the british army was slow to learn -- 6/18/19

Today's selection -- from Hero of the Empire by Candice Millard. Some institutions are reluctant to change. In Britain's war against the Boers of South Africa (farmers who were the descendants of Dutch and Huguenot settlers from the late 1600s) in 1900, its army still fought in parade-like formation, almost as it had 120 years earlier in the American Revolution. The result was that in the early part of that war, the British suffered defeat after defeat and enormous numbers of casualties:

"To the Euro­pean eye, used to moors and woodlands, fields and pastures, the [South African] land seemed to be an open expanse with little variety in its flat, scrubby topography. ... Despite what seemed like an almost hypnotic, unwav­ering sameness, however, the veld was actually filled with thousands of places, small hills and valleys, folds and nooks, where the enemy could, and did, hide.

"In stark contrast to the British, the Boers saw no shame in hid­ing. On the contrary, to them the shame would have been in risking the life God had given them simply in the pursuit of personal glory or, in their enemy's case, to gratify some inconceivable British vanity. For them, war was not an exciting adventure but the cold, cruel, inescapable business of life. The Boer 'went out in a businesslike way to kill men,' Amery wrote, 'as he would to kill dangerous wild beasts, and he saw no more glory in dying at an enemy's hand than in being eaten by a lion.'

"The Boers knew the veld inside and out, every river and kopje, boulder and bush, and they used it all to get as close as possible to the enemy without being seen. Where there was no natural feature in the landscape to shield them, they made their own. They built sangars, or small shelters, out of piles of stones. They dug deep and incredibly long trenches, some stretching for as many as thirty miles, and covered them so expertly with grass and twigs that even to a British marksman within rifle range they blended seamlessly into the surrounding landscape.

"They also had, in their simple leather kits, the one thing that could almost guarantee their invisibility, even after they had fired their guns: smokeless gunpowder. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, had patented a form of smokeless gunpowder twelve years earlier, dramatically changing warfare and making it almost impossible to track down a sniper. The impact of these inventions was so profound that a year later, after seeing his own accidental obituary -- to his horror titled 'The Merchant of Death ls Dead' -- ­the Swedish inventor would establish the Nobel Prize.

"Unlike the Boers, who had been sharpshooters nearly all their lives, this was an entirely new world to the British. So alien was the concept of a man who shot from a distance and in hiding, rather than in a highly visible battlefield formation, that even the word 'sniper' was new to them. It had originated in India, where riflemen skilled enough to shoot a snipe, a small bird with a notoriously erratic flight pattern, were referred to as snipers. Churchill himself had used the word in print for the first time just a few years earlier, in his book The Story of the Malakand Field Force, and so foreign did it seem to him that every time he wrote it, he put it in quotation marks.

A Boer commando unit poses for a photo in front of Spion Kop. Aside from being skilled fighters, they also had intimate knowledge of South African terrain.

"Instead of admiring the effectiveness of the Boers' guerrilla tac­tics, however, the British derided them as ungallant and cowardly. The Boers were 'a people whose only mode of warfare ... has been that of crawling behind stones and picking off their enemy like springbok while themselves well protected,' a British expatriate, or Uitlander, sneered in a letter to a Natal newspaper. 'A wise mode of warfare no doubt, but not one that fills us with admiration.' A soldier didn't hide in the brush like an animal. He stood in the open and faced his death like a man.

"For the British, war was about romance and gallantry. They liked nothing more than a carefully pressed uniform, a parade ground and a razor-sharp fighting line. At most, British soldiers spent two months of the year actually training to fight. The other ten were devoted to parading, attending to their uniforms and waiting on their officers, for whom they were expected to serve as cook, valet, porter and gardener. 'The actual conditions of warfare were studi­ously disregarded,' Amery wrote. 'Nowhere was there any definite preparation for war, nowhere any dear conception that war was the one end and object for which armies exist. In their place reigned a ... hazy confidence that British good fortune and British courage would always come successfully out of any war that the inscrutable mysteries of foreign policy might bring about.'

"What took the place of actual training was an emphasis on char­acter and courage so extreme it left room for little else. British offi­cers in particular were expected not only to be brave, but to show a complete disregard for their own safety, an approach to warfare that often led to their untimely, if widely lauded, death. ... 'These experienced soldiers never care how fast bullets may whizz about them,' Solomon Plaatje, a native South African intellectual, journalist and statesman, wrote after observing the British army during the war. "'They stroll about in a heavy volley far more recklessly than we walk through a shower of rain.' "



Candice Millard


Hero of the Empire


Anchor Books, a division of Random House


Copyright 2016 by Candice Millard


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