February 8th, 1900
Sir Redvers Buller on Monday set out on his third attempt to relieve Ladysmith. He appears to have made a feint against the Boer position north of Potgieter's Drift, and, while there attracting the attention of the Boers by the concentrated fire of many guns, to have pushed a force of infantry and artillery across the river to the right of Potgieter's Drift. This force, of which the infantry belongs to Lyttelton's brigade, carried and defended against counter attack a hill called Vaal Krantz, at the eastern end of the Brakfontein ridge. To the east of Vaal Krantz runs a good road to Ladysmith, along which the distance from the Tugela to Sir George's White's outposts is about ten miles. To the east again of the road is a hill called Dorn Kop. Here the Boers have an artillery position which seems to command Vaal Krantz, and they probably have the usual infantry trenches. The Boer position then faces the Tugela and runs from Spion Kop on the west, the Boer left, to Dorn Kop on the east, the Boer right. Sir Redvers Buller's attack is an attempt to pierce the centre of this position.
To break the centre of an enemy's line, to pour your forces into and through the gap, and then roll up the more important of his divided wings, is an operation which if it can be successfully executed makes a decisive victory; if followed up it ruins the enemy's army. But it is in modern conditions the most difficult form of attack. The long range of modern weapons, of guns that kill at two miles and of rifles that kill at a mile--to take a moderate estimate of their power--enables the defender to concentrate upon any attack against his centre the fire of all the rifles in his front line for a couple of miles, and of all the guns standing on a length of four miles. A similar concentration of fire is only occasionally and temporary possible for the assailant, though if it should happen that the ground exposes a point of the defender's line to such concentric fire, while it protects some points held by the assailant, the attack would have a prospect of success. But the moment the point of attack is recognised by the defender he will collect every available battery and rifleman from all parts of his line and place them on that portion of his front which commands the path of the assailant. To prevent this the assailant must engage the defender along his whole line so that all the defending forces are fully occupied and there are none to spare for the critical point or region.
Sir Redvers Buller's task is rendered harder by the fact that his own troops before they can attack must cross the Tugela. He has two bridges at the point here supposed to have been selected for the main attack, but troops can hardly cross a bridge at a quicker rate than a brigade an hour, and as the Boers ride faster than the British infantry can walk, and as the British troops south of the river cannot effectually engage the Boers, it will not have been easy so to occupy the enemy along the whole front as to prevent his massing guns and rifles--at any rate rifles--to defend his centre.
So much for the initial difficulties, which seem by a combination of feint and surprise to have been so far overcome on Monday that the advanced British troops effected a lodgment in the centre of the Boer position, from which a counter-attack failed to eject them. The next thing is, as the British force is brought across the river, to attack one of the Boer wings while containing or keeping back the other. Before this, can be done the enemy's centre must really be pierced, so that troops can be poured through the gap to turn the flank of one of the enemy's divided halves. This piercing is most difficult in the conditions of to-day, for the enemy by establishing a new firing line behind the point carried by our troops may be able to enclose in a semicircle of fire the party that has made its way into the position. Against such an enveloping fire it is a hard task to make headway.
All these aspects of his problem a General thinks out before he starts; he does not make his attempt unless and until he sees his way to meet the various difficulties, both those inherent in the nature of the operation and those that arise from the local conditions and from the character of the particular enemy. The difficulties are therefore not reasons why General Buller should not succeed, but their consideration may help to show why with the best previous deliberation and with the bravest of troops he may perhaps not be able to break the Boer resistance.
There is one feature of his task that is perhaps not fully appreciated by the public. In order to relieve Ladysmith he must thoroughly defeat and drive away the Boer army--must, so to speak break its back. For, supposing he could clear a road to Ladysmith and march there, leaving the Boer army in position on one or both sides of his road, his position on reaching the place would be that he would have to fight his way back again, and that unless he could then defeat the Boers his Army would be lost, for it would be cut off from its supplies. The relief of Ladysmith and the complete defeat of the Boer army are therefore synonymous terms. There is, however, a sense in which a partial defeat of the Boers would be of use. If the Boer army, though not driven off, were yet fully absorbed in its struggle with Sir Redvers Bullet and had drawn to its assistance some portion of the force investing Ladysmith, it might be possible for Sir George White to make a sortie and to break through the investing lines. To that case, however, the term "the relief of Ladysmith" could hardly be correctly applied.
How far Sir George White can co-operate with Sir Redvers Buller depends partly upon the mobility of his force. His horses after three months in Ladysmith can hardly be in much condition, even supposing that they have not already begun to be used as food for the troops. Supposing there are horses enough for the field guns, and that the naval guns and mountain guns were destroyed at the last moment before the sortie. The men and the field artillery would then have to make a night attack, followed by a march of about seven miles in trying conditions, and by a second attack in which they would join hands with Sir Redvers Buller. This does not imply exertions impossible to troops like Sir George White's, and such a move perhaps offers the best way out of the difficulties of the situation. If in that case Sir George White made for the north side of Dorn Kop a part of the Boer army would probably be destroyed, and the loss which the British force would have suffered would thus to some extent be made up for. It is presumed that Sir Redvers Buller and Sir George White, who are able to communicate with one another, have a cipher which enables them to inform each other without informing the enemy.
Any plan which will unite Sir George White's force, or the bulk of it, with that of Sir Redvers Buller on the Tugela will simplify the whole problem of the War. Lord Roberts is preparing for an advance in force from the Orange River, which will sooner or later transfer the centre of gravity to the western theatre of War, in which the British troops will not be confronted by the difficulties of an unknown or very imperfectly known mountainous region. The movements now taking place in the Cape Colony are the preliminaries to that advance. The method, the only right method, is to use the reinforcements that have arrived--the sixth and seventh divisions--to secure a preponderance first at one point and then at another, instead of distributing them evenly over the whole area and the various points of contact. The idea would seem to be, first, to strengthen General French until he has crushed the Boer force with which he is dealing, then to use his troops to secure the defeat of the Boers who are opposing Sir William Gatacre, and then to cross the Orange River with three divisions and deal a blow against the Boer army that is now between the Riet River and Kimberley. This plan of beating in detail the Boer forces in the western theatre of war, if carried out so as to lead in each case to a crushing defeat of the Boers, would be the prelude to a collision between the main Boer army and a British force its superior in every respect. The first certain evidence that some such idea is at the foundation of the new operations may be hailed as the beginning of victory. For the present it is enough to know that the departure of Lord Roberts from Cape Town augurs the opening of an energetic campaign with that unity of direction in a strong hand which is the first element of success in war.