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The Contemptible Little Army

Early last year, in the course of some comments which I made upon the slighting remarks about our Army by General von Bernhardi, I observed, “It may be noted that General von Bernhardi has a poor opinion of our troops. This need not trouble us. We are what we are, and words will not alter it. From very early days our soldiers have left their mark upon Continental warfare, and we have no reason to think that we have declined from the manhood of our forefathers.” Since then he has returned to the attack. With that curious power of coming after deep study to the absolutely diametrically wrong conclusion which the German expert, political or military, appears to possess, he says in his War of To-day, “The English Army, trained more for purposes of show than for modern war,” adding in the same sentence a sneer at our “inferior Colonial levies.” He will have an opportunity of reconsidering his views presently upon the fighting value of our over-sea troops, and surely so far as our own are concerned he must already be making some interesting notes for his next edition, or rather for the learned volume upon Germany and the Last War which will no doubt come from his pen. He is a man to whom we might well raise a statue, for I am convinced that his cynical confession of German policy has been worth at least an army corps to this country. We may address to him John Davidson’s lines to his enemy—


”Unwilling friend, let not your spite abate,

Spur us with scorn, and strengthen us with hate.”


There is another German gentleman who must be thinking rather furiously. He is a certain Colonel Gadke, who appeared officially at Aldershot some years ago, was hospitably entreated, being shown all that he desired to see, and on his return to Berlin published a most depreciatory description of our forces. He found no good thing in them. I have some recollection that General French alluded in a public speech to this critic’s remarks, and expressed a modest hope that he and his men would some day have the opportunity of showing how far they were deserved. Well, he has had his opportunity, and Colonel Gadke, like so many other Germans, seems to have made a miscalculation.

An army which has preserved the absurd Paradeschritt, an exercise which is painful to the bystander, as he feels that it is making fools of brave men, must have a tendency to throw back to earlier types. These Germans have been trained in peace and upon the theory of books. In all that vast host there is hardly a man who has previously stood at the wrong end of a loaded gun. They live on traditions of close formations, vast cavalry charges, and other things which will not fit into modern warfare. Braver men do not exist, but it is the bravery of men who have been taught to lean upon each other, and not the cold, self-contained, resourceful bravery of the man who has learned to fight for his own hand. The British have had the teachings of two recent campaigns fought with modern weapons—that of the Tirah and of South Africa. Now that the reserves have joined the colours there are few regiments which have not a fair sprinkling of veterans from these wars in their ranks. The Pathan and the Boer have been their instructors in something more practical than those Imperial Grand Manœuvres where the all-highest played with his puppets in such a fashion that one of his generals remarked that the chief practical difficulty of a campaign so conducted would be the disposal of the dead.

Boers and Pathans have been hard masters, and have given many a slap to their admiring pupils, but the lesson has been learned. It was not show troops, General, who, with two corps, held five of your best day after day from Mons to Compiègne. It is no reproach to your valour: but you were up against men who were equally brave and knew a great deal more of the game. This must begin to break upon you, and will surely grow clearer as the days go by. We shall often in the future take the knock as well as give it, but you will not say that we have a show army if you live to chronicle this war, nor will your Imperial master be proud of the adjective which he has demeaned himself in using before his troops had learned their lesson.

The fact is that the German army, with all its great traditions, has been petrifying for many years back. They never learned the lesson of South Africa. It was not for want of having it expounded to them, for their military attaché—“’im with the spatchcock on ’is ’elmet,” as I heard him described by a British orderly—missed nothing of what occurred, as is evident from their official history of the war. And yet they missed it, and with it all those ideas of individual efficiency and elastic independent formations, which are the essence of modern soldiering. Their own more liberal thinkers were aware of it. Here are the words which were put into the mouth of Güntz, the representative of the younger school, in Beyerlein’s famous novel:

“The organisation of the German army rested upon foundations which had been laid a hundred years ago. Since the great war they had never seriously been put to the proof, and during the last three decades they had only been altered in the most trifling details. In three long decades! And in one of those decades the world at large had advanced as much as in the previous century.

“Instead of turning this highly developed intelligence to good account, they bound it hand and foot on the rack of an everlasting drill which could not have been more soullessly mechanical in the days of Frederick. It held them together as an iron hoop holds together a cask the dry staves of which would fall asunder at the first kick.”

Lord Roberts has said that if ten points represent the complete soldier, eight should stand for his efficiency as a shot. The German maxim has rather been that eight should stand for his efficiency as a drilled marionette. It has been reckoned that about 200 books a year appear in Germany upon military affairs, against about 20 in Britain. And yet after all this expert debate the essential point of all seems to have been missed—that in the end everything depends upon the man behind the gun, upon his hitting his opponent and upon his taking cover so as to avoid being hit himself.

After all the efforts of the General Staff the result when shown upon the field of battle has filled our men with a mixture of admiration and contempt—contempt for the absurd tactics, admiration for the poor devils who struggle on in spite of them. Listen to the voices of the men who are the real experts. Says a Lincolnshire sergeant, “They were in solid square blocks, and we couldn’t help hitting them.” Says Private Tait (2nd Essex), “Their rifle shooting is rotten. I don’t believe they could hit a haystack at 100 yards.” “They are rotten shots with their rifles,” says an Oldham private. “They advance in close column, and you simply can’t help hitting them,” writes a Gordon Highlander. “You would have thought it was a big crowd streaming out from a Cup-tie,” says Private Whitaker of the Guards. “It was like a farmer’s machine cutting grass,” so it seemed to Private Hawkins of the Coldstreams. “No damned good as riflemen,” says a Connemara boy. “You couldn’t help hitting them. As to their rifle fire, it was useless.” “They shoot from the hip, and don’t seem to aim at anything in particular.”

