November 22nd, 1899

The six weeks of anxious waiting are over, and to-day the second chapter of the war begins. On either side of the Boer States a division of Sir Redvers Buller's force is now in touch with the enemy, and at either point there may be a battle any day.

The small British forces sent out or organised on the spot before the declaration of war have kept the enemy's principal forces occupied until now, so that he has been unable to make any decisive use of the margin of superiority which he possessed over and above what was needed to keep the British detachments where they were. The resisting power of these detachments is, however, not inexhaustible; they have kept at bay for a considerable time forces much more numerous than themselves, and the first move required of the fresh British forces is to take the pressure off them and to combine with them. The centre of gravity is in Natal, for there is the principal Boer army, probably two-thirds of the whole Boer power, and there, too, a whole British division is invested. A palpable success here for either side must go far to decide the issue of the war.

General Joubert's force in Natal is so strong that while keeping his grip upon Ladysmith, where Sir George White has not less than ten thousand men, he has been able to move south with a considerable force, perhaps fifteen thousand men, to oppose Sir C.F. Clery's advance. Sir C.F. Clery has already at least seven, and possibly nine, strong battalions, to which within a day or two three more will be added, and perhaps as many as thirty-six guns, with parties of bluejackets and various Natal levies. His interest is to delay battle until all his force has come up. The advanced troops seem to be spread along the line from Mooi River to Estcourt, and the Boer forces are facing them on a long line to the east of the railway from a point beyond Estcourt to a point below Mooi River. The Boers are on the flank from which their attack would be most dangerous, and seem to aim at interposing between the parts of Sir C.F. Clery's force, and at a convergent attack in superior strength upon his advance guard at Estcourt.

I should have expected the advance parties of Sir C.F. Clery's force to have fallen back as the Boers approached. The attempt to keep up the connection between the parts of a concentrating force by means of the railway strikes me as very dangerous from the moment that the enemy is in the neighbourhood. The important thing for Sir C.F. Clery is not whether his battle takes place twenty miles nearer to Ladysmith or twenty miles farther away, but that it should be an unmistakable victory, so that after it the Boer force engaged should be unable to offer any further serious hindrance to his advance. To gain an end of this kind a general should not merely bring up all the troops from the rear, falling back for them if necessary, but should take care that none can be cut off by the enemy in his front. A decisive victory by Sir C.F. Clery or by Sir Redvers Duller, who may feel this action to be so important as to justify his presence, would leave no doubt as to the issue of the war. An indecisive battle would postpone indefinitely the relief of Ladysmith and leave the future of the campaign in suspense. Defeat would be disastrous, for it would probably involve the ultimate loss of Sir George White's force. For these reasons I regard the battle shortly to be fought in Natal as the first decisive action of the war, and am astonished that a larger proportion of Sir Redvers Buller's force has not been sent to take part in it.

The whole business of a commander-in-chief in war is to find out the decisive point and to have the bulk of his forces there in time. If he can do that on the half-dozen occasions which make the skeleton of a war he has fulfilled his mission. He never need do anything else, for all the rest can be done by his subordinates. Not every commander fulfils this simple task because not every one refuses to let himself be distracted. All sorts of calls are made upon him to which he finds it hard to be deaf; very often he is doubtful whether one or another subordinate is competent, and then he is tempted to do that subordinate's work for him. That is always a mistake because it means neglect of the commander's own work, which is more important.

The task, though it appears simple is by no means easy, as the present war and the present situation show. While the fate of the Empire hangs in the balance between Ladysmith and Pietermaritzburg, a good deal depends on the course of events between Kimberley and Queenstown. In the northern part of Cape Colony the Dutch inhabitants are naturally divided in their sympathies, and the loyally disposed have been sorely tried by the long weeks of waiting for some sign of Great Britain's power. None has yet been forthcoming. They know that Kimberley is besieged and that the British Government has done little for its defence. During the last week or two they have been threatened by the Free State Boers, and have seen Stormberg and other places evacuated by the British. At length the Free State Boers have come among them, marched into their towns, proclaimed the annexation of the country, and commandeered the citizens. If this goes on the Boer armies will soon be swelled to great dimensions by recruits from the British colony, a process which cannot go on much longer without shaking the faith of the whole Dutch population in the supremacy of Great Britain. Some manifestation of British strength, energy, and will is evidently urgently needed in this region. Moreover, Kimberley is hard beset, and its fall would seem to the whole countryside to be the visible sign of a British collapse. No wonder, then, that Sir Redvers Duller has sent Lord Methuen as soon as he could be ready to the relief of Kimberley. The column consists of the Brigade of Guards, the Ninth Brigade, made up of such battalions as were at hand to replace Hildyard's brigade (sent to Natal), of a naval detachment, a cavalry regiment, and two or three batteries, besides local levies. Kimberley is five or six days' march from Orange River, and at some point on the way the Boers will no doubt try to stop the advance. I feel confident that Lord Methuen, whom I know as an accomplished tactician, will so win his battle as not to need to do the same work twice over.

