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An essay by Evelyn Baring

Army Reform

Title:     Army Reform
Author: Evelyn Baring [More Titles by Baring]

_"The Nineteenth Century and After," February 1904_

The autobiography[51] of my old and highly esteemed friend, Lord Wolseley, constitutes an honourable record of a well-spent life. Lord Wolseley may justifiably be proud of the services which he has rendered to his country. The British nation, and its principal executive officials in the past, may also be proud of having quickly discovered Lord Wolseley's talents and merits, and of having advanced him to high position.

Obviously, certain conclusions of public interest may be drawn from the career of this very distinguished soldier. Sir George Arthur, in the December number of the _Fortnightly Review_, has stated what are the special lessons which, in his opinion, are to be derived from a consideration of that career.

Those lessons are, indeed, sufficiently numerous. I propose, however, to deal with only two of them. They are those which, apparently, Lord Wolseley himself wishes to be inculcated. Both involve questions of principle of no little importance.

In the first place, Lord Wolseley, if I understand rightly, considers that the army has suffered greatly from civilian interference. He appears to think that it should be more exclusively than heretofore under military control.

In the second place, he thinks that, in certain cases, the political and diplomatic negotiations, which generally follow on a war, should be conducted, not by a diplomatist or politician, but by the officer who has conducted the previous military operations.

As regards the first point, I am not now dealing with Lord Wolseley's remarks in connection with our general unpreparedness for war, nor with those on the various defects, past or present, of our military organisation. In a great deal that he has said on these subjects, Lord Wolseley carries me heartily with him. I confine myself strictly to the issue as I have defined it above.

Possibly, I have mistaken the significance of Lord Wolseley's words. If so, my error is shared by Sir George Arthur, who, in dealing with the War Office, dwells with emphasis on the occasions when "this great war expert was thwarted in respect of his best considered plans by the civilian element in that citadel of inefficiency,"[52] and speaks with approval of Lord Wolseley's "severe strictures on blundering civilian interference with the army," as also of the "censure reserved for the criminal negligence and miserable cowardice of successive Cabinets."

It seems to me that Lord Wolseley is rather hard on civilians in general--those "iconoclastic civilian officials who meddle and muddle in army matters"[53]--on politicians in particular, who, I cannot but think, are not quite so black as he has painted them; and most of all on Secretaries of State, with the single exception of Lord Cardwell, to whom generous and very well deserved praise is accorded.

It is not quite clear, from a perusal of these volumes, what is the precise nature of the change which Lord Wolseley wishes to advocate, although in one passage a specific proposal is made. It is that "a certificate should be annually laid before Parliament by the non-political Commander-in-Chief, that the whole of the military forces of the Empire can be completely and effectively equipped for war in a fortnight." The general tendency of the reform which commends itself to Lord Wolseley may, however, readily be inferred. He complains that the soldiers, "though in office, are never in power." Nevertheless, as he explains with military frankness, "the cunning politician," when anything goes wrong, is able "to turn the wrath of a deceived people upon the military authorities, and those who are exclusively to blame are too often allowed to sneak off unhurt in the turmoil of execration they have raised against the soldiers." I may remark incidentally that exception might perhaps reasonably be taken to the use of the word "exclusively" in this passage; but the main point to which I wish to draw attention is that clearly, in Lord Wolseley's opinion, the soldiers, under the existing system, have not sufficient power, and that it would be advisable that they should, under a reformed system, be invested with more ample power. I dare say Lord Wolseley is quite right, at all events to this extent, that it is desirable that the power, as also the responsibility, of the highest military authorities should be as clearly defined as is possible under our peculiar system of government. But it is essential to ascertain more accurately in what manner Lord Wolseley, speaking with all the high authority which deservedly attaches itself to his name, thinks that effect should be given to the principle which he advocates. In order to obtain this information, I turn to vol. i. p. 92, where I find the following passage: "A man who is not a soldier, and who is entirely ignorant of war, is selected solely for political reasons to be Secretary of State for War. I might with quite as great propriety be selected to be the chief surgeon in a hospital."

