White's voyage to South Africa on board the Tantallon Castle was in no way eventful. He had on board with him his old military secretaries, Ian Hamilton and Beauchamp Duff; also Colonel Ward, who was going out as Director of Supplies; Major Fairholme, of the Adjutant - General's Department ; Captain Lyon, A.D.C., and other officers. As there seemed to be a fair prospect of active service, the party was a cheerful one.
They touched at Madeira on the 20th September, and found no letters or telegraphic news awaiting them, which was disappointing, for there was now no prospect of further information before their arrival at Capetown a fortnight later, the days of wireless telegraphy not having yet come. But they managed to enjoy themselves in the usual way. White writes to his wife some days afterwards :—
At Madeira we had a very enjoyable morning. I landed with Colonel Hamilton, Frank Lyon, Fairholme, & Colonel Ward, having first posted a letter to you. We went up 2000 feet to an hotel that gives most beautiful views of the anchorage, moving by a very steep railway indeed. We breakfasted in the open air & walked to one or two points from which we got excellent views, & then went down the hill at, a great rate in a toboggan. Johnny & I went together, & we thought with our bad luck in breaking our limbs we were rash, especially when our toboggan men demanded four boire halfway down, & got outside a tumbler of Madeira each. After this the pace improved, but we arrived at the wharf without accident. . . .
The Tantallon Castle was soon off again, and White settled down seriously to study the books and papers on South Africa which he had brought with him. The task before him was by no means an easy one. What he had to do was to work out as far as possible a plan of operations for the defence of Natal in case of hostilities, and the materials at his disposal for forming an opinion were very incomplete. Of the force which he was to command a large part was on the high seas, and he had no acquaintance with the rest of it, or with the country in which it would have to operate. He had no orders whatever to guide him. Rightly or wrongly, the War Office, when sending him out to command in Natal, had issued no instructions which could interfere with his entire freedom of action. He knew, from personal conversations, that he was not expected to attack and conquer the Boers, which his force was evidently insufficient to do, and that for the present, until Sir Redvers Buller should arrive with the Army Corps, he and the officer commanding in Cape Colony, Forestier Walker, were to be entirely independent of each other. He also knew that in the general belief Natal would be the first objective of the Boers in case hostilities broke out, but this was a matter of conjecture.
He was not even certain what his enemy was to be, for it was still doubtful whether, in the event of war with the Transvaal, the Orange Free State would throw in its lot with the latter or remain neutral. Owing to the fact that the Free State marched with Natal on the west, its attitude would make a great difference to the military position.
In these difficult circumstances White had one ground for satisfaction, the knowledge that the officer now commanding the small force in Natal was a tried lieutenant of his own, in whom he had the greatest confidence. I have described elsewhere how White had employed Penn Symons in various posts in Burma, and had found him exceptionally able; how,-when arranging for the Tirah expedition, he had selected Symons as " the most competent man in India (British or Indian Services) to command an infantry division"; and how the Commander of that trying expedition, Lockhart, had reported that "no one could have done better." Penn Symons had now been a couple of months in Natal, and must with his usual energy have done much to obtain a personal knowledge of the problems involved. Some weeks before he had written to White:—
The situation is as critical as it can be, and I am ready to move troops into their positions, to do their best to protect Natal, in two hours. ... I respect our maybe enemy for his love of independence, for his power of mobility, and for his marksmanship. I think also that he has generally behaved fairly well in previous wars. His rule, however, is abominably bad and corrupt.
The supremacy of England in South Africa is no doubt at stake.
It was a comfort to White to feel that he had on the spot already, awaiting his arrival, so brave and capable a soldier, and one who so thoroughly recognised the importance of the issue.
