Lord Roberts had almost as much difficulty in bringing Buller out of Ladysmith as he had had in putting him into it. The relieved garrison, wasted and enfeebled by the rigours of the siege, was unfit to take the field, but there does not seem to have been any good reason why the relieving force, or at least a portion of it, should not have been pushed forward boldly without delay. The inaction invited the retreating enemy to halt and occupy the Biggarsberg Range; only a few days after Buller had informed Lord Roberts that he did not expect that any stand would be made south of Laing's Nek. Buller did indeed propose on March 3 to advance on Northern Natal, as well as to attack the Drakensberg passes leading into the Free State; but Lord Roberts thought the scheme premature and ordered him to remain on the defensive, to police the country adjacent to the Harrismith railway with the greater part of his available force, and to send one division round by way of East London to join the central advance under Gatacre. Warren's Division therefore left Ladysmith on March 6. White, to whom Lord Roberts had intended to give a command in the Free State, was compelled by ill health to return to England. The order to "remain strictly on the defensive" was afterwards not unreasonably quoted by Buller in justification of two months of inaction, which, however, Lord Roberts ascribed to other causes, as he had agreed to subsequent proposals made by Buller for offensive action.
The Boers on the Biggarsberg at first numbered about 15,000, but by the end of March many commandos had been attracted away by Lord Roberts' advance to more strenuous fields. Some time passed without any definite action having been agreed upon between Lord Roberts and Buller. The latter objected to almost every proposal made by the former, and sometimes even on reconsideration criticized his own proposals. He was allowed to recall the Vth Division, which after a brief absence rejoined his command; but even with it he protested against an advance on Van Reenen's Pass, which he had himself proposed and which he was instructed to make at the beginning of April, because Lord Roberts would consent to the employment of one division only in it. Lord Roberts did not insist on the movement, as Buller now said that it would endanger not only his own force, but also Natal; and finding that Buller had far more troops than he could usefully employ, ordered him to send the Xth Division under Hunter round to Kimberley. Even after its departure Buller outnumbered the enemy by more than five to one.
He was still haunted by the troubles of the Tugela, and was unable to nerve himself for the risks that every leader must run. The Boers bewildered him. He could plan no scheme without a conviction that somehow their "knavish tricks" would frustrate it, and his inactivity made him more prone than ever to brood over possible mischances. He remained in Ladysmith because it was the only course open to him after he had by a process of elimination considered and rejected all the alternatives. Each of them had its disadvantages and its dangers, therefore it were better to stay where he was. During a critical period the Natal Army was of as little use to Lord Roberts as were the Spanish contingents to Wellington in the Peninsula; and its laggard action retarded the progress of the war. Lord Roberts laid his plans for the advance on the assumption that it would be in operation on his right flank when he reached Pretoria, and if L. Botha had found it pressing on him when he was playing at peace-making in June, instead of engaged in equally fruitless negotiations with his brother 180 miles away at Laing's Nek, it is improbable that he would have continued the struggle.
On May 2 Lord Roberts informed Buller that he was ready to start from Bloemfontein, and that he expected the Natal Army to co-operate with him by attacking the Boers on the Biggarsberg, and then advancing towards the Transvaal. For this movement Buller considered that his force, which consisted of three divisions of infantry and three brigades of mounted troops, in all about 45,000 men, was insufficient; but he proceeded to carry it out. The Boers were in occupation of the whole line of the Biggarsberg from Helpmakaar westwards, and commanded the roads as well as the railway running through the range.
Buller on this occasion determined rightly upon a turning movement. All his previous attacks had either been frontal or had been made so by the enemy. His plan was to move eastwards with the IInd Division under Clery, while the Vth Division under Hildyard, who succeeded Warren when the latter was called away to Bechuanaland, advanced up the railway against the Boer centre. The IVth Division under Lyttelton, composed of the infantry which had been in Ladysmith during the siege, was kept in reserve pending the development of the turning movement, which began on May 11, and was skilfully conducted by Buller and was entirely successful. Places and rivers which had not been named in the chronicle of the war since October of the previous year now emerged from their obscurity. Elandslaagte became the fulcrum of an aggressive operation. Sunday's River and the Waschbank River after an interval of seven months were again crossed by British troops, not, like Yule's force, in hasty retreat, but in confident advance.
