"This Government ... in the interest not only of this Republic, but also of all South Africa,... feels itself called upon and obliged ... to request Her Majesty's Government to give it the assurance:
"(a) That all points of mutual difference shall be regulated by the friendly course of arbitration, or by whatever amicable way may be agreed upon by this Government with Her Majesty's Government.
"(b) That the troops on the borders of this Republic shall be instantly withdrawn.
"(c) That all reinforcements of troops which have arrived in South Africa since June 1st, 1899, shall be removed from South Africa within a reasonable time, to be agreed upon with this Government, and with a mutual assurance and guarantee upon the part of this Government that no attack upon or hostilities against any portion of the possessions of the British Government shall be made by the Republic during further negotiations within a period of time to be subsequently agreed upon between the Governments, and this Government will, on compliance therewith, be prepared to withdraw the armed burghers of this Republic from the borders.
"(d) That Her Majesty's troops which are now on the high seas shall not be landed in any part of South Africa.
"This Government must press for an immediate and affirmative answer to these four questions, and earnestly requests Her Majesty's Government to return such an answer before or upon Wednesday, October 11th, 1899, not later than five o'clock p.m., and it desires further to add that, in the event of unexpectedly no satisfactory answer being received by it within that interval, it will with great regret be compelled to regard the action of Her Majesty's Government as a formal declaration of war, and will not hold itself responsible for the consequences thereof, and that in the event of any further movements of troops taking place within the above-mentioned time in the nearer directions of our borders, the Government will be compelled to regard that also as a formal declaration of war.
"I have, etc., "F. W. REITZ, State Secretary."
[Footnote 178: C. 9,530.]
[Sidenote: An appeal to Afrikanders.]
The war had come; and come in the almost incredible form of a naked assertion of the intention of the South African Republic to oust Great Britain from its position of paramount Power in South Africa. And the declaration of war, published two days later by President Steyn, was no less definite. It referred to Great Britain's "unfounded claim to paramountcy for the whole of South Africa, and thus also over this State," and exhorted the burghers of the Free State to "stand up as one man against the oppressor and violator of right." Even greater frankness characterised the appeal to "Free Staters and Brother Afrikanders" issued by Mr. Reitz. In this document not only was the entire Dutch population of South Africa invited to rid themselves, by force of arms, of British supremacy, but the statement of the Boer case took the form of an impeachment that covered the whole period of British administration. Great Britain—
[Footnote 179: Cd. 43.]
[Footnote 180: Ibid.]
"has, ever since the birth of our nation, been the oppressor of the Afrikander and the native alike.
"From Slagter's Nek to Laing's Nek, from the Pretoria Convention to the Bloemfontein Conference—they have ever been the treaty-breakers and robbers. The diamond fields of Kimberley and the beautiful land of Natal were robbed from us, and now they want the gold-fields of the Witwatersrand.
"Where is Waterboer to-day? He who had to be defended against the Free State is to-day without an inch of ground. Where lies Lobengula in his unknown grave to-day, and what fillibusters and fortune-hunters are possessors of his country?
"Where are the native chiefs of Bechuanaland now, and who owns their land?
"Read the history of South Africa, and ask yourselves: Has the British Government been a blessing or a curse to this sub-continent?
"Brother Afrikanders! I repeat, the day is at hand on which great deeds are expected of us. WAR has broken out. What is it to be? A wasted and enslaved South Africa, or—a Free, United South Africa?
"Come, let us stand shoulder to shoulder and do our holy duty! The Lord of Hosts will be our Leader.
"Be of good cheer. "F. W. REITZ."
That Monday night, besides repeating the ultimatum to the Home Government, Lord Milner telegraphed to warn the British authorities in Natal, Rhodesia, Basutoland, and the frontier towns.
The ultimatum reached the Colonial Office at 6.45 a.m. on Tuesday. The reply, which was cabled to Lord Milner at 10.45 p.m. on the same day, was not unworthy of the occasion:
[Sidenote: The British reply.]
"Her Majesty's Government have received with great regret the peremptory demands of the Government of the South African Republic. You will inform the Government of the South African Republic, in reply, that the conditions demanded by the South African Republic are such as Her Majesty's Government deem it impossible to discuss."
[Footnote 181: C. 9,530.]
The High Commissioner was further desired to instruct Sir William Greene, in delivering the British reply, to ask for his passports.
THE FALL OF THE REPUBLICS
With the presentation of the Boer ultimatum the first and most difficult part of Lord Milner's task was accomplished. The actual pretensions of President Krueger and his republican confederates in the Free State and the Cape Colony were declared in a manner that could not fail to make them understood by the British people at home. The nationalists were unmasked. To what assurance of victory their military preparations had led them may be seen from the story of Mr. Amery's meeting with Mr. Reitz, two days before October 2nd, the Monday originally fixed for the delivery of the ultimatum. On the afternoon of this day, September 30th, Mr. Amery was walking with the State Secretary in Pretoria. Mr. Reitz, he tells us, "suddenly turned round and said, 'Have you read Treasure Island? 'Yes.' 'Then you may remember the passage where they "tip the black spot" to Long John Silver?' 'Yes.' 'Well, I expect it will fall to my lot on Monday to "tip the black spot" to Long John Greene.' And hereupon the State Secretary cheerily detailed to his astounded listener the terms of the ultimatum, compliance with which might yet save the British Empire from war."
[Footnote 182: Times History of the War in South Africa, vol. i., p. 360. It must be remembered that in the Transvaal all telegrams had been strictly censored from the end of August.]
[Sidenote: Effect of the ultimatum.]
Very different was the position at Capetown. Here there was no room either for levity or the insolence of anticipated triumph. Knowing what Lord Milner did—what he, of all men, had most cause to know—both of our unreadiness, and of the preparedness and confidence of the enemy, he could scarcely have looked forward to the future without the very gravest apprehension. None the less the ultimatum brought with it a certain sense of relief. The negotiations, which had degenerated long since into a diplomatic farce, were terminated. The situation had become once more clear. It has been the duty of few men to bear so heavy and so prolonged a burden of responsibility as that from which Lord Milner was thus set free. The danger that the Home Government, in its earnest desire for peace, might accept a settlement that would leave undecided the central issue of Boer or British supremacy in South Africa had never been wholly absent from his mind during the harassing negotiations that succeeded the Conference. Up to the very end there had been a haunting dread lest, in spite of his ceaseless vigilance and unstinted toil, a manifestation of British loyalty that would never be repeated should be coldly discouraged, and the nationalist movement allowed to proceed unchecked, until every colonist of British blood had surrendered the hope of remaining a citizen of the Empire for the degrading necessity of securing for himself and his children a tolerable position in the United States of South Africa by a timely alliance with the more progressive Dutch. From the presence of this danger Lord Milner was now relieved, since, as he instantly foresaw, the whip-lash of this frank appeal to force brought conviction where marshalled arguments were powerless to move. He had done what the religious enthusiasm of Livingstone, the political sagacity of Grey, the splendid devotion and prescience of Frere, and the Elizabethan statecraft of Rhodes, had failed to do. He had made the Boer speak out.
England was far from knowing all that these Boer aspirations meant, or the progress already achieved in the direction of their realisation. But this ignorance made the demands of the ultimatum seem the more insolent. To Mr. Balfour it was as though President Krueger had gone mad. But madness or insolence, the effect was the same. With the mass of the nation all hesitation, all balancing of arguments, were at an end. The one thing that was perceived was that any further attempt to treat with a people so minded would be an admission to the world that British supremacy had disappeared from South Africa. On this point, outside the narrow influence of a few professional partisans and peace-makers, there had never been any doubt: the only question was whether British supremacy was, or was not, in danger. The Boer challenge having resolved this question, the mind of the nation was made up. The army, as the instrument of its will, was called upon to give effect to its decision.
[Sidenote: An anxious situation.]
Two years and eight months elapsed between the expiration of the two days' grace allowed by the ultimatum and the surrender of Vereeniging. During the first twelve months of this period Lord Milner's initiative, though his position remained arduous, anxious, and responsible, and his activity unceasing, was necessarily subordinated to that of the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in South Africa. But during the second period of the war—that is to say, from November 29th, 1900, when Lord Kitchener succeeded Lord Roberts—the constructive statesmanship of the High Commissioner was called forth in an increasing degree as the area secured for peaceable occupation became widened, and the problems involved in the settlement and future administration of the new colonies emerged into increasing prominence and importance. But even during the first period, when the task of the army was the comparatively simple one of overcoming the organised resistance of the Republics and subduing the rebellion in the Cape Colony, Lord Milner's unshaken confidence and perfect mastery of South African conditions proved of inestimable value.
