[Sidenote: Realisation at home of the magnitude of the task before the country.]
[Sidenote: Danger of possible Boer offence.]
After three reverses at Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso, it was clear to all that forces far larger than had been estimated would be now required for the war. Much had already been done before the news of Colenso arrived. Another division--the 5th--prepared at home early in November for service in South Africa, was due in a few days' time at Cape Town. A sixth division had been mobilised at the end of November and was on the point of embarkation, and the mobilisation of a seventh had been ordered as soon as the news of Stormberg and Magersfontein had reached England. Yet there was cause for anxiety. Until the 5th division actually landed, not a man was available to be sent forward to reinforce either Lord Methuen on the Modder, or the troops under Sir R. Buller's immediate command facing the Tugela. After Stormberg, Sir W. Gatacre had been strengthened with the 1st Derbyshire from the lines of communication. He had now a weak brigade to cover all the eastern province, from Queenstown northwards. Lt.-General French had, it is true, successfully checked the Boer advance into the Colesberg district, but his success had been due to skilful tactics and audacity, not to any superiority in strength. The true strategy for the enemy would be to assume the offensive, and, using his superior mobility, attack the lines of communication with the coast of one or more of the three British columns in Cape Colony, each of which was in fact in a sense isolated. Bold raids executed for this purpose would have probably secured the active support of a large number of disaffected colonists, whose loyalty had been seriously impaired by the recent victories of their kinsmen. The attitude of many in the districts through which the Cape lines of communication passed was already very unsatisfactory.
[Footnote 244: The despatch of a 6th division to South Africa had been offered to, and accepted by, Sir R. Buller. His telegram is dated 1st December, 1899. He wished this division to arrive in Cape Colony on 1st January, by which date he then hoped to begin his advance into the Free State by Bethulie.]
[Sidenote: Dec. 15th, after Colenso Buller sends message home, "I ought to let Ladysmith go."]
Nor was this all: for the moment Sir R. Buller thought that, by direct order of the Cabinet, the 5th division had been assigned to the task of relieving Kimberley, and he judged that without reinforcements the relief of Ladysmith was impracticable. Late, therefore, in the evening of the 15th December, when the work of that exhausting and disheartening day was drawing to a close, he telegraphed in the following terms to the Secretary of State for War:--
"My failure to-day raises a serious question. I do not think I am now strong enough to relieve White. Colenso is a fortress, which I think, if not taken on a rush, could only be taken by a siege. There is no water within eight miles of the point of attack, and in this weather that exhausts infantry. The place is fully entrenched. I do not think either a Boer or a gun was seen by us all day, yet the fire brought to bear was very heavy. Our infantry were quite willing to fight, but were absolutely exhausted by the intense heat. My view is that I ought to let Ladysmith go, and occupy good positions for the defence of South Natal, and let time help us. But that is a step on which I ought to consult you. I consider we were in face of 20,000 men to-day. They had the advantage both in arms and in position. They admit they suffered severely, but my men have not seen a dead Boer, and that dispirits them. My losses have not been very heavy. I could have made them much heavier, but the result would have been the same. The moment I failed to get in with a rush, I was beat. I now feel that I cannot say I can relieve Ladysmith with my available force, and the best thing I can suggest is that I should occupy defensive positions, and fight it out in a country better suited to our tactics."
[Footnote 245: On 14th December Lord Lansdowne had telegraphed to Sir F. Forestier-Walker: "On arrival, Warren is to be sent immediately to assume command of the forces under Methuen. Buller will be informed of this by telegraph." This telegram did not prescribe the disposal of the 5th division, but that of Lt.-General Sir C. Warren, its commander.]
[Sidenote: Sir R. Buller's arrangements for Natal;]
[Sidenote: for the western theatre of war.]
