When the night of the 30th October came to an end, White had to decide, and to decide at once, upon his future course of action. The enemy, in numbers about double his own, and very much more mobile, were now all round him except directly to the south, where the railway ran down to Maritzburg and Durban. In a few days at the most, unless he could do something to prevent them, they would certainly close this outlet also. From Ladysmith the line ran for about sixteen miles through a mass of rugged hills. It then crossed, at or near Colenso, the river Tugela, and passed on through comparatively open country for a hundred miles to the colonial capital at Maritzburg, whence it dropped rapidly, winding among rolling hills, to the sea coast at Durban. On the whole line of communications, a hundred and ninety miles, from Ladysmith to Durban, the number of armed men was then small, two or three thousand in all, and there was no prospect of immediate reinforcement on any considerable scale, though some more local levies might be raised, and in course of time troops might arrive by sea.
Practically the courses open to White were two. He could either remain at Ladysmith, holding his entrenched position there, and striking out whenever the enemy offered him a chance, or, if he acted at once, he could perhaps evacuate Ladysmith and fall back behind the Tugela upon his communications, hoping to find, either on the line of the river or to the south of it, a position which he could defend against superior numbers with a prospect of success.
It need hardly be said that during the fortnight preceding the fight of the 30th October White had considered, as carefully as his many urgent duties allowed, the question what he should do if his offensive operations failed and the enemy proved strong enough to press him back upon Ladysmith. The problem which he had now to solve was therefore not an unexpected one, and White's decision was prompt. Sir Redvers Buller was expected to land at Capetown on the 31st October, and to assume command of the forces in South Africa. On that day White received from him a telegram, of which the following is an extract:—
Please telegraph me accurate description of your views of the situation. I doubt if Boers will ever attack you if entrenched. Hitherto you have gone out to attack them; can you not entrench and wait for events, if not at Ladysmith, then behind Tugela at Colenso ? No reinforcements can reach you for at least 14 days. "Why not try and play the game now played by the Boers ? The only thing I can do is to send some of the fleet to Durban to protect our base. Let me know if you wish that done.
No. 109 A of 31.10.99. The Boers have established themselves in very strong positions in the hills west, north, and east of Ladysmith. Each man has one or two ponies. They resent intrusion so much that it is impossible to ascertain their numbers. They live on the country, and their mobility gives them great advantages. They say themselves they will attack. Ladysmith is strongly entrenched, but the lines are not continuous, and the perimeter so large that Boers could exercise their usual tactics. Our men want rest from fighting; but I have the greatest confidence in holding Ladysmith for as long as necessary. I could not now withdraw from it. I think it would be politic to send some of the fleet to Durban to keep up public confidence there. . . . Hitherto I have considered the interests of the colony south of this required me to hit out. Yesterday's fighting showed me there were risks and limits to this. I wired Governor yesterday that I would send Dublin Fusiliers to guard bridge at Colenso as best step I could take for protection of colony. I intend to contain as many Boers as possible round Ladysmith, and I believe they will not go south without making an attempt on Ladysmith.
On the same day White telegraphed to the Governor of Natal, Sir Walter Hely Hutchinson :—
31st October.—My intention is to hold Ladysmith, make attacks on the enemy's position whenever possible, and retain the greatest number of the enemy here.
A day or two earlier, but the telegram does not show the date of despatch, White had telegraphed to Buller :—
Welcome. Have a very strong force in front of me, with many guns. Natal requires earliest reinforcement possible. Troops here very heavily worked, especially cavalry. I will do all my means admit to conquer enemy. (It seems probable, from Buller's evidence before the Royal Commission on the War, that this telegram was despatched on the 28th October, before the fight of Lombard's Kop, and that Buller, who had arrived at Capetown late on the evening of the 30th, received it on the morning of the 31st.)
It is clear, therefore, that on the 31st October White had made up his mind to remain in Ladysmith, and had said so. Also that he considered it necessary to send reinforcements to Natal as soon as possible. He did not, therefore, consider his own force sufficient to beat the Boers definitely. Though he would still try to do this, he did not expect to succeed. What he really hoped for was to contain the main body of them until support could arrive.
This was the situation which confronted Buller when he arrived in South Africa to take command of the Army Corps, which, as explained in Chapter I., was to attack and subdue the Boer Republics. The Army Corps had not yet assembled, or indeed begun to arrive in South Africa, and Buller had not yet decided upon his best line of attack. But in the meanwhile he answered White :—
Your 109 of 31st October. I agree that you do best to remain at Ladysmith, though Colenso and line of Tugela Eiver look tempting, but I would suggest for consideration whether, if you can reduce perimeter of defence, you might not send one Battalion and one Begiment of Cavalry in direction of Albert or York, or even Greytown, or somewhere covering Maritzburg from raid from North-East.
You have a large force of mounted troops now on the left of the Tugela Biver. Some of them might be better value on the right of that river. It will be at least three solid weeks before I can attempt to reinforce you, and at present I fancy that the best help I can then give you will be to take Bloemfontein. Good luck to you. You must have had some merry fights.
White replied on the 1st of November :—
I have information that a Commando estimated at 2000 men, Free State, with guns, have arrived within a few miles Colenso. I had ordered French with two Cavalry regiments and 400 Mounted Volunteers to try and help, but later information shows that all the roads are strongly held by enemy. I think the Cavalry could not get through without heavy loss, so I have countermanded them. If road clears will send one Cavalry regiment across Tugela. I cannot reduce perimeter without yielding Artillery positions that would make Ladysmith untenable. Their guns are better than our Field guns. Don't ask me to detach another Battalion. The enemy are in great force.
