Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!...
If such there breathe, go, mark him well.
We shall now direct our attention to some of the disadvantages and difficulties which confronted us in our struggle for freedom. This we do because many who were in sympathy with the Republics have been sorely disappointed in their surrender, and some suppose that they should have prolonged the struggle until victory ultimately crowned their efforts. Those who reason in this way must be ignorant of the conditions of the Republics at the time of their surrender, neither do they know the disadvantages with which we had to grapple throughout the war. It is therefore of importance that the South African War should be regarded in the light and under the circumstances in which it was begun, conducted and concluded. When the obstacles the Boer had to encounter are taken into due consideration, then censure and disappointment vanish and make room for praise and admiration.
None know better than those who have been involved in war that its current does not run evenly. Experience has taught them that war is much more than a series of exciting adventures or some kind of sport. It brings before the contending parties problems hard to solve, difficulties and emergencies of a most perplexing and bewildering nature. Boer and Briton alike had to face such difficulties and disadvantages. The disadvantages, however, under which the English had to labour in South Africa dwindle into insignificance when contrasted and compared with those of the Boers, especially towards the latter part of the war. The impartial critic must admit that eventually the vantage ground was altogether on the side of the British. 'Tis only by sheer determination and superhuman efforts and sacrifices on the part of the late Republics that they defied the British Empire for two years and eight months. None were perhaps more surprised and amazed at the protracted war than the Imperial Government itself. Time and again an early termination of hostilities was announced. Such was the case after Cronje's capture, the occupation of Bloemfontein and Pretoria, and Prinsloo's surrender. When Lord Roberts left South Africa, the war, it was said, was practically over!
The British were placed at a great disadvantage at the outbreak of hostilities. The Boer ultimatum, issued on the 9th of October, 1899, found the English Government only half prepared either to accept or reject its demands. None thought that the Boer Republics would ever take such a bold step, and would be so audacious as to despatch an ultimatum to one of the mightiest Powers of the world. They should have waited and waited until that strong Power was quite prepared to crush them at one stroke. They should have waited, at least, till all the British forces were massed on their borders, then to cross, and take by force what peaceful negotiations failed to obtain. Thus reasoned some, the Boers thought otherwise. To them war seemed inevitable, and they believe that the man who strikes first strikes best.
That the war presented many difficulties to our opponents cannot be denied. They were unexpectedly brought to a crisis, and were but half prepared to meet it. Their reinforcements were delayed in being transported thousands of miles. Their own subjects rose in rebellion and assisted the Boers. They were at first unacquainted with the country in which they had to fight.
How the enemy confronted and overcame these difficulties, and how their disadvantages gradually vanished like smoke, is well known. Troops, more troops, and still more were despatched to South Africa, until finally the Republics were literally flooded by the gentlemen in khaki. By the end of February, 1900, Lord Roberts had at his disposal tens of thousands, by whom General Cronje was surrounded and captured, and who paved the Field-Marshal's way for him to Bloemfontein and Pretoria. The difficulty and disadvantage arising from their not knowing the geographical features of the country in which they had to operate was gradually solved and cleared. Cape colonials enlisted in the British ranks, and these acted as guides and scouts. They knew the features of the country as well as the Boers, and could thus render very efficient service to the British. Still later, services of inestimable value were rendered to the British forces by natives, and, alas! even republicans themselves, who joined the enemy's ranks. When these enlisted, the English were provided with the best of guides, scouts and spies.
The disadvantages of the enemy were, to a large extent, the advantages of the, Boers. They had a very accurate knowledge of the country where they were fighting. The value of such a knowledge can hardly be over-estimated. If they had not known the country as well as they did, the English forces would certainly have been more successful in effecting their capture; and they would have often been in a sad plight. Our knowledge of the field of operations proved our salvation on more than one occasion, and was at the bottom of some successes achieved over the enemy. To know every mountain, hill, river, brooklet, valley, or donga is to be forearmed. The general that knows the battlefield is infinitely better off than the one that does not. He knows precisely how and when to lead an attack, or what to do when unexpectedly attacked. Now the Boer commanders had this intimate knowledge of the country, a knowledge which served them in good stead, and accounts for the Boers' marvellous mobility. They were not tied to roads, but could move in any direction, by night as well as by day, without ever losing their track. This the enemy could not do, not even with the aid of scientific instruments. When the natives and some of the burghers attached themselves to the British forces, then, and then only, were they able to make forced marches by night, and surprise the Boers when least expected.
