Page:EB1911 - Volume 27.djvu/218
War of 1899–1902]
amendment as the Uitlander franchise would involve, the Boer answer was an offer of arbitration, a course which Great Britain could not accept without admitting the South African Republic to the position of an equal. Here was material enough for an explosion, even if personal misunderstandings and aggravations, adding fuel to the fire, had not naturally occurred (or even been deliberately plotted) during the negotiations. But the truth was that the Boers thought they stood to gain by fighting, while the British, though not expecting war, and acting up till the last month or so on the assumption that serious military preparations were either unnecessary or sufficiently unlikely to be necessary to make them politically inexpedient, had with no less confidence committed themselves to a policy which was impracticable on peaceful terms.
After July the tactics of the Boer executive were simply directed towards putting off a crisis till the beginning of October, when the grass would be growing on the veld, and meanwhile towards doing all they could in their dispatches to put the blame on Great Britain. At last they drafted, on the 27th of September, an ultimatum to the British government. But, although ready drafted, many circumstances conspired to delay its presentation. Meanwhile, the British war office began to act. Certain departmental details were dispatched to South Africa to form a working nucleus for military bases, and early in September the cabinet sanctioned the despatch to Natal from India of a mixed force, 5600 strong, while two battalions were ordered to South Africa from the Mediterranean. Sir George White was nominated to the chief command of the forces in Natal, and sailed on the 16th of September, while active preparations were set on foot in England to prepare against the necessity of dispatching an army corps to Cape Town, in which case the chief command was to be vested in Sir Redvers Buller. Fortunately, although the draft of an ultimatum was lying in the state secretary’s office in Pretoria, the Boers, unprepared in departmental arrangements which are necessary in large military operations, were unable to take the field with the promptitude that the situation demanded. They consequently forfeited many of the advantages of the initiative.
The military strength of the two republics was practically an unknown quantity. It was certain that, since the troublous times of 1896, the Transvaal had greatly increased its armaments; but at their best, except by a very few, the Boers were looked upon by British military experts as a disorganized rabble, which, while containing many individual first-class marksmen, would be incapable of maintaining a prolonged resistance against a disciplined army. As was to be subsequently shown, the hostilities were not confined to opposition from the fighting strength of the two little republics alone; the British had to face Dutch opposition in their own colonies. The total fighting strength of the Boer republics is difficult to ascertain exactly. General Botha stated that there were 83,000 burghers from 15 to 65 years of age on the commando lists. Lord Kitchener put the total number of combatants on the Boer side at 95,000 (Cd. 1790, p. 13). The British official History of the War gave the number as 87,000; another calculation, based on the number killed, taken prisoner and surrendered, made the total 90,000. In the second (1901) rebellion of the Cape Dutch about 8000 joined the burgher forces. The number of Boers in the field at any one period was probably little more than 40,000. But the fact that it was to a large extent a struggle with a nation in arms doubled the numbers of the force that the Transvaal executive was able to draw upon. The bulk of the Dutch levies were organized on the burgher system — that is, each district was furnished with a commandant, who had under him field-cornets and assistant field-cornets, who administered the fighting capacity of the district. Each field-cornet, who, with the commandant, was a paid official of the state, was responsible for the arms, equipment and attendance of his commando.
The plan of campaign which found favour with the Boers, when they determined to put their differences with Great Britain to the test by the ordeal of the sword, was to attack all the principal British towns adjacent to their own borders; at the same time to despatch a field army of the necessary dimensions to invade and reduce Natal, where the largest British garrison existed. It is not too much to suppose that the executive in Pretoria had calculated that the occupation of Durban would inspire the entire Dutch nation with a spirit of unanimity which would eventually wrest South Africa from the British. On paper the scheme had everything to recommend it as the expedient most likely to bring about the desired end. But the departmental executive could not launch the Natal invading force as early as had been anticipated, and it was not until the 9th of October that the ultimatum was presented to Sir (then Mr) Conyngham Greene, the British agent at Pretoria. The scheduled demands were as follow: —
The Ultimatum.“a. That all points of mutual difference shall be regulated by the friendly course of arbitration, or by whatever amicable way may be agreed upon by the government with Her Majesty’s Government.
“b. That the troops on the borders of this republic shall be instantly withdrawn.
“c. That all reinforcements of troops which have arrived in South Africa since the 1st of June 1899 shall be removed from South Africa within a reasonable time, to be agreed upon with this government, and with a mutual assurance and guarantee on the part of this government that no attack upon or hostilities against any portion of the possessions of the British Government shall be made by the republic during further negotiations within a period of time to be subsequently agreed upon between the governments, and this government will, on compliance therewith, be prepared to withdraw the armed burghers of this republic from the borders.
“d. That Her Majesty’s troops now on the high seas shall not be landed in any part of South Africa.”
To these demands the Transvaal government required an answer within 48 hours.
There could be only one reply, and on Wednesday, the 11th of October 1899, at five o’clock p.m., a state of war existed between the British government and the two Boer republics. On the following day the Boer attack on an armoured train at Kraaipan, a railway station in Cape Colony south of Mafeking and close to the western frontier of the Transvaal, witnessed the first hostile shot of a bloody war, destined to plunge South Africa into strife for two years and a half.
E. The War of 1899–1902. — For the purposes of history the South African War may be conveniently divided into five distinct periods. Stages of the War.The first comprises the Boer invasion, terminating with the relief of Ladysmith on the 28th of February. The second, the period of Boer organized resistance, may be said to have finished with the occupation of Komati Poort in October 1900 (a month after Lord Roberts’s formal annexation of the Transvaal) and the flight of President Kruger. The third may be characterized as a period of transition; it marks the adoption in earnest of a guerrilla policy on the part of the enemy, and an uncertain casting about on the part of the British for a definite system with which to grapple with an unforeseen development. This phase endured up to the failure of the Middelburg negotiations in March 1901. The next stage was that which saw the slow building up of the blockhouse system and the institution of small punitive columns, and may be considered to have extended until the close of 1901. The fifth, and last period — which, after all other expedients had failed, finally brought the residue of uncaptured and unsurrendered burghers to submission — was the final development of the blockhouse system, wedded to the institution of systematic “driving” of given areas, which operations were in force until the 31st of May 1902, when peace was ratified at Pretoria.The first of these periods saw the severest fighting of the
- Lord Wolseley foresaw the strength of the Boers. Writing on the 12th of September 1899 he said, “If this war comes off it will be the most serious war England has ever had” (see Military Life of the Duke of Cambridge, ii. 421).