Civilian Soldier

I was browsing some of Jeff Cooper’s commentaries and found this which dovetails nicely with the current subject. Enjoy!

In studying into the background material for the forthcoming Babamkulu Enterprise in Africa next year, I have gone rather deeply into the two startling British reverses in 1881 at Laing’s Nek and Majuba Hill. (We plan to visit the sites next May.) These two incidents took place on adjoining terrain within three days of each other and point to lessons which should have been learned a century ago, but still have not got across to many people who should know about them.

Consider the “butcher’s bill.” At Laing’s Nek the British attacked a Boer defensive position at a crest of a saddle (nek is what we would call a saddle in the American West) with about 450 men, following a small but violent artillery preparation. They were repulsed with a loss of 150 dead – against 14 for the Boers. On the occasion immediately following, the British seized Majuba Hill by means of a night march involving something over 500 soldiers. In the morning, they were thrown off the hill by a Boer force of about the same size. In this action the British lost 280 dead, including their commanding general. The Boers lost one man, plus another who died some days later of his wounds.

Now, just what was going on here? This was a rifleman’s war, and the people on both sides used personal weapons of about the same character – breech loading single-shots using large-caliber black-powder cartridges rather similar to the American 45-70. In the first instance, the British were attacking and they were smashed. In the second instance, the British were defending and they were also smashed. Wherein lay the advantage? Odd as it may seem, it is my opinion that this tremendous disparity in efficiency derived from the fact that the British were soldiers and the Boers were civilians.

The British troupers were “soldiers of the Queen” from the Kipling period in India. They dressed well, marched well and did not lack for courage. What they did not do was shoot well. They were given pretty good guns and they were taught to load them, shoot them, and maintain them, more or less by the numbers, but being taught to shoot on the range in the military is not the same as being brought up with a rifle.

The Boers were by no means soldiers. They were pioneer farmers and the sons of farmers. They were reluctant to slaughter their own livestock when the countryside provided them with unlimited game. Their ammunition was always scarce and hard to come by. They had learned from childhood to hit what they shot at – every time. They shot to put meat on the table, and they shot on Sunday afternoons for prizes. Across the board, they may have been the finest body of marksmen ever fielded by any nation at any time. Their marksmanship was practical marksmanship, such as I have been endeavoring to teach throughout the latter half of my life. They seemed to have understood fully the basic rule of the rifleman, which is only hits count. (Funny how that principle was brought back to us from Grenada and Panama.)

The British had organization, discipline, resupply, signals and some artillery support. The Boers had their rifles, their horses, their biltong and their skill. They had no uniforms and they had only the vaguest sense of organization. The British regarded them as a bunch of uncouth, ignorant, illiterate peasants who could never stand up to the might of the British Empire.

And see the results! Using approximately equal weapons, the civilians shot the soldiers to pieces – on both offense and defense.

The lessons that ought to be learned here, I think, are three. First, men fight their very best when they fight to defend their homelands against a foreign invader. Second, when it comes to imparting of skill the public sector can never equal the private. Third, marksmanship is an art to be cultivated rather than a commodity to be issued.

And, just think of it, the British never complained to the media about being outgunned!


2 Responses to “Civilian Soldier”

  1. May 19, 2010 at 9:23 AM

    So many misconceptions, so little time.

    1. The British never complained about being outgunned because they were in Britain, not in Africa witnessing their weaknesses. The also never complained about losing half their force to desease, to draconian disciplinary methods or to medical practices that were themselves a death sentence. They were British. THe British way is to blame the dead officers for incompetence and put some more men on the boat for the next battle.

    2. The British also had their asses handed to them fighting Zulus, who had no (absolutely zero) rifle marksmanship skills.

    3. The Boers LOST the war.

    4. The Army Medical Corps discovered that 40% of men called up for duty were physically unfit to fight. (wiki)

    5. First, men fight their very best when they fight to defend their homelands against a foreign invader.

    Tell it to the men throughout history who were killed or driven off by foreign invaders . This is a myth, perpetuated by propagandists to make inferior troops feel better about themselves and their ability to survive. History actually shows the opposite. Trained infantry operating against irregulars, kill their enemies with frightening efficiency. Only overwhelming numbers overcome this advantage (Custer, etc)

    6. Second, when it comes to imparting of skill the public sector can never equal the private.

    False. While a few people may benefit from an intensive private sector martial training, only governments can produce the masses of people, trained and equipped, to fight modern war. The US Army has proudly produced millions of skilled marksmen since WWI, over and above those who entered service already skilled. THe USMC boasts even higher standards.

    7. Third, marksmanship is an art to be cultivated rather than a commodity to be issued.

    This is just stupid. Cultivation can and does happen on a mass basis in modern armies. Describing the military approach as “issueing a commodity” is meaningless.

  2. May 19, 2010 at 7:12 PM

    Generally I agree, I would point out a few things tho:

    #3: they did lose the war, but apparently that was due to atrocities that the British were willing to commit against the civilians. Its an effective way of ruling a people and fortunately most (western) nations won’t do that. At least not at this time in history, things may change for the worse in the future.

    #4: I am not sure that they shipped those men out or not? May well be irrelevant.

    #5: I believe that this is true. Their best doesn’t mean that they will win, but that they are more motivated to do so.

    #6 & 7: Yes and no. Being in the military allows one to trust in great numbers of ammunition being available no later than the next stop at the base. Insurgents often do not have much in the way of ammunition so it is nursed carefully and more care is taken in target acquisition. Among a disciplined group this leads to greater effectiveness. Among gangster wannabes in Somali and what not this just means they will run out of ammo. The US does train its soldiers quite well and some of them spectacularly. But I think that Cooper, by referring to practical marksmanship, was referring to real life situations where one has to get that first shot off correctly or there was no chance for a second, ie hunting. The Boers grew up with such thinking, the Brits just had superior numbers to throw at the battle.

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