In pursuance of this policy Sir R. Buller sent Sir G. White, next morning, a cipher message, which, with the reply, will be recorded in another chapter. He also directed the Natal line of communication staff to select, on the route Eshowe-Greytown-Estcourt, positions for camps, which the Natal army could occupy "until the weather is cooler." As regards the western theatre of war, he was more sanguine. On receiving the news of the repulse at Magersfontein he had, it is true, at first considered that, if the British troops remained on the Riet, they might be enveloped by Cronje's force, with disastrous results. He sent instructions, therefore, to Forestier-Walker that Lord Methuen must be told either to attack Cronje again or to fall back at once on the Orange river. This order was received with dismay by Lord Methuen, for, after consultation with his brigadiers, he was convinced that, until reinforcements arrived, his force was not in a fit state to resume the offensive. He prepared to fall back. But in a telegram, dated 14th December, Sir F. Forestier-Walker urged Sir Redvers to support Methuen with the 5th division and with a brigade of cavalry from Naauwpoort, so as to enable him promptly to relieve Kimberley. He added: "Methuen reports his force in safe position, and well supplied. His communications are held by detachments posted at no great distance apart, and can be further protected by mounted troops. The effect of retirement upon the spirit of Methuen's force after such hard fighting, and upon the general military and political situation, appears to me to justify my placing this alternative before you." Forestier-Walker's proposal was immediately accepted by Sir Redvers, with the exception that he forbad the reduction of French's strength at Naauwpoort. A telegram to that effect had been despatched from Headquarters at Chieveley to the General Officer Commanding Cape Colony the evening before the day of Colenso.
[Footnote 246: See Vol. II. Siege of Ladysmith.]
[Footnote 247: Sir R. Buller had directed, on 9th December, that a brigade and a battery of this division should be sent to East London to reinforce General Gatacre, and that the remainder should disembark at Port Elizabeth and proceed to Rosmead junction.]
[Sidenote: The Cabinet answers Sir Redvers' proposal to give up Ladysmith, Dec. 16th, 1896.]
Meantime the Cabinet had received and considered General Buller's suggestion that Ladysmith should be abandoned. They felt that to leave the invested troops to their fate would be equally injurious in its strategical, political, and moral effect on South Africa; a blow to British prestige throughout the world. Sir R. Buller was therefore informed by a cipher telegram, dated 16th December, that "Her Majesty's Government regard the abandonment of White's force and its consequent surrender as a national disaster of the greatest magnitude. We would urge you to devise another attempt to carry out its relief, not necessarily viâ Colenso, making use of the additional men now arriving, if you think fit." A War Office telegram of the same date advised Sir Redvers that the embarkation of the 6th division for South Africa had already begun, that the 7th division would begin to embark on the 4th January, that another cavalry brigade would be sent out as soon as ships could be provided, and that additional field artillery would replace the guns lost at Colenso. In reply to a request made by him that morning by telegram that 8,000 irregulars "able to ride decently, but shoot as well as possible," should be raised in England, the General Commanding-in-Chief was told that "a considerable force of militia and of picked yeomanry and volunteers will also be sent."
[Sidenote: Sir Redvers, being promised reinforcements, prepares for new effort.]
These promises, and the assurance that the 5th division was at his free disposal, though that had always been the home view, greatly strengthened Sir Redvers Buller's hands. He decided to make another effort to break through the barriers round Ladysmith. He therefore ordered Warren's division to Natal. Warren himself, with two battalions of the 10th brigade, had disembarked at Cape Town, and been despatched by train up country. These battalions, the 1st Yorkshire and 2nd Warwick, were subsequently, at Forestier-Walker's request, left in Cape Colony for duty on the line of communication at De Aar. The rest of the 5th division, together with Sir C. Warren and his staff, went to Durban.
[Sidenote: The nation roused.]
