During the spring and summer of 1899 it became more and more obvious that war with the South African Republic could hardly be averted. In the month of June Sir Redvers was informed that he had been selected as Commander-in-Chief in the event of hostilities. Sir Redvers pointed out that any force of less than 50,000 men would be inadequate, even setting aside the certainty that the Orange Free State would have to be reckoned with in addition to the Transvaal, and that the only practicable line of attack was through the Free State. Discussion either of this route or of any question connected with the attitude of the Free State was, however, declined; and a little later on the suggestions made by the General for strengthening the garrisons of Cape Colony and Natal were disregarded. It was not until the 29th September that the route through the Orange Free State, advocated by Sir Redvers, was sanctioned by the Government, and that preparations for the march of the army could be made at the ports of disembarkation. In regard to calling out the reserves, and in the date for his own departure, the Government was unable to accede to Sir Redvers’ urgent requests; and in spite of the untiring zeal and ability of General Sir H. Brackenbury, Master-General of the Ordnance, the time lost by the failure to make the necessary preparations in advance could never afterwards be entirely made up. Sir Redvers asked that his old friend, Lieut.-General Sir Francis Grenfell, who had great experience of South Africa and had served with him during the Kaffir and Zulu wars as well as in 1881, might go out as second in command; but Sir Francis, being the Governor of Malta, and employed in an important political office, could not be spared by the Colonial Office. It was, nevertheless, unfortunate that Buller should have been without the assistance of any of his old companions in arms.
On the 14th October Sir Redvers left London and embarked at Southampton amid a scene of enthusiasm never to be forgotten by anyone present. But, pleased as he could not fail to be by the demonstration, Buller by no means shared the sanguine views of the country at large. He knew the theatre of war too well to ignore the fact that the geographical area, strength, and political conditions of South Africa made his task a gigantic one. On the voyage he remarked to a friend that the business was too great for one man, and predicted that Lord Roberts would be sent out after him.
His ship arrived at Cape Town on the evening of the 30th, and Sir Redvers was met with news the like of which, it is possible, has never in the world’s history been received by a Commander-in-Chief on reaching his base of operations. The force of 15,000 men appointed to defend Southern Natal was practically surrounded in Ladysmith. The whole colony, the capital, even the seaport town of Durban, lay at the mercy of the Boers. There was no available cavalry; it was shut up in Ladysmith. His Chief of the Staff and many other members of it could not join the General; they were shut up in Ladysmith. In the Cape Colony things were not much better. The Boers were already occupying the northern side, and were being joined every day by hundreds of rebel colonists. There was no force to stop them. Cape Town itself was seething with disaffection. It almost seemed as if the British flag might disappear from South Africa before troops could arrive from home. The duty allotted to the General on leaving England had been a punitive expedition into the Transvaal; that which he had now before him involved, in addition, the recovery of a great part of our own Colonies.
‘There are' said Sir Edward Grey in Parliament at a later date, ‘people who, reflecting on the history of the war, say that, bad as things were at first, they were as nothing to what it would have been had the Boers . . . made a rush for Cape Town. Sir Redvers had to face that situation, and he had an almost impossible task.’
Overweighted by this gigantic problem, but with firm heart and strong resolve, Buller at once set himself to work. Feeling it impossible, at a distance of 1000 miles, to interfere with an experienced and responsible officer, be contented himself, like Napoleon with Moreau in 1800, by indicating bis views to the General in Natal, without insisting on them. One thing only he positively ordered, viz. that General French, appointed to command the British cavalry—and, with the exception of his personal staff, the only officer appointed at Sir Redvers’ own instance—should be allowed to quit Ladysmith and join him. The General’s activity during the next ten days was everywhere conspicuous, and infused a new spirit into everyone with whom he came in contact. 'On arrival at Cape Town,’ says an officer, 'we found everybody in a rather demoralised condition. It was wonderful to see the way in which Sir Redvers restored confidence all round. By the time we left the Cape for Natal he had induced all the authorities to take quite a cheerful view of the situation.’ Colonial mounted infantry were raised on the lines of his old corps, the Frontier Light Horse [A cablegram sent out to the Colonies at the instance of Sir Redvers Buller, before he left home, has been a good deal criticised. In accepting aid, infantry, not cavalry, was asked for. It was explained by Sir Redvers to the Royal Commission that he knew every Colonial could ride, and could be mounted on arrival in South Africa. His wish was merely to save the expense of horse transport.]. Transport was organised; martial law, where necessary, proclaimed; the small forces available—one regiment of cavalry, three batteries Royal Artillery, three and a half battalions infantry—posted to the best advantage. But affairs in Natal cried urgently for relief. To save the port of Durban was a matter of supreme importance. Four Brigades, as they arrived from England, were sent on thither, although Buller’s whole plan of campaign—an advance through the Orange Free State—was dislocated thereby. He soon found his own presence in Natal indispensable, and landed at Durban on the 25th November. His reinforcements had been just in time to save Maritzburg. On their advance the tide of invasion was checked, and rolled back behind the Tugela.
