History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 1

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History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902.

by Frederick Maurice.

VOL 1.


The decision of His Majesty's late Government, mentioned on the first page of this history, was not finally given till November, 1905. It was, therefore, not till December 12th, 1905, that I was able to obtain approval for the form in which the political facts connected with the war are mentioned in the first chapter. Since then the whole volume has necessarily been recast, and it was not possible to go to page proof till the first chapter had been approved. Hence the delay in the appearance of the volume. I took over the work from Colonel Henderson in July, 1903. He had not then written either narrative of, or comments on, the military operations.


_May 22nd, 1906, London._




[Sidenote: Scope of history.]

The war in South Africa which began on October 9th, 1899, ended so far happily on the 31st May, 1902, that, chiefly in consequence of the tactful management of the negotiations with the leaders who then guided them, those who had till then fought gallantly against the British Empire agreed to enter it as subjects of King Edward. Under the circ.u.mstances, His Majesty's late Government considered it undesirable to discuss here any questions that had been at issue between them and the rulers of the two republics, or any points that had been in dispute at home, and to confine this history to the military contest. The earlier period is mentioned only so far as it concerns those incidents which affected the preparation for war on the part of Great Britain, and the necessary modifications in the plan of campaign which were influenced by the unwillingness of Her Majesty's Government to believe in the necessity for war.

[Sidenote: Situation Oct. 9th, /99.]

When, on October 9th, 1899, Mr. Kruger's ultimatum was placed in the hands of the British Agent at Pretoria the military situation was as follows. It was known that the Boer Governments could summon to arms over 50,000 burghers. British reinforcements of 2,000 men had been sanctioned on the 2nd of August for a garrison, at that date not exceeding 9,940 men; and on the 8th September the Viceroy of India had been instructed by telegram to embark with the least possible delay for Durban a cavalry brigade, an infantry brigade, and a brigade division of field artillery. Another brigade division and the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers were also ordered out from home. The 1st battn. Border regiment was despatched from Malta, the 1st battn. Royal Irish Fusiliers from Egypt, the 2nd battn. Rifle Brigade from Crete, and a half-battn. 2nd King's Own Yorks.h.i.+re Light Infantry from Mauritius. The total strength of these reinforcements, ordered on September 8th, amounted to 10,662 men of all ranks. On the same day, the 8th September, the General Officer Commanding in South Africa, Sir F. Forestier-Walker, was directed by telegram to provide land transport for these troops. For details see Appendix I.

[Sidenote: Total forces.]

The whole of these reinforcements, with the exceptions of the 9th Lancers and two squadrons of the 5th Dragoon Guards, whose departure from India was somewhat delayed by an attack of anthrax, a brigade division of artillery, the 1st Border regiment and the 2nd battalion Rifle Brigade, were landed in South Africa before the actual outbreak of war. Including 2,781 local troops, the British force in Natal was thus raised to 15,811 men of all ranks. In Cape Colony there were, either under arms or immediately available at the outbreak of war, 5,221 regular and 4,574 colonial troops. In southern Rhodesia 1,448 men, raised locally, had been organised under Colonel Baden-Powell, who had been sent out on the 3rd July to provide for the defence of that region. Thus the British total in South Africa, 27,054, was at least 20,000 smaller than the number of the burghers whom the two republics could place in the field, irrespective of any contingent that they might obtain from the disaffected in the two colonies. Early in June Sir Redvers Buller had been privately informed that, in the event of its becoming necessary to despatch an army corps to South Africa, he would be the officer to command it. On June 8th, the Commander-in-Chief had recommended that as a precautionary measure an army corps and cavalry division should be organised and concentrated on Salisbury Plain. He had proposed that one complete army corps, one cavalry division, one battalion of mounted infantry, and four infantry battalions to guard the lines of communication, should be sent out to South Africa, and he was most anxious that the expeditionary force should be a.s.sembled beforehand, so as to render it more effective for war purposes. The course of the negotiations which were then being carried on convinced Her Majesty's Government that any such step would tend to precipitate war, and, the weakness of our troops at the time in South Africa being such as it was, that it would be impossible to reinforce them before serious attack might be made upon them. Moreover, there was this further difficulty, that adequate attention had not been directed publicly to the circ.u.mstances in South Africa which caused anxiety to the Government.

[Sidenote: Causes of delay.]

It was always possible to think that the preparations for war on a large scale, which were undoubtedly being made both by the Transvaal and by the Orange Free State, were the result of the anxiety which had been caused to the rulers of those republics by the circ.u.mstances of the Jameson raid. Every attempt by any statesman at home to bring the facts, as they presented themselves to those behind the scenes, before the world, was open to the imputation of being deliberately designed to lead up to a war which it was intended to bring about. Thus it was the very weakness of our position at that time in South Africa which made it difficult to relieve the military danger. Any premature effort to place our power there in a condition of adequate security tended to suggest to foreign states that the movements made were directed against the independence of the two republics; tended to shake public confidence at home, and even to excite jealousy in our own colonies.