The Boers prepared for, and fully expected, a direct advance on Beith by way of Van Tender's Pass, but Buller made for the extreme flank of the range near Helpmakaar, which they held but lightly. It was rendered untenable on May 13, and after dark they retired on Beith, setting fire to the veld to mask the movement and hinder pursuit. At dawn Dundonald pushed on through the flames and smoke with his mounted infantry, but was checked by a body of Irish traitors who were acting as rearguard to their flying employers, and was unable to come up with the burghers. On the following night his patrols reported that Dundee was clear, and Buller occupied the town and reached Newcastle on May 18. The success of the turning movement was due in a great measure to a small force under Bethune, which had been lying for some months lower down the Tugela, and which Buller called up to threaten Helpmakaar from the south while he advanced from the west. It had been originally detached to protect his right flank during the advance on Ladysmith, and after long inaction as a watching force was restored to the strenuous campaign.
Of the rest of Buller's troops, one portion only, namely Hildyard's Division, was actively engaged in the movement. Its menace to the Boer centre near Glencoe, through which passed the railway to the north, attracted commandos away from the enemy's left flank at Helpmakaar and facilitated the turning movement. Lyttelton's Division and two cavalry brigades, which although Buller had informed Lord Roberts that he "was short of his proper strength" for the advance he had left behind near Ladysmith, took no part in it; and the absence of the cavalry allowed the enemy to retreat without molestation. The advance of Hildyard's Division was retarded, not by opposition, but by the duty which fell upon it of repairing the railway along which it advanced, and it did not reach Newcastle until May 27. On the 23rd Lytteltonand most of the cavalry were ordered up from Ladysmith.
As soon as Buller reached Newcastle he sent on Dundonald to reconnoitre the Laing's Nek position. On the west it was flanked by Majuba Hill, on the east by Pougwana, and was found to be strongly held. He therefore decided to make no further advance until he had concentrated his force at Newcastle. The cutting edge of the reconstructed Natal wedge had not as yet sufficient substance behind it to warrant its being put into operation. Pending the assembly of the Army Buller prodded across the Buffalo at Vryheid and Utrecht in order to safeguard his right flank. The expedition against the former town was ambushed and compelled to retire; while the two strong columns which were sent against Utrecht were hardly more successful. The town did indeed profess to surrender, but no garrison was left to enforce the submission, and on the withdrawal of the troops the Boers hovering in the hills returned like birds who have been temporarily scared out of their nests.
By the end of May, Buller's Army was concentrated in the northern corner of Natal. Towering over his left front was the Drakensberg Range through which Botha's Pass runs into the Orange Free State; on his right front was the Buffalo River with a difficult country beyond; and on his front was Majuba of ill-omened memory and Laing's Nek, over which the road to Volksrust and the Transvaal passed.
Buller remained at Newcastle for eighteen days, of which three were an armistice during negotiations for surrender with C. Botha, who was unable to accept the terms offered. On June 5 the advance was resumed, Laing's Nek being the immediate objective. At first Buller proposed to attack it directly, but soon after reaching Newcastle he found that the enemy was unassailably established on the position, and that it must be turned either from the east or from the west. The former movement would involve a wider detour through difficult country to the line of advance which would be taken up after the Transvaal was entered, and the western movement through Botha's Pass was therefore selected. Lord Roberts had for some time been in favour of it, but he had intended that it should be more than a mere turning operation. His advance from Bloemfontein had driven many of the commandos into the N.E. corner of the Free State, and he asked Buller to cross the Drakensberg and take them in rear by passing into the Transvaal by way of Vrede; but Buller could not be persuaded to remove himself so far from the railway. He had already missed an opportunity of co-operating with the main advance by a westward movement from Ladysmith to Van Reenen's Pass along the railway to Harrismith, where the presence of a division of the Natal Army would have been of the greatest use. The relations between Lord Roberts and Buller during the Natal campaign were rather those of leaders commanding the armies of allied nations than of superior officer and subordinate.
