March 1st, 1900
February has made up for the blunders of August and September, and retrieved the disasters of October, November, and December.
On Tuesday the 27th, Commandant Cronje with four thousand men, the remains of his army, surrendered to Lord Roberts at Paardeberg; the same day, Sir Redvers Duller attacked and carried the Boer position near Pieters, in front of Ladysmith, and on Wednesday the 28th, Lord Dundonald with two mounted regiments, entered Ladysmith.
The fighting in the Free State and in Natal has been simultaneous, and it may be worth while briefly to review the two campaigns. Lord Roberts set out from Modder River on Monday the 12th. On that day began the march of his force to the attack of Cronje. French with the cavalry seized Dekiel's Drift on the Riet and was followed by two infantry divisions. Next day, Tuesday the 13th, French was holding the drifts of the Modder, and on Thursday morning the sixth division was at Klip Drift. Thereupon French pushed on with his cavalry to Kimberley. The same night Cronje marched off between Kimberley and Klip Drift, making eastwards along the north bank of the Modder, which he was to cross near Paardeberg. But his march was discovered. He was followed and attacked on Friday the 10th by the advance guard of the sixth division, which detained him at the crossing of the river. The Highland Brigade made a forced march to intercept him on the south bank, and between Friday and Sunday, the 16th and 18th, he was surrounded and driven back into a position formed by the river banks. Here, from the 17th to the 27th, he held out against a bombardment, while the British forces, pushing their trenches gradually nearer, were preparing for an assault. Lord Roberts had brought up the bulk of his force, and parried with ease the attacks of two or three parties of Boers who came up in succession to Cronje's assistance; some of them having been sent for the purpose from Northern Natal. On Tuesday, February 27th, the anniversary of Majuba, Cronje surrendered.
The effects of this campaign against Cronje were felt at once in various parts of the theatre of war. The advance of Lord Roberts and the retreat of Cronje carried with them the relief of Kimberley. It drew away the Boers from the Colesberg district, so that on the 26th General Clements was able to enter Colesberg, which had been evacuated, and on the 27th, to move his troops forward from Arundel to Rensburg.
Lord Roberts had arranged for other action simultaneous with his own. On Friday, the 16th, General Brabant with his Cape Mounted Division attacked the Boers near Dordrecht and defeated them. A week later he was in Jamestown, the Boers were retreating towards the Orange River, and the rebels in Barkly East were asking for terms, receiving the answer that there were no terms but unconditional surrender.
On Wednesday the 14th, while French was leading the advance from Dekiel's Drift to the Modder, Sir Redvers Buller took Hussar Hill, north-east of Chieveley. Four days later, on Sunday the 18th, he fought a considerable battle at Monte Cristo, a point of the Inhlawe range, the capture of which turned Hlangwane Hill and led to its capture next day, Monday the 19th. On Tuesday the 20th, Buller's advance guard crossed the Tugela near Colenso. On Wednesday the 21st, the river was bridged, and three brigades crossed to the north bank. The fighting then became continuous. On Friday there was a determined attack by the Irish brigade upon a Boer position west of the railway near Pieters. The assault failed and the troops suffered heavily, but the British force maintained the general line of front which it had gained. On Monday the 26th, a fresh bridge was thrown across the Tugela, a mile or two east of the railway line, and on Tuesday the 27th, Pieters Hill, east of Pieters Station, in the prolongation of the Boer front, was stormed by General Barton, whereupon the whole British force renewed the attack in front upon the Boer positions west of the railway and carried them, dispersing the enemy. It now seems that this was the decisive attack, for the next evening, Wednesday the 28th, Dundonald with two mounted regiments was in Ladysmith, and to-day Sir Redvers Buller with his Army Corps moved forwards towards Nelthorpe, the last railway station before Ladysmith.
On Wednesday morning Sir Redvers Buller reported a considerable force of the enemy still on and under Bulwana Mountain, to the east of Ladysmith. His task and that of his Army Corps is to inflict what damage he can upon that force of the enemy, taking from Sir George White whatever assistance that officer and his troops can give, and leaving to the auxiliary services the work of attending to the sick and wounded in Ladysmith and the provisioning of the troops and the town. A part of Sir George White's force is, no doubt, still fit for action so soon as its supply of cartridges can be renewed. The most effective plan would probably be to leave a strong rearguard at Nelthorpe, and to push on with the main body and the bulk of the artillery through Ladysmith to the assault of one of the Boer positions on the north side of the town. This would compel the Boers to abandon Bulwana, perhaps to leave behind their heavy guns; would, if successful, prevent their retreat by the direct road into the Free State, and might greatly embarrass or, at least, harass their retreat through the Biggarsberg.
The defeat of the Boer army in Natal and the relief of Ladysmith is a great blow to the Boer cause. It frustrates the hopes of the Boers for the one great success on which they were to some extent justified in counting, and makes an end of their plan of campaign.
A few days will be needed to repair the railway from the Tugela to Ladysmith, and to build a temporary railway bridge at Colenso. By that time the force of Sir George White and Sir Redvers Buller will be rested, refreshed, and reorganised, forming an army of from thirty-five thousand to forty thousand men. In the Free State Lord Roberts has probably forty-five thousand. The collapse of the Boer invasion of Cape Colony points to the early reopening of the railways from Naauwpoort and Sterkstrom to Norval's Pont and Bethulie, the repair of the railway bridges over the Orange River, and the concentration at Bloemfontein of sixty thousand men, with the railway from the Orange River working and guarded behind them, possibly with a new line of railway from Modder River or Kimberley to Bloemfontein as an additional resource. The advance of Lord Roberts with sixty thousand men to the Vaal River must open to Sir Redvers Buller the passes of the Drakensberg range from Van Reenen's to Lang's Nek, and between the two forces the Boer army must be crushed. The Boers may abandon the attempt at resistance by battle, and may confine themselves to the defence of Pretoria, to raids on the British communications, and to the various devices of irregular warfare. But the British forces will shortly have at their disposal as many mounted men as the Boers, so that even irregular warfare can but lead to their destruction in detail.
The only hope for the Boer cause now rests upon the intervention of other Powers, and the crucial moment for the British Government is at hand. That the Nation is resolved to brook no intervention is absolutely certain, and that it is ready to make great sacrifices and great efforts to resist any attempt at intervention seems equally beyond doubt. Has the Government appreciated either the needs of the situation or the temper of the Nation? Intervention if offered will be proposed suddenly, and foreign action, if it is contemplated at all, will follow upon the heels of the rejection of the proposals. If, then, fleets have still to be completed for sea, plans of campaign to be matured and adopted, and a Volunteer Army to be improvised, the great war will find us as unready and as much surprised as did the supposed small war five months ago.
The measures required are, first of all, to settle the distribution of fleets for all eventualities, to commission every ship in the navy and to have all the fleets ready in their intended stations, so that only an order by cable may be needed to set them to work; secondly, to have all the coast defences manned and ready thirdly, to have the volunteer brigades encamped in the defensive positions round London, for which they are destined; and, lastly, but not least, to have the rest of the forces at home encamped near great railway centres as field divisions of regulars, field divisions of militia, and field divisions of volunteers, with ammunition, transport and supplies attached to them. If these measures had already been carried out there would be no intervention. If they are now carried out without loss of time, intervention may be prevented. If they are much longer postponed intervention becomes probable; the great war may be expected, and no man can foretell whether the British Empire, if again taken by surprise and unready, can weather the storm.