Lord Methuen and the South African War: The British army in transition

Date of Completion

January 1996


History, African|History, European|History, Modern




Between 1873 and 1900, Great Britain launched over eighty military expeditions to Africa and Asia to preserve its interests. These conflicts, or so-called "small wars," evidenced a clear pattern: a handful of British officers, a few regular battalions, and a large number of irregular colonial troops, armed with the latest military technology, quickly and decisively overwhelmed the often undisciplined and rudimentarily armed enemy. The easy success of these recurrent operations made the British army reluctant to change, despite the protests of military reformers that its organization, strategy, and tactics had not kept pace with advances in technology. Were these reformers correct? This study analyzes the readiness of the British military establishment for war in 1899 and its performance in the South African War (1899-1902).^ This dissertation focuses on the career of Field Marshal Paul Sanford, 3rd Baron Methuen, whose traditional military training, used so effectively in Queen Victoria's small wars, was put to the test by the modern challenges of the South African War. This extensive analysis of Methuen's career was only recently made possible by the opening of his large correspondence and detailed diaries to the public. Thus, a subsidiary aim of this dissertation is to correct and refine the historical consensus that Methuen's campaign in the South African War was plagued by practical errors and poor judgment.^ The South African War is a crucial transitional episode in the history of the British army. Unlike Great Britain's other expeditions, this war required the concentrated resources of the entire empire. It was a modern war in the sense that it employed the technology of the second industrial revolution: the weaponry, the communications, and the transportation. Through detailed analyses of Methuen's failed campaign to relieve Kimberley, a besieged town of critical strategic and political importance, in late 1899, this study demonstrates that both Lord Methuen and the British Army were not prepared for modern warfare. Despite this, over the next two years, Methuen and the British officer class were able to make the necessary transition to defeat the Boers and propel the British army into the Twentieth Century. ^