The subsequent events of the campaign are too recent to enable us to see them in their true perspective, and this is not the place either to narrate them in detail or to enter into controversy [One can hardly help wishing that there had been on the Tugela a Buller at the head of the Frontier Light Horse. But the Buller was otherwise occupied, and the remains of the F.L.H. were fighting in the ranks of the enemy.]. Sufficient then to say, that Southern Natal being cleared, the relief of Ladysmith became Sir Redvers’ next objective. The Boers remembered him of old. ‘I have to tell you,’ said the Boer General, Joubert, to his army, ’that we now have to face the bravest and finest general in the world, who is accompanied by an army of men who would go through fire and water for him. To those of you who fought in the previous struggle with the English I need not say that I speak of General Buller.’
But the problem before the British commander was one to test the powers of a Wellington. In front of him, covered by an unfordable river, was the position of the enemy, described as ca series of natural Gibraltars strengthened by the best military science.’ The Boer trenches were novel in character, and were connected by pathways cleared of all stones, so that inter-communication was easy. The Boers, being invisible all the time, were able to move laterally through the trenches without being seen.’The British Army,’ said the late Sir Howard Vincent at the Royal United Service Institute, ‘ lay upon a plain, its every movement under the eyes of the enemy, securely hidden in the mountain fastnesses of the further shore. Not all the engineers of the armies of Europe could have improved upon that work of Nature. No description which I have read of the task approached the reality. A less persistent and less enduring soldier than Sir Redvers Buller would have renounced it as hopeless.’ An officer who took a prominent part in the action had occasion to visit the ground some three years afterwards. His idea was that he would find it incredible that the correct solution of the task had not been discovered at a glance, but upon reaching the spot the problem appeared more insoluble than ever. What surprised him was, not that there had been failures, but that there had ever been ultimate success.
Buller was under no delusion. He had truly described the undertaking as a forlorn hope, and for that reason was going to lead it in person. The plan was to dispatch a force of Colonial troops through Zululand to occupy a position near Helpmakaar, some miles east of the besieged town, while with the bulk of his army he crossed the Tugela at Potgeiter’s Drift and approached Ladysmith from the south-west. But now came the news of Gatacre’s misfortune at Stormberg and Lord Methuen’s failure at Magersfontein; and Sir Redvers felt that a flank march of fifty miles to Potgeiter’s Drift in the face of an enemy elated by the success of its comrades was no longer justifiable. He therefore decided to effect a lodgment on the farther bank of the Tugela by Colenso, after which he felt convinced that a combined attack by his own army in front and by the Ladysmith garrison in rear would infallibly cause the Boers to evacuate their position. In communicating this decision to the Secretary of State on the 13th December the General, however, added, that in the event either of success or failure it would then become necessary to stand for a time on the defensive, with a view to the organisation and training of mobile troops. He also pointed out that in any event it must be understood that the defence of Southern Natal, and not the relief of Ladysmith, must be his primary object. Students of military history will remember that in 1810 Wellington advanced for the avowed object of relieving Ciudad Rodrigo; yet allowed the fortress to fall under his very eyes, because he found himself too weak for the task and was not going to risk his primary object—the defence of Portugal.
Sir Redvers now prepared to face the passage of the Tugela. An alternative line of advance by his right against the Hlangwane mountain presented itself; but the heights were covered by thick scrub, and to expose therein troops not inured to bush fighting seemed hazardous. This line also involved a departure from those roads indicated by his friends in Ladysmith as best suited to their co-operation.