[Sidenote: Results and unpreparedness.]
Five years later he described himself as an "incorrigible optimist." Optimist or not, at this time he harboured no illusions. He knew that the postponement or neglect of military preparations had left thousands of loyal subjects of the Crown in a position of entire defencelessness, and made rebellion easy for thousands of the disaffected Dutch. The first days of war, like the last days of peace, were punctuated by appeals for the troops that should have been in South Africa, but were in England; or for guns, rifles, and ammunition which Mr. Schreiner had kept idle in the colonial armouries until it was too late. On Friday, October 13th, he held a long and anxious consultation over the wires with Colonel Kekewich at Kimberley. A thousand rifles were wanted, and wanted instantly. The Cape Artillery 15-pounders, reluctantly conceded at the last moment by Mr. Schreiner, had not come. They never came, for the next day Kimberley was cut off, and by Sunday morning Capetown had lost count of the border districts from Kimberley southward to Orange River. On this Friday the first definite piece of bad news reached the High Commissioner. An armoured train, trying to run back to Mafeking, had been captured by the Boers. In proportion as Lord Milner had urged the need of preparation for war, so now he was the first to realise how grave would be the results of unpreparedness. Fortunately, his comments upon the events of these first three months of the war have been preserved; and the record of what was passing in his mind from day to day reveals a burden of anxiety that contrasts sharply with the easy tolerance with which the first bad news was received in England. On Wednesday, the 18th, a week after the ultimatum had expired, he wrote of Natal: "We are being slowly surrounded, and our force unwisely split up." He was gravely concerned for the safety of Kimberley, and he "doubted the ability of Mafeking to hold out." On November 1st, the day after General Buller had landed at Capetown, he wrote: "Things are going from bad to worse to-day. In Natal the Orange Free State Boers are making a move on Colenso, while in the Colony they have crossed in force at Bethulie; and there is also some suspicion of an attack on the line between Orange River bridge and De Aar." On November 9th, the arrival of the Rosslyn Castle, the first of the Army Corps transports, brought a gleam of brightness. She was a little late, as she had been warned to go out of her course after leaving Las Palmas, to avoid a suspicious vessel. But Methuen's first engagements seemed to him to be Pyrrhic victories. It was "the old story of charging positions from which the enemy simply clears, after having shot a lot of our men." On December 5th "alarming rumours came pouring in from all over the Colony," and two days later Lord Milner telegraphed to warn the Secretary of State that the war was now aggravated by rebellion. On Saturday, December 16th, the day after Colenso, he wrote: "This has been a week of disasters, to-day being the worst of all. News was received this morning that Buller had been severely defeated yesterday in attempting to force the passage of the Tugela."
It was a time when he was receiving the panic outcry for the immediate relief of Kimberley, in which Rhodes vented his rage at the military impotence to which for the moment England had allowed herself to be reduced in South Africa; when his councils with his ministers were "gloomy functions," and his Prime Minister's arguments against the measures which he deemed necessary for the defence of the Colony and the protection of the native territories had become not merely wearisome but embittered. His main resource lay in his intense activity. It was his custom, during this critical period, to begin the day by seeing Mr. Eliot and Mr. Price, the heads of the railways, and Mr. French, the Postmaster-General. In this way he received information of every movement of any significance that had occurred within the range of the railway and post-office systems during the preceding twenty-four hours—information which was of the highest utility both to him and to the military authorities. Then followed an endless succession of visitors, from the Prime Minister to the most recent newspaper correspondent out from home, and a long afternoon and evening of concentrated and unbroken labour upon despatches, proclamations, minutes, and other official documents. A short ride or walk was sometimes interpolated, but his days were a dead round of continuous occupation. "One day is so like another—crowded with work; all hateful, but with no very special feature," he wrote. But of another he says: "Worked very hard all day; the usual interviews. It was very difficult to take one's mind off the absorbing subject of the ill success of our military operations."
Mr. Balfour called the insolence of the ultimatum "madness." But Lord Milner knew that it was no madness, but an assured belief in victory; a confidence founded upon long years of earnest preparation for war; upon the blood-ties of the most tenacious of European peoples; upon a Nature that spread her wings over the rough children of the veld and menaced their enemies with the heat and glamour of her sun, with famine and drought and weariness, with all the hidden dangers that lurked in her glittering plains and rock-strewn uplands.
[Sidenote: Aspects of the war.]
It is not proposed to give any detailed account of the military operations which led, first, to the annexation of the Boer Republics, and then to the actual disarmament of the entire Dutch population of South Africa. The most that the plan of this work permits of is to present the broad outlines of the war in such a manner that the several phases of the military conflict may be seen in true perspective, and the relationship between them and the administrative efforts of Lord Milner be correctly indicated. But it will not be found inconsistent with this restricted treatment to refer to certain conspicuous features of the war upon which contemporary discussion has chiefly centred, and in respect of which opinions have been pronounced that do not seem likely to harmonise in all cases with the results of a more mature judgment and a less interested inquiry.
The test by which the success or failure of any given military effort is to be measured is, of course, the test of results. But the application of this test must not be embarrassed by the assumption, which seems to have vitiated so much otherwise admirable criticism on the conduct of the war in South Africa, that every action in which a properly equipped and wisely directed force is engaged must necessarily be successful: or that, if it be not successful, it follows, as a matter of course, that the officer in command, or one of his subordinates, must have committed some open and ascertainable violation of the principles of military science. So far is this from being the case, that military history is full of examples in which the highest merit and resolution of a commander have been nullified or cheated by the wanton interferences of physical nature, or by acts on the part of subordinates admittedly beyond the control of any human skill or foresight.
[Footnote 183: This chapter was in type some weeks before Vol. I. of the Official History of the War was published. Where, however, the Official History amends or supplements figures, documents, etc., given in earlier official publications, the fact is mentioned in a foot-note.]
[Sidenote: Delay of operations.]
Any just appreciation of the events of the first year of the war must be based upon a clear understanding of the degree in which the military action of the Salisbury Cabinet fell short of the advice given by Lord Milner, and, in an equal degree by Lord Wolseley, the Commander-in-Chief. We have noticed already the grave inadequacy of the measures of preparation for war carried out in South Africa between the failure of the Bloemfontein Conference and the recall of General Butler. On June 1st the South African garrison consisted of 4,462 men in Cape Colony, and 5,827 men in Natal; or 10,289 men with 24 field-guns in all. On August 2nd the Government decided to send 2,000 additional troops to Natal, and the Indian Government was warned, a little later, that certain troops might be required for service in South Africa. In spite of Lord Milner's urgent representations of the danger of leaving the colonies unprotected, no considerable body of troops, as we have seen, was ordered out, until the diplomatic situation had become seriously aggravated by the definite failure of the negotiations initiated by Sir William Greene through Mr. Smuts.
[Footnote 184: See p. 191.]
[Footnote 185: Cd. 1,789 (War Commission). The Official History of the War in South Africa gives the total on August 2nd as "not exceeding 9,940 men."]
Of the 10,000 men despatched after the Cabinet meeting of September 8th, more than half were requisitioned from the Indian Army, while the remainder were drawn mainly from the Mediterranean garrisons.
Thus, by the beginning of the second week in October there were 22,104 British troops in South Africa, of whom 7,400 were at the Cape and 14,704 in Natal, and 60 field-guns. But the Army Corps, the "striking force," was still in England. In pursuance of its determination to postpone to the last moment any action that could be represented as an attempt to force a war upon the Boers, the British Government had refrained from giving orders for the mobilisation of the offensive force until October 7th, or a fortnight after the Cabinet meeting of September 22nd, when its determination to "formulate its own proposals" was communicated to the Transvaal Government. It was then calculated that three months must elapse before this force could be equipped, transported, and placed in the field in South Africa.
[Footnote 186: Cd. 1,789. But the Official History gives the British total at the outbreak of war as 27,054 men (as against over 50,000 burghers); of whom 15,811 (including 2,781 local troops) were in Natal, 5,221 regulars and 4,574 local troops were in the Cape Colony, and 1,448 men, raised locally by Col. Baden-Powell, were in Mafeking and Southern Rhodesia.]
[Footnote 187: But the Admiralty were given details of the offensive force on September 20th. (Official History.)]
[Sidenote: No political gain.]
