" Peace is despair'd, For who can think submission? War then, war Open or understood, must be resolved." MILTON.
It would be a vain attempt if the writer were to try to describe the state of bewilderment which existed among the inhabitants of Natal during the early days of the month of October, 1899—a bewilderment occasioned by the sense of uncertainty of the probable course of events during the closing acts of that diplomatic struggle which was being waged between the Right Hon. Joseph Chamberlain and President Kruger of the South African Republic.
It was in a large measure attributable to the contradictory reports which were so freely circulated from mouth to mouth, and by the local press, of the likelihood of a settlement, or otherwise, of the many vexed questions of controversy between the Imperial Government and the South African Republic. By some it was stated that President Kruger, when brought, to the crucial point, would "climb down" from his eminence of lofty independence and, we might almost say, of defiance to the just demands of his suzerain.
It was thought that he dare not pit his comparatively insignificant burgher army against the trained legions of the British nation. Again, to the thoughtful mind it seemed impossible that President Kruger should attempt to drive out from his country those to whom it was mainly indebted for its rapid prosperity—those Uitlanders who had come into its midst in its time of penury and bankruptcy, and who, by their perseverance and dogged British tenacity, had developed the gold mines, the main source of the prosperity of the South African Republic. It seemed impossible that some pacific settlement should not be arrived at whereby the differences between burgher and Uitlander might be swept away in the rising prosperity of the Republic.
But while these reasons seemed to convince men's minds of the practical impossibility of war, there were unmistakable signs- which pointed in the opposite direction. The trend of events in South Africa during the past few years indicated full maturity of certain cherished ideas:
(i) That the Dutch nation was beginning to realise that numerically it was equal to, if not greater than, the British in South Africa ;
(2) that in the South African Republic they owned the wealthiest portion of the whole of Africa south of the Zambesi, and that this wealth would probably enable them to raise themselves to the position of a powerful nation;
(3) that in the Cape Colony the Dutch had gained the ascendency in political matters by having placed in power the " Bond Ministry," and
(4) that the time was fast approaching for them to make a decisive blow for that independence for which they so much longed.
But what pointed most surely, at the final stage, to a coming struggle was the active preparation for warfare which was being made by the Governments of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. In every country district the landdrost, or magistrate, was serving out arms and ammunition to every burgher, and to any other person—Hottentot or Cape " boy "—who promised to fight against the British. The " Staats Artillery," including all the reserves, were being prepared for immediate action. A few days before the crisis culminated the numerous commandoes of burghers which had assembled at various appointed centres were sent off by train to form large camps on the frontiers contiguous with the various British Colonies adjoining the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
The bearing and attitude of the Dutch now became most insulting and offensive towards the numerous Uitlanders who were fleeing from the country to British territory, and to those who yet remained in the South African Republic and the Orange Free State.
The indignities and suffering to which women and children especially were subjected during their flight from Johannesburg and other places to the Cape Colony, to Natal, and to Delagoa Bay were terrible in the extreme.
The Government of the South African Republic ordered the Uitlanders to leave the country, but provided no means for their removal. Consequently the scenes which were enacted at the railway stations on the departure of the ordinary passenger trains were of the most harrowing description. Men, women, and children were knocked about and hustled by railway officials, by " Zarps" (South African Republic police), and by members of the gathering commandoes. At many of the wayside stations while the trains were at a standstill the passengers were subjected to the grossest of insults and threats by the ignorant Boer youths.
Many of the last batch to leave, which included women and children, were obliged to travel in open coal-trucks, where thirty or forty would be huddled together, and have to remain in this state for perhaps thirty hours without food or water. The privations experienced by these people, more especially of delicate women and children, were too terrible to relate, and can only be properly understood by those who underwent them. But immediately on the arrival of these trains at the British border towns sufficient proper accommodation and refreshment were provided for the weary and famishing refugees. It was at this stage that the blood of the British colonists began to boil, and they now longed for war ; for it seemed as if nothing but bloodshed could wipe away the humiliations which had been heaped upon the British name —and as if war alone could burn out the stains inflicted by these insults upon our helpless women and children.
British Colonials had begun to clamour for an ultimatum to be sent to the South African Republic, but the object they in their just exasperation longed for was brought about in a most unexpected way. To the surprise of the whole world the hitherto comparatively feeble South African Republic, with the concurrence of the Orange Free State, delivered an ultimatum to Mr. Conyngham Greene, the British Agent at Pretoria. This despatch was placed in his hands on Monday, October 9th, and a satisfactory reply was demanded by five o'clock on Wednesday evening, October 9th, otherwise a state of war would be declared to exist.