Early on the morning of the 15th the troops advanced to the attack. The circumstances which caused it to be broken off are well known and need not be alluded to here. The point that concerns us is that the confidence of the troops in their commander remained quite unshaken. Hearing almost at the outset that two batteries were gravely compromised, Buller hastened to the spot, but his utmost efforts failed to rescue more than two of the guns. Sitting on his horse under a heavy fire, he was struck by the splinter of a shell. The abandonment of the remaining ten guns was the subject of the sharpest criticism subsequently directed against the General. Whether the guns could or could not have been saved must always remain a matter of opinion. It should, however, be observed that Sir Redvers’ decision is supported by men who had the best means of forming an opinion, and was, at all events, that of a strong, not of a weak man. No one better than himself could foresee the acrimony with which his conduct would be assailed. But, rightly or wrongly—whether bearing in mind or forgetting Napoleon’s maxim that in war the moral is to the physical as three to one—Buffer judged that the lives of his men were more precious than guns. He decided to sacrifice the guns rather than to further sacrifice his troops. In his annoyance and in the pain of his wound he may have used loose expressions, such as that the guns could easily be replaced; but the thought that he was to be the first British general for nearly a century to incur the stigma of losing guns must to him have been anguish beyond power of words to express. By the intense heat of the day, by the contusion which he had received, by the strain and disappointment which he had undergone, even Buller’s iron frame was exhausted. Having withdrawn his troops, he telegraphed without reservation to the Secretary of State the result of the action. He added a sentence reviewing the situation and asking for Ministerial opinion on the political question. The point of this telegram was misunderstood. Field-Marshal Lord Roberts was appointed to the supreme command in South Africa, while Buller’s command was henceforward to be confined to Natal. The latter cheerfully acquiesced in the decision, for he had long been convinced that it was impossible for one man to conduct two lines of military operations 1000 miles apart; but, alluding to this in his diary, H.R.H. the Duke of Cambridge remarks:’It strikes every old soldier, including myself, that this is very hard measure to Buller, who has had enormous difficulties to contend with thus far, owing to the want of news and to the bad preparations before his arrival in the field.’ Next morning a heliogram was sent to Sir George White in Ladysmith, the purport of which has also been strangely misapprehended. Suffice it to say, that in the whole British Empire there was no one less likely to suggest the surrender of a fortified position than Sir Redvers Buller.
The situation was correctly and graphically described by Dr. Miller Maguire, the well-known authority on military history, in the Morning Post:
On the date when this disputed message was sent to Sir G. White the supreme command in South Africa was in Sir Redvers Buller’s hands, as Lord Roberts did not arrive at Cape Town till some weeks later. But at that time our strategy was unquestionably affected and spoiled by political considerations. Our army for these reasons was split up into three parts—disconnected and incapable of reciprocal support.
The General in command must have known of the dangers of this course, at least as well as any critic. He retained the largest portion under himself at Colenso, Lord Methuen had the next largest at Modder River, and the third fraction, under General Gatacre, was at or near Stormberg. In addition to these troops, Sir George White with the remnant of his 10,000 men was shut up in Ladysmith.
Without going into figures, anyone with any military knowledge would at once recognise that the troops under Sir Redvers’ command were much too few to even watch the immense frontier line he set himself to protect. From subsequent events, including the necessity for the recent proclamation of Martial Law in Cape Colony, there can now be no reasonable doubt but that, had he not guarded that frontier line, Natal and Cape Colony would both have been temporarily lost to the British Crown, and only been reoccupied at a great expenditure of lives and money before it would be possible to undertake the subsequent conquest of the Orange Free State and Transvaal. Therefore, on the 16th December 1899, the problem before the General in command in South Africa was this:—41 have a very long frontier line which I must guard, otherwise these Colonies will be lost to the Crown, at any rate pro tern.,” and I have nothing like enough troops to do this effectively. But there is Ladysmith and its garrison. I have made an unsuccessful attempt to relieve it; if I try again I must certainly lose another 2000 or 3000 men, probably more, and if I fail a second time, the Boers will certainly invade Natal and I will not then be strong enough to stop them. If Ladysmith falls it will be a great disaster, but quite an insignificant one compared with the loss of the two Colonies. Therefore of the two evils I choose the lesser, and I had better make up my own mind and see that the Commander in Ladysmith understands what I think he should do in case his provisions give out before I am in a position to again make a forward movement for his relief.’ Will anyone say that this was not a prudent arrangement on the part of a commander ? His accusers have not even hinted that Sir Redvers ever contemplated the possibility of his own Army surrendering. The garrison of Ladysmith was not conducting an active defence, and was of little value in preventing a Boer invasion of Natal. No doubt there was a great deal of sentiment about the relief of Ladysmith, but ‘sentiment’ is not ‘war.’ On the assumption, therefore, that Sir Redvers sent Sir George White certain suggestions as to what he should do in case his supplies gave out before he could have been relieved, can any critic prove that this was not a perfectly prudent forethought, more especially as the message should have been known to no one except to Sir George and his confidential Staff-Officer p When the full history of the campaign is written, will anyone suggest that, from a strategical point of view, Sir B. Buller was quite wrong, under any circumstances, in making up his mind to let Ladysmith fall, if necessary, in preference to increasing the risk of losing the Colonies of Natal and the Cape, disasters which would have probably included the loss of Methuen’s and Gatacre’s columns, and perhaps all his own guns and train?
