As was the case a century ago, on the eve of the French Revolution, Great Britain last year indulged too long her dream of peace, and awaked from it too late for timely preparation. Like a man who starts behindhand with his day, the catching up meant double worry, if not double work. Hildyard's brigade, which sailed October 20, had, thirty days before, been preceded by two hospital ships, three batteries of field artillery and a thousand infantry; the last-named getting away on the 19th, only one day before Hildyard. No British field troops had then reached South Africa, save a couple of battalions additional to Cape Colony, and the reinforcements to Sir George White drawn mainly from India, which, with most of his corps in Natal, and despite his well-directed energy, the Boers by their superior numbers were able to round up and corral in Ladysmith in three weeks after their ultimatum was issued. There were then also on the way some fifteen hundred of the Army Service Corps, an organised body of men trained for the supply and transport service of the army, and of skilled mechanics, whose duties are to construct and maintain works of various kinds for the facilitation of army supply—transport and depot. These had sailed in the early days of October.
Such was the mighty enginery antecedently set in motion, to crush the liberties of the Transvaal. An interesting further illustration of the way decision was precipitated toward the end is found in the fact that Sir George White was gazetted Governor of Gibraltar in the last week in August, and on September 15 sailed to command the forces in Natal.
"My small experience," wrote Steevens about October 12 from the well-advanced station of Stormberg Junction, in Cape Colony, "has been confined to wars you could put your fingers on; for this war I have been looking long enough and have not found it.... We are heavily outnumbered, and have adopted no heroic plan of abandoning the indefensible. We have an irregular force of mounted infantry at Mafeking, a regiment (regulars) at Kimberley, a regiment and a half at De Aar" (the most important of junctions), "half of the Berkshires at Naauwport, the other half here." Stormberg and Naauwport were also junctions, secondary only, if secondary, to De Aar, in the strategic importance that always attaches to cross-roads. "The famous fighting Northumberlands came crawling up behind our train, and may now be at Naauwport or De Aar. Total, say, 4,100 infantry, of whom 600 mounted; no cavalry, no field guns. The Boer force available against these isolated positions might be very reasonably put at 12,000 mounted infantry, with perhaps a score of guns.... It is dangerous—and yet nobody cares. There is nothing to do but wait—for the Army Corps that has not yet left England. Tiny forces, half a battalion in front, and no support behind—nothing but long lines of railway with ungarrisoned posts hundreds of miles at the far end of them. It is very dangerous. No supports at this moment nearer than England."
In this brief and pregnant summary the reader will note outlined the elements characteristic of all strategic situations: the bases, the seaports; the communications, the railway lines; the front of operations, the frontier of the Orange Free State, or rather, perhaps, in this defensive—or defenceless—stage, the railroad line parallel to it, which joins De Aar, Naauwport and Stormberg.
Dangerous, sure enough; how much so needs only a glance at the map to show. Before reinforcements could arrive Sir George White was shut up in Ladysmith by forces double his own. These he held there, it is true; and the fatal delay of the Boers before his lines, reflected in their no less fatal inactivity on the frontier of the Cape Colony, whence Steevens wrote the words quoted, doubtless threw away the game; but we are now speaking, as he was then writing, of the time when the cards had only been dealt and the hand was yet to play. Put your marks on each of the places named—Mafeking, Kimberley, De Aar, Naauwport, Stormberg—note their individual and relative importance, the distances severing them from one another, the small bodies of men scattered among them, incapable through weakness and remoteness of supporting each other, and with no common supports behind. Mafeking is from Kimberley 223 miles; Kimberley from De Aar, 146; De Aar from Naauwport, 69; Naauwport from Stormberg 80, as the crow flies over a difficult country, at least 130 by rail. All three junctions with their intervening lines of rail, bridges, culverts and all, are little over fifty miles from the Orange River, which hereabout forms the boundary separating Cape Colony from the Free State. And White is about to be invested in Ladysmith, and the Army Corps has not yet left England.
The average length of a transport's voyage from the United Kingdom to Cape Town, as determined from 162 records, was 22-1/6 days. The first, with Hildyard's brigade, accomplished it in 20 days, arriving November 9; the last of the four took 25 days, coming in on the 14th. With them, and their one predecessor, 6,000 additional troops were at the latter date—five weeks after the Boers' ultimatum became operative—landed at the far base of operations, yet 500 miles by railroad from the front. Kimberley and Mafeking were then already invested, and the bombardment at both places begun. The British troops had evacuated Stormberg Junction November 3, falling back to the southward toward Sterkstrom and Queenstown; thus abandoning railroad communication between East London, one of the sea bases, and the western theatre of war toward Naauwport and De Aar. Naauwport had also been quitted at about the same time, but the Boer grasp in that central quarter was never as firm as it was to the eastward and westward. General French was early established with his cavalry at Hanover Road, midway on the line from Naauwport to De Aar, and his activity, skilfully directed against the flanks of the enemy, imparted to the latter a nervousness which the frontal attacks on the eastern line failed to produce. Naauwport was reoccupied by the British November 19, and De Aar was never by them abandoned; but the Boers on the 25th of November blew up a bridge on the line from Naauwport via Middelburg and Rosmead to Port Elizabeth, thereby momentarily cutting out the line from this sea base also, as their advance upon Stormberg had eliminated East London. They made also strenuous efforts, at many points, to destroy the main road from Kimberley south to Orange River, blowing up culverts and bridges, but the damage effected was afterward found to be less than had been expected, owing to the clumsiness of their methods; a fact which probably indicates that their cause was supported mainly by a rural population, and that few mechanics—townsfolk—were in their ranks.
There seems to have been no serious attempt to interrupt communications south of the Orange River, important though it was to do so. The British Corps, to the command of which Lord Methuen was assigned, assembled at the Orange River Bridge without opposition or difficulty, its concentration being effected on the 19th of November. The advance thence, in fact, began on the 21st, and on the 23rd was fought its first battle, that of Belmont.
It will be well here to summarize, map in hand, the character and result of the Boers' operations in this western theatre, during the priceless five weeks of opportunity secured to them by the over-confidence, or the remissness, or the forbearance, of their powerful enemy. The conditions differed from those in the eastern scene of war—in Natal—because there the just anxiety of the inhabitants, reflected in that of the colonial and Imperial governments, had occasioned the concentration of by far the greatest mass of available British troops.
The exposure of Natal in its more vital and strictly British interests greatly exceeded that of Cape Colony, where, owing to the remoteness of the seaboard, near which the British chiefly congregated, the first of the Boer invasion would fall upon a population strongly sympathetic with the cause of the enemy, though British in allegiance. Therefore while this disloyalty was ominous and detrimental to the British cause as a whole, direct injury to British interests was less immediately threatened. The Cape frontier, accordingly, was left defenceless, as has been shown; and in a strictly military point of view it was quite correct thus wholly to neglect one, rather than weakly to divide between two.
The consequence was that in Natal occurred during ten days the severe and nearly continuous fighting already narrated, with the result of shutting up in Ladysmith, on the direct line of any further advance contemplated by the Boers, a very strong British force; 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. This aspect of the case has been too much neglected in the general apprehension.
The British in Ladysmith were doubtless an isolated and endangered garrison, the relief of which constrained the movements of its friends away from more proper objectives; but in the early days of the siege, while in the prime of the physical strength afterward drained away by hunger, and up to the time that reinforcements had arrived to bar in front the progress of the enemy, it was also to the latter what Mantua in 1796 was to Bonaparte, and Genoa in 1800 was to the Austrians prior to Marengo—a force which, if advance were attempted, would be on the rear of the army, flanking the 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.