This ultimatum, while reviewing the recent negotiations, laid stress on the British military preparations, which the South African Republican Government regarded as a threat against the independence of the Republic, and the following demands were made :—
1. That the British troops be removed from the South African Republic borders.
2. That all British troops that have been landed in South Africa since June 1, 1899, shall be withdrawn to the coast, and thence removed in a reasonable time to be agreed upon.
3. That all British troops that are at present on the water bound for South Africa shall not be allowed to land.
To this despatch the British Secretary of State instructed Sir Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner, to convey the following reply, through the British Agent at Pretoria, to the Government of the South African Republic :—
" Her Majesty's Government have received with great regret the peremptory demands of the Government of the South African Republic, conveyed in your telegram of the 9th of October. You will inform the Government of the South African Republic, in reply, that the conditions demanded by it are such as Her Majesty's Government deem it impossible to discuss."
As the ultimatum had also stated that a refusal to comply with its demands would be regarded as a formal declaration of war, Mr. Conyngham Greene was accordingly instructed to ask for his passport.
It was thus clearly shown to the whole world at the very outset that the Boers themselves were the aggressors, and that their action admitted of no possible justification or excuse.
It was with a sigh of relief that the public of Natal heard that a state of war had been proclaimed—that at last the negotiations which had been proceeding for so many months were terminated, and that a speedy settlement would probably be made of the many galling points of controversy. Little did loyal Natalians imagine that they should suffer as they have done! How loth would they have been to believe that the Boers would wreck their villages and homes and slay their young men—the brave volunteers! But only too soon were their eyes to be opened to the dreadful realities of war.
It will be well for us here to take a glance at Natal—its means of defence, its number and disposition of forces—at the moment of the declaration of war. The troops were distributed at five different points, viz., Ladysmith, Glencoe near Dundee, Colenso, Estcourt, and Pietermaritzburg.
At Ladysmith, which had been chosen by the military authorities as the base of operations, there were six infantry regiments—the 1st Liverpools, and Gordon Highlanders, 1st Devons, 1st Gloucesters, Manchesters, and 2nd King's Royal Rifles. There were two cavalry regiments — the 5th Lancers and the 18th Hussars, and several companies of mounted infantry. Of the Royal Field Artillery there were three batteries—the 21st, 42nd, and 53rd, as well as one Mountain Battery. There were also the 23rd Company of Royal Engineers, No. 6 Veterinary Hospital, and the 18th and 24th Field Hospitals. The Imperial troops amounted to about 7,250 men, but to augment these were 1,000 of the Natal Volunteers, comprising the following: One Battery of Natal Volunteer Field Artillery, two guns with the necessary gunners of the Natal Naval Volunteers, several troops of the Natal Carbineers, the Natal Mounted Rifles, the Natal Border Mounted Rifles, and the Natal Field Hospital.
The force at the Glencoe Camp was just about half the strength of the Ladysmith . column. It comprised the 13th, 67th, and 6gth Batteries of the Royal Field Artillery, the 18th Hussars, the 1st Leicesters with a company of mounted infantry, the 1st King's Royal Rifles and a company of mounted infantry, the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, also with a mounted infantry company, and the 26th Field Hospital; and with these were the following volunteers : the Dundee and Newcastle troops of the Carbineers, and a troop of the Umvoti Mounted Rifles.
At Estcourt there were the Natal Royal Rifles, numbering about 150 men, also 15 of the Natal Naval Volunteers and the Hotchkiss Company of about 20 men.
At Colenso there were stationed 420 men of the Durban Light Infantry. At Pietermaritzburg there were a few companies of infantry and a volunteer corps named the Imperial Light Horse, consisting of 500 men, principally from Johannesburg, who ultimately proved themselves to be a most serviceable lot of men. Besides these there were the local Rifle Associations, and the lately formed Home Guard.
A small troop of the Umvoti Mounted Rifles, numbering about 80, were also stationed at the Tugela Ferry on the road between Grey-town and Dundee. Another portion of the Umvoti Mounted Rifles, consisting principally of Dutchmen, were sent into the Ixopo district to guard the Pondoland border against 'inroads which were likely to be made by natives.
There were thus about 14,000 troops in Natal, consisting of regulars and volunteers, to guard the Colony against the invasion of almost the whole of the Transvaal burghers as well as a large proportion of the Orange Free State commandoes. The allied burgher -forces numbered at least 35,000 men, and I practically the whole of them were mounted, iich was an immense advantage, enabling them to carry out so successfully their own peculiar methods of warfare which have been so aptly termed Guerilla Warfare.
It will thus be seen that the comparatively small British force in Natal could only be used for defence, and not for offensive operations.
