[Footnote 61: See general map of South Africa, Relief map, No. 2, and map, No. 3.]
[Sidenote: Three chapters dealing with the ground and the two armies engaged.]
When the challenge to war, recorded in the first chapter, startled the British people, it met with an immediate response alike in the home islands, and in the Colonies, in India, or elsewhere, wherever they happened to be. In order to understand the problems of no small complexity confronting the statesmen at home and the generals who in the field had to carry out the will of the nation by taking up the gauntlet so thrown down, it is necessary, first, that the characteristics of the vast area which was about to become the scene of operations should be realised; secondly, that the strength of the forces on which the challenger relied for making good his words should be estimated; and, thirdly, that certain peculiarities in the constitution of our own army, which materially affected the nature of the task which lay before both Ministers and soldiers, whether in London or in South Africa, should be recognised. The next three chapters will deal in succession with each of these subjects. The attempt which is here made to portray in a few pages the mountains, the rolling prairies, and the rivers of the sub-continent must be aided by an examination of the map which has been specially prepared in order to make the description intelligible.
[Sidenote: General aspect of area.]
The tableland of South Africa is some 1,360,000 square miles in extent, and of a mean altitude of 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level. To the Indian Ocean on the east it shows a face of scarped mountains. Following the coast-line at a distance inland of from 70 to 100 miles, these sweep round from north to south: then stretch straight across the extreme south-west of the continent through Cape Colony, dwindling as they once more turn northward into the sand-hills of Namaqualand, and rising again to the eminences above Mossamedes in Portuguese territory. The rampart, however, though continuous for a distance of more than 1,200 miles, scarcely anywhere presents an abrupt wall to the seaboard, but on the contrary descends to it in some parts in one gigantic step, in others in a series of steps, or terraces.
[Sidenote: Cape Colony: the Karroos.]
Of the States within it, Cape Colony first claims consideration. In the central section the step or terrace formation is so marked, and the flats, which intervene between the rises, are of such extent, and of a nature so curious, that they form one of the most remarkable features of South Africa. They are known as "the Karroos," vast plains stretching northward, firstly as the Little Karroo from the lower coast ranges to the more elevated Zwarte Bergen, thence as the Great Karroo to the still loftier Nieuwveld Mountains. In the rainless season they present an aspect indescribably desolate, and at the same time a formidable military obstacle to any invasion of Cape Colony on a large scale from the north. They are then mere wastes of sand and dead scrub, lifeless and waterless. The first fall of rain produces a transformation as rapid as any effected by nature. The vegetable life of the Karroos, which has only been suspended, not extinguished, is then released; the arid watercourses are filled in a few hours, and the great desert tract becomes within that brief time a garden of flowers. Even then, from the scarcity of buildings and inhabitants, and hence of supplies, the Karroos still form a barrier not to be lightly attempted, unless by an army fully equipped, and carrying its own magazines; or, on the other hand, by a band of partisans so insignificant as to be able to subsist on the scanty resources available, and to disappear when these are exhausted, or the enemy approaches in strength.
[Sidenote: Hills above Karroos.]
The first noticeable feature of the hill systems which bind these steppes is their regularity of disposition, and the second, their steadily increasing altitude northwards to that mountain group which, running roughly along the 32nd parallel of latitude, culminates in the Sneeuw Bergen, where the Compass Peak (8,500 feet) stands above the plains of Graaf Reinet. North of these heights, only the low Karree Bergen, about 150 miles distant, and the slightly higher Hartzogsrand, occur to break the monotonous fall of the ground towards the bed of the Orange. All the geographical and strategical interest lies to the north and east of the Compass Peak, where with the Zuurbergen commences the great range, known to the natives as Quathlamba, but to the Voortrekkers, peopling its mysterious fastnesses with monsters of their imagination, as the Drakensberg. Throwing out spurs over the length and breadth of Basutoland, this granite series, here rising to lofty mountains, there dwindling to rounded downs, runs northward to the Limpopo river, still clinging to the coast, that is to say, for a distance of over 1,250 miles. The Zuurbergen, the western extremity, are of no great elevation. They form a downward step from the Compass and the Great Winterberg to the Orange river, whose waters they part from those of the Great Fish and Great Kei rivers. The Stormbergen, on the other hand, which sweep in a bold curve round to the north-east until, on the borders of Basutoland, they merge into the central mass, are high, rugged, and pierced by exceedingly few roads, forming a strong line of defence.