The immediate response made by the Cabinet to Sir R. Buller's request for reinforcements, and their instant rejection of the proposal to abandon Ladysmith, expressed the spirit in which the nation received the news of "the black week" in South Africa. The experiences of such contests as had been waged by Great Britain since the great Indian mutiny had led public opinion to expect, in time of war, no strain on the national resources, no call for national effort. War was regarded as a matter for which the War Office and the army should make preparation, but not the nation. The despatch of the largest British Army ever sent across the seas had been regarded as ensuring rapid success. A decisive termination of the campaign before the end of the year was anticipated. The disappointment of these hopes at first caused dismay; but this was quickly replaced by a stern determination to carry through the South African undertaking, and, at all costs, not to shirk troublesome responsibilities in that sub-continent. It was realised that the task to be faced was serious, and that the time had come to devote to it the best resources of the Empire. The manhood of the country was eager to assist by any possible means, and therefore learnt with satisfaction that not only would the 6th and 7th divisions be sent out at once, but that nine militia battalions had been asked to volunteer for foreign service, and that yeomanry and select companies of volunteers had had their eager demands to be allowed to help gladly granted. With even greater pleasure was the announcement received, two days after the battle of Colenso, that the General in command in South Africa had been given carte blanche to raise mounted troops locally; that the self-governing Colonies, again with true patriotism rallying round the mother country, had proposed to send further military contingents, and that these also were to join in the struggle.
[Footnote 248: The popular name for the week in which occurred the defeats of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso.]
[Sidenote: Lord Roberts is appointed to command, Dec. 16.]
The action of the Cabinet in dealing with the difficult question of the command, in South Africa was prompt. The size of the army which would in a few weeks be assembled at the seat of war, and the nature of the work which lay before it, made it necessary that an officer of the highest standing and experience should be selected for the supreme control. It was apparent that the direction of the operations for the relief of Ladysmith would absorb all the attention and energies of Sir R. Buller. Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, V.C., then commanding the forces in Ireland, was therefore asked to undertake the duty of Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, a responsibility which he instantly accepted. As Lord Roberts' Chief of the Staff the Cabinet, with the Field-Marshal's approval, recommended to the Queen the appointment of Major-General Lord Kitchener, who was still serving as Sirdar of that Egyptian army with which, stiffened by British troops, he had destroyed the power of the Mahdi little more than a twelve month earlier. The decision to make these appointments was notified to Sir R. Buller, in the telegram quoted below. Sir Redvers, to use his own words, had "for some time been convinced that it is impossible for any one man to direct active military operations in two places distant 1,500 miles from each other."
[Footnote 249: "In Natal and in Cape Colony distinct operations of very great importance are now in progress. The prosecution of the campaign in Natal is being carried on under quite unexpected difficulties, and in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government it will require your presence and whole attention. It has been decided by Her Majesty's Government, under these circumstances, to appoint Field-Marshal Lord Roberts as Commanding-in-Chief, South Africa, his Chief of Staff being Lord Kitchener."]
[Footnote 250: See letter from Sir Redvers Buller to Under-Secretary of State for War, dated 20th December, 1899.]
[Sidenote: Lord Roberts embarks Dec. 23/99.]
Within a few days Lord Roberts nominated the rest of his staff, and, accompanied by the majority of them, embarked for South Africa on 23rd December, arrangements being made for Lord Kitchener to join him at Gibraltar.
[Footnote 251: In a telegram dated 21st December, Sir R. Buller recommended that Lord Roberts should bring out a fresh Headquarter staff, reporting that there was already a lack of senior staff officers throughout the theatre of war. His own Headquarter staff left Cape Town to join him in Natal at the end of December.]
[Sidenote: Weakness of defence in Cape Colony.]
