MR. HALDANE'S INSPECTION OF THE NORTH DOWNS RIFLE CLUBS.
LTO THE EDITOR OF THE "SPECTATOR:]
Sin,--Readers of the Spectator may be glad to have some account of the interesting little field operations arranged between the North Downs rifle clubs and the Hampshire Volunteers on Saturday last. Operations of a similar kind' had, as your readers will remember, been held before in De,. and again in 1904, and so instructive did they prove to all concerned that the Volunteers on the one hand, and the rifle clubs on the other, welcomed with equal enthusiasm the prospect of another friendly bout. Circumstances and weighty reasons of finance did not permit of a repetition of the ambitious convoy manceuvres of August, 1904, and only a short two hours were available. But a special interest of their own was lent to Saturday's field-day on the Surrey hills. by the fact that they were witnessed by no less a person than the Secretary of State for War.
The general idea for the operations was that, England being in the occupation of an invading (Blue) army, and all organised opposition south of the Thames over, a Blue division is at Aldershot, and the L. and S.W.R. lines, Aldershot-London, Basingstoke-London, are guarded by Blue patrols. Roving bands of English (Red) irregular riflemen are, however, giving. much trouble to the Blue armies of occupation.
A force consisting of one company 2nd V.B. the Queen's Royal West Surrey and two companies 1st V.B. the Hampshire Regi- ment, with thirty cyclists, arrived in Guildford at 4.30 p.m. en Saturday afternoon. Fifty cyclists of the 1st Hants also reached Woking at the same time. The whole were in command of Major Naish, of the Hants, and his general instructions were to leave Merrow Grange at 5.30 p.m., and attack and endeavour to destroy a band of riflemen, as represented by the members of the North. Downs rifle clubs, which had been located at Newlauds Corner under the command of Mr. St. Loe Strachey.
After inspection by Mr. Haldane, the rifle clubs took up a position on Clandon Downs to meet the attack on the Volunteers. At 5.30 operations commenced, and parties of riflemen on horses, bicycles, and motor-cars swept down the roads and tracks leading from the main position on the hilltop to find and report upon the advance of the enemy from Guildford below.
Mr. Strachey, the commander of the associated rifle clubs, established his headquarters in the centre of the main position, with orders to his reconnoitring parties to report to him there. It was soon seen that the infantry attack was developing from• Merrow, with its centre on the Merrow-Shere road. Debouching • from the road as soon as it left hedgerow and cultivated ground, the Volunteers swung their right on to the top of Marrow Downs, while their left worked round by the north from the Merrow-East Clandon road. Not unmindful of the tactics of Mukden, the Volunteers had planned an "enveloping attack"; while their main strength was in the centre, the horns of the attack were gradually extended so as to encircle the flanks and threaten the rear of the riflemen's position. The enveloping movement was to have been completed by the despatch of the cyclists of the 1st Hants from Woking through East Clandon to Combe Bottom, whence they were to leave the cover of Combo Woods and fall upon the rear of the riflemen at the moment when the infantry attack was pressed home in their front. This dangerous bolt, however, missed its mark, the cyclists only arriving ten minutes after the "Cease fire" had sounded. By 6.10 all the advanced positions had perforce to be evacuated by the riflemen before the steady pressure of the advancing infantry, and by 6.30 the riflemen withdrew to the fringe of the "bush" country at the top of the Clandon Downs. There followed a quarter of an hour of wood-fighting, and the riflemen again retired to the laager, which had been selected by Mr. Strachey, a flat grassy knoll standing in the middle of the " bush" country, and with a clear field of fire for a hundred and fifty yards on either side of it. At this moment the "Cease fire" was blow, • and the operations were brought to a conclusion.
So much for the general outline of this tactical afternoon, which was designed more as a drill exercise in attack and defence, over a piece of ground which lent itself admirably to both, than as affording scope for more ambitious tactical "fireworks." AS regards the Volunteers, it may be said that the attack was well carried out up to the point where the open down gave place to the thick may bushes and high bracken of the riflemen's main position. Owing to the restrictions usually placed upon all manceuvres by the cock-pheasant "Lord of many a Alia," the Volunteers were • evidently quite unpractised in bush-fighting, and theii. commander neglected the only course that could have °resulted in decisive success,—viz., that of rallying his now scattered two companies in
the fire-line and concentrating them, together with his reserve, for a determined attempt to push home on a narrow front the moment he could hear of the arrival of his independent cyclists from Combo Bottom, but on no account before.
