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No end of a lesson: Crystal Armies and ‘Black Week’

“All That Was Left of Them”, the Black Watch after the Battle of Magersfontein., 2nd Boer War 1899-1902

The British Army before the Second Boer War was by any measure, a very effective force. It had successfully fought numerous wars of conquest and counter-insurgency across the globe against fierce and competent enemies. The Army entered the Boer War confident of a quick victory, however fundamental weaknesses of the British approach and rigidity of their doctrine soon became evident in the face of emerging tactics and weapons. The hardy but outnumbered Boers handed three stinging defeats to their adversary at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso during what would be dubbed ‘Black Week’. The British would be shaken to their core by the abject failure of their military machine to crush what they considered to be a feeble enemy. They learned a very hard lesson: Futile wastage of blood and treasure is the non-negotiable price for fossilised doctrine and blindness to people, technology and warfare.

It has been said before that the West deploys ‘Crystal Armies’; they are hard, expensive and cut deeply, but liable to shatter if struck violently. Our previous good fortune and limited casualties puts us on a similar precipice to the British before the Second Boer War. We are at risk of receiving some hard and telling blows indeed. The new technologies and tactics that face us are the equals of the Maxim gun or quick-firing artillery in their potential to cause sudden, massive slaughter. Drone-deployed IEDs have demonstrated their power in Yemen. Accurate recon using drones, ELINT and SIGINT can direct artillery, inform kidnappings and targeted killings. Terrorist or nation-state forces can bring kinetic and cyber strikes on key infrastructure, crippling urban populations. The objectives of our enemies have changed, but their need to cause us harm and exploit our vulnerabilities remains the same now as ever in the history of warfare.

The British High Command’s willingness to admit the magnitude of their setback and honestly appraise the failings of their campaign was a major force in creating the eventual victory in South Africa. Their solutions and innovations would be recognisable to us today; Tactics, training, uniforms and equipment changed drastically, senior commanders deemed too old or incapable were sacked and sent home. Rudyard Kipling would later write: ‘Let us admit it fairly, as a business people should, We have had no end of a lesson: it will do us no end of good’. In particular, the war had thoroughly demonstrated the value of initiative and independent thought. Combat doctrine moved from millennia-old dense formations of troops to light, rapid skirmish lines moving and taking cover independent of higher command. The tradition of the ‘man on the spot’ was reaffirmed; being the right of a junior officer to alter or disobey orders if the tactical situation changed in the heat of battle. Authority was devolved to JNCOs and junior officers with emphasis on individual initiative and marksmanship. These traits remain the hallmarks of the British Army.

‘Black Week’ stands as a stark warning; innovation needs to be a way of doing business, not a reaction to effective enemy fire. The British response arose from resounding defeats; we simply cannot afford that cost, our changes must come before the enemy takes the chance to inflict casualties. Our training must begin by demanding ruthless efficiency in identifying and anticipating weaknesses from section to inter-service level. In particular this includes the potential for ‘Blue’ forces to fail in their mission on exercises in order to gain understanding from small, acceptable failures. This means integrating sudden 90-degree situation changes and serious setbacks into exercises and putting troops into the role of aggressors actively trying to defeat our own tactics. It means openly acknowledging failure in training, administration and procurement rather than trying to save face and wring victory from defeats. Operationally, it requires higher military and political command to accept that the Rules of Engagement must be flexible within the Law of Armed Combat to prevent the enemy exploiting those restrictions (see NordBat 2 as a prime example). Commanders must be able to take decisive action with confidence that they will be supported by hierarchy and be able to back up their own subordinates to take the initiative. Understandably, moves to face developing threats are difficult to implement on thin budgets when solutions to previous challenges are already in place. Political and military leaders could therefore be forgiven for viewing new thinking with a sceptical eye while guarding the doctrinal status quo. They would do well to ask themselves; Are they ready for no end of a lesson in our own ‘Black Week’?

About the author

David Kerr is serving as a Territorial Rifleman in the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. In civilian life he is studying for a Master’s Degree in Biology.