In the opening weeks of the Boer War, Kruger’s shoddy, ill-disciplined guerrillas inflicted a stunning series of defeats on Britain. Yet British artists had no hesitation in glorifying the British Tommy and his mates, drawing individual heroism out of collective disaster. In presenting heroic pictures like the one above, they helped obscure the realities of the war for the British public, which foresaw rapid British victory. As it turned out, there was nothing rapid about it: it took two and a half years, 450,000 imperial troops, 22,000 deaths and £222,000,000 to crush the Boers.
On December 15th 1899, British troops suffered their third major defeat in a week, when a force trying to reach the beseiged town of Ladysmith was bloodily repulsed at the Battle of Colenso. The British, led in person by the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Redvers Buller, suffered 1,200 casualties to the Boers 29. “No one believes in our generals”, wrote one irate resident of Ladysmith. “We are an army of lions led by asses”.
The public at home would have agreed. United by the disastrous events which became known as “Black Week”, the country saw British troops as heroes courageously defending the belaboured outposts of Empire against the dark and diabolical forces of Boer barbarism.
The government acted swiftly. Within 48 hours, supreme command was wrenched from Buller’s incompetent grasp and invested in Field-Marshal Lord Roberts, whose only son had died trying to rescue the guns at Colenso. Kitchener, who travelled with Roberts to South Africa as his Chief of Staff, found the war being waged “like a game of polo, with intervals for afternoon tea”.
By the beginning of June, 1900, the new military regime had won control of Kimberley, Mafekling, Ladysmith, Bloemfontein and Pretoria. Imagining he had won the war Roberts returned to England in triumph.
At the Modder, Lord Methuen at last decided on a turning movement. But he lost control of the battle. Going up to the front himself, he splashed about in the mud, giving commands to small parties of troops. Although some men, showing great courage, got across the river, the main Boer position remained inviolate. But, next morning, the Boers were found to have evacuated their positions in the night. .Again, British casualties had been heavy. Methuen had lost about one seventh of his strength since starting out.
On the other hand, he had successfully taken three strong Boer positions and had made rapid progress towards his main objective- Kimberley. The column marched on, still sure of its own invincibility. Reinforcements had arrived, including the famous Highland Brigade, which contained such legendary regiments as the The Black Watch, The Gordon Highlanders, the Seaforth Highlanders and the Highland Light Infantry.
At 4 a.m. Magersfontein was just discernible, looming ahead. Suddenly, unexpectedly, there was a shattering volley of rifle fire. Then another. Then steady, remorseless firing without cease. The brigade shuddered: men fell, some charged blindly ahead, others turned about. Consternation turned into panic. A horrible truth dawned on every man: the Boers were not , as they had always been before, at the top of the ridge; they were entrenched at its foot, where they could fire blindly and hardly miss. This had been done at the suggestion of a brilliant amateur tactician, Koos de la Rey, a much respected farmer.
His tactics could not have had greater success. The commander of the Highland Brigade, Major-General Wauchope was one who kept calm “Gather round Black Watch”, he shouted ”It is not my fault“. But within seconds he fell. Panic brought a wild stampede to the rear. Fallen men, including the commander of the Highland Light Infantry, were trampled underfoot by their comrades. About one in five were killed or wounded. Magersfontein, a word not popular in Scotland to this day, was the most appalling reverse that British arms had suffered in any war since the American War of Independence.
In Natal, as well, there was disaster for the British. Young Botha had at last got his way, and Joubert, while maintaining the siege of Ladysmith, had agreed to a column 4,000 strong pressing on into Natal. It found Buller, now slowly advancing to the relief of Ladysmith, at the Tugela River. Here, at Colenso, the two forces met, and Botha inflicted a severe defeat. Buller, although displaying his usual personal courage, made a terrible mess of his attack, through lack of intelligence and bad reconnaissance of the terrain. His attempted flanking movement became trapped in a loop in the river an his artillery opened up within a few yards of unsuspected enemy trenches. As a result ten guns were lost.
