Colombia - Army (Ejercito Nacional) - 1900
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Army was a body of armed men and boys with little semblance to an army of a civilized nation. The strength of the national army is determined by Act of Congress each session. The peace footing was fixed at 1,000 in 1898. After the war the actual strength was by decree of March, 1903, reduced to 15,000 men. Every able-bodied Colombian was liable to military service. It was not clear the number of men regularly enrolled in the Colombian army, but it was characteristic of that nation to make quite a different showing in fact from what it does on paper.
The best of their troops were the members of the "Battalion of Colombia," their crack corps, which went over to the republic of Panama, with its brave and intelligent commander, General Esteban Huertas, one of the few Colombians who excited the admiration of the Americans with whom he came in contact, during the last war. That battalion was really a regiment, and possesses some degree of discipline. It is uniformed throughout, the full-dress being dark in color, but the service dress being a sort of dirty, white rough, home-spun garment, with loose tunic and loose trousers. Except on dress parade, its soldiers were poorly shod. The cap is an ancient red French military hat, similar to the full-dress hats of the Union soldiers of the Civil War. There is a subdivision of the battalion into companies, with their respective captains, lieutenants, sergeants and corporals.
The remainder of the Colombian soldiers formed a motley rabble. Many of them are boys in their teens, and even younger, so greatly had the male population of the country been reduced by the frequent internicine strifes which have occurred during the past generation. They were scantily clad, even bare-foot, and a ragged array generally.
The standard small arm of the Colombian army was the Gras rifle, a French weapon in vogue over twenty years earlier. It is a breech-loading bolt gun of large calibre, about .45, the cartridge carrying a heavy charge of black powder. Next in number to the Gras rifle was the Remington, particularly the carbine, which is quite numerous. The officers generally carried a revolver, usually a Colt, and a machete. In addition to the Gras and Remington rifles there is almost every variety of weapons to be found in the hands of the Colombian troops, including the Mauser, ihe Mannlicher, Sharps, Berdan and even old muzzle-loading smooth bore muskets, using caps, and many shot-guns. The artillery weapons ranged from the modern Krupps of latest pattern, which are few in number, down to ancient pieces of uncertain age, which were fit objects for museums.
While the Colombian soldier had some good points, care of weapons is not one of them. With rare exceptions, their arms are rusty and in poor condition. A machine gun did not last long in their hands. The mechanical arts, except of the crudest kind, are virtually unknown among them. The whole army was a happy-golucky affair, strongly suggestive of a comic opera. Generals ere nearly as numerous as captains. Five hundred men form a general's command.
Nominally, there are commissaries, "proveadores," as they are called, and also surgeons; nominally, there are a great many other things, but in fact, staff organizations did not exist. An army is started on the move in a haphazzard manner. There was no baggage train, no quartermaster's department, no commissary's department, no medical corps, no signal corps, no engineer corps.
A body of Colombian troops was nothing but an armed mob. They had colonels, captains and lieutenants galore, but the organization was loose. Courts-martial are sometimes held but they are as farcical as the proceedings of the civil judiciary. They were mere empty forms, and the Colombians seldom go to the bother of resorting to them.
Discipline, such as it is, was enforced by decree, more often verbal than written. The liberty and lives of the troops were at the whim of the commander. The principal punishments were death by shooting and the infliction of lashings, the latter being frequently so brutal as to result in death. The Colombian thoght nothing of administering one hundred lashes to a culprit whose offence may have been due more to heedlessness, forgetfulness or stupidity than to evil intent. A general can order a man shot at his own sweet will, so can a colonel, or a lesser officer for that matter, provided his immediate senior is not at hand.
Yet the Colombian soldier, like the soldier of every other nation under the sun, from the warrior of the Mad Mullah to the soldier of the most highly-civilized nation, was brave. If ordered to make an attack he will do so, having the physical bravery of any carniverous animal. What he lacks is the cool courage, the pertinacity and the enterprise of the Northern races. He will fight bravely, although more adapted and better suited to bushwhacking than to tactics in the open.
The Colombian officer, as a general thing, was a man of no military education; he is simply the head man of the crowd. Strategy and the science of war were unknown to him. One of the things that astonished the Americans in the Colombian service most was the extreme senselessness and the utter folly of the Colombian practice of war. The Colombian officer seldom thoght of the welfare of his men. He will order them into all kinds of trouble, and gives little, if any, thought to feeding them, keeping them in good trim and nursing their fighting ability.
Attention may be called to the curious fact that the officers of the Colombian army were more generally mounted upon mules than upon horses. Horses were not popular for military purposes in that country, while the patient, sturdy and enduring mule had all the speed that the Colombian officer or cavalryman demanded.
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