Thus the westward movement, instead of being a helpful operation at large in support of the main advance, was whittled down to the turning of Laing's Nek. Between Botha's Pass and Laing's Nek the dominant contours roughly assume the outline of a sickle and its handle, the Pass being at the end of the handle and the Nek near the point of the blade. Within the curve of the blade stands the high Inkwelo Mountain facing Majuba Hill, and at the upper end of the handle is a mountain of less elevation called Inkweloane. The Ingogo River, which rises near the Pass, is flanked on its right bank by Van Wyk's Hill, which commands the eastern approach to the Pass, and on its left bank by Spitz Kop, a detached hill of the main range.
Inkwelo had been held for some days by a portion of Clery's Division. The Boers occupied Spitz Kop and the ridge from Inkweloane to the Pass and a short section beyond it, but their line was thin. The Vryheid and Utrecht affairs had deceived them into the belief that an eastward turning movement was in contemplation. On June 6 Van Wyk's Hill was occupied by Hildyard and held against the enemy on Spitz Kop, who attempted to dislodge him; and by the following morning artillery had been brought up, and the Pass and the enemy's position on the adjacent crestline were commanded. These on June 8 were carried by an infantry movement in echelon with loss of two men killed. Spitz Kop offered no resistance. A fusillade broke out on Inkweloane, but Dundonald's brigade soon quenched it by a determined ascent up alpine slopes to the crestline As at Helpmakaar the enemy set fire to the grass and passed away behind a veil of smoke.
The capture of Botha's Pass was an affair which did credit to Buller. It showed that since Colenso he had learnt how to use artillery, and his disposition of his guns was admirable. They rendered the enemy's position untenable and left little but hard climbing to the infantry. It can hardly be termed a battle, it was rather an autumn manoeuvre engagement, conducted on Lord Roberts' principles. A very important position was won and the enemy driven back with scarcely the shedding of a drop of blood on either side. Hildyard was in executive charge of the operations.
Thus, after eight months' fighting, the main body of the Natal Army was at last in bivouac in the enemy's country. Buller had taken Botha's Pass with three infantry and two cavalry brigades; and with these he made for his next objective, the town of Volksrust in the Transvaal, a few miles north of Laing's Nek, which Clery at Ingogo was watching from the south. Lyttelton was posted on the left bank of the Buffalo watching the right flank of the advance.
Buller's operations in the Free State lasted two days only. On June 10 he engaged a small body of the retreating enemy and entered the Transvaal. In front of him was the Versamelberg, a spur of the Drakensberg, over which the road from Vrede to Volksrust passes at Alleman's Nek, where 2,000 Boers with four guns had taken up a very strong position. The road rises to the Nek between heights, and the initial movements of the attack had to be made across two miles of open veld. The burghers had not had the time, or did not think it necessary, to strengthen the position artificially, but they were observed throwing up some entrenchments when Buller approached.
His bivouac on June 10 was at the Gansvlei Spruit on the Transvaal-Free State border, and next day at dawn he resumed his march on Volksrust. No serious opposition was encountered until early in the afternoon, when Dundonald, who was operating on the right front, came under artillery fire from the Nek. The infantry, whose left flank was watched by Brocklehurst with a cavalry brigade, was then ordered to advance, the objective of the 2nd Brigade under E. Hamilton being the ridge on the left of the Nek, and that of the 10th Brigade under Talbot Coke the ridges on the right of it, the 11th Brigade under Wynne being kept in reserve.
The advance was made under a heavy and worrying but not very effective fire from each section of the ridge. The key of the position proved to be a conical hill on the right of the road at the entrance to the Nek. The Dorsets of Coke's brigade gallantly climbed the slopes, and aided by artillery fire carried it with the bayonet. The fight, however, was far from ended. The Boers beyond remained until the shells which had been pouring on the conical hill followed them to the crestline. Then again the Dorsets threw themselves upon the enemy, and by sunset the heights on the right of the Nek were in possession of Coke. Almost simultaneously E. Hamilton established himself on the left of it. The resistance offered to Dundonald on the right flank was more effective; and as between him and his immediate opponents the day waned upon an uncertain issue. He had driven them out of successive positions though not actually off the ridge; but the occupation of the Nek made further opposition useless and they withdrew during the night.