Meanwhile, a minor column under Lieutenant-General Sir William Gatacre, had been advancing up the railway line from East London, towards Transvaal.
Attempting to surprise the enemy by a night attack near Stromberg, the column got lost, was itself surprised by the Boers and forced to withdraw with heavy losses. These three humiliating defeats - at Magersfontein, Colenso and Stromberg - occurred within a single week. They effectively halted all three of Buller’s probes against the Boers. There was no doubt about it , the Empire had been utterly defeated on the field by the two nearly bankrupt Boer republics.
.A small, trim unhappy figure, with a darkly tanned leathery face, he left Southampton on a bleak day before a silent crowd. With him went the hopes of all those who cherished the British Empire. His Chief-of-Staff was to be Major-General Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, who recently achieved glory by decimating the Dervishes at Omdurman.
There was just one piece of good news to cheer the public. It concerned a well-known newspaper correspondent, named Winston Churchill, who was so highly thought of in Fleet Street that he was being paid a salary, as he said “higher I think, than any previously paid in British journalism to a war correspondent”. He had however been captured by the forces of Louis Botha. Churchill insisted he was a war correspondent and as such should released; the Boers, with some justification insisted he had acted as a combatant and would be treated as such. But Churchill escaped from the prisoner-of-war camp in Pretoria by scaling a ten foot wall. He reached neutral territory aboard a goods train and returned to cover Buller’s operations after Black Week.
The British public had assumed the war would be a short one, over by Christmas. But far from being over it seemed the war had hardly begun. Both the Boer and British armies celebrated Christmas as best they could . At Ladysmith the Boers thoughtfully sent plum pudding in to the town, winning this conflict the reassuring nickname “The Last of The Gentleman’s Wars”
After more than two months of siege, Mafeking had suffered less than a dozen casualties from the ineffective Boer bombardment. Only the Africans, in the native quarter of the town, were feeling the effects of encirclement. On one occasion the desperate Africans streamed out of town, only to be shot down by the Boers who mistook the Africans rush as an attack.
Buller, meanwhile was battering away at the approach to Ladysmith, the fall of which, as the Queen herself had said was “too awful to contemplate”. Ladysmith was only 20 miles away, but the hills along the northern bank of the Tugela River provided an obstacle which Buller, with his vast supply train, and his footsore infantry, found a desperate problem. Opposing him was Louis Botha. Buller decided his best path, of all the hills that blocked him , lay across Spion Kop.
He opened up a heavy artillery barrage. There were probably 10,000 or 12,000 burghers in all on those hills, with the bastion of Spion Kop standing like a pivot in the centre. The casualties were considerable, and some men were fearfully mutilated. The most costly battle of Buller’s campaign, which was saying a good deal, was at Spion Kop. The British scrambled courageously to the top of the hill, but were unable to dig more than 18 inches into the rocky surface and, exposed on the plateau on top, came under furious fire. Three thousand men were crowded into an area of little over three acres. Breastworks of corpses were built to protect the living. An officer of the 2nd Middlesex Regiment commented “Everywhere it was practically the the same deadly smash of shells, mangling and killing all about”.
Winston Churchill visited the top of Spion Kop for the Morning Post, passing on the way streams of returning wounded: “Men were staggering along, alone or supported by comrades, or crawling on hands and knees, or carried on stretchers”. Churchill warned British commanders that, if cover and artillery support could not be provided, the men might desert the field “en masse”.
At home, there was uproar about the heavy casualties at Spion Kop. The Liberal opposition demanded a debate in the House of Commons deploring “the want of knowledge, foresight and judgement displayed by Her Majesty’s Ministers”. This turned into a discussion, not so much on strategy, but on whether the war was necessary at all. When, at last, Buller bludgeoned his way to Ladysmith, he left behind casualties in total more than the entire force opposing him. The besieged were desperate, with rations intolerably low, and disease rife. The first officer to ride into town was Captain Gough. General White greeted him with the inevitable imperturbability expected on such occasions: “Hello Hubert, how are you?”.