Before recording the disastrous effects of the postponement of effective military preparations, from June to September, it remains to consider whether any political gains, sufficient to compensate for the loss of military strength, were secured. The policy of relying upon Afrikander advice failed; since, as we have seen, the admonitions of Sir Henry de Villiers and Mr. Hofmeyr came too late to turn President Krueger from an obduracy founded upon long years of military preparation. The over-sea British had made up their minds in June; and nothing occurred in the subsequent negotiations to deepen their conviction of the essential justice of the British cause. India was unmoved; indeed, the Hindu masses were slightly sympathetic, while the feudatory princes came forward with offers of men and treasure to the Government of the Queen-Empress. The attitude of the respective governments of France, Germany, and Russia was correct. But what secured this result was not any perception of the moderation of the British demands, or any recognition of the genuine reluctance of the British Government to make war, but the sight of the British Navy everywhere holding the seas, the rapidity and ease with which large bodies of troops were transported from every quarter of the British world, and the manner in which each reverse was met by a display of new and unexpected reserves of military strength.
If the British Government thought that it would win the peoples of Continental Europe to its side by a show of hesitation to make war upon a weak state, the sequel proved that it had gravely misunderstood the conditions under which international respect is produced. Hatred of England rose in inverse ratio to the evidence of the justness of her cause. When the Boers were victorious, or seemed to be most capable of defying the efforts of the largest fighting force that Great Britain had ever put into the field; when, that is to say, it was most clearly demonstrated that British supremacy in South Africa could only have been maintained by force of arms against the formidable rival which had risen against it, then the wave of popular hatred surged highest. When the British arms prospered, the clamour sank; but only to rise again until it was finally allayed by the knowledge that the Boer resistance was at an end, and that the British Empire had emerged from the conflict a stronger and more united power.
[Sidenote: Attitude of the United States.]
The case of the United States was somewhat different. Here was an industrial nation like our own; and one, moreover, whose people were qualified alike by constitutional and legal tradition, habits of thought, and identity of language, to have discerned the reality of the reluctance displayed by the British Government to employ force until every resource of diplomacy and every device of statecraft had been exhausted, and to have drawn the conclusion that the power which drove the Government into war was a sense of duty, and not greed of territory. Moreover, there was at this time, at any rate among the more cultivated classes, a feeling of gratitude for the action of Great Britain in preventing European intervention during the Spanish-American war, and a genuine desire, on that ground alone, to show sympathy with the English people in the conflict in which they had become involved. In these circumstances it is somewhat strange that public opinion in the United States was unmistakably inclined to favour the Boers during almost the entire period of the war. It is perfectly true that the United States Government was consistently friendly; but this did not alter the fact that the dominant note in nearly all public expressions of the sentiment of the United States' people was one of sympathy with the Boer, and of hostility to the British cause. It might have been thought that, just as most Englishmen, in the case of the conflict between the United States and Spain, were prepared to assume that a nation imbued with the traditions and principles of the Anglo-Saxon race would not have undertaken to enforce its will upon a weak Power without having convinced itself first of the justice of its cause, so the Americans would have entertained an equally favourable presumption in respect of the people of Great Britain. That this was not done is due to a cause which is as significant as it is well ascertained. Making all allowance for the prejudice against England inevitably aroused in the minds of the less thoughtful members of a great democratic community, by the fact that her opponent was both a weak state and a republic, this very general refusal to accept the political morality of the English people as a guarantee of the justice of their action in South Africa suggests the presence of another and more specific influence. The explanation given by Americans is that the English nation was itself divided upon the question of the morality of the South African War—or, at any rate, that the public utterances that reached the United States were such as to convey this impression. That being so, they ask, Can you blame us for hesitating to adopt what was at the most, as we understood it, the opinion of a majority? In support of this view they point to the public utterances, before and after the war had broken out, of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Mr. John Morley, and Mr. Bryce. Of these, the former was the official head of the Liberal Party, while the two latter were men whose literary achievements had made their names and personalities both familiar and respected in the United States. If the opinions of these public men were on this occasion wholly unrepresentative, why, they ask, were their speeches and articles unrefuted; or, at any rate, allowed to go forth to the world uncondemned by any clear and authoritative manifestation of the dissent and displeasure of their countrymen?
[Sidenote: Injurious declarations.]
That declarations such as these did in fact produce injurious effects directly calculable in human lives, in money, and in the waste and devastation of war, is a fact which will claim the attention of the reader on a subsequent occasion. They came not merely from the mouths of the Irish Nationalists, and of advanced Radicals such as Mr. Lloyd-George and Mr. John Burns, but from men of wider repute. That public opinion should have allowed responsible Englishmen in time of war to "speak and write as though they belonged to the enemy,"—whether due to an exaggerated regard for our traditional freedom of speech, or to a failure to recognise that the altered conditions produced by the extension and perfection of telegraphic communication, and the development of the Press throughout the civilised world, gave such utterances a value in international relations altogether different from that possessed (say) by similar utterances on the part of the anti-nationalists during the Napoleonic wars—is a circumstance that merits the most serious consideration. No one will deny that this unpatriotic form of opposition, so long as it exists, constitutes an ever-recurring danger to the most vital interests of the community. The ultimate remedy lies in the creation of a representative council of the Empire, and the consequent separation of questions of inter-imperial and foreign policy from the local and irrelevant issues of party politics. Until this is done, it remains to establish a mutual understanding under which such questions would be recognised as being outside the sphere of party recrimination; and for this purpose it is necessary to create a force of public opinion strong enough to compel the observance of this understanding; or, failing this, to visit its non-observance with political penalties commensurate to the injury inflicted.
[Sidenote: The Army Corps absorbed.]
The conflict which followed the expiration of the forty-eight hours allowed by the Boer ultimatum is in more than one respect the most extraordinary in the annals of war. The existence of the cable and telegraph made instant and continuous communication possible between the army in the field and the nation at home. Public opinion, informed by the daily records furnished by the Press, became a factor in determining the conduct of the war. Nor is it strange that a civilian population, separated by 6,000 miles from the theatre of operations, should have proved an injurious counsellor. The army was ordered to conquer a people, but forbidden to employ the methods by which alone it has been hitherto held that conquest is attainable. But no influence exercised upon the course of the war by false humanitarianism or political partisanship produced any results comparable to the original injury inflicted upon the British Army by the ignorance and irresolution displayed by the nation. The postponement of effective military preparations by the Home Government until the necessity for these preparations had become so plain that no effort of the Opposition could embarrass its action, was the fons et origo of all subsequent disaster. The failure to mobilise the Army Corps in June had placed the Army in a position of disadvantage at the outbreak of the war, from which it never wholly recovered. The original striking force—the Army Corps—was not employed in its proper function, but absorbed, upon its arrival in South Africa, in the task of supporting the defensive forces. Twenty-two thousand men, with an Army Corps advancing upon Bloemfontein or Pretoria, would have sufficed to repel attacks upon the colonial frontiers, and to check rebellion in the Cape Colony. But twenty-two thousand men defending one thousand miles of frontier from a mobile force nearly twice as numerous with the Army Corps six thousand miles away in England, was a very different thing. Yet this was the situation in which the nation, by withholding from the Government the support necessary to enable it to give effect to the advice of Lord Wolseley, had elected to place the British Army. The plan of mobilisation, long prepared and complete in all particulars, worked with perfect success. Twenty Companies of the Army Service Corps sailed on October 6th, a day before the actual mobilisation order was issued. The rest of the offensive force—one Cavalry Division, one Army Corps, and eight battalions of lines of communication troops—began to be embarked on October 20th, and by November 17th the long succession of transports, bearing the whole of the men, horses, and guns of which it was composed (with the exception of one cavalry regiment detained by horse sickness), had sailed for South Africa. This was Lord Wolseley's task, and it was promptly and efficiently performed. The War Office was not inefficient; but the refusal to mobilise in June had thrown the whole scheme of the offensive and defensive campaign out of gear.
[Sidenote: General Buller.]
With the evidence of the War Commission before us, it is impossible to divest General Buller of a share of responsibility for the disastrous conditions under which the war was commenced. He was nominated to the South African command in June, and he was consulted upon the strength and composition of the force which was to be employed. On July 7th Lord Wolseley asked the Government, apart from the immediate mobilisation of the Army Corps which he still urged, to "consider whether we should not at a very early date send one Infantry Division and one Cavalry Brigade—say 10,000 men—to South Africa," adding that he had "no doubt as to the present necessity of strengthening our military position." But ten days later the despatch of this reinforcement of 10,000 men was "not considered urgent." Since, according to Lord Wolseley's minute of the proceedings of the meeting held at the War Office on July 18th, 1899, General Buller used the weight of his authority to support General Butler's opposition to Lord Milner's urgent request for immediate reinforcements. In reply to a question as to the desirability of strengthening the South African garrisons, he said on this occasion, that—
"he had complete confidence in Butler's ability and forethought, and that as long as clever men like Butler and Symons on the spot did not say there was danger, he saw no necessity for sending out any troops in advance of the Army Corps to strengthen our position against any possible attack by the Boers on our frontiers."
