November 1st, 1899
The first week's campaign, dimly seen through scanty information, gives a peculiar impression of the two armies. The British force seems like an athlete in fine training but without an idea except that of self-preservation, while the Boer army resembles a burly labourer, clumsy in his movements, but knowing very well what he wants. The British force at first is divided upon a front of forty miles, each of its halves looking away from the other, so that there is little attention to the weak point of such a front, the communication between its parts. The first event is the cutting of this communication (on the 19th), and not until the 21st is there an attempt to clear it, and that attempt, though it leads to a severe blow against the interposing Boer force (Elandslaagte), is not successful, for the communication has eventually to be sought on another route behind the direct one. The Boer idea is, after severing the connection between the British halves, to crush the weaker Dundee portion; but the execution is imperfect, so that Sir Penn Symons has the opportunity, which he seizes instantly, to defeat and drive off one of the columns before the other can assist it. His successor, General Yule, the heir to his design, is no sooner convinced by this move to Glencoe that his line of junction with Ladysmith is threatened with attack by a great superiority than he sets out by the nearest way still open to him to rejoin the main body. The Ladysmith force covers this march by a shielding movement (Reitfontein) and the junction of the two British halves is effected. From Dundee to Ladysmith is forty miles, and General Joubert unopposed would have covered the distance in three days. He was before Dundee on Saturday, the 21st, and there was no sign of him before Ladysmith until Saturday, the 28th, or Sunday, the 29th. The original division of the British force and the Battle of Glencoe thus produced a delay of several days in the Boer advance: more could not have been expected from it. This first impression ought to be supplemented by a consideration of Sir George White's peculiarly difficult position, on which I will venture a word or two.
The Government, by its action in the first half of September, decided that Sir George White must defend Natal for about five weeks[A] with sixteen thousand men against the bulk of the Boer army, which was likely to be double his own force. It was evidently expected that he should hold his ground near Ladysmith and thereby cover Natal to the south of the Tugela. This double task was quite disproportionate to his force. If Ladysmith had been a fortress, secure for a month or two against assault, and able to take care of itself, the field force using it as a base could no doubt have covered Natal. But in the absence of a strong place there were only two ways by which a small force could delay the Boer invasion. The force might let itself be invested and thereby hold a proportion of the Boer army, leaving the balance to raid where it could, or the campaign must be conducted as a retreat from position to position. For a general with ten thousand men and only two hundred miles of ground behind him to carry on a retreat in the face of a force double his own so as to make it last five, weeks and to incur no disaster would be a creditable achievement. Sir John Moore is thought to have shown judgment and character by his decision to retreat before a greatly superior force, commanded it is true by Napoleon himself. Moore when he decided to retreat was about as far from Corunna as Dundee is from Durban, and Moore's retreat took nineteen days. He had the sympathy if not the effective help of the population, and was thought to have been clever to get out of the trap laid for him. Sir George White seems to have been expected as a matter of course to resist the Boer army, to prevent the overrunning of Natal by the Boers, and to preserve his own force from the beginning of October to the middle of November.[B] The Government expected the Boers to attack as soon as they should hear of the calling out of the Reserves, that being the reason why the Reserves were not called out earlier. Therefore Sir George White's campaign was timed to last from October 9th to November 15th (December 15th). I conclude that the force to be given to Sir George White was fixed by Lord Lansdowne at haphazard, and that the calculations of the military department were put on one side, this unbusinesslike way of playing with National affairs and with soldier's lives being veiled from the Secretary of State's mind by the phrase, "political reasons." But the "political reason" for exposing a Nation's troops to unreasonable risks and to needless loss must be bad reason and bad policy. Mr. Wyndham has had the courage to assert that there was no haphazard, that his chief knew quite well what he was doing, and that "the policy which the Government adopted was deliberately adopted with the fullest knowledge of possible consequences." If these words in Mr. Wyndham's speech of October 20th mean anything, they mean that Lord Lansdowne and Mr. Wyndham intended Sir George White to be left for a month to fight against double his number of Boers; that they looked calmly forward to the terrible losses and all the risks inseparable from such conditions. That being the case, it seems to me that it is Mr. Wyndham's duty, and if he fails, Lord Lansdowne's duty, to tell the country plainly whether in that deliberate resolve Lord Wolseley was a partner or an overruled protester. Ministers have a higher duty than that to their party. The Nation has as much confidence in Lord Rosebery as in Lord Salisbury and the difference in principle between the two men is a vanishing quantity. A change of ministry would be an inconvenience, but no more. But if the public comes to believe, what I am sure is untrue, that the military department at the War Office has blundered, the consequences will be so grave that I hardly care to use the word which would describe them.