[Footnote 62: "Piled up and rugged."]
[Footnote 63: "Mountains of the Dragons."]
It may be said generally of the Cape highlands that the only passes really practicable for armies are those through which, in 1899, the railways wound upwards to the greater altitudes. These lines of approach to the Free State frontier were as follows:--
1.--THE CAPE COLONY--DE AAR line. 2.--THE PORT ELIZABETH--NORVAL'S PONT line. 3.--THE EAST LONDON--BETHULIE AND ALIWAL NORTH lines.
These were connected by two transverse branches; elsewhere throughout their length they were not only almost completely isolated, but divided by great tracts of pathless mountains and barren plains, rendering, except at the points mentioned, or by way of the sea, the transfer of troops from one to the other a difficult process. Therefore the branch lines (I. De Aar--Naauwpoort; 2. Stormberg--Rosmead) had a significance hardly inferior to that of the three ports, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East London. These varied greatly in the facilities they afforded. Table Bay, with its docks, wharves and store-houses, took rank among the great commercial harbours of the world. Port Elizabeth, 430 miles eastward, had no true harbour. Its open roadstead, although frequented by the mercantile marine, was exposed to the dangerous south-east gales prevalent on that coast. At East London, 140 miles yet further eastwards, there was a small although excellent harbour. Its deep basin allowed ocean steamers to moor alongside the railway wharf, but the water area was limited and a sandbank at the mouth of the river Buffalo, which flows in here, barred the approach of vessels exceeding 4,000 tons in burden. On the east coast, Durban, at a distance of 300 miles from East London and 830 miles from Cape Town, formed a satisfactory base. The difficulties of a bar at the entrance to the harbour, similar to that at East London, had been overcome by the energy and enterprise of the colonial authorities. There was no direct communication by land between these four ports, but this was of little consequence to a power holding command at sea.
[Sidenote: The northern Drakensberg.]
North of the Stormbergen the Drakensberg range maintains its north-easterly trend continuously until it breaks up in the valley of the Limpopo. Along the eastern Basuto border, from the Natal to the Free State frontiers, its characteristics, which have been always grand, become magnificent. Here it is joined by the Maluti Mountains, a range which, bisecting the domains of the Basuto, and traversing them with its great spurs, has earned for the little state the title of the South African Switzerland. At the junction of the Basutoland, Free State, and Natal frontiers stands Potong, an imposing table-shaped mass, called by the French missionaries Mont Aux Sources, from the fact that it forms the chief water parting between the numerous streams flowing west and east. Further south tower Cathkin (or Champagne Castle), Giants Castle, and Mount Hamilton, the latter within the Basuto border. All these and many lesser peaks are joined by ridge after ridge of rugged grandeur.
[Sidenote: Drakensberg passes.]
Between the Basuto border and Laing's Nek lies the chief strategic interest of the Drakensberg. Of less elevation than the lofty giants which lie behind it to the southward, this portion still preserves, with a mean altitude of 8,000 feet, the peculiar scenic beauty of the system. From the Basuto border northwards the mountains formed the frontier between Natal and the Orange Free State. They are pierced by a number of passes of which none are easy, with the exception of Laing's Nek, leading into the Transvaal. The best known, starting from the southern extremity of this frontier section, are Olivier's Hoek, Bezuidenhout, and Tintwa Passes at the head-stream of the Tugela river; Van Reenen's, a steep tortuous gap over which the railway from Ladysmith to Harrismith, and a broad highway, wind upwards through a strange profusion of sudden peaks and flat-topped heights; De Beers, Cundycleugh, and Sunday's River Passes giving access by rough bridle paths from the Free State into Natal, abreast of the Dundee coalfields; Müller's and Botha's Passes debouching on Newcastle and Ingogo; and finally Laing's Nek, the widest and most important of all, by which a fair road over a rounded saddle crosses the Drakensberg, the Transvaal frontier lying four miles to the north of its summit. Some of the eastern spurs thrown off from this section of the Drakensberg completely traverse, and form formidable barriers across, Natal. Such are the Biggarsberg, a range of lofty downs running from Cundycleugh Pass across the apex of Natal to Dundee, and pierced by the railway from Waschbank to Glencoe. Further to the south, Mount Tintwa throws south-eastward down to the river Tugela a long, irregular spur, of which the chief features are the eminences of Tabanyama and Spion Kop. This spur, indeed, after a brief subsidence below the last-named Kop, continues to flank the whole of the northern bank of the Tugela as far as the railway, culminating there in the heights of Pieters, and the lofty downs of Grobelaars Kloof, both of which overhang the river. East of the railway another series of heights prolongs the barrier, and joins hands with the lower slopes of the Biggarsberg, which descends to the Tugela between Sunday's and Buffalo rivers. Further south still, broad spurs from Cathkin and Giants Castle strike out through Estcourt and Highlands, and connect the Drakensberg with Zululand.
