History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 48

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[Footnote 301: The "regimental" system was, however, retained by the force under Sir R. Buller until the break up of the Natal army, in October, 1900.]

[Footnote 302: Mule companies had 520 mules; ox companies, 1,600 oxen.]

[Sidenote: Difficulties in practice.]

Some difficulties naturally arose. By the abolition of regimental transport the services of the regimental officers and non-commissioned officers. .h.i.therto employed on that duty were regained by their corps, but were lost to the transport department. The personnel of the Army Service Corps was not equal to the demands thus made upon it, and it was found necessary to allot two transport companies to one company of Army Service Corps, and to attach to these so-formed companies officers of other branches as they happened to be available. Moreover, to ensure the requisite amount of mule-transport for the combatant portion of the troops that of bearer companies and of field hospitals was cut down. In the former the number of ambulances was reduced from ten to two, and for the latter only two wagons could be allowed in place of four. On the other hand, owing to fear of a scarcity of water on the intended march, the number of water-carts with the medical units was doubled. The mule-transport was speedily a.s.sembled at the places ordered. The concentration of the ox-transport for convoy purposes took a longer time, but partly by rail and partly by march route it was completed soon enough to enable the Field-Marshal to carry out his plan of operations.

[Sidenote: Supplies on the coast ample. The difficulty of getting them forward and distributing them.]

Owing to the efforts of the Quartermaster-General's department of the War Office, a steady stream of supplies had, since the beginning of the war, been poured into the country, and had removed all anxiety as to the possibility of food or forage running short at the coast. The difficulty was the transmission of these up country simultaneously with the troops and their equipment. Arrangements were made by the railway staff which enabled sufficient quant.i.ties to be forwarded from the sea bases and to be acc.u.mulated at Orange River, De Aar, and at depots between the Orange and Modder rivers. For the forward move into the Orange Free State two days' supplies were to be carried by the men and two days' in the mule-transport allotted to brigades; the brigade supplies were to be filled up from convoys moving in rear of the troops, and for this purpose some five hundred ox-wagons, carrying ten days' rations and forage, were a.s.sembled.[303]

[Footnote 303: The cavalry division was accompanied by a supply park on the old system.]

[Sidenote: Separation of supply and transport.]

These changes foreshadowed the separation of supply and transport into two departments, a separation which, shortly after the advance into the Free State had begun, was carried out by the transfer of Major-General Sir W. G. Nicholson from the appointment of Military Secretary to that of Director of Transport. Colonel Richardson still continued to have charge of supplies.

[Sidenote: Increase of heavy artillery.]

Meantime, steps were taken to improve the artillery equipment of the army in South Africa. Prior to the war it had been ascertained by the Intelligence department that the Boers had in their possession several 150 m/m Creusots and a battery of 120 m/m howitzers, but the c.u.mbersome carriages on which the former weapons were mounted had led to the belief that they were intended solely for use in the forts and positions near Pretoria and Johannesburg. The howitzers had been cla.s.sified in the intelligence reports as field artillery armament, because in the year before the war the French, Austrian, and German armies had added howitzers to their field equipment. The enterprise of the Boers in bringing 150 m/m (6-in.) guns into the field at the outset of the campaign formed in a sense a new departure in modern warfare, although in 1870 fortress guns had been taken from Belfort and used in the fighting on the Lisaine. On the receipt of Sir George White's report that one of these guns had been employed against the troops at Dundee, telegraphic orders, at the suggestion of Major-General Sir John Ardagh, were sent out by the War Office to Cape Colony to insure the immediate despatch to Natal of two 63-in. R.M.L.

howitzers, lying at King William's Town, the property of the Cape Government.[304] The arrangements made by the Naval Commander-in-Chief for the despatch to the front of Naval contingents, placed at the disposal of the military authorities, both in the western and eastern theatres of war, a number of long-range guns which, in the skilled hands of the officers and men of the Royal Navy and Marines who accompanied them, rendered valuable service. The War Office also took immediate action to reinforce the arm. On the 9th of December a battery of four 47-in. Q.F. guns, manned by a company of R.G.A., was despatched from England to South Africa, together with eight 6-in.

