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February 22nd, 1900

A week ago the news was that Lord Roberts had begun his movement, that he was moving with fifty thousand men against Commandant Cronje, and that General French with the cavalry division had crossed the Modder, the sixth and seventh divisions following him between the Riet and the Modder.

The great object was to strike down Cronje's force before it could receive help, and the design must have been to cut off his retreat to the eastward. On Thursday, the 15th, French marched from the Modder to Alexandersfontein, attacked the rear of the Boer line investing Kimberley, and in the evening entered the town. He had left the sixth division at the drifts of the Modder. This movement of French's appeared to imply that Cronje's army was known to be retreating to the west or north-west, and that French took the road through Kimberley as the shortest way to reach a position where that retreat could be intercepted. It could hardly be imagined that the move was made for the sake of Kimberley, of which the relief was assured whether Cronje stood to fight or retreated in any direction. The essential thing was to find where Cronje's force was--if it was at Magersfontein to surround it or drive it to the west; if elsewhere to delay it with the cavalry and pursue it with the infantry. But Cronje was not found. When French was in Kimberley, Cronje, retreating eastwards, passed through the fifteen miles gap between the town and Kelly-Kenny. Kelly-Kenny on Friday discovered this and set off in pursuit while French was following a Boer force retreating northwards, probably part of the force that had invested Kimberley. Kelly-Kenny shelled the Boer laager and captured a number of waggons, but the Boers retreated eastwards along the north bank of the Modder with Kelly-Kenny at their heels. To assist Kelly-Kenny French was recalled from the north, and Macdonald with the Highland Brigade pushed out by a forced march from Jacobsdal. Accounts differ as to the site of the fighting, but there was a three days' running fight, during which Cronje may have crossed the Modder and approached Paardeberg or may have been stopped on the north bank. The Boer reports, which imply at least that Cronje was hard pressed, were sent off before the finish, and the first British official reports, consisting only in a list of officers killed and wounded, show that each of the three infantry brigades had hard fighting with considerable losses.

Of eight infantry brigades with which Lord Roberts began his movement three were engaged against Cronje; one has probably been sent to Kimberley, with which town railway communication has been re-opened, so that it will be soon an advanced base for the Army. Lord Roberts, therefore, who was at Paardeberg on Monday evening, may have had with him four brigades or two divisions, representing twenty thousand men, besides the three brigades engaged, which represented before the battle something like fifteen thousand.

Of French and the cavalry division there is no report. The Boers publish a telegram from Commandant de Wet, who seems to have brought up reinforcements while Cronje's action was in progress on Sunday.

The Boer commander evidently counted on reinforcements from all quarters; a party from Colesberg cut off a British waggon train at the Riet on or about Friday, the 16th, and reinforcements from Natal arrived during Cronje's action. Lord Roberts has thus drawn the Boers away from the circumference towards the centre. He has lightened the tasks of Buller, Clements, Gatacre, and Brabant, but has thereby brought the chief load on to his own shoulders. It seems a misfortune that Cronje was able to escape eastwards from Magersfontein, though it would be wrong until full knowledge of what took place is obtained to assume that this could have been avoided.

Cronje, however, has not been able to make good his escape. A Renter's telegram from Paardeberg dated. Tuesday explicitly states that Cronje's force was enclosed and remained enclosed. Lord Roberts on Tuesday reported that after examination of the enemy's position by reconnaissance in force, he decided to avoid the heavy loss involved in an assault, but to bombard the enemy and to turn his attention to the approaching reinforcements. The result was that the reinforcements were driven off and dispersed with heavy loss to them and trifling loss to the British. This seems to have been effected on Tuesday. Boer prisoners reported that they have come from Ladysmith, and the commander of the reinforcements is said to have been Commandant Botha, who was last heard of at Spion Kop. On Tuesday also the shelling of Cronje's position is said to have induced him to ask for an armistice, which must be assumed to be the prelude to a surrender; at any rate the request would hardly be granted except to settle the terms of a capitulation or to enable the Boer general to be told that unconditional surrender was the only alternative to a continuance of the bombardment.

The advance into the Free State implied that Lord Roberts meant to take the benefit of acting on "interior lines," that is, in plain English, of getting in between his enemies and striking them in turn before they can unite or combine. This plan required him with his main body to attack the enemy's reinforcements in detail as they came up. In that way he secured time for the completion of the action against Cronje, and upon its favourable issue he will be master of the situation.

In Natal the situation has been changed by the action of Lord Roberts. The two Boer Republics are well aware that they must stand or fall together. Either the Boer Commander-in-Chief has decided to strike at Lord Roberts, in which case he must move the bulk of his force into the Free State, or he hopes to be in time to resist Lord Roberts after making an end of Sir George White. In the former case he must raise the siege of Ladysmith, for he cannot carry it on without a strong covering force to resist Sir Redvers Buller. Then there will be forty thousand British troops in Natal, whose advance will be almost as dangerous as that of Lord Roberts. In the latter case there can be little chance of a successful resistance to Lord Roberts, whose advance northwards from Bloemfontein would in due time compromise the safety of the Boer army. The reports do not enable us to feel sure which decision has been taken. Sir Redvers Buller's telegram of Wednesday to the effect that one of his divisions had crossed the Tugela and was opposed only by a rear guard looks very like a Boer withdrawal from Natal. A later unofficial telegram, describing a very strong position north of the Tugela held by the Boers to cover the siege, suggests that the Boer commander is again trying to lead his adversary into attack upon a prepared position. Each case has its favourable aspect. If the Boers are raising the siege the forces of Buller and White will in a few days be united, and need only good leading to force the passes and invade either the Free State or the Transvaal. If the Boers are determined to hold on to Ladysmith, they cannot effectively check the advance of Lord Roberts.

While the war is going on the Nation ought to set its military forces in order. The Militia should be formed into divisions for the field and be shipped off to manoeuvring grounds at the Cape; they can be brought home as soon as it is certain they will not be wanted. The Volunteers could soon be formed into an army if the War Office would carry out the measures which have for years been urged upon it by Volunteer officers. The first step is to give the officers the authority which has hitherto been withheld from them, so that by its exercise they may form their characters; the second to give them the best instruction and encouragements to learn; the third to find them ground for ranges, for field firing and for manoeuvres. A minister of war who combined knowledge of war and of the Volunteers with a serious purpose would be able in two months to infuse the whole Volunteer force with the right ideal, and then, by mobilising them for another two months, to transform them into an army. It is for the Navy and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to secure the four months that are needed.

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Category: Wilkinson: Lessons of the war
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