January 11th, 1900
The arrival of Lord Roberts at Cape Town announces the approaching beginning of a new chapter in the war, though the second chapter is not yet quite finished.
The first chapter was the campaign of Sir George White with sixteen thousand men against the principal Boer army. It ended with Sir George White's being surrounded in Ladysmith and there locked up.
The second chapter began with the arrival of. Sir Redvers Buller at Cape Town. It may be reviewed under two headings: the conception and the execution of the operations. When Sir Redvers Buller reached the Cape, the force which he was expecting, and of which he had the control, consisted altogether of nearly sixty thousand regular troops, besides Cape and colonial troops. There was an Army Corps, thirty-five thousand, a cavalry division, five thousand, troops for the defence of communications, ten thousand, and troops at the Cape amounting to eight thousand, some of whom were at Mafeking and Kimberley. After deducting fourteen thousand men for communications and garrisons at the Cape, the commander had at his disposal for use in the field about forty-four thousand regular troops arranged as a cavalry brigade, seven brigades of infantry, and corps troops.
There were many tasks before the British general. Southern Natal was being invaded and had to be cleared of the enemy; the Cape Colony, too, had to be freed from its Boer visitors, and the rising of the Cape Dutch stopped. Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking were all awaiting relief, and last, but not least, the Boer armies had to be beaten, and the two Republics conquered. The strategical problem was how to accomplish all these tasks at once, if possible, and if that could not be done, to sort them in order of importance and deal with them in that order. The essential thing was not to violate any of those great principles which the experience of a hundred wars and the practice of a dozen great generals have proved to be fundamental. The leading principle is that which enjoins concentration of effort in time, space, and object. Do one thing at a time and do it with all your might. If the list of tasks be examined it will be seen that there is a connection between them all, and that the connecting link is the Boer army. Suppose the Boer army to be removed from the scene every one of the other aims would be easy of accomplishment. There would then be no invaders in either colony; Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking would be safe, and the troops in those places free to march where they pleased; the Cape rising could be suppressed at leisure, and the British general could at his convenience go to Pretoria and set up a fresh government. No other of the tasks had this same quality of dominating the situation; any one of them might be accomplished without great or immediate effect upon those that would remain. For this reason wisdom prescribed as the simplest way of accomplishing the seven or eight tasks the accomplishment of the first or last, the destruction of the Boer army. That army was in three parts: there was a fraction on the western border of the Free State, a fraction south of the Orange River, and the great bulk of the whole force was in northern Natal. Destroy the principal mass, and you could then at your leisure deal with the two smaller pieces. Everything pointed to an attempt to crush the Boer army then in Natal.
There were two ways of getting at that army which was holding Ladysmith in its grip. One was along the railway from Durban, one hundred and eighty-nine miles long; it was sure to bring the British Army face to face with the Boers at the Tugela. That point reached, either the Boers would stand to fight and, therefore, give the opportunity of crushing them, or they would retreat, in which case Ladysmith would be relieved, and the British force, strengthened by White's division, would be within three hundred miles of Pretoria. A great victory in Natal would save Natal, stop the Cape rising, and, if followed up, draw the Boer forces away from Kimberley and the Cape Colony.
The other way was to follow the railway line or lines from the Cape ports, to collect the Army on the Orange River and advance to Bloemfontein, and thence towards Pretoria or towards the western exits from the passes through the Drakensberg mountains. This plan, however, gave no immediate certainty of an opportunity to attack the Boer army. The British force could be assembled on the Orange River no sooner than on the south bank of the Tugela. But from the Orange River to Bloemfontein there would be a march of one hundred and twenty miles, and the Boer army was not at Bloemfontein. There was a probability that when the British force reached Bloemfontein the Boer army might leave Natal, but the probability did not amount to certainty; it rested upon a guess or hypothesis of what the Boer general or the Free State Government and its troops would think. Supposing, however, that these persons did not think as was expected; that they determined to complete the conquest of Natal (except Durban, which was protected by the fleet), and to keep their grip upon Ladysmith, at any rate until the British force was nearing the passes of the Drakensberg or crossing the Vaal, and then, but not till then, to retreat to Middleburg? In that case the purpose of the advance, the crushing of the Boer army, might be deferred for a very long time, and meanwhile every one of the minor tasks, except the relief of Kimberley and the repulse of the Free State invaders of the Cape, would be left over. Ladysmith might fall, and its fall stimulate the Cape rising and endanger the communications of the British force advancing north of the Orange River.