I would here digress for a moment to deal with the argument advanced in the latter part of this sentence. It is very plausible, and, at first sight, appears convincing. It is also very commonly used. Over and over again, I have heard the presumed analogy between the surgeon and the soldier advanced as a proof of the absurdity of the English system. I believe that no such analogy exists. Surgery is an exact science. To perform even the most trifling surgical operation requires careful technical training and experience. It is far otherwise with the case of the soldier. I do not suppose that any civilian in his senses would presume, on a purely technical matter, to weigh his own opinion against that of a trained soldier, like Lord Wolseley, who is thoroughly versed in the theory of his profession, and who has been through the school of actual war. But a large number of the most important questions affecting military organisation and the conduct of military affairs, require for their solution little or no technical knowledge. Any man of ordinary common sense can form an opinion on them, and any man of good business habits may readily become a capable agent for giving effect to the opinions which he, or which others have formed.

I may here perhaps give a page from my own personal experience bearing on the point under discussion.

The Soudan campaign of 1896-98 was, in official circles, dubbed a "Foreign Office war." For a variety of reasons, to which it is unnecessary to allude in detail, the Sirdar was, from the commencement of the operations, placed exclusively under my orders in all matters. The War Office assumed no responsibility, and issued no orders.[54] A corresponding position was occupied by the Headquarters Staff of the Army of Occupation in Cairo. The result was that I found myself in the somewhat singular position of a civilian, who had had some little military training in his youth, but who had had no experience of war,[55] whose proper functions were diplomacy and administration, but who, under the stress of circumstances in the Land of Paradox, had to be ultimately responsible for the maintenance, and even, to some extent, for the movements of an army of some 25,000 men in the field.

That good results were obtained under this system cannot be doubted. It will not, therefore, be devoid of interest to explain how it worked in practice, and what were the main reasons which contributed towards success.

I have no wish to disparage the strategical and tactical ability which were displayed in the conduct of the campaign. It is, however, a fact that no occasion arose for the display of any great skill in these branches of military knowledge. When once the British and Egyptian troops were brought face to face with the enemy, there could--unless the conditions under which they fought were altogether extraordinary--be little doubt of the result. The speedy and successful issue of the campaign depended, in fact, almost entirely upon the methods adopted for overcoming the very exceptional difficulties connected with the supply and transport of the troops. The main quality required to meet these difficulties was a good head for business. By one of those fortunate accidents which have been frequent in the history of Anglo-Saxon enterprise, a man was found equal to the occasion. Lord Kitchener of Khartoum won his well-deserved peerage because he was a good man of business; he looked carefully after all important detail, and he enforced economy.

My own merits, such as they were, were of a purely negative character. They may be summed up in a single phrase. I abstained from mischievous activity, and I acted as a check on the interference of others. I had full confidence in the abilities of the commander, whom I had practically myself chosen, and, except when he asked for my assistance, I left him entirely alone. I encouraged him to pay no attention to those vexatious bureaucratic formalities with which, under the slang phrase of "red tape" our military system is overburdened. I exercised some little control over the demands for stores which were sent to the London War Office; and the mere fact that these demands passed through my hands, and that I declined to forward any request unless, besides being in accordance with existing regulations--a point to which I attached but slight importance--it had been authorised by the Sirdar, probably tended to check wastefulness in that quarter where it was most to be feared. Beyond this I did nothing, and I found--somewhat to my own astonishment--that, with my ordinary staff of four diplomatic secretaries, the general direction of a war of no inconsiderable dimensions added but little to my ordinary labours.

I do not say that this system would always work as successfully as was the case during the Khartoum campaign. The facts, as I have already said, were peculiar. The commander, on whom everything practically depended, was a man of marked military and administrative ability. Nevertheless, I feel certain that Lord Kitchener would bear me out in saying that here was a case in which general civilian control, far from exercising any detrimental effect, was on the whole beneficial.

To return to the main thread of my argument. The passage which I have quoted from Lord Wolseley's book would certainly appear to point to the conclusion that, in his opinion, the Secretary of State for War should be a soldier unconnected with politics. Even although Lord Wolseley does not state this conclusion in so many words, it is notorious to any one who is familiar with the views current in army circles that the adoption of this plan is considered by many to be the best, if it be not the only, solution of all our military difficulties.

