When, on the 1st March 1900, Buller himself entered Ladysmith, White's work in South Africa was at an end. His last act as commander of a separate force had been to send out a pursuing column to harass the retreating enemy. Both men and horses were too weak to do fast work, but they shelled and captured some of the enemy's camps. Then, on Buller's arrival, the column was recalled. Having many years' experience of the Boers, he thought that any attempt to force their rearguards would be merely a waste of men; and " Sir Redvers Buller was in command."
White had now laid down the responsible position which he had held for five months, since his arrival in Natal; and it may be well to consider here, at the cost of some repetition, what the result of his tenure of command had been.
It has been shown in an earlier chapter that when he sailed for South Africa in September 1899 he had no illusions as to the part which he would have to play in case of war. There was no question of his attacking and conquering the Boer Republics. It had been settled that if war broke out Buller was to be sent to the Cape with a large force, and that the conduct of offensive operations was to be in his hands. White was simply to hold Natal, while Forestier Walker held Cape Colony, until Buller arrived to take supreme command; and the intention was that Buller with his Army Corps should then attack and subdue the Republics, probably by invading their territory from the southward; White with his comparatively small force co-operating no doubt, if possible, from the eastern side of the vast theatre of war, but in a subordinate capacity. It was not then known, though it was guessed, what the Boer plan of campaign was likely to be. There could be no doubt that at the outset the enemy would be largely superior in numbers; and it seemed probable, therefore, that they would strike at once, while the British forces both in Cape Colony and Natal were weak. But whether they would throw their united weight upon the force in Natal, or upon the force in the Cape, or try to attack on both sides simultaneously, no one could say.
When war did break out it very soon became clear that they meant to throw the bulk of their troops into Natal. They had unwisely diverted a considerable part of their strength for secondary operations against Mafeking and Kimberley; but the very day after war was declared the Commander-in-Chief of the allied Boer forces was on the Natal border with about half of the total number of Burghers mobilised, and no secret was made of the fact that they hoped with one rush to sweep Natal, from the northern border to the sea. That first stroke delivered, and the British force in Natal captured, or completely beaten and driven under the guns of their ships, the combined strength of the Republics was to be thrown upon Cape Colony, where thousands of their sympathisers would by this time have risen in response to their victory ; and the conquering armies, gathering numbers at every step, were to sweep down to Capetown as they had swept down to Durban. If, stirred by their victorious rush in Natal, foreign nations came in on their side, so much the better; but, with or without foreign help, the English would be driven into the sea, and the " vierkleur" would float over a free South Africa.
It was a fine conception, and there seemed to be no reason why it should fail of success. When war was declared nothing stood between the Boer armies and the fulfilment of their dream but the hastily gathered British force in Natal—hardly a third of their numbers. In Cape Colony there were only a few scattered detachments, barely half the strength of the Natal force. British reinforcements of any value could not arrive in South Africa for at least a month. And the Natal force was within easy striking distance, very few days' march from the Boer Headquarters. Surely in much less than a month their rapidly moving mounted swarms would have enveloped and destroyed it, and all South Africa would be in a blaze of revolt.
That this was no fantastic idea the Boers soon showed. Met by a fighting opponent, who was determined to foil their enveloping scheme by striking out at them the moment he got them within reach, they suffered two sharp defeats in the field; yet, within three weeks of their crossing the border, they had pressed him back into Ladysmith, with the loss of a tenth of his force, and surrounded him. All Northern Natal was in their hands, and to some of the best heads among them the whole Colony seemed to be at their mercy ; for they could either overwhelm Ladysmith by direct assault, or, leaving behind them a force sufficient to prevent its garrison from breaking out, push on with the remainder of their army to the southward, where there was practically nothing to stop them. As they had a numerical superiority in fighting men of perhaps two to one, a superiority which was increased by their power of rapid movement, with an artillery also superior in weight and range, if not in numbers, either course seemed within their powers. Possibly this was the case. Many of the Boers, it is said, were confident of their ability to take Ladysmith in a hand-to-hand fight; and many more, including Louis Botha, advocated pressing on at once to Maritzburg and Durban. But, happily, if the Boers were strong enough to do either, the fact was not understood by their responsible leaders, or by the outer world.