It will be seen, therefore, that White's decision to remain at Ladysmith had the approval of Sir Redvers Buller, and had indeed been suggested by him. For the future there was no further doubt, if there had ever been any doubt, with regard to this point. Lord Roberts afterwards agreed that the decision had been a sound one. But the telegrams which passed between White and Buller do not give in detail White's reasons for it, and as there was afterwards some discussion on the subject, it seems desirable to let White state those reasons for himself. I quote from his despatch of the 23rd March 1900 the following paragraph :—
It may be well to state here shortly the reasons which governed my choice of this position. Ladysmith is the most important town in Northern Natal, and there was reason to believe that the enemy attached very great and perhaps even undue importance to obtaining possession of it. It was suspected then, and the suspicion has since been confirmed, that the occupation of that town by the Boer forces had been decided on by the disloyal Dutch in both colonies as the signal for a general rising; as, in fact, a material guarantee that the power of the combined Republics was really capable of dealing with any force the British Empire was able to place in the field against them. Our withdrawal would therefore have brought about an insurrection so widespread as to have very materially increased our difficulties. Strategically the town was important as being the junction of the Railways which enter Natal from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and until the Republics could gain possession of that junction their necessarily divergent lines of supply and communication prevented their enjoying to the full the advantages of combined action. Tactically the place was already partially prepared for defence, and offered a natural position of some strength; and although the perimeter which must be occupied was very great for the number of troops available, yet it afforded the possibility of maintaining a protracted defence against superior numbers. On the other hand, the mere fact of a retirement behind the Tugela would have had a moral effect at least equal to a serious defeat, and would have involved the abandonment to the enemy of a large town full of an English population, men, women, and children; and of a mass of stores and munitions of war which had been already collected there before my arrival in South Africa, and had since been increased. The line of the Tugela from the Drakensberg to the Buffalo River is some 80 miles long, and in a dry season such as last November can be crossed on foot almost anywhere. Against an enemy with more than double my numbers, and three times my mobility, I could not hope to maintain such a line with my small force, and any attempt to prevent their turning my flanks could only have resulted in such a weakening of my centre as would have led to its being pierced. Once my flank was turned on the line of the river the enemy would have been nearer Maritzburg than I should have been, and a rapid withdrawal by rail for the defence of the capital would have been inevitable. Even there it would have been impossible to make a prolonged defence without leaving it open to the enemy to occupy the important port of Durban, through which alone supplies and reinforcements could arrive, and for the defence of which another retreat would have become eventually essential; thus abandoning to the enemy the whole Colony of Natal from Lang's Nek to the sea. On the other hand, I was confident of holding out at Ladysmith as long as might be necessary, and I saw clearly that so long as I maintained myself there I could occupy the great mass of the Boer armies and prevent them sending more than small flying columns south of the Tugela, which the British and Colonial forces in my rear, aided by such reinforcements as might shortly be expected, could deal with without much difficulty. Accordingly I turned my whole attention to preparing Ladysmith to stand a prolonged siege.
Such was White's reasoning, and it was certainly-borne out by the subsequent course of the war. The Boers never did cross the Tugela in any real force, and those who advocated a retirement from Ladysmith to the river line did not attempt to prove that such an alternative course would have been practicable and successful. It would certainly have been a risky experiment, and involved serious sacrifices.
I have quoted before some comments upon the situation in Northern Natal by the great American strategist, Mahan. The following is his review of the general situation during the first period of the war, that is, up to the arrival of Sir Redvers Buller in South Africa on the 30th October:—
Up to the present success had seemed to lie with the Boers, but the appearance was only superficial. Their plan had been well designed, but in execution it had failed; and while the failure is to be laid in part to a certain tardiness and lack of synchronism in their own movements, it was due yet more to the well-judged, energetic, and brilliantly executed movements of Sir George White and Sir Penn Symons, which utilised and completed the dislocation of the enemy's action, and so insured the time necessary for organising defence upon an adequately competent scale.
Mahan goes on to quote an opinion given by Spencer Wilkinson on the 18th October:—
Sir George White's force is the centre of gravity of the situation. If the Boers cannot defeat it their case is hopeless; if they can crush it they may have hopes of ultimate success.
And Mahan's remark upon this opinion is as follows :—
The summary was true then and is now. In the preliminary trial of skill and strength the Boers had been worsted.
Mahan was apparently writing not earlier than July 1900, when the issue of the war had been practically decided. In other parts of his book he discusses at length the decision to hold Ladysmith, and insists upon the soundness of it. His view, the view of an independent critic and trained student of military operations, may be summed up in one sentence :—
Probably no single incident of the war has been more determinative of final issues than the tenure of Ladysmith.
With that the question whether White acted rightly in remaining at Ladysmith instead of sacrificing the town and attempting a retreat, in the face of a superior enemy flushed with success, to the south of the Tugela, may be left to the judgment of History, if indeed judgment has not long ago been delivered. No one, I think, who has studied the arguments on both sides can have much doubt on the subject.
White might perhaps have added to the reasons for his decision one more, namely, that the left or northern bank of the Tugela in most parts commands the southern bank, a fact the importance of which was afterwards only too clearly shown; but the reasons seem conclusive as they stand.
He had now to justify them by his subsequent action, for it is to be remembered that remaining in Ladysmith was not in itself enough. He had to hold Ladysmith in such a way as to hold the enemy. If, to use his own words, Ladysmith was to be a shield protecting the vitals of Natal, then it must be so used as to attract to itself, and ward off, the enemy's strokes.