EVENTS of the 16th to 18th DECEMBER

[See Q15336]

My proceedings of the three following days, 16th to 18ith December, I shall ask permission to enumerate in order as they occurred.

16th December.—First, I sent the following heliogram, No. 88, to Sir George White, informing him of my failure on the previous day, and that it would be 'impossible for me to undertake further operations for his relief for a month. I further suggested that if he could not hold out for so long, be might fire away his ammunition and make the best terms he could.

To Sir George White. No. 88 Cipher, 16th December. “I tried Colenso yesterday, but failed; the enemy is too strong for my force, except with siege operations, and those will take one full month to prepare. Can you last so long? If not, how many days can you give me in which to take up defensive positions? After which I suggest your firing away as much ammunition as you can, and making best terms you can. I can remain here if you have alternative suggestion, but, unaided, I cannot break in. I find my infantry cannot fight more than ten miles from camp, and then only if water can be got, and it is scarce here.—BULLER.”

I was not I wholly without hope that, with the situation thus crudely laid before him, Sir George White would contrive to form plans for assisting in his own relief, which, heretofore, he had declared to be impossible. It will presently be seen that one month exceeded the period for which, he could keep his men on full rations or his horses in even moderate condition. It will presently be seen also that I lost no time in informing him, as soon as I ascertained it, that I could reduce the one month mentioned in the telegram to three weeks.

Next, I sent a telegram, protesting against the supersession of Methuen and Gatacre.

Next I received a telegram from the Secretary of State, informing me that the embarkation of the 6th Division and the mobilisation of a 7th had begun.

This I answered at once by asking for both Divisions, also for 8,000 irregulars, equipped as mounted infantry; also for Maxim- Nordenfelt guns, and for mobile guns with a range of 8,000 yards.

Next I telegraphed to Methuen, suggesting that he should lay a few miles of railway to his right flank, so as to make good his lack of mobility by an extension of his front.

Next I received from General Forostier-Walker the report of the arrival of the first ships of the Fifth Division, and an account of the positions of Generals French and Gatacre.

[See Q15347]

Next, I ordered the following message to be sent to Sir George White, amending my former heliogram by the question, “How many days can you hold out? ” and adding instructions for the destruction of his cipher in any event. No. 92 Cipher, 16th December: “ My message, No. 88 Cipher. Groups 3I to 43 were correctly sent, but in place of them, and first number of 44 group, read as follows : —‘ How many days can you hold out P ’ Also add to the end of message : ‘ Whatever happens, recollect to burn your cipher and decipher and code books, and any deciphered messages.’ —.BULLER.” I should explain that I had information that the Boers had got hold of certain code or cipher telegrams of ours, in which the decoding or deciphering words had been interlineated. This message was sent down at night for transmission on the following morning.

I may add that I spent every leisure moment of this day in the saddle, searching in vain for a site for a healthy camp with a sufficient supply of water. During the night I superintended the movement of the force into new positions.

17 December.—I sent a heliogram to Sir George White the first thing in the morning, saying that want of water prevented me from remaining in force near Colenso, but that I thought I could attack it again in three weeks instead of in a month, the time fixed in my message of the previous day. The reason for this alteration was that I now reckoned that I ought to obtain the guns necessary for a second attack within three weeks.

It is well-known that, by an error in ciphering, the sense of my last telegram of the 16th to Sir George White was slightly altered; but in view of the fact that this first telegram of the 17th was sent at the same time, and followed immediately upon it, the error could not, and, in fact, did not, lead to any mistake. 

Next, I received two telegrams from the Secretary of State. The first gave a very decided opinion in favour of the relief of Ladysmith, and authorised me to use the Fifth Division for this purpose.

From Proemial, London. 16th December, No. 63 Cipher:

“Her Majesty’s Government (? consider) abandonment, and consequently (? loss) of White’s force, as a national disaster of the greatest magnitude. We should urge you to devise another attempt to relieve it, not necessarily by way of Colenso, making use, if you think well, of additional troops now arriving in South Africa.’’

The second was a private telegram, for which I thanked him., adding: “ Do not consider me in any way. When Milner pressed me not to go to Natal, I told him that the relief of White was a forlorn hope, and that the failure, if any, ought to rest on my shoulders.”

I then at once telegraphed to Cape Town for the Fifth Division, ordered General Clery to reconnoitre the route to Springfield, and sent a heliogram to Sir George White that I had summoned the Fifth Division and should attempt the route by Potgieter’s Drift.

Directly afterwards I received a heliogram from Sir George White, in answer to mine of the 16th, No. 88. To me its chief significance was that he could give no assistance towards his own relief, and that he relied upon me to keep the pressure of the enemy from him.

