The British forces had embarked on the campaign with the wrong tactics, outdated weapons, an imperfect understanding of their foe, a limited knowledge of the ground on which they would fight and an intelligence machine that was largely ignored by commanders.
The primary failures of Intelligence were not in what had been collected, analysed and reported but in the commander of the day’s refusal to wait for it to be collected or to accept what it told him if that went against his own opinion of the situation.
Two years and 8 months of war, resulting in 55,000 British casualties, killed, wounded or captured, at least 25,000 Boer and 12,000 African deaths, many in concentration camps, left the Empire reeling and widely viewed as militarily ineffective and weak. Lessons needed to be learned, and quickly.
Early military failures suffered by the British Forces led to the Intelligence Department being made the scapegoat and being vilified in the free press.
The Elgin report, published after the war, put the record straight in no uncertain terms, leading the press to carry out an ‘about face’ and to heap praise on the Intelligence Department’s highly commended efforts. Intelligence had not failed the commanders on the ground, the commander had failed in their use of intelligence.
The chronic underinvestment in Intelligence was also identified as a significant factor, as was political interference leading to an inability to share intelligence before the war began for fear of upsetting the Boers. A case of being defeated because of a concern for the potential foe’s sensitivities!
Field Marshal Sir William Robertson wrote in his 1921 autobiography,
‘The Boer War changed everything—or at least everything that subsequently mattered’.