Had the Boers' "exclusiveness of purpose"—to use Napoleon's happy phrase—answered to the demands of their military situation, they would have done for military reasons what their opponents were compelled to do through unpreparedness and considerations of civil policy. They would have neglected the frontiers of Cape Colony, and concentrated their effort against the organised force which exceptionally favourable circumstances, that could not be expected either to continue or to recur, had enabled them to isolate in Natal.
What effect the failure to do this produced in the latter colony will be examined later. We have now to consider how the Boers, having decided to follow two widely divergent plans of operations, utilised the opportunity afforded them by the long period of weakness undergone by their antagonists in the debatable ground, where the frontiers of Cape Colony and the Orange Free State adjoin, along the banks of the Orange River from Basutoland to Kimberley. Remote and detached Mafeking, the news of whose deliverance comes as these lines are writing, remains a romantic episode, a dramatic centre of interest, from the heroic endurance and brilliant gallantry displayed by its garrison; but, from the practical side, the action of friend and foe, the fact of occupation and the conduct of the siege, present a military riddle not readily solved.
Noting the natural military line of the Orange River, the importance of which in more military countries would be emphasized by corresponding works of precaution, for defence and for movement, in its vicinity, it will be observed that parallel to it, at a distance of about fifty miles, within the borders of the colony, there is the stretch of railway from Stormberg, via Rosmead Junction and Naauwport, to De Aar. Beyond the last-named point the line, now become the main road, converges steadily and rapidly upon the border of the Free State, within a dozen miles of which it continues from the point where it crosses the Orange River until abreast the boundary between the Free State and the Transvaal. Between Stormberg and De Aar this line consists simply of the branches that there tie together the main roads, through which the principal seaports—Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East London—seek access to the interior. The direction, alike of the main and branch roads, as well as the position of the junctions, are doubtless determined by local considerations of topography and traffic.
Although constructed for commercial purposes, the line of rail from Stormberg to De Aar has particular military value as an advanced base of operations, from which to start, and upon which, for the initial stages, to rest a campaign. It is central as regards the extremities of the hostile frontier opposed to it; it is moderate in length; and, from the rapidity of transfer from end to end afforded by the railroad, it permits movements on one flank or the other to be combined with comparative facility. Add to this the convergence upon it of the several lines of supply from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London, and it is evident that the line would present particular advantages for the assembling of a British army intending to invade the Free State by the most probable, because most advantageous, route, the direct highroad to Bloemfontein. It is, indeed, the key, the central military position of this theatre of war; not geometrically, by mere measurement of distance, but as the place where converge and unite all the great communications from the opposing bases of operations, which at the first would be, for the Free State, the Orange River, and for Great Britain, the line of seaports.
The distance from the frontier and the interposition of the mountain range in the Steynsburg district would combine to make observation of preliminary movements difficult to the enemy, except, indeed, by information from the disaffected inhabitants who abounded. The secure and undisturbed tenure of this line would therefore much facilitate the British campaign, should it develop against the Free State; consequently the first aim of the Boer commanders should have been to hold, or if not able to hold, to destroy it effectually as regards steam communication.
It is as yet impossible to say exactly what was the force of the Boers on their western frontiers between the middle and the end of October. Steevens, as above quoted, thought 12,000 at the earlier date. A more likely reckoning seems to me to be 8,000, but it probably rose near the higher figure before November, and must much have exceeded it by the 1st of December, unless British estimates are more wide of the mark than is probable. The lowest maximum for the forces of the two republics that I have seen was given by one of the Boer envoys now in the United States; viz., 38,000. Allowing 30,000 to Natal by November 1, there is nothing immoderate in the supposition that there were then from 10,000 to 12,000 on the line of the Orange River, and from thence round to Mafeking. Personally, I believe that the totals were larger, for very considerable numbers of the Dutch population in Cape Colony and Natal joined the Boers, and the indications are that all the available men were put—and very properly—at once in the field. The emergency was great, time was invaluable, and the maintaining of a reserve, judicious in many cases, would under the conditions of the Boers have been a mere dividing and frittering of forces, by the immediate employment of which alone might success be snatched.
To allow Great Britain time to arouse, to assemble and put forth her strength, before some really decisive advantage, material or moral, was gained over her, was to ensure defeat. This, however, was what the Boers did. Although they put in force successfully a levée en masse, and thus in point of time concentrated into action their whole fighting population, they did not with equal exclusiveness of purpose concentrate in force upon a single military objective; nor was such choice as they made dictated by sound military principle, or carried out with sound military judgment.
It so happened that the conditions at the opening of the campaign bore a curious resemblance, though on a considerably larger scale, to those attending the hostilities of 1881 in South Africa. Then, as now, the British were in number far inferior. Then, as now, they were scattered here and there in small detachments. Then the Boers had achieved successes which doubtless surprised themselves as well as their enemies, and had produced for them the unfortunate result of overvaluing their own prowess, and of inducing a secure belief that both they and their opponents, after twenty years, remained in native and acquired qualities in the same relative positions of individual superiority and inferiority that they had somewhat prematurely assumed.
It was a natural result of such prepossessions that, instead of concentrating to hold in mass some decisive position by which to prolong the war, or to destroy or capture some important detachment—such as that at Ladysmith—they should settle themselves down to sieges, to a war of posts. In 1881, of several posts they had in the same manner leisurely invested, one surrendered. They probably believed that the others would have done so, had not the British Government of that day yielded and made peace. Whatever the reasoning, it was to the method of 1881 that the Boers resorted. After the preliminary battles in Natal, already narrated, in each of which the British attacked, they settled down with facile indolence to an investment of Ladysmith.
The dissemination of the enemy on the Free State frontier, so graphically summarized by Steevens, could not induce them to crush, with the concentrated force permitted by their imposing superiority of numbers, any one of the small detachments thus fatally exposed. The place, not the force within, had military value in their eyes. To the general result contributed no doubt the tendency of local interest to dominate general considerations in a rural and loosely organised population. It was noted at the time that the principle of local operation decided not only that the Transvaal should operate chiefly in Natal, and the Orange Free State toward Cape Colony, but also determined the course of action within each state. "There has been very little moving about of burghers from one part of the Transvaal or Free State to the other.... In the latter, the eastern commandos have gone to Natal, the western ones to Kimberley, and to the southern ones, numbering probably less than 4,000 men altogether, have been left the double task of invading Cape Colony and keeping off the Basutos; and as the ordinary Free State burgher is much more anxious about his own farm than about turning our colony upside down, the result is that practically nothing has been done to attack the most vulnerable point in our defence."
The same correspondent, writing from Cape Town, October 25, said that there were not 3,000 men of regular troops, and no artillery, in Cape Colony when the war broke out. His means of information were doubtless better than those of Steevens, who was in Cape Town less than forty-eight hours and made his guess—4,100—before he had time for personal observation over the ground.
It is scarcely necessary to point out what an opportunity was here presented for a rapid succession of blows at isolated detachments, such as military history has often before witnessed. It is difficult to believe that the frontier could not have been swept clean from end to end, and the entire railroad system, essential to the advance and centralised action of the British forces, hopelessly dislocated and smashed by an operation embodying the most elementary conceptions of concentration. Instead of that the centre of the line was kept almost undisturbed, the principal demonstrations of the Boers across the border being on the flanks—Kimberley and Mafeking on their right, Stormberg and the districts north and east of it on their left; the railroad from Naauwport to De Aar, and thence to the Orange River, being scarcely molested, and for working purposes remaining intact. So far as military purpose can be inferred from military action, the effort of the Boers was concentrated—or rather localised—upon the occupation of unprotected and friendly districts in the east, where they took up scattered defensive positions, while for offensive operations they satisfied themselves with the investment of Kimberley and Mafeking.
