The Scot steamed into the picturesque harbour of Durban on the morning of the 7th October, and White had his first sight of the famous Natal port, with its residential quarters clustering upon the wooded hills above it, like another Torquay.
But he had little leisure to admire the view, and set to work at once to ascertain the precise number of reinforcements which had arrived before him. The information he received on this point was on the whole satisfactory. Acting with commendable promptitude on the receipt of orders, the government of India had embarked their contingent of nearly 6000 men in the shortest possible time. The telegram asking for the despatch of the contingent had been sent on the 8th September. By the 2nd of October some of the troops were beginning to land at Durban, 3500 miles distant from Bombay, and the rest of them arrived in rapid succession, most of them by the 9th of the month. The reinforcements ordered from Europe and Egypt were not so quick in coming, but they also arrived before the end of October.
White afterwards declared on more than one occasion that the Indian contingent saved Natal, and the situation in South Africa. There can be no doubt that he was right in this view, and that Lord Lansdowne exercised a wise discretion in running the risk of denuding India of a part of its British garrison. If when the fighting began a few days later White had been weaker by three batteries of artillery, two regiments of cavalry, (One, the 9th Lancers, had gone on to Capetown) and three battalions of infantry, his position would have been a desperate one. Certainly he would have had no chance of holding Ladysmith; and between Lady-smith and Durban there was no strong place to stop a superior Boer force. Durban itself might have been held by White's force, if it still existed, and the guns of the fleet; but it would then have been necessary to reconquer the colony from the sea.
After a day spent in Durban, making himself acquainted with the state of affairs and arranging for the movements of the incoming troops, White went on to Pietermaritzburg, the Colonial capital, three hours distant by rail, where he found awaiting him the Governor of Natal, Sir Walter Hely Hutchinson, and Major - General Sir William Penn Symons.
Even with the troops from India in hand, White's position at this moment was singularly difficult. The outbreak of war appeared to be imminent, and he had just landed in Natal, of which he had no personal knowledge. He might expect an immediate invasion of the colony by Boer forces, perhaps amounting to 30 000 or more. To meet this invasion, if it occurred, he might hope to have something like 15,000 troops of all kinds—a considerable portion of which would be " mere units, lacking war organisation except on paper, unknown to their leaders and staff, unacquainted with the country, and with both horses and men out of condition after their sea voyage." (Sir F. Maurice's History) Nor was this all. The troops when White arrived were divided into two bodies—the larger, consisting of about 8000 men, at Ladysmith ; the smaller, consisting of over 4000 men, at Glencoe, a station on the railway forty-two miles north of Ladysmith, where they had been sent to protect the adjacent coal-mines of Dundee and the northern part of Natal. There were also detachments along the line of communications south of Ladysmith. Now in case of an advance in force by the Boers it seemed likely that the Free State men would come from the west over the passes of the Drakensberg, while the Transvaalers would come from the north and east. In that event the comparatively small force about Glencoe might find itself enveloped and cut off from Ladysmith; for it could hardly be expected to make head against five or six times its numbers. And such a misfortune would have a very serious effect upon the whole military situation.
White at once recognised the danger of this division of forces, and determined to put an end to it.
He held that from a military point of view it was impossible to justify, and that the proper course was the concentration of his force in some good position, from which he could strike with his full strength at the gathering enemy if a chance should occur. Glencoe he regarded as an undesirable point for such a concentration, because it was too far north, and the Boers would be able to strike from right and left at his line of communications with Maritzburg and Durban. The line of the Biggarsberg, which he had originally contemplated, was to some extent open to this objection also, and was further barred by the difficulty of obtaining water. In view of these circumstances White came to the conclusion that he must concentrate at Ladysmith, where the bulk of his force was already assembled, and must withdraw the Glencoe force.
This decision he explained personally at a conference attended by the Governor, by Sir William Penn Symons, and by Major-General Sir Archibald Hunter, who had come from India to join Sir Redvers Buller, and had, pending Buller's arrival, been retained in Natal to act as White's Chief of the Staff. White's proposal met with strong opposition. Symons, always a confident soldier, believed that with such a force as he had at Glencoe, and with a country about him peculiarly suited to the action of trained troops, he would be able to strike some severe blows at the gathering forces of the enemy, and that with the support of the troops at Ladysmith the colony could be held up to the more northerly point. Hely Hutchinson also protested vigorously against the withdrawal. It would, he said, involve grave political results ; loyalists would be disgusted and discouraged; many if not most of the Natal Dutch would very likely rise, and the evil might spread to the Dutch in Cape Colony ; while the effect on the natives, of whom there were 750,000 in Natal and Zululand, might be disastrous. He could not answer for what they, or at all events a large portion of them, might do.
These objections were undoubtedly strong, and it is no answer to say that a military commander in the field should not allow himself to be influenced by political considerations. White knew how the Zulus had fought us twenty years before at Isandula and Rorke's Drift. Their spirit was said to have been greatly broken since then; but the prospect of a native rising was nevertheless a terrible one. Scores of thousands of negro fighting men suddenly let loose upon an almost defenceless colony might perpetrate raids and massacres of an appalling character, and would, moreover, threaten his own communications.
Viewed in that light the objections urged by Hely Hutchinson were not merely political. White could not but feel that, representing as they did the opinions of the whole Natal Government, they were worthy of the most serious attention. An attack upon the colony in his rear would be a grievous military embarrassment, and might necessitate the weakening of his force to an extent which would make it insufficient to hold its own against the Boers.
