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December 7th, 1899

The conditions in South Africa are still critical; indeed, more so than ever. There are three campaigns in progress, and, though there are good grounds for hoping that in each case the balance will turn in favour of the British, the hope rests rather upon faith than upon that numerical superiority which it is the first duty of a Government to give to its generals.

Lord Methuen's advance came to a pause after the battle of Modder River, now nine days ago. There appear to have been good reasons for the delay. First of all, it is necessary that when, or soon after, Kimberley is reached the railway to De Aar should be available both for the removal of non-combatants, and for the transport of provisions, ammunition and guns. This involves the repair in some way of the bridge at Modder River. Next, it was proved-by that battle, in which the Boer force was large enough to make the victory most difficult, and by the arrival after the battle of fresh Boer forces, that Lord Methuen's force was not strong enough for its work. If a whole day and heavy loss were needed to bring about the retreat of eleven thousand Boers from a prepared position it might be impracticable for Lord Methuen without more force to drive away fifteen or eighteen thousand Boers from a prepared position at Spytfontein, and the possibility of such a body of Boers being at that point had to be reckoned with. Lord Methuen needed more infantry, more artillery, and more cavalry. Of none of the three arms had General Forestier-Walker any abundant supply. If he has sent on, besides a cavalry regiment, the whole of the Highland brigade and three batteries of artillery, Lord Methuen would be none too strong. It is essential that, having started, he should defeat the Boers again and reach Kimberley, for a failure would be a disaster. I have great confidence in Lord Methuen and his troops; what determination and bravery can do they will accomplish, and I feel pretty sure that in a day or two we shall have news of another victory and of the relief of Kimberley. But why has the paramount power in South Africa sent a fine general and splendid troops to face heavy odds and to run the risk of finding themselves over-tasked by superior numbers?

If we put the most liberal construction on General Walker's account of what he has done to reinforce Lord Methueh there are now fifteen battalions, five batteries, and two cavalry regiments north of De Aar. To protect the great depot of military stores at De Aar and the railway from that point to the Cape a considerable force is needed, and to stem the tide of Boer invasion and Dutch disaffection, which has spread from the Orange River to Tarkastad and Dordrecht, from Colesberg to Barkly East, a further large force is badly wanted. But in the whole of Cape Colony south of the Orange River there appear to be only nine battalions, perhaps a couple of regiments of cavalry, and on the most favourable assumption five batteries. Of these battalions Sir William Gatacre has half-a-dozen on the lines running north from Algoa Bay and East London, the greater part at Putters Kraal, north of Queenstown. This is a tiny force with which to clear an invaded and disaffected area of twelve thousand square miles. We may be perfectly certain that Sir William Gatacre will do the best that can be done with his force, and if that should be more than his numbers alone would lead us to expect the reason will be that Lord Methuen's victories will have made the Free State Boers uneasy about their road home. A fresh victory near Kimberley and the effectual relief of that place will lighten Sir William Gatacre's load.