And possibly the Boers were not strong enough. This was George White's view when he decided to accept investment in Ladysmith. He believed that, though unsuccessful in preventing the junction of their forces, or inflicting upon them a decisive defeat in the field, he had by his vigorous fighting during the first fortnight of the war implanted in the hearts of the brave but cautious Burghers a wholesome respect for the fighting qualities of the British soldier.
Their easy successes in the former war of 1881, followed not by any counter-stroke, but by a peace which seemed to them a complete surrender on the part of Great Britain, had led them to enter upon the present war with the greatest confidence. They believed, as White said, that they would be able to kill without being killed, and that after a few defeats the British Government would give in again as it had done before. Now they had learned at Talana and Elandslaagte that British troops well handled were a formidable enemy, especially at close quarters ; and though the lesson had been somewhat discounted by their success at Nicholson's Nek, it had not been lost upon them. Moreover, their leader, Joubert, though a brave and chivalrous antagonist, was known to be a very prudent one. To quote Admiral Mahan :—
His idea appears always to have been to act within limits of safety, to consider self-preservation—the preservation, that is, of his own forces—more important than the destruction of the enemy.
A due consideration of these facts, and others, had led White to the conclusion that the Boer armies were not capable either of taking Ladysmith by assault or-of masking it and sweeping down over the south of the colony. Ladysmith would, he believed, " act as a shield to the rest of Natal."
I was confident of holding out at Ladysmith as long as might be necessary, and I saw clearly that as 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.
And whatever the Boers might have done, it is certain that in the actual event White's forecast of what they would do turned out to be correct.
The Boer Commander-in-Chief, Joubert, at first refused to let any of his men cross the river. Later, after the abortive attack of the 9th November, he did himself attempt a raid to the south of the Tugela, with a body of 4000 men, and one or two smaller bodies also made raids ; but throughout, for four long months, the mass of his forces remained in front of Ladysmith. Twice during that time they endeavoured to carry it by assault, but both times unsuccessfully, and they never ventured to march away to the southward, leaving Ladysmith in their rear.
Before half the four months had passed Natal had been so reinforced from England that it was no longer in danger; and before White's starving garrison was relieved by Buller a large British army was nearing the capital of the Free State. Ladysmith, to use Mahan's words again, had been to the Boers "like a dead weight round the neck of a swimmer struggling for life under other disadvantages." It had held the bulk of the enemy's forces inactive, or at least stationary, for a hundred and twenty days, while the British forces were pouring into South Africa at the rate of a thousand men a day. When White, " very sad" at the loss of his two regiments at Nicholson's Nek, but clear in his purpose and confident of the issue, retired behind the line of defences he had carefully prepared beforehand, the whole of the British troops in South Africa, outside those defences, did not number ten thousand men. When Dundonald rode into the town, on the 28th February, much more than ten times that number were facing the Boer armies, and all chance of eventual success in the war was at an end for the two Republics.
That White understood throughout what he was doing cannot be doubted. At the beginning of the war he hoped, and tried, to inflict upon the forces invading Natal a decisive defeat in the field; but, having regard to his numbers and theirs, he foresaw the probability of his failing in this endeavour, and set to work at once to provision and fortify Ladysmith. When, in accordance with his forecast, he found himself obliged to fall back upon the stronghold he had made ready, he still hoped to be able to strike out at times if opportunity arose ; but in any case he was resolved to maintain himself in the most forward position he could hold, and to prevent the advance of the enemy beyond that point. His force, though not strong enough to beat the enemy in the open, was yet too strong to be passed by—
incapable, doubtless, of taking the field against the vastly-superior numbers confronting it, but most capable, by numbers and position, of embarrassing any onward movement of the enemy.
It would lie directly upon their line of communications.
To secure these it would be necessary, before forward movement, either to carry the place by assault, suitably prepared and executed, thus sweeping it out of the way for good, or else to keep before it a detachment of sufficient strength to check any effort seriously to interrupt the communications. But this would be to divide the Boer forces, to which doubtless Joubert did not feel his numbers adequate. This was the important—the decisive—part played by Ladysmith in the campaign.(Mahan)
And this, as I have shown, is precisely what White was aiming at. On the 31st October he had telegraphed to Buller :—
I have the greatest confidence in holding Ladysmith for as long as necessary. ... 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 date he telegraphed to the Governor of Natal:—
My intention is to hold Ladysmith, make attacks on the enemy's position whenever possible, and retain the greatest number of the enemy here.