[Sidenote: Spurs of Drakensberg.]
North of Basutoland, the western spurs of the Drakensberg, jutting out on to the Orange Free State uplands, are far less numerous and pronounced than those in Natal, where the mountains dip steeply down towards the sea; but the Versamelberg, the Witteberg, and the Koranaberg further south, although of no great height, are strategical features of importance.
[Sidenote: Drakensberg and Lobombo ranges.]
Beyond Laing's Nek, the Drakensberg, no longer a watershed, and losing much both of its continuity and splendour, still preserves its north-easterly trend, dropping still further to a mean altitude of between 5,000 and 6,000 feet, and passing under many local appellations, through the eastern Transvaal, until near Lydenburg, it again rises in the Mauch Berg. Along its eastern edge the Drakensberg here descends in the ruggedest slopes and precipices to the plains which divide it from the Lobombo Mountains, a range which, commencing at the Pongola river opposite Lake St. Lucia, runs parallel to the Drakensberg, the two systems inclining inward to coalesce at the Limpopo. South of that river the Lobombo formed throughout its length the eastern frontier of the Transvaal State.
[Sidenote: The rands.]
North of the Oliphant river, which pierces both the Drakensberg and Lobombo, the character of the Drakensberg becomes still more fragmentary. Here its most important features are the transverse ridges, or rands, thrown off from it in a direction generally south-westerly. Chief amongst these are the Murchison and Zoutpansberg Mountains, which, covering more than 350 miles of the country, unite in the Witfontein Berg in the Rustenburg district. These ridges, though of an elevation of over 4,000 feet above the sea level, rise nowhere more than, and seldom as much as, 1,500 feet above the terrain, and do little to relieve the monotony of the great prairies they traverse and surround. The same type is preserved by the various low ridges running parallel to and south of them towards the Orange Free State border. One of these is the famous Witwaters Rand, extending from Krugersdorp to Springs, and another the Magaliesberg, a chain of more imposing character, connecting Pretoria and Rustenburg to the north-east, and disappearing in the fertile Marico valley. North of the Limpopo the Drakensberg, though becoming more broken and complicated, still presents a bold front where the great sub-continental plateau descends suddenly northwards to the Zambesi, and eastwards to Portuguese territory, i.e., on the northern and eastern frontiers of Mashonaland. Almost at the junction of these boundaries it is joined by the Matoppo Hills, which rise from the north-eastern limits of Khama's Country, bisect obliquely the region between the Zambesi and the Limpopo, and culminate in Mount Hampden (5,000 feet), near Salisbury.
[Sidenote: Rivers Limpopo and Orange.]
[Sidenote: The water-parting.]
Passing from the mountains to the great plateau they enclose, the first point to be noted is that its surface is set at two opposite "tilts," the portion north of the Witwaters Rand inclining downward to the east, the other, south of that ridge, to the west. The drainage, therefore, runs respectively east and west, and it is effected by the two great streams of the Limpopo and the Orange, with their many affluents. The general river system of the central plains is thus of the simplest; the Indian Ocean receives their northern waters, the Atlantic their southern; the remarkable factor of the arrangement being that a physical feature so insignificant as the Witwaters Rand should perform the function of water-parting for a region so gigantic.
