FRESH ATTEMPT.—MOVEMENT TO VAAL KRANTZ.—CORRESPONDENCE WITH LORD ROBERTS
On the 28th, Lord Roberts telegraphed again, No. 35, asking exactly what my plans were for my next attempt to relieve Ladysmith, and the date on which. I should commence the operations, adding: “ Unless you consider that you have a reasonable prospect of success, it would, I think, be infinitely better for many reasons for you to remain on the defensive, behind the Tugela until the operations I am about to undertake have produced the effect which I hope for.” On the same day, General White telegraphed: “ The Boers can come here (Ladysmith) from Potgieter’s in ninety minutes; in this lies their great strength; you must not let them leave you and throw their strength on me.”
The following was my appreciation of the situation at the moment:—
It appeared to me that Lord Roberts intended to abandon the original design of advancing on Bloemfontein by Bethulie, and to adopt my plan of an advance through Jacobsdaal. Thereby, the relief of Kimberley would be automatically accomplished; for I was satisfied that Cronje would never stand his ground at Spytfontein when once Jacobsdaal was occupied by our forces. In this case the larger the number of the enemy that could be retained about Ladysmith and Colenso, the greater the chances of Lord Roberts’ success; and, it was reasonable to suppose that, as long as my forces remained upon the Tugela, even in the state of quiescence suggested by Lord Roberts, the enemy would not withdraw a man from that quarter. I quite appreciated the soundness of Lord Roberts’ policy herein, and I fully recognised that, for the ultimate purposes of the war, my operations were of less importance than his, and should certainly be subordinate to them.
But, on the other hand, I could not accept Lord Roberts’ calculation of time, for I reckoned the 7th of March to be the earliest day on which he could possibly reach Bloemfontein. Nor could I believe that his arrival at Bloemfontein would produce the slightest effect upon the Transvaal army, which was waiting hungrily for the fall of Ladysmith, though it might draw away some of their comrades of the Free State. I felt perfectly confident in my own mind that the only chance for the salvation of Ladysmith lay in my “pegging away” (as I put it), until I should either wear the enemy out, or bring on an engagement in which I could defeat them. At the same time, it was difficult for me, after two failures, to press such views upon Lord Roberts. He knew nothing of the country; he evidently did not understand the nature of the difficulties by which I was beset; and, assuming the correctness of his theory as to the reaction of his operations upon the enemy in Natal, he might reasonably think that further offensive movements on my part would but waste, to no purpose, the lives of my men.
None the less, I considered it my duty to say what I thought. I, therefore, on the 28th of January, replied, No. 178, to Lord Roberts, gave particulars of my next attempt, and added : “ Delay is objectionable; I feel fairly confident of success this time; one can never safely attempt to prophesy, but, so far as my exertions can, humanly speaking, conduce to the desired end, I think I can promise you that I shall in no case compromise my force.” I thought, after much consideration, that it was but right and fair to make the above promise, though I felt from the first how it handicapped me.
At this time Lord Roberts telegraphed, on behalf of the War Office, asking whether there was any position in Natal that could be made virtually impregnable by a force of 10,000 men, and suggesting that the line of the Tugela might be such a positron. In reply. No. 180, I said that 16,000 men would be wanted, besides a strong force of artillery, but that I could not advocate the policy indicated by the question. On the 31st January, No. 182, I informed Lord Roberts that, owing to difficulties of weather, I had postponed my attack. He replied, No. 49 C, that my postponement suited him, as he himself was delayed, and the longer the enemy was kept in Natal the less difficult his task would be. This showed me that Lord Roberts counted on my retaining the enemy in Natal during his advance.
