Minute 6th July, 1899


6th July, 1899.

I do not like the idea of commencing operations in South Africa by sending out four Generals and a force of 10,000 men. I myself deprecate sending out any portion of the actual lighting force until hostilities are so far decided upon that it is necessary to put your force into the field, and there are several things I should like to see done before that step is taken.

Firstly, it is evident that in any case a considerable period will necessarily elapse after a state of war has been declared or established by one side or the other, before an English force can be ready to commence an advance on Pretoria. During that period Cape Colony and Natal will have to be protected against hostile efforts.

Secondly, our relation to the Orange Free State should, if possible, be definitely put upon a known basis before any invasion of the Transvaal is attempted. A hostile friend is worse than a declared enemy; and the route to be adopted in operations against Pretoria must chiefly be decided on with regard to our relations with the Orange Free State.

Thirdly, in South Africa the main campaigning difficulties are those of supply and transport. There can be no question by which route these would be most easily met.

That, however, is a question that I need not here discuss; I only allude to it to say that the supply difficulties are so great that they should be faced from the outset, and that even 10,000 men for a week, if they are not wanted to fight, are better anywhere than on a frontier across which they are not intended to be sent.

My view is that any operations against Pretoria should be commenced in the following sequence: —

1. Strengthen the Cape Colony and Natal garrisons to the extent the local authority there now think sufficient to protect those Colonies.

2. Make up your mind as to the route, and definitely as to the attitude to be adopted towards the Orange Free State.

3. Commence the formation of magazines on the intended line of route, and the mobilisation of the active force intended.

4. Send out this fighting force.

6th July, 1899. 


Minute of September 5, 1899


September 5, 1899.

Lord Salisbury,

As you ask for my ideas, I give them to you privately.

I am not happy as to the way things are going.

There must be some period at which the military and the diplomatic or political forces are brought into line, and, in my view, this ought to be before action is determined on—in other words, before the diplomat proceeds to an ultimatum the military should be in a position to enforce it.

This is not the case with regard to affairs in South Africa. So far as I am aware, the War Office has no idea of how matters are proceeding, and has not been consulted. I mean that they do not know how fast diplomacy is moving.

From a military point of view, a campaign in the Transvaal is one which demands careful organisation. A large transport establishment is absolutely necessary, and it will be, when obtained, a strange transport; so it wants very careful organisation.

We have, say, 13,000 men in South Africa, who are all well equipped. We have both the Cape Colony and Natal to defend, and we have some 10,000 men in Natal and 3,000 in Cape Colony. These figures are conjectural; I have no certain facts by me.

I estimate to reinforce them we could get—

5,000 men from India in five weeks from the date of the order.

10,000 men from England in eleven weeks from date of order;

An Army Corps from England in sixteen to twenty weeks from date of order.

Before we operate against the Boers we should know the line on which we are to advance, i.e., whether by the Orange Free State or by Natal. (These are, for military reasons, the only possible routes.)

I have never yet had the route fixed, but I have gathered from Lord Lansdowne that he thinks the Natal route will prove the only possible one. Natal is a wedge 210 miles deep, and for 100 miles of that depth the point of the wedge is bounded by a hostile country—the Orange Free State to the west, the South African Republic to the east. The commander of any force invading the Transvaal by that route would have—

(a.) To take an army of 20,000 men into the Transvaal.

(b.) To hold his communications with, say, 10,000 men.

(c.) To have a free force in Natal of, say, 10,000 men to resist invasion.

(d.) To have a force of 10,000 in Cape Colony to resist invasion.

The forces (a), (c), (d) would require transport, and must be mobile.

Until they are mobile the army could not advance, and consequently no ultimatum could be enforced; on the other hand, if an ultimatum is sent before they are mobile and can advance, the Colonies will be liable to invasion by the Boers, if they mobilise in, say, three weeks. 


The situation is one in which the diplomatic authorities should consult with the military authorities.





I have not troubled you or the Secretary of State with any questions since I was informed that, in the event of the expedition being sent against the Transvaal, I was to have command of it, because I thought that negotiations which were being conducted with a view to avoid war ought not to be hampered by any conditions.

I am not aware of the views of the Colonial Office, or of the nature of these negotiations, but they seem to have reached an acute stage, and I venture to submit that the time has come when, assuming that they involve the possibility of an expedition being undertaken, the Commander of that expedition ought to be a partner in them.

An expedition against the Transvaal is not a simple matter. It entails the use of a large force and a very considerable transport, and that transport has practically to be created as the expeditionary force is formed.

This is a matter that cannot be hurried. The troops, their animals, and their vehicles have all to be brought by sea.

Moreover, the country will not support the troops as they move through it; and most of their supplies will also have to be seaborne.