This memorandum, Lord Wolseley added, contained not the "exact words," but the "exact meaning" of what he said. It was the precise opposite of the view which Lord Milner had laid before the Home Government. Indeed the degree in which General Buller had misconceived the entire military situation in South Africa became at once apparent when he reached Capetown. He had come out to South Africa with the not unnatural idea that he was to command a definite British army, which was to engage a definite Boer army. When he had learnt from Lord Milner and others what the situation actually was, he is said to have gathered up his new impressions in the remark: "It seems to me that I have got to conquer the whole of South Africa." General Buller even appears to have shared the common belief of his fellow-countrymen at home that the Cape was a British colony not only in name but in fact. Nor was he prepared to abandon this belief all at once. He suggested to the High Commissioner that it would be possible to form local defence forces out of the Dutch farmers in the Colony. Lord Milner said that this was totally impracticable; but he added that he would consult Mr. Schreiner on the matter. It is needless to say, however, that the Prime Minister deprecated the proposal in the most emphatic terms.
[Footnote 188: Cd. 1,789, pp. 15-17.]
[Footnote 189: Nor was the Intelligence Department less urgent than Lord Milner. "In July of last year , earlier warnings being disregarded, a formal communication was made for the consideration of the Cabinet, advising the despatch of a large force fully equipped, estimated to be sufficient to safeguard Natal and Cape Colony from the first onrush of the Boers."—Sir John Ardagh, in The Balfourian Parliament, 1900-1905. By Henry W. Lucy, p. 10. See also the evidence of the War Commission, and the "Military Notes" issued by the D. M. I. in June (1899).]
[Footnote 190: In a memorandum of November 20th (furnished to Gen. Forestier-Walker) Gen. Buller, on the eve of starting for Natal, gives as a first paragraph in his "appreciation of the situation" the following remark: "1. Ever since I have been here we have been like the man, who, with a long day's work before him, overslept himself and so was late for everything all day." (Official History, p. 209.)]
The War Office scheme was designed to provide a defensive force to hold the colonies, and an offensive force to invade the Republics. In the three months that elapsed before this scheme was put into effect, the conditions upon which it was based had changed completely. On the day that Buller reached Capetown (October 31st) White, with almost the whole of the Natal defensive force, was shut up in Ladysmith by Joubert. When at length the last units of the Army Corps were landed (December 4th) in South Africa, Buller was at Maritzburg, organising a force for the relief of White; and practically the entire offensive force had been broken up to disengage the defensive forces, or save them from destruction. Buller himself had 14,000 of the Army Corps in Natal, and more were to follow; Methuen was taking 8,000 men for the relief of Kimberley; and the balance were being pushed up to strengthen the original defensive forces that were holding the railways immediately South of the Orange Free State border, and checking the rebellion in the eastern districts of the Cape Colony. Gatacre's defeat at Stormberg (December 10th), Methuen's defeat at Magersfontein (December 11th), and Buller's defeat at Colenso (December 15th) together provided ample evidence of the fact that, however desirable it might be to assume the offensive, a purely defensive role must for the time be assigned to the troops then in South Africa; and that this state of affairs must continue until the arrival of very considerable reinforcements.
[Sidenote: New striking force necessary.]
The perception of this fact caused the Government to appoint (December 17th) Lord Roberts, with Lord Kitchener as his Chief-of-Staff, to the South African command, and to prepare and despatch an entirely new striking force. It was this new force and not the original Army Corps that "marched to Pretoria," and struck the successive blows which enabled Lord Roberts to report to the Secretary of State for War (November 15th, 1900) that; "with the occupation of Komati Poort, and the dispersal of Commandant-General Louis Botha's army, the organised resistance of the two Republics might be said to have ceased." It was not, therefore, until Lord Roberts was able to march from Modder River Station (February 11th, 1900), after a month spent at the Cape in reorganising the transport and other preparations essential to the success of an army destined to advance for many hundreds of miles through a hostile country, that the British Army in South Africa was in the position in which the acceptance of Lord Wolseley's advice, given in June and July, 1899, would have put it upon the outbreak of war. Nor was the force with which Lord Roberts then advanced, 36,000 men, more numerous than the striking force which would have been provided, by Lord Wolseley's scheme, had it been carried out in the manner in which he desired. For the business with which the scattered Army Corps was occupied when Lord Roberts arrived at Capetown (January 10th, 1900)—the relief of Ladysmith and Kimberley, and the defence of the eastern districts of the Cape Colony from the Free State commandos and the colonial rebels—was work directly caused by the absence of the Army Corps from South Africa when the war broke out. It is not too much to say that the whole of the serious losses incurred by the British forces in South Africa from the commencement of the war up to the date of Lord Roberts's advance into the Free State territory, would have been avoided if the state of public opinion had permitted the Salisbury Cabinet in June to make military preparations commensurate with the gravity of the situation as disclosed by Lord Milner.
[Sidenote: The regular army exhausted.]
In forming an estimate of the performance of the British Army in South Africa, from a military point of view, it is necessary to remember the grave initial disadvantage in which it was placed; and that this initial disadvantage was due, not to the War Office, not to the Cabinet, but to the nation itself. The manner in which the losses thus caused were repaired is significant and instructive. By the end of the year (1899), the troops composing three divisions in excess of the Army Corps were either landed in South Africa or under orders to proceed to the seat of war. In addition to the 22,000 defensive troops in South Africa on October 11th, the War Office had supplied, not merely the 47,000 men of the Army Corps, but 85,000 men in all. But, having done this, it had practically reached the limit of troops available in the regular army for over-sea operations. By April, 1900, all the reserves had been used up. There remained, it is true, 103,023 "effectives" of all ranks of the regular army in the United Kingdom on April 1st; but this total was composed of 37,333 "immature" troops; of the recruits who had joined since October 1st, 1899; of reservists unfit for foreign service; and of sick and wounded sent home from South Africa: that is to say, of men who, for one reason or another, were all alike unfit for service abroad. Further drafts might have been made upon the British regulars in India; but this course was held to be imprudent. In plain words, the exhaustion of the regular army compelled the Government to avail itself more fully of the offers of military aid which had reached it from the colonies, and to utilise the militia and volunteer forces. On December 18th, 1899, the announcement was made that the War Office would allow twelve militia battalions to volunteer for service abroad, and that a considerable force of yeomanry and a contingent of picked men from the volunteers would be accepted. This appeal to the latent military resources of the Empire met with a ready and ample response. Throughout the whole course of the war the United Kingdom sent 45,566 militia, 19,856 volunteers, and 35,520 yeomanry, with 7,273 South African Constabulary, and 833 Scottish Horse; the over-sea colonies (including 305 volunteers from India) provided 30,633 men; while of the small British population in South Africa no less than the astonishing total of 46,858 took part in the war. In all some 200,000 men—militia, volunteers, and irregulars—came forward to supplement the regular army.
[Footnote 191: Cd. 1,789.]
[Footnote 192: Ibid.]
[Footnote 193: See returns cited by Lord Roberts in House of Lords, February 27th, 1906. The irregulars raised in South Africa were between 50,000 and 60,000, according to the War Commission Report.]
[Sidenote: Auxiliary forces utilised.]
It was mainly from the auxiliary forces and the colonial contingents, and not from the regular army, that the reinforcements were supplied which repaired the critical losses of the defensive campaign, and enabled the new striking force to be organised. Nor can it be said that the British Government failed to do all that was possible to retrieve its original error, when once the defeats inflicted by the Boer forces had awakened it to a knowledge of the real situation in South Africa. In his despatch of February 6th, 1900, Lord Roberts was able to report that, on January 31st, there was an effective fighting force of nearly 40,000 men in Natal and another of 60,000 in the Cape Colony. Mr. Chamberlain put the case for the Government at its highest in speaking at Birmingham on May 11th, 1900:
"Supposing that twelve months ago any man had said in public that this country would be able to send out from its own shores and from its own citizens an army of more than 150,000 men, fully equipped, and that it would be joined by another force of more than 30,000 men, voluntarily offered by our self-governing colonies ... if he had said that this army, together numbering 200,000 men, or thereabouts, could have been provided with the best commissariat, with the most admirable medical appliances and stores that had ever accompanied an army—if he could have said that at the same time there would have remained behind in this country something like half a million of men, who although they may not be equal man to man to the regulars and best-drilled armies, are nevertheless capable of bearing arms to some purpose—if he had said all this, he would have been laughed to scorn."
