The First Bloodshed
[Sidenote: The First Battle of the War]
The first battle of the war was fought October 20th, eleven days after the ultimatum of the South African Republic. General White was at Ladysmith, where there was a large accumulation of stores, and General Symons at Dundee and Glencoe Junction. A Boer force under Lucas Meyers were in position on Talana Hill. General Symons attacked them. He was mortally wounded, 10 officers and 33 men killed and 200 wounded, but the Hill was carried, and though there has been much disputation as to the possession of the ground immediately after the conflict, and the comparative lists of casualties, British pride in the courage of their troops was justified, and the Boers realized they were confronted by soldiers who would not be satisfied for a day to act strictly on the defensive. The outlying position of General Symons was perhaps not worth the sacrifice of so many men to storm a hill that could not be held at the utmost more than a few days. It was necessary for the British to retire from the field of their dearly bought victory, and General Symons died in the hands of his enemies, while the wounded soldiers who could not be removed were captured. It is creditable to the Boers that they treated the dying General and the mangled men, with respect and kindness.
[Sidenote: Battle of Elandslaagte]
On the 21st of October, the day after the fight at Glencoe--Symon's fight--General French, second in command at Ladysmith, defeated the Boers, many from the Orange State, at Elandslaagte, a few miles north of Ladysmith. The losses were heavy, and a retreat from Glencoe, which was soon found to be inevitable, was made comparatively easy. The English forces that fought at Glencoe and Elandslaagte, united October 26th with the garrison at Ladysmith, and a week later were surrounded by a largely superior force under General Joubert, the better known of the Boer officers, whose movements were slowed down by the hard fighting he had found it necessary to do. It was the unity of the detachments that gained, in severe encounters, the first successes of the British, that justified the bloodshed where Generals Symons and French were conspicuously heroic. The garrison of Ladysmith was strengthened by the naval brigade that got in during the sortie of the 30th of October, and manned the guns of long range transported by railroad from the British cruiser, the "Powerful," which was at Durban. Lieutenant Edgerton, of that cruiser, at first handled the guns, and wounded by a shell died after a few days.
[Sidenote: Hard Work on Both Sides]
The hard work the Boers had to do in the first days of their appearance before completing the investment of Ladysmith, obstructed their plan of campaign, which was to beat back the British at all points in Natal and lock them up in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The storm centers in the latest days of October, after three weeks of war, were Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking; and the mobile masses of the Boers were held in check as the transports loaded with soldiers from England drew nigh. But the British were not the men to defend themselves in trenches only. They were too fond of going out to find and develop their enemies, and had to pay dearly repeatedly for the spirit of adventure with which they made themselves acquainted with the country occupied by those who knew it well.
[Sidenote: General Buller Arrives]
News that was distressing reached England from the seat of war on the last day of October. A squadron of the 18th Hussars was "cut off" and taken prisoners when in pursuit of apparently fugitive Boers. This was near Dundee. There was a sortie from Ladysmith under Colonel Carlton, who was also "cut off" and forced to surrender. He had been sent out in the night to "flank the enemy," a phrase of wide construction, and a broad road leading to destruction, unless one is certain of the location of the flanks and the main body too, of the enemy. On this occasion there was a stampede of mules with "practically the whole of the gun equipment, and the greater part of the small arm ammunition." This affair is known as the disaster of Nicholson's Nek. These 870 officers and men, after fighting nearly an entire day and exhausting ammunition, were surrendered, and their presence in Pretoria attested a great victory by the Boers, and increased Afrikander expectations and enthusiasm. The organizations involved were four and a half companies of the Gloucesters, six companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the 10th Mountain Battery. The British successes at Glencoe and Elandslaagte were due to the excellence of the soldiers and the devotion of the officers. The successes of the Boers that speedily followed were results of what the London Times calls "the humiliating truth--that in that difficult country of kopjes, our enemy more numerous, better informed and immeasurably more mobile, is able to act more swiftly than our forces in isolated attacks, as he is habitually able to choose better positions to defend."
General Buller arrived at Cape Town on the day of the Dundee disaster October 31st, and his conception of his first duty was the relief of Ladysmith. For that and collateral purposes there were three columns prepared for the advance. About 16,000 men were sent to Durban, where General Cleary soon had two whole divisions. General Gatacre was sent to Queenstown November 18th, to check a Free State incursion threatening Cape Colony, and Lord Methuen with the Guards and a Brigade of the line, and the Highland Brigade, moved on the way direct for Kimberley. It does not take scientific attainment in looking upon a map of the country to understand that the advantages of the position were remarkably with the Boers, and no one had any reason for surprise that all the British relief columns had "serious reverses."
