Absent-minded warriors

U 15.795: I fought with the colours for king and country in the absentminded war under general Gough.

This is presumably an allusion to An absent-minded war: being some reflections on our reverses and the causes which have led to them, By a British Officer (Captain William Eliott Cairnes, 1863-1902), published by John Milne (London) in 1900. The book, which was about the Boer War, went into several editions in its year of publication. It was strongly critical of Britain’s military planners. The first chapter opens with a reference to Kipling’s ‘Absent-minded beggar’ (see U 9.125, 15.3594, etc.):

Everyone has lately been familiar with the expression ‘the absent-minded beggar’, the description so happily applied by Mr. Kipling to our dashing, daring, thoughtless, happy-go-lucky Tommy Atkins. It does not seem to have occurred to many people that the epithet of ‘absent-minded’ can be applied with equal correctness to Tommy’s officers […] and even to the Government at whose orders he has cheerfully marched to almost certain death on occasions without number. (pp. 1-2)

The absent-minded war was widely discussed, even translated into German posthumously, and caused its author to be transferred by Lord Roberts (whose biography Cairnes had written) “after a severe wigging” to the desk post of Secretary to the Committee on the Education and Training of Officers.

In 1901 The Times printed an exchange of letters initiated by Colonel Lonsdale Hale, who attacked Cairnes under the heading “Our ‘Stupid’ British Officers”. Its obituary of 22 April 1902 informs us that Cairnes died from pneumonia and was “a well-known and most promising writer on military subjects”.

Harald Beck

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