An American correspondent—evidently not unfriendly—writing of Pretoria about October 20, records an instructive anecdote, which reveals much of the Boer idea and purpose, and suggests food for thought as to underlying causes, not unprecedented in history, which from the first, if then known, would have foretold sure defeat. "A large door on the opposite side of the room opened, and a clerk informed the Secretary (Mr. Reitz) that he was wanted in the Executive Council room. While he was collecting a number of papers on his desk I could hear the conversation of men in the adjoining room. Suddenly there was a deep roar—almost like that of a lion—and at the same time a bang on the table that made the windows rattle. And the voice—it was that of a man—continued its deep bellowing, and again there was a thundering bang on the table. 'The old President has met with some obstacle in his plans,' said the Secretary of State, smiling at my look of surprise at the sound of such a human voice, and he disappeared with an armload of papers.... When he returned he was chuckling to himself. 'General Cronje wants to assault Mafeking,' he said. 'He has wired that he can take the town in a hand-to-hand fight, but the old President won't listen to it. He says the place is not worth the lives of fifty burghers, and has just issued an order that Cronje is to continue the siege and simply see to it that Colonel Baden-Powell and his troops do not escape. The Council was divided; some thought that Cronje should be permitted to storm the place. The President has just ordered that one of the big siege-guns shall be sent to Cronje.'"
Time apparently was of no account. The burghers and the Boers had only to wait open-mouthed for plums to drop—at Mafeking, at Kimberley, at Ladysmith. Mafeking very possibly was not in itself worth the lives of fifty burghers; but it was worth a great deal more if it was to be the means of detaining them before its little worth to their exclusion from action concentrated elsewhere, which their numbers would have gone to make overpowering, and which by proper direction would have been decisive—not perhaps of ultimate issues—but of those prolonged delays in which lies the best hope of a defence. It is an interesting commentary on Kruger's decision that, at the moment these lines are writing, the deliverance of Mafeking is known to have been preceded immediately by a fruitless assault of the burghers, which cost more than that presumed for the attack at the outset, which a competent general on the spot believed then would be successful. Control at a distant capital, exercised by an obstinate, overbearing old man, who, though unquestionably shrewd and acute, was equally unquestionably narrow with the narrowness of contracted experience and limited military knowledge, boded ill for the Boer cause. While Cronje at Mafeking, and Wessels at Kimberley, and Joubert at Ladysmith were waiting for a moment that never came, time was flying, the hostile reinforcements were speeding forward 300 miles a day, and the very danger of the three places was goading the British people into wide-awake activity.
Yet more imminent was the nearer opportunity, fast disappearing into the nearer danger, ultimately to become the established and fatal centre of ruin—at De Aar. "This was not the sort of fighting-ground the Boer is wont to choose," wrote one there present, "but we felt that he must come because we menaced his frontier sixty miles away, and tempted him with such an amount of stores, guns, and ammunition as would enable him to prolong his warfare at least two months longer than his own resources would permit." A somewhat narrow view this, leaving out of the account De Aar's intrinsic advantage in position; but to continue—"Every day that the Boers delayed our camp grew stronger, though this was not the case before General Buller arrived at the Cape (October 31). Until then we had only one battalion—about 800 men—to protect stores estimated at half a million pounds; but within forty-eight hours a battery and a half—nine guns—had arrived from England, to be followed by another half battery from the Orange River."
The position of De Aar indicated it absolutely as a point which the British must hold, fortify, and use as a depot and base. Camps and buildings began to be laid out and put up about October 25, and stores to accumulate; ten days later came the batteries and also reinforcements; but these—400 in number—imperatively demanded by the superior importance and exposure of De Aar, which required concentration upon it, were obtained by evacuating Colesberg and Naauwport, the latter a most regrettable necessity. But what were the Boers doing while these fragments were drawing together into a single body, while batteries were arriving, and works, not yet existent, were being thrown up? They were besieging Kimberley and Mafeking, 150 and 300 miles away, and pottering about just within Cape Colony, occupying undefended towns and making proclamations of annexation. "Fancy," says the writer just quoted,—"fancy the Orange River sixty miles away, with 2,500 men (British) holding the (railroad) bridge over it, and a battalion of 1,000 men broken into five bodies of troops isolated at as many points—all, excepting the force at Orange River, inviting certain destruction."
The concentration ordered by Buller, just mentioned, drew the British, on the left flank of their line in Cape Colony, into two principal bodies—2,500 at Orange River Station, where the railroad to Kimberley crosses the river, and some 1,500 at De Aar. Stormberg Junction on the right of the line was evacuated at the same time as Naauwport, the troops falling back upon Queenstown, fifty miles distant by rail. This abandonment of the two junctions severed from each other the right and left flanks of the general front, which extended from Stormberg to De Aar, depriving them of mutual support; a condition of disadvantage that was not wholly removed until after the occupation of Bloemfontein. This gain to the Boers, however, was due to no well-combined active operations on their side, but to the mere fact that their opponents were everywhere so hopelessly weaker in numbers that it was insanity any longer to risk these small detachments in places where they ought to have been captured days before.
From these withdrawals it resulted that the British movements in either quarter were of no assistance to those in the other by direct co-operation, but only by diversion—by occupying in front of either flank a certain proportion of the enemy. The latter attempted no serious movement of attack, but simply waited. Their plan, alike in the strategy of the campaign and in the tactics of the battlefield, was to abide attack, with the advantages, usual to the defensive, of a carefully chosen position diligently improved. So placed and secured, they hoped to repel and to hold fast; but at the worst to inflict loss greater than they received and then to slip away successfully, avoiding capture, to another similar position in the rear of the first, there to repeat again the same tactic. For such retreat provision of horse mounts was always carefully made, and to its success their superiority in horseflesh, their habit of isolated movement, their knowledge of the country, and the friendliness of the inhabitants, greatly contributed. The student of naval history will easily recognise in these methods an analogy to the battle tactics plausibly ascribed to the French by Clerk in his celebrated treatise. It was often successful on the ground, but it did not win campaigns. The mastery of the sea remained with the British, whose blindly headlong attacks with their ships resembled in much the free and often foolish exposure of their troops in the beginning of the present war. Nevertheless, the temper is one which wins, nor is there any necessary incompatibility between a vigorous initiative and reasonable caution.
There is much to be said for such a plan as suited to the force numerically inferior, and especially when, as with the Boers, it is composed of men untutored in the military formations and manœuvres essential to successful movement in battle. Defence of the character indicated requires little change after the primary dispositions have been made; the men for the most part stand fast when placed, and do not incur the risk of confusion from which the well-practised only can extricate themselves.
The mistake of the Boers was in failing to recognise that a nation compelled to such a mode of action by its conditions of inferiority, in numbers and in drill, is doomed to ultimate defeat, unless at the very beginning, while the enemy has not yet developed or concentrated his powers, such an advantage is gained by a vigorous initiative as shall either prevent his obtaining the necessary initial positions, or shall at least postpone his doing so long enough to affect materially the course of the war, and give room for the chapter of accidents—for the intervention of the unforeseen. The Boers, having surprised their enemy at unawares, had the opportunity so to act. It may be that, had they done so, ultimate success would not certainly have followed—the odds were very great; but it is safe to say that only so, by rushing the campaign at the beginning, had they any chance of final victory. "Desperate conditions," said Nelson, "require desperate remedies." The Boers' position was desperate from the first, to be saved only by the most vigorous handling of numbers which for a brief and critical period were largely superior.
Thus it was that these opening weeks decided the character and issue of the war, beyond chance of subsequent reversal. By the Boers' own choice, interest was fixed not upon one or two, but upon several quarters, and these—save Ladysmith—determined not by their inherent, and therefore lasting and decisive, strategic importance, but by questions of commercial value and of the somewhat accidental presence in them of very small bodies of regular troops. At two places, Mafeking and Kimberley, the assailants were, as an English journal justly put it, "foiled by colonial forces hastily organised, and stiffened by small regular detachments which have shown far more enterprise on the offensive than their besiegers have done."