A second point in favour of us was the fact that we were all mounted, whereas, at the commencement of the war, the British army consisted largely of infantry. The Boers are splendid horsemen--none more at home in the saddle than the farmer. The way he handled his steed, and the posture he assumed on it, invariably distinguished him, even at great distances, from the British soldier. The British infantry, however well they might have fought--and they did often fight bravely--were yet placed at a great disadvantage in engagements with the mounted Boers, who could quickly, sometimes too quickly, abandon untenable positions and occupy others which offered greater advantages.
Last, but not least, the Boers had the moral advantage of fighting in defence of their country. They did not fight for honour or glory, nor because of lust or greed for gold or expansion of territory, but for their beloved Fatherland, for that freedom which they had enjoyed so long and loved so well. This was their stimulus, their very inspiration to endure hardship and sacrifice all. What was the stimulus and inspiration of the British forces?
We shall now review some of the disadvantages under which we had to wage war for almost three years. No sooner had the war been declared than the Republics were almost completely isolated from the civilised world. The English were in possession of all the harbours, and if it had not been for Delagoa Bay, which is a neutral port, the communication of the Republics with the outer world would instantly have been cut off entirely. Through this port all contraband of war was strictly prohibited; and such foreigners as came to our assistance had to exercise great ingenuity to find their way via Delagoa Bay to the Boer lines. For several months in succession the Boers had to fight without the slightest encouragement from abroad. How the nations were regarding their struggle, whether any of them would dare to interfere on their behalf, and so indicate the rights of the weak against the strong--such and similar questions remained unanswered. Neither was the average Boer much concerned as to what other nations thought about the war. He was involved in the struggle, not because he courted it or loved to fight, but because his country was invaded and his independence was at stake. To secure his liberty he would resist any Power, regardless of all adverse criticism on the part of other Powers. Yet it proved no less a serious disadvantage to the Republics to have been so isolated, their communication with the other Powers so restricted, and themselves encompassed almost on every side by British dominions.
Not only was our intercourse with the outer world sadly impeded, but our internal communication was likewise seriously disturbed. The British, having divided the two states into several small sections by their blockhouse system, made it extremely difficult for the different commandoes to come in touch with one another. Our despatch riders, who had to beat their way through the various blockhouse lines, were sometimes so hemmed in by these that escape was impossible, and thus their despatches fell into the hands of the enemy. Towards the latter part of the war we were entirely dependent upon despatch riders for the transmission of our reports or messages. We had no more the inestimable advantage of heliographic instruments or telegraph wires, which were at the disposal of the British. Our reinforcements often arrived too late at the scene of action because the reports were delayed on the way, and so a battle was lost where a victory might have been secured.
The number of able-bodied men that the Republics could put in the field against the British forces was extremely limited. They had to contend against great numbers, and these numbers were reinforced from time to time. While the Boer numbers decreased, those of the enemy increased. It was certainly an heroic action on the part of two small republics to enter upon a contest with the British Empire, not to say with England, but was it not more heroic for these untrained farmers to confront and defy the overwhelming numbers brought against them? Surely this, if nothing else, should entitle the Boer to a place in the history of nations. Is this not proof sufficient that, when their Governments with their consent despatched an ultimatum, it was not arrogance which prompted them to take up arms against the British, but steadfast determination to vindicate their sacred rights at any price?
