The severing of communications, by rail and telegraph, between Ladysmith and the outer world, was the first step in a preliminary process of attack and of defence; after which only the opponents settled down to the relatively permanent conditions that constitute the monotonous endurance of a siege. The British, prior to accepting the investment, struck out right and left from day to day, by skirmishing and reconnoitring parties; the Boers on the 9th of November delivered an assault described as determined in character, which will be more particularly mentioned later, but concerning which details are singularly meagre. This no doubt is owing, partly, to the habitual reticence of the Boers concerning their reverses, and partly to the isolation of the British garrison and correspondents until a time when nearer and more exciting events engrossed the columns of the press, crowding out this affair, already become past history.
Unless the author has greatly misconceived the general utterances, the occupation of Ladysmith has been in popular estimation merely an unfortunate accident forced upon the British as a result of the original faulty dispositions of the campaign. This view is scarcely correct; and even if it were in part well founded, the natural inference, that the investment was a misfortune, pure and simple, would not follow. Probably no single incident of the war has been more determinative of final issues than the tenure of Ladysmith. Therefore, an examination of the relation borne by this single factor to the whole, of which it was a part, may very fitly precede immediately the narrative of the particular occurrences which locally centred around it.
The considerations of any and every nature which made Ladysmith a railroad junction, a cross-roads, at which met three important lines of communication—one with Durban, one with the Transvaal, and one with the Orange Free State—constituted it at the same time, necessarily and consequently, a position of strategic importance. Even had a mistake been made in selecting it as a railroad centre—which I have never seen asserted—the decision alone would have given it value; but, if the choice was sound, all the considerations which dictated it go to increase that value. It does not follow, of course, that such a position must under no circumstances be abandoned, that something better than its tenure might not have been done for the British campaign; still less is it to be concluded that the only, or the best, way to hold the place was by occupying the town itself, or the particular lines ultimately established around it by Sir George White.
These are questions of detail, which, however important, are separable in thought and in decision from the general fact stated—that Ladysmith, being a railroad crossing, the only very important one on the Natal theatre of operations, was necessarily a strategic point not lightly to be surrendered.
Nor was Sir George White, in deciding to hold the place, constrained only by the demands of an immediate emergency. The thoughts and reasonings of that gallant and distinguished officer have been sequestrated from public knowledge by the same causes that obscure most of the early happenings of the siege; but, from speeches made by him shortly after his return to England, it is clearly apparent that not only a present military exigency, but also the considerations above mentioned, were present in his mind, as indeed they could not fail to be with any instructed and intelligent officer. "Natal was the object on which the Boers had set their hearts. It was not only the actual point which they attacked, but it was also their sentimental object. They had the idea that they had a right in Natal, and their plan of campaign was framed from the very idea that they should have the territory from Majuba to the sea. But Ladysmith stood in their way, and he might say that Ladysmith was a most important town in northern Natal. From its geographical position it became of great strategical importance. It was at Ladysmith that the forces of the Transvaal, pouring over the northern and north-eastern passes of Natal, first joined with the forces that came in from the west and the Orange Free State, and there the two South African Republics combined in their strength under the late Commandant-General Joubert—a man who, he would like to say there, was a brave and a very civilised man. Ladysmith was also a railway centre of great importance, and it was therefore of great value to them to keep it out of the possession of the enemy."
Nor was this all, as touching the place itself. That similar reasonings had led the Imperial authorities, antecedent to the hostilities, to choose Ladysmith as a depot and place d'armes, is shown by the reproaches addressed to the Government by the London Times, November 21, 1899: "There is no need to inquire just now into the balance of political and military considerations which determined the policy of making a stand at Ladysmith. It is enough that that policy was definitely adopted in ample time to allow of providing Ladysmith with the long-range guns which its position renders peculiarly necessary, dominated as it is by hills on three sides. Why were such guns not provided? Why was it left to fortunate accident to furnish the garrison at the very last moment with the means of defence"—by the arrival of the naval guns?
In like manner the prime minister of Natal, some months later, challenged the following statement of the Times in its issue of March 2, 1900: "From November 2, when, owing to the subordination of military to local political considerations, a British force of 10,000 fine soldiers was shut in Ladysmith, a great fear has hung over us." Upon this the premier comments: "It is true that the Governor, when asked by Sir George White to give his opinion, pointed out the serious political consequences which might follow the evacuation of Dundee. But as far as Ladysmith was concerned the abandonment or evacuation of that town was never, to my knowledge, even hinted at. For two years or more previous to the outbreak of the war, Ladysmith had been made the principal military station in Natal; large quantities of commissariat stores and ammunition had been accumulated there; and the troops stationed at Ladysmith, comprising the larger portion of the Natal garrison, had been permanently hutted instead of being retained under canvas. Of one fact I am certain, and that is that no suggestion of any kind was ever made to the Government of Natal that, for military or any other reasons, it was undesirable that Ladysmith should be defended."
Intrinsically, therefore, Ladysmith presented strong claims, inherent and acquired, against abandonment. But there were further reasons, exterior to herself, to be found in the particular condition of the military problem. In all campaigns, and especially in those which are defensive in character, as this then was, it is an accepted principle that the front of operations should be advanced, or, in case of retreat, should be maintained, as far forward as is possible consistent with general considerations of safety. Prominent among the latter is always the securing of the lines of communication, by which alone supplies and reinforcements can be received, or further retreat made in case of necessity. By detaining the enemy in such an advanced position, security—partial or total—is obtained for the various interests in the rear, whether public or private. The question of such detention, however, if to be effected by an inferior army, is difficult and complicated; for which reason, as well as because of other disadvantages inherent in inferiority, a defensive campaign really great—great, that is, in a military sense—makes the highest demand upon military skill.
It was the defensive stage of Napoleon's Italian campaign of 1796 that illustrated his greatness, even more conspicuously than the offensive movements which preceded it, extraordinary exhibitions though they were of his military genius; and the same distinction attends his resistance of the allied invasion in 1814.
