With the presentation of the Boer ultimatum the first and most difficult part of Lord Milner's task was accomplished. The actual pretensions of President Krüger and his republican confederates in the Free State and the Cape Colony were declared in a manner that could not fail to make them understood by the British people at home. The nationalists were unmasked. To what assurance of victory their military preparations had led them may be seen from the story of Mr. Amery's meeting with Mr. Reitz, two days before October 2nd, the Monday originally fixed for the delivery of the ultimatum. On the afternoon of this day, September 30th, Mr. Amery was walking with the State Secretary in Pretoria. Mr. Reitz, he tells us, "suddenly turned round and said, 'Have you read Treasure Island? 'Yes.' 'Then you may remember the passage where they "tip the black spot" to Long John Silver?' 'Yes.' 'Well, I expect it will fall to my lot on Monday to "tip the black spot" to Long John Greene.' And hereupon the State Secretary cheerily detailed to his astounded listener the terms of the ultimatum, compliance with which might yet save the British Empire from war."
[Footnote 182: Times History of the War in South Africa,
vol. i., p. 360. It must be remembered that in the Transvaal
all telegrams had been strictly censored from the end of
[Sidenote: Effect of the ultimatum.]
Very different was the position at Capetown. Here there was no room either for levity or the insolence of anticipated triumph. Knowing what Lord Milner did--what he, of all men, had most cause to know--both of our unreadiness, and of the preparedness and confidence of the enemy, he could scarcely have looked forward to the future without the very gravest apprehension. None the less the ultimatum brought with it a certain sense of relief. The negotiations, which had degenerated long since into a diplomatic farce, were terminated. The situation had become once more clear. It has been the duty of few men to bear so heavy and so prolonged a burden of responsibility as that from which Lord Milner was thus set free. The danger that the Home Government, in its earnest desire for peace, might accept a settlement that would leave undecided the central issue of Boer or British supremacy in South Africa had never been wholly absent from his mind during the harassing negotiations that succeeded the Conference. Up to the very end there had been a haunting dread lest, in spite of his ceaseless vigilance and unstinted toil, a manifestation of British loyalty that would never be repeated should be coldly discouraged, and the nationalist movement allowed to proceed unchecked, until every colonist of British blood had surrendered the hope of remaining a citizen of the Empire for the degrading necessity of securing for himself and his children a tolerable position in the United States of South Africa by a timely alliance with the more progressive Dutch. From the presence of this danger Lord Milner was now relieved, since, as he instantly foresaw, the whip-lash of this frank appeal to force brought conviction where marshalled arguments were powerless to move. He had done what the religious enthusiasm of Livingstone, the political sagacity of Grey, the splendid devotion and prescience of Frere, and the Elizabethan statecraft of Rhodes, had failed to do. He had made the Boer speak out.
England was far from knowing all that these Boer aspirations meant, or the progress already achieved in the direction of their realisation. But this ignorance made the demands of the ultimatum seem the more insolent. To Mr. Balfour it was as though President Krüger had gone mad. But madness or insolence, the effect was the same. With the mass of the nation all hesitation, all balancing of arguments, were at an end. The one thing that was perceived was that any further attempt to treat with a people so minded would be an admission to the world that British supremacy had disappeared from South Africa. On this point, outside the narrow influence of a few professional partisans and peace-makers, there had never been any doubt: the only question was whether British supremacy was, or was not, in danger. The Boer challenge having resolved this question, the mind of the nation was made up. The army, as the instrument of its will, was called upon to give effect to its decision.
[Sidenote: An anxious situation.]
Two years and eight months elapsed between the expiration of the two days' grace allowed by the ultimatum and the surrender of Vereeniging. During the first twelve months of this period Lord Milner's initiative, though his position remained arduous, anxious, and responsible, and his activity unceasing, was necessarily subordinated to that of the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in South Africa. But during the second period of the war--that is to say, from November 29th, 1900, when Lord Kitchener succeeded Lord Roberts--the constructive statesmanship of the High Commissioner was called forth in an increasing degree as the area secured for peaceable occupation became widened, and the problems involved in the settlement and future administration of the new colonies emerged into increasing prominence and importance. But even during the first period, when the task of the army was the comparatively simple one of overcoming the organised resistance of the Republics and subduing the rebellion in the Cape Colony, Lord Milner's unshaken confidence and perfect mastery of South African conditions proved of inestimable value.
[Sidenote: Results and unpreparedness.]
Five years later he described himself as an "incorrigible optimist." Optimist or not, at this time he harboured no illusions. He knew that the postponement or neglect of military preparations had left thousands of loyal subjects of the Crown in a position of entire defencelessness, and made rebellion easy for thousands of the disaffected Dutch. The first days of war, like the last days of peace, were punctuated by appeals for the troops that should have been in South Africa, but were in England; or for guns, rifles, and ammunition which Mr. Schreiner had kept idle in the colonial armouries until it was too late. On Friday, October 13th, he held a long and anxious consultation over the wires with Colonel Kekewich at Kimberley. A thousand rifles were wanted, and wanted instantly. The Cape Artillery 15-pounders, reluctantly conceded at the last moment by Mr. Schreiner, had not come. They never came, for the next day Kimberley was cut off, and by Sunday morning Capetown had lost count of the border districts from Kimberley southward to Orange River. On this Friday the first definite piece of bad news reached the High Commissioner. An armoured train, trying to run back to Mafeking, had been captured by the Boers. In proportion as Lord Milner had urged the need of preparation for war, so now he was the first to realise how grave would be the results of unpreparedness. Fortunately, his comments upon the events of these first three months of the war have been preserved; and the record of what was passing in his mind from day to day reveals a burden of anxiety that contrasts sharply with the easy tolerance with which the first bad news was received in England. On Wednesday, the 18th, a week after the ultimatum had expired, he wrote of Natal: "We are being slowly surrounded, and our force unwisely split up." He was gravely concerned for the safety of Kimberley, and he "doubted the ability of Mafeking to hold out." On November 1st, the day after General Buller had landed at Capetown, he wrote: "Things are going from bad to worse to-day. In Natal the Orange Free State Boers are making a move on Colenso, while in the Colony they have crossed in force at Bethulie; and there is also some suspicion of an attack on the line between Orange River bridge and De Aar." On November 9th, the arrival of the Rosslyn Castle, the first of the Army Corps transports, brought a gleam of brightness. She was a little late, as she had been warned to go out of her course after leaving Las Palmas, to avoid a suspicious vessel. But Methuen's first engagements seemed to him to be Pyrrhic victories. It was "the old story of charging positions from which the enemy simply clears, after having shot a lot of our men." On December 5th "alarming rumours came pouring in from all over the Colony," and two days later Lord Milner telegraphed to warn the Secretary of State that the war was now aggravated by rebellion. On Saturday, December 16th, the day after Colenso, he wrote: "This has been a week of disasters, to-day being the worst of all. News was received this morning that Buller had been severely defeated yesterday in attempting to force the passage of the Tugela."