The capture of Alleman's Nek rendered Laing's Nek untenable, and Clery closing up from Ingogo next day found it abandoned. The enemy had evacuated the whole of the Majuba-Laing's Nek-Pougwana position, leaving scarcely so much as a wagon behind him, and was retreating northwards. The westward turning movement was tactically a success but strategically a failure. With three brigades of mounted troops under his orders, including some regiments of regular cavalry which were lying idle at Ladysmith and elsewhere, Buller made no attempt to cut off the retreating Boers. A daring raid, such as had been twice made by French on the Modder four months before, concurrently with the Botha's Pass operations would have had a good chance of crushing C. Botha; and Brockleburst's cavalry, which during the attack on the Nek was working somewhat widely on the left flank, might well have been sent to bar the way. The ponderous movements of Buller were in strange contrast to the activity of his ally Lord Roberts. The Natal Army made its way through the country like an elephant trampling through a sugar-cane plantation.
On June 13 Buller entered Volksrust and next day established his Head Quarters at Laing's Nek. Wakkerstroom, a town which threatened his right flank, surrendered pro formâ to Lyttelton on June 13, and again to Hildyard four days later; and no doubt would have been equally ready to accommodate itself to the wishes of any other column sent to it, but after each surrender it reasserted itself, and Buller was obliged to leave it in charge of the commandos.
With the occupation of Laing's Nek the Natal campaign, which had lasted eight months, came to an end, and Buller, having left a strong force under Lyttelton in charge of Natal, passed up the railway to Heidelberg; where on July 4 he for the first time came into physical touch with the main Army under Lord Roberts. By a curious coincidence he here met Hart's Brigade of the Xth Division, which had left his command three months previously at Ladysmith, and which had in the meantime marched up from Kimberley.
Lord Roberts' plan for the Natal Army was that it should march across the veld to the Delagoa Bay railway and co-operate in his movement to clear the Eastern Transvaal. The Brandwater Basin surrender relieved the railway in Natal from immediate danger and allowed the ample force holding it to be reduced. At the end of July Buller was instructed to lead 11,000 of his men across a sparsely populated country where no railway was. It was for him a novel phase of warfare. Hitherto he had hardly dared trust himself out of sight of a culvert. But he was a man from whom the terror of the unknown very soon passed away when he had no choice but to face it. In Natal he would have stood aghast at a suggestion that he should cut away his moorings and be wafted by the winds of war for ten days or more across a strange ocean. If hitherto he had been nec celer nec audax now he became at least audax. Lord Roberts had imbued him with the progressive spirit. He raised no difficulties of his own, and he encountered those arising out of the situation resolutely and successfully. His army was strung out upon the railway from Ladysmith to Heidelberg; his transport was still organized regimentally, a system which had hampered Lord Roberts' movements and was soon abolished in the main body; and oxen, mules, and wagons were scarce. For infantry he chose the IVth Division under Lyttelton, and for cavalry the brigades under Brocklehurst and Dundonald.
On August 7 Buller's column quitted the Natal line;48 its destination being Belfast on the Delagoa Bay line, along which Lord Roberts was now advancing.
Its progress may be compared to the course of a steamer across an unquiet ocean. The waves raised by a fresh gale on the starboard bow were cleft by the stem, only to reunite behind the churn of the propeller. They were powerless to abridge the day's run by many miles, but they could still swing forwards to the shore. On one occasion the ship was slowed down to a standstill by a fog.
The waves were the commandos of the district, most of which had retired under C. Botha from the Laing's Nek positions. Buller had not much difficulty in dealing with them as obstructions to his advance, and in succession he occupied Amersfort, Ermelo, and Carolina; but they soon returned to their stations. His own inclinations would probably have persuaded him to halt and smash them, but he was marching against time between two widely separated bases. Near Carolina on August 14 he came in touch with French, who was acting with Lord Roberts' eastward movement from Pretoria, and from that date the operations of the Natal Army were merged in those of the main Army, and came under the immediate direction of the Commander-in-Chief.
A scheme proposed by French and sanctioned in substance by Lord Roberts, for an immediate cavalry turning movement round the left flank of the enemy, who was strongly posted astride the railway near Belfast; in conjunction with a central infantry advance to be made by Buller and Pole-Carew, whose Division was within reach, was discountenanced by Buller, and a simple frontal movement was substituted for it. Its practicability was doubtful owing to the marshy character of the ground.
On August 25 Buller, French, and Pole-Carew entered Belfast, where they were joined by Lord Roberts.
i.e. the section of the railway from Johannesburg to Natal which is in the Transvaal.