means for treating them were at the lowest, and unhappily enteric is of all diseases the one which needs careful nursing, special nourishment, and constant attention. The result was in many cases deplorable. There were hospitals where the most necessary utensils were wanting. In supplying these wants locally there was, as it seemed to me, a want of initiative and of energy, but it sprang largely from an exaggerated desire on the part of the authorities to conciliate the Free Staters and reconcile them to our rule. It was thought too highhanded to occupy empty houses without permission, or to tear down corrugated iron fencing in order to make huts to keep the rain from the sick soldiers. This policy, which sacrificed the British soldier to an excessive respect for the feelings of his enemies, became modified after a time, but it appeared to me to increase the difficulties of the doctors.
Where the Department seemed to be open to criticism was in not having more men upon the spot. Capetown was swarming with civil surgeons, and there was no difficulty in conveying them to Bloemfontein, Kroonstadt, or wherever else they were needed. For example, a man should certainly have been on duty night and day at the station, to meet all incoming trains and receive the sick and wounded. There were cases where men lay on the platform for long periods before being removed. So also it was obvious that a rest camp should have been formed early, so as to relieve the congestion of the hospitals by taking away the lighter cases. But the situation was a most difficult one, and the men upon the spot, from General Wilson to the humblest orderly, were worked to their extreme capacity. It is easy now to criticise what they did not do, but it is just also to remember what they did.
The fact is that the true blame in the matter rests not with the Medical Department, but with the composition of the South African army. The Medical Department is arranged to meet the wants of such a body of regular troops as Great Britain could put in the field, but not to provide for a great army of irregulars and Colonials very much larger than could ever have been foreseen. It is unjust to blame the Medical Department for not being prepared for that which was a new thing, totally unforeseen by any one even after the outbreak of hostilities.
Leaving these hasty and superficial notes of the way in which each branch of the service has been affected by the war, I should desire to add a few words upon the army of the future. I believe that if we could lay the lessons of this war rightly to heart we might become as strong upon land as we are on sea, and that the change might be effected without any increase of expense. It will probably be represented that the lesson of the war is that the army should be increased; but my own impression, which I advance with all diffidence, is that the true reading is different, and that we should decrease the army in numbers, and so save the money which will enable us to increase its efficiency and mobility.
When I say decrease the army, I mean decrease the number of professional soldiers; but I should increase the total number of armed men upon whom we can call by a liberal encouragement of volunteering and such an extension of the Militia Act as would give us at least a million men for home defense.
The army proper should, according to this scheme, be drawn from a higher class than is done at present, for modern warfare demands more intelligence and individuality than is to be found in the peasant or unskilled laborer classes. To get these men a good wage must be paid — not less than half a crown a day, with a pension in reserve.
Granting that the professional army should consist of 100,000 men, which is ample for every requirement, I should divide them roughly into 40,000 mounted infantry, who should be the elite, trained to the last point, with every man a picked shot and rider. Twenty thousand I should devote to forming a powerful corps of artillery, who should be armed with the best weapons which money could buy. Ten thousand would furnish the engineers, the army service corps, and the medical orderlies. There is no use in feeding and paying men in time of peace when we know that we can get them easily in time of war and rapidly make them efficient. In all these three departments it would be practicable to fill up the gaps by trained volunteers when they are needed.
There remain 30,000 men out of the original number, which should form the infantry of the line. These should preserve the old regimental names and traditions, but should consist of mere "cadres," skeleton regiments to be filled up in time of war. There might, for example, be a hundred regiments, each containing 300 men. But these men, paid on the higher scale, are all picked men and good rifle shots, trained to the highest point in real warlike exercises — not in barrack-square evolutions. Where the standard of intelligence is higher, drill is not so necessary to give cohesion to a regiment. This force would in itself (with the aid of the mounted infantry and artillery) be able to cope with any ordinary task; but when the nation desired to use its whole strength, the regiments would at once be increased to 1,000 each by drafts from the huge volunteer and militia reserves. This new material would take some digesting, but with 300 old soldiers already in the ranks, it would not take long before the regiments would become formidable. Our infantry force would thus rise at once to 100,000 men, with behind them 1,000,000 or so of the picked manhood of the country ready to form fresh battalions or to fill the gaps in the old ones. Add to this the Indian army, and the splendid material of Australia, South Africa, and Canada, each of which should be separately organized, and we should have such a force as the empire has never yet had at its command. In spite of the higher pay to every officer and man, I believe that the economies would be so great owing to the smaller numbers — which count, not merely upon a pay list, but in our bills for transport, for food, for pensions, and for barracks — that we could do it at a considerably smaller cost if the nation can be persuaded to extend the Militia Act for short periods of home service. But, above all, let the army become a serious profession, let us have done with the " fuss and the feathers," the gold lace and the frippery, which were needed to catch the plowboy, but are repellant to the reasonable man. Let us have done also with the tailoring, the too luxurious habits of the mess, the unnecessary extravagances which make it so hard for a poor man to accept a commission. If only this good came from all our trials and our efforts they would be well worth all that they have cost us.