Lord Lansdowne has given me to understand that, in his opinion, the Orange Free State route is tabooed for political reasons; and, if this latter is so, I think myself that for military reasons the Kimberley-Mafeking route is an impossible one.

This practically reduces the expedition to an advance by Natal; its personnel, transport, and supplies will all have to be disembarked at the port of Durban, and to advance by the single line, Maritzburg, Newcastle, Pretoria. It is evident that in these circumstances it must be a considerable time before any expedition from these shores will be in a position to take the field in the Transvaal.

Early in July I suggested to the Secretary of State that the Officers Commanding in Cape Colony and Natal should be invited to say what troops they required to enable them effectively to protect those Colonies against any hostile acts from the Free State or the Transvaal, during the interval between the resolution of England to send an expedition and the moment when that expedition would be in Natal ready to advance.

So far as I know, this was not done. I am not aware what views are entertained by the Colonial Office as to the likelihood of the Dutch commencing hostilities.

In my own opinion, a hostile act against the Cape Colony is unlikely, and the chance of one might be risked; on the other hand, I should say that hostile acts against Natal are not only possible, but probable; and I think our present force in Natal, though strong enough to protect itself, is not nearly strong enough, to protect the Colony.

The question of whether this state of affairs is a fair risk to run is for the Government. I can only say that, from a military point of view, it is one which ought not to be allowed to exist a day longer than can be helped.

The occupation of any part of Natal by the Boer forces would immensely increase the difficulties of the organisation of any seaborne expedition, would certainly delay it, and might cause a loss of prestige in the Colony, and especially among the natives, from whom most of our transport drivers have to be obtained, which would almost foredoom it to failure. I think that to make Natal safe its garrison should be increased by 5,000 men. Those need not be equipped with transport at once, as if they were in Natal they would set free the 10,000 men there, who have, I understand, complete transport.

It is calculated that 5,000 men could be landed in Natal from India in four to five weeks from date of order. It would take eight to nine weeks to collect 10,000 men at home and in the Mediterranean, and to land them at Durban, and sixteen weeks to land at Durban an Army Corps from England. I rather myself fear that all these calculations are over-sanguine, as I doubt if they allow for the difficulties which will be encountered at the port of Durban. In any case it is, I think, sufficiently serious that while, according to public belief, the issue of an ultimatum to the Boers is a question of days, it will take at least five weeks before we can even defend ourselves, and four months before we can even commence operations to enforce the ultimatum; and this is the more serious when it is recollected that, if the weather is stormy, troopships, or, rather, horse-ships, may have to lie outside Durban for days, which not only increases the time, but seriously endangers the efficiency of the transport when landed.

On the other hand, I think the Boers could, without trouble, put from 5,000 to 7,000 men on the Natal frontier in three weeks. I know that you have represented these facts more fully and better than I can, but I thought you would not think me exceeding my duty if I ask you to put them forward again, as the view of the officer who would be expected to organise any force that may be sent to Natal.

Redvers Buller, General
September 5th, 1899.


MINUTE of SEPTEMBER 24th, 1899

Memorandum by Sir Redvers Buller.

Now that money has been granted to make purchases in anticipation of the dispatch of an expeditionary force toI South Africa, it is essential that the base should be selected from which that force is to start.

Durban, the base for an advance through Natal, is some 750 miles from Cape Town, the principal base of an advance through the Orange Free State.

From Durban to Pretoria is, say, 500 miles. The average distance of Pretoria from the three ports in Cape Colony is, say, 1,000 miles. 

From the Natal frontier to Pretoria is 200 miles, and from the Cape frontier to Pretoria is 400 miles.

It is probable that the railway authorities in Natal will do all they can to help an expedition. It is doubtful if in Cape Colony we shall be at all certain of the same willing assistance, if indeed, we can count on not being obstructed. So far, then, everything points to the Natal route being the best, and so it undoubtedly would be, were it not for two great drawbacks—the port of Durban and the position of the Orange Free State.

I have not been able to obtain precise information as to the facilities Durban now offers for the disembarkation of an expedition. I am told that the utmost speed would be three ships a day. An Army Corps will require close on 100 ships for its transport. If they can only discharge at the rate of three a day, disembarkation will occupy one whole month, and bad weather would make it still longer. This is a serious outlook.

The Orange Free State flank the line of advance by Natal for some 200 miles, viz., from Ladysmith to Standerton, and even farther.

Now the Orange Free State may adopt three courses : —

1. They may declare themselves neutral and evince a benevolent neutrality to England.

2. They may declare themselves neutral, with the determination of secretly helping the Transvaal as much as possible, and with the idea that the moment may come when it will be opportune to declare themselves on the side of the Transvaal.

3. They may openly side with the Transvaal.

A glance at the map will show that in the second case they will be dangerous, and in the third case that it would be unwise to offer them the advantages of an advance by Natal, which would mean a flank march of 200 miles across their front.