B.L. howitzers, which formed part of the approved siege train of the army. On the 22nd two companies with eight 5-in. B.L. followed. On the 22nd January two more companies with eight 47-in. Q.F., mounted on 6-in. howitzer carriages, were embarked for the Cape, and supplemented on the 28th by six additional guns of the same type, intended to replace any naval guns which might be showing signs of deterioration.

On the 3rd of February another batch of eight 5-in. B.L. guns, accompanied by two companies R.G.A., left Southampton in order to relieve some of the naval contingents; on the previous day a battery of four 945-in. B.L. howitzers had been embarked with the necessary personnel. The only further additions made during the war to the heavy armament were four 6-in. howitzers sent out at Lord Roberts' request on 27th April, 1900, and two 5-in. B.L. guns despatched at the end of the same year to replace two which had become unserviceable. With the exception of the howitzers the whole of these guns were taken from forts. Carriages for them were improvised by the Ordnance department.

The use by the Boers of the 37 m/m Vickers-Maxim Q.F. guns,[305]

nick-named "pom-poms" by the men, was met by the despatch of forty-nine of these weapons from England. Another important change was the introduction of a longer time-fuse for use with field guns. The regulation time-fuse at the outbreak of the war burnt in flight for twelve seconds only, suited to a range of 4,100 yards for the 15-pr.

B.L. guns and 3,700 yards for the 12-pr. B.L. Experiments had been already made by the Ordnance Committee to obtain a satisfactory time-fuse effective for longer ranges, and on receipt of reports of the extreme distance at which the Boers were using their field artillery, these were rapidly pushed on, with the result that by the middle of January fuses capable of burning twenty-one seconds, corresponding to a range of 6,400 yards, were sent to South Africa.

[Footnote 304: As will be seen in the account of the siege of Ladysmith (Vol. II.), these howitzers arrived in time and proved most useful.]

[Footnote 305: It was known before the war that the Boers had purchased a considerable number of "pom-poms." The artillery authorities of the army did not at that time attach much importance to them, but, as their fire was found to produce great moral effect, guns of this type were sent out at Sir R.

Buller's request.]

[Sidenote: Railway system.]

At no time was a heavier call made on the personnel and material of the Cape Government railways than during the concentration for Lord Roberts' advance into the Free State. At an early date an organisation for the control of the transport of troops and stores by rail had been inst.i.tuted, and had gradually been perfected by experience.

Lieutenant-Colonel Girouard, R.E., the Director of Railways, had arrived with a staff of fifteen officers at Cape Town towards the end of October, 1899, and had, under the orders of the General Officer Commanding the lines of communication, initiated a system based on the principle that it was the controlling staff's duty to keep in close touch with the permanent traffic officials of the railway and to act as intermediaries between them and the military commanders. Much to his satisfaction, the Director of Railways had found on his arrival that "all the British lines were in good working order and administered by a highly loyal, capable, and enthusiastic staff prepared for any emergency, including risks of war."[306] In conjunction with this permanent staff, of whom Mr. C. B. Elliott was the General Manager and Mr. T. R. Price the Traffic Manager, uniformity of military administration throughout the whole railway system of Cape Colony was speedily established.[307] The technical working of the railways was left entirely in the hands of the civil officials, supported and protected by the military controlling staff from interference by officers or men. Repairs to the line were undertaken by the railway troops of the R.E.,[308] with such of the British employes of the Orange Free State railway as had not, at the outbreak of the war, been absorbed into the permanent staff of the Cape Government railways. The number of skilled artisans thus available was insufficient for the reconstruction of the Norval's Pont and Bethulie railway bridges and other extensive works which it was foreseen would be necessary in order to make good the damage done by the enemy in his retreat. The Director of Railways accordingly obtained leave to avail himself of the offer of Messrs. L. I. Seymour and C. A. Goodwin, leading mining engineers of Johannesburg, to form a corps of the miners and artisans, thrown out of employment by the war.

