Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Boer Wars: Part VII

Offense vs. Defense

by Capt. Alfred Mahan

And here at once must be made a distinction, which for intelligent comprehension it is essential to keep in mind. Putting entirely to one side all question of the merits of the quarrel -- of its right or its wrong -- it must be steadily remembered that, although the comparative aggregate strength of the two parties placed the Boers from the first on the defensive in the general sense, they were at the beginning of hostilities decisively superior in local force, and would so remain until sufficient reinforcements from Great Britain should arrive to turn the scale.

Under such circumstances, correct military principle -- and the Boers have had good advisers -- imperatively dictates that the belligerent so situated must at once assume an active offensive. By rapid and energetic movement, while the opponent's forces are still separated, every advantage must be seized to destroy hostile detachments within reach, and to establish one's own front as far in advance of the great national interests, as it can be reasonably hoped to maintain it with communications unbroken.

The line thus occupied must rest upon positions so chosen that by their strength, natural and developed, it shall be possible, when offence has to be exchanged for defensive warfare, to impose to the utmost upon the invader both delay and loss; for delay and loss mean lessening power, and only by causing such diminution, greater relatively than his own, can the weaker hope eventually to reverse the odds and win the game.

To this end, therefore, the Boers with sound military judgment at once devoted themselves; and it is very likely that the surmise before quoted was correct in naming the Hex River Pass and Durban as their ultimate objectives, to be reached by a swift advance. The latter was certainly not an unreasonable hope, and it is possible that with more precise accuracy of combination, and an offensive more resolutely sustained, they might have attained their purpose, through the mistaken primary dispositions of the British, who, though recognizing themselves to be for the time on the defensive, nevertheless, for political reasons, advanced their front of operations to a point with which, as it proved, they could not secure their communications.

From the worst consequences of this error they were saved by the gallantry and skill with which advantage was taken of the defective co-operation that marked the opening of the campaign by the Boers; and there can be also little question that the wholesome respect for their fighting. qualities, thus established at the beginning of hostilities, had a most beneficial effect for them, in discouraging attack by an enemy, who, though brave and active, constitutionally prefers a waiting game to an assault.

Thus the ultimate fate of Ladysmith was settled in the fortnight of operations that preceded the investment.