It was a time when he was receiving the panic outcry for the immediate relief of Kimberley, in which Rhodes vented his rage at the military impotence to which for the moment England had allowed herself to be reduced in South Africa; when his councils with his ministers were "gloomy functions," and his Prime Minister's arguments against the measures which he deemed necessary for the defence of the Colony and the protection of the native territories had become not merely wearisome but embittered. His main resource lay in his intense activity. It was his custom, during this critical period, to begin the day by seeing Mr. Eliot and Mr. Price, the heads of the railways, and Mr. French, the Postmaster-General. In this way he received information of every movement of any significance that had occurred within the range of the railway and post-office systems during the preceding twenty-four hours--information which was of the highest utility both to him and to the military authorities. Then followed an endless succession of visitors, from the Prime Minister to the most recent newspaper correspondent out from home, and a long afternoon and evening of concentrated and unbroken labour upon despatches, proclamations, minutes, and other official documents. A short ride or walk was sometimes interpolated, but his days were a dead round of continuous occupation. "One day is so like another--crowded with work; all hateful, but with no very special feature," he wrote. But of another he says: "Worked very hard all day; the usual interviews. It was very difficult to take one's mind off the absorbing subject of the ill success of our military operations."
Mr. Balfour called the insolence of the ultimatum "madness." But Lord Milner knew that it was no madness, but an assured belief in victory; a confidence founded upon long years of earnest preparation for war; upon the blood-ties of the most tenacious of European peoples; upon a Nature that spread her wings over the rough children of the veld and menaced their enemies with the heat and glamour of her sun, with famine and drought and weariness, with all the hidden dangers that lurked in her glittering plains and rock-strewn uplands.
[Sidenote: Aspects of the war.]
It is not proposed to give any detailed account of the military operations which led, first, to the annexation of the Boer Republics, and then to the actual disarmament of the entire Dutch population of South Africa. The most that the plan of this work permits of is to present the broad outlines of the war in such a manner that the several phases of the military conflict may be seen in true perspective, and the relationship between them and the administrative efforts of Lord Milner be correctly indicated. But it will not be found inconsistent with this restricted treatment to refer to certain conspicuous features of the war upon which contemporary discussion has chiefly centred, and in respect of which opinions have been pronounced that do not seem likely to harmonise in all cases with the results of a more mature judgment and a less interested inquiry.
The test by which the success or failure of any given military effort is to be measured is, of course, the test of results. But the application of this test must not be embarrassed by the assumption, which seems to have vitiated so much otherwise admirable criticism on the conduct of the war in South Africa, that every action in which a properly equipped and wisely directed force is engaged must necessarily be successful: or that, if it be not successful, it follows, as a matter of course, that the officer in command, or one of his subordinates, must have committed some open and ascertainable violation of the principles of military science. So far is this from being the case, that military history is full of examples in which the highest merit and resolution of a commander have been nullified or cheated by the wanton interferences of physical nature, or by acts on the part of subordinates admittedly beyond the control of any human skill or foresight.
[Footnote 183: This chapter was in type some weeks before
Vol. I. of the Official History of the War was published.
Where, however, the Official History amends or supplements
figures, documents, etc., given in earlier official
publications, the fact is mentioned in a foot-note.]
[Sidenote: Delay of operations.]
Any just appreciation of the events of the first year of the war must be based upon a clear understanding of the degree in which the military action of the Salisbury Cabinet fell short of the advice given by Lord Milner, and, in an equal degree by Lord Wolseley, the Commander-in-Chief. We have noticed already the grave inadequacy of the measures of preparation for war carried out in South Africa between the failure of the Bloemfontein Conference and the recall of General Butler. On June 1st the South African garrison consisted of 4,462 men in Cape Colony, and 5,827 men in Natal; or 10,289 men with 24 field-guns in all. On August 2nd the Government decided to send 2,000 additional troops to Natal, and the Indian Government was warned, a little later, that certain troops might be required for service in South Africa. In spite of Lord Milner's urgent representations of the danger of leaving the colonies unprotected, no considerable body of troops, as we have seen, was ordered out, until the diplomatic situation had become seriously aggravated by the definite failure of the negotiations initiated by Sir William Greene through Mr. Smuts.
[Footnote 184: See p. 191.]
[Footnote 185: Cd. 1,789 (War Commission). The Official
History of the War in South Africa gives the total on
August 2nd as "not exceeding 9,940 men."]
Of the 10,000 men despatched after the Cabinet meeting of September 8th, more than half were requisitioned from the Indian Army, while the remainder were drawn mainly from the Mediterranean garrisons.
Thus, by the beginning of the second week in October there were 22,104 British troops in South Africa, of whom 7,400 were at the Cape and 14,704 in Natal, and 60 field-guns. But the Army Corps, the "striking force," was still in England. In pursuance of its determination to postpone to the last moment any action that could be represented as an attempt to force a war upon the Boers, the British Government had refrained from giving orders for the mobilisation of the offensive force until October 7th, or a fortnight after the Cabinet meeting of September 22nd, when its determination to "formulate its own proposals" was communicated to the Transvaal Government. It was then calculated that three months must elapse before this force could be equipped, transported, and placed in the field in South Africa.
