White landed in England in the end of April 1898, after a tedious voyage. His broken leg had been kept in plaster of Paris all the way, and though he was able to totter about a little on crutches for exercise, he had to be carried on deck and below. The discomfort and confinement worried him, and he was not in very good spirits when he arrived.
Perhaps the belief that his active career as a soldier was now over had something to do with his depression. While he was serving in India, from 1854 to 1898, on and off, though he had passed through some disheartening times, he had also had his fill of fighting and excitement and important work. And he had come back covered with honours and decorations. Now he was to exchange the large open life of India for a house in London, which he had always detested, and the command of three hundred thousand men for an office chair. He knew soldiers and their needs, as he said, having been a regimental officer most of his life, and he took up his new work without serious doubts as to his capacity to do it; but, he told a friend, " it is not congenial work to me, or what I am well* up in." Being for the time a cripple did not make the prospect more attractive.
The various officers of the War Office Staff in England have so often had their work altered and redistributed, that it is by no means easy to say what each of them had to do in 1898. But, so far as I can judge from the Report of the Commission on the War in South Africa, the position was as follows :—
The Secretary of State for War, at that time the Marquess of Lansdowne, had under him five principal officers charged with the administration of the Departments of the Army. These were—
The Inspector-General of Fortifications.
The Inspector-General of Ordnance.
And as to the Quartermaster-General it was laid down:—
The Quartermaster - General shall be charged with supplying the Army with food, forage, fuel and light, and quarters, with land and water transport, and with remounts; with the movement of troops, and with the distribution of their stores and equipment; with administering the Army Service Corps, the Pay Department, and the establishments employed on the above Services; and with dealing with the sanitary questions relating to the Army. He shall submit proposals for the annual Estimates for the above Services, and shall advise the Secretary of State on all questions connected with the duties of his Department. He shall make such inspections as shall be necessary to secure the efficiency of the Services under his control.
These are no doubt varied duties, but they are very different from the duties of the Quartermaster-General of old days, who had in his hands practically all the more active work of the Staff, the less active work going to the Adjutant-General. By the new arrangement the Quartermaster - General's Department had in fact been practically abolished, and his work parcelled out among various other officials, it is said with no good results. Lord Roberts indeed complained that the results had been most pernicious.
Then, although the Commander - in - Chief was charged inter alia with " the general supervision of the Military Departments of the War Office," yet it was the duty of the Quartermaster-General to advise the Secretary of State direct. He was in fact an officer of the War Office, not an officer of the Commander-in-Chief s Staff. As White himself put it: " There is too great independence in the several branches of the War Office, and the soldiers are not sufficiently controllers of military action, and are not very united or strong."
Among the lessons taught by the Boer War, so soon to follow, was the lesson that there was need for many changes in the organisation of the War Office, and many changes were made. But, as constituted in 1898, it was not a place where White could feel himself altogether in his element; and in spite of his strong personal liking for, and belief in, Lord Lansdowne, he was not entirely happy.
The first thing to be done after taking charge was to have the broken leg as far as possible put right. It was in a bad way. In a speech to some Irish doctors, delivered, I believe, in 1899, but, like most of White's written speeches, bearing no date, the following passage occurs :—
If I am not boring you very much I should like to make a short personal acknowledgment. . . .
At the end of April last I landed in England with a leg so broken up that a very high authority described it, I believe, as " a bag of bones "—no less an authority than Mr Watson Cheyne. Well, the leg went through queer experiences. It was laid open and the fragments of the bone were screwed together with screws that long. But, gentlemen, that leg had played an important part in my previous life, when I was president of the Army Temperance Association in India, and thought there was something inconsistent with its antecedents in being constantly screwed, and resented it. The bag of bones was consequently opened up again and the screws removed, and yet I can sincerely say that I had no pain. The fact, gentlemen, that I can get on my legs and address you to-night ... is due to the skill of your profession, and I think I ought to express gratitude to your profession for such a leg-asy.
This is of course wholly unpardonable, even in an Irishman speaking to Irishmen, but the extract shows how severe the injury had been.
Towards the end of October 1898 White writes to a friend, Miss Sellar: " I can now walk short distances at my own pace, which is a slow one. ... I shall always have a limp, but I hope to have a useful leg." The screws were apparently of steel silvered over, which drove White to write that he had become a bimetallist. The end of it all was that the leg became serviceable enough. He did limp slightly, but he was able a few years later to take again the long mountain walks in which he delighted.