In my opinion, an advance by Natal in either of the second or the third cases would be a greater risk than ought to be incurred.

It must be recollected that neither Natal nor the Transvaal will provide food for the force that advances on Pretoria. All it eats will have to he brought up from behind it. To advance on Pretoria and leave a hostile Free State to take its own time and opportunity for cutting the communications and stopping the flow of supplies would, I think, be running an unnecessary and most dangerous risk.

I would, in such a case, far rather face the double distance and the possible hostility of the Cape Railway directorate than risk a march of 200 miles round a concealed enemy.

An advance through the Orange Free State would give three seaports or bases instead of one, and at the commencement enormously simplify disembarkation, concentration on the frontier, and supply when there.

The Orange Free State is open; the advance would be through its centre; the country contains a good quantity of supplies.

It would be almost impossible for an advance through the Free State to be opposed by all the Free State troops and all the Transvaal troops, while such a combination is quite possible against a force advancing by Natal. On the other hand, an advance through the Free State would have every chance of disposing of that State first, and settling with the Transvaal alone afterwards.

Consequently, I would most strongly urge that as soon as Her Majesty’s Government decide upon an expedition they should force the Free State to declare for one side or the other. If they declare for the other side, our route to Pretoria should be via Bloemfontein; if they declare neutrality, they should be forced to give sureties that they preserve that neutrality. Failing to do this, they should be treated as hostile.

A decision in the matter is urgently required, as it is essential the stores we are now ordering should be collected at ports that serve the route which may be selected. (Signed)

Redvers Buller, General
September 24th, 1899.


From Field-Marshal Lord Roberts to the Secretary of State for War. (Telegram)

Waterval Drift,
(No. 150, cipher.) 14th February, 1900, 8.15 p.m.

Following received from Buller, Chieveley Camp, 12th February : —

“ Your resume of telegrams is quite correct, except that you have omitted your answer of 16th January to mine of 13th and 15th, which you quote. In it you said: ‘ I am concerned to hear you can expect very little help from White, as that is the sole chance of Ladysmith being relieved.’ I took the words ‘ sole chance ’ as a definite intimation that I was not to ask for reinforcements, and I should not have done so now had it not been represented to me that I ought to tell you I did not think I was strong enough to save Ladysmith unless reinforced. But pray do not think I wish to lay my troubles on you. I quite admit that I miscalculated the retentive powers of General White’s force. I thought he would hold at least 10,000 men off me; I doubt if he keeps 2,000, and I underrated the difficulty of the country. I do not know your plans or where your troops are, and the last thing I wish to do is to involve your plan in confusion. I merely state the facts 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. General White has repeatedly telegraphed, ‘ I trust sickness amongst Boers preventing them throwing their strength on me,’ and, again, ‘ the closer to Ladysmith you can establish yourself the better chance we should have.’ I feel sure this is 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 that 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 before said, I shall do all I can, and rely on it that I will not compromise my force. Perhaps you will repeat this to the Secretary of State also to complete the series.”

My telegram quoted was as follows: —

“ I am concerned to hear you can expect very little help from White. As that is the sole chance of Ladysmith being relieved, surely he must make an effort to co-operate with Warren as he approaches Ladysmith. It is, I am sure, needless for me to urge importance of there being no delay on the road; rapidity and quickness of movement is everything against an enemy so skilful in strengthening their defensive positions.” 

Memorandum by General the Right Hon. Sir Redvers Buller, V.C., G.C.B., G.C.M.G., on the Expediency of Entrusting our Military Officers with increased Financial Responsibility.

(See Question 15591.)

In 1873 I took exception to an examination paper compiled by the late Sir George Colley. He said, “ Can you write a better?” I brought him one the following day. He said, “ Yes, in a sense that is a better paper, but I dare not set it, nor anything like it, every candidate would fail. Your questions are all problems and our candidates have not been taught to think.”

It is no unfair criticism to say that most of our boys are taught to learn by heart, and not taught to think. To be a good officer in the field a man must not only possess some general knowledge but must also have hunter’s instinct. This I may define as the capacity for immediate action dictated by rapid deductions based on knowledge of human nature, knowledge of ground, and quick, accurate, comprehensive observation.

Every year country-bred boys form a smaller, and suburban-bred boys a larger proportion of our candidates; and as a rule the latter have the least hunter’s instinct. How are they to be taught? Drill, training, and lectures will do a good deal, and will teach them “ How to do it.” But we want more, we want to train them to know what to do; to make up their own minds, to appreciate instinctively the value of any possible action and its probable effect upon others, to learn how and when to co-operate, and when and why to play a lone hand. An echo from South Africa comes in here well as an illustration, though the story is probably untrue. The party were in a tight place; the Colonel turned to his men and said, “ Men, for God’s sake, tell me what to do.” The men replied, “Colonel, for God’s sake do something.” When the blind lead the blind want of success is assured.

