March 8th, 1900
Lord Roberts yesterday defeated the Boers near Poplar's Drift. In order to measure the importance of the event it may be well to begin by a rough general survey of the condition of affairs.
There have long been signs that the Boer Power was subjected to a very great strain by the effort made to hold, against ever-increasing British forces, a number of points upon the circumference of a very large area. The Boers were attacking Mafeking and Kimberley, and covering their action at both points by forces intended to delay the relieving columns. They were also endeavouring to support rebellion throughout a great tract of country in the Cape Colony, extending from Prieska on the west to the Basuto border on the east, and covering the rebels by parties posted to resist the advance of Gatacre and French along the railways from the south coast to the Orange River. These two groups of enterprises were but the subordinate features of a campaign in which the principal undertaking was the reduction of Ladysmith, which involved a prolonged and stubborn resistance to the repeated assaults of Sir Redvers Buller.
Thus the Boer Governments, or their commander-in-chief, set out at the beginning to do many things at the same time. There were few British troops in the country, and there was the possibility of great success, at least in the shape of the occupation of territory, before the British forces could be assembled. But shortly after the arrival of Sir Redvers Buller's Army Corps it began to be evident that the Boer forces were balanced by the British. There was a pause in the movements. The British made little headway and the Boers none. Yet, as both sides were doing their best, it was clear that the Boers required the utmost exertion of all their energies to maintain the equilibrium. This condition may be said to have lasted from about the middle of December to the middle of February. During those two months, however, while the Boers were at full tension, the British were gathering new forces behind their front line, which itself was all the time receiving gradual accessions of strength.
When Lord Roberts with fifty thousand men burst through the Boer cordon and destroyed the force with which Cronje had been covering the siege of Kimberley, the Boers had no reserve of force with which to fill up the gap. Every man sent to Cronje's assistance had to be taken from some other post where he was sorely needed. The detachments sent from Natal into the Free State left the Natal Army, already wearied by its long unsuccessful siege of Ladysmith, and by Buller's persistent attacks, too weak to continue at once the siege and the resistance to Buller. But the two tasks were inseparable, and when Buller renewed his attack and drove the Boers from their posts south of the Tugela, the Boer army of Natal found itself able to cover its retreat only by a last desperate rearguard action at Pieters.
Defeat in the Free State and collapse in Natal were accompanied by the abandonment of the effort to support the rebellion in Cape Colony.
This general breakdown following upon prolonged over-exertion, and accompanied in the two principal regions by complete defeat, must have had its effects on the spirits of the troops. Hope must be gone and despair at hand, and the consequent diminution of power is sure to be considerable. There is no sign as yet of any strong leadership such as could to some extent restore the fortunes of the Boer army. The retreat beyond the Orange River has been gradual; the siege of Mafeking has not been abandoned, and there is no sign of a determined concentration of forces to oppose Lord Roberts.
Since the surrender of Cronje on February 27th, Lord Roberts has been completing his supplies, and probably making good the damage to his transport caused by the loss of a convoy on the Riet River. He has also brought up the Guards Brigade as a reinforcement. A few days ago the camp was moved forward from Paardeberg to Osfontein, and beyond Osfontein the Boers were observed collecting their troops from day to day and extending their position, which ran roughly north and south across the Modder. Yesterday Lord Roberts advanced to the attack with three and a half infantry divisions, a cavalry division and a brigade of mounted infantry. The cavalry, followed by an infantry division, turned the enemy's left flank, and by noon the enemy's army was in full retreat towards the north and east, pursued by the British. The Boers have this time not ventured to stand to fight. They have seen themselves assailed in front by a force which must have greatly outnumbered them at the same time that their flank was turned by a force as mobile as their own. Their precipitate retreat coming after their late defeats must increase their demoralisation, and it will hardly be practicable for them to make a fresh stand east of the Free State Railway. Lord Roberts will be on the railway with the bulk of his force by Saturday or Sunday, and his presence there will complete the break up of the Boer defences of the Orange River.
The situation of the Boers is now, as far as it depends on themselves, desperate. They can hardly collect forty thousand men for a decisive battle, and are confronted by two armies, each of which has that strength, the one nearing Bloemfontein, the other at Ladysmith. Lord Roberts, when he reaches the railway, will probably call up from the Orange River such additional forces as are not required as garrisons in Cape Colony. His numbers can be fed by constant small reinforcements, while the Boers have no means of increasing their numbers. With each succeeding week, therefore, the British will grow stronger and the Boers fewer. The utmost that the Boer commander-in-chief can expect to accomplish is to delay that advance to Pretoria which he cannot prevent.
He may perhaps bring about the fall of Mafeking, if he chooses to dispense for a few weeks longer with the reinforcements which Commandant Snyman by raising the siege could bring to his main army. There was indeed some days ago an unofficial report that a strong column was moving north from Kimberley. If that were true the destination of the column must have been Mafeking, but it is not clear what its composition could be. The Guards Brigade being at Poplar's Drift there would be left the other brigade of the first division, and that may be on its way towards the north. Resistance was expected at the passage of the Vaal at Fourteen Streams, but that point must have already been reached. Probably nothing will be heard of this column until it has accomplished its task, except in the not very probable event of hard fighting between Winsorton and Mafeking. Colonel Baden-Powell is known to be very hard pressed, being short of provisions and of troops. It is certain the column will make every effort to reach Mafeking in time, but the distance is great. The best chance of success would be found in the despatch of a large body of mounted troops to move in the fashion of the great raiding expeditions of the American Civil War; but it is doubtful whether sufficient mounted troops were or are available.
Apart from their own resources the Boers may hope for help from outside. They have from the beginning looked for the intervention of some great Power, for the assistance of the Dutch party at the Cape, and for such action by the British Opposition as might embarrass the Government in its resolve to prosecute the war to its logical conclusion.
Intervention will not be undertaken by any Power that is not prepared to go to war, and does not see a fair prospect of success in an attack upon the British Empire. Intervention therefore will be prevented if the Navy is kept ready for any emergency, and if the Government measures for arming the Nation are so carried out as to convince continental Powers that they will produce an appreciable result. That conviction does not yet exist, but it is not too late to create it.
The Cape Dutch will not be able to embarrass a British Government that knows its own mind and is resolved to treat them fairly while asserting its authority in the Transvaal and the Free State. The peace at any price party at home is trying hard to press its false doctrines, but in the present temper of the Nation has no chance of success, provided only that the Government carries out without hesitation or vacillation the policy to which it is by all its action committed, of bringing the territories of the Boer Republics under British administration so soon as the military power of the Boers has been broken.