The fact that it had been decided to send the 5th division to Natal involved in Cape Colony the resumption of the policy of bluff which had proved so successful earlier in the war. It was now attended with greater risk, owing to the spread of disaffection amongst the sympathisers with the Boer Republics. Three distinct areas in the "old colony" were already in the actual occupation of the enemy, and had been annexed by Boer proclamations. The first of these areas included Griqualand West, Barkly West, Taungs, Vryburg, and Mafeking districts, in fact, with the exception of the besieged towns of Kimberley, Kuruman, and Mafeking, the whole of the colony north of the Riet river and of the Orange river below its junction with the Riet. East of this came the Boer enclave round Colesberg, the extent of which was being much diminished by General French's operations. Further east again, the north-east angle of the colony, including the districts of Herschel, Aliwal North, Barkly East, Wodehouse, and Albert, had for the time being become de facto Free State territory. Kruger telegraphed to Steyn on the 20th of December: "I and the rest of the War Commission decide that every person in the districts proclaimed, so far as the annexed portions shall extend, shall be commandeered, and those who refuse be punished. So say to all the officials south of Orange river and in Griqualand West, that while we are already standing in the fire they cannot expect to sit at home in peace and safety." In all these areas, therefore, extraordinary pressure was placed on the colonists to renounce their allegiance and take up arms against their Sovereign. Indeed, but six weeks later the whole of the inhabitants of the Barkly West district who refused to be commandeered were, irrespective of nationality, removed from their homes by the Boers' Landrosts and thrust across the Orange river in a state of absolute destitution. The number of recruits which had accrued to the enemy's commandos by these means was already, by the end of December, considerable; it was assessed at the time by the British authorities as high as ten thousand. But the danger for the moment was not so much the numerical strength of the actively disloyal as the attitude of the disaffected in the districts which the enemy had not reached. Here, again, the areas which caused special anxiety fell into three groups. In the eastern province certain of the farmers of the Stockenstroom and adjacent districts had gathered together in a laager on the Katberg Pass across the Winterberg Mountains, a strong position some forty miles in rear of General Gatacre at Queenstown. In the thinly-populated and backward regions bordered by the Orange river on the north, the Roggeveld and Nieuwveld Mountains on the south, and the main line from Cape Town to De Aar on the east, racial feeling was known to be greatly inflamed, and it was reported that, if a few recruiters crossed the Orange river from the districts occupied by the enemy to the north of the river, a rising would probably take place. Even nearer to Cape Town, in the fertile and wine-producing districts of Stellenbosch, Paarl, Ceres, Tulbagh, and Worcester, all most difficult to deal with, owing to the broken character of the ground and its intersection by rough mountain ranges, a portion of the inhabitants had shown signs of great restlessness. If even small bands of insurgents had taken up arms in these parts, the British lines of communication would have been imperilled. A very large force would be required for their protection.
[Footnote 252: A detachment of thirty-five Cape police and thirty-three civilians made a gallant defence of Kuruman, under Capt. A. Bates, against a Boer commando much superior in strength. The garrison held out from 12th November until their last redoubt was destroyed by artillery fire on 1st January (see General map of South Africa and map No. 17).]
[Footnote 253: For the details of this wholesale eviction see article in Cape Times, dated 16th February, 1900, enclosed in High Commissioner's despatch No. 85, dated 21st February, 1900 (p. 194-195 of C.O. White Book Africa 629).]
[Sidenote: The enthusiasm of the loyal furnishes large numbers of Volunteers.]
On the other hand, although the loyalty of a portion of the population was shaken, there were large numbers not only steadfast in their allegiance, but anxious to fulfil the duty of good citizens. Considerable advantage had already been taken of this patriotic spirit. Practically the whole of the Volunteer forces of the colony had been called out in the first phase of the war and were still under arms. The good services of the South African Light Horse and of Brabant's Horse, raised respectively in the western and eastern province, showed that the time had now come to make fuller use of the admirable recruiting material that was available.
[Sidenote: Full advantage taken of this by Sir A. Milner and Sir Redvers.]
On the 17th December Sir A. Milner telegraphed to Sir Redvers: "As rebellion in the colony is still spreading and our latest reinforcements are wanted elsewhere, I hope you will authorise G.O.C. here to raise all the men he can get in loyal districts. Mounted corps are being increased, and are no doubt what we most want. But for defence of ports, which we must hold at all costs, and of places like King William's Town and Grahamstown, even unmounted men, if otherwise fit, will be useful, and I think considerable numbers might be obtained. Where resistance is at all practicable I think it should be offered, if only to gain time." This suggestion that a large increase should be made in the forces raised locally was not a new one. Sir Redvers had already been in communication on the subject with the War Office, and had been informed by the Secretary of State, in a telegram, dated 16th December, that: "I hope that you understand that we are greatly in favour of the policy indicated in your telegram (10th December) of raising local mounted corps and that you are free to carry it out." On receipt of the High Commissioner's message General Buller gave Forestier-Walker a free hand to raise both mounted and dismounted men for the defence of Cape Colony, directing him to consult Sir A. Milner as to details. On the 27th of December the General Commanding-in-Chief was in a position to telegraph to Lord Lansdowne that, exclusive of the colonial troops belonging to Kimberley and Mafeking garrisons, 2,100 mounted and 4,300 dismounted irregulars were under arms in Cape Colony besides a Railway Pioneer regiment, 500 strong, in process of organisation.
