It has been said that White's intention was not to await the onslaught of the Boers, but, having made Ladysmith as far as possible secure as a "point d'appui" upon which he could fall back if overmatched in the field, to hold as large a part of his force as possible ready for offensive action, and to attack the enemy wherever a chance might occur of beating him in detail before his advancing columns could meet and combine. This plan was evidently the right one, and in pursuance of it four considerable actions were fought by White or his subordinates at a distance from Ladysmith during the latter part of October.
But before describing these actions, and the result of them, it may be well to say a few words with regard to the numbers and composition of the opposing forces, and the nature of the ground upon which they were about to contend. There has been so much misconception on this head that although the matter has been elucidated in more than one history of the war, it would be undesirable to pass on to the actual fighting without a brief statement of the conditions under which it was to be carried on.
As to the nature of the ground, it is only necessary to say that the northern part of the Natal Colony consisted of rolling uplands largely bare of forest, where the hills, though often rugged and precipitous, yet as a rule offered a wide field of fire both for artillery and for riflemen, and could be crossed in all directions by mounted troops. It was rough country, but fairly open, and there were few if any positions where an inferior force could hold its own for long against enveloping movements.
As to the numbers of the opposing forces, it is not easy to form an accurate opinion, but after comparing the various estimates given on both sides, it seems fairly clear that on the British side there were in Natal, all told, including militia, volunteers, and police, between 15,000 and 16,000 men, of whom possibly 12,000 were in Ladysmith or north of it, while the Boers had across the Natal border about 24,000 of the 48,000 men they had mobilised. In numbers, therefore, White had about two men to three, and his available field force, including the detachment under Symons, was about in the proportion of one to two.
With regard to the composition of the two forces, White's force consisted for the most part of regular troops, who were presumably superior in discipline and tactical efficiency to any irregulars; but it is to be remembered that they were a " scratch " force, hastily assembled from various parts of the world, and that many of them were just landed after a long sea voyage —their horses quite unfit for immediate work. The Boers, on the other hand, were almost entirely irregulars, burghers mobilised for the war, without the discipline and organisation of trained soldiers. But it must not be inferred that they were therefore simply armed civilians, such as could have been raised from among the population of a state in Europe—" mere farmers," as they were often described to be. No description of them could have been farther from the truth. The Boers had in some ways received much more preparation for a soldier's work than the British soldier who fought against them. Many of them had been brought up from childhood to shoot and to ride and to scout. All this has to be elaborately taught to the British recruit, with what difficulty no one can know who has not tried. Finally, and this is a fact the importance of which can hardly be overestimated, the Boers were all mounted men, and could move three times as fast as the British infantry soldier. With their deadly marksmanship, the marksmanships of lifelong sportsmen, a frontal attack upon them was sure to be very costly to their assailants; and if the British tried a flank attack it was easy for a body of Boers to canter out on their hardy ponies and form a fresh front which our slow-moving infantry could not turn. Their mobility, in fact, had the effect of greatly increasing their numbers. Thoroughly well armed, both as regards artillery and rifles, with a trained eye for ground, and surrounded by a population which was largely on their side, they were a formidable enemy. They had their limitations, notably the reluctance to face heavy loss for a military object, and the lack of that discipline without which great combined opera-ions cannot be carried out; but as partisan fighters they were hard to beat.
It may perhaps be remarked here that White was about to meet his enemy with a force composed entirely of white men ; for, as already observed, the British Government had decided, rightly or wrongly, to make this a white man's war, and to give up the incalculable military advantage which would have accrued to them by employing against the Boers a contingent of Indian troops. It was a great sacrifice, and one which few nations would have made. Russia has always used her Cossacks in European warfare. In the Franco-German War of 1870 the French brought over Spahis and Turkos to fight against the Germans. Still more striking is the fact that in the American Civil War the North enlisted considerable numbers of negroes to fight against the Confederates. If therefore the British Government, when faced by war in South Africa, had brought over from India, instead of, or in addition to, her contingent of white men, a much larger force of picked troops drawn from the Indian fighting races, it is not easy to see how any one could reasonably have found fault with their action. The Indian army consisted of regular troops, trained and commanded by British officers, and many of them belonging to ancient races which stood high in the scale of civilisation. And in some respects the Indian troops were really better fitted than the British for meeting an enemy so mobile as the Boers. The cavalry especially, light men well mounted, on handy little horses accustomed to hard ground and rough food, with many regiments inured to the constant warfare of the North-West Frontier, would have proved extremely useful on the veldt or among the stony valleys and hills of Upper Natal, where scouting power and rapidity in action were essential to success. India could have spared two Indian soldiers for every white man, or in addition to the white men, and it would have been difficult to overestimate the value of such a reinforcement thrown into Natal at the beginning of the war. Perhaps the Queen's Government judged aright as to the feeling in Great Britain and the oversea dominions when they promulgated their self-denying ordinance, and in the end they may not have suffered thereby, for South Africa is peculiarly situated in regard to colour feeling; but it must be admitted that the immediate loss was great. It involved meeting the enemy with very inferior numbers.