[Sidenote: The Strategy of the Boers]
An English correspondent, evidently a trained observer, says of the strategy of the Boers: "Their plan has been simplicity itself. Establish a laager in a convenient position, detach a sufficient force to hold and strengthen a kopje, and await a British attack coming from a given direction. If the attack succeeds the detachment falls back on the main laager, and the game is repeated. Such are the tactics of the Boers. Their acquaintance with lyddite shell is said to have induced them to place less confidence in the rocky crests of the kopjes and to resort to trenches on lower ground, but the principle remains the same. So long as the campaign is waged in a country that provides an interminable series of defensible positions which are attacked in the way the Boers most ardently desire, while our troops are tethered to a railway, the game must apparently continue to be in the hands of the enemy."
[Sidenote: Confronted by Clouds and Darkness]
Sir Redvers Buller found clouds and darkness when he landed at Cape Town a week before his birthday, having made up his own staff irrespective of all suggestion of favoritism, and accepted all the responsibilities. There was before him the two Boer States, whose Presidents, and sympathizers in Natal, Cape Town and throughout Southern Africa, caused by the uncertainties of the British policy for many years, had made hopeful the schemes for the foundation of an Afrikander Nation. This would mean that all South Africa should be subjected to the mastery of the Boers, whose specific and especial policy would be to drive out Englishmen with all their capital, influences and improvements. The meaning of a great Boer nation could not fail to be a confederacy of inferior civilization, and to end the grand work the British have carried on, brightening the Dark Continent from the days of Moffat and Livingstone to those of Stanley and Rhodes. Sir Redvers Buller found the Afrikander movement held in suspense by the Mafeking, Ladysmith and Kimberley defenders, who were fighting fiercely to stand their ground until the relief columns could be gathered, formed, put in motion and strike. On all sides there were embarrassments of the gravest nature for the English.
[Sidenote: Difficulties in Mobilizing the Troops]
The public at large were occupied considerably in counting the number of soldiers that had sailed from England, computing the speed of the ships and fixing the dates of their arrival at the ports for which they were destined, and the concern was not great as to the mobility of the troops, the confinement of the columns to railroad lines easily interrupted, and the immense impediment in the indispensable stores heaped at the points of debarkation, as in our attack upon the Spaniards in Cuba we were overwhelmed at the point of embarkation. The army with which the British Commander-in-Chief moved in the direction of Ladysmith was about the same size as that under Major-General Shafter that scrambled aboard ship at Tampa and landed at Santiago.
As Sir Redvers Buller marched to attempt the passage of the Tugela River, he had to encounter the discouragements of the bloody repulses of both columns co-operating with him, and especially the depressing experience of Lord Methuen on the Modder River; and he had also at last to report as the others had done, a "serious reverse."
[Illustration: A NATIVE DISPATCH CARRIER OVERTAKEN BY THE BOERS]
[Illustration: GENERAL LORD METHUEN, British Commander, Battle of Modder River. GENERAL SIR GEORGE WHITE, V.C., Commander British Forces, Battle of Ladysmith.]
[Sidenote: The Boers Selected Their Time Judiciously]
There is to be remarked a strong family likeness in all the combats unfortunate for the British--the desperate storming of fortified hills, the half blind flank movements, seemingly seeking to get into ambuscades--the columns by companies charging into zones of rifle fire, Mausers in the hands of marksmen; the vain hammering with artillery not all of the latest pattern and longest range--the certain, fatal, frontal advance, because there was no other way, as the ground lay, for the work required to be done; and there were, more than all, rivers booming between rugged banks, rocks serving the Boers for shelter and rests for their rifles, and a perfect exposure of the masses of the British to the searching fire of the expert riflemen. The Boers had selected their time for beginning the war, and judiciously placed it when the open country was green with grass for their ponies, and their forces were wafted about almost as swiftly as the winds,--while the British were fettered to lines of rails readily obstructed, and repeated misfortunes taught the limits of usefulness of armored trains, perils from the mad panic of green drivers with greener mules; the fact slowly learned by old soldiers that the rifles in hand often outranged the artillery, the next to impossible fording of rivers in the face of rifle fire, making the attempts an invitation to slaughter, no matter what the merits of the troops even if the best the world ever saw; and all the while the pressure of the bitter necessity of groping gallantly along the gloomy paths that, as we read in Gray's Elegy, "lead but to the grave," though they shine with glory.