In certain conditions of country, in certain relative degrees of numerical strength, under certain political conditions—for it is a grave mistake to think that military and political considerations can be dissevered practically, as they can logically—an inferior force can contest step by step, content to delay only, not to arrest. It is, for instance, evident that, politically, one may more readily thus abandon hostile country than uncover one's own territory—as in Natal—even though the military conditions in the two cases be identical. But, under different circumstances of position or of numbers, such dilatory field operations may be impracticable. If the country through which retreat is to be made be open, if numbers be so small that the enemy can overlap—that is outflank—if the ground does not afford positions where the flanks may be protected by natural obstacles that make outflanking impossible or exceedingly arduous, if the enemy be greatly superior in mobility, in such conditions retreat from each successive stand is apt to be precipitate—dependent less upon one's own will than upon the enemy's energy—and the retiring army may reach its ultimate goal under an accumulation of retrograde impulse not far distinguishable from rout, deteriorated in morale and diminished in numbers.
Where such unfavourable conditions obtain, the principle which dominates all correct defensive action receives a special application. The principle is that every defensive disposition should look to offensive action—or at the least to offensive effect. Mere defence is ultimate ruin. "In the long run," said Napoleon, "no position whatever can be defended if it does not threaten the enemy." Consequently, the force that for any, or several, of the reasons above given cannot safely keep the field must establish itself solidly in some place where, for whatsoever advantages, it is as far as possible itself secure; but whence at the same time—and this is the more important of the two considerations—it most effectually menaces the enemy. This it does by applying again, but in another manner, the flanking, or turning, idea—by placing itself across or to one side of the line of communications upon which the enemy will depend, if he ventures to advance in the direction which the defendant has not felt himself strong enough otherwise to contest. Of such offensive-defensive positions there are many historical examples. Among these the most recently conspicuous was the occupation of Plevna by the Turks in 1877, and the long consequent arrest of the Russian progress; but Mantua, in 1796, in like manner and for the same reasons, effectually stopped Bonaparte for eight months, and Genoa, in 1800, so long delayed the Austrians as to reverse the issues of the campaign signalised by the name of Marengo.
From the simply defensive point of view, a line of works arranged consecutively around such a stationary centre has no flanks to be turned, but resembles a circle or other continuous curve which returns into itself. Like a straight line, such a curve may be broken by superior force; but until that is done the weakness of flanks does not exist. Moreover, succour can be more quickly sent from a centre to every threatened point of the circumference than from the middle of a line of equal length to its extremes. A circle, therefore, is the most compact disposition for defence, and so most ideal for smaller numbers. It is concentration in its most effective form, while sacrificing nothing in elasticity and flexibility of motion.
These are the intrinsic defensive advantages—as distinguished from the offensive threat to the enemy's communications—secured to the weaker party by a permanent position, and these are its compensations for the loss of open communications which have been deliberately abandoned.
In Natal, at the end of October, 1899, the British army was much inferior to the enemy in both numbers and mobility; and while several lines of defence were to be found in the region behind, as was shown by the stubborn resistance which the Boers, when in turn outnumbered, made at the Tugela, these positions were open to the danger of being turned by superior numbers or superior rapidity; still more when these two were combined. In fact, much of the subsequent Boer success in defence resulted from the fact that, acting on the inside of an arc, with the advantage of interior—shorter—lines, they also moved over the latter with greater speed, owing to their distinguishing characteristic as mounted troops. They had particular facilities, in a word, for accumulating successful numbers at a threatened point of a stationary defence, which the British would not have had in an active campaign of retreat.
It became therefore advisable, if not imperative, for the British commander in Natal to resort to a stationary defence for the preservation of his division, and to place himself for offensive purpose upon the flank of the enemy's possible line of invasion, in order to deter him from further advance. As to situation, Ladysmith was clearly indicated by the reasons before stated, and especially because there was there accumulated a great quantity of ammunition, provisions, and other supplies, which not only should not be allowed to fall into the hands of the Boers, but also would be essential to the maintenance of the garrison, if relief were long delayed, as it proved to be. That this contingency was foreseen, and as far as possible provided for, has been shown by subsequent utterances of Sir George White. "From the moment I saw the situation in Natal, I was certain I should be pressed back by superior numbers, and have to hold Ladysmith, and I knew that the enemy had guns with which I could not hope to cope with my 15-pounder field guns. Therefore I telegraphed for the naval guns. It was a question of a race for them, and Captain Lambton was the right man to win that race. He won only by a short head."
This, then, was the function which the current of events assigned to Ladysmith, and the part which it bore to the subsequent development of the war. 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. As so often markedly happens, when a correct decision has been made, circumstances seemed to work together to favour the consequences. The respite given to the garrison by Joubert, who did not attack until November 9, allowed opportunity to regularize and further to develop the system of defence, so that on November 6 a press censor telegram, brought out successfully by a Kaffir runner, read, "Position here now believed to be entirely safe; greatly strengthened in the last twenty-four hours." The opportune arrival of the naval guns also, though by so narrow a margin of time, decisively influenced the outcome. "Had it not been for these guns," said Sir George White, after his return to England, "the guns of the Boers would have been brought up very much nearer to my defences of Ladysmith, and it would enormously have embarrassed my powers of resistance and would have added enormously to the mortality of my garrison. Not once or twice in our rough island story have the naval officer and his men come in the nick of time, and the siege of Ladysmith was but one instance added to these happy advents."
As before said, Ladysmith is surrounded on three sides by hills which overtop it; railroad lines and stations, indeed, do not commonly prefer summits to valleys. On the 30th of October the Boers had already mounted a 40-pounder gun on Peppworth's Hill, north of the town, with which on that day they opened fire at a distance of over 6,000 yards, much outranging the army field artillery. It was in connection with the general sortie of the garrison to seize that position that the disaster of Nicholson's Nek was incurred.