[Footnote 186: Cd. 1,789. But the Official History gives the
British total at the outbreak of war as 27,054 men (as
against over 50,000 burghers); of whom 15,811 (including
2,781 local troops) were in Natal, 5,221 regulars and 4,574
local troops were in the Cape Colony, and 1,448 men, raised
locally by Col. Baden-Powell, were in Mafeking and Southern
[Footnote 187: But the Admiralty were given details of the
offensive force on September 20th. (Official History.)]
[Sidenote: No political gain.]
Before recording the disastrous effects of the postponement of effective military preparations, from June to September, it remains to consider whether any political gains, sufficient to compensate for the loss of military strength, were secured. The policy of relying upon Afrikander advice failed; since, as we have seen, the admonitions of Sir Henry de Villiers and Mr. Hofmeyr came too late to turn President Krüger from an obduracy founded upon long years of military preparation. The over-sea British had made up their minds in June; and nothing occurred in the subsequent negotiations to deepen their conviction of the essential justice of the British cause. India was unmoved; indeed, the Hindu masses were slightly sympathetic, while the feudatory princes came forward with offers of men and treasure to the Government of the Queen-Empress. The attitude of the respective governments of France, Germany, and Russia was correct. But what secured this result was not any perception of the moderation of the British demands, or any recognition of the genuine reluctance of the British Government to make war, but the sight of the British Navy everywhere holding the seas, the rapidity and ease with which large bodies of troops were transported from every quarter of the British world, and the manner in which each reverse was met by a display of new and unexpected reserves of military strength.
If the British Government thought that it would win the peoples of Continental Europe to its side by a show of hesitation to make war upon a weak state, the sequel proved that it had gravely misunderstood the conditions under which international respect is produced. Hatred of England rose in inverse ratio to the evidence of the justness of her cause. When the Boers were victorious, or seemed to be most capable of defying the efforts of the largest fighting force that Great Britain had ever put into the field; when, that is to say, it was most clearly demonstrated that British supremacy in South Africa could only have been maintained by force of arms against the formidable rival which had risen against it, then the wave of popular hatred surged highest. When the British arms prospered, the clamour sank; but only to rise again until it was finally allayed by the knowledge that the Boer resistance was at an end, and that the British Empire had emerged from the conflict a stronger and more united power.
[Sidenote: Attitude of the United States.]
The case of the United States was somewhat different. Here was an industrial nation like our own; and one, moreover, whose people were qualified alike by constitutional and legal tradition, habits of thought, and identity of language, to have discerned the reality of the reluctance displayed by the British Government to employ force until every resource of diplomacy and every device of statecraft had been exhausted, and to have drawn the conclusion that the power which drove the Government into war was a sense of duty, and not greed of territory. Moreover, there was at this time, at any rate among the more cultivated classes, a feeling of gratitude for the action of Great Britain in preventing European intervention during the Spanish-American war, and a genuine desire, on that ground alone, to show sympathy with the English people in the conflict in which they had become involved. In these circumstances it is somewhat strange that public opinion in the United States was unmistakably inclined to favour the Boers during almost the entire period of the war. It is perfectly true that the United States Government was consistently friendly; but this did not alter the fact that the dominant note in nearly all public expressions of the sentiment of the United States' people was one of sympathy with the Boer, and of hostility to the British cause. It might have been thought that, just as most Englishmen, in the case of the conflict between the United States and Spain, were prepared to assume that a nation imbued with the traditions and principles of the Anglo-Saxon race would not have undertaken to enforce its will upon a weak Power without having convinced itself first of the justice of its cause, so the Americans would have entertained an equally favourable presumption in respect of the people of Great Britain. That this was not done is due to a cause which is as significant as it is well ascertained. Making all allowance for the prejudice against England inevitably aroused in the minds of the less thoughtful members of a great democratic community, by the fact that her opponent was both a weak state and a republic, this very general refusal to accept the political morality of the English people as a guarantee of the justice of their action in South Africa suggests the presence of another and more specific influence. The explanation given by Americans is that the English nation was itself divided upon the question of the morality of the South African War--or, at any rate, that the public utterances that reached the United States were such as to convey this impression. That being so, they ask, Can you blame us for hesitating to adopt what was at the most, as we understood it, the opinion of a majority? In support of this view they point to the public utterances, before and after the war had broken out, of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Mr. John Morley, and Mr. Bryce. Of these, the former was the official head of the Liberal Party, while the two latter were men whose literary achievements had made their names and personalities both familiar and respected in the United States. If the opinions of these public men were on this occasion wholly unrepresentative, why, they ask, were their speeches and articles unrefuted; or, at any rate, allowed to go forth to the world uncondemned by any clear and authoritative manifestation of the dissent and displeasure of their countrymen?
[Sidenote: Injurious declarations.]
That declarations such as these did in fact produce injurious effects directly calculable in human lives, in money, and in the waste and devastation of war, is a fact which will claim the attention of the reader on a subsequent occasion. They came not merely from the mouths of the Irish Nationalists, and of advanced Radicals such as Mr. Lloyd-George and Mr. John Burns, but from men of wider repute. That public opinion should have allowed responsible Englishmen in time of war to "speak and write as though they belonged to the enemy,"--whether due to an exaggerated regard for our traditional freedom of speech, or to a failure to recognise that the altered conditions produced by the extension and perfection of telegraphic communication, and the development of the Press throughout the civilised world, gave such utterances a value in international relations altogether different from that possessed (say) by similar utterances on the part of the anti-nationalists during the Napoleonic wars--is a circumstance that merits the most serious consideration. No one will deny that this unpatriotic form of opposition, so long as it exists, constitutes an ever-recurring danger to the most vital interests of the community. The ultimate remedy lies in the creation of a representative council of the Empire, and the consequent separation of questions of inter-imperial and foreign policy from the local and irrelevant issues of party politics. Until this is done, it remains to establish a mutual understanding under which such questions would be recognised as being outside the sphere of party recrimination; and for this purpose it is necessary to create a force of public opinion strong enough to compel the observance of this understanding; or, failing this, to visit its non-observance with political penalties commensurate to the injury inflicted.