[Footnote 64: There are, of course, in South Africa numerous minor and local watersheds (e.g., the Drakensberg, where they initiate the drainage of Natal in an easterly direction, and the mountains of southern Cape Colony, which send some of her rivers southward to the Indian Ocean). These have been necessarily almost disregarded in so general a survey of the sub-continent as that aimed at in the present chapter.]
[Sidenote: Course of Limpopo.]
The Limpopo, or Crocodile river, rises as a paltry stream in the Witwaters Rand between Johannesburg and Pretoria, and flows into the Indian Ocean, 80 miles north of Delagoa Bay, covering in its course fully 1,350 miles.
[Sidenote: Course of Orange.]
The Orange has three distinct sets of headstreams from the western flank of the Drakensberg, and a total length of 1,300 miles. From the Basuto border to Ramah, on the Kimberley railway, about 220 miles, it divided the Orange Free State from Cape Colony. The Orange receives on its right bank its greatest affluent, the Vaal, which is between 500 and 600 miles in length. Commercially, both the Orange and the Vaal are as useless as their smallest tributary, being entirely unnavigable at all times of the year. Raging floods in the wet season, and mere driblets in the dry, they are at present denied to the most powerful or shallowest of river steamboats. The prospects of the Orange river as a potential waterway are in any case practically destroyed by a great bar which blocks approach to the estuary from the sea.
[Sidenote: Military character of streams of S.A.]
The streams of the South African plateau, whether river, spruit, sluit, or donga, have, in addition to their extreme variability, another marked and almost universal peculiarity. Running in deep beds, of which the banks are usually level with the surrounding country, and the sides terraced from the highest to the lowest water-mark, they constitute natural entrenchments which are generally invisible, except where rarely defined by a line of bushes, and, owing to the dead uniformity of the surrounding country, are almost impossible to reconnoitre. Nor, in 1899, were their defensive capabilities lessened by the dearth of bridges, by the dangers of the drifts, and by the absence of defined approaches to all crossing-places away from the main roads. The "drifts," or fords, especially rendered the laying out of a line of operations in South Africa a complex problem. Their depth varied with the weather of the day; they were known by many names even to local residents, and were of many types; but all alike were so liable to sudden change or even destruction, that any information concerning them, except the most recent, was practically useless.
[Sidenote: Effect of winds on climate.]
[Sidenote: The velds.]
To comprehend broadly the salient physiological features of a region so enormous as South Africa, the causes of the climatic influences which affect them must be understood. These causes on are simplicity itself. The warm winds blow from the east, and the cold from the west; the former, from the warm Mozambique current, skirting the eastern seaboard, the latter, from the frigid Antarctic stream, setting from south to north, and striking the western coast about Cape St. Martin. It follows, therefore, that the climate and country become more genial and fertile the further they are removed from the desiccating influence emanating from the western seaboard. The dreariness of the solitudes between Little Namaqualand and Griqualand West, the latter slightly more smiling than the former, attests this fact. But the comparative inhospitality of the Boer States--comparative, that is, to what might be expected from their proximity to the warm Indian Ocean--demands further explanation. From the Atlantic to the eastern frontiers of these States no mountain ranges of any elevation intervene to break the progress of the dry, cold breezes; from the mouth of the Orange river to the Drakensberg the country is subject almost uninterruptedly to their influence. But it is not so with the milder winds from the east. The great screen of the Drakensberg meets and turns them from end to end of South Africa; no country west of this range profits by their moisture, whereas the regions east of it receive it to the full. Hence the almost tropical fertility of Natal and eastern Cape Colony, with their high rainfall, their luxuriance of vegetation, indigo, figs, and coffee, and the jungles of cactus and mimosa which choke their torrid kloofs. Hence, equally, the more austere veld of the central tableland, the great grass wildernesses, which are as characteristic of South Africa as the prairies and the pampas of America, and, like them, became the home and hunting-ground of a race of martial horsemen. Agriculture, following nature, divides the veld into three parts, the "High," "Bush," and "Low" Velds; but it is the first and greatest of these which stamps the central tableland with its peculiar military characteristics. Almost the whole of the Orange Free State, and the Transvaal east of the Natal railway, are High Veld, which may be taken to mean any grassland lying at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, upon which all vegetation withers in the dry season, while in spring and summer it is covered with nutritious herbage. The Low Veld lies properly between longitude 31° and the tropical eastern coast; while the Bush Veld is usually understood to mean the country lying between the Pretoria-Delagoa railway and the Limpopo river. The terms, however, are very loosely used. The Low Veld differs widely from the High Veld. Upon the former is rich--almost rank--vegetation and pasture flourishing throughout the year. But the climate is hot, moist, and unhealthy; and the Boer farmers, forced by the course of the seasons to drive their flocks from the sparkling, invigorating air of the uplands to the steamy lowlands, were wont to take the task in turn amongst themselves, as an unpleasant one to be performed as seldom as possible.