Moreover, the army was successful. The work which it was required to do was done. In order to realise the merit of its success two circumstances must be borne in mind: first, the enormous area of South Africa, and, second, the fact that practically the whole of this area, if we except the few considerable towns, was not only ill-provided with means of communication and food supplies, but inhabited by a population which was openly hostile, or, what was worse, secretly disaffected. Lord Roberts, in the course of his despatches, endeavoured to bring home both of these circumstances to the public in England.
Of the area he wrote:
[Footnote 194: November 15th, 1900. Johannesburg.]
"The magnitude of the task which Her Majesty's Imperial troops have been called upon to perform will perhaps be better realised if I give the actual number of miles of the several lines of communication, each one of which has had to be carefully guarded, and compare with the well-known countries of Europe the enormous extent of the theatre of war, from one end of which to the other troops have had to be frequently moved.
[Sidenote: Vastness of South Africa.]
"The areas included in the theatre of war are as follows:
Square Miles. Cape Colony 277,151 Orange River Colony 48,326 Transvaal 113,640 Natal 18,913 ———— Total 458,030 ———— Rhodesia 750,000
"And the distances troops have had to travel are:
By Land Miles. Capetown to Pretoria 1,040 Pretoria to Komati Poort 260 Capetown to Kimberley 647 Kimberley to Mafeking 223 Mafeking to Pretoria 160 Mafeking to Beira 1,135 Durban to Pretoria 511
"From these tables it will be seen that, after having been brought by sea 6,000 miles and more from their base in the United Kingdom, the army in South Africa had to be distributed over an area of greater extent than France (204,146 square miles) and Germany (211,168 square miles) put together, and, if we include that part of Rhodesia with which we had to do, larger than the combined areas of France, Germany, and Austria (261,649 square miles)."
Of the nature of the country and its inhabitants he wrote:
[Footnote 195: November 15th, 1900. Johannesburg.]
"And it should be remembered that over these great distances we were dependent on single lines of railway for the food supply, guns, ammunition, horses, transport animals, and hospital equipment, in fact, all the requirements of an army in the field, and that, along these lines, bridges and culverts had been destroyed in many places, and rails were being constantly torn up."
And of the Cape Colony he wrote:
[Footnote 196: February 6th, 1900. Capetown.]
"The difficulties of carrying on war in South Africa do not appear to be sufficiently appreciated by the British public. In an enemy's country we should know exactly how we stood; but out here we have not only to defeat the enemy on the northern frontier, but to maintain law and order within the colonial limits. Ostensibly, the Dependency is loyal, and no doubt a large number of its inhabitants are sincerely attached to the British rule and strongly opposed to Boer domination. On the other hand, a considerable section would prefer a republican form of government, and, influenced by ties of blood and association, side with the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Even the public service at the Cape is not free from men whose sympathies with the enemy may lead them to divulge secrets and give valuable assistance to the Boer leaders in other ways."
[Sidenote: The offensive campaign.]
Bearing in mind that the offensive campaign dates, not from the expiry of the Boer ultimatum on October 11th, 1899, but from Lord Roberts's advance from Modder River Station on February 11th, 1900, the mere record of dates and events is sufficiently impressive. On February 12th the Free State border was crossed; on the 15th Kimberley was relieved, on the 27th Cronje's force surrendered at Paardeberg, on the 28th Ladysmith was relieved, and on March 13th Bloemfontein, the capital of the Free State, was occupied. The army again advanced early in May; Kroonstad was entered on the 12th; on May 24th, the Queen's birthday, the Free State was annexed; the Vaal was crossed on the 27th, Johannesburg was occupied on the 31st, and on June 5th the British flag was hoisted on the Raadzaal at Pretoria. In the meantime Mafeking had been relieved with absolute punctuality on May 17th. On June 11th the Boers evacuated Laing's Nek and Majuba, and the Natal Field Force, under Buller, entered the Transvaal from the south-east. The next day Roberts defeated the Boers under Louis Botha at Diamond Hill. On July 30th Prinsloo and 4,000 burghers surrendered to Hunter; on August 27th the main Transvaal army, under Louis Botha, was again defeated at Dalmanutha, and on September 1st the Transvaal was annexed. On the 11th President Krueger fled the Transvaal; Komati Poort, the eastern frontier town on the railway line to Delagoa Bay, was entered on the 24th, and two days later railway communication was re-opened between Delagoa Bay and Pretoria.
[Footnote 197: Lord Roberts had asked Col. Baden-Powell how long he could hold out at Mafeking, and then promised that the relief of the town should be effected within the required period.]
In spite of the vast area and harassing conditions of the war, in spite of its own military unpreparedness, and the unexpected strength of the Boer attack, the Power which created the Republics had destroyed them within less than a twelvemonth from the day on which they had defied it.
At this point it will be convenient to place on record certain general conclusions which arise out of the events and circumstances of the South African War, and to consider certain military criticisms which have been offered upon the conduct of the British Army in the field.
We have seen that the initial losses of the campaign were due, not to any defects in the Army as a fighting force, but to the position in which the Army was placed by the irresolution of the nation. We have seen also that within less than a year of the ultimatum the capitals of the two Republics were occupied, and their power of "organised resistance" was destroyed. During this stage of the war the regular Army, small as it was, supplemented by selected reinforcements from the auxiliary services, and by the colonial contingents, sufficed to do the work required of it. In the second stage, when the work to be accomplished was nothing less than the disarmament of the entire Dutch population of South Africa, the character of the reinforcements supplied had greatly depreciated, and the prolongation of the war was in part to be attributed to this circumstance. For the present, however, it will be sufficient to confine our observations to the period of "organised resistance."
[Footnote 198: One fighting British general stated that one of the first stage force was equal to five of the men supplied after the reserves had been used up in April, 1900.]
[Sidenote: General conclusions.]
The first of these conclusions is the fact that the real evil revealed by the South African War is not the inefficiency, or unpreparedness of the War Office, but the ignorance, and therefore unpreparedness, of the country. From this unreadiness for war on the part of the nation as a whole there sprang two results: (1) the refusal of the Salisbury Cabinet to allow the War Office to make adequate military preparations in June, and the disregard of the advice alike of Lord Milner and Lord Wolseley; (2) the insufficient supply of reserves for the forces in the field, arising ultimately from the small percentage of men in the nation trained to the use of arms.
[Footnote 199: For the direct part played by the Liberal leaders in the production of this ignorance, see p. 256.]
The second conclusion to which we are led is that the specific result of the absence of effective preparations for War in June was to throw the War Office scheme of a fighting force out of gear. Twenty-two thousand defensive troops, with a striking force of fifty thousand in South Africa, would have proved sufficient to attain the ends of British policy. As it was, the Army Corps being in England when hostilities commenced, and not arriving in its entirety until December 4th, the fifty thousand offensive force was absorbed in the work of extricating the twenty-two thousand defensive force. In other words, the British Army was not put in the position contemplated by Lord Wolseley's scheme until an entirely new fighting force had been organised and advanced from Modder River in the beginning of February, 1900. This new striking force was identical in numbers with the original striking force, the Army Corps, provided by Lord Wolseley's scheme.
[Sidenote: Criticisms examined.]
Among criticisms on the British Army in the field there are two that claim attention. The first of these is the allegation that military efficiency was sacrificed to a desire to spare life. In so far as this criticism is concerned with the handling of their troops by British commanders, it is strenuously denied that either Lord Roberts, or any of his subordinates, allowed a desire to spare the lives of the troops under their command to interfere with the successful execution of any military operation. The specific example of the alleged interference of this motive, usually cited, is the conduct of the attack upon the Boer position at Paardeberg. In respect of these operations the actual facts, as they presented themselves to the mind of Lord Roberts, are these. On reaching the Paardeberg position from Jacobsdal the Commander-in-Chief found that in the operations of the preceding day Lord Kitchener had lost a thousand men without gaining a single advantage. The position held by the Boers, although it was commanded by rising ground on all sides, was one which afforded admirable cover in repelling an attacking force. In these circumstances Lord Roberts decided, as an application of the principles of military science, to "sap up" to the Boer positions. The correctness of this decision was proved by the result. The moment that the Boers realised that they were to be given no further opportunity—such as a repetition of a direct attack upon their position would have afforded—of inflicting heavy loss on the British troops, whilst their eventual surrender was no less inevitable, the white flag was hoisted.
[Footnote 200: I.e., less troops for lines of communication. Lord Roberts's force was 36,000, the Army Corps was 47,000.]