As to the numbers that were employed during the war, the official statement of the War Department makes the number of officers and soldiers that were engaged in active service in South Africa about 500,000. To this must be added the number of armed natives, which would increase the sum total considerably. The Boer estimates vary, yet we do not hesitate to state that not more, but rather less, than 50,000 Boers were ever in the field. Of these a large proportion usually remained in the laagers, and never fired a shot at the enemy. After Prinsloo's surrender there were hardly 8,000 men still in the field. According to these numbers, the odds were ten to one. According to other authorities, the odds were even greater. One English writer says: "What glory shall a mighty empire win from a victory over 15,000 farmers? We are forcing upon our army the cruel humiliation of beating our enemy by sheer force of fifteen against one; we who used to boast that one Briton was a match for any three of his foes." The official returns at the close of the war substantiates the above figures, and show that it has not by any means been exaggerated. General De Wet, on being asked how long he thought the war would last if the numbers could be inverted, remarked: "As long as it would take to cable defeat to England." We do not wonder that some of the burghers eventually became discouraged and surrendered to the foe, especially when we think how great the odds were against which they had to contend month after month. We are rather surprised that so many did not become disheartened, but unflinchingly maintained the struggle until their Governments and leaders advised a general surrender.
Not only had we to confront such overpowering numbers, but these forces were under the control of England's most distinguished generals, men who combined practical experience with the advantage of a military training. These generals for the most part had achieved glory and renown in many a campaign--in Afghanistan, Egypt, and elsewhere--and thus came to South Africa, not to get their first lessons in warfare, but as experienced leaders of a great army. With such men to lead the British forces on to battle, if not to victory, three months were considered all too long by many to crush and wipe out of existence two small republics.
Opposed to these (famous) British officers stood the inexperienced Boer leaders. What a contrast! The Boer officers, with very few exceptions, were men without a shadow of military training, some even poorly developed mentally. They were, with few exceptions, peasants pure and simple, who left their ploughfields and flocks to take upon themselves the command over no less inexperienced burghers. These Boer leaders, elected by the people in times of peace, went to the front without the least practical knowledge of warfare. True, a few of them, such as Cronje, De la Rey, and Prinsloo had been leaders in Kaffir wars, and in such the burghers placed implicit confidence. Needless almost to state that in most of these so-called Kaffir warriors the Boers were utterly disappointed. It was one thing to attack natives badly armed, it was another thing to face an organised army well equipped with death-dealing instruments. We were thus at a great disadvantage at the commencement of hostilities as far as leaders were concerned. Gradually our staff of officers was improved, for the best men came to the front, and some of the older officers, who were unfit, were replaced by younger and abler ones. All these changes, however, took a long time, and were not effected before we had been subjected to two great disasters: one that of Cronje's capture on the 27th of February, 1900, the other, Prinsloo's surrender on the 1st of August, 1900, disasters which proved decisive epochs in the Anglo-Boer war.
Some of the Boer leaders, though inexperienced and untrained, proved themselves quite a match for their opponents. They have astonished military circles by their valorous actions and daring enterprises, and have merited imperishable honour and glory. Well may we be proud of leaders such as Louis Botha, Christian De Wet, and Jacobus De la Rey, men whose names deserve a place in the rolls of history. We were fortunate in securing the services of such men at a time when they were most needed. No doubt it was to the advantage and not, as some maintain, to the disadvantage of the Free State burghers when C.R. De Wet was elected Hoofd Commandant at Brandfort in March, 1900. He, too, was but a farmer; culture he lacked, military training he had none, but the spark of martial genius had fallen and kindled in his breast. In figure, manner, and dress he was hardly distinguishable from hundreds of his countrymen, who were not sharers of his military abilities. Does not his broad forehead indicate thoughtfulness? While his keen and penetrating eyes and firmly set lips are marks of determination and singleness of purpose. And his broad chin, does it not reveal the man of tenacity and endurance? As an individual he was sympathetic, generous, and magnanimous; he was endowed with discretion and tact, simplicity and honesty. As a soldier, vigilant, persevering, never indiscreet in anger or disappointment, but always courageous and resourceful. Recognizing the advantages of a surprise, he never lost an opportunity of harassing the enemy. Through his rare topographical knowledge of his country he baffled the foe by his movements time and again. Followed up by overwhelming numbers, he was compelled more often to evade fighting than offer battle. Never unduly elated, he was bravest and supreme when all others lost heart. He had to contend against treachery, desertion and want, but rose above all these obstacles, and proved himself the most powerful obstructor that the British columns had to encounter in South Africa. Such a man was a boon to his country, and to him the burghers confidently entrusted themselves and their interests. He has proved himself worthy of that trust. But all were not De Wets. There were, alas! Prinsloos, Vilonels, etc., too.