All through the long negotiations which were carried on during the summer and autumn months of 1899 it seemed better, therefore, to incur even some serious risk of military disadvantage rather than to lose that general support of the nation, whether at home or in the colonies, which would be secured by a more cautious policy, and to hope against hope that a peaceful solution might be reached.

[Sidenote: "Adequate strength."]

In one respect there would appear to have been a misunderstanding between the Government and their military advisers as to the sense in which the reinforcements sent to South Africa were sufficient for the temporary protection of our interests on the sub-continent. It is remarkable that in the evidence subsequently given by the soldiers, not only do they admit that they antic.i.p.ated beforehand that for this purpose the strength would be adequate, but that they a.s.sume, at the end of the war, that it had as a matter of fact proved so. This can obviously only be understood in the sense that the numbers then in South Africa were able to r.e.t.a.r.d the Boer operations until a large army was thrown into the country. On the other hand, Lord Lansdowne, describing what was evidently the meaning in which this language was understood by himself and his colleagues, says: "I am not a soldier, but I never heard of sending out reinforcements to a country which might become the theatre of war merely in order that the reinforcements might successfully defend themselves against attack; they are sent there, I imagine, for the purpose of securing something or somebody." And again: "I should say not sufficient to prevent raids and incursions, but sufficient to prevent the colonies from being overrun." It appears necessary, under its historical aspect, to draw attention to this discrepancy of view, because it is one that may be liable to repeat itself.

[Sidenote: Plans delayed.]

Another point influenced by the unwillingness of Her Majesty's Government to believe in the possibility of the Orange Free State, with which we had had for many years relations of the greatest friendliness, appearing in arms against us, was this: that it delayed for a very considerable time the determination of the general plan of campaign on which the war was to be carried on. Practically, supposing it became necessary to conduct an offensive war against the Transvaal, the choice of operations lay between a movement by way of Natal and one by way of the Orange Free State. Any advance by Natal had these serious disadvantages. In the first place, the mountain region through which it would be necessary to penetrate was one that gave very great advantages to the Boer riflemen. In the second place, it lay exposed, as soon as Northern Natal was entered, to attack throughout its entire length from the Orange Free State. On the other hand, the march by Bloemfontein opened up a country much more favourable for the operations of a regular army, whether that march, as was originally proposed, followed the direct line of railway through Bloemfontein, or, as it did ultimately, the railway to Kimberley and thence struck for Bloemfontein.[1] There remained, indeed, a third alternative, which had at one time been proposed by Lord Roberts, of a movement outside the Orange Free State through the north-western portion of Cape Colony, but this had ceased to be applicable at the time when war was declared. As a consequence of the uncertainties as to the ultimate att.i.tude of the Orange Free State, and the extreme hope that that State would not prove hostile, it was not till the 3rd October that Lord Lansdowne was in a position to say: "We have now definitely decided to adopt the Cape Colony--Orange Free State route. It is intended that a force of 10,000 men should remain in Natal, on which side it will make a valuable diversion; that about 3,000 should be detailed for service on the west side (Kimberley, etc.), and that the main force should enter the Orange Free State from the south."

[Footnote 1: See Chapters II. and III. for full discussion on the Theatre of War.]

[Sidenote: Limit of force.]

In all schemes for possible offensive war by Great Britain, subsequent to a memorandum by Mr. Stanhope, of 1st June, 1888,[2] it had been contemplated that the utmost strength which it would be necessary for us to embark from our sh.o.r.es would be that of two army corps with a cavalry division. Those army corps and the cavalry division were, however, neither actually, nor were they supposed to be, immediately ready to be sent out. To begin with, for their despatch s.h.i.+pping must be available, and this, as will be shown more in detail in a subsequent chapter, was a matter which would involve considerable delay and much preparation. During the time that the s.h.i.+ps were being provided it would be essential that the successive portions of the army for which s.h.i.+pping could be obtained should be prepared for war by the return to the depots of those soldiers who were not immediately fit for service, and by their replacement by men called in from the reserve to complete the ranks. None of these preparations could be made without attracting public attention to what was done. The reserves could not be summoned to the colours without an announcement in Parliament, nor, therefore, without debates, which must necessarily involve discussions which might be irritating to Boer susceptibilities at the very time when it was most hoped that a peaceful solution would be reached. It was not, therefore, till the 20th September that the details of the expeditionary force were communicated to the Admiralty by the War Office, nor till the 30th that the Admiralty was authorised to take up s.h.i.+pping. Meantime on September 22nd, a grant of 645,000 was made for immediate emergencies. On the 7th October the order for the mobilisation of the cavalry division, one army corps, and eight battalions of lines of communication troops was issued, and a Royal proclamation calling out the army reserve was published. Of the excellent arrangements made by the Admiralty a full account will be found hereafter.