It is denied with equal definiteness that any general feeling of the kind alleged existed among subordinate officers or the rank and file of the British troops. Where, however, the allegation of "a desire to spare life" has regard to the enemy and not to the British troops, the answer is to be found in the fact that any humanity inconsistent with military efficiency was apparent and not real. The comparative immunity enjoyed by the enemy on occasions when he was defeated is due to physical conditions wholly favourable to the Boers, to the knowledge of the country possessed by the burghers individually and collectively, and to the circumstance that the inhabitants of the country districts were, in almost all cases, ready to give them every possible assistance in escaping from the British. There is one particular statement in connection with this criticism which admits of absolute denial. It has been said that Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief, received instructions from the Home Government directing him to spare the enemy as much as possible. This statement, in spite of its prima facie improbability, has met with very general acceptance. None the less it is entirely baseless. The only limitations imposed by the Home Government upon Lord Roberts's complete freedom of action in the conduct of the military operations which he directed were such as arose from the difficulty experienced in supplying him upon all occasions with troops of the precise number and character required.
[Sidenote: The German general staff.]
The second criticism is one put forward by the German General Staff, forming, as it does, the only valid complaint against the professional merits of Lord Roberts advanced by that body. The British Commander-in-Chief, say these German critics, made it his object to "manoeuvre" the Boers out of positions instead of inflicting severe losses upon them. The answer to this criticism, in its general form, is to be found in the physical conditions of the country. On the occasions to which reference is made the burgher forces were found to be posted on high ground, behind rocks or in intrenchments, with fine open ground in front of them. Obviously in these circumstances what military science required of the commander directing the attacking force was to find a means of placing his own troops on equal terms with the enemy; and this was what Lord Roberts did. The criticism, however, as more precisely stated and applied to the battle of Diamond Hill in particular, and to the engagements fought in the course of Lord Roberts's advance from Bloemfontein to Pretoria, takes the form of the allegation that, while the enveloping movement on both flanks was executed successfully, the full result of this initial success was not obtained because the attack upon the Boer centre was not pressed home. In other words, the enemy's centre was never caught and destroyed by the envelopment of his flanks. This is historically true, and yet the German critics cannot be said to have established their case, for they omit to take the tactics of the Boers into consideration. Stated briefly, these were to hold on to a position and inflict such losses as they could upon the attacking troops, until the final assault became imminent; and then to mount their ponies and gallop away. Against such tactics as these, it would have been of no avail to push in a frontal attack with the certainty of incurring heavy loss, and without the chance of securing a decisive success. It would have been merely playing into the hands of the Boers.
Under such conditions all that was possible was to demonstrate against the Boer centre in the hope of holding them in their position, until the flanking columns should have nullified their mobility by cutting in on their line of retreat. The Boers, however, took every precaution against such an eventuality; and the result was generally, as stated by the German critics, that the Boers were "manoeuvred" out of their positions. But this does not prove that the course adopted by Lord Roberts was wrong; it merely proves the extreme difficulty of inflicting a severe defeat upon an enemy who declines to risk a decisive action, and whose mobility gives him the power to do so. The course advocated by the critics would have been equally barren of result, while the cost in lives would have been far greater.
[Sidenote: The Boers not in uniform.]
It remains to notice certain definite circumstances which caused the British Army in South Africa to be confronted by difficulties which no other army has been required to face. The Boers were accorded all the privileges of a civilised army, although at the same time they violated the most essential of the conditions upon the observance of which these privileges are based. This condition is the wearing, by the forces of a belligerent, of such a uniform and distinctive dress as will be sufficient to enable the other belligerent to discriminate with facility between the combatant and non-combatant population of his enemy. The fact that the burgher forces were not in uniform and were yet accorded the privileges claimed by civilised troops, was in itself a circumstance that increased both the efforts required, and the losses incurred, by the British Army to an extent which has not as yet been fully realised. In the operations which Lord Roberts had conducted in Afghanistan it was not the organised army but the tribesmen that had proved difficult to overcome. The Afghan army retreated, or, if it stood its ground, was defeated. But the tribesmen who "sniped" the British troops from the mountain slopes and from behind stones and rocks, who assembled from all sides as rapidly as they melted away, constituted the real difficulty of the campaign. In South Africa the burgher forces were army and tribesmen alike. Owing to the absence of any distinctive uniform the combatant Boers mingled freely with the British soldiers, and went to and fro among the non-combatant Boer population in the towns and districts occupied by the British. On one day they were in the British camp as ox-drivers, or provision-sellers, or what not, and on the next they were in the burgher fighting line. A single instance will serve to convey an impression of the complete immunity with which not merely the rank and file, but commandants and generals, entered and left the British lines. It is believed that on one night General Louis Botha slept in Johannesburg close to Lord Roberts, the British Commander-in-Chief. The next morning he left the town in company with some of the British troops. And in the Natal campaign it is notorious that the camps of the Ladysmith relieving force were swarming with Boer spies whom it was impossible to detect and punish. Even in the besieged town itself the utmost secrecy at headquarters did not always avail to prevent a timely intimation of a contemplated attack from reaching the enemy's lines. Add to this the fact that every Boer farmhouse throughout South Africa was an Intelligence Depot for the enemy, and it is easy to understand the facility displayed by the mobile and ununiformed Boer forces in evading the British columns.
Whether the humanity displayed by the British Government in thus recognising the burghers as regular belligerents, and in other respects, did not tend to bring about the very evil sought to be avoided is another question. It is quite possible to maintain that the comparative immunity from punishment and the disproportionate military success which the Boers enjoyed did in fact, by contributing to the prolongation of the war, ultimately produce a greater loss of life, and a greater amount of material suffering, than would have been incurred by the South African Dutch if the war had been waged with greater severity on the part of Great Britain. That it increased the cost of the war both in lives and in treasure to the British nation is obvious. But this is a consideration which does not affect any estimate of the merit or demerit displayed by the British Army in the field that may be formed either by British or foreign critics. In order to prove competency it is not necessary to show that no single mistake was made or that nothing that was done might not have been done better. No war department, no army ever has been or ever will be created that could come scatheless from the application of such a test of absolute efficiency. What we require to know is whether the same standard of efficiency was shown to have been attained in the War Office and in the Army as is required and obtained in any other branch of the public service, or in any successful or progressive undertaking conducted by private enterprise. The circumstances of the war were abnormal. From one point of view it was a civil war; from another it was a rebellion, and from a third it was a war between two rival military powers, each of whom desired to become supreme in South Africa. What the military critic has to consider is not so much how these circumstances arose, or whether they could have been changed or avoided by any political action on the part of Great Britain, but the degree in which the conditions imposed by them upon the British Army must be taken into account in applying the ordinary tests of military efficiency to the work which it accomplished in this particular campaign.
[Sidenote: Difficulties of the campaign.]
The nature of the difficulties presented by the vast extent of the theatre of war, the deficiency of means of communication, the imperfect cultivation of the land, the sparseness of the population and their hostility to the British, and the physical and climatic aspects of South Africa in general, have been broadly indicated in the passages taken from Lord Roberts's despatches. To pursue the inquiry further would be to travel beyond the scope of this work. That, however, there is nothing unusual in the fact that civilian forces, inspired by love of country and aided by physical conditions exceptionally favourable to themselves, should be able to offer a successful resistance to professional soldiers may be seen by a reference to one of the little wars of the seventeenth century. In the year 1690 twenty-two thousand French and Savoyard troops were sent by Louis XIV. to storm the Balsille—a rocky eminence mutatis mutandis the equivalent of a South African kopje—held by 350 Piedmontese Vaudois. Even so the besieged patriots made good their escape, and, owing to the sudden change in the politics of Europe brought about by the accession of William of Orange to the crown of England, actually concluded an honourable peace with their sovereign, Victor Amadeus of Savoy, a few days after they had been driven from the Balsille. Assuming that the British troops employed from first to last in the South African War were five times as numerous as the forces placed in the field by the Dutch nationalists—say 450,000 as against 90,000—we have here a numerical superiority which dwindles into insignificance beside the magnificent disproportion of the professional troops required to deal with a civilian force in this seventeenth-century struggle.
[Footnote 201: Any reader desiring to learn the particulars of this struggle is referred to the pages of the writer's The Valley of Light: Studies with Pen and Pencil in the Vaudois Valleys of Piedmont. (Macmillan, 1899). It may be added that Napoleon manifested a keen interest in the military details of the engagements between the French and Savoyard troops and the Vaudois. As regards the number of combatants on the Boer side. Lord Kitchener puts the total (from first to last) at 95,000 (Cd. 1790, p. 13). The Official History, however, gives, as the result of an elaborate calculation, 87,365 (Vol. I. App. 4).]