On the 4th February, I received from Lord Roberts, by special messenger, the letter dated 27th January, which he referred to in the portions of his evidence which you sent me. After complaining of his difficulties with transport, he said: “ You will now know from my telegram of to-day that if you are not confident of forcing your way to Ladysmith, it would, in my opinion, be better you should abandon the attempt until I am in the Orange Free State.” I replied on the same day, discussing my own difficulties with transport, but saying that they were surmountable. I added: “ Ladysmith is in a bad way; White keeps a stiff upper lip, but some of those under him are despondent; he calculates that he has now 7,000 effectives ; his men are dying about eight or ten per day, and when he last gave me a statement he had 2,400 in hospital; they are eating their horses, and have very little else. He expects to be attacked in force this week, and, though he affects to be confident, I doubt if he really is. He has begged me to keep the enemy off him as much as I can, and I can only do this by pegging away. I am going to have a try and get through the mountains here to-morrow. The men are keen, and most of the officers, when I was explaining my plans last night, seemed to think that we ought to succeed.
I hope we may. If I get through I get on to the plain; it is about four miles broad and ten miles long; the enemy will be in possession of the hills on each side, and holding a strong position at the end, and I shall have great difficulty about water. Such is the position. I do not think a move into the Free State will much affect our position here. So far as I can make out, the Transvaalers will not go into the Free State, and they are our main opponents. You ask me how you can help me. The only help you could give me would be another Division, and that I know you cannot spare.” I now resume the narrative of my operations.
EVENTS OF 6TH TO 8TH FEBRUARY
Every attempt which I had made to force the Boers’ positions during my operations for the relief of Ladysmith had been confronted by one great and commanding difficulty. We could never be sure that, after taking from the enemy the position immediately before us, we should find there a secondary artillery-position to aid us in forcing the enemy’s second line of defence, which we knew, though we could not see it, must lie behind. The position west of Spion Kop would have been very easy of capture could we. after taking the crest lines of the hills, have found further artillery positions. This we could not do, and our infantry were consequently contained in the positions which they had first captured.
The position which I now decided to attack offered a hill, Vaal Krantz, which (so far as was ascertainable by reconnaissance) seemed likely, when captured, to afford a most eligible secondary artillery position. I had ascended a hill (Swart Kop) immediately opposite to it on the south side of the Tugela, and had been assured by an English farmer (Mr. Harding), who passed under Vaal Krantz every time he went into Ladysmith, that I should find that hill to be an exact duplicate of Swart Kop.
Before attacking Vaal Krantz the two best artillery officers with me had drawn up a scheme for the placing of our guns, with a particular eye to the command of those positions from which the enemy might bring enfilade or raking fire to bear upon us. But in a mountainous country an advance often discloses positions which more distant reconnaissance could not possibly have appreciated. Thus, during the fighting at Vaal Krantz the enemy, contrary to our expectation, was able to enfilade us with one gun so placed as to be defiladed from our fire and hidden from our sight. Vaal Krantz was attacked and carried on the 5th February. That evening I made preparations for further advance and for occupying the hill with artillery. The position itself had been captured by General Lyttelton’s Brigade, and, in consultation with him, I learned that I had been deceived as to the configuration of Vaal Krantz, and that, though I had been able without much difficulty to get guns on to its counterpart, Swart Kop, on the south side of the river, it would be impossible to get guns on to Vaal Krantz. To make a further advance I should, therefore, have had to use my infantry alone without the support of the artillery.
Having regard to my promise that I would not compromise my force, I thought it my duty to consult Lord Roberts, and early on the 6th I sent the following telegram : —“ After fighting all day yesterday, though with but small loss, I have pierced the enemy’s line, and hold a hill which divides their position, and will, if I can advance, give me access to the Ladysmith plain, when I should be 10 miles from White, with but one place for an enemy to stand between us. But to get my artillery and supplies on to the plain, I must drive back the enemy either on my right or on my left. It is an operation which will cost from 2,000 to 3,000 men, and I am not confident, though hopeful, I can do it. The question is how would such a loss affect your plans, and do you think the chance of the relief of Ladysmith worth the risk? It is the only possible way to relieve White; if I give up this chance I know no other.”
Lord Roberts replied, C 73, that Ladysmith must be relieved at any cost. “Tell your troops,” he said, “that the honour of the Empire is in their hands, and that I have no possible doubt of their being successful.” I confess that I was puzzled by this telegram.