I am not concerned with the constitutional objections which may be urged against the change of system now under discussion. Neither need I dwell on the difficulty of making it harmonise with our system of party government, for which it is quite possible to entertain a certain feeling of respect and admiration without being in any degree a political partisan. I approach the question exclusively from the point of view of its effects on the army. From that point of view, I venture to think that the change is to be deprecated.

In dealing with Lord Cardwell's attitude in respect to army reform, Lord Wolseley says: "Never was Minister in my time more generally hated by the army." He points out how this hatred was extended to all who supported Lord Cardwell's views. His own conduct was "looked upon as a species of high treason." I was at the time employed in a subordinate position at the War Office. I can testify that this language is by no means exaggerated. Nevertheless, after events showed clearly enough that, in resisting the abolition of purchase, the formation of a reserve, and the other admirable reforms with which Lord Cardwell's name, equally with that of Lord Wolseley, is now honourably associated, the bulk of army opinion was wholly in the wrong. I believe such army opinion as now objects to a civilian being Secretary of State for War to be equally in the wrong.

There would appear, indeed, to be some inconsistency between Lord Wolseley's unstinted praise of Lord Cardwell--that "greatest" of War Ministers, who, "though absolutely ignorant of our army and of war," responded so "readily to the demands made on him by his military advisers," and "gave new life to our old army"--and his depreciation of the system which gave official birth to Lord Cardwell. There would be no contradiction in the two positions if the civilian Minister, in 1871, had been obliged to use his position in Parliament and his influence on public opinion to force on an unwilling nation reforms which were generally advocated by the army. But the very contrary of this was the case. What Lord Cardwell had principally to encounter was "the fierce hatred" of the old school of soldiers, and Lord Wolseley tells us clearly enough what would have happened to the small band of army reformers within the army, if they had been unable to rely on civilian support.

"Had it not been," he says, "for Mr. Cardwell's and Lord Northbrook's constant support and encouragement, those of us who were bold enough to advocate a thorough reorganisation of our military system, would have been 'provided for' in distant quarters of the British world, 'where no mention of us more should be heard.'"

There can be no such thing as finality in army reform. There will be reformers in the future, as there have been in the past. There will, without doubt, be vested interests and conservative instincts to be overcome in the future, as there were at the time when Lord Wolseley so gallantly fought the battle of army reform. What guarantee can Lord Wolseley afford that a soldier at the head of the army will always be a reformer, and that he will not "provide for" those of his subordinates who have the courage to raise their voices in favour of reform, even as Lord Wolseley thinks he would himself have been "provided for" had it not been for the sturdy support he received from his civilian superiors? I greatly doubt the possibility of giving any such guarantee.

But I go further than this. It is now more than thirty years since I served under the War Office. I am, therefore, less intimately acquainted with the present than with the past. But, during those thirty years, I have been constantly brought in contact with the War Office, and I have seen no reason whatever to change the opinion I formed in Lord Cardwell's time, namely, that it will be an evil day for the army when it is laid down, as a system, that no civilian should be Secretary of State for War. My belief is that, if ever the history of our military administration of recent years comes to be impartially written, it will be found that most of the large reforms, which have beneficially affected the army, have been warmly supported, and sometimes initiated, by the superior civilian element in the War Office. Who, indeed, ever heard of a profession being reformed from within? One of the greatest law reformers of the last century was the author of _Bleak House_.

It may, indeed, be urged--perhaps Lord Wolseley would himself urge--that it is no defence of a bad system to say that under one man (Lord Cardwell), whom Lord Wolseley describes as "a clear-headed, logical-minded lawyer," it worked very well. To this I reply that I cannot believe that the race of clear-headed, logical-minded individuals of Cabinet rank, belonging to either great party of the State, is extinct.

I have been induced to make these remarks because, in past years, I was a good deal associated with army reform, and because, since then, I have continued to take an interest in the matter. Also because I am convinced that those officers in the army who, with the best intentions, advocate the particular change now under discussion, are making a mistake in army interests. They may depend upon it that the cause they have at heart will best be furthered by maintaining at the head of the army a civilian of intelligence and of good business habits, who, although, equally with a soldier, he may sometimes make mistakes, will give an impartial hearing to army reformers, and will probably be more alive than any one belonging to their own profession to all that is best in the outside and parliamentary pressure to which he is exposed.

