The Clarion 1900


Written: by Robert Blatchford;
First published: under the pseudonym of “Nunquam” in The Clarion, 31 March 1900, p. 101;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford, for 2008.

Do you remember the Cardiff friend who advised me not to go in for prophecy? I think I owe him an apology. I said that if Lord Roberts was doing what I hoped and expected he was doing Ladysmith would be relieved in ten days. And I was wrong. Ladysmith was relieved in twelve days. I apologise. It is always better to apologise.

Still, as my prophecy was made before Kimberley was relieved, and before we had any hopeful news of Lord Roberts’s movements, as it was made at a time when few people in the world had any hope that Ladysmith could be relieved at all, I may claim to have done fairly well for a mere minor prophet.

But I made another rather good shot, though not in this paper, when I said at the time when things looked their worst that once the Boer lines were broken their defence would crumble to pieces.

I made these statements not as guesses, but as sober judgments, based upon strategic reasoning.

The British forces were weak in cavalry and artillery, and the Boer positions were strong. But anyone with a map little knowledge of war could see that sufficient troops of a mobile kind the positions could be turned west and east. Had a force of 20,000 men been sent out and landed in Zululand as soon as possible after Buller’s repulse on the Tugela and had that force been pushed towards Ladysmith from the east, that town would have been relieved weeks earlier, and at a smaller cost in casualties. That action I hoped to see the Government take.

Of course, directly Lord Roberts arrived in the west with his fine army, Cronje was bound to go and the Boer defence approaches to Ladysmith was bound to weaken.

I mention these facts because many who talk a great deal about the war know nothing at all about the subject, and because modesty seems rather scarce amongst the gentlemen who have favoured me with so much of their correspondence.

Indeed, I doubt very much whether 90 per cent. of those who talk so glibly the blunders of our British generals could, if called upon, point out any of those blunders and explain why they were blunders.

Lord Methuen handled his troops badly at Magersfontein and the Modder, Gatacre made a terrible, mistake at Stormberg and perhaps Sir Redvers Buller ought not to have delivered a frontal attack upon Colenso. But with these exceptions I think there has been no bad generalship on our side.

Justice is a jewel. Would the army of any other nation have done better? Is there any other nation with finer generals than Roberts and Wolseley? Are not French, Dundonald, Baden-Powell and Brabant good officers? And was not Gen. White’s defence of so weak a place as Ladysmith, against three times his own numbers with heavier guns, a very fine piece of work?

All generals make mistakes. Napoleon and Wellington made mistakes. Wellington said war was a series of mistakes, and he was the best general who made the fewest.

* * *

A few words as to the article of friend Liebknecht in our last issue. This is directed against Militarism and imperialism. It is quite sound, but, being by a German, requires amendment before it is adapted to English conditions.

What is Militarism? When Liebknecht uses the word he uses it to denote universal compulsory military service. Militarism in that sense exists upon the Continent. It exists in Germany, in France, in Russia, and in Italy. And it is a bad thing and a thing fraught with evil to the people of any country. It interferes with peaceful work; it constitutes a drain upon the workers; it breeds a hectoring spirit and a loud contempt for unwarlike citizens; and it enables a monarch or a government to resist the popular will and to coerce the people by means own arms.

It is a matter of the most urgent and vital importance that the uprising of any such system in this country should be resisted with vigour and determination by every citizen who loves freedom and believes in popular government. Conscription means ruin and slavery.

But this great danger will not be averted by poetical orations about brotherhood, nor by fierce attacks on our soldiers, nor by calling our generals mercenary butchers, nor by writing philosophical essays advocating non-resistance.

As a matter of principle most Socialists are agreed that war is a curse and peace a blessing; that all men are as brothers and should live in peace and amity; and that Christ was wiser than Machiavel.

But as a matter of fact nearly all Britons are agreed that the Empire must be defended and the United Kingdom made safe against invasion.

On this latter point there can be no doubt. The resolution of the British people to defend all British possessions is a fact. We Socialists, even if we differed from the general decision, would be quite powerless to interfere with it.

Very good. Rightly, or wrongly we have a vast Empire. Rightly or wrongly, we (or the great bulk of us) are determined to hold that Empire.

Now, we cannot hold that Empire in these days of enormous armies unless we maintain a considerable army of our own. For reasons which I have given before, our fleet will no longer be equal, to the duty of protecting the whole of our Empire.

We must, therefore – even we Socialists – consent to the popular demand for an army, and so we find that whether we – as Socialists -like the thing or not we shall soon be obliged to adopt Militarism in some form.

For my own part, I am not much concerned upon that head. As an old soldier and an old volunteer. I may, I hope, be pardoned for declaring that military training is not all evil. Perhaps some of you will quarrel with me if I go as far (as I must) as to say that a moderate amount of the best military training would be a good and not a bad thing for our young men. I doubt whether even a universal military training would be a bad thing – since universal peace cannot be yet established.

But against compulsory military service and against any army system based upon French or German lines, I have a feeling of the bitterest and the most implacable hostility. Against conscription in any form, and against a military establishment of a Continental pattern, all who love freedom, all democrats and all reformers, should declare war – war to the knife.

But to make war against all forms of Militarism at a time when some form of Militarism has become inevitable, is bad policy, and will tend fatally to strengthen the hands of the advocates of conscription.

Let us speak and write against war; let us work to bring about universal brotherhood and peace; but let us recognise the fact that some form of Militarism will be established in this country very soon, whether we Socialists are willing or no.

And let us as sensible men try to evade and defeat the bad Continental form of Militarism by countenancing and assisting better English form.

In short, let us make universal compulsory military service unnecessary by helping to establish a sufficient system of voluntary service.

There is no need for conscription in this country. There is no need to withdraw all poor young men from their work for two years to teach them soldiering. We can raise as many men as we require without compulsion, and we can render them efficient without any serious or harmful interference with their civil duties.

A standing army of paid troops for foreign service can be had; a strong reserve behind them can be had, and a citizen army a million strong can be had without ballot or conscription.

Let foreign critics and insidious advocates of compulsory service prate as they will, the British military system is the best in the world, and all it needs is extension and encouragement.

What do I mean by the British military system? I mean the maintenance of a standing army for foreign service and a volunteer army for home defence. And why do I call it the best system? Because it provides (or can be enabled to provide) all the force necessary for the sure defence of our Empire without in any way putting the people at the mercy of a sovereign, a government, or a clique.

An army of conscripts is a standing menace to popular liberty but a citizen army is a standing defence of popular liberty. Under the Continental system the people are armed against their own liberties; under the volunteer system the people are armed in defence of their own rights.

These are points which it is essential that all Socialists should consider. Conscription is the deadliest danger to democracy a volunteer, or citizen army, is the surest prevention of conscription.

That is why I ask Socialists to interest themselves in military matters, and to assist in the reorganisation and extension of our means of national defence. Some form of Militarism will assuredly be adopted by the people of this country. Let us endeavour to secure the best form, and to avoid a blind attack upon all forms, which can only tend to inflict upon us the worst.