Such a situation, under the existing conditions of the general campaign, should have been met, not by protracted investment in force, but by assault; or, if that were inexpedient, a sufficient detachment should have been left to hold the garrison in check, while considerations of more decisive military importance elsewhere received concentrated attention.
Immediately after the arrival of Sir Redvers Buller he found the investment of the three garrisons—Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking—already accomplished. The question before him was complicated by the introduction of these new factors. As has before been said, it is generally understood that the expectation of the British authorities had been to proceed at once to an invasion of the Orange Free State, presumably by the line to Bloemfontein, with flanking movements on either side of it, while the forces in Natal were to stand simply on the defensive, until, by the advance of the army of invasion within supporting distance, the time for co-operation with it should arrive. In Natal, now, the tables were turned, the defence had broken down, and the army charged with it was shut up by a force so far superior as to enable it, not only to carry on the siege, but to make at least serious inroads upon the colony, if not to advance permanently to positions of more extensive control, to dislodge it from which greater effort would be needed. The question now to be decided was whether relief would be best effected by adhering to the original plan of moving in force upon Bloemfontein, leaving Ladysmith to look out for itself, and only strengthening the forces in Natal outside of the place sufficiently to check any further advance of the enemy; or whether to attempt speedier succour by a direct advance along the roads leading to one or both of the besieged places.
The first, if successfully carried out, would eventually take in the rear the assailants both of Kimberley and Ladysmith, threatening them with the severance of their communications—concerning which the Boers are exceptionally sensitive—and thus would raise the siege by compelling the retreat of the besiegers. This plan, moreover, would be faithful to general military principle, by keeping the great mass of the British Army concentrated upon a single object, and under a single hand.
The alternative possessed the drawback of dividing the army into two bodies virtually independent in their several movements, out of mutual supporting distance, and each distinctly weaker than the single mass intended for the great central operation of the former plan. The second also laboured under the other disadvantages that a direct advance naturally has as compared to a turning movement. The enemy would be met always in front—thus covering his communications and with retreat open—in positions assumed tactically with a view to prevent flank attacks and to compel assault in front, the most dangerous to make.
In choosing their ground for their objects, the Boers have shown remarkable aptitude. If overpowered and dislodged, unless routed and dispersed, the defender falls back continually upon the bases in his rear, recuperating his losses by reinforcements from them, while the victorious assailant must either press on with diminished numbers or must wait for reinforcements to come up, a delay that enables the defence still more to improve the next position, which, in a campaign of this sort, has commonly been selected long before. It may be said here that this was precisely the character of the advance on Kimberley about to be narrated. In such a direct operation, by its very nature, the defence gains strength and shortens his line of communications to be defended, while the reverse conditions unremittingly drain the powers of the assailant.
As an abstract military question there need be no hesitation in saying that the advance through the Orange Free State was in principle the correct plan, even under the existing conditions, as far as these are accurately known. But conditions are never accurately known to outsiders so immediately after a war. Even the hard bottom facts which ultimately appear, the residuum left after full publicity, and discussion, and side lights from all sources have done their work, do not correctly reproduce the circumstances as present to the mind of the general officer who decides. What is known now was doubtful then; what now is past and certain, was then future and contingent; what this and that subordinate, this force and that force could endure and would endure we now know, but who could surely tell six months ago? Who, whatever his faith in the heroism and patience of the garrisons, believed in December, 1899, that Ladysmith and Kimberley and Mafeking could hold out, without relief, as long as they did? What therefore, between the known uncertainties of the past and the certainly imperfect information of the present, we, who had not the responsibilities of decision, may modestly refrain from positively judging the particular decision, even by the generally sound principles which commonly govern such cases. Warfare is an art, not a science; it knows no unvarying laws, and possesses neither specifics nor panaceas.
Whatever the reason, the decision was reached to attempt simultaneously the relief of Kimberley and of Ladysmith. It is with the former, which also was first in order of time, that we now have immediately to do. This advance had begun, had reached its furthest limit, had been brought to a standstill, and so had failed, before the clash of arms at Colenso, on December 15, signalized the opening of the campaign for the relief of Ladysmith. This priority was naturally to be expected; for not only was Cape Town the first port of arrival from England, but the much larger number of the besiegers at Ladysmith made a much longer time necessary to accumulate the force adequate to contend successfully against them. The details of the assembling of Methuen's division at Orange River Station need not detain us. The 2,500 men there in the first week of November had been increased by November 19 to nearly 10,000, and began to advance on the 21st. It will be well, however, to say a word about their objective, Kimberley, its conditions, its defences, and its defenders, as well as about the country through which runs the railroad that marks the general line of Methuen's proposed operation.
Lieutenant-Colonel Kekewich, who had been ordered to command the forces in Kimberley, had arrived there on the 13th of September. Already portions of the Transvaal levies were out, "on commando," as the Boer phrase is, moving on the Free State side of the boundary line; and many reasonably authenticated rumours were heard of intentions to destroy the railroad bridges—notably over the Modder and Orange Rivers—south of the place, as well as others north of it. The guard of the road generally was then in charge of a mounted body called the Cape Police, detachments of which watched the bridges. Political and other considerations prevented immediate steps from being taken to fortify the town, but plans were matured, and information concerning the surrounding country had already been procured by subordinate officers, whose arrival had preceded that of Kekewich. On the 18th of September, construction of defence works began, reports of movements by the burghers of the Free State as well as by Transvaalers being received, and arousing apprehension of a sudden attack. On the 27th of September, an officer of the garrison, by personal observation at Boshof in the Free State, ascertained that the burghers of the latter had been ordered out. The works were then pressed forward, and the formation of citizens into town guards already planned, was begun; 1,156 combatant members being enrolled, and placed under drill by non-commissioned officers of the regular battalion in garrison. The Boer forces continued to approach Kimberley, and on October 4, a week before war began, advanced bodies were within twelve miles. By October 7 the earthworks were so far forward that Kekewich considered the place practically safe against any attempt on the part of the enemy to rush it suddenly.
When the ultimatum expired, October 11, the garrison proper consisted of 570 Imperial and 630 colonial troops, for the defence of an unwalled town which contained 40,000 inhabitants and, being built in rambling fashion, had a very long circuit—about eleven miles—to be guarded. The ready co-operation of the citizens in military duty, both those already belonging to volunteer bodies and those not previously organised, but now enrolling themselves for the purpose, alone made the defence possible. From them, particularly, was formed a corps of irregular horse, which filled the want of mounted troops that at first was severely felt. Colonel Kekewich, recognising the enemy's overpowering superiority of numbers, rapidly drew into Kimberley all the outlying forces of every character under his command.
Although deeply concerned for the safety of the Modder River bridge, upon which in a measure would depend the advance of a relief column, "I was most anxious," he says, "that no disposition of troops made by me should give the enemy a chance of scoring a first success, even where the smallest body of British troops might be concerned. Taking into consideration that the enemy would probably not regulate his movements in accordance with the dictates of sound strategy, that he was in possession of mobile artillery in my immediate neighbourhood, I felt that if I had detached a small body of troops, necessarily without artillery, which it was not in my power to support from Kimberley, the enemy would in all probability concentrate very superior numbers, with artillery, against the small British post, and endeavour to destroy the troops composing the same. It was principally for this reason that I determined to concentrate all my available forces, including the Cape Police, at the point of greatest importance in my command—Kimberley."
The inference of Colonel Kekewich as to the Boers' strategy was as accurate as his general action was militarily judicious. The concentration and development of his resources not merely deterred the enemy from assault, but detained them there in force, to the neglect of matters elsewhere much more urgently worthy of their efforts. The gain of Kimberley, had they gained it, would have been poor compensation for the daily increasing solidity of the still weak British grasp on the central positions outlined by De Aar, Orange River and Naauwport. This absorption of the Boers' attention by Kimberley was maintained by frequent sorties of the garrison, in every direction, which at an early period of the siege became possible through the ready facility with which the citizens were converted into irregular mounted troops. "It will be observed," wrote Kekewich, "that portions of the mounted corps were employed on every occasion" of the continued sallies in greater or less force, especially at the period of Methuen's advance.