[Sidenote: The Army Corps absorbed.]
The conflict which followed the expiration of the forty-eight hours allowed by the Boer ultimatum is in more than one respect the most extraordinary in the annals of war. The existence of the cable and telegraph made instant and continuous communication possible between the army in the field and the nation at home. Public opinion, informed by the daily records furnished by the Press, became a factor in determining the conduct of the war. Nor is it strange that a civilian population, separated by 6,000 miles from the theatre of operations, should have proved an injurious counsellor. The army was ordered to conquer a people, but forbidden to employ the methods by which alone it has been hitherto held that conquest is attainable. But no influence exercised upon the course of the war by false humanitarianism or political partisanship produced any results comparable to the original injury inflicted upon the British Army by the ignorance and irresolution displayed by the nation. The postponement of effective military preparations by the Home Government until the necessity for these preparations had become so plain that no effort of the Opposition could embarrass its action, was the fons et origo of all subsequent disaster. The failure to mobilise the Army Corps in June had placed the Army in a position of disadvantage at the outbreak of the war, from which it never wholly recovered. The original striking force--the Army Corps--was not employed in its proper function, but absorbed, upon its arrival in South Africa, in the task of supporting the defensive forces. Twenty-two thousand men, with an Army Corps advancing upon Bloemfontein or Pretoria, would have sufficed to repel attacks upon the colonial frontiers, and to check rebellion in the Cape Colony. But twenty-two thousand men defending one thousand miles of frontier from a mobile force nearly twice as numerous with the Army Corps six thousand miles away in England, was a very different thing. Yet this was the situation in which the nation, by withholding from the Government the support necessary to enable it to give effect to the advice of Lord Wolseley, had elected to place the British Army. The plan of mobilisation, long prepared and complete in all particulars, worked with perfect success. Twenty Companies of the Army Service Corps sailed on October 6th, a day before the actual mobilisation order was issued. The rest of the offensive force--one Cavalry Division, one Army Corps, and eight battalions of lines of communication troops--began to be embarked on October 20th, and by November 17th the long succession of transports, bearing the whole of the men, horses, and guns of which it was composed (with the exception of one cavalry regiment detained by horse sickness), had sailed for South Africa. This was Lord Wolseley's task, and it was promptly and efficiently performed. The War Office was not inefficient; but the refusal to mobilise in June had thrown the whole scheme of the offensive and defensive campaign out of gear.
[Sidenote: General Buller.]
With the evidence of the War Commission before us, it is impossible to divest General Buller of a share of responsibility for the disastrous conditions under which the war was commenced. He was nominated to the South African command in June, and he was consulted upon the strength and composition of the force which was to be employed. On July 7th Lord Wolseley asked the Government, apart from the immediate mobilisation of the Army Corps which he still urged, to "consider whether we should not at a very early date send one Infantry Division and one Cavalry Brigade--say 10,000 men--to South Africa," adding that he had "no doubt as to the present necessity of strengthening our military position." But ten days later the despatch of this reinforcement of 10,000 men was "not considered urgent." Since, according to Lord Wolseley's minute of the proceedings of the meeting held at the War Office on July 18th, 1899, General Buller used the weight of his authority to support General Butler's opposition to Lord Milner's urgent request for immediate reinforcements. In reply to a question as to the desirability of strengthening the South African garrisons, he said on this occasion, that--
"he had complete confidence in Butler's ability and forethought,
and that as long as clever men like Butler and Symons on the spot
did not say there was danger, he saw no necessity for sending out
any troops in advance of the Army Corps to strengthen our
position against any possible attack by the Boers on our
This memorandum, Lord Wolseley added, contained not the "exact words," but the "exact meaning" of what he said. It was the precise opposite of the view which Lord Milner had laid before the Home Government. Indeed the degree in which General Buller had misconceived the entire military situation in South Africa became at once apparent when he reached Capetown. He had come out to South Africa with the not unnatural idea that he was to command a definite British army, which was to engage a definite Boer army. When he had learnt from Lord Milner and others what the situation actually was, he is said to have gathered up his new impressions in the remark: "It seems to me that I have got to conquer the whole of South Africa." General Buller even appears to have shared the common belief of his fellow-countrymen at home that the Cape was a British colony not only in name but in fact. Nor was he prepared to abandon this belief all at once. He suggested to the High Commissioner that it would be possible to form local defence forces out of the Dutch farmers in the Colony. Lord Milner said that this was totally impracticable; but he added that he would consult Mr. Schreiner on the matter. It is needless to say, however, that the Prime Minister deprecated the proposal in the most emphatic terms.
[Footnote 188: Cd. 1,789, pp. 15-17.]
[Footnote 189: Nor was the Intelligence Department less
urgent than Lord Milner. "In July of last year ,
earlier warnings being disregarded, a formal communication
was made for the consideration of the Cabinet, advising the
despatch of a large force fully equipped, estimated to be
sufficient to safeguard Natal and Cape Colony from the first
onrush of the Boers."--Sir John Ardagh, in The Balfourian
Parliament, 1900-1905. By Henry W. Lucy, p. 10. See also the
evidence of the War Commission, and the "Military Notes"
issued by the D. M. I. in June (1899).]
[Footnote 190: In a memorandum of November 20th (furnished to
Gen. Forestier-Walker) Gen. Buller, on the eve of starting
for Natal, gives as a first paragraph in his "appreciation of
the situation" the following remark: "1. Ever since I have
been here we have been like the man, who, with a long day's
work before him, overslept himself and so was late for
everything all day." (Official History, p. 209.)]