In fact both courses of action open to him seemed to involve risk, and it was not easy to say which involved the greater risk. In the end White decided that he would not for the moment insist upon his own view. He would permit the existing arrangements to stand provisionally, supporting Glencoe as effectively as possible from Ladysmith, and watching the development of the situation. As large a portion as possible of his Ladysmith troops would be kept free for active operations in the field, and with this force he would try himself to deal some blows at the separate bodies of the enemy. If the Glencoe force seemed to be in danger it would be withdrawn. White put the case to the War Office as follows :—
Boer ultimatum finds us short of 5th Dragoon Guards, Gloucesters, Borders, and Royal Irish Fusiliers. I therefore considered it sounder in a military sense to withdraw from Glencoe and concentrate at Ladysmith. The Governor, however, considers withdrawal from Glencoe would be disastrous politically, involving great risk of native rising and Dutch /rebellion in Colony. I have therefore determined to hold on to both places.
It is possible that White's decision may have been wrong, and that he would have done better, as Lord Roberts afterwards thought, to have withdrawn the Glencoe force at once; but it must be admitted that the question was a very doubtful one, and that if White, immediately on his arrival in the colony, had overridden the views both of the Natal Government and of the soldier commanding on the spot, he would not only have shown extraordinary self-confidence, but might have brought about a real disaster. The upshot was that Penn Symons left Maritzburg for Glencoe, and White went on to Ladysmith, where he arrived on the 11th October.
Meanwhile, on the 9th, the Boers had issued their ultimatum, the time allowed for an answer expiring on the evening of the 11th. The terms of the ultimatum were such as could not be accepted, and White therefore arrived at the Headquarters of his force on the very day that war broke out. Before starting he wrote to his wife :—
To Lady White.
P. Maritzburg, 11th October 1899.
I have been so knocked about and had so much to do that I have not had a minute to write to you. I am off to-day to Ladysmith to take command there, where the storm will probably first burst. It is a time of great anxiety, as the Boers' declaration of War comes on us before the arrival of reinforcements that I had hoped to have at my disposal. These include the King's Dragoon Guards, the Gloucester, the Border, & the Royal Irish Fusiliers—four regiments in all, and such a force makes a great difference. I would gladly have the force concentrated at Ladysmith under the circumstances, but I found a force at Glencoe Junction, and the Governor of Natal considers that to remove that force now & to concentrate all at Ladysmith would involve very great risk . of the natives rising & of the Dutchmen in our territory declaring for the enemy.
Under these conditions I have considered myself bound to fight it out at Ladysmith and at Glencoe.
By the time this reaches you I hope the worst will be over, but I cannot hide from myself that we have to face greatly superior numbers in positions which it is very difficult for us to know where to strike, or indeed where the enemy may make an effort. They are all round us. . . . I feel we may be isolated in a day or two.
I would like to wire "Viretum" to you, but it would only make you more anxious; so, when this arrives, you will know that I was thinking of you all with deep love. . . .
To his brother he wrote :—
P. Maritzburg, 11th October 99,
The Boers are certain to declare war to-night, and I am far from being confident in the military position here.
I found troops at Glencoe Junction, and also of course at Ladysmith. The Governor thinks it absolutely necessary politically to hold Glencoe, and I had hoped to have had sufficient force to hold both it and Ladysmith sufficiently strongly, but the authorities at home have diverted the 9th Lancers to the Cape Colony, where they are also very short of troops, and the 5th Dragoon Guards, the Border Regiment, the Gloucester Regiment, and the Royal Irish Fusiliers are still at sea. This makes the present military position much weaker than I could wish, and when the ultimatum was reported I considered it would be a wise military measure to withdraw from Glencoe and concentrate on Ladysmith. The Governor, who is a very good fellow, and helpful, however said that he considered to withdraw from Glencoe would involve a grave risk of the natives rising against us, and of all the Dutch in Natal joining in against us. I therefore told him I would hold on to both Glencoe and Ladysmith.
I think it possible that with their great numbers and mobility the Boers may isolate us even at Ladysmith, and I want to send you a line from this before I leave, to repeat all I said before leaving England. ... It is hard not having been able to get a line from any of you, but I have travelled very fast, and am where I ought to be, in the front.—Ever yours, George.
White's first care on arrival at Ladysmith was to strengthen the place as much as possible, so that in case of things going wrong in the field he might have an entrenched position on which he could fall back. A committee was formed to report upon the question at once, and their report was submitted with admirable promptitude. White himself rode over the whole line of the proposed defences, which were about 14 miles in length, and settled all outstanding details. He also made arrangements for a rapid increase in the accumulation of food stores. Then, having done all he could to make Ladysmith safe from attack, he turned to meet the advancing enemy, determined to fall upon the Boer columns as they gave him an opportunity. He had no intention of standing on the defensive further than might be necessary. A strong offensive defence was very much better suited to his character and antecedents; and much better suited also to the spirit of his officers and men, who were eager to get at ihe enemy. All alike felt that the defeats of the last war must be wiped out, and that there must be no second peace until the power of the two aggressive republics had been finally broken. " I admire Sir George immensely," one of his staff wrote; " he is not in the least fussy, is very shrewd, and does nothing without careful deliberation." And a few days later: " Sir George is splendid, full of fight." He had been full of fight all his life, and had been able to show it for twenty years, ever since he made his name at Char-asia. But he was now to meet a formidable enemy, who would give him all the fighting he wanted.