Roberts, rounding Magersfontein with a mounted column, had already relieved Kimberley without difficulty. Rhodes had succeeded in getting Kekewich reprimanded for his discourtesy to him; his threat to ruin Kekewich seems to have had some success, for when the Colonel committed suicide 14 years later, he had risen only once in rank. With Ladysmith and Kimberley safe from the Boers, only gallant litttle Mafeking remained. The defence of this remote place had gripped the public as nothing else in the war. It seemed to symbolise British pride during a difficult and miserable time.
MAFEKING. Lord Roberts thought that less than 1500 men were all that was necessary to relieve the town. They rode north from Kimberley with a posse of newspaper correspondents, all anxious to see the now world famous Baden-Powell, and to observe for themselves the plight of the town. After a brief skirmish, the Boers raised the siege and the advance party entered Mafeking on May 17, 1900. They were surprised at the lack of interest shown in their arrival; drawing the attention of a man in the street to their presence they received the answer “Oh yes, I heard you were knocking about” Most people in Mafeking seemed more concerned with the final of the billiards tournament being held that day. The remained of the relief column entered the town that night to find Baden-Powell in bed. (Continued below contents box)
The relief of Mafeking unleashed delirious unbridled rejoicing that not even the Armistice in 1918 or V.E. Day in 1945 were to equal. As word spread at home that the siege of the distant African town under the indomitable command of Colonel Baden-Powell had been raised after 217 days, the whole country exploded into a frenzied celebration that lasted five days. Never before in the history of Britain had such a wave of patriotic hysteria swept the nation. London went mad. The news spread across the nation rapidly. Express trains from London progressed throughout the country with whistles in constant shrill acclaim announcing news to village and town. There was genuine and immense feeling of relief. Mafeking had been built up as a place which would never fall to the Boers, no matter what and it had not!
After the relief of the three sieges, Roberts pushed his army on to Bloemfontein, capital of the Orange Free State. A silk Union Jack, given to the Commander-in-Chief by his wife for the purpose, was run up the flagpole in the city centre. After a short rest and intermittent fighting, the same flag was raised in the town square of Pretoria on June 5, 1900. Roberts, with his sound generalship and overwhelming superiority in arms, had, it seemed won the war without any difficulty, whereas poor Buller had been able to do nothing right.
In Mafeking itself, there was some tension among the relievers, who had been infuriated to find the besieged better fed and more comfortable than themselves. “I have not known” said one relieving officer of his troops “men so sulky or march with such bad grace”. The reporters seemed unable to face breaking the myth to the people at home (although The Times man attempted to do in a book later). Certainly, Baden-Powell did nothing to disillusion the public. In his official report he claimed he had been surrounded by 8,000 enemy, although in his general orders at the start of the siege he had put the figure at 5,000 to 6,000.
Little “Bobs” had not let the country down. He returned home to an Earldom, the Garter, and a reward of £100,000 and the gratitude of the public generally. The government, anxious to benefit from the mood at what seemed an imminent end to the war, called a general election. The election was fought entirely on the issue of the war, which the Liberals claimed they would have averted all together. It was known as the “Khaki Election”. The Conservatives won, but with a diminished majority
Two of the most illustrious units in the world, the Brigade of Guards and the Highland Brigade were also part of Methuen’s column. Only one obstacle remained before Kimberley was reached - a low ridge known as Magersfontein. Methuen did not need Kekewich’s warnings to tell him that the Boers would make a determined stand at this obvious defensive position. With hardly any mounted troops he had no alternative but to take it as he had taken the previous ridges. This time, the Highland Brigade would storm the heights. Their attack was due to begin at dawn.
The British government felt itself threatened, and acted with unaccustomed speed. Wolseley’s men had wasted their chance. There was only one other great figure in the British Army equal in prestige to Lord Wolesely himself: Field-Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar, V.C beloved of the nation and known to all as “Bobs”