With the t.i.tle of the Railway Pioneer regiment, it was placed under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J. E. Capper, R.E., Messrs. Seymour and Goodwin being appointed wing commanders, having the rank of major.

The material needed for the construction of temporary bridges at Norval's Pont and Bethulie and for the rapid reconstruction of the permanent bridges at these points was, during the month of January, prepared.

[Footnote 306: General Report on Military Railways, South Africa, by Lieut.-Col. Sir E. P. C. Girouard.]

[Footnote 307: The conditions in Natal differed considerably from those in Cape Colony, and the system of railway administration was modified accordingly, but here, too, the military staff received the most loyal a.s.sistance in every way from Sir David Hunter and the rest of the civil staff.]

[Footnote 308: The 8th and 10th Railway Companies, 20th, 31st and 42nd Fortress companies R.E.]

Joubert's circular letter, referred to on p. 410 as having had great importance because it enjoined a pa.s.sive defensive att.i.tude on all Boer commanders at the very time when Lord Roberts was designing an active offence, ran as follows:--




It is obvious that England is exasperated that her army is not able, against the will of our G.o.d, to annihilate us and to overwhelm us as easily as they had expected. While they were governed and inspired by this thought, the name of Sir Redvers Buller was on the lips of everybody and his praise and prowess were elevated to the clouds. Now that our G.o.d and Protector has revealed His will, and Buller has not succeeded in crus.h.i.+ng the hated Boers, or, as Sir Alfred Milner has it, the Boerdom, and to subjugate them and to banish from the face of the earth the name which G.o.d, as it were, had given them--now they, instead of admitting and acknowledging their fault and looking for it in the right place, want to have a scapegoat, and for this purpose Sir Redvers Buller must serve; he is not brave enough, not wise enough; he is not strong and powerful enough to carry on the war for them against the will of the High G.o.d of Heaven and to annihilate the Africander in South Africa. Many a person now deems it well that Buller has been humiliated; but I have to say in regard to this that when I withstood General Colley in the same way in the War of Independence, he was urged to attempt a successful battle before his successor could arrive, as he would otherwise lose all military honour and fame. He was moved to such an extent that he acted on the suggestion, ascended Amajuba Hill, which is to-day still so intensely hated by the blinded Englishman and Jingo, where the Lord then said, "Thus far and no further." And now, my friends, you may suspect and expect that Mr.

Buller will receive the same advice, and that he may attempt to do as the late Sir George Colley had done. Therefore, he will issue orders either here at Colenso, at Ladysmith, Scholtz Nek, or elsewhere where there is an English force in South Africa, to attempt a successful action, either by means of a sortie or attack, or in some other way, in order, if possible, to regain his good name and military fame. For this reason we must, in firm faith in the help of our faithful and beloved G.o.d, be on our guard against such action. I very much fear a night attack, when our men are not alert and on their guard. The fright in case of a false alarm, when so much ammunition is blindly wasted, makes me fear that a disaster may be in preparation, and demonstrates that the burghers are not organised properly on outpost duty. On dark nights the outposts should be strengthened to such an extent that they could almost independently hold their position. In all cases at least the half of the outpost guard, if not two-thirds, must remain awake, so that the men are not aroused from sleep with fright and confusion, but, being on the alert, can independently offer defence. Therefore, let the words of our Lord be impressed on the mind of everyone: "Watch and pray, lest ye enter into temptation." Our enemy is not only powerful, but also artful, and treason is continually taking place, for it appears from the newspapers that the enemy is even cognisant of our most secret plans, and we cannot advance, but remain stationary, while the enemy is continually strengthening himself.

Your sincere friend,

P. J. JOUBERT, Comdt.-General.



[Sidenote: The intended stroke.]

The first stage in the realisation of Lord Roberts' plan of campaign must necessarily be the transfer to the neighbourhood of Lord Methuen's camp of the army with which it was his purpose to manoeuvre Cronje out of Magersfontein, to relieve Kimberley, and strike for Bloemfontein.

[Sidenote: The problem. How solved.]

