British and Federal forces in the field on the declaration of war— Their relative strength and disposition—Character sketch of, Commandant-General Joubert.
Before the actual commencement of hostilities the disposition of troops on both sides indicated a mutual belief that fighting would begin, as in the war of 1880, at or near Laing's Nek. Ladysmith was, therefore, made the chief, and Dundee the secondary, base of probable British operations in North Natal, while Newcastle and Charlestown, nearer the Boer border, were held as points of observation with small bodies of cavalry who were under instruction to fall back on the Glencoe-Dundee camp before any large force of advancing Boers. The railway from Maritzburg to Charlestown, running through Natal, enabled reinforcements to be sent to any point threatened with attack.
The number of British troops in Natal on the date of the delivery of the British Note was estimated by the Boer authorities to be from 15,000 to 20,000. They were distributed as follows:
Forces of observation and patrol north of Glencoe, about 1,000; at Glencoe Junction and Dundee, about 5,000, comprising Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 1st Leicestershires, 18th Hussars, King's Royal Rifles, several companies of mounted infantry, four batteries of Royal Field Artillery, and various Natal Volunteer levies.
At Ladysmith about 6,000 Imperial troops were massed, including King's Royal Rifles, the Devons, Manchesters, Gloucesters, and the Liverpool Regiment, together with cavalry, embracing Lancers, Hussars, and mounted infantry, six batteries of Field Artillery, and numerous Natal, Cape, and other Volunteers.
At Colenso, Estcourt, Maritzburg, and Durban further forces were stationed, but in smaller details.
South of the Orange River a body of 700 or 800 troops held the Stormberg Junction, the center of a pro-Boer locality, in the north of Cape Colony. Other detachments were posted at various points along the railway from Molteno to East London, |as a menace to possible active sympathizers among the Dutch Colonists with their kindred across the Orange and Vaal Rivers. There was also a small garrison at De Aar in charge of immense military stores.
Measures for the protection of Kimberley and Mafeking and of the Western border had also been taken, and an abundance of ammunition had been forwarded to these points from Cape Town before any interruption of railway communication had occurred.
These dispositions of the enemy's troops necessarily influenced the distribution of the opposing Federal forces. The Transvaal frontier, north and east of Natal, and the Western boundary, from Fourteen Streams to the most northern point where an advance from Rhodesia by Chartered Company troops (Kaffir or British) might be expected, had to be guarded by Transvaalers. At Fourteen Streams the Transvaal and Orange Free State joined the British territory of Griqualand West, and the frontier from thence south to the Orange River, east to Basutoland, and north to Botha's Pass, near Laing's Nek, had to be watched by the Free State burghers. This combined frontier line would be over a thousand miles in extent, and demanded large drafts upon the Federal commandoes for defensive and patrolling purposes.
The Free State had the most vulnerable border-line to guard, with the lesser forces of the allied Republics at its disposal. Two lines of railway, from British seaports, one from Port Elizabeth, and another from East London, entered its territory in the Bethulie district, while the main line from Cape Town to Kimberley, Mafeking, and Rhodesia also skirted its western frontier the whole length of Griqualand West. The enemy's chief force was to advance by these lines on Bloemfontein and Pretoria, according to the forecasts of all the military critics, and it was therefore decided to compel him, if possible, to fight his first battles on the territory of the first Boejr Republic which he had grabbed from its founders. Natal was also the nearest British colony to the strongest and best-equipped of the allied States. She had clamored for war through her Jingo Governor in July, and it was thought proper, on political as on strategical grounds, to anticipate the British invasion of the Free State by a Boer advance into Natal.
The Federals began to mobilize their small armies in September, when it became evident, from the war cries of the English press, the hurried embarkations of troops, and the menacing language of Mr. Chamberlain's replies to Mr. Kruger's concessions, that the British Government meant war and annexation, while pretending to seek only a redress of Uitlander grievances. The Colonial Secretary's final despatch on the 22nd of September was England's ultimatum, and no time was lost by the Boer Governments after that date in preparing their resisting forces. Mr. Kruger was in favor of launching his reply of the 9th of October, the day after the receipt of Mr. Chamberlain's message breaking off the negotiations, but both General Joubert and President Steyn strongly urged a further delay in the hope and belief that Great Britain would not proceed to extremities. The calling out of the British Reserves and the decision of the Cabinet to send 50,000 more troops to Cape Colony and Natal after Mr. Chamberlain's ultimatum had been despatched, left no further doubt upon any mind in South Africa as to the certainty of war. A fortnight had thus been lost by the Federals, and gained by their enemy, in the work of massing men near the threatened scenes of first encounter.