I accept the maxim that it is no use crying over spilt milk or even over spilt blood, but the maxim does not hold when the men whose decision seems inexplicable are in a position to repeat it on a grander scale. The temper of the Boers as early as June left no doubt in any South African mind that if equality of rights and British supremacy were to be secured it would have to be by the sword. The Government alone among those who cared for the Empire failed to realise this in time. That has been admitted. The excess of hope for peace has been condoned and is being atoned for on the battlefields of Natal. But to-day the temper of Europe leaves no room for doubt that, in case of a serious reverse in Natal, Europe if it can will interfere. Have Mr. Goschen and Lord Lansdowne worked out that problem, or is there to be a repetition in the case of the continental Powers--an adversary very different from the Boers--of patience, postponement, and haphazard? It is not the situation in South Africa that gives its gravity to the present aspect of things, but the situation in Europe. Upon the next fortnight's fighting in Natal may turn the fate not merely of Natal and of South Africa, but of the British Empire. That this must be the case was plain enough at Christmas, and has been said over and over again. Yet this was the crisis which was met by sending to the decisive point a reinforcement of ten thousand men to do the best they could along with the six thousand already there during a five weeks' campaign.
After reconnaissance on Friday and Saturday (October 27th-8th) Sir George White, finding a large Boer force in front of him at Ladysmith, determined to hit out on Monday. Suppose Ladysmith to be the centre of a compass card, the Boers were spread across the radii from N. to E. Sir George meaning to clear the Boers from a position near N.E. prepared to move forward towards N.E. and towards E., sending in each direction about a brigade of infantry and a brigade division of field artillery. He sent two battalions and a mounted battery towards N. The party sent to N. started after dark on Sunday; the other parties, making ready in the night, set forward at dawn. There was no enemy in position at N.E. The force sent towards E. pushed back a Boer force, which retreated only to enable a second Boer force to take the British E. column in flank--apparently its left flank. The N.E. column had to be brought up to cover the retirement of the E. column. When these two columns returned to Ladysmith the N. column was still out. Long after dark Sir George White learned that the N. column, which had lost its battery and its reserve rifle ammunition by a stampede of the mules, had been surrounded by a far stronger Boer force, had held its ground until the last cartridge was gone, and that then the survivors had accepted quarter and surrendered.
Sir George White manfully takes upon himself the blame for this misfortune. His portentous blunders were in sending out the party to a distance and in taking no steps to keep in communication with it or to support it. The detachment of a small party to a distant point is a habit of Indian warfare. It is out of place against an enemy of European race, for the detachment is sure to be destroyed if the enemy has a capable commander. Every man in the Ladysmith force will have felt on Tuesday that the commander had make mistakes which he ought not to have made. The question is what effect this consciousness will have upon the spirits of the force.
Sir George White was reinforced before and during the action, a battalion of rifles having arrived in the morning and a party of bluejackets with heavy quick-firers coming up during the day. Further reinforcements were sent towards him from the squadron after the action, so that his force is still about sixteen thousand. If he does not elect to retreat, a course which might demoralise the troops, he may well be able to defend Ladysmith until relieved; but the first business of the troops now on their way out will be to relieve him, and until that has been arranged for, it is to be feared that Mafeking and Kimberley must wait.
[Footnote A: Thirteen weeks, as we now (March) know from the official correspondence.]
[Footnote B: I should have said December.]