January 18th, 1900
Yesterday began the action upon which in all probability depends the future course of the war. By the time these lines are in the reader's hands more will be known of the battle that can be guessed to-day by the wisest, though several days may pass before the result is fully known.
Sir Redvers Buller on Wednesday, the 10th, had under his command three infantry divisions, a cavalry brigade, some two thousand mounted infantry, and probably altogether about eighty guns. Clery's division consists of Hildyard's and Lyttelton's brigades; the third division, comprising Hart's and Barton's brigades, is not known to have had a commander appointed; Warren's division is composed of Woodgate's brigade and of half of Coke's brigade, to which another half may have been added by taking two battalions which have been some time in Natal, and belong neither to Clery's nor to the third division. The whole force ought to be thirty thousand strong for a fight, taking the division at nine thousand instead of ten thousand, for though there have been losses there have also been drafts to fill up gaps. A party of mounted troops probably one thousand strong is reported to have been detached a few days ago by rail to Stanger on the coast near the mouth of the Tugela, and thence to have disappeared on a mission of which the purpose is as yet unknown, though it looks like a raid upon the railway between Dundee and Newcastle. The strength of the Boers in Natal has never been accurately known, and the estimates differ widely, ranging from thirty-five thousand to more than double that number. Sir George White may have nine thousand effectives at Ladysmith and might be contained by fifteen thousand Boers, perhaps by a smaller number. There will, therefore, be available against Sir Redvers Buller a force on the lowest estimate about equal to his own, and possibly outnumbering it by two to one.
On Wednesday, the 10th, the British force started westward. No telegram as yet gives its distribution, but it is plain that Clery's and Warren's divisions moved out, together with the cavalry brigade and whatever mounted infantry had not been sent south. Hart's and Barton's brigades, or one of them, with a proportion of artillery may be assumed to have been left in the entrenchments which face Colenso and cover the British line of communications by the railway. On Thursday morning Lord Dundonald with the cavalry brigade and some of the mounted infantry was in possession of the hills overlooking Potgieter's Drift and of the pont or ferry-boat. The same day the infantry or the leading division, Clery's, was in the hills north of Springfield. Lord Dundonald's force commanded the river at Potgieter's Drift, and the crossing there was thus assured. A pause of four days followed: a pause probably not of inaction, but of strenuous preparation in order to make the final advance vigorous. During those days, no doubt, supplies would be accumulated at Springfield Bridge Camp, at Spearman's Farm, and at some point near to the next drift to the west. This would save delays when the advance began, for if the force depended upon magazines at Frere the transport would break down in the advance beyond the Tugela, whereas if the transport had in the later stages merely to start from the south side of the Tugela, the force could be kept supplied for a few days. Lord Dundonald was engaged in strengthening his position at Zwart's Kop, so that in any case there would be a secure retreat across the river if need be. The river itself seems also to have been properly reconnoitred.
The enemy's position could be seen four or five miles to the north, and he was known on Thursday to be strongly entrenched. A passage for Warren's division was chosen at Trichardt's Drift five miles above Potgieter's and near to Wagon Drift which is marked on the sketch map issued by the Intelligence Division. From Trichardt's Drift there is evidently a road leading into the Bethany-Dewdrop Road, and parallel to that which runs from Potgieter's Drift. On Tuesday, the 16th, Lyttelton's brigade of infantry with a battery of howitzers crossed the Tugela at Potgieter's Drift and gained a line of hills to the north, probably the edge of the plateau on which lies the Boer position. The telegrams say nothing of bridge-making at Potgieter's Drift, but are explicit as to the crossing of at least some of the artillery. On Wednesday General Lyttelton shelled the Boer position with howitzers and naval guns without drawing a reply. This silence of the Boer guns is correct for the defenders of a position, as a reply would enable the assailant to fix the position of the guns and to concentrate his fire upon them. The same day (Wednesday) Warren's division crossed the Tugela at Trichardt's Drift, and driving in the enemy's outposts secured a lodgment on the low wooded hills about a mile north of the river; this division, after its advance guard had crossed, was passed over by a pontoon bridge. The remainder of yesterday may have been spent in reconnaissance, bridge building--for an army that has crossed a river needs to have behind it as many bridges as possible--in bringing up all the forces destined for the battle, perhaps including Hildyard's brigade, and in making complete arrangements for the attack which was probably delivered this morning.
Sir Redvers Buller has aimed his blow in a right direction, for, if it can be delivered with effect, if he can drive the Boers back, their army will be in a perilous situation. The plan evidently is that while Clery's division holds the Boers in front, Warren's should strike upon their right flank. If, then, the combined attack of the two divisions forces the Boers back the situation would be that the Boer army would have to retreat eastward across the Klip River, its retreat in any other direction being barred by the defences of Ladysmith, by Warren's and Clery's divisions, and by the British force in the lines at Chieveley. In such a situation a forced retreat would be disastrous for the Boers, as Sir Redvers Buller's two divisions would be nearer to the Boer line of retreat through Glencoe than the Boer army.
Of the probabilities of success it would be rash to speak. But though numbers are against the British we must never forget the splendid qualities which British troops have displayed in the past and which, as the actions of this war have proved, are possessed by our officers and men to-day. The experiences of the last few weeks have taught them what are the formations to avoid and have shown them that they shoot at least as well as the Boers. We may, therefore, hope for victory even against numbers.
But even if Sir Redvers Buller finds positions as strong as that at Colenso, the Boers will probably be baulked of their prey, the garrison of Ladysmith. Sir George White has with him the flower of the British Army, and he does not mean to be reduced by degrees to the extremity of famine and helplessness. During Sir Redvers Buller's attack the Ladysmith's force will not be idle, but will attack the Boers who are investing the place. Signals must have been prearranged between the two commanders, and it can hardly be doubted that if and when Sir George White should have reason to believe that Sir Redvers Buller may be unable to force his way through the Boer positions he would himself set out to cut his way through the investing lines, and at whatever sacrifice to carry the remnant of his force into Sir Redvers Buller's camp, and thus to vindicate the honour of the British arms and the character of the British soldier.