[Sidenote: Transvaal High Veld.]
The High Veld of the Transvaal differs slightly from that of the Free State in appearance. It is more broken and undulating; the range of vision, at times apparently boundless in the southern state, is rarely extensive, except from the summit of a kopje, being usually bounded by the low ridge-lines of one of those great, gentle, almost imperceptible, rolls of the ground which are a feature of the Transvaal veld, and with its hidden watercourses, its peculiar tactical danger. A mountain range is seldom out of sight; and, speaking generally, the Transvaal may be said to be less sombre than the southern or western districts of the great plateau.
[Sidenote: The kopjes.]
If the veld can only be compared with the sea, the kopjes which accentuate, rather than relieve, its monotony resemble in as marked a degree the isolated islands which rise abruptly from the waters of some tropic archipelago. Sometimes, indeed, the kopjes form a rough series of broken knolls, extending over a space of several miles, as, for instance, the ridges of Magersfontein and Spytfontein, between Kimberley and the Modder; sometimes a group of three or four, disposed irregularly in all directions, become a conspicuous landmark, as at the positions of Belmont and Graspan; and it is not uncommon to find larger masses, not less irregular, enclosing the river reaches which their drainage has created, among which may be enumerated the heights south-east of Jacobsdal, and by the river Riet, and those about Koffyfontein and Jagersfontein on the same stream.
[Sidenote: Better for view than defence.]
But, as a rule, the kopje of the veld is a lonely hill, a mass of igneous rock--flat-topped or sharp-pointed. From 200 to 800 feet in height, without spur or underfeature, accessible only by winding paths among gigantic boulders, sheer of face and narrow of crest, it is more useful as a post of observation than as a natural fortress; for it can almost always be surrounded, and the line of retreat, as a general rule, is naked to view and fire.
[Sidenote: Boer States as defensive terrain.]
So far as tactical positions are concerned, any force on the defensive upon the veld of the Boer States must be mainly dependent on the rivers. Yet the spurs of the Drakensberg, blending in a range of ridges, form a mountain stronghold admirably adapted for guerilla warfare; and all along the Basuto border, at a distance of from 10 to 20 miles west of the Caledon, stands out a series of high, detached hills, which form a covered way along the eastern boundary of the Free State, crossing the Orange, and leading into the recesses of the Stormberg Mountains.
[Sidenote: Natal features.]
For every wavelet of land upon the surface of the Boer States, a hundred great billows stand up in Natal. Kopje succeeds kopje, all steep, and many precipitous, yet not the bare, stony cairns of the transmontane regions, but moist green masses of verdure, seldom parched even in the dry season, and in the wet, glistening with a thousand cascades; not severely conical or rectangular, like the bizarre eminences which cover Cape Colony with the models of a school of geometry, but nobly outlined. Many of the foothills, it is true, are mere heaps of rock and stone; but even these are rarely such naked and uncompromising piles as are found on the higher levels. Even where northern Natal occasionally widens and subsides to a savannah, as it does below the Biggarsberg, and again south of Colenso, the expanse, compared with the tremendous stretches of the Boer veld, is but a meadow.
[Sidenote: Healthy theatre sole favour for invader.]
