Near the close of his War Impressions, Menpes who had been sent to Africa to record the Boer War by Black and White, makes several observations that suggest the lessons of the Crimean War had still not been learned. — George P. Landow]

[Poor training]

If artisans were to use their tools as our Tommies use their guns, we should not have a house fit to live in. Our whole army is (as it were) composed of uneducated artisans. Again, all the drill that one sees going on, all that fancy work with the decorative general and the review horses, is at times picturesque; but on the whole it is pretty worthless, and does not help the men much when things come to actual warfare. Then, there is the field officer who, anxious to make the little knowledge he possesses apparent to every one, puts his men through certain movements in order to illustrate his own pet theory. He reminds me of the academic painter a man who is not a true artist at all, but will accentuate the muscles of the figure he is drawing, thinking to air his knowledge of anatomy. Just as the officer spoils a great operation by accentu- ating one position to show off his superior cleverness, the artist would hopelessly spoil his picture by the same act.

The training of the soldier at home is altogether very bad. He drills part of the day; the rest is spent in drifting up and down the King's Road and into public-houses. I would never blame Tommy on that score, for I have lived with him for months, and I am convinced that he is a splendid fellow; but it is necessary to point out that his training is all made so mechanical and uninteresting that in the end he must degenerate into a machine.

One day, to my surprise, I found myself on the top of a kopje viewing a small battle. It struck me that war was quite different from what I had ever imagined it to be. It was reported that some Boers had appeared on the other side of a certain kopje, and had shot a New Zealander. On hearing this, the General immediately sent out a body of volunteers, with orders to dislodge the Boers if they were there. Soon, as I was gazing with the eyes of an outsider at the scene, I was amazed to see these men rush at the kopje, scale it rapidly, and then stand bolt upright for a few moments, while their bodies were outlined clearly and crisply against the sky, before disappearing. Could anything have been madder ? The Boers must surely have seen these men on the top of the kopje, and have prepared for them. "Would it not have been better," I gently suggested to the General afterwards, "if the men had crept quietly round the side?" The General paused for a moment, and then said," Yes: I believe you're perfectly right; but one can never tell." I was not surprised to hear shortly afterwards that this futile action had resulted in a great many lives being lost.

Inadequate intelligence and poor use of reconnaissance

There was another thing that struck me as being strange. I would be marching with the column when a quarter of a mile ahead of us I would see a small body of men. On inquiring who they might be, I was told that they were the eyes of the army: in short, they were scouts. I was amazed: in fact, the only excuse I could find for their close proximity to the army was that the poor men were really afraid of losing their way, and that they did not know the country any better than the troops themselves. I do not think that the British officer had any idea of scouting, and if there is one thing more important than another in the warfare of the veldt it is scouting. But we were not prepared for the war, and were not even sure of the scouts themselves. I remember talking to General Hector Macdonald on this very subject. In answer to my questions connected with scouts, he said, "I don't get any help at all in that direction. I can't trust the local scouts, and we haven't any of our own. That is the great trouble. It is terribly difficult, scouting, for it requires years and years of practice."

Poor clothing

The chief thing our men had to do in South Africa was to march, and they should have been sent out with proper boots. The boots they actually wore were practically composed of brown paper. Now, brown paper is a good thing to wrap up parcels in; it is also very useful, sometimes, as a blanket; in fact, it has proved itself a splendid article on innumerable occasions: but it is not a success in the boot. I have seen Tommy crippled and limping on the march to Bloemfontein when by rights he should have been wearing the best shooting boots. Indeed, that would pay in the long run: two pairs would have lasted a man through the whole campaign. As it is, we are on the verge of send- ing into the battle-field an army of cripples wearing rough coarse boots which render them practically im- mobile, to say nothing of the difference a pair of ill- fitting boots makes in the appearance of a man. . . .

Over centralization

Another thing that appeared to me as foolish beyond words was the manner in which the principle of centralisation was run to death. The British Army in South Africa appeared to be mad on centralisation. There would be hundreds of capable officers spread over the country, men with brains and power to use them; but, however great the emergency, however trying the difficulty, these men were unable to move hand or foot in the matter until the subject had been placed before the central authorities in the ridiculous red-tape form. This, naturally, often resulted in disaster, almost always in loss of life, and frequently in the destruction of valuable property. Surely common-sense would dictate the wisdom of permitting a certain amount of decentral- isation, by which men of capacity might be allowed to act for themselves where immediate action was obviously necessary. [230-33]

References

Menpes, Mortime. War Impressions Being A Record in Colour. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1901. Internet Archive version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 13 December 2014.


Last modified 15 December 2014