This first threatening outlook was materially modified by the arrival the same day of the six naval guns from Durban, two of which were of power equal to the Boers' heavy pieces, and all of a range superior to those previously at White's disposal. By the 3rd of November a second long gun had been placed by the besiegers some 8,000 yards—between four and five miles—south-east of the town, upon Mount Umbulwani; from which, and from an eminence known indifferently as Lombard's Kop and as Little Bulwana, three miles to the northward, and also east of the place, the worst of the heavy gun fire upon the town itself, as distinguished from the lines of defence, seems to have proceeded. On the 28th the Boers had established within 5,000 yards—less than three miles—of the western defences a third 40-pounder, to which, we learn from Joubert's despatches, his gunners with grim military humour gave the name of "Franchise"—in mockery, doubtless, of the British Government's demands on behalf of the Uitlanders. It may be mentioned here that throughout the war the Boers have shown a remarkable facility in transporting these heavy cannon, placing them with surprising rapidity in positions unexpected by their opponents. On the 29th the besieged could count twenty-six guns in place upon the lines of attack; but of these, at that time, only the three specified were guns "of position," to be reckoned as units of a siege train. The British defensive works, when finally established, measured in circuit some sixteen miles. The range of the heavier hostile guns, as revealed by their early practice, compelled an extension to this degree, in order to hold them back beyond easy command of the town. Fortunately this perimeter, which would indicate the enclosed area to have a diameter of from five to six miles, could be manned without overtaxing the numbers of the garrison. At the moment of investment the British force fit for duty was 572 officers and 12,924 men; total, 13,496. Of these, during the siege, 88 officers and 732 men were killed or wounded; but sickness and want of food had so far further reduced the numbers that on the day of relief there were of effectives only 403 officers and 9,761 men, and of these it was significantly added that "they are the only troops fit to do even a two-miles march."
Long before this condition of destitution and debility was reached the besiegers found their hands so occupied by the British relieving forces that the besieged had little more to do than to hold on. When the danger to Ladysmith had decided the British authorities to depart from the original plan, of a single forward movement in mass through the Free State, and to organise instead a double advance, with divided forces, for the simultaneous relief of Ladysmith and of Kimberley—as well as certain other subsidiary operations by French and Gatacre—heavy reinforcements were at once directed upon Natal. Hildyard's brigade, which had left England before the news of Talana Hill was received, went on at once from Cape Town without disembarking, reaching Durban before November 17. Lieutenant-General Sir Francis Clery continued on to the same port from his original destination, Port Elizabeth, and upon arrival, November 18, took command of all the forces in the colony south of Ladysmith. He was followed exactly a week later by the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Redvers Buller, drawn in person by the irresistible logic of events to the scene which his own action, or that of the Government, had determined to be the chief among several centres of active operations.
Meantime, since the day of investment, much had been happening, and conditions were rapidly taking shape. Upon the 9th of November Joubert directed an attack upon the defences of Ladysmith. This delay of a week has not yet been explained, and is to be justified only upon grounds of necessity, in the Boer commander's inability, however occasioned, sooner to get his numbers together, concentrated and disposed for so grave an enterprise. The solution is probably to be found partly in his own natural temperament, which his previous career, though political rather than military, indicates to have been cautious, and lacking in the aggressive quality that has given President Kruger, in civic contests, a continuous triumph over his more cultivated and progressive, but less combative, rival.
It is to this trait of wariness, seeking to compass ends by indirection and compromise rather than by open conflict, that Joubert's failure to achieve success in public life has been plausibly attributed, and from it arose the nickname "Slim (crafty) Piet" attached to him by his countrymen. "It was this want of assertiveness and of determination in following any marked line of action which prevented Joubert from playing a great part in the fortunes of the Republic. Opportunities occurred again and again after the advent of the Uitlanders when a vigorous assertion of himself would have placed him in a position to defeat Mr. Kruger. But the habit of indolence, so often found associated with a big physical frame, and a certain element of Scotch 'canniness,' which led him to refuse to accept risks, prevented his offering serious opposition to the Kruger clique."
This estimate of Joubert's characteristics is recently confirmed by two sympathetic observers from within the Boer lines. "Mr. Davitt, in a letter from Kroonstad to the Dublin Freeman's Journal, declares that the Boers were not at all dismayed by the death of General Joubert, which they agreed was in no sense a misfortune. He was too merciful in his notions of warfare. Ladysmith could easily have been taken on more than one occasion had Joubert not vetoed the proposed assaults." The second correspondent relates that General Joubert overruled the desire of the burghers to assault Ladysmith, saying "at a War Council that the city was not worth to the Boers the lives of 500 burghers." If Joubert really said that, he ought unquestionably to have been at once relieved from command; but as the incident is preceded by the statement that "the burghers were confident of their ability to take it in a hand-to-hand fight, notwithstanding that the English outnumbered them more than two to one," the source of the correspondent's information is open to some question.
To make war without running risks—not mere risk of personal danger, but of military failure—has been declared impossible by the highest authority. Yet such a temperament, betrayed in politics, being constitutional, will enter into all actions of life, and one is not surprised to read that "this characteristic of caution was the chief mark of Joubert's conduct in the field as a military commander. His idea of warfare was to act ever on the defensive." Let this be qualified so far as to say that 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, and we have a view, not of Joubert only, but of his race, which goes far to explain the failures at Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking, and likewise the inefficient action at that early period of the war when alone success was locally possible, and, if locally attained, might have even compassed an ultimate victory. If to this idea be linked that which is closely akin to it—of attaining results, not by superior dexterity in the use of means, but by subtlety and ambush—and we have the explanation both of the numerous artful traps into which British detachments were led, like game into the snare of the hunter, and yet also of the sure failure to achieve success in war, for the craft of the hunter is not the skill of the warrior.