So much for the Boer officers. As regards our rank and file, they were as inexperienced in military matters as most of their leaders. The Boer is no soldier in the technical sense of the term. He was never subjected to military discipline, and unaccustomed to any restrictions. It took him months to realise the absolute necessity for and inestimable value of good discipline. The burghers looked upon themselves as volunteers, and such they really were. Now, when the enemy had to be attacked in their forts or strongholds, the Boer officers had to call out volunteers, as it was hazardous to lay too much pressure on the burghers to charge any position without their consent. To exercise too great power or authority over burghers was, at all times, especially at the beginning of the war, a risky thing. The officers knew well that the Boer is more easily led than driven.
Corps such as the Johannesburg and Swaziland Police and the Staats Artillery of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, which had the benefit of military training and discipline, proved their superiority over the rest of the burgher forces, and greatly distinguished themselves in the South African campaign. If all the burghers had had the same training as these corps, greater successes might have crowned their efforts during the early part of the war. The soldier, on the contrary, is no volunteer. His wishes are never consulted; when instructed to march on, he has to obey, though it may mean certain death to him, as was so often the case.
Another point of great disadvantage to the Boers is the lamentable fact that thousands of the surrendered and captured burghers enlisted in the British ranks as "National Scouts." This, viewed from the Boer standpoint, is the darkest spot in the South African campaign. Gladly would we dismiss this matter without any further comment, for it merits silent contempt, but we cannot help noting at what a terrible disadvantage we were placed by the action of these "National Scouts." As they made common cause with the enemy they furnished the latter from time to time with full particulars of our tactics, and divulged all our military secrets to the British. Moreover, they served the British forces as guides and led them forth at dead of night to surprise their countrymen in their secret, and otherwise unknown, retreats, where they were often captured or shot down by the enemy. Before these enlisted, night assaults by the English were out of the question. It was perfectly safe to bivouac some six miles from the enemy. For when the British did make a move during the night, they usually lost their way, as was the case when Gatacre undertook a night march on the Stormberg positions. With Boers as guides it was possible for the English forces to assume tactics hitherto untried by them.
Ah! brother, national scout, who may be reading this, do you not regret and lament the unhappy part of traitor? Are your hands not stained with the blood of your countrymen? And your conscience, is that not tarnished with the blood of men, women and children, who fell in Freedom's holy war? We do not despise but we pity you, and wish it were otherwise.
Not only did these "National Scouts" lead the British to the Boers, but they were the principal instruments in the hands of the enemy to clear the Republics of all foodstuffs and ammunition. They knew precisely where their fellow-burghers had stored away their meal, corn, fodder, and ammunition, knew where the oxen and sheep were grazing, and forthwith to these they conducted the enemy's forces, and thus was brought to pass that state of affairs which necessitated the Boers to lay down their arms. Without the assistance of the deserted burghers it would have taken the enemy ever so much longer to have exhausted the Republics entirely of all their resources. To a large extent these very republicans who sided with their country's enemies became the despoilers of the once so fair Republics. Ah me, that this should be recorded!
Besides, by assisting the enemy they not only encouraged them, but greatly discouraged their brethren in the field. The burgher who really meant well naturally became disheartened that those who fought with him for one and the same object could turn against him and play such a low and treacherous part. How men, who have stooped to deeds so mean and foul, shall defend their loathsome actions at the bar of Conscience and Justice, I know not.
In addition to the "National Scouts"--as though these were not more than sufficient--we had to contend against thousands of blacks, aboriginal natives armed by the British and taken up in their ranks. We naturally felt indignant at the adoption of coloured races in the British army; for we regarded it as an unwritten agreement between the respective Governments that no blacks were to be involved in the war. It was to be white versus white, Boer versus Briton. Hence, when the natives became embroiled in the struggle we refused to acknowledge and treat them as combatants. No quarter was given to armed natives that were not British subjects, and even these forfeited their lives on more than one occasion. This action, regarded superficially, may seem cruel and unjust, but remembering that war had not been declared against the natives, and also that, if we did treat them as English soldiers, we would simply have courted the opposition of all the natives, it does not seem quite so cruel and unjust. We had to resort to severe measures so as to let the natives fully realise that they were not acknowledged combatants, and thus could not claim the privileges of combatants. Surely the odds were already great enough--why then adopt blacks? We hold that the Military Government was not justified in the use of armed natives, and surely their adoption did not tend to the glory and honour of the British arms in South Africa.