The War Office scheme was designed to provide a defensive force to hold the colonies, and an offensive force to invade the Republics. In the three months that elapsed before this scheme was put into effect, the conditions upon which it was based had changed completely. On the day that Buller reached Capetown (October 31st) White, with almost the whole of the Natal defensive force, was shut up in Ladysmith by Joubert. When at length the last units of the Army Corps were landed (December 4th) in South Africa, Buller was at Maritzburg, organising a force for the relief of White; and practically the entire offensive force had been broken up to disengage the defensive forces, or save them from destruction. Buller himself had 14,000 of the Army Corps in Natal, and more were to follow; Methuen was taking 8,000 men for the relief of Kimberley; and the balance were being pushed up to strengthen the original defensive forces that were holding the railways immediately South of the Orange Free State border, and checking the rebellion in the eastern districts of the Cape Colony. Gatacre's defeat at Stormberg (December 10th), Methuen's defeat at Magersfontein (December 11th), and Buller's defeat at Colenso (December 15th) together provided ample evidence of the fact that, however desirable it might be to assume the offensive, a purely defensive rôle must for the time be assigned to the troops then in South Africa; and that this state of affairs must continue until the arrival of very considerable reinforcements.
[Sidenote: New striking force necessary.]
The perception of this fact caused the Government to appoint (December 17th) Lord Roberts, with Lord Kitchener as his Chief-of-Staff, to the South African command, and to prepare and despatch an entirely new striking force. It was this new force and not the original Army Corps that "marched to Pretoria," and struck the successive blows which enabled Lord Roberts to report to the Secretary of State for War (November 15th, 1900) that; "with the occupation of Komati Poort, and the dispersal of Commandant-General Louis Botha's army, the organised resistance of the two Republics might be said to have ceased." It was not, therefore, until Lord Roberts was able to march from Modder River Station (February 11th, 1900), after a month spent at the Cape in reorganising the transport and other preparations essential to the success of an army destined to advance for many hundreds of miles through a hostile country, that the British Army in South Africa was in the position in which the acceptance of Lord Wolseley's advice, given in June and July, 1899, would have put it upon the outbreak of war. Nor was the force with which Lord Roberts then advanced, 36,000 men, more numerous than the striking force which would have been provided, by Lord Wolseley's scheme, had it been carried out in the manner in which he desired. For the business with which the scattered Army Corps was occupied when Lord Roberts arrived at Capetown (January 10th, 1900)--the relief of Ladysmith and Kimberley, and the defence of the eastern districts of the Cape Colony from the Free State commandos and the colonial rebels--was work directly caused by the absence of the Army Corps from South Africa when the war broke out. It is not too much to say that the whole of the serious losses incurred by the British forces in South Africa from the commencement of the war up to the date of Lord Roberts's advance into the Free State territory, would have been avoided if the state of public opinion had permitted the Salisbury Cabinet in June to make military preparations commensurate with the gravity of the situation as disclosed by Lord Milner.
[Sidenote: The regular army exhausted.]
In forming an estimate of the performance of the British Army in South Africa, from a military point of view, it is necessary to remember the grave initial disadvantage in which it was placed; and that this initial disadvantage was due, not to the War Office, not to the Cabinet, but to the nation itself. The manner in which the losses thus caused were repaired is significant and instructive. By the end of the year (1899), the troops composing three divisions in excess of the Army Corps were either landed in South Africa or under orders to proceed to the seat of war. In addition to the 22,000 defensive troops in South Africa on October 11th, the War Office had supplied, not merely the 47,000 men of the Army Corps, but 85,000 men in all. But, having done this, it had practically reached the limit of troops available in the regular army for over-sea operations. By April, 1900, all the reserves had been used up. There remained, it is true, 103,023 "effectives" of all ranks of the regular army in the United Kingdom on April 1st; but this total was composed of 37,333 "immature" troops; of the recruits who had joined since October 1st, 1899; of reservists unfit for foreign service; and of sick and wounded sent home from South Africa: that is to say, of men who, for one reason or another, were all alike unfit for service abroad. Further drafts might have been made upon the British regulars in India; but this course was held to be imprudent. In plain words, the exhaustion of the regular army compelled the Government to avail itself more fully of the offers of military aid which had reached it from the colonies, and to utilise the militia and volunteer forces. On December 18th, 1899, the announcement was made that the War Office would allow twelve militia battalions to volunteer for service abroad, and that a considerable force of yeomanry and a contingent of picked men from the volunteers would be accepted. This appeal to the latent military resources of the Empire met with a ready and ample response. Throughout the whole course of the war the United Kingdom sent 45,566 militia, 19,856 volunteers, and 35,520 yeomanry, with 7,273 South African Constabulary, and 833 Scottish Horse; the over-sea colonies (including 305 volunteers from India) provided 30,633 men; while of the small British population in South Africa no less than the astonishing total of 46,858 took part in the war. In all some 200,000 men--militia, volunteers, and irregulars--came forward to supplement the regular army.
[Footnote 191: Cd. 1,789.]
[Footnote 192: Ibid.]
[Footnote 193: See returns cited by Lord Roberts in House of
Lords, February 27th, 1906. The irregulars raised in South
Africa were between 50,000 and 60,000, according to the War
[Sidenote: Auxiliary forces utilised.]