The truth is, we have been involved in all these difficulties because, though we had a few thousand soldiers, not nearly enough for any real war, we had no organisation worthy of the name of Army in 1899, and the governing classes neither knew nor cared about what war meant. They were so accustomed to cheap victories over badly armed and naked savages, or over semi-civilised communities, which had long been accustomed to conquerors, that they could not comprehend the difficulties of Generals in real warfare with a fair match. Not one official in ten, civil or military, had taken the pains to study in any text-book or general treatise like Bloch’s the probable tactical effects of magazines and smokeless powder. Unless these folks change their system forthwith, the South African disasters are only preliminaries to utter ruin. It is said that if Ladysmith had fallen the Empire would have been shaken to pieces.’ The fall of Strasburg did not shake France to pieces;' the fall of Sebastopol did not shake Russia to pieces ; the fall of New Orleans did not shake the Confederacy to pieces. If the temporary fall of Ladysmith would have been disastrous, the Empire must now have for citizens a very feeble generation. Had the Boers been Frenchmen or Germans, it would assuredly have fallen. Indeed, the foreign friends of the Boers say that these proved their utter incapacity by not isolating it and keeping it isolated permanently, in spite of both White and Buller, once White was shut in.
It is not at all bad strategy to abandon territory 'pro tem.,* and to let a fortress or two go is often good strategy.
And now Buller turned his thoughts to his first project. Crossing the Tugela at Potgeiter’s Drift, he hoped, with the bulk of his army, to envelop the Boer right, and when their centre should be weakened by reinforcing the threatened flank, to break through it with a selected brigade. The conception of the plan is admitted by all to have been good. Its execution failed. But to us of the 60tb the fight is interesting from the fact that, according to the admission of Botha’s Chief of the Staff, the seizure of the Twin Peaks by our 3rd Battalion actually pierced the enemy’s line, threatened his right, and forced his left to retire. It was impossible to feed the Battalion, and it was recalled. During the night of January 24th the hill of Spion Kop was unfortunately evacuated. When day dawned it looked as if the army would be hurled back into the Tugela. But the danger merely served to sharpen the General’s faculties. It was when others despaired that Buller was at his best and coolest. The situation, and what followed, is graphically described by Mr. Winston Churchill.’The enemy was flushed with success. The opposing lines were in many places scarcely 1000 yards apart. As the infantry retired, the enemy would have commanding ground from which to assail them at every point. Behind flowed the Tugela, a deep, rapid, only occasionally fordable river, 85 yards broad, with precipitous banks. We all prepared ourselves for a bloody and even disastrous rearguard action. But now, I repeat, when things had come to this pass, Buller took personal command. He arrived on the field calm, cheerful, inscrutable as ever, rode hither and thither with a weary Staff and a huge note-book, gripping the whole business in his strong hands, and so shook it into shape that we crossed the river in safety, comfort, and good order, with most remarkable mechanical precision, and without the loss of a single man or a pound of stores.'
A day or two afterwards General Buller briefly addressed his troops at Spearman’s Camp. 'Your gallantry,’ said he, 'has given me the key to Ladysmith.’ The words were inaudible to the great majority, but the effect was magical. The men knew that their General was pleased with them, and the fact was enough to inspire them with renewed enthusiasm. Then, speaking to the 60th, in reference to their capture of the Twin Peaks, he said :’I have lost in two of your officers one of my oldest friends and the son of one of my oldest friends. But had God seen fit to give me a son, I should have been proud if he had lost his life the other day with the 3rd Battalion of the 60th Rifles.’
Sir Redvers now made preparations for a third attempt, and a few days later pierced the enemy’s line at Vaal Krantz. He was by this time within ten miles of Ladysmith. But to drive his advantage home would, he reckoned, cost him from three to four thousand men, and the mountainous country prevented his supporting the infantry with artillery fire.
With the full assent of his generals [All but one. And it is just possible that had the advice of that one been followed, success might have been attained at slight cost. But the danger was that the Boers might close on Buller’s flank and rear and surround him. ] he decided that the attempt was too hazardous, and once more withdrew to the right bank of the Tugela. But he had already decided on a new plan, viz. to turn the left of the enemy’s position by the Hlangwane mountain, east of Colenso.
Three times he had been baffled, and to an ordinary man three disappointments might have been fatal to his prestige with the men under his command. But Buller was no ordinary person. His troops would return whistling to their bivouacs (where good meals had already been prepared for them), smarting under no sense of defeat, thinking each movement was only a part of the game, and anxious only to know what ‘old Buller’ thought of their conduct. In place of being shaken, the men’s confidence in their General seemed rather higher than ever. ‘ They had followed their leader, General Buller,’ says Captain Blake Knox, Royal Army Medical Corps, in his admirable account of ’Buller’s Campaign,’ never questioning, never doubting, even through the dark, dark days of Colenso and Spion Kop, and they were prepared to follow him anywhere and at any time. Never was a General more confidently looked up to through adversity than was our Natal chief. He sought it not, but the feeling came spontaneously from every heart. Crippled as he was for want of maps, having for months to face a position impregnable to his force, he never flinched at a check, but resolutely returned for a fresh attack.’
