Citizen Soldiers: Essays Towards the Improvement of the Volunteer Force

Kegan Paul, Trench
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Publisher
Kegan Paul, Trench
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Published on
Dec 31, 1884
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Pages
99
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Language
English
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The next six weeks will be an anxious time for the British Empire. The war which begins as I write between three and four on Wednesday afternoon, October 11th, 1899, is a conflict for supremacy in South Africa between the Boer States, their aiders and abettors, and the British Empire. In point of resources the British Empire is so incomparably stronger than the Boer States that there ought to be no possibility of doubt about the issue. But the Boer States with all their resources are actually in the theatre of war, which is, separated by the wide oceans from all the sources of British power, from Great Britain, from India, from the Australian and Canadian colonies. The reinforcements ordered on September 8th have not yet all arrived, though the last transports are due to arrive during the next four or five days. After that no further reinforcements can be expected for a month, so that during the next few weeks the whole strength of the Boers, so far as it is available at all, can be employed against a mere fragment of the British power. To the gravity of this situation it would be folly to shut our eyes. It contains the possibility of disaster, though what the consequences of disaster now would involve must for the present be left unsaid. Yet it may be well to say one word on the origin of the unpleasant situation which exists, in order to prevent needless misgivings in case the first news should not be as favourable as we all hope. There is no sign of any mistake or neglect in the military department of the Army. The quantity and character of the force required to bring the war to a successful issue has been most carefully estimated in advance; every preparation which forethought can suggest has been thought out, so that the moment the word was given by the supreme authority, the Cabinet, the mobilisation and despatch of the forces could begin and proceed without a hitch. The Army was never in better condition either as regards the zeal and skill of its officers from the highest to the lowest, the training and discipline of the men, or the organisation of all branches of the service. Nor is the present condition of the Army good merely by comparison with what it was twenty years ago. A very high standard has been attained, and those who have watched the Army continuously for many years feel confident that all ranks and all arms will do their duty. The present situation, in which the Boers start favourably handicapped for five weeks certain, is the foreseen consequence of the decision of the Cabinet to postpone the measures necessary for the defence of the British colonies and for attack upon the Boer States. This decision is not attributable to imperfect information. It was regarded as certain so long ago as December last, by those in a position to give the best forecast, that the Boers of both States meant war with the object of establishing Boer supremacy. The Cabinet, therefore, has knowingly and deliberately taken upon itself the responsibility for whatever risks are now run. In this deliberate decision of the Cabinet lies the best ground for hoping that the risks are not so great as they seem.
"I do not believe in the perfection of the British constitution as an instrument of war ... it is evident that there is something in your machinery that is wrong." These were the words of the late Marquis of Salisbury, speaking as Prime Minister in his place in the House of Lords on the 30th of January 1900. They amounted to a declaration by the British Government that it could not govern, for the first business of a Government is to be able to defend the State of which it has charge, that is, to carry on war. Strange to say, the people of England were undisturbed by so striking an admission of national failure.

On the 16th of March 1909 came a new declaration from another Prime Minister. Mr. Asquith, on the introduction of the Navy Estimates, explained to the House of Commons that the Government had been surprised at the rate at which the new German navy was being constructed, and at the rapid growth of Germany's power to build battleships. But it is the first duty of a Government to provide for national security and to provide means to foresee. A Government that is surprised in a matter relating to war is already half defeated.

The creation of the German navy is the creation of means that could be used to challenge Great Britain's sea power and all that depends upon it. There has been no such challenge these hundred years, no challenge so formidable as that represented by the new German fleet these three hundred years. It brings with it a crisis in the national life of England as great as has ever been known; yet this crisis finds the British nation divided, unready and uncertain what leadership it is to expect.

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