In the meantime all he could do was to study the position himself with the aid of maps and books, and of any persons on board, besides his staff, who could give him local information. Clearly realising from the first that his role was to be a subordinate one, and that his business was simply to " hold up his end" until the Army Corps could arrive in South Africa, he was by no means eager for hostilities. On the contrary, as it seemed to him, delay was all to the advantage of the British, and nothing should be done to provoke a conflict. But he felt also that the Boers of the Transvaal must naturally regard the situation from the opposite point of view, and that they had every reason to strike as soon as possible, before a large British force could be assembled in South Africa. Further, he was convinced that in all probability the Boers of the Free State would make common cause with the Boers of the Transvaal, or at least that it was his business to assume this. And, assuming this, he came to the conclusion that the main objective of the allied governments on the outbreak of hostilities would almost certainly be a combined invasion of Natal.
The reasons for this conclusion were sufficiently obvious. The Boers regarded Natal as a country of which they had been unjustly deprived, and their old sentimental connection with it was strong. Also the northern part of the colony had been the scene of the fighting in the war of 1881, fighting which had ended triumphantly for the Boers at the battle of Majuba. Then Natal was from a strategical point of view the natural field for the operation of combined forces from the two states. If the allied governments decided to make their main attack upon Cape Colony, which lay to the south of the Orange Free State, the Transvaal Boers, who formed the bulk of the whole, would have to march right across the Free State, for two or three hundred miles, before they could come into action. Natal, on the other hand, pushed up between the two states, and offered a tempting objective against which both could strike in unison, easily and rapidly, each from its own base. Finally, it was a much simpler and shorter operation to sweep down to the sea at Durban than to reach Capetown, and the results would be equally good, perhaps better. It is true that there was, or soon would be, a larger British force in Natal than in Cape Colony; but in one sense this offered an additional attraction to the Boers. Not only would it be dangerous for them to leave the Natal force in their rear, but, knowing that they were superior in numbers and in mobility, they had good reason to hope that this force would be unable to hold its own; and, in that case, the larger it was the greater would be the consequences of its defeat upon the fortunes of the whole war. If the Boers could strike a swift and heavy blow in Natal, their wavering sympathisers all over the country would be encouraged to rise, and might join them in thousands; foreign powers might intervene; and at all events the victorious allies, throwing themselves upon the southern theatre of war after they had disposed of Natal, might fairly expect to break through the weak line of British troops holding the frontier, and then march down to Capetown itself through a country where they could count upon the sympathies of half the population. Therefore the general belief that in case of hostilities Natal would be the first objective of the Boers seemed to have a solid foundation, and White accepted it.
It will be seen from the map that the more northerly portion of the colony consists of a narrow triangle wedged in between the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Any attempt to defend this wedge of land against largely superior forces capable of advancing from both east and west, as well as from the north, seemed exceedingly dangerous, especially as the invaders could in every direction conceal their movements behind a mountain screen.
On the other hand, it was of course desirable not to surrender to the enemy more of the colony than military principles demanded, and especially not to fall back beyond Ladysmith, at the base of the triangle, where we had a considerable garrison and a large collection of military stores, and where the railway lines from the Transvaal and the Free State met. To let this place fall into Boer hands would involve a serious sacrifice, moral and material; and would enable the invading forces to concentrate unopposed, with their railway lines intact behind them. Ladysmith therefore must be retained.
To the north of it a rough range of hills, the Biggarsberg, runs east and west across a large part of the width of the colony, and seems to offer a fine defensive position, which Ladysmith itself can hardly be said to do, for Ladysmith lies on low ground, commanded by the hills which surround it in all directions. After full consideration, therefore, White decided provisionally, subject to reconsideration on the spot, that the Biggarsberg would form his main position. He did not intend to make it a purely defensive one. On the contrary, he meant to use his force offensively, striking out at separate bodies of the enemy as chance might offer, and if possible beating them in succession in the open field. But the Biggarsberg was to be his strong point, by holding which he would cover Ladysmith and the rest of the colony, and prevent any further advance to the south, while interposing between the two main lines of Boer communication—the railways from the north and the west. It was afterwards found that the line of the Biggarsberg was, as a permanent position, untenable for lack of water, and also that it was too far north to prevent dangerous flank attacks from the passes of the Drakensberg, so that White was forced to abandon his intention and make Ladysmith itself his strong point. But the matter is mentioned here because Lord Wolseley, in his evidence before the War Commission some years later, indicated the Biggarsberg as the position which White should have occupied, and declared that Ladysmith was no position at all. Theoretically, with the information to be obtained at a distance, he was doubtless right, and, as I have said, White came to much the same conclusion. "A force massed on the Biggarsberg" was what his letters show he contemplated. But opinions on such matters formed at a distance often have to be discarded after personal consideration on the spot.