Men who followed to the death—
Men who gave their latest breath—
To cheer and charge for Buller and their country and their Queen.
The administrative system of Buller’s army was excellent. His transport arrangements formed the model on which those in our Army at the present day are regulated. His arrangements for the care of the sick and wounded were splendid. At the suggestion of his able Senior Medical Officer, Colonel — now Surgeon - General Sir Thomas — Gallwey, Colonial Bearer Corps to the number of between two and three thousand men were organised, and the diminution of his fighting strength contingent on men leaving the ranks to pick up wounded, was thus avoided. ‘He also instituted hospital ships,’ says Sir Thomas; ‘ eventually we had six and a fortnightly service to England. A convalescent Depot of 50 officers and 1500 N.C.O.’s and men was also approved by him. He insisted on the principle of removing our sick and wounded immediately from the fighting force. He approved of a large improvised hospital being moved over to Mount Alice to provide for the engagements at Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz, well provided with female nurses, the first time on record that nurses were admitted so near the scene of action. He was very particular about sites of camps and good feeding, always providing fresh meat and vegetables as soon as troops were disengaged from action. This of course had a favourable bearing on the health of the troops, for during the three and a half months of desperate fighting before the relief of Ladysmith, we had very little sickness, but when we got into the Boer lines and were encamped awaiting orders from Lord Roberts for the further advance northward, we were attacked with enteric, although not to such an extent as was the army on the western side.
'The establishment of Field Force Canteens—so far as I know the first ever established with an army in the field—aided materially in keeping up the health and efficiency of the Army.
‘I have personally discussed all these and many other questions with Sir Redvers,’ adds the Surgeon- General. ‘ He took me into his absolute confidence, and the consequence of this, as well as of the advice and invaluable intelligence which he freely gave, was that I was enabled to provide medical arrangements for the Natal Campaign such as had never before been afforded to any army in the field. I saw him at all times, night and day, whenever I required his advice, and what particularly impressed me was, not only the alacrity and clearness of head with which he invariably entered into any proposition, but the marvellous rapidity with which he grasped its essentials. The ideals we aimed at were to keep up our fighting strength by exercising every possible preventive measure against disease, and to procure within reason every care and comfort for our sick and wounded. No army was ever better looked after in these respects.’
And Sir Frederick Treves has remarked of Sir Redvers that ‘no hospital was pitched without his entering fully into the matter; all questions of sites were discussed with him; no engagement was commenced without the medical staff getting a message from Headquarters to prepare for the number of cases expected, and General Buller was full of anxiety as to how the sick were to be accommodated.’ In an article in the Nineteenth Century Sir Frederick also remarks: 6 So far as the Natal part of the campaign is concerned, I can speak with gratitude of the continued and most solicitous interest which General Buller took in all matters connected with the sick and wounded, and of his eagerness to make perfect in every way the work of the medical department.’
As regards the devotion and admiration of the men towards their General, a volume might be written.
‘The Majestic,’ writes a journalist, 'arrived on Sunday at Southampton, with 40 officers and 310 men wounded at the front. Nearly all of them had formed part of the Ladysmith relief force. . . . Five had lost the use of limbs, and many suffered partial, and one or two total, loss of sight. The men, however, say they would have gone anywhere and done anything for Buller. ’I am about daily in the hospital,’ writes another from Aldershot, ’and have not yet come across a single man out of the 500 or 600 sick and wounded who does not speak in very warm tones indeed of General Buffer’s wonderful ability and success against fearful difficulties.’
A man of the Fusilier Brigade which had served under Buffer up to the relief of Ladysmith and had afterwards been transferred to the army in the Orange River Colony, writing a few months later, says: ‘We are all very proud to hear of General Buffer’s great success in Natal. Everyone who has been fighting under him says he is the best commander they have ever been under. I think he does not get half as much praise as he should, for he was a father to us during the relief of Ladysmith, and I can’t wonder the people of Devonshire being so fond of him, for his coolness and presence of mind in every engagement is most extraordinary.’
But further testimony is superfluous. Even the Minister most hostile to Sir Redvers admitted that he never lost the confidence of his troops.
The views of the enemy are, however, interesting. The Boers declared they would have had it all their way but for Buller. They never for a moment thought it possible for him to relieve Ladysmith.