From Sir George White, 16th December, 1899: “Your No. 88 of to-day received and understood. My suggestion is that you take up the strongest available position that will enable you to keep touch of the enemy and harass him constantly with artillery fire, and in other ways as much as possible. I can make food last for much longer than a month, and will not think of making terms till I am forced to. You may have hit enemy harder than you think. All our native spies report that your artillery fire made considerable impression on enemy. Have your losses been very heavy? (P) If you lose touch of enemy. it will immensely increase his opportunities of crushing me, and have worst effect elsewhere. While you are in touch with him, and in communication with me, he has both of our forces to reckon with. Make every effort to get reinforcements as early as possible, including India., and enlist every man in both Colonies who will serve and can ride. Things may look brighter. The loss of 12,000 men here would be a heavy blow to England. We must not think of it. I fear I could not cut my way to you. Enteric fever is increasing alarmingly here. There are now 180 cases, all within last month. Answer fully; I am keeping everything secret for the present till I know your plans.”

I replied that I was shelling Colenso, and would keep as large a force as possible before it.

Reports from Cape Town showed the Boers in front of French to be displaying increased activity; and, as Boer sympathisers were spreading reports that We were short of troops, I allowed two battalions of the Fifth Division, which had been sent to De Aar, to remain there instead of joining me in Natal.

On the 18th, I thanked the Secretary of State for his permission to use the Fifth Division for the relief of Ladysmith. My words were: “Much obliged by your No. 53, exactly what I wanted. I was in doubt as to weight I should attach to financial considerations at Kimberley.”

On the same day, I received two heliograms from Sir George White, the second of which informed me that he had provisions for six weeks, and could get on well (by which I understood him to mean on full or slightly reduced rations) for three weeks, keeping even his horses moderately fit. This would make his provisions last on full allowance till the 8th January, and on reduced allowance for three additional weeks, .that is to say, till the 29th January. Though this tallied pretty accurately with my own estimate, it did not agree with Sir George White’s former report of the 30th November, wherein he reported that he had provisions for 70 days, that is to say, to the 8th of February.

On the same day„ the Secretary of State telegraphed to me that Lord Roberts had been appointed to the chief command in South Africa, and that my own command was restricted to Natal. In a letter, dated the 20th, I replied that I had long felt convinced that it was impossible for any one man to direct active military operations in two places 1,000 miles apart.

At this time there were signs that the enemy was plotting mischief in Zululand, and the Natal Government became anxious as to the loyalty of the Pondos and East Griquas, who were being tampered with by emissaries from the Free State. I therefore arranged with the Prime Minister to raise a force of Colonists, who, under officers of their own election, should be employed in Zululand and on the Pondoland border. The Boers did move into Zululand, but their advance was checked; and this Colonial corps was shortly afterwards disbanded, it being admitted on all hands that a corps of Colonists independent of Imperial officers was not successful.


[See Q15393]

During these days disaffection was spreading in the Dutch districts, and the High Commissioner was evidently growing more and more nervous over the situation in Cape Colony. On the 23rd of December he became very anxious as to Methuen’s situation, and urged upon me that no disadvantage ensuing upon his retreat could compare with the disaster that might follow upon his isolation. I replied that I attached greater importance to Kimberley than to Ladysmith; that Kimberley was safe so long as Methuen stood fast, but would probably fall if he retired; and that, consequently, I would not allow him to retire. I added that the true policy was to leave Methuen in position, commence a railway to Jacobsdaal, and after the relief of Kimberley continue the advance on Bloemfontein from Jacobsdaal.

On the 24th December I received a telegram from Lord Roberts. He anticipated that I should turn the enemy’s position on the Tugela with comparative ease, and desired that when I relieved Ladysmith I should evacuate the place and hold the line of the Tugela. Methuen, likewise, if he relieved Kimberley, was to fall back upon Orange River, with the view of the concentration in Cape Colony of the whole available force, preliminary to an advance upon Bloemfontein, according to the original plan of campaign.

This telegram crossed a telegram of mine to the Secretary of State, wherein I had developed the plan already foreshadowed in the message above quoted to the High Commissioner. Herein I recommended that a branch line should be constructed from north of Honey Nest Kloof to Jacobsdaal, Methuen covering the construction from the rail head at Modder River. At Jacobsdaal he would cut Cronje’s communications, probably frighten him out of Spytfontein, and also seriously menace Bloemfontein itself. On the arrival of the Sixth Division the line should be continued from Jacobsdaal, as a base, to Bloemfontein. Such a lino would be cheap to build and of great strategical value, since it would react upon Cape Colony and the disloyal Dutch even more quickly than a direct attack upon Burghersdorp. I added, however, that since Lord Roberts, and not I, was in command, the plan should be subject to his approval.

This was, of course, practically a new plan of campaign, with which I designed to meet the new situation which had developed itself during the past two months. The first germ of it appears in my telegram to Methuen of the 16tli December. I intended to expand it as follows: A line drawn from Orange River Station along the railway to Jacobsdaal or Kimberley, from thence eastward on my proposed railway to Bloemfontein, from thence southward along the railway to Bethulie and Norval’s Pont, and thence westward along the Orange River to Orange River Station, would enclose a quadrilateral, roughly speaking, 100 miles square. This area I designed to subjugate completely, and to convert the whole into a large base of operations, with a strongly-held and fully- supplied post at each angle, from which, as from subsidiary bases, mobile columns could operate in any direction. I conceived that this, the southern portion of the Free State, could have been reduced with little difficulty, the northern frontier of Cape Colony practically covered, and the western provinces threatened. Meanwhile, a force from Natal should advance through Van Reenen’s Pass to Harrismith, and, having established a subsidiary base, should be in a position to deal with any trouble to the south, north and west. In fact, I thought that I saw in this plan all the advantages which the Austrians enjoyed from the celebrated quadrilateral in Italy. It would, moreover, have been invaluable in the event of a guerilla war; and this, as I had on the 10th November warned the Government, was not improbable.