On the 11th of October, when the word " War " was flashed over the wires from Pretoria, the combined Boer forces near the British borders of the two Republics numbered 26,000 men. They were distributed as follows: On the Natal border, chiefly at Sandspruit, Volksrust, and near the Buffalo River, 8,000, under the supreme command of General Joubert; in the west, watching the Bechuanaland border and Mafeking, 5,000, under General Cronje; while at or near Deredepoort, on the borders of Rhodesia; in the Zoutpans-berg district in the north; at Komatipoort, in the east (the Portuguese border), and near the Swaziland border, there were commandoes averaging 300 men each. Bridges and culverts had also to be guarded over the whole extent of the railways in the Transvaal against possible injury by English partisans within the Republic. These various points, with small emergency garrisons in Johannesburg and Pretoria, would absorb a total of some 2,000 more men.
The Free State commandoes were scattered over an area very little less extended. There were 3,000 men under Martinus Prinsloo at Harrismith and along the Drakensberg, watching Van Eec-nan's Pass and the railway from Ladysmith which entered the Free State through that alpine gap in the mountains. Grobler and 01-livier had a combined commando of Free Staters, Transvaalers, and Cape Colony Africanders of 3,500 men in the southern district, guarding the dangerous border where the two lines from the Cape Colony crossed the Orange Biver and formed a junction at Springfontein. Further west, near Belmont, a force of 1,500, under Jacob (Koos) Prinsloo, watched the railway from De Aar, while some 2,000 more under Wessels and Ferreira were in observation upon the British garrison at Kimberley. An additional 1,000 men were employed in guarding the Basuto borderland and the bridges and culverts along the whole railway line through the Free State from Bethulie to Vereeniging.
Each of the large commandoes had a share of the combined artillery, in proportion to the number of their men, or in respect of the extent of the enemy's force which the positions occupied might demand.[ These forces were augmented by 7,000 or 8,000 more men, burghers and volunteers, by Christmas, 1899; thus raising the combined Federal armies to a total strength of 33,000, the highest number placed by the Republics in the field during any single stage of the war.]
The total burgher force in the field on the day war was declared was inadequate to the carrying out of any strong forward movement. Great distances separated the scattered commandoes, and the railways were not sufficiently extended in either Republic for purposes of rapid concentration. It thus happened that, beyond the general idea of defending the territory of the allied States against invasion from the south and west (which was the only military plan of the two Republics, and the most urgent purpose in every Boer mind), no prearranged scheme of operations had been decided upon excepting that of an immediate advance on Natal.
Laing's Nek was the object of keenest military attention on both sides, and the spot where a collision between the opposing armies was first expected. Volksrust is the railway station on the Transvaal side of the tunnel which pierces the Nek, and Charlestown the station on the Natal side of the line connecting the British and Boer territories. It was round this locality, too, that historic memories gathered most in the minds of the men who were awaiting with mutual impatience the unloosening of war passions. Majuba Hill was visible to some of both forces in its towering height of mountain majesty, recalling the victory of Joubert to the burghers whom he again commanded, and conjuring up in British thoughts the fate of Colley and of his defeated forces. To repeat Majuba was the vow and determination on one side; to avenge and reverse Majuba the grim resolve on the other. Ingogo and Laing's Nek were likewise inspiring memories in the one camp, and of humiliating reverses in that of the enemy, as both awaited the signal which might witness repetitions of these conflicts on the very ground fought upon in 1881.
An early indication of the resourcefulness of the burghers in handling heavy artillery was seen in the dragging of a large Creusot gun up the steep side of Boskop Hill, on the border near Volksrust, the day the last Boer message was handed to Great Britain's representative. The placing of this piece upon the mountain was deemed to be impossible by the Creusot engineer, M. Leon, who was present. The hill was considered too precipitous and rugged. This, however, was not the view of the Boers. Three hundred volunteers were called for by Colonel Trichardt, ropes and chains were requisitioned, and in a few hours' time the muzzle of the formidable gun, subsequently known as " Long Tom," was pointing from the towering elevation towards the enemy's position across the border.