In all his communications to me Lord Roberts had, from the first, advocated the status quo as a general principle. Only eight days before the date of this telegram he had telegraphed that, unless I saw a reasonable prospect of success, he thought it better for me to remain on the defensive until the effect of his advance should have been seen. Only seven days before he had shown me that he had counted upon me to retain the enemy’s force in Natal. Only on the previous day I had received from him a letter saying that if I were not confident of forcing my way to Ladysmith it would be better for me to abandon the attempt until he was in the Orange Free State. I was, therefore, at a loss to account for this sudden exhortation to sacrifice two or three thousand men in a venture wherein, as I had told him, I was not confident of success.
On the 6th I proceeded with my preparations for attack, but about the middle of the day I learned from General Hildyard (who had relieved General Lyttelton) that, owing to the great difficulties of the ground, he also was doubtful of success. The enemy were able to place guns in positions where my fire could not molest them, and from whence they could render useless any pontoon bridges that I might lay for facilitating my advance. In these circumstances I assembled all my Generals in Council of War, placed the facts of the case and Lord Roberts’ telegram before them, and asked them whether they advocated persistence in an attack from our present position. With one exception, they advised a withdrawal, Sir Charles Warren recommending withdrawal only on the condition that I knew of some other point where I could attack. I answered that I thought we should stand a better chance now if we attacked Hlangwane and tried to cross the Tugela from that position, afterwards attacking Bulwana, and that I believed this to be preferable to any attack from our present position. I added that in December I had carefully studied that line of advance, that it would involve fighting in bush and in very difficult ground, but that the men had advanced so extraordinarily in their training for war, that I now judged it safe to entrust them with the enterprise. The Council, one and all, expressed themselves as ignorant of the line of approach which I indicated, but as perfectly satisfied to trust my opinion; and they thought that, so long as we should fight somewhere, there was hardly a place which might not offer better promise of success than that wherein we now found ourselves engaged.
On the 7th February I sent the following telegram. No. 189, to the Secretary of State and to Lord Roberts: “ I found the Boer positions on my right and left so superior to mine, and I was so outclassed by their big guns, which I could not silence, that I have decided that it would be useless waste of life to try and force a passage which, when forced, would not leave me a free road to Ladysmith. I propose to try by a forced march to get back east of Colenso, and to seize the Boer position south of the Tugela River, whence I mean to make a desperate effort to take Bulwana Hill, the garrison of which has been much weakened, at least so my information says. My view is that I have a forlorn hope chance at both places, but if I get through here I am not at Ladysmith by a long way, while if I get through there I relieve the place.”
NECESSITY FOR CONTINUING ACTIVE OPERATIONS.—CORRESPONDENCE WITH LORD ROBERTS
On the 9th I reached Chieveley. I then sent to Lord Roberts the following telegram. No. 193 : “ The operations of the past three weeks have borne in upon me the fact that I had seriously miscalculated the retentive power of the Ladysmith garrison. I now find the enemy practically neglect that, and turn their whole force upon me; I am not, consequently, strong enough to relieve Ladysmith. If you can send me reinforcements, and if White can hold out till they arrive, I think it might be done; but with a single column I believe it to be almost an impossibility. I shall continue attacking, as it keeps the enemy off Ladysmith, but I think the prospects of success are very small.” I followed this on the same day by No. 195, also to Lord Roberts: “It is right that you should know that in my opinion the fate of Ladysmith is only a question of days, unless I am very considerably reinforced. Wherever I go the enemy can anticipate me in superior force. I turned yesterday from Vaal Krantz and am moving towards Colenso. The enemy have left Vaal Krantz, and are now at Colenso; they do in six hours and seven miles what takes me three days and twenty- six miles. When I said I would try and save Ladysmith, the Fifth Division had arrived at the Cape, and the Sixth and Seventh were likely shortly to be at my disposal; but two days after you were appointed, (?? you ?? poss delete "and" as text does not make grammatical sense to me) directed that all troops arriving after that date were to be kept at the Cape.