By the 24th December Gatacre’s dispositions began apparently to take effect, and he seemed to be gradually forcing back the disloyal Dutch and the enemy before him.

On the 25th the High Commissioner, on hearing that I was moving three squadrons of the South African Light Horse to Natal, again urged upon me the danger of Cape Colony and the weakness of Methuen’s communications. I could only reply that I did not share his views; and I instructed General Forestier- Walker that he must not yield to the influence of the High Commissioner, for that we must hold on to Modder River.

On the 27th I received a telegram from Lord Roberts at Gibraltar, in acknowledgment of mine of 23rd December, No. 115. He signified no opinion as to the plan therein broached, but he expressed apprehension that the construction of the proposed railway would interfere with the working of the present line, and asked me to consult Colonel Girouard before coming to any decision. I did so, and Colonel Girouard answered that he could construct the line at the probable rate of one mile a day without interference with the supply-traffic. The proposal, however, was not adopted.

On the same day I was able to report that 6,700 Colonials were in. the field in Natal, and 6,900 in the field at the Cape, and that Natal could probably furnish 700 and the Cape 4,000 more.

On the 28th December I wrote, in compliance with a request in Lord Roberts’s telegram of the 23rd, a letter to be delivered to him on his arrival in Cape Town. I pointed out that there was no question of turning the Boer position in front of me, and that it must be forced; if I succeeded in forcing it, I should certainly be able to spare him a full division. I referred him to my instructions to General Forestier-Walker of the 20th November and my telegrams No. 114 and No. 119. I advocated an advance from Modder River by way of Jacobsdaal to Bloemfontein as easier and quicker than up the main railway. On the same day I directed General Marshall, Commander Royal Artillery, and a Royal Engineer officer to proceed to the Modder to consider whether Cronje’s position could be affected by use of the siege train, which was then being landed.

On the same day I received from Lord Roberts at Madeira a, telegram, in which he said that he thought the status quo, if it could be maintained, was not undesirable until the Sixth Division should have arrived. Acting on the spirit of this message, I instructed Forestier-Walker to concentrate in Cape Colony all troops as they arrived.

On the 31st I instructed Methuen that Boers would not attack troops in position which had artillery, and that by distributing his guns he should be strong enough to act defensively at all points and to keep the enemy tied to his position. This message was sent in the expectation that he might be required to extend his position so as to cover the construction of the new railway.

By the 2nd January, 1900, the situation in front of French was improving, the Boers having retired to Colesberg, from which he hoped, by manoeuvring, to oust them. I consented to reinforce him, but instructed him to manoeuvre only, and not to risk a general attack.

On the 3rd January, as the best means of indicating my mind, I sent to Cape Town the following information, as more or less trustworthy, for Lord Roberts’s use, viz.: —

“ Cronje has 8,000 to 9,000 men on Scholtzer’s Nek; he hopes the British will attack, as his position is very strong.

“ An advance on Bloemfontein up right bank of Riet River, by Kaalspruit, would draw off main Boer forces towards Bloemfontein. President Orange Free State is stated in district to have said he could not cope with such a movement.

“ There is open, level country between east and west lines Modder River Station—Kaalspruit and Graspan. Best line of advance up right bank of Riet River.

“ Bloemfontein undefended, except by two forts, the guns of which have been removed to Kimberley.

“ There is a large magazine east of forts connected by railway with main line, from which large stores of ammunition would be sent back to Pretoria by rail if British succeeded in approaching Bloemfontein.

“ There are 5,000 Boers from Naauwpoort to Stormberg, under Grobelar, divided into commandoes of about 1,500 ; 2,000 of these are Transvaal Boers.
“ Colonial Dutch have since Stormberg fight joined Boers there in large numbers, and are supplied with ammunition by Orange Free State.”

About this time a scheme was started for a rising of the British prisoners at Pretoria. I discouraged it as much as possible, saying that it was probably a trap; if we were within reach of Pretoria it might be useful, but at the moment it would be dangerous and foolish.

On the 6th January the Boers attacked Wagon Hill and Caesar’s Camp, Ladysmith. The attack being unsupported, was unsuccessful, though the enemy obtained a footing temporarily in some of the defences; and had it not been for a very heavy thunderstorm not a man of the attacking party would have escaped. I sent every available man to make a demonstration at Colenso, in order to keep as many of the enemy occupied as possible; but their trenches were fully manned. From this day forward I entertained no further hope of assistance from the Ladysmith garrison. (White’s 44P.)