Sir Redvers now returned to the neighbourhood of Colenso. He found the Boers in occupation of the village and of a concave line of heights, following the course and south of the Tugela river. Hussar Hill, forming a sort of outlying bastion, was seized on the 14th February. Cingolo, forming the extreme left of the enemy’s line, was captured on the 17th. Monte Christo, immediately north of Cingolo, and Green Hill in advance of it, were taken next day, in spite of the intense heat and the fact that it was almost impossible to provide the troops with water. On the 19th the Hlangwane mountain was occupied, and the enemy driven across the Tugela. On the 21st Buller threw a pontoon bridge across the Tugela, two miles below Colenso, and crossed the river. Next day he seized the lower kopjes on the left bank and made a lodgment on Hedge Hill, above the Onderbrook Spruit. On the 23rd he gained possession of the spurs of Hart’s Hill; but, dissatisfied with his progress and fearing that he would capture the crest of Hart’s Hill only at terrible cost, he withdrew his army once more to the right bank of the Tugela, cleverly covering his retirement by the advanced brigades on Hart’s Hill. An informal armistice to enable the collection of the wounded took place on the 25th. On the 26th Sir Redvers threw his pontoon bridge across the Tugela three miles lower down, opposite Hlangwane, posting his guns on that and on the other hills on the right bank of the Tugela. On the 27th he threw the troops across, captured the heights forming the left of the enemy’s position, and rolled up his line. For eleven consecutive days his troops had been under fire. The success of the action of this last day, known as the Battle of Pieter’s Hill, was decisive. Lord Dundonald rode into Ladysmith the following evening, and the relief of the town was a fait accompli. Being sure that the enemy was out of his reach, Sir Redvers preferred to bring up his supply wagons at once into starving Ladysmith, rather than hinder them by filling up the roads with columns of troops in what would probably be a useless pursuit, and thus disappoint the suffering garrison of its much-needed food.
‘Really,’ said Sir Redvers in a letter reproduced in facsimile opposite, ‘the manner in which the men have worked, fought, and endured during the last fortnight has been something more than human; broiled in a burning sun by day, drenched in rain by night, lying about three hundred yards off an enemy who shoots you if you show as much as a finger; they could hardly eat or drink by day, and as they were usually attacked by night, they got but little sleep, and through it all were as cheery and willing as could be.’
‘Then,’ says the talented authoress of ’The Burden of Proof,’ ‘at last came home the glorious news of the relief of Ladysmith, and the country went wild with acclamation over the bulldog tenacity of this true Englishman and true Devonian, who never knew when he was beaten.’
A Colonial remarked: ‘Buffer must be made of cast-iron to stand it all. First, there was the one day at Colenso, next five days at Spion Kop, then two days at Krantz Kloof, finally ending up with thirteen days on the Boer left front, culminating in the Battle of Pieter’s Station. This last was a most brilliant and heroic piece of work.’
And finally, writing of both officers and men, a Royal Engineer describes the country thus : The theatre of-war, both north and south of the Tugela, is like nothing the vast majority of Englishmen hitherto have seen—in fact, in tremendous, intricate, and interminable obstacles, it probably surpasses anything they ever imagined. To realise the unique and fortified mountains that the relieving army had to break through is to accuse Buller’s severe critics of an ungenerous impatience in wondering that his methods appeared slow.
'Indeed, it’s a marvel he succeeded in forcing his way through a land likened only to a country of “linked Plevnas,' bristling with natural fortresses. When the apparent key to a position had been captured, it was found to be commanded by a higher point that was revealed above, but was invisible from below. It is a combination of mountains and almost unassailable positions, with an absolutely invisible enemy. It was a gigantic labyrinth to which there was no known clue, and that labyrinth, as has been shown, was lined with death. The impasse must have seemed hopeless. And, of course, the Boers were finally convinced that no human power could break through the barrier they had created between the perishing garrison of Ladysmith and the army under Buller. ... If Buller had abandoned Ladysmith to its fate, the impartial military critic could have only exonerated him from blame. But I am sure the preposition “if ” never entered the mind of an Englishman. With every difficulty, with every danger, the higher mounted the courage of our troops. . . . Success was attained, and the almost impossible achieved by a splendid army under a splendid man.’
The hospitals were Sir Redvers’ first care on entering Ladysmith. Not the smallest detail escaped him.’Most officers look round and go out again. Our General'—as the men delighted to call him—'knows at a glance what we want and has it done.’ By almost feminine intuition he seemed to realise how to give comfort and relieve pain.
Sir Redvers’ telegram, announcing the relief of Ladysmith, created a great impression from its modest wording and extreme simplicity. He issued the following spirited army order to his troops:—
'Soldiers of Natal! The relief of Ladysmith unites two forces, both of which have, during the last few months, striven with conspicuous gallantry and splendid determination to maintain the honour of their Queen and country.