At the same time the enemy was preparing to bombard, and was busily engaged in taking possession, by small bodies of from 100 to 250 men, of the undefended towns and villages in Griqualand West—the thinly peopled district to the west of Kimberley. This pleasant but useless pastime occupied them agreeably, and diverted them from molesting the British at Orange River and De Aar.
"My general plan for the defence of Kimberley," says Kekewich in his report, "was based on the principle of always keeping the enemy on the move, and constantly in fear of an attack from an unexpected quarter. Later, when the advance of the relief column from the Orange River commenced, and I was put in possession of information concerning the probable date of its arrival in Kimberley, I adopted such measures as I hoped would cause the retention of a large force of the enemy in my immediate neighbourhood, and thus enable the relief column to deal with the Boer force in detail. It was with these objects that the numerous sorties and demonstrations in force were made by portions of the garrison of Kimberley."
Such continual offensive action is of the essence of dexterous defence, especially when designed in support of movements elsewhere occurring. It is not surprising, therefore, that Lord Roberts, in forwarding Kekewich's report, comments that "the greatest credit is due him for his able dispositions, for his rapid organisation of an auxiliary force, and for the tact, judgment, and resolution which he displayed throughout the siege." This admirable service was performed at a loss of 38 killed and 133 wounded, of all the troops employed from the beginning of the investment to the day of relief.
Orange River, where Methuen's relief force was assembling, is seventy miles from Kimberley. The country between is part of the great inland plateau, in general contour rolling, but with frequent stony hills, which locally have the name of kopjes, now become so familiar. These kopjes are of varying heights, from fifty to five hundred feet, and consist mainly of large boulders, with, however, a plentiful sprinkling of smaller rocks not too heavy for handling. The steepness and roughness of the surface make climbing a matter of hands as well as of feet, and are therefore a source of particular difficulty and exposure to an assailant; while, on the other hand, the broken heaps of huge stones afford to the defence much natural protection, and can be further improved by building shelter places, which it was the habit of the Boer to do, forming semicircular breastworks. In this way, with natural and artificial cover, was obtained a strong line of defence, depending in extent upon the length and formation of the kopje.
Superficial advantages at once strike the eye and impress the mind, and it was to the kopje therefore that the Boer first looked as the natural feature upon which to found his tactical and strategic scheme of offence. Its command over the plain country, by permitting fire tier above tier, compensated in part for any lack of development due to limited length or other causes, and afforded also several lines of defence to be successively occupied. But the height, while it imposes difficulties upon the attacker, has also drawbacks of its own. A downward, plunging fire demands definite precision and accuracy of aim, and in mark firing error in elevation is more commonly found than swerving to the right or left. The ordinary shot is more apt to fire over a man's head, or strike the ground ahead of him, than to miss him to one side or the other. When, therefore, it had been found by a few experiences—Talana Hill, Elandslaagte, Belmont and Graspan, in all of which the kopje bore a principal part in the scheme of defence—that the British soldier could not be stopped by them alone, the Boers, without abandoning the kopjes, reinforced them where the ground allowed by utilising the beds of the streams, which except in time of flood are nearly waterless. Men looking over the edge of a steep trench glance nearly along the ground in front of them, and if that be clear, unless they are singularly inexpert, their shots sweep along the surface so little above it that they are sure to catch men in front, so far as their height is concerned. This was done at Modder River, two-thirds of the way—forty-five miles—from Orange River, and also at Colenso; while at the disastrous battle of Magersfontein the Boers had strengthened one flank of their line by an artificial trench, which was backed by a kopje.
A peculiarity of the Boer tactical methods should here be described, originating in their habits of life and curiously adapted to the purely defensive scheme upon which they rely. Their aim is to consume the opponent's strength by compelling him to frontal attacks upon well covered men, who at the proper moment shall slip away, leaving the enemy an empty position and the prospect of another similar experience at each succeeding stage. To effect this, their horses were hobbled in the rear of the line, protected by the kopje, if one, or by such other means as offered; it is said even that many of the better to do, coming from a distance, would ride one horse to the place as to a hunting meet, and reserve a better and fresher for the retreat, which, in the earlier stages of Methuen's advance, was probably intended from the first. So far do they push the endeavour to leave a barren result to the victor that they carry away upon their horses, as far as may be and at some risk, not only their wounded but their dead; and of the latter those that cannot be removed are concealed. The singularity of this point of honour, and the tenacity of its observance, seem more congruous to primeval than to modern warfare.
The above description gives a general idea of the conditions confronting Methuen on the 21st of November, when he began his advance. In it he fought four actions: at Belmont, November 23; at Graspan on the 25th; at Modder River on the 28th; and finally at Magersfontein, December 11. These places are distant from Orange River, approximately, 18, 28, and 45 miles; Magersfontein being some three miles beyond the Modder.
The gathering of Methuen's division had not been unwatched by the Boers, and their forces, which, in two principal bodies of about 3,000 each, had been besieging Mafeking and Kimberley, and in other smaller detachments were scattered along the railroad between the two places, began to concentrate. On the 16th of October, 2,000 had occupied the Modder River Station. On the 10th of November a reconnaissance from Orange River had found them occupying the ridges about Belmont, in numbers estimated at 700. At about the same time Kimberley noticed that the besiegers were increasing in numbers, while at Mafeking they were observed to be decreasing. On the 20th it was known that Cronje, whose reputation as a leader stood high, had been detached with his commando from before Mafeking, leaving it to the care of the local Boer troops, and going south. To these and other unrecorded movements of the same kind, all entirely correct in principle, are to be attributed the increasing numbers which Methuen encountered in his successive actions. It is to be remarked here that the Boers knew that inadequate transport material tied the British general to the railroad; and it was the continuance of this belief, when the difficulty had been obviated, that betrayed Cronje to his ruin at a later date.
Leaving Orange River on the early morning of Tuesday, November 21, the army, having rested during the extreme heat of the noons, camped on the evening of the 22nd within five miles of the enemy's position. This was west of Belmont Station, and is described as a line of kopjes extending east and west, and about two hundred feet high. Lord Methuen's purpose in this and other actions was to cross the more dangerous open ground of the approach by dark, arriving at the foot of the kopjes before daylight. His line of advance being, in a general sense, parallel to the hostile front, it had been his intention that the left wing, after securing an eminence called Table Mountain on the enemy's right, should swing its own left around, performing a flanking, or else a general turning movement, pivoting upon the right wing. In the obscurity, however, the latter lost direction and the general found himself in consequence committed to a frontal attack. Orders were therefore sent to the left wing, which had not lost its direction, to conform its movements to those of the right, and the attack was delivered in front. The Boers are estimated to have been 2,000 to 2,500 men, the kopjes affording them three lines of defence in successive ridges.
Although the error in direction had necessitated a change in the method of attack, the time had been exact; the line had started at 3 A.M., reaching the foot of the hills before daybreak. This could scarcely have been much later than 4 A.M., for in the southern hemisphere summer was near. The musketry fire of the Boers opened soon after, "and the troops instinctively moved toward the enemy's position." The advance was covered by artillery, which, however, was slow in its movements, "the horses not having yet recovered from a five weeks' voyage." Criticism has said that the artillery was not sufficiently employed to silence the enemy's riflemen, but Lord Methuen alleges that shrapnel does not kill men in kopjes; "it only frightens them, and I intend to get at my enemy." The inferiority of shrapnel to shell, in use against kopjes, has been asserted by many observers. For these various reasons the battle of Belmont reduced itself to a magnificent charge by a much superior force up a stony and precipitous hill against an enemy strongly intrenched. "At 6.10 the last height was cleared, the enemy in large numbers galloping into the plain, their laager trekking across me 3,000 yards off, my mounted troops unable to carry out their orders on one side—left—because the retreat was covered by kopjes, and on the other—right—because too far; the artillery dead beat and unable to help me. A cavalry brigade and a horse artillery battery from my right would have made good my success." The British loss at Belmont was 53 killed, 275 wounded; that of the Boers is not accurately known.
