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22 May 1859, Edinburgh M.D., Kt, KStJ, D.L., LL.D., Sportsman, Writer, Poet, Politician, Justicer, Spiritualist Crowborough, 7 July 1930

How the Boer War Prepared Us for the Great War

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

How the Boer War Prepared Us for the Great War is an article written by Arthur Conan Doyle published in The War Illustrated on 15 january 1915.


How the Boer War Prepared Us for the Great War

The War Illustrated
(15 january 1915, p. 12)
The War Illustrated
(15 january 1915, p. 13)

Not only one of Britain's foremost novelists perhaps the most universally popular of alt our living writers, whose works circulate In many tongues to the remotest corners of the world Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is something more. He represents in literature the splendid sanity and poise of British character, and his historical writings on the South African War have long ranked as standard works.

The Editor of "The War Illustrated" has been fortunate in inducing Sir Arthur to explain to his readers how the lessons learned by the British Army in the South African campaign were applied in the Great European War.

If the Boer War be looked upon as a full-dress rehearsal in preparation for the much more serious war which was to follow it, then the vast expenditure and the considerable loss of life have amply justified themselves, for they have enabled our small professional Army, led by officers who nearly all had the training of the South African campaign, to start this vitally-important contest at a considerable advantage. Whether that advantage is as great as it should have been had we thoroughly digested all our lessons is a delicate question for a civilian to discuss. As I ventured, however, fourteen years ago to write a chapter upon the military lessons of the Boer War, I shall now supplement it by a few remarks as to how these lessons seem to have influenced our conduct.

Importance of Good Shooting and Necessity of Cover

The Continental military critics never understood the importance of the Boer War because, as in the case of the North and South struggle in America, they looked upon it as a scrambling, amateurish business which bore no relation to the clash of disciplined legions. Hence those solid infantry formations and gigantic cavalry charges which amazed our representatives at the various Kaiser manoeuvres. It was their theory that if Buller's infantry did not instantly win its way to Ladysmith over Botha's trenches, or Methuen carry the lines of Magersfontein, it was the fault of the soldiers and their leaders. Now that the Germans have themselves tried what the combination of trench and rifle means at Ypres and elsewhere, and have tested the quality of British infantry, they will get a new light upon the teaching of the South African War.

Two things we learned in Africa — the importance of good shooting and the necessity for using cover. Our excellence at both was a revelation to the Germans at Mons, as has been admitted by many of their officers. They were the two factors which saved us during that perilous business, for, outnumbered as we were, and faced by a far stronger artillery, we could not possibly have saved the army had we not some make-weights upon our side. Those were the all-important make-weights — that we could inflict the maximum and receive the minimum of punishment with the rifle. They saved us — and we owe them both directly to the South African War. Before that lesson we were no better than the Germans I have myself seen, in the manoeuvres of 1898, lines of British infantry standing at two hundred yards distance to fire volleys at each other, unrebuked by officers or umpires. At least "nous avons changé tout cela."

A Simple Prophecy now being fulfilled

The Boer War opened up the new era of artillery, and there at least our opponents have learned part of the lesson. The six guns exposed in neat array have disappeared. Now a gun lurks here behind a building, and there amid the brushwood, while the observer, a quarter of a mile away, is telephoning ranges, and the gunners are training upon an unseen mark. All this is new but is common to both sides. In the chapter to which I have alluded I said : "The bullock guns of the Boers are the forerunners of an artillery which, in a country of good roads with steam traction available, may assume the most monstrous proportions. The greatest cannon of our battleships and fortresses may be converted into field-pieces." The prophecy was a simple one, and seems to be in a fair way of being fulfilled. It is only the road bridges and culverts which put any restriction now upon the size of the gun — save, of course, the difficulty of removing it in case of a retreat. One thing has very clearly emerged in the present operations, and that is that taking an average with light guns and heavy the British artillery, in men and material, is probably unequalled and certainly unsurpassed among the armies of Europe.

The New Versatility of our Cavalry

But it is in the cavalry that the Boer War left its mark most deeply, though it will always be a fair ground for argument whether it left it deeply enough. Certainly our cavalry have been splendid. They have adapted themselves to everything and been the general utility men of the Army. I have notes of one regiment which executed a famous "arme blanche" charge in the morning, fought as dismounted riflemen in the afternoon, and formed themselves into a gun-team to pull off deserted guns in the evening.

Since then they have spent a good deal of their time making and holding trenches. Such men cannot be improved upon, and if they, in their nimble suppleness, present a contrast to the armour-plated, top-booted Continental types, it is once again to South Africa that we owe it. The British horseman has been trained to be both a cavalier who fights with cold steel, and also to be a mounted rifleman who uses his horse merely to give him mobility in reaching or changing the place of the fight. In theory the two types are really incompatible, since the one is always looking for good ground to charge over, and the other for broken ground to skirmish over. But practice often works out better than theory, and if the British cavalry have shown themselves to be good men off their horses, they have also never yet met their equals on their horses. The question will still arise, however, which system, ceteris paribus, gives the best result.

One curious illustration may be quoted which bears upon the subject. On the same morning two cavalry skirmishes were fought, of which I have full details though I may not yet record them. In the first a squadron of British lancers met a squadron of German Guard dragoons in a fair cavalry charge at fifteen miles an hour. They rode through each other, six or seven fell upon either side, and each wheeled to a flank as other forces were coming into the fray. That was an example of the arme blanche. Shortly afterwards a squadron of British hussars saw a hostile squadron approaching and at once dismounted. The Germans charged and were practically annihilated. Thirty-two dead or wounded were picked up in front of the hussar line, and a number of the others who rode past were shot by the horse-holders. That was an example of the mounted riflemen. It is the latter type that has come to us through our South African experience.

One lesson we seem to have unlearned, and already we have paid a heavy price for it. It is that the officer should at fifty yards be indistinguishable from his men. His life is the most valuable of all, and yet we deliberately put him up as a mark. If, for the purpose of leading, his dress must be conspicuous, then let the marks be on the back of his collar. He should no longer be encumbered with a useless sword — an implement which should never have survived South Africa. Let him have a light rifle. He need not use it when his men require his attention, but in many situations they do not, and then he can be of use in the firing-line. But it is a shame to make him conspicuous, for it is a thing against which he is precluded from complaining.

I have been told — but I trust that it is not true that in some Indian regiments the officers have a different headgear from the soldiers. This would seem a really monstrous thing if it be true. But it is the one conspicuous example of a lesson once learned and now entirely neglected.

Arthur Conan Doyle





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