[Footnote 254: The strength of the corps was soon afterwards raised to 1,000, and eventually expanded to four battalions.]
[Sidenote: Large numbers of Volunteers.]
He hoped to increase still further these numbers by 2,000 mounted and 2,000 dismounted men. In Natal the Volunteers who had been called out, and the special service corps enrolled since the war, numbered in all 6,700 men, and efforts were being made to raise another 700. Including, therefore, the 4,000 colonial and local troops besieged in Kimberley, the 1,000 defending Mafeking, and 1,500 Southern Rhodesians, there were at this time 20,000 South African colonists employed in the defence of their country, and arrangements were being made to augment this total to about 25,000 men. The men who thus served their Sovereign were not all of British descent. Some were loyal Dutchmen. The figures no doubt include as "South Africans," because present in local units, Johannesburg Uitlanders, as well as others who flocked to South Africa from various parts of the Empire to fight for the maintenance of equal rights for all white men. These large bodies might, had the Imperial Government thought fit, have been almost indefinitely reinforced by native levies; but such a course was impossible without danger to the future welfare of South Africa. It was deemed legitimate to sanction the organisation of the tribes of British Kaffraria, under Sir H. Elliott, for the defence of their own homes against the Boer commandos.
[Footnote 255: The term used by the Boers for all foreigners.]
[Sidenote: Methuen since Magersfontein.]
After withdrawing from the battlefield of Magersfontein, Lord Methuen had directed the whole of his energy to strengthening his hold on the Riet and establishing his troops firmly astride that river. General Buller had finally decided to retain Lord Methuen in that forward situation, for on reflection he perceived that a retirement would leave Cronje free to concentrate his whole force against Kimberley. Moreover, he foresaw that the so-called "Modder position" could be utilised later on as a pivot of manoeuvre, or as a screen behind which a turning offensive movement might be made to the east into the Free State. With this end in view he proposed to begin constructing a railway from Honey Nest Kloof to Jacobsdal, to be extended eventually to Bloemfontein after the arrival of the 6th division. The occupation of Jacobsdal would, General Buller anticipated, "frighten" Cronje out of Magersfontein. Lord Roberts, however, in telegraphing to Sir Redvers from Gibraltar on 26th December his concurrence in the retention of Methuen on the Modder, added: "As regards railway extension, I fear that construction of line will so seriously interfere with the utility of present working line that I should ask you to consult Girouard on this subject before coming to any decision." The execution of this project was therefore suspended pending Lord Roberts' arrival.
[Footnote 256: Telegram to Secretary of State, dated 23rd December, 1899.]
[Footnote 257: Bt.-Maj. (local Lieut.-Col.) E. P. Girouard, R.E., who had at the outbreak of the war been appointed Director of Railways on the lines of communication staff. After Lord Roberts' arrival the Director of Railways worked under the immediate orders of the Chief of the Staff.]
[Sidenote: Cronje remains passive.]
Meanwhile, although with the mobile force at his disposal General Cronje might have struck at the British communications, the Boer commander remained passive, and devoted himself to the improvement and extension of his defences. He was indifferent to the fact that his line of supply to the eastward was exposed and almost entirely unguarded. Enterprises proposed by De Wet and others of his subordinates against the British connection with the sea he sternly forbad.
[Sidenote: Activity in the west.]
[Sidenote: Pilcher's raid on Douglas.]
[Sidenote: Alderson threatens Prieska.]