The problem was to carry out this transfer without allowing the Boer General to suspect the design with which it was made, and, till this first movement was completed, in order to gain time for it, to keep him as long as possible uncertain whether the real advance would not be, as he had always. .h.i.therto supposed, along the railway which runs directly from Colesberg by Norval's Pont to Bloemfontein. Both purposes were accomplished with rare success. It becomes, therefore, in all ways interesting, as a study of the larger scope of the campaign, to realise by what means this result was secured. In all war, and in every campaign, so far as the two opposing commanders are concerned, it is the play of mind upon mind which is the ruling factor. To put himself in the place of the man whom he must outwit, if he is to give his soldiers the best chance of victory, is for each commander the essential preliminary. To take such steps as will tend to confirm that man in any false impressions he is known or reasonably suspected to have received, and to conceal as far as possible those measures which are preparing the way for the real stroke, are common characteristics of all triumphant achievement. The means by which the end is gained--reticence, the movement of troops in such a way as will suggest that they are placed with one object when, in fact, the posts chosen will make it easy to use them for another, the allowing of subordinate, even high, commanders, to misconceive, until it is necessary for them to know, why orders are given--all these are the well-tried methods. The fact that rumours spread almost automatically and quite invariably from camp to hostile camp, so that what is believed on one side largely affects belief on the other, is one of the fixed data on which much depends. The issue openly of fict.i.tious orders, cancelled by cypher messages, is another available means of throwing a cloud over what is being done. The art lies in applying these well-known principles to the particular case to be dealt with.

It will be found that in practice Lord Roberts took advantage of every one of them; but without a clear understanding of the methods which the long experience of war has taught those whose duty it is to study it, the underlying motive of much that has now to be described would not be clear.

[Sidenote: Causes tending to deceive Cronje.]

Many things tended to convince Cronje that it was along the railway direct on Bloemfontein that the march into the Free State would be made. The capture at Dundee, in October, 1899, of certain Intelligence department papers by the Boers had shown them that this had been the first design. During the weeks which had immediately followed Lord Roberts' appointment to command, when, though he had not reached Cape Town, at least the wider scope of manoeuvres might be supposed to be directed by him, or to be in accordance with his wishes, the only fierce fighting which had taken place was round Colesberg, and much of it suggested a wish to secure the pa.s.sage of the Orange river at Norval's Pont, an obvious necessity if the great movement was to be made along the Colesberg--Norval's Pont--Bloemfontein route. Outside Natal this continued, after Lord Roberts arrived, to be even more the case, and so far as Cape Colony was concerned, the distribution of troops showed Norval's Pont as the central point of the front of attack. Lord Methuen's line of communications, supply and reinforcements through Orange River station marked the left, Gatacre's slowly gathering division the right, and French, now close to Norval's Pont, the centre. Without delaying the progress over Orange River bridge, it was possible to strengthen the conviction in Cronje's mind that it was at Norval's Pont that danger threatened.

[Sidenote: and means taken to hoodwink him.]

In the first place, the great number of wagons, horses and stores which had to be pa.s.sed up under the protection of Lord Methuen's division, and of the troops immediately engaged in guarding the line, needed ample time, and, as it was not easy for the Boers to distinguish between what was required for Lord Methuen's army and the acc.u.mulations that were being made for a very different purpose, this necessary preparation for the decisive move was not likely to attract much notice. If, therefore, a freshly-arrived division were sent to French's neighbourhood, say from Port Elizabeth to Naauwpoort junction, since its coming there was sure to be reported to the Boers, it would not merely meet the need for having a reinforcement for French available in case of emergency, which, as will be seen further on, was the reason a.s.signed at the time by Lord Roberts for sending it, but it would help to confirm the idea that it was towards Norval's Pont that the whole concentration was trending. The division and the whole of French's command could be kept in this district to the last moment, because of the cross railway which from Naauwpoort junction runs to connect the railway from Port Elizabeth with that from Cape Town to Kimberley. The troops moving up by this the most westerly line would draw the less attention as long as the force at and near Colesberg was formidable and active. When the right time was come--that is, as it worked out, when French handed over to Clements those who were to remain round Colesberg--all the rest, including the new division, could be carried from Naauwpoort junction and so on towards the Riet, being, during their pa.s.sage, far in rear of the fighting line around Colesberg. It will be easily seen from the map how greatly the trace of the railways facilitated the removal of strong bodies from the Naauwpoort--Colesberg region to the Kimberley railway, the whole movement being screened by the fighting forces left round Colesberg.