Again, one must remember that for fully eighteen months we were entirely dependent upon the enemy for all military supplies. Our limited resources were soon exhausted, and, as the English controlled all the ports, the importation of arms, ammunition, horses, saddles, foodstuffs, and other necessaries, was out of the question.
The general opinion as to the duration of the war was that it would or could only last till the limited supply of Boer ammunition was spent. This limited supply, however, like the widow's oil, was not exhausted even after two years and eight months, and certainly never would as long as British factories provided rifles, ammunition, and other military equipments.
For eighteen months we were provided, directly or indirectly, by the British Government with the necessaries of war. Britain was supporting two armies in the field, armies which were not animated by a very friendly spirit toward each other. Our support, however, demanded at times the sacrifice of precious lives. When a commando ran short of ammunition a determined onslaught to secure more was planned, and often successfully carried out. The ammunition was obtained, but, alas! it cost them the blood of some of their bravest men. Such dependence was a great drawback to us. The Home Government also indirectly provided the fighting Boers with clothes. At first the burgher had his own private supply of clothing; but when the policy of destruction was resorted to his clothes were consumed by the flames, and he had to apply to the British Government for others. And this is how he did it. When he made a prisoner he would exchange clothes with him, provided better ones were thus secured, which was not always the case. With a certain amount of etiquette and dignity, this bargain was closed. Tommy, without any demonstration or remonstrance, would take off his jacket, pants and boots, and hand these to his brother Boer, with some such remark: "I don't grudge you it, sir--I know you fellows need them clothes badly; we have burnt yours, we shall get others again." "Out boots, out trousers, out jacket," were the abrupt commands of some of the Boers who had but little English.
To put an end to this process of exchanging outfits, Lord Kitchener issued a proclamation which forbade, under penalty of death, any fighting Boer to dress in khaki. This proclamation was not heeded, for the simple reason that men who had the interests of their country at heart were not likely to surrender because their clothes were wearing out. This threat but added one more to the many risks of death they ran. And so a few of these unfortunate burghers, captured in khaki dress because they had no other, were shot in accordance with the proclamation. This did not, however, intimidate the rest, for at the close of the war several hundreds were dressed in the dirty khaki hue.
In conclusion we note one point more, which counted seriously against the late Republics. It was this: the field of operations became more and more circumscribed and narrowed down by the extension of the blockhouses. The two Republics were divided, so to speak, into a great many little states by the blockhouse lines. The Free State alone was divided into at least eight or nine sections. Now these divisions, fenced round on every side, were cleared, one after the other, of all cattle, sheep, and other foodstuff. The British concentrated their forces in each section and operated there until it resembled a wilderness. And so they went from one division to another, until finally almost the whole country--both Transvaal and Free State--was denuded and in a semi-famine state. Owing to this confined and limited area in which we had to move, it was absolutely impossible for us to safeguard our war supplies.
Another result of this restricted area was the release of all prisoners-of-war taken by us. Thousands were captured, disarmed, and released to take up arms the next day. The same soldier has been captured two, three, and four times over. In this way it was impossible to reduce the forces of the enemy to any appreciable extent. The Boers certainly would have taken greater pains and dared more to capture the enemy's forces if they too had had a place of confinement; but no Ceylon or Bermudas were at their disposal. If they had had any such place, the Imperial Yeomanry and others would not have surrendered perhaps quite so readily. It certainly was a great misfortune to the late Republics that they could not retain their prisoners-of-war, while every Boer prisoner was either deported or guarded so securely, that, when once captured, he was entirely lost for the Boer cause. Under such unfavourable circumstances we had to fight our battle. It was against the stream all along. If ever there was an unequal contest, surely ours was one.