The advance of Lord Methuen's division renders imperative the protection of the long railway line from Cape Town to Orange River. This seems to be entrusted to General Forestier-Walker's forces, reduced to two battalions, and to General Wauchope's Highland brigade. One battalion only is with General Gatacre at Queenstown, and two battalions of General Lyttelton's brigade which have reached Cape Town are as yet unaccounted for in the telegrams.

How, then, if all his forces are thus employed could Sir Redvers Buller, by taking thought, have added anything to Sir C.F. Clery's force on the Mooi River? The answer is that a commander's decision must usually be a choice of risks. To have sent on to Natal a part of the troops now in Cape Colony would have been to have increased the danger of the Cape Dutch going over to the Boers. Which was the less of two possible evils--the spread of disaffection in the Cape Colony or the loss of Sir George White's force? No one at home can decide with confidence because the knowledge here available of the situation in either colony is very limited. Subject to this reserve, I should be disposed to think the danger in Natal the more serious, and the chance of losing Colonel Kekewich's force a mere trifle in comparison with the defeat of General Joubert, for the effect of Joubert's defeat would be felt on the Orange River, whereas the relief of Kimberley can hardly produce an appreciable effect on the situation in Natal.

The difficult problem of which General Buller is now giving his solution has been created for him by the Government, which from June to October was playing with a war which according to its own admissions it did not seriously mean. "Mistakes in the original assembling of armies can hardly be repaired during the whole course of the campaigns, but all arrangements of this sort can be considered long beforehand and--if the troops are ready for war and the transport service is organised--must lead to the result intended." So wrote Moltke in 1874 in one of the most famous passages ever published. If last spring the Government or even the Secretary of State for War alone had been in earnest, had been doing what plain duty required, the nature and conditions of the South African war would have been thought out, and the military judgment which was to conduct it would have been set to devise the proper opening. That would have consisted in landing simultaneously, thirty thousand men at Durban and forty thousand at the Cape. These forces would not have moved forward until they were complete and ready, and though the Boers might meantime have overrun their borders, the British advance when it came would have been continuous, irresistible, and decisive. Instead of that the Government gave the Boers notice in June that there might be war, so that the Boers had the whole summer to get ready.

When in September the Government began to think of action the only idea was defending Natal. But this defence was not thought of as part of a war. The idea never seems to have occurred to the Government that the need for defence in Natal could not arise except in case of war, and that then to defend Natal would be impracticable except by beating the Boer army. Accordingly, the handful of troops in Natal were posted without regard to the probable outlines of the war, and therefore, wrongly posted. The consequence was that when war came they could not be concentrated except at the cost of fighting and loss, and of a retreat which gave the enemy the belief that he had won a victory. Even then the point held--Ladysmith--was too far north and liable to be turned. All these mistakes, made before Sir George White arrived, were evident to that general when he first reached Ladysmith, but they could not then be remedied, and he had to do, and has done, the best he could in the circumstances. The fact of Sir George White's investment compels Sir Redvers Buller to begin his campaign with the effort to relieve him, and the fact that Kimberley is held by a weak force compels him to divide his force when his one desire certainly must have been to keep it united. In the expected battle at Mooi River Sir Redvers Buller will be trying to make up for the faulty arrangements of September. The desire to hold as much of the railway as possible--also due to the false position of Sir George White's force--has, perhaps, led General Hildyard to spread out his force over too long a line. But, in spite of the difficulties created by errors at the start, I am not without hopes that these remarks will soon be put out of date by a decisive British victory.

Parent Category: Books
Category: Wilkinson: Lessons of the war
Hits: 2099