'The garrison of Ladysmith have, during four months, held their position against every attack with complete success, and endured many privations with admirable fortitude.
'The relieving force has had to force its way through an unknown country, across an unfordable river, and over almost inaccessible heights, in the face of a fully prepared, well-armed, and tenacious enemy. By the exhibition of the truest courage— the courage that burns steadily, as well as flashes brilliantly—it has accomplished its object and added a glorious page to the history of the British Empire.
‘Ladysmith has been held and is relieved. Sailors and soldiers, Colonials and home-bred, have done this; united by one desire, inspired by one patriotism.
‘The General Officer Commanding congratulates both forces upon the martial qualities they have shown; he thanks them for their determined efforts, and he desires to offer his sincere sympathy to the relatives and friends of those good soldiers and gallant comrades who have fallen in the fight.’
Sir Redvers was anxious to lose no time in following up his success, and proposed to force Van Reenan’s Pass and occupy Harrismith, but the Commander-in-Chief felt unable to assent, and directed him to remain strictly on the defensive.
It was not until the beginning of May that the Natal army was permitted to advance. By this time the Boers, to the number of some 8000, had had ample time to strongly fortify their position on the Biggarsberg. But Buller, moving due east on Helpmakaar, outwitted the enemy, and by a fine combination turned the Biggarsberg on the 13th. The Boers evacuated their strong positions, hotly pursued by Dundonald and his mounted brigade. On the 15th Buller entered Dundee, where he again formed a junction with the 5th Division, which had been advancing northward by the direct Ladysmith —Newcastle road. On the 18th the Union Jack was once more hoisted in Newcastle. The brilliant operations of twelve days had sufficed to clear the enemy out of Northern Natal with the one exception of Laing’s Nek. Our losses were almost nil.
The territory had been regained by skill, not by brute force, yet no Boers were left behind to sever Sir Redvers’ communications. A halt was now necessary to repair the railway and bring up supplies. The Boers occupied the crests of the Drakenberg to the north and east. The problem before the British commander was the penetration of the mountain chain. To force the celebrated Laing’s Nek position would obviously entail terrible loss of life. Sir Redvers determined to put into execution a plan which he had resolved on in case of need before leaving England. On the 28tli, the railway being repaired as far as Newcastle and a reserve of food collected, Buller, as a feint, menaced the Boer left by means of General Hildyard’s Division, sent due east to Utrecht. The next few days were occupied with negotiations between Sir Redvers and the Boer Commandant, Christian Botha. They were broken off on 5th June. The delay was entirely in our favour, facilitating preparations for a further advance. On the same evening, covered by a Division which was occupying a position opposite Laing’s Nek, Hildyard, in accordance with Buffer’s instructions, retraced his steps and, concealed by the darkness, moved due eastward on Botha’s Pass, separating Natal from the Orange River Colony. On the 8th he cleverly captured the Pass. On the 9th Buffer, who had accompanied Hildyard, resumed the advance beyond the Drakenberg in a northerly direction. On the 11th he found the enemy occupying a strong position at Alleman’s Nek in Transvaal territory, some four miles east of Volksrust. By this time Laing’s Nek had been completely turned, and it only remained to follow up the advantage. The position was forced after the Boers had sustained a loss, according to their own confession, greater than any other in the course of the war. Buller’s casualties were 23 killed and 120 wounded. The action forced the enemy to evacuate Laing’s Nek in all haste. This grand operation was perhaps the most ably executed and the most effective of the whole war. On the 13th the army concentrated at Volksrust. Standerton was occupied on the 22nd, Heidelburg a few days later.
In a letter describing these operations an officer in a high position on the Staff writes: 'I want to let you know how proud we all are of our commander, and how pleased we all are for his sake at the splendid success with which we have driven the enemy out of the Biggarsberg, Laing’s Nek, and Majuba—a success which is entirely due to Sir Redvers’ most skilful operations. I must say this because, as no doubt you have seen in his official telegrams, he always gives the credit for each success to his subordinates. But that is just like him, and we all know better ; and if it had not been for his masterly dispositions, we should now either be still facing one of the many barriers which we had to get across, or if we had forced it we should have only done so with very heavy loss of valuable life.
'After the relief of Ladysmith . . . Sir Redvers was directed to occupy the enemy’s attention in the Biggarsberg. He did it so successfully that he turned them neck and crop out of it. His flank movement round by Helpmakaar quite deceived the enemy, for, as Commandant Botha’s Staff Officer told us, they expected us to force Van Tonder’s Pass, whereas we seized Helpmakaar before they quite knew what we were up to.