And even when the main purpose of his stand at Ladysmith had been accomplished, and Natal was comparatively safe, he still felt the great importance of prolonging his defence of the place to the last extremity, both to save the Empire the discredit of its fall, and to hold before its defences the best of the Boer armies. On the 23rd January he writes to his wife :—
I was right when, months ago, I said Ladysmith would be the strategical point of the war.
And on the 3rd February :—
I believe the Boers have from the first so set their hearts on conquering Natal that I believe they will hold out here to-the very end. They say—so our spies tell us—they have come here " to conquer or to die." I will therefore do all in my power to keep the English flag flying here as long as I can.
There is no need to claim for White greater credit than he deserves. Lord Roberts, and not White, broke the power of the Boer Republics, and brought the war to a successful issue. But Lord Roberts came to South Africa with a large army. Before any part of that army had arrived in the country, when the Boers greatly outnumbered the British, and their main strength had been thrown upon Natal, one. British force stood between them and the accomplishment of their purpose. The fall of Kimberley or Mafeking would not have seriously affected the course of the war. The capture or entire defeat of White's^ force would have meant without a doubt the conquest of Natal down to the sea. The guns of the British ships might possibly have saved the port of Durban
itself, but the Boers would have been all round it. And in all probability they would, not many weeks afterwards, have been all round Capetown. The task of the British, even if no foreign powers had intervened—and the attitude of foreign powers was hot friendly—would then have been to reconquer South Africa from the seaboard. Against an enemy as brave and tenacious in defence as the Boers, flushed with victory, and backed by great numbers of the Dutch colonists, that would have been a formidable task. If the whole strength of the Empire had been put forth it would probably have been accomplished, but it would not have been easily accomplished. Mahan writes :—
Probably no single incident of the war has been more determinative of final issues than the tenure of Ladysmith.
And then, after " an examination of the relation borne by this single factor to the whole," he goes on as follows :—
Discussion has been thus long, because, in the author's judgment, White's action in shutting himself up in the place, and the admirable tenacity of himself and of the garrison in their resistance, were the shaping factors in a contest the ultimate result of which was probably certain in any event, but which in feature and occurrence would have been very different had Ladysmith either not been occupied or proved incapable of protracted resistance.
This is a temperate statement of the case ; but it is sufficient to show Mahan's opinion of the great importance of White's share in the war. And two years after the close of the siege, hearing from a friend that White had seen and appreciated his book, Mahan wrote to him on the subject. The letter speaks of
the warm sympathy and admiration with which I followed your course not only amid the imperfect day to day reports, while the siege continued, but as I studied the fuller reports at a later day when preparing my brief account.
It goes on :—
I have had occasion to renew the public expression of my profound conviction of the correctness and importance of your decision, as well as of the heroic tenacity of your defence. . . i The fact that the fortunes of the war, through a protracted, critical period, hinged solely upon your personal constancy, will, I am persuaded, more and more through all subsequent^ time, identify your name with the final success of the Empire' in this distinctively imperial contest.
It has seemed desirable, when treating of Ladysmith, to dwell upon passages in Mahan's book, and in this spontaneous letter, rather than upon the opinions of others, because Mahan was not only a profound student of strategy, but a critic whose views on the subject were free from all bias. English writers on the war, and English soldiers who had borne a share in it, were not in such an exceptional position of mental detachment as the distinguished! American. Therefore, though it would have been easy to quote valuable opinions regarding the decision to hold Ladysmith, and the result of that decision upon the course of the war, I have preferred to quote Mahan.
To put the matter in a few words, George White did not conquer the Boers, a task for which his force was far too small; but by occupying and holding Ladysmith during the first and most critical phase of the war, he stopped the Boer rush, in the success of which lay their only hope of ultimate victory. Their plan of campaign, which might have had incalculable results, was wrecked on the hills round Ladysmith. To use his own words, he " kept the flag flying" until the strength of England could be brought to bear. That was the great service which he rendered to his country.