All teaching requires a foundation, and we want in the Army an organised system of which the young officer can acquire an understanding as he gains experience, and which as a test he can mentally apply to the problems he is confronted with in the course of his duty. Years ago I studied the nervous system of the human body in order to gain from a superficial knowledge of a complete organisation some practical rules to guide me in the solution of the various problems that presented themselves, and the knowledge has been invaluable.

But for general use a simpler training is required.

I wish to see a regular system of financial responsibility throughout the Army. I believe it could easily be introduced and that it would promote both economy and efficiency, but it would do more than that. Every officer would learn with the alphabet of his work, that he would have successive spheres of work within which he had freedom of action but outside which he could not step without reference to higher authority; and would thus acquire the framework of his future training. To train an officer to accept responsibility, in other words to act on his own initiative, you must give him power. Give the power and train him to use it by setting bounds to its use.

In a letter which I wrote to the War Office in October, 1901. protesting against the creation of a branch of the War Office at Aldershot, I said regarding this subject: —

“The object I aim at is to assure an economical and practical administration of the sums placed by Parliament at the disposal of the Secretary of State for the up-keep of the military districts, and to train our Generals, their Staffs, and the whole Army in administrative duties.

“ I propose to attain these objects by: —

“ (a) Centralising in the War Office the main problems of military policy, of preparation of regulations, of distribution of funds, and of adoption of patterns.

“ (b) Vesting in the military staffs in the various districts (or in various groups of districts) the administration, under Regulations issued by the War Office, of the funds granted to those districts.

“ (c) Assuring an effective supervision over (6) by a local audit.

“ N.B.—I say ‘ local ’ because the audit I wish for will be one whereof the Presiding Officer will be expected to confer with the Commanders as to any departure from regulations the audit may disclose. If a satisfactory explanation is forthcoming the auditor will pass the query. If none is forthcoming the auditor will send the case to the War Office, where it will be considered by the Military Staff as a disciplinary case against the Commander.

“ In every such district the Senior Paymaster will be the financial adviser of the Commander, it will be his duty to keep the Commander advised of the limits of the power granted to him by regulations.

“ If the Commander decides to over-rule the Paymaster cue (the?) latter’s opinion will be recorded. The accounts of the district will be compiled in the Paymaster’s Office.

“ As General Officers and their Staffs become sufficiently trained to administer their districts satisfactorily, this local audit can be relaxed and will eventually disappear, the district accounts passing direct from the district through the offices of the Headquarter Staff in 'London to the Auditor-General. The regulations also will gradually admit of being enlarged in the following directions: —

“ (1) Giving only maximum limits for allowances and expecting Commanders to allot in each case the payment they think desirable.

“ (2) By introducing in store-accounts a system of bookkeeping by money value and not in kind, and allowing a discretion to Commanders as to the nature of the stores they demand if within their limit of value as fixed by regulation.

“ (3) By gradually extending powers granted under I and 2 to officers of lower rank.

“ (4) By permitting officers to spend within their districts a portion of any saving resulting from improved administration.”

It will be observed that in the above proposals I have given an improved position to the Paymaster. He exists; his position is understood; but he is, having regard to the quality of the work he is now charged with, the most overpaid officer in the Army. He is now merely a teller or a computing clerk without power and without responsibility. He is fit to absorb and improve upon the work now done by a large, and as I believe unnecessary, Civil Staff at the War Office. I want to make the Paymaster’s a live department with responsibility and power.

Again I wish the audit to be a live audit, and to secure that the money allotted to districts is wisely, properly, and economically spent, and while securing this to train the Generals in their duties. When I left Aldershot we were paying £20,000 a year for civil labour. Not one of the Departments employing these labourers was paying the same wage or exacting the same hours.

Each department was supported by a different War Office authority, and practically all the departments were competing in the labour market against each other.

Under a sensible audit this state of affairs could not have existed.

In my opinion it would he easy to institute a financial training on the lines indicated, and if instituted I believe it would prove an educational system of the highest value.

The case of the officers of the East India Company in the eighteenth century is worth considering in this connection. It cannot be denied that an unusual proportion of them were men of great boldness, readiness, and resource, fearless of responsibility, and quick in an emergency. May this not have been the outcome of their financial training? I state the point for what it may be worth. If it be argued against them that many of them were too skilful financiers, and that my proposal is therefore dangerous as risking waste, malversation, embezzlement, etc., there are fifty arguments I could urge in reply, but assuredly the one fact, that, owing to the vast expansion of our system of credit, and the increased facilities of communication, salaries and wages are now regularly paid; is of itself a sufficient answer, and gives of itself a reason for our purer public life, and a proof that these old days are gone never to return.

Redvers Buller, General
March 2nd, 1903