“ I understand from you that you expect to occupy Bloemfontein by the end of February, and so relieve the pressure on Ladysmith. I hope the forecast will prove correct, but I cannot help feeling that to leave Ladysmith as it is for such a chance is a great risk, and it is right I should say so.
“ As for myself, I am doing all I can and certainly have reason to think that I retain the confidence of this force, who know my difficulties, but if it is thought anyone else can do better I would far rather be sacrificed than run the risk of losing Ladysmith.”
Lord Roberts, on the 10th in his No. 141, replied to my Nos. 193 and 195. He summarised the telegrams which had passed between us, and drew his conclusion as follows: —“ It will be seen that from date of my assuming chief command until yesterday I have had no reason to suppose that you considered reinforcements necessary for the relief of Ladysmith. To send you large reinforcements now would entail abandonment of plan of operations.” He then went on to say:—“I must therefore request that, while maintaining bold front, you will act strictly on the defensive until I have time to see whether operations I am undertaking will produce effect I hope for. The repeated loss of men on Tugela River without satisfactory results is that which our small Army cannot afford.”
On the 12th February I replied in my No. 198. I said that but for the omission of his answer of the 16th of January to my telegram on the 15th (which latter he had quoted), his resume was quite correct. I continued thus: —“ Pray do not think I wish to lay my troubles on you. I quite admit that I miscalculated the retentive power of Sir George White’s force. I thought he would hold at least 10,000 off me. I doubt if he keeps 2,000, and I underrated the difficulties of the country. I don’t know your plan or where your troops are, and the last thing I wish to do is to involve your plans in confusion. I merely state the fact that I think Ladysmith is in danger, and that I find myself too weak to relieve it. But as you value the safety of Ladysmith, do not tell me to remain on the defensive. To do that means to leave the whole Boer force free to attack Ladysmith. Sir George White has repeatedly telegraphed: ‘ I trust to you preventing them throwing their strength on me.’ And again: ‘The closer to Ladysmith you can establish yourself, the better chance we shall have.’ I feel sure this is the right policy, and I hope you will not say I am to rest supine and leave Ladysmith alone. During the late operations I am confident the Boer force has been reduced by two men to every one I have lost, and for three weeks our operations have practically caused the cessation of the bombardment of Ladysmith. As I have said, I will do all I can, and you may rely that I will not compromise my force.”
This telegram crossed one of the 11th, No. 93, from Lord Roberts, in which he said: —“ I should like to have the view of your second in command on this question, which is one of such urgent importance to our position in South Africa that it is very necessary I should know whether Sir Charles Warren shares your views. Show him all your and my telegrams on this subject, also White’s telegram of 28th January to me, in which he stated he could hold out until the middle of March. I wish, also, to know why, as stated in your telegram No. 169 of 25th January, you considered it necessary to take command of operations which resulted in withdrawal from Spion Kop.”
Sir Charles Warren being absent, I replied at once, No. 199, to the second issue raised in this message: —“ Warren comes in tomorrow, and shall send you his opinion after having read all the telegrams. My report of operations west of Spion Kop was posted to you 30th January, and should reach you before this, so I will only say that I was not in command of the operations which resulted in withdrawal from Spion Kop. During these operations I had gradually, at Warren’s request, reinforced him until he practically had with him my entire force, except the, as I thought, too weak garrison of Spearman’s. After he reported the abandonment of Spion Kop I decided that we had lost our chance, and took command. His whole division was there; one of his brigades had no commander, and I thought, in the circumstances, his presence with his division was essential.”
Warren came in that evening. I gave him all the telegrams, including my No. 199, and he wrote a long telegram, which I sent to Lord Roberts in my No. 200. One sentence of the telegram summarises it. Warren said, addressing me: “ The matter involves an immense number of considerations and innumerable details, on which I may or may not share your views; but on the main and important subjects I think that my views closely coincide with yours.”