[Footnote 2: "Her Majesty's Government have carefully considered the question of the general objects for which our army is maintained. It has been considered in connection with the programme of the Admiralty, and with knowledge of the a.s.sistance which the navy is capable of rendering in the various contingencies which appear to be reasonably probable; and they decide that the general basis of the requirements from our army may be correctly laid down by stating that the objects of our military organisation are:--

(_a_) The effective support of the civil power in all parts of the United Kingdom.

(_b_) To find the number of men for India, which has been fixed by arrangement with the Government of India.

(_c_) To find the garrisons for all our fortresses and coaling stations, at home and abroad, according to a scale now laid down, and to maintain these garrisons at all times at the strength fixed for a peace or war footing.

(_d_) After providing for these requirements, to be able to mobilise rapidly for home defence two army corps of regular troops, and one partly composed of regulars and partly of militia; and to organise the auxiliary forces, not allotted to army corps or garrisons, for the defence of London and for the defensible positions in advance, and for the defence of mercantile ports.

(_e_) Subject to the foregoing considerations, and to their financial obligations, to aim at being able, in case of necessity, to send abroad two complete army corps, with cavalry division and line of communication. But it will be distinctly understood that the probability of the employment of an army corps in the field in any European war is sufficiently improbable to make it the primary duty of the military authorities to organise our forces efficiently for the defence of this country."--(_Report of Royal Commission on the War in South Africa_, p. 225.)]

[Sidenote: The scheme of mobilisation.]

The scheme for mobilisation had been gradually developed during many years. The earliest stage was the appearance in the Army List of an organisation of the army in various army corps. This was chiefly useful in showing the deficiencies which existed. It had been drawn up by the late Colonel Home, R.E. In August, 1881, it was removed from the Army List.

[Sidenote: Various stages of scheme.]

Practically no mobilisation scheme really took shape until 1886, when Major-General H. Brackenbury,[3] on a.s.suming office as head of the Intelligence branch, turned his attention to the question. The unorganised condition of our army and the deficiency of any system for either home defence or action abroad formed the subjects of three papers,[4] in which he showed that, at the time they were written, not even one army corps with its proper proportion of the different departmental branches, could have been placed in the field, either at home or abroad, while for a second army corps there would have been large deficiencies of artillery and engineers, and no departments. For horses there was no approach to an adequate provision. The urgent representations contained in these papers were strongly taken up by Lord Wolseley, then Adjutant-General, and pressed by him on the Secretary of State for War,[5] with the result that a committee of two, Sir Ralph Thompson[6] and Major-General H. Brackenbury, was appointed to investigate the matter.

[Footnote 3: Now General the Right Honourable Sir Henry Brackenbury, G.C.B.]

[Footnote 4: Mobilisation reports, Numbers I., II. and III.]

[Footnote 5: The Right Honourable W. H. Smith.]

[Footnote 6: Then Permanent Under-Secretary of State.]

[Sidenote: Sub-division to carry out.]

Their enquiry was entirely confined to the question of obtaining the maximum development from the existing cadres. Their report was divided under three headings, the first of which dealt with the "Field Army,"

and laid down that two army corps and lines of communication troops was the field army which the regular troops, as they then stood, were capable of producing. The subjects of "Garrisons" and "Mobilisation for Foreign Service" were dealt with under the other two headings.

Ultimately a Mobilisation sub-division, which was transferred from the Intelligence department to the Adjutant-General's department in 1889 and to the Commander-in-Chief's office, in 1897, was created.

[Sidenote: 1890 to 1898.]

Working on the lines laid down, the mobilisation section first produced a complete scheme in 1890. Mobilisation regulations were issued in 1892. Further revised editions followed in 1894, and again in 1898. All were worked out on the basis of using what was available, and not what was needed.

[Sidenote: Scheme in 1899.]

In the spring of 1899, in antic.i.p.ation of possible events, the mobilisation section turned their attention to the requirements of a force for South Africa. Seeing that the regulations of 1898 dealt princ.i.p.ally with the mobilisation of the field army for service at home or in a temperate climate, considerable modifications, relating to such points as regimental transport, clothing, equipment, and regimental supplies, were necessary to meet the case of operations carried on in South Africa. Special "Regulations for the Mobilisation of a Field Force for Service in South Africa" were accordingly drawn up, with the object, not of superseding the Mobilisation regulations of 1898, but "in order to bring together, in a convenient form, the modifications necessary in those regulations." These regulations were completed, printed, and ready for issue in June, 1899. In their general application they provided for the preparation in time of peace of all that machinery which, on the advent of war, would be set in motion by the issue of the one word--"Mobilise."

[Sidenote: Success in practice.]

History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 1

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