The main interest of the manoeuvres, however, very naturally centres upon the work of the rifle clubs. The gratifying feature of their performance was the immense improvement which has clearly taken place since the days when their members first realised that, though it is much, it is not enough for the citizens of this country to be expert marksmen, and desired Major Johnson, from the neighbouring county of Hants, to give them some opportunity of feeling what it was like to take the field as an organised body. In the first place, the various commanders of riflemen were far more under control than they had been on the two previous occasions, and this without the assistance of any military advisers whatever. Their civilian commander never once left his headquarters on the downs, except at the last moment, when he effected a retreat in good order to his final position. To compare small things with great, he sat, like General Kuroki, calm and cool, informed of the progress of the operations not so much by what he could see as by the reports that cams to him continually from the various commanders. That he was able to do this of itself spoke volumes for the tactical handiness of the "commandos." No doubt the problem of holding a position is a comparatively simple one, much simpler than that of continuous operations over an ever-shifting terrain. Nor did the riflemen make any attempt to depart from merely passive defence, or to carry out that counter-attack for which the ground was so admirably suited, when the enemy had spent the first momentum of their attack. Nevertheless, it was gratifying to find that the lessons of the previous manoeuvres had not been thrown away, and that the difficult secret of organisation in the field had been learned, so far as to preclude that confused pandemonium of . shouting, gesticulating, and galloping which is ever the mark of ill- organised levies.
In the second place, the riflemen themselves appeared by the light of nature to have learnt those principles of fire tactics which are the heart and soul of our modern infantry training. Ranges were carefully taken and sights adjusted, ground used to the very best advantage, and men when firing from behind cover exposed themselves just as little as it was possible for them to do. The gun which one of the " commandos " supplied was admirably handled. The "Officer Commanding Artillery" knew just how long to remain and how soon to retire, and though the targets selected were not, as a rule, very vulnerable, the Volunteers, except for one brief moment during the opera- tions, afforded no real target for his fire. If one must criticise, one would be inclined to say that an opportunity was lost in not taking the range of the road where it ran between hedgerows just south of Merrow Church, upon which the gun, on a preconcerted signal from the reconnoitring patrols, could have opened a deadly fire on the Volunteers as they passed up it in column of fours. Nor were the reconnoitring parties quite so well handled as the rest. The attempt to carry out a. reconnaissance with motor-cars was foredoomed to failure from the first. It was found that a car cannot turn round rapidly on the road, and will therefore fall an easy prey to the hostile cyclists. The mounted men of the commandos followed the bad example that has often been given them even by highly trained cavalry: they galloped away at the commencement of operations, and though they no doubt had a very interesting time, and saw a great deal of the enemy, they failed entirely to let Headquarters have the benefit of their experience. Nor were the riflemen's cyclist patrols any match for the trained cyclists of the Volunteers; they neither reconnoitred with sufficient dash, nor when forced to retire did they retire soon enough. Caught on a steep ascent within two hundred yards of the enemy's fire, they realised the partial truth of the famous definition of a bicycle as "a most cumbrous form of transport," and that the handling of a body of cyclists in a manoeuvre is a Matter which requires constant practice and close study. Nevertheless, they succeeded in sending back a continuous stream of admirably written messages, which were clear enough and frequent enough to be of the greatest value to their commander.
In the " pow-wow " which followed Mr. Haldane seemed to many of us who have been privileged spectators at all these operations between rifle clubs and Volunteers to have struck exactly the right nail on the head. He declared himself "much impressed with the deep interest and strong military spirit in those engaged, whether Volunteers or riflemen. But the real lesson of the operations was the need for organisation. It was a lesson such as he did not think they could have had in any other fashion. We wanted that kind of -lesson all over the country It had always been the fashion to speak of the Regulars as if they only needed a great deal of training and a great deal of organisation, and then to talk of the Auxiliary Forces as if they should (as, indeed, they have) grow up
like mushrooms, haphazard. That was not the true view We should always have to have a certain part of the Volunteers very highly trained, approaching to the level of the Line which came next in front of them, and the Volunteers must also shade back into those who could not give the time for much training, but who could give the time to make themselves good rifle-shots." But above all—organisation.
I have, I hope, said enough to show that the riflemen of the North Downs, by their determination to learn something of field operations, and still more by the striking improvement which
they have shown from year to year in all those things which distinguish an organised force from a rabble, have set an example to their countrymen which, as Mr. Haldane suggested, might well be followed. I take it that, when there was fear of invasion, the Surrey riflemen would certainly not propose to take the field as "commandos." When the crisis arises which demands their services, their experience even of three field-days in four years will have taught them that their proper function will be to expand the formed cadres of their own territorial regiments (Militia, Yeomanry, or Volunteers). To judge by their per- formance on Saturday, they will, if that regiment possesses trained officers and a fair proportion of trained Volunteers, prove a very real accession of strength. But they do not fall into the common error of confusing the problem of making a Service Army with that of preparing the material for its expansion. For the rest, like most Englishmen, the Surrey riflemen have the root of the matter born in them.
Two Lords-Lieutenant, among many other distinguished people, were present at the operations. Far from being "as dead as the dodo," these gentlemen were very much alive, and evidently took a keen interest in the proceedings. The question which I hope and believe they were asking themselves all the time was this : If so instructive a day as to-day on the Clandon Downs can be arranged privately between a rifleman and a Volunteer without official military or county help of any kind, what developments might not be in store for our national forces were the whole weight and interest of the county, as such, once enlisted for their support ?
[To-day's issue of the County Gentleman contains a series of photographs illustrating the operations of the rifle clubs at Newlands Corner on July 218t.—ED. Spectator.]