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The Great Boer War
12: The Dark Hour
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The week which extended from December 10th to December 17th, 1899, was the blackest one known during our generation, and the most disastrous for British arms during the century. We had in the short space of seven days lost, beyond all extenuation or excuse, three separate actions. No single defeat was of vital importance in itself, but the cumulative effect, occurring as they did to each of the main British forces in South Africa, was very great. The total loss amounted to about three thousand men and twelve guns, while the indirect effects in the way of loss of prestige to ourselves and increased confidence and more numerous recruits to our enemy were incalculable.
It is singular to glance at the extracts from the European press at that time and to observe the delight and foolish exultation with which our reverses were received. That this should occur in the French journals is not unnatural, since our history has been largely a contest with that Power, and we can regard with complacency an enmity which is the tribute to our success. Russia, too, as the least progressive of European States, has a natural antagonism of thought, if not of interests, to the Power which stands most prominently for individual freedom and liberal institutions. The same poor excuse may be made for the organs of the Vatican. But what are we to say of the insensate railing of Germany, a country whose ally we have been for centuries? In the days of Marlborough, in the darkest hours of Frederick the Great, in the great world struggle of Napoleon, we have been the brothers-in-arms of these people. So with the Austrians also. If both these countries were not finally swept from the map by Napoleon, it is largely to British subsidies and British tenacity that they owe it. And yet these are the folk who turned most bitterly against us at the only time in modern history when we had a chance of distinguishing our friends from our foes. Never again, I trust, on any pretext will a British guinea be spent or a British soldier or sailor shed his blood for such allies. The political lesson of this writer has been that we should make ourselves strong within the empire, and let all outside it, save only our kinsmen of America, go their own way and meet their own fate without let or hindrance from us. It is amazing to find that even the Americans could understand the stock from which they are themselves sprung so little that such papers as the 'New York Herald' should imagine that our defeat at Colenso was a good opportunity for us to terminate the war. The other leading American journals, however, took a more sane view of the situation, and realised that ten years of such defeats would not find the end either of our resolution or of our resources.
In the British Islands and in the empire at large our misfortunes were met by a sombre but unalterable determination to carry the war to a successful conclusion and to spare no sacrifices which could lead to that end. Amid the humiliation of our reverses there was a certain undercurrent of satisfaction that the deeds of our foemen should at least have made the contention that the strong was wantonly attacking the weak an absurd one. Under the stimulus of defeat the opposition to the war sensibly decreased. It had become too absurd even for the most unreasonable platform orator to contend that a struggle had been forced upon the Boers when every fresh detail showed how thoroughly they had prepared for such a contingency and how much we had to make up. Many who had opposed the war simply on that sporting instinct which backs the smaller against the larger began to realise that what with the geographical position of these people, what with the nature of their country, and what with the mobility, number, and hardihood of their forces, we had undertaken a task which would necessitate such a military effort as we had never before been called upon to make. when Kipling at the dawn of the war had sung of 'fifty thousand horse and foot going to Table Bay,' the statement had seemed extreme. Now it was growing upon the public mind that four times this number would not be an excessive estimate. But the nation rose grandly to the effort. Their only fear, often and loudly expressed, was that Parliament would deal too tamely with the situation and fail to demand sufficient sacrifices. Such was the wave of feeling over the country that it was impossible to hold a peace meeting anywhere without a certainty of riot. The only London daily which had opposed the war, though very ably edited, was overborne by the general sentiment and compelled to change its line. In the provinces also opposition was almost silent, and the great colonies were even more unanimous than the mother country. Misfortune had solidified us where success might have caused a sentimental opposition.
On the whole, the energetic mood of the nation was reflected by the decided measures of the Government. Before the deep-sea cables had told us the lists of our dead, steps had been taken to prove to the world how great were our latent resources and how determined our spirit. On December 18th, two days after Colenso, the following provisions were made for carrying on the campaign.
1. That as General Buller's hands were full in Natal the supervision and direction of the whole campaign should be placed in the hands of Lord Roberts, with Lord Kitchener as his chief of staff. Thus the famous old soldier and the famous young one were called together to the assistance of the country.
2. That all the remaining army reserves should be called out.
3. That the 7th Division (10,000 men) should be despatched to Africa, and that an 8th Division should be formed ready for service.
4. That considerable artillery reinforcements, including a howitzer brigade, should go out.
5. That eleven Militia battalions be sent abroad.
6. That a strong contingent of Volunteers be sent out.
7. That a Yeomanry mounted force be despatched.
8. That mounted corps be raised at the discretion of the Commander-in-Chief in South Africa.
9. That the patriotic offers of further contingents from the colonies be gratefully accepted.
By these measures it was calculated that from seventy to a hundred thousand men would be added to our South African armies, the numbers of which were already not short of a hundred thousand.