[Sidenote: Further causes of success.]

Cronje himself was a Transvaaler, and his princ.i.p.al line of supply ran northwards through the ground held by the besiegers of Kimberley.

Although, therefore, many of those under him were from the Orange Free State and likely to be disturbed by a movement against Bloemfontein, any such danger appeared to be remote as long as the Orange river, both at Norval's Pont and Bethulie, was in the hands of the Boers. His retreat northwards was at all events quite secure. The reports of the arrival of ever increasing numbers south of Lord Methuen's camp seemed to imply that, whatever might be done elsewhere, his entrenchments were to be again attacked, and as he wished for nothing better than this, he very naturally interpreted the information he received in accordance with his hopes. It was not difficult, therefore, to impose on him, in this respect also, by demonstrations against the opposite flank to that which Lord Roberts intended--not to attack but to pa.s.s by on his route northwards--so placing his army ultimately athwart Cronje's line of retreat. The execution of this scheme, the guiding principles of which have thus been sketched, will perhaps now be more easily followed in detail. It only remains to add here that the fict.i.tious orders, cancelled by cypher telegrams, were actually sent, and were very useful in their effect of imposing on the Boers.

[Sidenote: A railway scheme. Facilities and difficulties.]

The interest of the whole scheme for modern soldiers lies in the fact that it was an application of very ancient principles of war to the times of railways and telegraphs. Everything turned upon the facilities afforded by the railways on the one hand, upon the difficulties which the railway authorities had to surmount on the other, and, above all, upon this: that where acc.u.mulation of rolling stock, vast in proportion to the resources of the country, had to be collected from every direction upon a single line, it needed much tact and management to make the preparations required to enable the transport of troops, when once begun, to continue rapidly without interruption, and yet not to disclose the secret. Engines were more essential than anything else, and to obtain them in sufficient number the Port Elizabeth lines had to be swept almost bare, although the supply of the troops round Naauwpoort junction and Colesberg largely depended on that railway. It may, therefore, be imagined how hard it was to placate the zealous civil officials, who, without understanding why it was done, found themselves deprived of the very instruments needed for their work, and had as best they could to make bricks without straw. All the organisation of this fell upon Colonel Girouard, who had promised Lord Roberts to have the immense volume of stores necessary for the campaign, as well as the troops, delivered at the a.s.signed stations by February 14th, on two conditions: one, that absolute secrecy as to all that was being done should be strictly observed, Girouard himself naming the men to whom he must disclose his plans; the other, that when he had received his instructions as to the places where delivery was to be made by the railway these should not be changed. Unfortunately this latter condition could not be kept.

Honey Nest Kloof, which had been at first selected as the place for the great camp and depot, was found to be inadequately supplied with water, so that Graspan and Belmont inevitably replaced it.

[Sidenote: The nature of task.]

The fact that, with the exception of the two Generals, Kelly-Kenny and French, who knew the scheme after French's visit to Cape Town, none of the officers in the trains had any idea where they were going or what was intended, and did not realise what was essential for the success of the undertaking, occasionally gave trouble to the railway authorities. For instance, water for the troops bivouacking at Graspan was some two miles from the station, but the water indispensable for the service of the railway was close to the spot where the disembarkation from the carriages had taken place. Colonel Girouard himself found to his horror that this, without which he could send no train forward, was being freely expended by men and officers for their own use. There was some delay before he secured an adequate guard to protect it. Despite many incidents, equally inconvenient to this, time was well kept and Lord Roberts' reliance on the silence and efficiency of the officials was fully justified.

History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 48

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