Two days later at Graspan the Boers were in about the same force and the natural conditions similar in general character. The Boer line extended east and west, and at the latter end—their right—were "two high hills." These were bombarded with shrapnel, the effect of which was more thoroughly tested, one battery alone firing 500 rounds to clear the summit, before the infantry were allowed to advance. The men again fought their way to the top, but again the enemy got away. "The heights gained, I found I had taken the whole Boer force in flank, and had entirely cut them off from their line of retreat. My guns played on the masses of horsemen, but my few cavalry, dead beat, were powerless, and for the second time I longed for a cavalry brigade and horse artillery battery to let me reap the fruits of a hard-fought action." "The loss in both these actions," Methuen says, "was great, and convinces me that if an enemy has his heart in the right place he ought to hold his own against vastly superior forces, and it does our men great credit that nothing stops them."
Both actions, in short, illustrate the same lessons, the Boers' particular advantages for defence, their readiness in retreat, and, it must be added, the prompt facility with which they resorted to it. When the most that can be said has been said for their methods—and much can be said—it still remains that an eye ever to the rear, upon escape, is militarily a demoralising attitude upon which no sound system of warfare can be built up. The nervousness of the Boers at any seeming threat to their line of retreat has been so obvious as to elicit frequent comment. As a predominant motive it is ruinous.
The loss of the British at Graspan was 16 killed, 169 wounded. Lord Methuen noted in his report that he had fought distinctly different Boers on the two occasions. If he was not mistaken, this helps to account for the greatly increased numbers encountered three days later at Modder River. At Kimberley also it had been observed that the number of the besiegers was now much diminished, and a report, substantially correct, was received there that Cronje was marching south with 3,000 men. These, with the two bodies already fought, would bring the Boer force up to the 8,000 estimated by Methuen to be present at the next action, of November 28. The Kimberley garrison did not fail to occupy the attention of their besiegers by frequent sorties, one in considerable strength occurring on the day of the Modder River fight; but such measures, however commendable, cannot beyond a certain point impose upon a sagacious commander with good information, and Cronje well knew that to stop Methuen was his principal affair.
The British force rested two days after Graspan, and at 4 A.M. of November 28 resumed its northward march. Methuen's information had led him to believe that the Modder was not held in force, and that he would meet his next serious opposition at Spytfontein, where the Boers would make their last stand; the country between it and Kimberley, a dozen miles further on, being open and unfavourable to their defensive tactics. Reckoning upon this, he first intended, taking five days' rations, to make a circuit eastward by way of Jacobsdaal, crossing the Modder higher up, and coming in upon Spytfontein from that direction. The railroad, protected by earthworks, was to be left under guard of one or two thousand men. On the very eve of starting, intelligence came in that Modder River Station was strongly occupied, and the general, fearing under that condition to risk the railroad, decided to advance direct upon the river. He was still ignorant, and even unsuspicious, that the enemy had massed to the number of 8,000 to oppose the passage of the 7,000 to which casualties and the care of lengthening communications had reduced his own division.
The position taken by the Boers was on the south bank of the Modder, at the point where it is joined by the Riet. The two streams, flowing respectively from east and south-east, inclose an angle of forty-five degrees, the ground between them being called an island, though not so properly. The railroad crosses by a bridge—by this time destroyed—just below the junction; Modder River Station, a small, pleasant village, being on the north bank. In the approach from the south, by which the British were advancing, the land—or veldt—slopes evenly and regularly downward to the river, rising again beyond in such wise that the island is higher than the southern bank, but is in turn commanded by the northern.
Cronje had intrenched his riflemen along a line of three miles of the river bed, by which they were entirely concealed. On the island, which is covered with trees and brush, he had placed sharpshooters and quick-firing guns. On the extreme Boer right their position was further strengthened by broken, rocky ground and small kopjes, considerably in advance of their line. This forward cover they held by a strong detachment, as they did also another slight eminence, six hundred yards further east, upon which was a farm-house and kraal. From these a cross-fire upon the enemy served to protect their right flank, which by position otherwise was the weaker.
Although unconscious that he was about to encounter numbers equal to, if not greater than his own, Methuen, who expected them to retire after a show of opposition, considered it still his best course to advance with his two brigades on an extended front, the Guards on the right, the 9th Brigade on the left, the two carefully keeping touch from end to end and crossing in that order. Thus approaching, at 8.10 A.M. a very heavy fire showed that the river was held in force and caused numerous casualties, many men falling at once. "The Scots Guard Maxim detachment were completely wiped out." On the British right—Boer left—there was no break in the even slope of the ground, the Guards were visible for three miles from the river, and fully exposed alike to the fire of the trenches and that from the island; but the latter, without solid cover, was in turn closely searched by the British batteries, which, massed principally upon the right of their line, threw in the action over three thousand rounds. Under such heavy fire the Guards were directed to extend to the right, at the same time swinging round their extreme right companies toward the left. It was hoped thus to outflank and enfilade the hostile line; but the movement was checked by the Riet, which, contrary to the intelligence received, was not fordable. Colonel Codrington with a score of officers and men did get across; but the water was too deep for support to follow, and in returning some of the party were nearly drowned, having to hold hands to stem the force of the current. There was nothing for the right wing but to lie down when they had got within 1,100 yards of the enemy, and then patiently to await an outcome. Accordingly they thus remained from 10 A.M. until the sun went down at 6.20; the fire never ceasing, yet for all its intensity causing few casualties while the men lay quiet. "No one," wrote Methuen, in his report, "could get on a horse with any safety within 2,000 yards of the enemy." Under these conditions the conveyance of orders to different parts of the line was much embarrassed.
The left of the British front extended some distance west of the railroad. Here a rising ground, parallel to the river course, concealed the troops in their advance until its summit was reached, but there the same withering fire checked them. About 2 in the afternoon, however, two companies of light infantry succeeded by a rush in carrying the farm-house in front of the Boer lines, and almost at the same moment another detachment dislodged the enemy from the advanced kopjes on his extreme right. The parties thus established so threatened the Boers' flank as to shake their position.
An attempt was next made to gain and pass the river by a ford, which lies behind the farm-house, but this was too near the strength of the hostile fire and the effort was repelled. On their furthest left the British had better success. There the advanced kopjes supported the movement, and there the enemy's fire was weakest. A place deep but passable was found, and the Boers' right flank was turned under a heavy fire of infantry supported by a battery. First a party of twenty crossed, under Colonel Barter, of the Yorkshire Light Infantry—the names of all the men who do such a deed should be remembered, but their leader at least may be mentioned. Three or four hundred followed, and fixed themselves on the north bank, winning the outskirts of the village. Thence an advance of three-quarters of a mile up the river-side was made, the general of the brigade having now crossed; but this ground could not be held, and the British were forced back. Reinforcements were sent, and in performing this service Methuen's chief-of-staff, Colonel Northcott, was killed, the battle raging along the front in full severity. When the fire ceased at dark, the Boers still occupied their trenches, but the British were firmly settled upon their right flank and rear, on the north bank, and had possession of a practicable ford. During the night the Boers evacuated their positions, and the field of battle remained with the British, who continued to hold the line of the river up to the time that Roberts began his advance.