I turn to the second point to which allusion was made at the commencement of this article.

Speaking of the Chinese war in 1860, Lord Wolseley says: "In treating with barbarian nations during a war ... the general to command the army and the ambassador to make peace should be one and the same man. To separate the two functions is, according to my experience, folly gone mad." Lord Wolseley reverts to this subject in describing the Ashantee war of 1873-74. I gather from his allusions to Sir John Moore's campaign in Spain, and to the fact that evil results ensued from allowing Dutch deputies to accompany Marlborough's army, that he is in favour of extending the principle which he advocates to wars other than those waged against "barbarian nations."

The objections to anything in the nature of a division of responsibility, at all events so long as military operations are in actual progress, are, indeed, obvious, and are now very generally recognised. Those who are familiar with the history of the revolutionary war will remember the baneful influence exercised by the Aulic Council over the actions of the Austrian commanders.[56] There can, in fact, be little doubt that circumstances may occur when the principle advocated by Lord Wolseley may most advantageously be adopted; but it is, I venture to think, one which has to be applied with much caution, especially when the question is not whether there should be a temporary cessation of hostilities--a point on which the view of the officer in command of the troops would naturally carry the greatest weight--but also involves the larger issue of the terms on which peace should finally be concluded. I am not at all sure that, in deciding on the issues which, under the latter contingency, must necessarily come under consideration, the employment of a soldier, in preference to a politician or diplomatist, is always a wise proceeding. Soldiers, equally with civilians, are liable to make erroneous forecasts of the future, and to mistake the general situation with which they have to deal. I can give a case in point.

When, in January 1885, Khartoum fell, the question whether the British army should be withdrawn, or should advance and reconquer the Soudan, had to be decided. Gordon, whose influence on public opinion, great before, had been enhanced by his tragic death, had strongly recommended the policy of "smashing the Mahdi." Lord Wolseley adopted Gordon's opinion. "No frontier force," he said, "can keep Mahdiism out of Egypt, and the Mahdi sooner or later must be smashed, or he will smash you." These views were shared by Lord Kitchener, Sir Redvers Buller, Sir Charles Wilson, and by the military authorities generally.[57] Further, the alleged necessity of "smashing the Mahdi," on the ground that his success in the Soudan would be productive of serious results elsewhere, exercised a powerful influence on British public opinion at this period, although the best authorities on Eastern politics were at the time aware that the fears so generally entertained in this connection were either groundless or, at all events, greatly exaggerated.[58] Under these circumstances, it was decided to "smash the Mahdi," and accordingly a proclamation, giving effect to the declared policy of the British Government, was issued. Shortly afterwards, the Penjdeh incident occurred. Public opinion in England somewhat calmed down, having found its natural safety-valve in an acrimonious parliamentary debate, in which the Government narrowly escaped defeat. The voices of politicians and diplomatists, which had been to some degree hushed by the din of arms, began to be heard. The proclamation was cancelled. The project of reconquering the Soudan was postponed to a more convenient period. It was, in fact, accomplished thirteen years later, under circumstances which differed very materially from those which prevailed in 1885. In June 1885, the Government of Lord Salisbury succeeded to that of Mr. Gladstone, and, though strongly urged to undertake the reconquest of the Soudan, confirmed the decision of its predecessors.

Sir George Arthur, writing in the _Fortnightly Review_, strongly condemns this "cynical disavowal" of Lord Wolseley's proclamation. I have nothing to say in favour of the issue of that proclamation. I am very clearly of opinion that, as it was issued, it was wise that it should be cancelled. For, in truth, subsequent events showed that the forecast made by Lord Wolseley and by Gordon was erroneous, in that it credited the Mahdi with a power of offence which he was far from possessing. No serious difficulty arose in defending the frontier of Egypt from Dervish attack. The overthrow of the Mahdi's power, though eminently desirable, was very far from constituting an imperious necessity such as was commonly supposed to exist in 1885. In this instance, therefore, it appears to me that the diplomatists and politicians gauged the true nature of the situation somewhat more accurately than the soldiers.