It is one thing, however, to draw up paper reinforcements, and it is another, in a free country where no compulsion would be tolerated, to turn these plans into actual regiments and squadrons. But if there were any who doubted that this ancient nation still glowed with the spirit of its youth his fears must soon have passed away. For this far-distant war, a war of the unseen foe and of the murderous ambuscade, there were so many volunteers that the authorities were embarrassed by their numbers and their pertinacity. It was a stimulating sight to see those long queues of top-hatted, frock-coated young men who waited their turn for the orderly room with as much desperate anxiety as if hard fare, a veldt bed, and Boer bullets were all that life had that was worth the holding. Especially the Imperial Yeomanry, a corps of riders and shots, appealed to the sporting instincts of our race. Many could ride and not shoot, many could shoot and not ride, more candidates were rejected than were accepted, and yet in a very short time eight thousand men from every class were wearing the grey coats and bandoliers. This singular and formidable force was drawn from every part of England and Scotland, with a contingent of hard-riding Irish fox-hunters. Noblemen and grooms rode knee to knee in the ranks, and the officers included many well-known country gentlemen and masters of hounds. Well horsed and well armed, a better force for the work in hand could not be imagined. So high did the patriotism run that corps were formed in which the men not only found their own equipment but contributed their pay to the war fund. Many young men about town justified their existence for the first time. In a single club, which is peculiarly consecrated to the jeunesse Doree, three hundred members rode to the wars.
Without waiting for these distant but necessary reinforcements, the Generals in Africa had two divisions to look to, one of which was actually arriving while the other was on the sea. These formed the 5th Division under Sir Charles Warren, and the 6th Division under General Kelly-Kenny. Until these forces should arrive it was obviously best that the three armies should wait, for, unless there should be pressing need of help on the part of the besieged garrisons or imminent prospects of European complications, every week which passed was in our favour. There was therefore a long lull in the war, during which Methuen strengthened his position at Modder River, Gatacre held his own at Sterkstroom, and Buller built up his strength for another attempt at the relief of Ladysmith. The only connected series of operations during that time were those of General French in the neighbourhood of Colesberg, an account of which will be found in their entirety elsewhere. A short narrative may be given here of the doings of each of these forces until the period of inaction came to an end.
Methuen after the repulse at Magersfontein had fallen back upon the lines of Modder River, and had fortified them in such a way that he felt himself secure against assault. Cronje, on the other hand, had extended his position both to the right and to the left, and had strengthened the works which we had already found so formidable. In this way a condition of inaction was established which was really very much to our advantage, since Methuen retained his communications by rail, while all supplies to Cronje had to come a hundred miles by road. The British troops, and especially the Highland Brigade, were badly in need of a rest after the very severe ordeal which they had undergone. General Hector Macdonald, whose military record had earned the soldierly name of 'Fighting Mac,' was sent for from India to take the place of the ill-fated Wauchope. Pending his arrival and that of reinforcements, Methuen remained quiet, and the Boers fortunately followed his example. From over the northern horizon those silver flashes of light told that Kimberley was dauntless in the present and hopeful of the future. On January 1st the British post of Kuruman fell, by which twelve officers and 120 police were captured. The town was isolated, and its capture could have no effect upon the general operations, but it is remarkable as the only capture of a fortified post up to this point made by the Boers.
The monotony of the long wait was broken by one dashing raid carried out by a detachment from Methuen's line of communications. This force consisted of 200 Queenslanders, 100 Canadians (Toronto Company), 40 mounted Munster Fusiliers, a New South Wales Ambulance, and 200 of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry with one horse battery. This singular force, so small in numbers and yet raked from the ends of the earth, was under the command of Colonel Pilcher. Moving out suddenly and rapidly from Belmont, it struck at the extreme right of the Boer line, which consisted of a laager occupied by the colonial rebels of that part of the country. Nothing could exceed the enthusiasm of the colonists at the prospect of action. 'At last!' was the cry which went up from the Canadians when they were ordered to advance. The result was an absolute success. The rebels broke and fled, their camp was taken, and forty of them fell into our hands. Our own loss was slight, three killed and a few wounded. The flying column occupied the town of Douglas and hoisted the British flag there; but it was decided that the time had not yet come when it could be held, and the force fell back upon Belmont. The rebel prisoners were sent down to Cape Town for trial. The movement was covered by the advance of a force under Babington from Methuen's force. This detachment, consisting of the 9th and 12th Lancers, with some mounted infantry and G troop of Horse Artillery, prevented any interference with Pilcher's force from the north. It is worthy of record that though the two bodies of troops were operating at a distance of thirty miles, they succeeded in preserving a telephonic connection, seventeen minutes being the average time taken over question and reply.