THE REBELLION IN THE CAPE COLONY
The direct share which Lord Milner took in the skilful disposition of the handful of British troops available at the outbreak of the war for the defence of the north-eastern frontier of the Cape Colony has been mentioned. The part which he played during the first period of the war in his relationship to the military authorities is sufficiently indicated by the words which appear in Lord Roberts's final despatch.
"This despatch," writes the Commander-in-Chief on April 2nd, 1901, "would be incomplete were I to omit to mention the benefit I have derived from the unfailing support and wise counsels of Sir Alfred Milner. I can only say here that I have felt it a high privilege to work in close communication with one whose courage never faltered however grave the responsibilities might be which surrounded him, and who, notwithstanding the absorbing cares of his office, seemed always able to find time for a helpful message or for the tactful solution of a difficult question."
That this is no conventional compliment, even in the mouth of so great a general as Lord Roberts, will appear from the fact that on one occasion—to be presently noted—Lord Milner's judgment did not entirely recommend itself at the moment to the Commander-in-Chief.
[Sidenote: An unnatural alliance.]
But such services, important as they were, are mere accidents in comparison with the volume of continuous and concentrated effort required to keep the machinery of administration available for the Imperial Government in a colony in which not merely the majority of the inhabitants, but the majority of the members of the Legislative Assembly, and half of the ministers of the Crown, were in more or less complete sympathy with the enemy. The Boer ultimatum, by making it impossible for the British Government to be any longer cajoled into an elusory settlement by Boer diplomacy, had relieved Lord Milner of a load of anxiety, and closed a period of unparalleled physical and mental strain. But it by no means brought Lord Milner's task to an end. The open rebellion of the Dutch subjects of the Crown, considerable alike in point of numbers and area, was not the most dangerous aspect of the state of utter disaffection, or rather demoralisation, to which the Cape Colony had been reduced by twenty years of Dutch ascendancy and nationalist propaganda. Just as before the ultimatum it was the influence, exercised by constitutional means, and ostensibly in the interests of the Imperial Government, over the Republics that brought the Salisbury Cabinet within measurable distance of diplomatic defeat; so, during the war, what was done and said by the Afrikander nationalists within the letter of the law constituted in fact the most formidable obstacle to the success of the British arms. If the Dutch in the Cape Colony had been left to themselves, their efforts to encourage the resistance of the Boers, in view of the rapid and effective blows struck by Lord Roberts, would probably have been without result. But unhappily their efforts stimulated the traditional sympathisers of the Boers in England to fresh action; and they were themselves stimulated in turn by the excesses of the party opposition which sprang into life again directly Lord Roberts's campaign had relieved the British people from any fear of military humiliation. Just as in the period before the war we found the Afrikander leaders striving to "mediate" between the Transvaal and the British Government; so now during the war we find them striving to "conciliate" the two contending parties. In both cases their aim was the same—to prevent the destruction of the Republics and the consequent ruin of the nationalist cause. As in the former case "mediation" was a euphemism for the diplomatic defeat of the British Government, so now "conciliation" is synonymous with the restoration of the independence of the Boers—that is, the renunciation of all that the British people, whether islander or colonist, had fought to secure. That any considerable body of Englishmen should have allowed themselves to become a second time the dupes of so coarse a political hypocrisy may well arouse surprise to-day; to a future generation it will seem almost incredible. The fact, however, admits of neither doubt nor contradiction. It is writ large in Hansard, in the Blue-books, and in the daily journals. The whole force of this strange and unnatural alliance between England's most bitter and most skilful enemies in South Africa and a section of her own sons at home, was directed against Lord Milner during the remaining years of his High Commissionership.
[Sidenote: Mr Schreiners's attitude.]
For the moment, however, the ultimatum had rendered the British people practically unanimous in the desire to chastise the insolence of the Boer, and, in the face of this determination, no opposition was manifested by the Afrikander Government to the free movement and disembarkation of the Imperial troops. The employment of the local forces in the defence of the colony was another matter. The Free State commandos crossed the Orange River on October 31st, 1899. The delay was not due to any regard felt by President Steyn for Mr. Schreiner, but solely to military considerations. On the previous day General Joubert had shut up Sir George White's force in Ladysmith; and there was, therefore, no longer any likelihood that these commandos would be required in Natal. The invasion of the Colony south of the Orange River produced, as we have noticed, a marked change in Mr. Schreiner's attitude; causing him finally to abandon the neutrality policy and recognise the necessity of employing the local volunteer forces in the defence of the Colony. None the less the injury inflicted upon British interests by the Prime Minister's attempt to keep the people of the Cape Colony out of the conflict was unquestionable. The ministers of the Crown in this British Colony had allowed arms and ammunition to go through to the Free State, until the Imperial authorities had interfered; they had refused to supply Mafeking and Kimberley with much-needed artillery; they had refused to call out the volunteers until the Colony was about to be invaded by the Free State as well as by the Transvaal, and even then they had delayed to supply these forces with Lee-Enfield rifles. These were injuries the effect of which could not be repaired by any subsequent co-operation with the representatives of the British Government. In addition to calling out the volunteers, Mr. Schreiner allowed the Imperial military authorities to take over the Cape Government railways, and he consented to the proclamation of martial law in those districts of the Colony in which the Dutch were in rebellion. But he was far from yielding, even now, that full and complete assistance to the Governor which would have been expected, as a matter of course, from the Prime Minister of any other British colony. On one occasion, at least, during this period the conflict between his views and those of Lord Milner became so acute that his resignation seemed to be inevitable. But this was not to be the end of the Afrikander Ministry. In proportion as Mr. Schreiner approached gradually to agreement with Lord Milner, so did he incur the displeasure of Mr. Hofmeyr and the Dutch, until (in June, 1901) the Ministry perished of internal dissension.
A week after Lord Roberts reached Capetown (January 10th, 1900), Lord Milner sent home a despatch in which he tells the story of the rebellion in the Cape Colony. The state of the districts on the western border of the Republics, north of the Orange River, is described in the words of a reliable and unbiassed witness who has just arrived at Capetown from Vryburg, where he has been lately resident:
"All the farmers in the Vryburg, Kuruman, and Taungs districts," says this witness, "have joined the Boers, and I do not believe that you will find ten loyal British subjects among the Dutch community in the whole of Bechuanaland. The Field Cornets and Justices of the Peace on the Dutch side have all joined ... the conduct of the rebels has been unbearable."
Of the position of that part of the Eastern Province of the Cape Colony which, lying to the south of the Free State, formed the main seat of the rebellion, Lord Milner himself writes:
[Sidenote: Treatment of loyalists.]
"Within a space of less than three weeks from the occupation of Colesberg, no less than five great districts—those of Colesberg, Albert, Aliwal North, Barkly East, and Wodehouse—had gone over without hesitation, and, so to speak, bodily, to the enemy. Throughout that region the Landdrosts of the Orange Free State had established their authority, and everywhere, in the expressive words of a magistrate, British loyalists were "being hunted out of town after town like sheep." In the invaded districts the method of occupation has always been more or less the same. The procedure is as follows:—A commando enters, the Orange Free State flag is hoisted, a meeting is held in the courthouse, or market-place, and a Proclamation is read annexing the district. The Commandant then makes a speech, in which he explains that the people must now obey the Free State laws generally, though they are at present under martial law. A local Landdrost is appointed, and loyal subjects are given a few days or hours in which to quit, or be compelled to serve against their country. In either case they lose their property to a greater or less extent. If they elect to quit they are often robbed before starting or on the journey; if they stay their property and themselves are commandeered.
"The number of rebels who have actually taken up arms and joined the enemy during their progress throughout the five annexed districts can for the present only be matter of conjecture. I shall, however, be on the safe side in reckoning that during November it was a number not less than the total of the invading commandos, that is, 2,000, while it is probable that of the invading commandos themselves a certain proportion were colonists who had crossed the border before the invasion took place. And the number, whatever it was, which joined the enemy before and during November has been increased since. A well-informed refugee from the Albert district has estimated the total number of colonial Boers who have joined the enemy in the invaded districts south of the Orange River at 3,000 to 4,000. In the districts north of that river, to which I referred at the beginning of this despatch, the number can hardly be less. Adding to these the men who became burghers of the Transvaal immediately before, or just after, the outbreak of war, with the view of taking up arms in the struggle, I am forced to the conclusion that, in round figures, not less than 10,000 of those now fighting against us in South Africa, and probably somewhat more, either are, or till quite recently were, subjects of the Queen."
[Footnote 202: Cd. 264 (Despatch of January 16th, 1900).]