These were the two plans, and I confess that my own judgment at the beginning of November inclined to the former, though, as I am aware that most of those whose strategical judgment I respect hold a decided opinion the other way, I cannot be dogmatic. The prevalent opinion attaches more importance than I can persuade myself to do to the difficulties of the hilly and mountainous country of northern Natal. There is, moreover, a reserve imposed upon observers at home by our ignorance of the state of the transport services of the British forces. No concentration of troops is profitable if the troops when collected cannot be fed.
Subject to these reserves it may be said that Sir Redvers Buller at the beginning of November had to choose between two lines of operations, that by Natal and that by the Cape. The cardinal principle is that you must never divide your force between two lines of operations unless it is large enough to give you on each of the two lines an assured superiority to the enemy's whole force. Sir Redvers Buller's design, however, violated this principle. He neither determined upon action with all his might through the Cape Colony nor upon action with all his might through Natal, but divided his effort, directing four of his seven brigades to Natal and the other three towards the Orange River; half his cavalry brigade going to Colesberg, and a mixed force of the communication troops to Sterkstrom on the East London line.
This design gave no promise of effecting the dominant task, the crushing of the Boer army, though it aimed at grappling in detail with several of the subordinate tasks; but its execution proved as indecisive as its conception. In Natal the main force under Sir Redvers Buller himself completely failed in the attack on the Boer army at Colenso on December 15th; Lord Methuen's advance for the relief of Kimberley came to a standstill at the Modder River, and met with a serious repulse at Magersfontein; while the smaller parties of Gatacre and French have made little headway against the Free State troops and the rebellious Cape farmers.
The fifth division, the bulk of which was directed to Natal, has been added to Sir Redvers Buller's force, without having enabled him as yet to strike the decisive blow or even to prevent a determined assault upon Ladysmith by the Boer army. That assault is believed to be now impending, and its delivery will close the second chapter of the war. If Sir Redvers Buller can win his battle in Natal while Sir George White is still unconquered, the military power of the Boers will receive a great shock, and the issue of the war will no longer be doubtful, though its end may be distant. But if Sir Redvers Buller should again fail the result must be to leave Sir George White's force in extreme peril, to give the Boer forces the spirit of a veteran and victorious army, and to encourage the Dutch element at the Cape to take an active part against the British.
This is the situation which confronts Lord Roberts on his arrival at the Cape. The problem bears a general resemblance to that which Sir Redvers Buller had to solve at the beginning of November, but there are important differences. Lord Roberts has in hand only a brigade, the twelfth or first of the sixth division, which has just reached Cape Town; he has to expect the rest of the sixth division, the seventh, a possible eighth, and a considerable extra force of mounted troops and of artillery; but the arrival of these forces will be gradual, and he will have no mass of fresh troops until the beginning of next month. Even then he may not have the means of feeding on the march the newly-arrived divisions. Meantime a British victory in Natal would be more valuable, a British defeat there more disastrous than ever. The effort ought to be made if there is a reasonable probability of success, for though failure would have disastrous consequences, material and moral, the admission of helplessness involved in making no attempt would depress the hearts of the British troops perhaps as fatally as a lost battle.
The first decision required is whether Sir Redvers Buller's force is to try its fate once more. In all probability that decision has been made while Lord Roberts was at sea, and according to the event will be the situation with which the new Commander-in-Chief will have to deal. A victory in Natal will make his task easy; a failure will put before him a problem the fortunate solution of which would be a triumph for any commander.