The cognate words "stratagem" and "strategist" sufficiently indicate that craft and wile are part of the professional equipment of great warriors, but with them these are not, and cannot be, predominant. Their skill is not so much to contrive success by deceiving an enemy as to command it by local superiority of force, either exerted in violence, or imposing submission by mere evidence of overpowerment. Circumvention with them aims at permanent results which it alone cannot obtain. It is but a means to the end, which is the crushing, the military annihilation, of the enemy. That can be accomplished only by force, not by mere guile. In his temperament, as shown by his action, Joubert reflected the fighting characteristics of his people, of whom he has been the most conspicuous military representative, honoured by friend and foe alike for his fearlessness, his intelligence, and his humanity. Courage of the highest proof as regards personal danger, but not the courage that throws away the scabbard, much less that which burns its ships. The hunter, meeting superior strength with superior cunning, without even the very least willingness to lose his life in order to carry his end, may be brave even to recklessness; but he rejects habitually the tone of mind distinctive of the soldier, who counts life naught if only by its sacrifice the end may be attained, or honour preserved. In so far, that element of stupidity which has been somewhat lavishly attributed to the British officers' too single-minded attention to their end, to the exclusion of care for their own persons and those of their men, has a military value not only great, but decisive. The quality needs direction and control, certainly; but, having been reproached for now two centuries, the question is apt—Where has it placed Great Britain among the nations of the earth?
The assault of November 9 began, as is usual in such cases, with a heavy artillery fire, intended to shake the endurance of those subjected to it. The Boer guns opened at 4 A.M., and under their cover the assailants moved forward. The attack was made from all sides, but the principal effort came from the northward, between the railroads leading north-east to Glencoe and north-west to the Free State. As before said, particulars are wanting; but the British had only to hold their own, except when by a rush, after a repulse of the enemy, they gained ground over which the latter had passed; whereas the Boers, having to break cover frequently in order to advance, underwent necessarily the greater burden of exposure and of loss. How large this was is still uncertain. Sir Redvers Buller, on the 5th December, telegraphed to the War Office that it was "very difficult to make any statement as to the enemy's losses. For instance, at Belmont, 81 of their dead were accounted for; they gave 15 as the number of killed. There is every reason to believe that in the fight at Ladysmith, on November 9, the enemy's loss was over 800 killed and wounded." The Boer practice of removing or concealing their slain has already been noted. The British casualties on this occasion were at the time reckoned at about 100. Whether subsequent estimates materially changed this figure is not particularised; but probably it is nearly correct, for the total losses during the investment, exclusive of the great assault of January 6, were only 355. The enemy were effectually repulsed all along the line, and the fighting was mostly over by 11 A.M. At noon a salute was fired, in honour primarily of the Prince of Wales's birthday; but, incidentally, doubtless, it expressed exultation over the garrison's own achievement.
Nearly two months elapsed before the attempt to carry the works by storm was renewed, and then, doubtless, because it had been recognised that there was at least a dangerous probability that the place might hold out, until it was relieved by the immense forces known to be accumulating. But the immediate result of the failure of the 9th was to dispose the Boer authorities not to risk further slaughter, but to trust rather to the slow process of famine for overcoming an endurance which neither they, nor probably the British outside, then thought could be so long protracted.
Joubert therefore settled down to an investment and bombardment. Immediately following this determination, and probably consequent upon it, there were organised a number of raids upon the Natal territory to the southward. These, though simultaneous in execution, and therefore mutually supporting, were made by bodies apparently individually independent; sharing in this a characteristic commonly met in the Boer operations, and facilitated at once by their individualistic habits of life, their knowledge of the country, and their freedom from the organic interdependence which to regular troops becomes a second nature. Every Boer organisation seems susceptible of immediate dissolution into its component units, each of independent vitality, and of subsequent reunion in some assigned place; the individuals passing easily as innocent wayfarers or peasants among the population, with which they readily blend. The quality has its strength; but it has also its weakness, and the latter exceeds. This capacity for undergoing multifold subdivision, with retention of function by the several parts, is characteristic, in fact, of the simpler and lower forms of life, and disappears gradually as evolution progresses to higher orders. In all military performance, it is not the faculty for segregation that chiefly tells. It is the predisposition to united action, the habit of mutual concert and reliance. By this, concentration of purpose, subordination to a common impulse, ceases to be an effort, becoming the second nature of the man; and concentration of action, not merely in great operations but in the inner spirit, is the secret of success in war. Individual, intelligent self-direction is not, however, thereby excluded. The two are complementary elements of the highest personal efficiency; but they must be regarded in their due relations and proportions. The individualistic tendency is that of the natural man, of the raw material, of the irregular trooper. Educated in the trained soldier into due subordination to the superior demands of military concert, it remains an invaluable constituent of military character; but where existing in excess, as it does prior to training, it is far more harmful than beneficial. In considering the experiences of a war of the kind before us, these facts should be kept clearly in mind; for under the peculiar conditions of countries partly or wholly unredeemed, as the American wilderness of a century or so ago, or South Africa to-day, the special experience of the inhabitant confers local aptitudes which the trained soldier needs to acquire, which place him for the moment, and in so far, in a position of inferiority, and in consequence of which hasty impression lightly reaches the erroneous conclusion that greater military efficiency resides in individual liberty of action, than in imposed habits of subordination and concert of movement. It is not so. The exception should not be mistaken for the rule, nor the occasional for the permanent.