It was mainly from the auxiliary forces and the colonial contingents, and not from the regular army, that the reinforcements were supplied which repaired the critical losses of the defensive campaign, and enabled the new striking force to be organised. Nor can it be said that the British Government failed to do all that was possible to retrieve its original error, when once the defeats inflicted by the Boer forces had awakened it to a knowledge of the real situation in South Africa. In his despatch of February 6th, 1900, Lord Roberts was able to report that, on January 31st, there was an effective fighting force of nearly 40,000 men in Natal and another of 60,000 in the Cape Colony. Mr. Chamberlain put the case for the Government at its highest in speaking at Birmingham on May 11th, 1900:
"Supposing that twelve months ago any man had said in public that
this country would be able to send out from its own shores and
from its own citizens an army of more than 150,000 men, fully
equipped, and that it would be joined by another force of more
than 30,000 men, voluntarily offered by our self-governing
colonies ... if he had said that this army, together numbering
200,000 men, or thereabouts, could have been provided with the
best commissariat, with the most admirable medical appliances and
stores that had ever accompanied an army--if he could have said
that at the same time there would have remained behind in this
country something like half a million of men, who although they
may not be equal man to man to the regulars and best-drilled
armies, are nevertheless capable of bearing arms to some
purpose--if he had said all this, he would have been laughed to
Moreover, the army was successful. The work which it was required to do was done. In order to realise the merit of its success two circumstances must be borne in mind: first, the enormous area of South Africa, and, second, the fact that practically the whole of this area, if we except the few considerable towns, was not only ill-provided with means of communication and food supplies, but inhabited by a population which was openly hostile, or, what was worse, secretly disaffected. Lord Roberts, in the course of his despatches, endeavoured to bring home both of these circumstances to the public in England.
Of the area he wrote:
[Footnote 194: November 15th, 1900. Johannesburg.]
"The magnitude of the task which Her Majesty's Imperial troops
have been called upon to perform will perhaps be better realised
if I give the actual number of miles of the several lines of
communication, each one of which has had to be carefully guarded,
and compare with the well-known countries of Europe the enormous
extent of the theatre of war, from one end of which to the other
troops have had to be frequently moved.
[Sidenote: Vastness of South Africa.]
"The areas included in the theatre of war are as follows:
Orange River Colony
"And the distances troops have had to travel are:
Capetown to Pretoria
Pretoria to Komati Poort
Capetown to Kimberley
Kimberley to Mafeking
Mafeking to Pretoria
Mafeking to Beira
Durban to Pretoria
"From these tables it will be seen that, after having been
brought by sea 6,000 miles and more from their base in the United
Kingdom, the army in South Africa had to be distributed over an
area of greater extent than France (204,146 square miles) and
Germany (211,168 square miles) put together, and, if we include
that part of Rhodesia with which we had to do, larger than the
combined areas of France, Germany, and Austria (261,649 square
Of the nature of the country and its inhabitants he wrote:
[Footnote 195: November 15th, 1900. Johannesburg.]
"And it should be remembered that over these great distances we
were dependent on single lines of railway for the food supply,
guns, ammunition, horses, transport animals, and hospital
equipment, in fact, all the requirements of an army in the
field, and that, along these lines, bridges and culverts had
been destroyed in many places, and rails were being constantly
And of the Cape Colony he wrote:
[Footnote 196: February 6th, 1900. Capetown.]
"The difficulties of carrying on war in South Africa do not
appear to be sufficiently appreciated by the British public. In
an enemy's country we should know exactly how we stood; but out
here we have not only to defeat the enemy on the northern
frontier, but to maintain law and order within the colonial
limits. Ostensibly, the Dependency is loyal, and no doubt a large
number of its inhabitants are sincerely attached to the British
rule and strongly opposed to Boer domination. On the other hand,
a considerable section would prefer a republican form of
government, and, influenced by ties of blood and association,
side with the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Even the
public service at the Cape is not free from men whose sympathies
with the enemy may lead them to divulge secrets and give valuable
assistance to the Boer leaders in other ways."
[Sidenote: The offensive campaign.]
Bearing in mind that the offensive campaign dates, not from the expiry of the Boer ultimatum on October 11th, 1899, but from Lord Roberts's advance from Modder River Station on February 11th, 1900, the mere record of dates and events is sufficiently impressive. On February 12th the Free State border was crossed; on the 15th Kimberley was relieved, on the 27th Cronje's force surrendered at Paardeberg, on the 28th Ladysmith was relieved, and on March 13th Bloemfontein, the capital of the Free State, was occupied. The army again advanced early in May; Kroonstad was entered on the 12th; on May 24th, the Queen's birthday, the Free State was annexed; the Vaal was crossed on the 27th, Johannesburg was occupied on the 31st, and on June 5th the British flag was hoisted on the Raadzaal at Pretoria. In the meantime Mafeking had been relieved with absolute punctuality on May 17th. On June 11th the Boers evacuated Laing's Nek and Majuba, and the Natal Field Force, under Buller, entered the Transvaal from the south-east. The next day Roberts defeated the Boers under Louis Botha at Diamond Hill. On July 30th Prinsloo and 4,000 burghers surrendered to Hunter; on August 27th the main Transvaal army, under Louis Botha, was again defeated at Dalmanutha, and on September 1st the Transvaal was annexed. On the 11th President Krüger fled the Transvaal; Komati Poort, the eastern frontier town on the railway line to Delagoa Bay, was entered on the 24th, and two days later railway communication was re-opened between Delagoa Bay and Pretoria.
[Footnote 197: Lord Roberts had asked Col. Baden-Powell how
long he could hold out at Mafeking, and then promised that
the relief of the town should be effected within the required
In spite of the vast area and harassing conditions of the war, in spite of its own military unpreparedness, and the unexpected strength of the Boer attack, the Power which created the Republics had destroyed them within less than a twelvemonth from the day on which they had defied it.
At this point it will be convenient to place on record certain general conclusions which arise out of the events and circumstances of the South African War, and to consider certain military criticisms which have been offered upon the conduct of the British Army in the field.
We have seen that the initial losses of the campaign were due, not to any defects in the Army as a fighting force, but to the position in which the Army was placed by the irresolution of the nation. We have seen also that within less than a year of the ultimatum the capitals of the two Republics were occupied, and their power of "organised resistance" was destroyed. During this stage of the war the regular Army, small as it was, supplemented by selected reinforcements from the auxiliary services, and by the colonial contingents, sufficed to do the work required of it. In the second stage, when the work to be accomplished was nothing less than the disarmament of the entire Dutch population of South Africa, the character of the reinforcements supplied had greatly depreciated, and the prolongation of the war was in part to be attributed to this circumstance. For the present, however, it will be sufficient to confine our observations to the period of "organised resistance."