These are the opinions of the practical men upon the field of battle. Surely a poor result from the 200 volumes a year, and all the weighty labours of the General Staff! “Artillery nearly as good as our own, rifle fire beneath contempt,” that is the verdict. How will the well-taught Paradeschritt avail them when it comes to a stricken field?

But let it not seem as if this were meant for disparagement. We should be sinking to the Kaiser’s level if we answered his “contemptible little army” by pretending that his own troops are anything but a very formidable and big army. They are formidable in numbers, formidable, too, in their patriotic devotion, in their native courage, and in the possession of such material, such great cannon, aircraft, machine guns, and armoured cars, as none of the Allies can match. They have every advantage which a nation would be expected to have when it has known that war was a certainty, while others have only treated it as a possibility. There is a minuteness and earnestness of preparation which are only possible for an assured event. But the fact remains, and it will only be brought out more clearly by the Emperor’s unchivalrous phrase, that in every arm the British have already shown themselves to be the better troops. Had he the Froissart spirit within him he would rather have said: “You have to-day a task which is worthy of you. You are faced by an army which has a high repute and a great history. There is real glory to be won to-day.” Had he said this, then, win or lose, he would not have needed to be ashamed of his own words—the words of an ungenerous spirit.

It is a very strange thing how German critics have taken for granted that the British Army had deteriorated, while the opinion of all those who were in close touch with it was that it was never so good. Even some of the French experts made the same mistake, and General Bonnat counselled his countrymen not to rely upon it, since “it would take refuge amid its islands at the first reverse.” One would think that the causes which make for its predominance were obvious. Apart from any question of national spirit or energy, there is the all-important fact that the men are there of their own free will, an advantage which I trust that we shall never be compelled to surrender. Again, the men are of longer service in every arm, and they have far more opportunities of actual fighting than come to any other force. Finally, they are divided into regiments, with centuries of military glory streaming from their banners, which carry on a mighty tradition. The very words the Guards, the Rifles, the Connaught Rangers, the Buffs, the Scots Greys, the Gordons, sound like bugle-calls. How could an army be anything but dangerous which had such units in its line of battle?

And yet there remains the fact that both enemies and friends are surprised at our efficiency. This is no new phenomenon. Again and again in the course of history the British Armies have had to win once more the reputation which had been forgotten. Continentals have always begun by refusing to take them seriously. Napoleon, who had never met them in battle, imagined that their unbroken success was due to some weakness in his marshals rather than to any excellence of the troops. “At last I have them, these English,” he exclaimed, as he gazed at the thin red line at Waterloo. “At last they have me, these English,” may have been his thought that evening as he spurred his horse out of the debacle. Foy warned him of the truth. “The British infantry is the devil,” said he. “You think so because you were beaten by them,” cried Napoleon. Like von Kluck or von Kluck’s master, he had something to learn.

Why this continual depreciation? It may be that the world pays so much attention to our excellent right arm that it cannot give us credit for having a very serviceable left as well. Or it may be that they take seriously those jeremiads over our decay which are characteristic of our people, and very especially of many of our military thinkers. I have never been able to understand why they should be of so pessimistic a turn of mind, unless it be a sort of exaltation of that grumbling which has always been the privilege of the old soldier. Croker narrates how he met Wellington in his latter years, and how the Iron Duke told him that he was glad that he was so old, as he would not live to see the dreadful military misfortunes which were about to come to his country. Looking back we can see no reasons for such pessimism as this. Above all, the old soldier can never make any allowance for the latent powers which lie in civilian patriotism and valour. Only a year ago I had a long conversation with a well-known British General, in which he asserted with great warmth that in case of an Anglo-German war with France involved the British public would never allow a trained soldier to leave these islands. He is at the front himself and doing such good work that he has little time for reminiscence, but when he has he must admit that he underrated the nerve of his countrymen.

And yet under the pessimism of such men as he there is a curious contradictory assurance that there are no troops like our own. The late Lord Goschen used to tell a story of a letter that he had from a captain in the Navy at the time when he was First Lord. This captain’s ship was lying alongside a foreign cruiser in some port, and he compared in his report the powers of the two vessels. Lord Goschen said that his heart sank as he read the long catalogue of points in which the British ship was inferior—guns, armour, speed—until he came to the postscript, which was: “I think I could take her in twenty minutes.”

With all the grumbling of our old soldiers there is always some reservation of the sort at the end of it. Of course those who are familiar with our ways of getting things done would understand that a good deal of the croaking is a means of getting our little army increased, or at least preventing its being diminished. But whatever the cause, the result has been the impression abroad of a “contemptible little army.” Whatever surprise in the shape of 17-inch howitzers or 900-foot Zeppelins the Kaiser may have for us, it is a safe prophecy that it will be a small matter compared to that which Sir John French and his men will be to him.

But above all I look forward to the development of our mounted riflemen. This I say in no disparagement of our cavalry, who have done so magnificently. But the mounted rifleman is a peculiarly British product—British and American—with a fresh edge upon it from South Africa. I am most curious to see what a division of these fellows will make of the Uhlans. It is good to see that already the old banners are in the wind—Lovat’s Horse, Scottish Horse, King Edward’s Horse, and the rest. All that cavalry can do will surely be done by our cavalry. But I have always held, and I still very strongly hold, that the mounted rifleman has it in him to alter our whole conception of warfare, as the mounted archer did in his day; and now in this very war will be his first great chance upon a large scale. Ten thousand well-mounted, well-trained riflemen, young officers to lead them, all broad Germany with its towns, its railways, and its magazines before them—there lies one more surprise for the doctrinaires of Berlin.

Arthur Conan Doyle

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