As it turned out, this eastern rebellion was kept within limits by General French's advance upon Colesberg, and by the skilful and successful cavalry operations which he subsequently carried out upon the Free State border; but there is abundant evidence to support the belief that any second reverse in the Eastern Province, such as that which General Gatacre suffered at Stormberg, would have proved the signal for a rising in the Western Province. The Bond was active; and the tone of the meetings held by the various branches throughout the Colony was as frankly hostile to the Imperial Government as it was sympathetic to the Republics.
[Sidenote: State of western province.]
The extent to which Mr. Schreiner's qualified co-operation with the Imperial authorities had aroused the hostility of the Bond will be seen from the minutes of the proceedings of the meeting of the Cape Distriks-bestuur, held at the office of Ons Land at the end of January (1900). It was a small meeting, but among those present were Mr. Hofmeyr himself and Mr. Malan, the editor of Ons Land. On the motion of the latter, it was unanimously determined that the forthcoming Annual Congress of the Bond should be asked to pass a—
"resolution (a) giving expression of Congress's entire disapproval of the policy which led to the present bloody war instead of to a peaceful solution of the differences with the South African Republic by means of arbitration; and (b) urging a speedy re-establishment of peace on fair and righteous conditions, as also a thorough inquiry by our Parliament into the way in which, during the war, private property, the civil liberties, and constitutional rights of the subject have been treated."
[Footnote 203: Cd. 261.]
Even more significant—as evidence of the dangerous feeling of exaltation which possessed the Dutch at this time—was the New Year's exhortation of Ons Land, the journalistic mouthpiece of Mr. Hofmeyr. And Mr. Hofmeyr, it must be remembered, was not only the head of the Commissie van Toezicht, or Executive of three which controlled the Afrikander Bond, but the real master of the majority in the Cape Parliament, upon which the Schreiner Cabinet depended for its existence. After setting out the "mighty deeds" achieved by the Afrikander arms during the last three months, this bitter and relentless opponent of British supremacy in South Africa proceeded to declare that "still mightier deeds" were to be seen in the coming year (1900), and that the Afrikander nation, so far from being extinguished by the conflict with Great Britain, would be welded into one compact mass, and flourish more and more.
Nor was this all. In the closing days of the year (1899) information reached the British military authorities that a plot was on foot to seize Capetown. The Dutch from the country districts were to assemble in the capital in the guise of excursionists who had come to town to enjoy the Christmas and New Year holidays. On New Year's Eve, the night reported to have been fixed for the attempt, all the military stations in Capetown were kept in frequent communication by telephone; the streets were paraded by pickets; and, in the drill-shed the Capetown Highlanders slept under arms. Whether any attempt of the sort was seriously contemplated or not, there is no question as to the fact that the utmost necessity for precaution was recognised by the military authorities at Capetown during this period, in spite of the security afforded by the reinforcements which the Home Government was pouring into the Colony. It was an old boast of the militant Dutch in the Cape Colony that they would find a way to prevent British troops from using the colonial railways to attack the Boers. And when at length, a month after Lord Roberts had arrived, the transport system had been reorganised, the troops concentrated at De Aar and Modder River, and everything was ready for the forward movement, the most complete secrecy was observed as to the departure of the Commander-in-Chief and Lord Kitchener. Instead of leaving for the front with the final drafts from the Capetown station in Adderley Street, amid the cheering of the British population, these two distinguished soldiers were driven in a close carriage, on the evening of February 6th, from Government House to the Salt River Station, where they caught the ordinary passenger train for De Aar.
[Footnote 204: At the time of the Bechuanaland Expedition (1884-5), when the writer was in South Africa, "a controversy was seriously maintained between the two moderate Afrikander journals, the Sud Africaan and the Volksblad, on the question whether the Imperial Government had, or had not, the right to send troops through the Colony, without the consent of the Colonial Ministry. In commenting upon this question a correspondent wrote in the Patriot, the extreme organ of the Afrikanders: 'I believe the Volksblad is correct in maintaining that England has that right. But if England has the right to send Rooibaatjes (i.e. British soldiers) to kill my brethren in the Transvaal, then I have also the right to try and prevent the same. My brother is nearer than England. England can send troops, but whether they will all arrive safely in Stellaland—that stands to be seen.'"—A History of South Africa, by the writer. (Dent, 1900.)]
[Sidenote: Lord Robert's advance.]
No one was more aware of the reality of the Dutch disaffection in the Colony than Lord Milner. Before Lord Roberts left Capetown for the front he addressed a memorandum to him, in which the attention of the Commander-in-Chief was drawn to certain special elements of danger in the whole situation in South Africa as affected by the rebellion of the Dutch in the Cape Colony. With reference to this memorandum Lord Roberts writes, in the second of his despatches (February 16th, 1900):
"Before quitting the seat of Government I received a memorandum from the High Commissioner, in which Sir Alfred Milner reviewed the political and military situation, and laid stress on the possibility of a general rising among the disaffected Dutch population, should the Cape Colony be denuded of troops for the purpose of carrying on offensive operations in the Orange Free State. In reply I expressed the opinion that the military requirements of the case demanded an early advance into the enemy's country; that such an advance, if successful, would lessen the hostile pressure both on the northern frontiers of the Colony and in Natal; that the relief of Kimberley had to be effected before the end of February, and would set free most of the troops encamped on the Modder River, and that the arrival of considerable reinforcements from home, especially of Field Artillery, by the 19th of February, would enable those points along the frontier which were weakly held to be materially strengthened. I trusted, therefore, that His Excellency's apprehensions would prove groundless. No doubt a certain amount of risk had to be run, but protracted inaction seemed to me to involve more serious dangers than the bolder course which I have decided to adopt."
[Sidenote: Lord Milner's proposal.]
There cannot, of course, be any question as to the general wisdom of this decision. Both in this case, and again in deciding to advance from Bloemfontein upon Johannesburg and Pretoria, it was just by taking his risks—risks that would have reduced a lesser man to inaction—that Lord Roberts displayed the distinguishing quality of a great captain of war. In both cases the best defence was to attack. But as Lord Roberts, in this brief reference, does not indicate the real point of the High Commissioner's representations, it is necessary to state with some precision what it was that Lord Milner had actually in his mind. The last thing which occurred to him was to advocate any course that could weaken our offensive action. But the peculiarity of the South African political situation, which enabled even a defeated enemy, by detaching a very small force, to raise a new war in our rear, in what was nominally our country, and thus to hamper, and possibly altogether arrest, the forward movement, was constantly present to his thought. The proposal which Lord Milner desired Lord Roberts to adopt was that a certain minimum of mobile troops should be definitely set aside for the defence of the Colony, and kept there, whatever happened; since, in Lord Milner's opinion, it was only in this way that a real and effective form of defence could be made possible, and the number of men locked up in the passive defence of the railway lines greatly reduced. If this suggestion had been carried out, as Lord Milner intended, there would have been no second rebellion. What prevented Lord Roberts from adopting the High Commissioner's suggestion was the numerical insufficiency of the troops at his disposal. In order to carry the war into the enemy's country, he had practically to denude the Cape Colony of troops. The subsequent course of the war will reveal the direct and disastrous influence which the situation in the Cape Colony was destined to exercise upon the military decisions of the republican leaders—an influence which would have been lessened materially, if not altogether removed, by the creation of this permanent and mobile force. And, in point of fact, Lord Milner's apprehension that the rebellion might even now interfere with the success of the forward movement, unless adequate provision was made to keep it in check, received almost immediate confirmation. While Lord Roberts was engaged in the capture of Cronje's force at Paardeberg, the north-midland districts of Prieska, Britstown, and Carnarvon, lying to the west of the railway from De Aar to Orange River, broke out into rebellion. Although Lord Roberts at once directed certain columns to concentrate upon this new area of disaffection, the situation had become so serious that on March 8th—i.e., the day after Poplar Grove, and in the course of the rapid march upon Bloemfontein—Lord Roberts—
"desired Major-General Lord Kitchener to proceed to De Aar with the object of collecting reinforcements, and of taking such steps as might be necessary to punish the rebels and to prevent the spread of disaffection."
[Footnote 205: Despatch dated "Government House, Bloemfontein, March 15th, 1900."]
That is to say, the disclosure of a new centre of active rebellion in the Colony deprived the Commander-in-Chief of the services of Lord Kitchener, his Chief-of-Staff, when he was in the act of executing one of the most critical movements of the campaign.
[Sidenote: The Boer peace overtures.]
The complete revolution in the military situation produced by Lord Roberts's victorious advance into the Free State elicited from Presidents Krueger and Steyn the "peace overtures" cabled to Lord Salisbury on March 5th, 1900. In this characteristic document the two Presidents remark that—