[Footnote 198: One fighting British general stated that one
of the first stage force was equal to five of the men
supplied after the reserves had been used up in April,
[Sidenote: General conclusions.]
The first of these conclusions is the fact that the real evil revealed by the South African War is not the inefficiency, or unpreparedness of the War Office, but the ignorance, and therefore unpreparedness, of the country. From this unreadiness for war on the part of the nation as a whole there sprang two results: (1) the refusal of the Salisbury Cabinet to allow the War Office to make adequate military preparations in June, and the disregard of the advice alike of Lord Milner and Lord Wolseley; (2) the insufficient supply of reserves for the forces in the field, arising ultimately from the small percentage of men in the nation trained to the use of arms.
[Footnote 199: For the direct part played by the Liberal
leaders in the production of this ignorance, see p. 256.]
The second conclusion to which we are led is that the specific result of the absence of effective preparations for War in June was to throw the War Office scheme of a fighting force out of gear. Twenty-two thousand defensive troops, with a striking force of fifty thousand in South Africa, would have proved sufficient to attain the ends of British policy. As it was, the Army Corps being in England when hostilities commenced, and not arriving in its entirety until December 4th, the fifty thousand offensive force was absorbed in the work of extricating the twenty-two thousand defensive force. In other words, the British Army was not put in the position contemplated by Lord Wolseley's scheme until an entirely new fighting force had been organised and advanced from Modder River in the beginning of February, 1900. This new striking force was identical in numbers with the original striking force, the Army Corps, provided by Lord Wolseley's scheme.
[Sidenote: Criticisms examined.]
Among criticisms on the British Army in the field there are two that claim attention. The first of these is the allegation that military efficiency was sacrificed to a desire to spare life. In so far as this criticism is concerned with the handling of their troops by British commanders, it is strenuously denied that either Lord Roberts, or any of his subordinates, allowed a desire to spare the lives of the troops under their command to interfere with the successful execution of any military operation. The specific example of the alleged interference of this motive, usually cited, is the conduct of the attack upon the Boer position at Paardeberg. In respect of these operations the actual facts, as they presented themselves to the mind of Lord Roberts, are these. On reaching the Paardeberg position from Jacobsdal the Commander-in-Chief found that in the operations of the preceding day Lord Kitchener had lost a thousand men without gaining a single advantage. The position held by the Boers, although it was commanded by rising ground on all sides, was one which afforded admirable cover in repelling an attacking force. In these circumstances Lord Roberts decided, as an application of the principles of military science, to "sap up" to the Boer positions. The correctness of this decision was proved by the result. The moment that the Boers realised that they were to be given no further opportunity--such as a repetition of a direct attack upon their position would have afforded--of inflicting heavy loss on the British troops, whilst their eventual surrender was no less inevitable, the white flag was hoisted.
[Footnote 200: I.e., less troops for lines of
communication. Lord Roberts's force was 36,000, the Army
Corps was 47,000.]
It is denied with equal definiteness that any general feeling of the kind alleged existed among subordinate officers or the rank and file of the British troops. Where, however, the allegation of "a desire to spare life" has regard to the enemy and not to the British troops, the answer is to be found in the fact that any humanity inconsistent with military efficiency was apparent and not real. The comparative immunity enjoyed by the enemy on occasions when he was defeated is due to physical conditions wholly favourable to the Boers, to the knowledge of the country possessed by the burghers individually and collectively, and to the circumstance that the inhabitants of the country districts were, in almost all cases, ready to give them every possible assistance in escaping from the British. There is one particular statement in connection with this criticism which admits of absolute denial. It has been said that Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief, received instructions from the Home Government directing him to spare the enemy as much as possible. This statement, in spite of its prima facie improbability, has met with very general acceptance. None the less it is entirely baseless. The only limitations imposed by the Home Government upon Lord Roberts's complete freedom of action in the conduct of the military operations which he directed were such as arose from the difficulty experienced in supplying him upon all occasions with troops of the precise number and character required.
[Sidenote: The German general staff.]
The second criticism is one put forward by the German General Staff, forming, as it does, the only valid complaint against the professional merits of Lord Roberts advanced by that body. The British Commander-in-Chief, say these German critics, made it his object to "manoeuvre" the Boers out of positions instead of inflicting severe losses upon them. The answer to this criticism, in its general form, is to be found in the physical conditions of the country. On the occasions to which reference is made the burgher forces were found to be posted on high ground, behind rocks or in intrenchments, with fine open ground in front of them. Obviously in these circumstances what military science required of the commander directing the attacking force was to find a means of placing his own troops on equal terms with the enemy; and this was what Lord Roberts did. The criticism, however, as more precisely stated and applied to the battle of Diamond Hill in particular, and to the engagements fought in the course of Lord Roberts's advance from Bloemfontein to Pretoria, takes the form of the allegation that, while the enveloping movement on both flanks was executed successfully, the full result of this initial success was not obtained because the attack upon the Boer centre was not pressed home. In other words, the enemy's centre was never caught and destroyed by the envelopment of his flanks. This is historically true, and yet the German critics cannot be said to have established their case, for they omit to take the tactics of the Boers into consideration. Stated briefly, these were to hold on to a position and inflict such losses as they could upon the attacking troops, until the final assault became imminent; and then to mount their ponies and gallop away. Against such tactics as these, it would have been of no avail to push in a frontal attack with the certainty of incurring heavy loss, and without the chance of securing a decisive success. It would have been merely playing into the hands of the Boers.