Incidentally to the process of investment, the Boers had already moved in considerable numbers south of Ladysmith, and had established batteries on Grobler's Kloof, a ridge two or three miles west of the railroad, overlooking the Tugela from the north. Thence they had opened fire on the 2nd of November against Colenso, the town and railway station upon the southern bank, and against Fort Wylie, upon the northern, just to the east of the road. Colenso and Wylie were consequently evacuated by the small British forces there present, and on the 4th it was announced officially that they had retired to Estcourt, twenty miles to the southward—twenty-seven by the railroad. This marked the furthest point of the British retreat; but the fewness of the troops that there made their stand exposed them for some days to very serious danger, had the object of the Boers been, as was by some alleged, with firm purpose to destroy whatsoever of force or of facilities existed to further the advance of relief to the invested garrison, and not merely raiding with a view to increase their resources in the positions they had determined to hold, around Ladysmith and on the Tugela.
Up to the 15th of November an armoured train was sent out daily from Estcourt to reconnoitre, but on that day, having pushed too far north, it was intercepted on its return by an advanced party of the enemy, who, by loosening a rail, threw it off the track. A hundred British, more or less, were here captured; among them Mr. Winston Churchill, a war correspondent. Three days later, November 18, there were seen from Estcourt the advanced patrols of the various raiding parties, who were sweeping the country on both sides of the railroad over a front of thirty miles or more, from Weenen on the east to Ulundi on the west. On the 21st they were reported in the direction of Greytown, forty miles east of Estcourt and the same distance from the railroad, which here runs south-east, and also at Impendhla, twenty-five miles west of the road. Their advance was pushed close to the Mooi River, which the railroad crosses twenty miles to the southward of Estcourt, and there artillery shots were exchanged with the camp where Sir Francis Clery was assembling the reinforcements arriving at Durban—the beginnings of the force destined to the relief of Ladysmith.
Communication of Estcourt with Mooi River was for a short while interrupted, both by rail and by telegraph, the enemy occupying Highlands Station, thirteen miles to the southward, on the 20th, and also a position commanding Willow Grange, midway between Highlands and Estcourt. At no time, however, did the Boers make any serious demonstration, looking towards the permanent isolation of the place; nor was there any attempt to capture it. The whole movement, as it resulted, was simply a raid, and nothing more, with no apparent objects except to secure supplies, and, while so engaged, to insure their own safety from molestation by occupying positions of command, which facilitated their defence and—by menace or otherwise—imposed obstacles upon the movements of the British. A certain amount of outpost skirmishing of course occurred, and on the night of the 22nd some 4,000 British, under General Hildyard, moved, by way of Willow Grange, to attack Beacon Hill, which overlooks Estcourt from the west. The Boers were in force there, and upon still higher ridges farther to the westward. A sharp engagement took place that night, in which the British first carried the position, but afterwards retired, leaving it to be reoccupied by the enemy. The movement on their part seems to have been simply precautionary, a sharp rap to check the over-confidence of the opponent, and to deter him from pushing attacks upon the railroad, which for the time being might be inconveniently successful; the reinforcements from Durban having as yet only partially come up, and the organisation for advance being still incomplete. The British loss was 11 killed, 67 wounded.
No attempt on a large scale was made to arrest the Boer raiding operations. From this, and from their mutually independent character, it has resulted that the numbers engaged in them have remained very uncertain, not having been observed or tested by the usual military methods. By one correspondent on the spot they were estimated at not over 5,000; by another, equally present, at from 7,000 to 12,000.
Sir Francis Clery had apparently determined to concentrate his entire effort upon organising the relief of Ladysmith, and was not to be drawn off by side events, however disastrous to local interests. The British force at Estcourt and at Mooi River were considered safe, and the enemy's advance in fact did not extend in any force beyond the latter. Very shortly after the affair at Willow Grange the tide began to ebb. The precise cause for this is still a matter of surmise. It may be that Joubert considered he had gathered in all that was needed to supply his positions around Ladysmith and behind the Tugela; it was reported at the time that 12,000 head of cattle were among the spoils. It may be that he found the British force, although yet only partially concentrated and organised, too strong to justify a more extended movement. It had been rumoured that he purposed to capture, if possible, Estcourt and Mooi River, and even to push on to Pietermaritzburg, with the view of stopping the relief column as far as possible from its point of destination. Such an effort was strictly accurate from the strategic standpoint, and accordingly his whole movement may have been of the nature of a reconnaissance in force, to receive greater development if circumstances favoured, and in any event to impose delay by destroying the roads. To this, however, it must be replied, even in the ground covered, the injury to the rail, though often attempted was nowhere serious, except where culverts or bridges offered vulnerable points.
Another interesting and far from improbable story was current at the time, that Joubert's retirement was due to peremptory orders from Pretoria, elicited by the progress of Methuen, the operations around Naauwport, and the increase of British force in that central region which French's movements, and those of Gatacre before Stormberg, seemed to indicate. This report is mentioned by two correspondents then at Estcourt, as based upon despatches captured on Boer couriers on November 25, directing Joubert to return at once to Ladysmith, and even to prepare for moving homeward. An official synopsis of the papers, then given to the press by the military authorities, does not fully establish the truth of the rumour, but it does give fair ground to infer that such an influence was exerted upon the counsels of Pretoria by the operations in Cape Colony; notably by the battle of Belmont, November 24, and the consequent demoralisation among the Free State burghers.
Whatever foundation of truth it may have, the incident irresistibly suggests, though it does not certainly demonstrate, the advantage of adhering to the original plan of advance by the Free State line. It has been stated that, "On all sides in Germany the opinion is expressed that Kimberley, and even Ladysmith, ought to have been erased as primary factors in the calculations of those responsible for the plan of operations. A strong British army advancing towards Bloemfontein, and turning neither to the left nor to the right, would have attracted the attention of all the available Boer forces, and would indirectly, but none the less speedily, have relieved the pressure on Ladysmith and Kimberley.... War is a hard trade, and must be waged independently of minor considerations and of many human sympathies." Would it not be juster to say, war must be waged in the spirit of fortitude, that endures the strain of even a very great risk, incurred by persisting in a course of action demonstrably correct?