To show that we have by no means exaggerated the conditions in which we fought, we shall record here the resolution passed on the 31st of May, 1902, by the Volks Congress held at Vereeniging on the Vaal River, which reads as follows:--
"This meeting of Representatives of the people of the South African Republic and Orange Free State, held at Vereeniging, has learnt with regret of the proposal made by his Majesty's Government in regard to the cessation of existing hostilities, and of the intimation that this proposal must be accepted or rejected in an unaltered form.
"The meeting regrets that his Majesty's Government has absolutely refused to negotiate with the Governments of the Republics upon the basis of our Independence, or to permit our Governments to enter into communication with our Deputation.
"Our Peoples have, indeed, always thought that not only on the ground of Right, but also on the ground of the great material and personal sacrifices that they have made for their Independence, they have a just claim to such Independence.
"This meeting has earnestly taken into consideration the condition of land and people, and has more especially taken into account the following facts:--
"(1.) That the military tactics pursued by the British military authorities has led to the entire ruin of the territory of both Republics, with burning of farms and towns, destruction of all means of subsistence, and exhaustion of all sources necessary for the support of our families, for the maintenance of our forces in the field, and for the continuation of the war.
"(2.) That the placing of our captured families in the concentration camps has led to an unprecedented condition of suffering and disease, so that within a comparatively short time about 20,000 of those dear to us have perished there, and the horrible prospect has arisen that by continuing the war our entire race might be exterminated.
"(3.) That the Kaffir tribes within and without the borders of the territories of both Republics are almost all armed and take part in the struggle against us, and by perpetrating murders and committing all kinds of horrors, an impossible state of affairs has been brought about in many districts of both Republics, an instance of which took place lately in the district of Vryheid, where fifty-six burghers were murdered and mutilated in a shocking manner at the same time.
"(4.) That by Proclamation of the enemy, which he has already carried into effect, the burghers still in the field are threatened with loss of all their movable and immovable property, and so with total ruin.
"(5.) That through the circumstances of the war it has already long ago become impossible for us to retain the many thousands of prisoners-of-war taken by our forces, and that we thus could do but comparatively little damage to the British troops, whilst our burghers captured by the British are sent abroad; and that after the war has raged for nearly three years there remains only a small portion of the forces with which we entered into the war.
"(6.) That this remnant still in the field, which forms but a small minority of our entire people, has to contend against overwhelming odds, and, moreover, has reached a condition virtually amounting to famine and want of the necessary means of subsistence, and that notwithstanding our utmost endeavours and the sacrifice of all that we value and hold dear, we cannot reasonably expect a successful issue.
"This meeting is therefore of opinion that there is no reasonable ground for thinking that by continuance of the war our People will retain the possession of their Independence, and considers that under the circumstances the People are not justified in carrying on the war any longer, as that must tend to bring about the social and material destruction not only of ourselves, but also of our descendants.
"Urged by the above circumstances and motives, this meeting authorises both Governments to accept the proposal of his Majesty's Government, and on behalf of the People of both Republics to sign the same."
Such was the condition of the two Republics at the termination of the war. Well may one pause and ask: Has ever small nation, in similar circumstances, placed greater sacrifices, personal and material, on Liberty's shrine than the Republics? Have they not a lawful claim to that independence for which they fought so gallantly and so desperately, and for which they offered, ah! so much--their homes, their beloved families, their possessions and their lives?
Shall any still that stood afar off and watched the struggle, maybe sympathetically, or with cold indifference--shall they blame us for having surrendered? Verily not; for it cannot rationally be expected that a handful of farmers could offer resistance indefinitely, without any assistance, to a rich and mighty empire. The leaking vessel may ride to and fro for a while on the stormy billows, but eventually she is bound to sink; the shipwrecked mariner may struggle and swim, but, exhausted and powerless, he too goes down to find his last rest in the bosom of the deep. This was the case of the Republics. On the stormy billows of the ocean of war they were tossed hither and thither for nearly three years. Time and again they cried and signalled for relief, but no life-boats were sent to their rescue. None heeded their cry, or had compassion on them. The nations stood and looked on, sympathised and pitied, but did not help. And so, after all their strength was spent in trying to save the vessel of their independence, the gallant crew, with ship and all, sank beneath the waves of conquest.