Under such conditions all that was possible was to demonstrate against the Boer centre in the hope of holding them in their position, until the flanking columns should have nullified their mobility by cutting in on their line of retreat. The Boers, however, took every precaution against such an eventuality; and the result was generally, as stated by the German critics, that the Boers were "manoeuvred" out of their positions. But this does not prove that the course adopted by Lord Roberts was wrong; it merely proves the extreme difficulty of inflicting a severe defeat upon an enemy who declines to risk a decisive action, and whose mobility gives him the power to do so. The course advocated by the critics would have been equally barren of result, while the cost in lives would have been far greater.
[Sidenote: The Boers not in uniform.]
It remains to notice certain definite circumstances which caused the British Army in South Africa to be confronted by difficulties which no other army has been required to face. The Boers were accorded all the privileges of a civilised army, although at the same time they violated the most essential of the conditions upon the observance of which these privileges are based. This condition is the wearing, by the forces of a belligerent, of such a uniform and distinctive dress as will be sufficient to enable the other belligerent to discriminate with facility between the combatant and non-combatant population of his enemy. The fact that the burgher forces were not in uniform and were yet accorded the privileges claimed by civilised troops, was in itself a circumstance that increased both the efforts required, and the losses incurred, by the British Army to an extent which has not as yet been fully realised. In the operations which Lord Roberts had conducted in Afghanistan it was not the organised army but the tribesmen that had proved difficult to overcome. The Afghan army retreated, or, if it stood its ground, was defeated. But the tribesmen who "sniped" the British troops from the mountain slopes and from behind stones and rocks, who assembled from all sides as rapidly as they melted away, constituted the real difficulty of the campaign. In South Africa the burgher forces were army and tribesmen alike. Owing to the absence of any distinctive uniform the combatant Boers mingled freely with the British soldiers, and went to and fro among the non-combatant Boer population in the towns and districts occupied by the British. On one day they were in the British camp as ox-drivers, or provision-sellers, or what not, and on the next they were in the burgher fighting line. A single instance will serve to convey an impression of the complete immunity with which not merely the rank and file, but commandants and generals, entered and left the British lines. It is believed that on one night General Louis Botha slept in Johannesburg close to Lord Roberts, the British Commander-in-Chief. The next morning he left the town in company with some of the British troops. And in the Natal campaign it is notorious that the camps of the Ladysmith relieving force were swarming with Boer spies whom it was impossible to detect and punish. Even in the besieged town itself the utmost secrecy at headquarters did not always avail to prevent a timely intimation of a contemplated attack from reaching the enemy's lines. Add to this the fact that every Boer farmhouse throughout South Africa was an Intelligence Depôt for the enemy, and it is easy to understand the facility displayed by the mobile and ununiformed Boer forces in evading the British columns.
Whether the humanity displayed by the British Government in thus recognising the burghers as regular belligerents, and in other respects, did not tend to bring about the very evil sought to be avoided is another question. It is quite possible to maintain that the comparative immunity from punishment and the disproportionate military success which the Boers enjoyed did in fact, by contributing to the prolongation of the war, ultimately produce a greater loss of life, and a greater amount of material suffering, than would have been incurred by the South African Dutch if the war had been waged with greater severity on the part of Great Britain. That it increased the cost of the war both in lives and in treasure to the British nation is obvious. But this is a consideration which does not affect any estimate of the merit or demerit displayed by the British Army in the field that may be formed either by British or foreign critics. In order to prove competency it is not necessary to show that no single mistake was made or that nothing that was done might not have been done better. No war department, no army ever has been or ever will be created that could come scatheless from the application of such a test of absolute efficiency. What we require to know is whether the same standard of efficiency was shown to have been attained in the War Office and in the Army as is required and obtained in any other branch of the public service, or in any successful or progressive undertaking conducted by private enterprise. The circumstances of the war were abnormal. From one point of view it was a civil war; from another it was a rebellion, and from a third it was a war between two rival military powers, each of whom desired to become supreme in South Africa. What the military critic has to consider is not so much how these circumstances arose, or whether they could have been changed or avoided by any political action on the part of Great Britain, but the degree in which the conditions imposed by them upon the British Army must be taken into account in applying the ordinary tests of military efficiency to the work which it accomplished in this particular campaign.
[Sidenote: Difficulties of the campaign.]
The nature of the difficulties presented by the vast extent of the theatre of war, the deficiency of means of communication, the imperfect cultivation of the land, the sparseness of the population and their hostility to the British, and the physical and climatic aspects of South Africa in general, have been broadly indicated in the passages taken from Lord Roberts's despatches. To pursue the inquiry further would be to travel beyond the scope of this work. That, however, there is nothing unusual in the fact that civilian forces, inspired by love of country and aided by physical conditions exceptionally favourable to themselves, should be able to offer a successful resistance to professional soldiers may be seen by a reference to one of the little wars of the seventeenth century. In the year 1690 twenty-two thousand French and Savoyard troops were sent by Louis XIV. to storm the Balsille--a rocky eminence mutatis mutandis the equivalent of a South African kopje--held by 350 Piedmontese Vaudois. Even so the besieged patriots made good their escape, and, owing to the sudden change in the politics of Europe brought about by the accession of William of Orange to the crown of England, actually concluded an honourable peace with their sovereign, Victor Amadeus of Savoy, a few days after they had been driven from the Balsille. Assuming that the British troops employed from first to last in the South African War were five times as numerous as the forces placed in the field by the Dutch nationalists--say 450,000 as against 90,000--we have here a numerical superiority which dwindles into insignificance beside the magnificent disproportion of the professional troops required to deal with a civilian force in this seventeenth-century struggle.
[Footnote 201: Any reader desiring to learn the particulars
of this struggle is referred to the pages of the writer's
The Valley of Light: Studies with Pen and Pencil in the
Vaudois Valleys of Piedmont. (Macmillan, 1899). It may be
added that Napoleon manifested a keen interest in the
military details of the engagements between the French and
Savoyard troops and the Vaudois. As regards the number of
combatants on the Boer side. Lord Kitchener puts the total
(from first to last) at 95,000 (Cd. 1790, p. 13). The
Official History, however, gives, as the result of an
elaborate calculation, 87,365 (Vol. I. App. 4).]