The centre of gravity is in Natal, where the greater part of the Boer army and the greater part of the British force in South Africa are confronting one another. There are three British divisions, strong in infantry but weak in artillery, and there is cavalry enough for a strong division. But one of the divisions has been invested and bombarded with more or less persistence since the beginning of November, and the other two are not yet known to be quite ready to move. Sir George White's force is reported to be on short rations, and some of the messages from correspondents in Ladysmith declared a week ago that it was high time for relief to come. The force can hardly be as yet near the limit of its resisting powers, but it is evidently nearing the stage when after relief it will need rest and recuperation instead of being ready for a vigorous and prolonged advance. General Buller with two divisions will shortly set out to force the passage of the Tugela and to fight his way round Ladysmith, either on the east or on the west, so as to cut off either the retreat to the Free State or that to the Transvaal of the Boer army. If Sir Redvers Buller can in this way win a victory in which the enemy is not merely pushed back, but controlled in his choice of the direction of his retirement, the issue of the campaign in Natal will be settled, and the British Commander will be able to consider his great purpose--the crushing of the Boer armies. The long wrestle between Sir George White and the Boers has no doubt produced a state of exhaustion on both sides, and by the time the decision comes exhaustion will be turned into collapse. If, as we trust, it should be a Boer collapse, Sir Redvers Buller's best policy, if practicable, will be to follow up a success with the utmost promptitude and vigour, to push on through the mountains, and open a doorway into the country beyond them. A check to Sir Redvers Buller's advance would be disastrous. He can take no more troops from the Cape. The fifth division can hardly be at his disposal before Christmas, for the first transport did not start till November 24th, and the last has not yet left. But a check means insufficient force, and is as a rule to be made good only by reinforcement. It is clear, then, that Sir Redvers Buller must not be checked; he must cross the Tugela and must win his battle. I think that with his twenty thousand men he may be trusted to do both, even if the Boer force is as large as the highest estimates that have been given.

The four decisions pending--at Kimberley, north of Queenstown, at Ladysmith, and on the Tugela--are here represented as all doubtful. I do not expect any of them to go wrong, but it is wise before a fight to reckon with possibilities, and where the enemy, stubborn, well-armed, and skilful, has also the advantage of numbers, it would be folly not to consider the possibility that he may hold his ground. There are elements of success on the British side that should not be forgotten. The British soldier to-day, as in the past, proves to be a staunch support to any general. To-day, however, he has leaders who, taking them all round, are probably better qualified than any of their predecessors. The divisional generals are all picked for their known grip of the business of war; among the brigadiers there are such devoted students of their profession as Lyttelton and Hildyard, and the younger officers of to-day are more zealous in their business and better instructed than at any previous period. There should be less in this war than in any that the British Army has waged of that incompetence of the subordinates which in past campaigns has often caused the commanders more anxiety than all the enemy's doings.

Yet at every point the Boers appear to outnumber our troops. The question arises how this came about; either the Government has not sent troops enough, or the force given to the Commander-in-Chief has been wrongly distributed. Sir Redvers Buller has done the best he could in difficult conditions. Ladysmith had to be relieved, and he has taken more than half of his force for the purpose. He might have wished to take a third division, but if he had done so Kimberley might have fallen, and the rising at the Cape have spread so fast and so far that the defeat of Joubert would not have restored the balance. Accordingly the smaller half of the force was left in the Cape Colony. Here also there were two tasks. To push back the invasion was a slow business, and if meantime Kimberley had fallen, the insurrection would have become general. Accordingly a minimum force was set to stem the invasion and a maximum force devoted to the relief of Kimberley. The difficulties, therefore, arose not merely from the strategy in South Africa but from the delay of the Government to send enough troops in time. The fact that Sir George White with a small force was left for two months unsupported produced the rising at the Cape, and compelled the division of the British Army Corps, in, consequence of which the whole force is reduced to a perilous numerical weakness at each of four points. But the Army Corps, the cavalry division, and the force for the line of communications, have now to wait three weeks before they can be strengthened. It was known to the Government before the end of October that Ladysmith would be invested and need relief, that the Cape Dutch would rise, and that unless Kimberley were helped the rising would become dangerous. Yet the despatch of the first transport of the fifth division was delayed until November 24th. Has the Government even now begun to take the war seriously? Do the members of the Cabinet at this eleventh hour understand that failure to crush the Boers means breakdown for the Empire, and that a prolonged struggle with them carries with it grave danger of the intervention of other Powers? Does Lord Lansdowne continue to direct the movement of reinforcements according to his own unmilitary judgment modified by that of one or more of his unmilitary colleagues? I decline to believe that Lord Wolseley has arranged or accepted without protest this new system of sending out the Army in fragments, each of which may be invested or used up before the next can arrive.

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Category: Wilkinson: Lessons of the war
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