The battle of the Modder showed that, with the modern improvements in rapid-firing arms, it is possible for troops well entrenched over an extended front to sweep a plain field of approach with such a volume of fire as is impossible to cross. This it shows, but otherwise the lessons to be derived have been greatly exaggerated. Witnesses exhaust their descriptive powers to portray the evidences of the innumerable falls of bullets, shown by the kicking up of the dust. "A fire so thick and fearful that no man can imagine how any one passed under or through it. Many crippled lay flat for hours, not daring to rise for succour. If any one asked a comrade for a drink of water, he saw the bottle, or the hand passing it, pierced by a Dum-Dum or a one-pounder shell. If he raised his head to writhe in his pain, he felt his helmet shot away."
The impression produced by the scene is most forcibly betrayed by the exaggerated phrase of the veteran commander in his first telegram—"One of the hardest and most trying fights in the annals of the British Army." Yet, as far as result was concerned, it was an immense expenditure of ammunition and little loss of life. The frontal attack was so clearly impossible that it was at once abandoned, and the men lay down. A generation or two ago they would have persisted, many more would have been killed, and while the position might at last have been carried in front, more than likely it would at the last have been turned, as it was at the Modder. The British loss, 70 killed, 413 wounded, was but 7 per cent. of the troops engaged—about 7,000—far below that of many of Wellington's battles.
In point of tactics, the battle may be summarized by saying that the British line held the enemy in front until a couple of detachments, by daring rushes, had established themselves in positions of command on the western flank, whence they worked themselves round, crossed the river, and fairly turned the hostile flank. And that, so stated, is a very old story. On the other hand, at Belmont and Graspan, at Talana Hill and Elandslaagte, it was shown that the same arms of rapid fire do not necessarily control where precision and skill, not mere torrential volume, are needed. Not only is it not demonstrated that modern weapons can stop the uphill advance of a resolute infantry on broken ground; it has been shown to probability that they are incapable of so doing. Whether such charges are wise is one thing, but whether they are possible is another. Rapidity of fire has reversed conditions where rapidity is the essential factor; it has not reversed them, probably not greatly modified them, where skill and resolution are chiefly demanded.
After the Modder fight Lord Methuen remained at the position then won, establishing a pontoon bridge, restoring that of the railroad, and awaiting reinforcements to replace the men lost in battle and those necessarily detached to protect his lengthening line of communications. After three severe actions he had now traversed forty-five of the seventy miles that lay between the Orange River and Kimberley; but the inadequacy of his numbers was increasingly felt. During the ten or twelve days at the Modder a serious demonstration was made in his rear at Enslin, threatening the railroad and his communications. Although successfully repelled, it was evident that the enemy's concentration had made them so far superior as not only to increase greatly his task in front, but also to threaten his rear. "The longer I remained inactive," said he, in his report, "the stronger would the enemy become. Therefore, on the day my last reinforcement arrived, I decided to continue my advance. It was out of the question to follow the railway, owing to the large kopjes on either side, which had been strongly entrenched. Besides, by that route there was not sufficient water."
The railroad, after crossing the Modder, runs on the west side of the river nearly due north for two miles, and then turns north-west for two more, when it passes between two kopjes, both fortified. The right-hand one of these, the Magersfontein, extends to the south-east for three miles, rising there to an abrupt peak about 150 feet high, which is the key of the situation. In the prolongation of this range a low ridge covered with brush extends eastward to the Modder, the bed of which thereabout follows for some distance a north-east and south-west line. At the foot of the peak, but some little distance in advance, the Boers had dug a line of trenches, which not only covered the immediate front, but at the eastern end of Magersfontein sweep round the curve of the hill to the north for some hundred yards, and then turned east again, following the bushy ridge to the river. These dispositions facilitated the passage of troops from one flank to the other under cover, and preserved control of a ford over the Modder behind the line. The trenches, especially before the peak, were filled with riflemen. The kopje itself was also manned, but it is allowable to believe that the experience of the war, already illustrated by many encounters, must have persuaded so shrewd a fighter as Cronje of the superior advantage of the trench system. Before the trenches ran a continuous line of barbed-wire fence. A probable estimate of the opposing forces places the Boers at 15,000, the British at 11,000. No certainty can as yet be predicated for the Boer numbers, which depend upon the enemy's calculations, but that they were decisively superior is scarcely doubtful.
After considering the problem before him, Methuen concluded that a turning movement was inexpedient. He could not, on the left, follow the railroad, for that was commanded on both sides. He could not, on the right, pass between Magersfontein and the Modder, for the bushy ground would prevent his artillery from helping him to its full power, and might even place it in danger of capture. If he deflected still more to the right, crossing the river, he would have to recross in the face of a force superior to his own in numbers and mobility. Moreover, in a circuit requiring time, he was hampered by the lack of transport which then fettered all British movements. He could take with him provisions for only five days. In any event he must fight again at Spytfontein; better therefore meet an enemy badly shaken by such determined assaults as those of Graspan and the Modder. Therefore, "I decided to attack the Magersfontein kopje." In this the main effort against the peak was assigned to the Highland Brigade, under General Wauchope, which had just joined. The force of this brigade was about 3,000.
On the afternoon of Sunday, December 10, the kopjes of Magersfontein were bombarded heavily, between 4.30 and 6.30 P.M., by a 4.7-inch gun from a distance of 7,000 yards. The Highlanders were directed to start a half hour after midnight, so as surely to reach the foot of the kopjes by daylight, due at 3.30 A.M. A drenching rain came on at 1, lasting through the night and adding greatly to the difficulty of keeping the direction, which was done by compass. This, however, was effected, though at the expense of much delay; but the danger of separating and struggling in the obscurity made it necessary that the troops should hold a compact formation, and they advanced in quarter column. The heaviness of the atmosphere postponed daybreak to 4 A.M. A few moments previously General Wauchope had given the order for deployment on the prearranged plan—one regiment moving ahead, two others to the right and left respectively, and a fourth forming in reserve. Some slight delay occurred, owing to local obstacles; and before the movement had developed, while the troops were still in mass and changing their places, a tremendous fire at two hundred yards opened from the line of trenches—every rifle apparently emptying its magazine as rapidly as the finger could handle the trigger. Coming wholly unexpectedly in the dark, at the critical moment of a change of formation, great confusion ensued, and contradictory orders were given, among which the most disastrous possible, "Retire," is said to have been uttered, causing a certain number to turn and break through the ranks behind them. In the final result the brigade, greatly shattered, lay down, and so remained for several hours.
Meanwhile the remainder of the army, with the exception of a small flanking force to the left of the Highland Brigade, took position on its right, prolonging the front in that direction to the Modder; some companies being thrown to the rear along the course of the river, guarding the fords against any attack of the enemy upon the right flank—demonstrations of which were made but repelled. The British artillery was brought actively and continuously into play, with perceptible effect upon the enemy's fire. The battle then resolved itself into both parties holding their positions until nightfall, when the Highland Brigade was withdrawn from the perilous position in which it had passed fifteen hours of exposure, heat and thirst. The British slept on the ground, their general purposing next morning to occupy the kopje, if deserted, but finding the enemy then still in the trenches, he withdrew his force to the Modder.
The battle of Magersfontein brought Methuen to a standstill, and postponed for more than two months the relief of Kimberley. The disaster which befell the Highland Brigade was one of those incidents which ought not to have occurred, but determination of blame must await more precise information than is now accessible. To retain the cover of darkness for an approach made within effective, though long, range of the enemy's fire—to deploy as near as possible to him, but still too distant to be seen—to keep 3,000 men in black darkness in touch, yet not compacted—these are conditions desirable of attainment but difficult to combine, and, like all combinations, liable to fail in some element. The total loss, by the last revised returns, was 171 killed, 691 wounded, four-fifths of which fell on the Highland Brigade and in the first few moments. Among the slain was General Wauchope.