Uttered in the week following Magersfontein and Colenso, the opinions just quoted are certainly open to the charge of being wise after the event; nevertheless, it is indisputable that they express a fundamental military truth. A really strong military conception would have been to concentrate for an advance, such as here suggested, notifying Sir George White that he could not expect direct relief, but must plan for a resistance protracted to the farthest, in order that upon the enemy might be thrown the dilemma of dividing his forces, thus facilitating the advance of the British central column, or else, in order to oppose this, to drop the eagerly-coveted prize at Ladysmith. Divided as the total British force already was by the isolation of the latter, the great resolve would have been, "Let it fall, if it ultimately must, if only by endurance it prolongs to the latest moment the dissemination of the enemy's armies." One is forcibly reminded of the charge of the Archduke Charles to his subordinate at the critical moment of 1796, which Jomini singles out for conspicuous eulogium: "It matters not if Moreau gets to Vienna, provided you keep him occupied till I am done with Jourdan." Reasonings like these are strictly general in their bearing, liable to refutation by the special circumstances controlling a particular action; and it may perfectly well be that considerations of urgency, amounting even to impossibility, make them inapplicable to the case before us. Nevertheless, it can scarcely fail that, till such special considerations are known, and their validity admitted, it is to this point that military scrutiny and inquiry will be irresistibly drawn.
Whatever the cause of Joubert's retirement, the fact was beyond doubt on the evening of November 25, and on the 26th Hildyard had advanced a detachment twelve miles, to Frere, hoping thence to act upon the enemy's line of retreat. Herein he was disappointed, but with this began the general advance of the British forces in Natal, which a fortnight later brought the adversaries confronting one another on the opposite banks of the Tugela. During this period White also was not idle. Two well-planned and energetic night attacks were made upon the enemy's siege batteries—on the 8th of December at Gun Hill, a kopje pertaining to Lombard's Kop, and on the 10th at Surprise Hill, north of the town, towards Nicholson's Nek. The former, executed chiefly by Natal colonial forces, resulted in destroying a 6-inch gun and a 4.7-inch howitzer. The second, by Imperial troops, destroyed another howitzer of the same size. Like the sorties of Kekewich from Kimberley, these, by compelling the enemy's attention to the place, contributed to further the movements of Buller, between whom and the garrison communication, hitherto dependent chiefly upon runners, had now been opened by heliograph and electric-light signals.
Frere had now become the British point of assembly. On the 8th of December there were there concentrated four infantry brigades, designated numerically as the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6th, as well as the cavalry and artillery, which a week later took part in the battle of Colenso. The Boers on their side had taken advantage of the interior position they held, between the relieving column and the garrison, and of the fact that the latter could scarcely attempt to break out to the north, to withdraw their forces in great measure from the latter quarter, disposing them between Ladysmith and the Tugela in such wise that they might most easily be concentrated upon the centre, should the British attack be made there, as it first was, or upon either flank should a turning manœuvre be attempted. Their arrangements for such action appear to have been sagaciously made, as were also the preparations for contesting the passage of the river at Colenso.
On December 12 the final British movement began by the advance to Chieveley of the 6th Brigade, styled also the Fusilier Brigade, under Major-General Barton, with 1,000 colonial cavalry, three field batteries—eighteen pieces—and a number of naval guns, of which two were of 4.7-inches calibre, and fourteen were long-range 12-pounders. These were drawn by oxen, even when going into action; the two heavier guns requiring each fourteen yoke. These batteries were manned by 254 seamen, under the command of Captain Jones, of the cruiser "Forte." The detachment thus composed settled down a little in advance of Chieveley, just east of the railroad line, about three miles from Colenso and four from the kopjes on the far side of the Tugela overlooking the railroad bridge, upon the nearest of which stands Fort Wylie. The exact range to the latter, as determined the next day, was 7,200 yards.
The following morning, Wednesday, December 13, at 7 A.M., the naval guns began a heavy bombardment upon the kopjes last mentioned, which lie nearly due north of Colenso, and upon which Sir Redvers Buller intended to make his main attack. The firing was maintained for six hours, and did in places considerable damage to such works as could be discerned; the 4.7-inch guns using lyddite shells, the bursting effect of which is extremely violent. Despite the severity of the test to which they were thus subjected, the Boers with admirable self-control refrained from any reply, and so preserved in great part the secret of their dispositions from detection by the enemy.
Next day, Thursday the 14th, the remaining British force marched out of Frere camp at 4.30 A.M. for Chieveley. The extreme heat of the days, summer being then well begun, combine with the usual advantages of timely starting to determine early movements in South Africa. The last comers pitched camp west of the rail, and about a mile nearer the Tugela than the 6th Brigade. The naval guns also moved forward three-quarters of a mile, and resumed the bombardment. The Boers again making no reply, the disappointment of their opponents at failing to uncover the position of their guns began to yield to an impression that these had been withdrawn, and even that possibly the passage would not be contested.
The total British armament now gathered on the south side of the Tugela has been variously stated at from 20,000 to 23,000 of all arms. The smaller figure seems the more probable. As regards the number of their opponents, there is no certain information. Nothing is known, however, to reduce the estimate previously given—30,000. Allowing for the necessity of holding in check the garrison at Ladysmith, the Boers could very well meet Buller in force numerically equal, without taking account of the passive advantages of a defensive position unusually strong.
That night were distributed the British orders for forcing the passage of the Tugela. They were issued by Sir Francis Clery, as commanding the South Natal Field Forces; but Sir Redvers Buller, by the language of his subsequent report, has left no doubt that the plan embodied his own ideas, as Commander-in-Chief in South Africa generally, but present on this scene. This report is the guide in the following account, the narratives of others having been by the writer used to supplement or, where necessary, to elucidate.