In the more western theatre of war, on the contrary, the Boers made some attempt to take advantage of the situation. Recruiting parties were sent across the Orange river, and visited Prieska. The village of Douglas, lying south of the Vaal, a little below its junction with the Riet, and commanding the road from Griqualand West to Belmont, was also occupied by a small commando. The section of Lord Methuen's line of supply from De Aar to Honey Nest Kloof was at this time held by some 11,000 men under the command of Major-General E. Wood. The greater part of this force was distributed in strong posts at Honey Nest Kloof, Enslin, Belmont, Witteputs, Orange River bridge, and De Aar. The garrison of Belmont was under command of Lt.-Colonel T. D. Pilcher, and consisted of two guns of P. battery, R.H.A., a half company of the Munster Fusiliers mounted infantry, 250 Queensland M.I., two companies of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, and the Royal Canadian regiment, amounting in all to about 1,600 men. General Wood determined to use a portion of this garrison to brush away the hostile gathering on the left flank. With this object, Colonel Pilcher was directed to move out from Belmont on the afternoon of the 31st December with a flying column, composed of the two guns of P. battery, 42 officers and men of the Munster Fusiliers M.I., 12 officers and 187 men of the Queensland M.I. under command of Lt.-Colonel P. R. Ricardo, and a company of the Canadian regiment, the last-named unit being carried in ten buck wagons with mule transport. The two companies D.C.L.I. formed a supporting column and followed later. In order to deceive the enemy, Pilcher on the previous day had made a feint from Belmont towards the Free State, returning ostensibly on the ground that a mistake had been made as to supply arrangements; the real object of the column was Douglas, and it had been arranged to cover Pilcher's right flank, by moving Babington with his mounted brigade and G. battery westward from Modder camp. His left flank was protected by the despatch of the Scots Greys from Orange River station to Mark's Drift, a point close to the junction of the Vaal and Orange rivers. On the night of the 31st December, Colonel Pilcher halted at Thornhill farm, eighteen miles north-west of Belmont, and thence moved on the following morning to Sunnyside, where in a cluster of kopjes a small laager had been formed by an advance party of the enemy. This commando (about 180 strong), was surprised, and defeated, with a loss of fourteen killed and thirty-eight prisoners, after a brief engagement, in which the Canadian and Queensland troops proved their fitness to fight side by side with British regulars. On the 2nd January, the flying column pushing on to Douglas, found the village evacuated by the enemy. Meanwhile, a strong commando, detached by Cronje, had eluded the cavalry brigade and crossed the Riet river near Koodoesberg. Lt.-Colonel Pilcher had already fallen back on Thornhill on 3rd January, and evading the enemy by a night march, regained Belmont unmolested. Ninety loyalist refugees from Douglas accompanied him on his return. Simultaneously with this successful raid, a patrol of about a company of M.I. under Lieut.-Colonel Alderson had been sent to Prieska from De Aar, and on the 3rd January exchanged shots at that place with the enemy across the river, falling back subsequently on De Aar.
[Footnote 258: Colonel H. S. G. Miles had been in command of this section up to 26th December, 1899.]
[Sidenote: Wood seizes Zoutpans Drift.]
Lord Methuen now determined, in conjunction with Major-General E. Wood, to demonstrate to the eastward against the enemy's line of communication, which was known to run through Jacobsdal, Koffyfontein, and Fauresmith. On the 7th January Major-General Wood therefore, with a force of all three arms, seized Zoutpans Drift, a ford across the Orange river twenty miles above the railway bridge. The ford had been reconnoitred as early as 13th December. Here General Wood placed a permanent post on favourable ground on a hill, to protect the drift from the Free State side, and to command the road leading thence to Fauresmith. A Boer detachment remained in observation of this post on the adjacent farm of Wolvekraal, but did not attack. Further to the north, reconnaissances into the Free State, made by the cavalry brigade, and by Pilcher's troops at Belmont, ascertained that the enemy was not yet in great strength on the right flank, but that Jacobsdal was occupied. The Field Intelligence department at Cape Town had already (3rd January) received information from a trustworthy source that Cronje had at and near Magersfontein 8,000 to 9,000 men, and that he was relying on being attacked there. The report stated: "An advance on Bloemfontein up the right bank of Riet river by Kaalspruit would draw off the main Boer forces towards Bloemfontein. President O.F.S. is stated in district to have said that he 'could not cope with such a movement.' ... Bloemfontein is undefended except by two forts, the guns of which have been moved to Kimberley."