Before orders were received from Pretoria for a forward movement, General Joubert had issued instructions to all the men and officers, both as to the discipline and conduct of burghers when in occupation of any portion of the enemy's country. In reference to their attitude towards food and property when in British territory he spoke in strong terms, and his words of warning were in keeping with his whole career and character. He said:
" When we are unwillingly compelled to cross the border-line of our country, let it not be thought or said that we are a band of robbers; and with that view let us remain as far as possible away from any private dwellings or places, where no enemy is stationed, and not allow each one to help himself.
" When food, forage, or cattle are needed, let one or two persons be appointed in each division, and let them be assisted by as many men, and, if necessary, officers, as may be required to acquire such goods from the owner or caretaker, enter them upon a proper list, and, if desired, let a receipt be given for the same, with a promise of recompense by the Government of the S. A. R.
"I will not allow robbery or plunder, and forbid any personal injury to be done to any private individual.—P. J. Joubert, Commandant-General."
Commandant-General Joubert was in his 6'8th year when he found himself once again in the field against the implacable enemy of Boer nationhood. He was born on the 21st of January, 1831, in the district of Graaff-Beinet, Cape Colony. His Breton ancestors arrived in the country in 1688; one Pierre Joubert and his young wife, Isabeau Bichard, having formed part of the Huguenot contingent of emigrants sent out by the Netherlands Company twenty years after J an Van Eiebeck's original consignment of settlers had arrived at the Cape. The Jouberts joined in the first Boer trek rather than live as British subjects, and followed Pretorius, Uys, Potgieter, and others into Natal to found a State of their own. The English pursued them, grabbed the country, and the Jouberts, with others of their race, crossed into the Transvaal. Joshua Francois, the father of the future general, died shortly after the selection of the new home and country, and the son, with other children, was left to the care of a widowed mother. He grew into manhood a strong, clear-headed youth, with a more than average Boer education; his family being well known for its accomplishments, and his own acquirements being supplemented in the tuition of an English teacher, a Mr. Stead, of Pretoria.
In 1852 he took part in the campaign against the Chief Sechele, the Kaffir protege of the famous Dr. Livingston. In this he had for a companion-in-arms his future friend, Paul Kruger. He married a Miss Botha, and settled at Wakkerstroom, where his ability in matters of business and general capacity won him the esteem and confidence of his fellow-burghers. He was elected to the Volksraad in 1863, and remained the representative of his district until he was elected to the Chairmanship of the Assembly in 1875. His part in the opposition to the Shepstone-Frere Scheme of Annexation, and in the War of Freedom which followed has been briefly touched upon in his letter to Queen Victoria.
His command of the small forces of the Transvaal in the contests with the unfortunate General Colley showed him to be an able officer, with all the magnetic qualities of a soldier who can inspire great confidence in his subordinates. By a series of rapid but well-calculated movements he smashed the blundering Englishman in every encounter, and finally overwhelmed him in the brilliant attack which on the summit of Majuba ended both the career of Colley and the usurpation of the English.
The triumphs of the War of Freedom gave Joubert unbounded prestige with the Boer people, and his subsequent visits to England and the United States enabled him to taste some of the pleasurable recognition of a widespread fame. He subsequently contested the Presidency of the Republic twice with Mr. Kruger, and was beaten by only 700 votes in the first election. In Transvaal politics he was what might be called progressive, in opposition to Mr. Kruger's more conservative principles and views. He was the first debater in the Volksraad, and a gifted after-dinner speaker. His popularity in the Republic was probably greater than that of the President, and his position as Commandant-General was as secure in the confidence of the people as was that of the Presidency for his friend and rival. He was less opposed to the English, in a racial sense, than other Boer leaders, and up to the receipt of Mr. Chamberlain's ultimatum on the 22nd of September, 1899, reposed a greatly misguided confidence in the Liberalism of England and of the once Gladstonian Party.The veteran of many small campaigns, the capable organizer of a few thousand burghers when his French and Dutch blood coursed more swiftly through his veins, was called upon when near-ing his seventieth year to fight the greatest army England had ever placed in the field. The task was too big for the conqueror of Colley, and he crossed the Natal frontier on the 12th of October with none of the enthusiasm and little of the confidence with which he carried the Vierkleur to victory on this same ground twenty golden years before.