Encouraged by this small success, Methuen's cavalry on January 9th made another raid over the Free State border, which is remarkable for the fact that, save in the case of Colonel Plumer's Rhodesian Force, it was the first time that the enemy's frontier had been violated. The expedition under Babington consisted of the same regiments and the same battery which had covered Pilcher's advance. The line taken was a south-easterly one, so as to get far round the left flank of the Boer position. With the aid of a party of the Victorian Mounted Rifles a considerable tract of country was overrun, and some farmhouses destroyed. The latter extreme measure may have been taken as a warning to the Boers that such depredations as they had carried out in parts of Natal could not pass with impunity, but both the policy and the humanity of such a course appear to be open to question, and there was some cause for the remonstrance which President Kruger shortly after addressed to us upon the subject. The expedition returned to Modder Camp at the end of two days without having seen the enemy. Save for one or two similar cavalry reconnaissances, an occasional interchange of long-range shells, a little sniping, and one or two false alarms at night, which broke the whole front of Magersfontein into yellow lines of angry light, nothing happened to Methuen's force which is worthy of record up to the time of that movement of General Hector Macdonald to Koodoosberg which may be considered in connection with Lord Roberts's decisive operations, of which it was really a part.
The doings of General Gatacre's force during the long interval which passed between his disaster at Stormberg and the final general advance may be rapidly chronicled. Although nominally in command of a division, Gatacre's troops were continually drafted off to east and to west, so that it was seldom that he had more than a brigade under his orders. During the weeks of waiting, his force consisted of three field batteries, the 74th, 77th, and 79th, some mounted police and irregular horse, the remains of the Royal Irish Rifles and the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Scots, the Derbyshire regiment, and the Berkshires, the whole amounting to about 5,500 men, who had to hold the whole district from Sterkstroom to East London on the coast, with a victorious enemy in front and a disaffected population around. Under these circumstances he could not attempt to do more than to hold his ground at Sterkstroom, and this he did unflinchingly until the line of the Boer defence broke down. Scouting and raiding expeditions, chiefly organised by Captain De Montmorency—whose early death cut short the career of one who possessed every quality of a partisan leader—broke the monotony of inaction. During the week which ended the year a succession of small skirmishes, of which the town of Dordrecht was the centre, exercised the troops in irregular warfare.
On January 3rd the Boer forces advanced and attacked the camp of the Cape Mounted Police, which was some eight miles in advance of Gatacre's main position. The movement, however, was a half-hearted one, and was beaten off with small loss upon their part and less upon ours. From then onwards no movement of importance took place in Gatacre's column until the general advance along the whole line had cleared his difficulties from in front of him.
In the meantime General Buller had also been playing a waiting game, and, secure in the knowledge that Ladysmith could still hold out, he had been building up his strength for a second attempt to relieve the hard-pressed and much-enduring garrison. After the repulse at Colenso, Hildyard's and Barton's brigades had remained at Chieveley with the mounted infantry, the naval guns, and two field batteries. The rest of the force retired to Frere, some miles in the rear. Emboldened by their success, the Boers sent raiding parties over the Tugela on either flank, which were only checked by our patrols being extended from Springfield on the west to Weenen on the east. A few plundered farmhouses and a small list of killed and wounded horsemen on either side were the sole result of these spasmodic and half-hearted operations.
Time here as elsewhere was working for the British, for reinforcements were steadily coming to Buller's army. By the new year Sir Charles Warren's division (the 5th) was nearly complete at Estcourt, whence it could reach the front at any moment. This division included the 10th brigade, consisting of the Imperial Light Infantry, 2nd Somersets, the 2nd Dorsets, and the 2nd Middlesex; also the 11th, called the Lancashire Brigade, formed by the 2nd Royal Lancaster, the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, the 1st South Lancashire, and the York and Lancaster. The division also included the 14th Hussars and the 19th, 20th, and 28th batteries of Field Artillery. Other batteries of artillery, including one howitzer battery, came to strengthen Buller's force, which amounted now to more than 30,000 men. Immense transport preparations had to be made, however, before the force could have the mobility necessary for a flank march, and it was not until January 11th that General Buller's new plans for advance could be set into action. Before describing what these plans were and the disappointing fate which awaited them, we will return to the story of the siege of Ladysmith, and show how narrowly the relieving force escaped the humiliation—some would say the disgrace—of seeing the town which looked to them for help fall beneath their very eyes. That this did not occur is entirely due to the fierce tenacity and savage endurance of the disease-ridden and half-starved men who held on to the frail lines which covered it.
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