I just finished reading Churchill's book from "London to Ladysmith via Pretoria" on my Kindle. A great book. But, I got a little frustrated with reading about the generalship of Sir Redvers Buller. It seems he was fond of taking his time to prep for battle (worse than Monty in WWII), too much time it seems, and letting the initiative pass to the Boers.
With regards to the Relief of Ladysmith, he never had a clear understanding of the terrain/physical geography that he was facing. Never had a clear understanding of how to use recon and intel resources. Was fond of the frontal assault. His troops would take one hill, and then find there is a taller one behind it with more Boers or not. His artillery was never as good as the Staats Artillerie. The Boer artillery and riflemen always seemed to find the senior British officers and kill them. Furthermore, it seemed he was fond of taking a ridge or a hill, then sitting there, entrench, and resume "offensive" operations in a day or two. Thus, the giving plenty of time for the Boers to re-entrench and fortify new positions ahead of their troops.
Were most British Generals in this war like Buller? or is he a unique situation?
I think Buller and other British generals were slow to adapt to the new type of warfare they faced in South Africa in 1899. They had little regard for the Colonial mounted infantry under their command and used these men for patrolling and scouting only. I find it surprising that Buller was so hidebound, given his experience as a light infantryman in the Zulu War.
The value of light or mounted infantry in aggressive actions did eventually penetrate the minds of the British generals, hence the later order for such units to be trained in many, or most British infantry regiments serving in South Africa. It was largely a light horseman's war and there was little use for the British cavalry regiments and their by then antiquated method of engaging the enemy. Only the emergence of armoured vehicles in World War I saved the cavalry from the extinction that had been heralded by the Boer War.
I also think that the British high command greatly underestimated the determination and abilities of the Boers, an arrogance probably born of earlier experiences in putting down the opposition in so many of Victoria's little wars.
Brett makes some good points and I agree with him that the British generals were slow to realise the capabilities of the Boers and consequently started the war as they had done other Victorian conflicts, with an arrogant disregard of their foe. This can be seen in the approach of Generals such as Methuen, Penn Symons and, of course, Buller.
Some say that the generals who had fought in India were better prepared than the commanders who had experienced African warfare. Penn Symons had spent a long time in India and this does not hold true for him and there were other generals with very little field experience and were thus less prepared than their peers.
The happenings in those early days of the war in Natal do leave one wondering just what was going in the minds of Penn Symons, White, Hart, Buller, Warren etc when they plotted their engagements with Brother Boer.
I must confess as to having some empathy for Buller. He found himself inheriting a mess not of his making and political pressure dictating that he had to abandon his earlier plans to command the advance from the Cape and instead head to Natal to rescue white.
Buller had warned of and predicted that there would be a fiasco in Natal if the forces in Natal went beyond the Tugela. And that is precisely what Penn Symons & White did. Bullers transport requirements and logistics he had asked for had been delayed for weeks while Chamberlain, Lansdowne and others in the cabinet argued. Add to this the pettiness and jockeying between the Indians and Wolseley and his ring and you have a ripe recipe for disaster.
Buller certainly made errors and seemed at a loss as quite what to do. On his arrival in Cape Town he was confronted by Milner's alarmist predictions of a Cape Boer rebellion. Things couldn't have gone more badly in Natal and it wasn't long before he had Rhodes continually threatening to surrender Kimberley every time he thought Buller wasn't putting enough effort into its relief (Even Roberts had to change his plans to march on Bloemfontein fist before relieving Kimberley because of Rhodes).
Authors like Pakenham are quite sympathetic to Buller and tend to put his biggest failing as allowing his subordinates to continue in their commands even when they had made an absolute mess of things and thus make a bad situation even worse. Hart and Warren for example. Other authors dismiss Buller as hopelessly incompetent. Snook in "Into the Jaws of Death" for example, dismisses Buller as an incompetent drunken moron. But then Snook seems unable to use the words 'Boer', 'colonial' and 'irregular' without attaching some demeaning adjective. His overly simplistic opinions on the legality of the existence of the ZAR and the OFS would make Milner, Rhodes, Frere and Shepstone blush. The reality, as usual, can probably be found midway between the two extremes.
Buller, as with most of the British High Command seemed at a loss as to just quite how to counter this new type of warfare. Buller certainly dithered and he's been harshly criticised for it. Botha said of Buller that it was very difficult to know just where to concentrate his limited forces because at times he had no idea as to what the British were going to do next as they dithered aimlessly in their camps on the Tugela.
Buller made the mistakes that others could learn from so in a sense was a bit of a sacrificial lamb. It is clear that opportunities were missed like the failure to exploit the 'Colonial' success at Acton Holmes on 18 January 1900 for example. It didn't take long for Roberts to bump his head when he took over and De Wet half-crippled his transport. He learnt from it as he learnt from Buller's mistakes.
If another general would have done better than Buller under the circumstances when confronted with this new form of warfare is debatable. Buller lost his hard earned reputation in Natal. Churchill criticised Buller but he had his fiasco in the Dardanelles and lied his way out of the loss of Singapore and Malaya by knocking a zero off the size of the Japanese force and telling the world that 25 thousand Japanese had defeated 90 thousand British troops. All these commanders and leaders seem to make costly errors at some point. Some survive. Some don't. My sympathy is always for the poor soldiers that live and die in the mess.