More than this, I conceive that, in all civilised countries, the theory of government is that a question of peace or war is one to be decided by politicians. The functions of the soldier are supposed to be confined, in the first place, to advising on the purely military aspects of the issue involved; and, in the second place, to giving effect to any decisions at which the Government may arrive. The practice in this matter not infrequently differs somewhat from the theory. The soldier, who is generally prone to advocate vigorous action, is inclined to encroach on the sphere which should properly be reserved for the politician. The former is often masterful, and the latter may be dazzled by the glitter of arms, or too readily lured onwards by the persuasive voice of some strategist to acquire an almost endless succession of what, in technical language, are called "keys" to some position, or--to employ a metaphor of which the late Lord Salisbury once made use in writing to me--"to try and annex the moon in order to prevent its being appropriated by the planet Mars." When this happens, a risk is run that the soldier, who is himself unconsciously influenced by a very laudable desire to obtain personal distinction, may practically dictate the policy of the nation without taking a sufficiently comprehensive view of national interests. Considerations of this nature have more especially been, from time to time, advanced in connection with the numerous frontier wars which have occurred in India. That they contain a certain element of truth can scarcely be doubted.

For these reasons, it appears to me that the application of the principle advocated by Lord Wolseley requires much care and watchfulness. Probably, the wisest plan will be that each case should be decided on its own merits with reference to the special circumstances of the situation, which may sometimes demand the fusion, and sometimes the separation, of military and political functions.

I was talking, a short time ago, to a very intelligent, and also Anglophile, French friend of mine. He knew England well, but, until quite recently, had not visited the country for a few years. He told me that what struck him most was the profound change which had come over British opinion since the occasion of his last visit. We had been invaded, he said, by _le militarisme continental_. In common with the vast majority of my countrymen, I am earnestly desirous of seeing our military organisation and military establishments placed on a thoroughly sound footing, but I have no wish whatever to see any portion of our institutions overwhelmed by a wave of _militarisme continental_. It is because I think that the views advocated by Lord Wolseley tend--although, I do not doubt, unconsciously to their distinguished author--in the direction of a somewhat too pronounced _militarisme_, that I venture in some degree to differ from one for whom I have for many years entertained the highest admiration and the most cordial personal esteem.

[Footnote 51: _The Story of a Soldier's Life_. Field-Marshal Viscount Wolseley. Constable.]

[Footnote 52: After carefully reading the book, I am in doubt as to the specific occasions to which allusion is here made.]

[Footnote 53: This expression is used with reference to a warning to civilians that they should "keep their hands off the regiment." I do not know if any recent instances have occurred when civilians have wished to touch the essential portions of what is known as the "regimental system," but I have a very distinct recollection of the fact that this accusation was very freely, and very unjustly, brought against the army reformers in Lord Cardwell's time. Of these, Lord Wolseley was certainly the most distinguished. I think he will bear me out in the assertion that it was only by civilian support that, in the special instances to which I allude, the opposition was overcome.]

[Footnote 54: Much the same proceeding appears to have been adopted in the Red River expedition, which was conducted with such eminent success by Lord Wolseley in 1870. But there was a difference. Lord Wolseley, in describing that expedition, says: "The Cabinet and parliamentary element in the War Office, that has marred so many a good military scheme, had, I may say, little or nothing to do with it from first to last. When will civilian Secretaries of State for War cease from troubling in war affairs?" In the case of the Soudan campaigns, on the other hand, Lord Kitchener and I had to rely--and our reliance was not misplaced--on the Cabinet and on the parliamentary elements of the Government, to prevent excessive interference from the London offices.]

[Footnote 55: I was present for a few weeks, as a spectator, with Grant's army at the siege of Petersburg in 1864, but the experience was too short to be of much value.]

[Footnote 56: _Art of War_, Jomini, p. 59.]

[Footnote 57: I think I am correct in saying that Sir Evelyn Wood was of a contrary opinion, but I have been unable to verify this statement by reference to any contemporaneous document.]

[Footnote 58: On the 21st of March 1884 Sir Alfred Lyall wrote to Mr. Henry Reeve: "The Mahdi's fortunes do not interest India. The talk in some of the papers about the necessity of smashing him, in order to avert the risk of some general Mahomedan uprising, is futile and imaginative."--_Memoirs of Henry Reeve_, vol. ii. p. 329.]

[The end]
Evelyn Baring's essay: Army Reform