It seems unnecessary to examine in any detail the work done by White while he was Quartermaster-General. Though heavy enough, it was to a large extent routine work, and he made no pretence of enjoying it. Indeed it is doubtful which he disliked more, his office work or the round of society which his presence in London imposed upon him. The latter he managed to avoid in some measure by taking judicious advantage of his crippled leg. The office work he had to do conscientiously, and with it a certain quantity of connected work in the way of inspections, speeches at temperance meetings, and the like. Why he disliked so much the round of London society is not easy to say. He was very far from being an inhospitable man, nor was he in any way awkward or embarrassed among his fellow-creatures. But he resented having to spend his time at lunches and dinners among a number of people who, though collectively powerful, were not, as a rule, individually congenial to him; and if he could help it he would not do so. He remained at home as much as possible.
Dull as this period of White's life seems to have been, there was one thing about it which could not fail to give it continual interest—namely, the very precarious condition of our relations with the Boer Republics of South Africa. In 1898 it had become clear that hostilities between the Republics and Great Britain were, to say the least of it, not improbable ; and the War Office was well aware of the fact. Political considerations made it difficult to complete the preparations necessary for such an eventuality, but the matter was constantly under discussion. By the summer of 1899 matters had very nearly come to a head, and there seemed to be scant hope of avoiding war.
Nevertheless other matters had to go on as usual, and on the 12th of July Lord Wolseley, who was then Commander-in-Chief, offered White the Governorship of Gibraltar. This appointment, carrying higher pay, and involving the actual command of troops, suited White much better than a London office, and he at once accepted it. Gibraltar was not, however, to be vacant immediately, and as it happened, much water was to run under the bridge before he took charge.
On the 6th of September White was warned by Lord Wolseley that matters were in a very critical state in South Africa, and that he " must be prepared to start almost immediately for Natal." It had then been settled that in case of war an attempt should be made to hold both Natal and Cape Colony against invasion, but without attacking the Boers; and that meanwhile an Army Corps, with a division of cavalry and some subsidiary troops, some 48,000 men in all, should be got together in England. This force, which was eventually to invade the Republics, was to be commanded by Sir Redvers Buller. White's role, pending the arrival of the Army Corps, was to be purely defensive. He was simply to hold and protect Natal.
Before finally appointing White to the Natal command Lord Wolseley expressed some doubt whether White's broken leg would not affect his fitness for service in the field. His answer was to the point. " My leg," he said, " is good enough for anything except running away." This settled the matter.
To enable White to protect Natal effectively it was determined to send out substantial reinforcements. Some small additions to the strength of the troops in the colony had already been made, but now India was called upon to send a contingent of nearly 6000 men, and other corps were sent from different parts of the world. Even so, the total was only to be raised to something over 14,000 men. The Boers were believed to be capable of mobilising three or four times that number, but 14,000 men were thought sufficient to prevent a successful invasion of the colony, and nothing more than this was contemplated.
As an old Commander-in-Chief in India, White was reluctant to deprive India of any part of its British garrison for the sake of Natal. He knew how small that garrison is at all times for the work it has to perform; and at the moment the Amir of Afghanistan was ill, which promised trouble. White specially disliked taking away from India, as it was proposed to do, three of its nine British cavalry regiments. But the British Government had decided, with remarkable self-denial, that in case of war with the Transvaal it would forego entirely the help of the Indian army. Regiments of fine Indian cavalry, specially suited for service on the stony uplands of South Africa, could easily have been sent instead of the English troopers, and Indian infantry could also have done good service. The Government preferred to call upon the British garrison, and perhaps for good reasons. However this may be, White deliberately declared in after years that the contingent from India saved Natal, as no doubt it did. It afforded an excellent example of the way in which different parts of the Empire can be organised to help each other in time of war. The mobilisation and despatch of the contingent were remarkably rapid, and White's incessant work when Commander-in-Chief in India upon questions of mobilisation now perhaps repaid him personally. But this is anticipation.
On the 16th September White sailed from Southampton to take up his new work. There he said good-bye to his wife and eldest daughter, and on the same day he wrote a hurried note of farewell to the brother who had been so much to him :—
Good-bye, my dear J. I have much on me. If anything happens to me, look after those that remain behind me. I will try to keep the name up. You have been the closest affection and the longest of my life.
Before sailing White had been much pleased and touched by receiving from the Queen a summons to Osborne, with a message that she " could not let him go without saying good-bye to him." It was one of the many considerate acts by which Her Majesty showed during these eventful years her unceasing thought for the officers and men of her army, and it strengthened the enthusiastic loyalty with which White had always regarded her.