The general line of the Tugela, for a half-dozen miles above Colenso, is nearly due east, but its course is extremely winding. In this section two or three bends of nearly a mile in bulge occur, one of which had quite an influence in the action. The town itself lies in a bight of this kind, just west of the railroad, which crosses the river by a bridge, at that time destroyed. Immediately above it, however, an iron road-bridge still remained. The latter is the centre of a semicircle of hills, which surround it to the northward, their crests being on an average some 1,400 feet high and distant four and a half miles. The bridge was also the centre of battle, as planned by the British. Near it, on the north side, are "four small, lozenge-shaped, steep-sided, hog-backed hills," the one nearest the water, on which Fort Wylie stands, being the lowest, the others rising in succession behind. They were all "strongly entrenched, with well-built, rough stone walls along every crest that offered, there being in some cases three tiers." It was upon these that Buller designed to make his principal effort. "It was a very awkward position to attack," he says, "but I thought that if I could effect a lodgment under cover of Fort Wylie the other hills would to a great extent mask each other, and shell-fire and want of water would clear them out in time."
The report of the Commander-in-Chief, dealing almost exclusively with the course of events as they happened, does not particularly describe the remaining features of the field. These must be supplied from other sources. Above—west of—Fort Wylie, on the north side, the hills recede somewhat from the river and rise to one of the crests mentioned by Buller, known as Grobler's Kloof. This also was heavily fortified, commanding, it is said, Fort Wylie and the neighbouring hills. If this be so, success at the latter, had it been achieved, would quickly have elicited proof of the fact. Under Grobler's Kloof, some two or three miles up the river, was a drift or ford, over which the plan of attack proposed to pass the 5th or Irish Brigade, commanded by Major-General Hart, forming the left flank of the British line. This done, the brigade would move down stream to reinforce the main attack on the Fort Wylie kopjes.
Below Fort Wylie the river continued south-easterly for something less than a mile. Then with a bold sweep it curves north, and round west, to a point half a mile north-east of the fort, when it again flows due north for a couple of miles. From this formation results a tongue of land, embraced in the curve, projecting to the south-east, and much resembling a bastion, to which the subsequent northern stretch serves as a curtain. In general effect, however, the river may be broadly said to make below Wylie a sharp turn to the north, running that way for two or three miles, after which it resumes its general easterly course towards the sea. The point where it thus resumes its direction is well to the north—rear—of the line of Boer entrenchments, between Grobler's and Wylie, so that, if their positions were prolonged on that same line, they would be separated by the river. If, on the other hand, instead of so continuing, the entrenched works were made to follow the river course north, keeping always on the same side of the Tugela, the main Boer positions, confronting the bridge, would be open to enfilading fire from the eastern hills on the opposite side below the bend.
Such conditions would seem to make this eastern part of the Boers' position—their left flank—the weakest. The outcome of the campaign tends to confirm this conclusion, which the author has been interested to find also in a letter, not only composed, but published, before the abortive attempt to turn the west flank at Spion Kop. "To the east of Fort Wylie," wrote a correspondent of the London Times on December 21, "the Tugela bends sharply northward, and here the left flank of the Boer position is on the south sides of the river, on a solitary hill called Hlangwane. This is doubtless the weakest spot in the Boer position, for if an enemy could take it by storm or otherwise, he could render the kopjes north of Colenso untenable." This shows that the Boers preferred to have their lines divided by a river fordable only in places, and at times impassable through floods, rather than leave their flank uncovered to artillery, a decision probably correct. As shown by the plans, Hlangwane, as an eminence, stood by itself; a mile and a half to its east and rear was another height named Monte Cristo, and again to the westward a range called Inhlawe Mountain.
Of the features mentioned, the Bridle Drift on the west, the iron road-bridge in the centre, and Hlangwane Hill on the east, are the principal points to remember. On the British side of the river, a plain sloped gradually down to the southern bank from a distance of two or three miles. It was divided north and south by a slight swell in the ground, flat-topped, of height just sufficient to conceal men on one side of it from those on the other. On the eastern edge of this rise, the railroad track ran north to the bridge. On the western side, and between 3000 and 4000 yards from Wylie, was placed the chief naval battery, the two 4.7-inch and four 12-pounders. Between these and the railroad was to advance the central column of attack, the 2nd Brigade under General Hildyard. To the left rear of this, between it and the 5th Brigade—which, as before said, was directed upon the Bridle Drift—was placed the 4th, under Major General Lyttelton, charged with the duty of reinforcing either the 2nd or the 5th, as circumstances might demand during the progress of the fight. The 6th Brigade—Major-General Barton—was to advance on the east of the railroad, in general support of Hildyard. On this part of the field the ground was flat, but intersected by several dongas. Each extreme of the line of infantry formed by the four brigades was covered as usual by a flanking force, chiefly of horse; but while that on the British left had this function only, that on the right, the mounted brigade, with one battery—six guns—was to attempt Hlangwane Hill. If successful, it was to enfilade the Wylie kopjes from that position. The remaining four batteries of field artillery were intended at the proper moment to concentrate their fire upon the Wylie kopjes, preparing the way for the crucial charge of the 2nd Brigade. For this object, two followed Lyttelton's 4th Brigade, and two the 6th; the last, under Colonel Long, being accompanied by six naval 12-pounders.
From these dispositions it appears, as is clearly stated by Buller in his report, that all the differing factors in the attack were to converge for their object, and according to their respective qualities, upon "the kopjes north of the iron bridge"—to use Clery's expression in the orders for battle. The 2nd Brigade marched upon them direct; the 5th approached their right flank by way of the Bridle Drift; the 4th and 6th reinforced, as required, each of the others; the four batteries—two on either side—brought a cross-fire upon the same objects; while the flanking force on the British right was to assist by an enfilading fire from Hlangwane. To combine several separate efforts, so that by mutual support and effect each at the critical moments contributes its due share to the one main exertion, is always difficult. Failure may ensue from lack of the nicest attention on the part of any one subordinate, or from those chances which must always be allowed for in war. The British at Colenso suffered from both causes.