As a theatre of war South Africa had one advantage, that it was for the most part eminently healthy. Enteric fever, the scourge of armies, was bound to be prevalent amongst thousands exposed to hardships in a country where the water supply was indifferent, where sanitation was usually primitive amongst the inhabitants, and impossible to improvise hurriedly. But the purity of the air, the geniality of the temperature, the cool nights, the brilliant sunshine, and the hard dry soil were palliatives of evils inseparable from all campaigning. Otherwise, for regular armies of invasion, South Africa was unfavourable. The railways were so few that the business of supply and movement was always arduous; spaces so vast that large forces were swallowed up; the enormous distances from one strategical point to another, intensified, in difficulty by the almost entire absence of good roads, the scarcity of substantial bridges, of well-built towns, of commodious harbours, and of even such ordinary necessaries as flour or fuel, all these complicated every military problem to a degree not readily intelligible to the student of European warfare alone.
[Sidenote: The central plateau.]
It is not easy to sum up briefly the typical qualities as a fighting area of a region so vast and diversified as South Africa; but its dominant feature is undoubtedly the great central plateau comprising southern Rhodesia, all the Transvaal, except a narrow fringe on the eastward, the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the Orange Free State, and the northern and central portions of Cape Colony. Westward this tableland slopes gradually and imperceptibly to sea level; to the south it reaches the Atlantic in the series of terraces and escarpments already described. Eastward it is shut in by the Drakensberg, whose spurs, projecting to the Indian Ocean, traverse at right angles Natal, Zululand, Swaziland, and Portuguese East Africa.
[Sidenote: Effect on operations of plateau.]
Upon the central South African plateau tactical and strategical success is dependent upon rapid manoeuvring. Positions are so readily turned that they can seldom be resolutely held. It is difficult, therefore, to bring an evasive enemy to decisive action, and the fruits of victory must chiefly be plucked by pursuit. The horse is as important as the man, and the infantry arm is reduced to the position of a first reserve, or to the rôle of piquets on the lines of communication, which remain always open to attack. Superior numbers and, above all, superior speed, are irresistible. There are no first-class physical obstacles; the rivers, excepting only the Orange and the Vaal, are, as a rule, fordable; the hill features for the most part insignificant or easy to mask. Mobility is thus at once the chief enemy and aid to military success.
[Sidenote: and of lower spurs.]
But on the stairway descending from the south of this plateau, and on the spurs reaching up from the coast on the east, all this is reversed. The approach of an army acting on the offensive, uphill or across the series of ridges, is commanded by so many points, that a small number of defenders can readily arrest its advance. Position leads but to position, and these, prolonged almost indefinitely on either flank, are not readily turned, or, if turned, still offer locally a strong frontal defence, should the enemy be sufficiently mobile to reach them in time. Streamlets, which would be negligible on the plateau, become formidable obstacles in their deep beds. The horseman's occupation is greatly limited, for he can neither reconnoitre nor gallop. Marches must, therefore, be made painfully in battle formation, for every advance may entail an action. Thus strategy is grievously cramped by the constant necessity for caution, and still more by the tedious movements of the mass of transport, without which no army can continue to operate in a country sparsely inhabited, and as sparsely cultivated.
[Sidenote: Variety of rainfall.]
In South Africa even the rainfall militates against concurrent operations on a wide scale, for, at the same season of the year, the conditions prevalent upon one side of the sub-continent are exactly the opposite to those obtaining on the other. In the western provinces, the rainy season occurs in the winter months (May--October), in the eastern, including the Boer States, the rain falls chiefly in the summer (October--March). Yet so capricious are these phenomena that a commander, who counted absolutely upon them for his schemes, might easily find them in abeyance, or even for a period reversed.
[Sidenote: Variety of S.A. climate.]
Beyond the broad facts stated above, the extent of South Africa renders it as impossible to specify any typical climatic or scenic peculiarities common to the whole of it, as to fix upon any strategical or tactical character that is universal. Cape Colony alone exhibits such antitheses of landscape as the moist verdure of the Stormberg and the parched dreariness of Bushman and Little Namaqua Lands, and a rainfall ranging from two to seventy-two inches per annum. The variations in other parts are little less striking. The temperature of the High Veld, for instance, is wont to rise or fall no less than sixty degrees in twelve hours, or less. Thus, whilst one portion of an army on a wide front might be operating in the tropics, another might be in the snows, whilst a third was sheltering from the sun by day, from the frost by night, conditions which actually obtained during the contest about to be described. What effect such divergencies must exercise on plans of campaign, on supplies of clothing, shelter, food, forage, and on military animals themselves, may be readily imagined.