From the day of this battle until February 11, the opposing forces continued in the positions occupied by them before the engagement, Methuen upon the north bank of the Modder, Cronje holding the ranges at Magersfontein and Spytfontein. The great comparative mobility of the Boers, with their more numerous and seasoned horses, enabled them to maintain the investment of Kimberley, and yet retain the power to concentrate betimes at any threatened point from this interior position. Here between the two bodies of the enemy, between Methuen and Kekewich, was the bulk of their army. Kimberley was never assaulted, nor did the inhabitants often see their enemy in any force.
During the same calendar week as Magersfontein, there occurred two other reverses—at Stormberg, December 10, and at Colenso, December 15—which made this the black week of the war for the British arms. These misfortunes, though chargeable in part to faulty dispositions upon the ground, and in part to the chapter of those accidents which have always to be allowed for in war, serve more especially to illustrate the embarrassments attendant upon the division of a force into two or more parts out of reach for mutual support, and neither one in decisively preponderant strength to the enemy to whom it is opposed. This disadvantage is greatest to the offensive, because to the defensive falls the privilege of increasing power by choice of position and by fortifying. It was in this dilemma that the British, in consequence of the abandonment of their original concentrative plan of advance through the Free State, and the adoption of two or more lines of operation, found themselves over their whole front; from Colenso on the east, through Sterkstrom and Naauwport, to the Modder River. The result throughout was—if not paralysis—at least a cessation of movement, after the reverses above mentioned, except in the brilliant and useful, but in scale minor, operations of General French upon their left centre, about Naauwport and Colesberg.
In the centre and east of the border district between Cape Colony and the Free State—from Naauwport to Stormberg and beyond—the position now was and continued to be especially critical, because most exposed. Had the Boer forces there been handled with definiteness of aim and concentration of effort in aggressive movement, serious disaster could scarcely have been averted. But direction seems to have been largely in the hands of the Free State farmers of the locality, whose aptitudes and leading carried them little above the level of irregular partisan troops. These are invaluable for their own purposes, but those purposes are distinctly subsidiary to war on the great scale, and by themselves alone do not decide campaigns. It is impossible not to be struck with the general similarity of motive, and of action, in the Boer operations from November to January in Cape Colony, from Stormberg to Dordrecht and thence to the Basuto boundary, and the dashing but militarily abortive raids to the rear of Lord Roberts' right flank while he was at Bloemfontein. As soon as the Dutch commandant in the latter instance settled upon Wepener for the expenditure of his strength, he had not only secured that opportunity for ready retirement to which the partisan looks, but he had also relieved the British commander from serious anxiety concerning his communications.
The British disaster at Stormberg possesses no intrinsic interest, or claim to mention, as a military incident; but as it attracted so much notice at the time, and carried a certain moral effect, the details must be summarized. The Dutch were strongly entrenched and in force on a hill overlooking the place. The British were at Putter's Kraal and Sterkstrom, some twenty odd miles distant by the railroad, which they controlled up to Molteno, nine miles from Stormberg. The troops, 2,500 in number, had been marching, or in open railroad trucks, since early morning of Saturday, December 9, when at 9 P.M. they detrained at Molteno.
From this place there are two country roads, one direct to Stormberg, the other branching to the left toward Steynsburg, on the Stormberg-Naauwport railway. General Gatacre intended to follow the Steynsburg road for four or five miles, and there to take a turn to the right, which his guides assured him would in another mile and a half bring him to the south-west angle of the Boer position; but the turn was missed and passed, with the result that after a very long circuit, of two hours and a half, the column came out on the north-west angle. The attack was immediately delivered, but the troops, greatly exhausted, having halted only forty-five minutes since 9 o'clock, appear to have been incapacitated, by the accumulated hardships and disappointments of the night, to contend with the obstacles before them. The character of the casualties sufficiently indicates the comparative feebleness of the fighting. There were 31 killed, 58 wounded, while in prisoners there were lost 633. The accounts give the impression that many of the men taken were physically too depressed to quit the shelter in which they found themselves, in order to retire further. Two guns also were lost. The retreat which followed almost immediately was conducted under difficulties and fatigue, offering "great opportunity for an active enemy"; but it was not disturbed.
Further to the west and north General French, during this same period and the ensuing month of January, was carrying on continuous active operations, which will remain an instructive lesson for the military student, but which, from the smallness of the scale and the technical character of their merits, cannot well be related in a narrative of this character. For it he has received, if not popular appreciation, at least public reward in the high commendation of Lord Roberts, whose own achievements in a long career of honour give the greatest weight to his praise. "I consider that General French showed marked ability and judgment in constantly harassing the enemy and driving them from one strong position after another, without exposing his men to heavy loss." Yet even this scarcely measures the full value of French's services. The untiring molestation to which the enemy was subjected by him, as testified not only by his full report but by the daily telegram of this or that brush, first in one quarter, then in another, unquestionably—or rather evidently—produced an impression and concentrated an anxiety that contributed to divert attention from the preparations to the westward, which were to result in the relief of Kimberley and the capture of Cronje. In these later events French was rewarded by the conspicuous as well as important part he played.
Reaching Cape Town immediately after the investment of Ladysmith, French was sent up country by Sir Redvers Buller with orders to seize Naauwport, then recently evacuated, and whenever possible to push on and gain Colesberg. Naauwport was reoccupied November 19, and thenceforth activity was incessant. Advancing, retiring, gaining, losing, on front, flank, or rear, of the enemy, whatever else found place, repose did not. The report is a record of unrestingness, which communicated itself to the enemy as uneasiness. On the 16th of December Arundel, midway from Naauwport to Colesberg, was occupied as headquarters, and from that time, as before, "every opportunity was taken to worry the enemy and to harass his flanks and rear until December 29, when he finally evacuated his position in my front and retired on Colesberg. These operations were fully reported each night by telegraph." These telegrams journalise the restlessness of the skilled warrior who looks beyond his minor rôle—beyond mere partisan scurrying to and fro—to the great something to which he contributes.
Lord Roberts availed himself ably of the disquiet caused by French. As the fulness of time approached for the relief of Kimberley, the forces about Naauwport grew larger and more restless than ever. Advance in menacing force was made not only toward Colesberg, but to the eastward, along the railroad to Steynsburg and Stormberg. Parties of colonial horse crossed the country from Gatacre at Sterkstrom to French and Kelly-Kenny at Steynsburg and Arundel. A general advance in force seemed imminent. On February 2 French, in closing his long report to Lord Roberts detailing the events since December 16, said, "In accordance with the instructions received at Cape Town from the commander-in-chief, I am now making the arrangements ordered." The explanation of this mysterious allusion appeared thirteen days later, when, on February 15, he led the relieving column into Kimberley, two hundred miles distant. The same day his former command, weakened by his own withdrawal with the cavalry, and by that of Kelly-Kenny's division, and now under General Clements, had been forced out of Arundel by greatly superior numbers; but to what avail? Yet in another ten days the Boers from Kimberley to Colesberg were in full retreat, and on February 26 Clements not only had regained his ground, but had entered Colesberg, for which French had so long manœuvred in vain. The incident illustrates happily the far-reaching effect of a great movement in mass, wisely conceived, ably directed, and secretly executed.
Footnote 7: There may have been one or two more battalions of infantry, but I have not been able to trace such.
Footnote 8: "From Cape Town to Ladysmith," pp. 16-20.
Footnote 9: May 19, 1900.
Footnote 10: Harper's Monthly Magazine, May, 1900, p. 827.
Footnote 11: Ralph's "Toward Pretoria," p. 97.
Footnote 12: Ralph's "Toward Pretoria," p. 104.
Footnote 13: Julian Ralph, "Toward Pretoria," p. 153.