Hart, on the left, having the longest road to reach the kopjes, moved first. The brigade reached the river, but missed the ford. It has been said that the enemy, by building a dam below, had raised the water to seven feet. Be that as it may, a few venturing in with musket and ammunition belts were drowned. Groping for the way, and apparently confused between the tortuous courses of the river itself and a tributary which enters near by, the mass of the troops blundered into a sharp bend curving to the northward, thus coming under a cross fire from the two enclosing banks. Here they became heavily engaged, and Buller, seeing the hopelessness of the position, recalled them. It was necessary, however, to send two of Lyttelton's battalions and two batteries to extricate them. Hart's attack therefore had failed, and his division contributed nothing further except the menace of its presence, which must retain some of the enemy to resist a possible renewal.
A yet more decisive mishap meanwhile had occurred in another part of the field. Reckoning that Hart and Hildyard were to attack in mutual support, the time had come for the latter to advance, and he had done so. The beginning of his movement was to have been covered by the six naval 12-pounders accompanying Long's two field batteries, and a position had been appointed them to that effect; it being intended apparently that the army guns should not come into action till later, when the development of Hildyard's movement would permit them to approach the enemy within their shorter range without losing the necessary support of infantry fire,—directly by the 6th brigade, specifically charged with that duty, and indirectly by the occupation which Hildyard's attack would necessarily give the Boers. Instead, however, of attending closely to the requirements of a movement where a certain exactness of touch was evidently necessary, Long's two field batteries, leaving their infantry escort behind, galloped rapidly forward on the east side of the railroad and came into action 1200 yards from Fort Wylie, and, as Buller judged, only 300 yards from the enemy's rifle pits. The slow-moving oxen fortunately were unable to drag the heavier naval guns to the same position to share the fate that quickly befell. A very heavy fire was opened from the Boer rifle pits, and although the gunners stuck manfully to their pieces until the ammunition in the limbers was exhausted, they were compelled then to leave them on the plain, retreating for shelter to a donga. The breech-blocks, even, were not carried away; it is said because they expected to return again to action. The naval detachment, 300 yards further back, were exposed to the same fire, but received only its outer fringe. The native drivers bolted, and many of the oxen were killed or stampeded; but the seamen contrived to drag their guns out of range.
News of this mishap reached Buller as he was returning from witnessing Hart's discomfiture. Hildyard was directed to move two regiments of his advancing brigade to the right to save the pieces; but, though the order was steadily executed, it was found impossible to keep the troops out of cover under the fire of Wylie, which had been momentarily silenced by Long's impetuous attack, but had now opened again. The batteries had failed by preceding, and so losing, infantry support; the infantry in turn failed because the guns were powerless. A sudden and desperate rush with harnessed teams succeeded in withdrawing two of the twelve abandoned pieces, in performing which service the son of Lord Roberts lost his life. But a second attempt found the enemy on guard again, and out of 22 horses that started 13 were killed before half-way to the spot.
The naval 12-pounder accompanying Long having been rendered immobile for the day, and the two batteries sacrificed, Sir Redvers Buller decided that without their support it would be impossible to force the passage. He therefore directed a general withdrawal to the camp. The abandoned batteries were left in the open, where, together with the wounded men and some of the supports sent in by Hildyard, they were taken by the Boers. The British loss in missing and prisoners was 21 officers and 207 men. There were killed 135, and wounded 762. The enemy remained unshaken in his positions.
This mortifying reverse, following sharply upon the heels of Magersfontein and Stormberg, thoroughly aroused the British people, who neither at home nor on the field were prepared for it. The day after the receipt of the news, Saturday, December 16th, a Cabinet meeting was held, and the next evening it was announced that, as the campaign in Natal was likely to require the undivided attention of Sir Redvers Buller, Lord Roberts would be sent to South Africa as Commander-in-Chief, and would be accompanied by Lord Kitchener as Chief of Staff. At the same time the rest of the Army Reserve was called out, and further measures taken which carried the troops employed in South Africa to, and beyond, the large numbers already quoted as despatched by the end of the following March.
Lord Roberts sailed from England December 23rd. On the 26th, at Gibraltar, he picked up Kitchener, who had been brought there by a swift naval cruiser, and on the 10th of January, 1900, he landed at Cape Town.
Footnote 14: London Weekly Times, May 18.
Footnote 15: I should greatly like here to take up my parable against those who base their calculations for the numbers and kinds of naval vessels upon the idea of "a navy for defence only"; but space and relevancy both forbid.
Footnote 16: London Weekly Times, June 1, 1900. Captain the Hon. Hedworth Lambton, Commander of the "Powerful," accompanied the naval guns to Ladysmith, and was there throughout the siege.
Footnote 17: London Weekly Times, April 27, 1900. Some other interesting siege statistics will be found in the same number.
Footnote 18: London Times, June 25, 1900.
Footnote 19: Harper's Monthly Magazine, July, 1900, p. 174.
Footnote 20: The latest revised official returns of casualties now (July 18) accessible to the author are to be found in the London Times of July 4, and are complete to June 30.
Footnote 21: Atkins, "Relief of Ladysmith," p. 117.
Footnote 22: Burleigh, "Natal Campaign," p. 127.
Footnote 23: Burleigh, "Natal Campaign," p. 128, 129. Atkins, "Relief of Ladysmith," p. 116.
Footnote 24: Burleigh, "Natal Campaign," p. 129.
Footnote 25: London Weekly Times, December 22, 1899.
Footnote 26: Four statute miles equal 7,040 yards.
Footnote 27: London Weekly Times, January 19, 1900. On the other hand, another correspondent who shared this view has said, "The consensus of military opinion seems to be that the ground being too rough and broken to the eastward, the chief column will try and effect a crossing far to the westward of Colenso." (Burleigh—p. 155).
Footnote 28: This "3" in the copy before me may be a misprint for "8." The London Times correspondent gives 800 yards for the rifle fire.