Early on the morning of the 3rd October, " in drizzling rain and very cold," White's ship was off Capetown, and it may be imagined that his anxiety for news was intense. The news when it came was not good. Hardly had the ship got alongside the jetty when General Forestier Walker was on board. He had come to meet White, and take him up to see the High Commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner. The General reported that war had not yet been declared, but that it could hardly be averted, and that the population of Cape Colony was largely on the side of the Boers. The situation was discussed at length by the three men mainly concerned—the sorely-tried High Commissioner, who, White wrote, looked "worked and worried," and the two military Chiefs.
Milner, upon whom such a burden of responsibility had fallen, naturally felt that Cape Colony was in grave danger; and he would have liked to strengthen the British force in the colony so as to overawe the disaffected and prevent the exodus of fighting rebels, which had already begun. But Milner and Forestier Walker, "a charming gentleman," as White called him, both appreciated the fact that it was impossible to be strong enough everywhere, and that the only chance of success lay in concentrating the British strength at the most important point. With a detachment of view which did them both much credit, they recognised that for the time the important point was Natal, and that the safety of Cape Colony must be subordinated to the checking of the main Boer attack on the eastern theatre of war. They therefore decided to content themselves in Cape Colony with something very like what the official historian of the war has called a policy of bluff, and to leave to White in Natal all, or almost all, the troops which were assembling there from over seas, thus avoiding what would have been a weak and probably fatal policy of dissemination of forces. White had good reason during the next few months to feel grateful to them for their broad-minded unselfishness.
Meanwhile the imminence of war, and the extreme gravity of the position in Natal, where the organisation of the defence did not admit of an hour's delay, decided White to change his plans. Instead of remaining a day or so in Capetown and going on to Durban in the ship which had brought him, he arranged to start the same evening by train to Port Elizabeth, right across the colony, where another vessel was to await him and take him on. It was an interesting journey, and opened his eyes regarding the state of affairs. The following is a letter to his wife, written at the end of it:—
To Lady White.
SS. " Scot " (Union Line), 6th October 99.
At nearly every station the people appeared to be divided into two camps, one English & one Dutch. The railway is manned chiefly by Englishmen, Station Masters, Guards, Conductors, etc.; but grouped by themselves at most stations were parties of Boers, bearded, with slouched hats, looking physically, I thought, above the standard of the English, but intellectually much below them. At some stations the Dutch were travelling from our Colony with arms in their hands, presumably to join their Countrymen across the border. "We constantly passed bands of refugees or persons that had been ordered out of the Transvaal & Orange Free State. I had not before realized what a large proportion of Dutch there are in the Cape Colony, & how sharp-edged is the antagonism between the races. . . .
For the next three months the Dutch have the best of us as regards armed strength & position. A little success might give them enormous advantage. . . .
If I am to have a look-in in this campaign important events will probably take place before this reaches you. If the Boers take the initiative & I can beat them heavily, I believe the war will be practically over. If they gain the first successes the consequences may be very far reaching. The telegraph will have told you before this reaches you. Every day we can put off the Boer advance the better for us. The Indian troops are landing at Durban & are well up to time, but I would like to have another fortnight to organize them & their transport before the storm breaks. It is all most interesting, & I have charming men to work with. . . .
This is my lucky day, 6th October, Charasia day. May it be a date of good omen for us all.
Your most affectionate