‘Interesting as were our operations in the Biggarsberg, they were, I think, quite put in the shade by the turning of Laing’s Nek. We found ourselves face to face with the strongest position I have ever seen, held by an enemy who had been reinforced by fresh troops which had come in from in front of Lord Roberts, while on our left was the Drakenberg, of which all the passes were held; but Sir Redvers again entirely outmanoeuvred the enemy, who had signified their intention of holding on to Laing’s Nek to the last possible moment. When, however (after a very brilliant action at Alleman’s Nek, the success of which was in a great measure due to the fact of Sir Redvers in person placing the guns where they would have the best effect), the enemy found their communications cut, they left Laing’s Nek and Majuba as hard as they could go.
'. . Of one thing I am quite certain, and that is that there is not a man in the Army who does not realise that we owe our success to Sir Redvers. As I said in the beginning of my letter, we are all proud to serve under him, and would follow him anywhere with the greatest delight, as we always have done.’ Sir Redvers was now directed to concentrate his army at Paarde Kop, between Standerton and Volksrust, for the advance northward on Machadodorp in combination with Lord Roberts from Pretoria. Starting on the 7th August he occupied Amersfoort after a stiff engagement. On the 15tli Buller reached Twyfelaar, after a march of 100 miles through difficult country. Here he had to wait for the Commander-in-Chief [Mr. Bennett Burleigh, the well-known correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, having ridden over from the main army to visit Sir Redvers’ force at Twyfelaar, wrote : ‘ The camp was splendidly laid out. The men and animals are all looking remarkably fit, particularly when compared with ours.’ And a soldier of the Fusilier Brigade which had served under Sir Redvers on the Tugela, and had afterwards been transferred to the main army, writing about the same time, says: ‘ General Buller is the man for Tommy Atkins! You can always see him up along the fighting line coaxing his men on, besides looking after the proper food and comforts which we are entitled to; but since we left him . . . last April we have had to make shift with whatever we could get hold of . . . and no general comes to see if we are properly treated.’]. On the 26th he drove the Boers from some strong positions at Geluk, some ten miles south-east of Belfast. Next day the enemy was found in occupation of a very strong position, with its centre at Bergendal on the Netherlands Railway.
The assault of the position was entrusted to Sir Redvers, who carried it out with great ability, captured the heights, and gained a decisive victory. The enemy gave way at all points, flying north and eastward in great confusion. Buller’s loss was only about 150 men, the greater part sustained by the Rifle Brigade in a brilliant charge. Lydenburg was reached on the 7th September, after a march through incredibly rough country.
On the 9th Buller, whose force was by this time reduced to Dundonald’s Mounted Brigade, a brigade of infantry and three batteries, advanced to the top of the Mauchberg mountain, and came in sight of the whole of Botha’s army, but far out of reach of our field guns. On the 11th he went to Spitz Kop and the Sabie Valley, and then to Pilgrim’s Rest. On the 1st October he returned to Lydenburg by way of Kruger’s Post. There was now no more work for him to do. He gave up the command, and began his journey homeward after speaking a few words of farewell to each unit of his command. ‘ Each regiment,’ says Captain Blake Knox, ‘gave him a round of cheers, and surely never was so hearty a cheer given a general. General Buller’s progress from Lydenburg to Machadodorp was veritably a triumphant one. Along the line of communication every little post and every garrison turned out to wish him farewell. No stereotyped cheer was there; the hearty welcome that greeted him could only have come from most sincere hearts and throats. One is not surprised, for in the early days of the war Sir Redvers Buller had ever been at hand, ever mindful of his men, sharing their troubles and pleasures alike, though in those days it was mostly trouble. Later, when things went well, the sight of Sir Redvers Buller ever brought back to our minds those days of hard and stern fighting by which he saved Natal.’
On the 10th October Lord Roberts published the following special Army Order: 'General the Right Honourable Sir Redvers Buller, V.C., G.C.B., K.C.M.G., having relinquished the command of the Natal Field Force and being about to return to England, the Field-Marshal Commanding in Chief cannot allow him to leave South Africa without thanking him for the great services he has rendered to his country while in command of that force, as well as for the ability with which he has carried out the operations while serving with the forces under Lord Roberts’ immediate command, which have resulted in the collapse of the Boer army in the eastern portion of the Transvaal.’ In South Africa his services were most thoroughly realised and appre-dated, and met with no grudging acknowledgment. ‘ General Buller,’ observed Sir Walter Peace, Agent- General to Natal, 'saved Natal, saved South Africa, and saved the British Empire.’ And at Cape Town at an entertainment in which pictures of popular generals were shown by the cinematograph, and received more or less approval, when the picture of General Buller appeared on the scene the audience went frantic.
It is remarkable that no sooner had the man whom the Boers dreaded gone home than the war which had seemed ended broke out again with redoubled vigour.