We must here say a word of praise in honour of our beloved Governor, Sir Walter Francis Hely-Hutchinson, and also of our " military " premier, Colonel Hime, the Prime Minister of the Natal Parliament. It was due to their action that the forces which came from India were so promptly brought when there was a likelihood of the outbreak of war. These forces have rightly been called the " Dreaded Indian Contingent," and if it had not been for their arrival prior to the outbreak of hostilities, it is feared that the Boers would have swept through Natal and taken possession of the port at Durban. A Boer initial success would have been most disastrous to the British cause ; it would have trebled the expense of the war, and have added greatly to the terrible amount of bloodshed on both sides which has occurred.
The inhabitants of the northern districts of Natal were naturally in a state of great consternation at the time of the commencement of hostilities. At Charlestown, a place at the most northern extremity of Natal, the people had all fled except the Government and railway officials, and these left on Wednesday afternoon, October nth, acting under instructions from headquarters.
The people of Newcastle, a town situated on the main railway line thirty-six miles south of Charlestown, had been in a great state of anxiety for some time, as, although the Boers had been congregating on the borders near, no action had been taken by the military authorities for the defence of the town. Many of the inhabitants had joined the local Rifle Association, and received rifles and ammunition from Government ; but of what avail would any resistance made by them be against the strong Boer commandoes ?
The military authorities had, however, wisely decided not to defend the town, as the topographical features of the surrounding country rendered a defence from artillery fire practically impossible, except with an exceedingly large force, and this could not be spared from the already too small defending army. The members of the Rifle Association were naturally very much annoyed to hear of this decision, and that their cherished homes were to be left to the mercy of the Boers.
There was much in the town that would be most acceptable to the Boers in the shape of provisions and clothing. There were 5,000 muids of mealies stored there, as well as a large quantity of liquor; also a number of new saddles. But all had to be left. On Wednesday evening (October nth) the Mayor of Newcastle addressed the townspeople from the platform of the railway station, and advised all to leave, and by the following morning Newcastle was deserted. The railway officials had received instructions to withdraw with all the rolling stock, and to destroy the permanent way after them, which was only partially done.
The Boers had thus the whole of Natal north of Dundee left open and undefended for them to enter in and take possession. Many a British farmer had, with aching heart, to leave his farm with all his possessions to the tender mercies of the ruthless, looting Boer. House, furniture, mealies, forage, stock—everything was left, never to be seen again, except that which could not be destroyed or utilised by the Boers.
The central and southern portions of Natal, especially the towns and villages, were at this time thronged with refugees from the Boer Republics and from the northern districts of Natal. The hearts of loyal colonists were moved with compassion at the heartrending sights at the railway stations of mothers with children of all ages clinging to them, who had been crowded together for hours in the trains, and who now stepped out on to the platform friendless and homeless. It was in such cases as these that the various Relief Committees did such good work. Homes were found for them, and everything possible was done for their comfort and happiness.
The loss to Natal colonists through this war was terrible. Not only was there stagnation in trade, with the consequent dismissal of employees, the loss of live-stock and wholesale destruction of farmsteads, the loss of brave volunteers at the front, but the outcasts and refugees of the two Republics and upper districts of Natal were thrown upon the inhabitants of the remainder of the Colony in a helpless and penniless condition to be cared for and fed.
The Natal natives also suffered very much through the Boer invasion. They were left in their kraals to the mercy of the invaders, it being impossible in any way to protect them, owing to their homes being scattered through the country districts. It was in connection with the flight of native refugees from the mines at Johannesburg that a memorable march took place. Mr. J. Sydney Marwick, a young Natal colonist, and the representative at Johannesburg of the Department of the Secretary for Native Affairs of the Natal Government, led 7,000 natives from Johannesburg to Natal.
Mr. Marwick, having ascertained shortly before the commencement of hostilities that the mines would be shut down, and that no provision would be made for the safe return of the natives to their homes in Natal and Zululand, obtained with difficulty from the Boer authorities permission to march them by road to Natal. The difficulties encountered were tremendous, but Mr. Marwick, with his two colleagues, Mr. G. O. Wheelwright and Mr. W. A. Connorton, overcame them all. The commissariat arrangements were very meagre, as the natives were instructed that each man was to provide his own rations for a five days' march, and warned that there would be no means of obtaining food supplies en route. Forced marches had to be taken to try and gain British territory before mishap by hunger or other causes could overtake them. On nearing the Natal border the natives began to exhibit signs of fear, owing to the insults and threatening attitude of members of the Boer commandoes ; and it was not until the border at Charlestown was crossed that their fears were allayed. They now realised that they were under the protection of the " Great White Queen." After a week's march this company of natives arrived at Hatting Spruit railway station on October 15th, having suffered terribly from hunger, exposure, and the fatiguing, weary journey. They were there met by trains in which to complete their homeward flight. This timely rescue of so many natives placed humanity at large under a debt of gratitude to Mr. Marwick and his colleagues.