The clash of Boer and British interests in southern Africa, which had been building up for almost a century, finally erupted in all out war in October 1899. Having renounced imperial rule, the Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State, resolutely blocked plans for one huge dominion of Southern Africa united under the British Crown. The Boers were as Queen Victoria observed “a horrid people” and clearly needed a quick lesson. But it was to take 31 months of unremitting effort to lick the obstinate Boers into short-lived submission.
In mid 1899, Britain and the two Boer republics in South Africa hovered on the brink of war. It was more than 40 years since the Crimea and the thought of was did not alarm the British people. It seemed hardly fair. It certainly would not take long.
The situation was not unexpected. The minor war with the Transvaal 18 years previously, in which the British had been humiliated at Majuba, had settled nothing; the Boers had gained confidence by it, and the British - most dangerous this - had been shamed. The demands of the British became more vociferous than ever; a principal grievance was that foreigners, mostly British, in the rapidly developing gold mine area of the Transvaal on the Rand were denied the vote. Rhodes claimed that the capital being invested in Johannesburg was too great to be left to the mercies of what was considered an inefficient and corrupt administration. British Colonial Secretary J. Chamberlain was inclined to agree.
Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal since 1883, was equally firm; if he gave the vote to the uitlanders - as the non-Boers were called, they would take over his country. Anyway, he asserted, the internal affairs of the Transvaal were no concern of the British. What made war even more likely was the presence in Cape Town of Sir Alfred Milner, who until recently had been Britain’s leading tax expert. He was also a fervent imperialist: he saw his mission as getting all South Africa under the umbrella of Empire. He believed - as Kruger did - that if war was inevitable, it was better to have it sooner than later. This policy, however, ignored one important consideration: - there were hardly any British troops in South Africa.
The British government, however, did little to reinforce the South African garrison. One of the few things it did do was to send out a small party of officers under Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, an ambitious, balding, slightly-built officer of 42. His orders were to raise a force to patrol the Rhodesian-Transvaal border and repel any Boer attacks. The place with the nearest force was named in his orders as “Mafeking”.
Although it was over 300 miles from his official destination - Bulawayo, Baden-Powell made for Mafeking. His commanders in Cape Town refused him permission to enter the town, but he ignored them. Baden-Powell was risking court-martial but he was a protégé of Lord Wolseley, the Commander- in chief of the British Army, and was a long way from authority. Instead of keeping mobile as had been intended, the only measure he took against Boer attack was to prepare for a lengthy siege.
The Boer army prepared for action. It consisted of irregulars, organised into hard-riding “commandos” . The burghers of every electoral district, of which there was 40 in the two republics, were obliged to raise and have ready, their own commando. Commandos varied in size, according to the population of the district, but every male between the ages of 16 and 60 was liable to be called up. These military units were unlike any others in the world. The commandant of each commando was elected, often for political reasons rather than military expertise.
On October 5th two Boer forces began concentrating near the borders of British South Africa, one near Mafeking, and one, on the other side of the Transvaal, near Natal. Kruger, who was no fool, believed that the railways would be the key to the coming war. In the east the important railway junction was Ladysmith; in the west “the diamond city” of Kimberley. Kruger’s mounted forces were dependent on the state of the grass, and the grass was now ideal for invasion. At Kimberley, close to the border with the Orange Free State, the population had been alarmed by the arrival of Cecil Rhodes who virtually owned the town. Fearing that his presence would act as provocation to the Boer, they had asked him to stay away, and the mayor begged him to leave. Rhodes refused.
Kruger who’s ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of British troops from his borders, ran out at 5 pm on October 11th and Britain found herself at war with the Boer Republics. That day Boer patrols crossed the border of Cape Colony near Mafeking, and late in the evening a strong Boer force began to ride into the province of Natal. On October 12th the telephone line to Mafeking went dead. Two days later, the line to Kimberley was cut while the commander of the small garrison there Lieutenant-Colonel R.G. Kekewich, was talking to G.H.Q. In Cape Town.
The British commander in Natal was General Sir George White, who had won the V.C. In the Afghan War of 1879. Having just arrived in South Africa, he knew next to nothing of the Boers, their tactics or the conditions. The traditional Boer tactics were to keep themselves mobile and, if possible, the enemy immobile. A lesson learned fighting the natives. After two weeks of skirmishing, in Natal, and five fierce little engagements on the road south into Natal, about a quarter of the colony and 100 miles of railway w ere in Boer hands. White, bewildered by the rapidity and ferocity of the Boer movements, decided to concentrate his force, 13,500 strong at Ladysmith. There, the Boers gratefully put him under leisurely but effective siege.
There was a strange lull in the war, while the world waited with intense interest to see what would happen. Nothing happened. The two towns of Ladysmith and Kimberley with their outpost of Mafeking, were besieged - after a fashion: hardly a rifle was fired, no attempt was made to encircle the towns with troops. The Boers remained in their camps mostly out of sight. It was as if the Boers were frightened by the immensity of the prizes which lay waiting for them . All Natal and Cape Colony, virtually defenceless, were at their mercy. But the Boers continued to laze around Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith.
It was a fatal error. A great army corps was being hurriedly assembled in Britain. The late Victorians prided themselves in being imperturbable, but a slight air of frenzy could be detected. The thought of any of the besieged towns falling to the arrogant enemy, and to an army without even a uniform, was not an attractive one.
The Brigade of Guards marched to Waterloo Station . “Women hung sobbing to the arms of husbands and sweethearts” said the Daily Mail ;“ relatives and even total strangers carried away by the enthusiasm, broke into the ranks and insisted in carrying the rifles and kit-bags”. A cartoon in Punch depicted one urchin confiding to another “The Boers will cop it now. Farver’s gone to South Africa “an tooken ‘is strap”.
In command of the force now assembling was General Sir Redvers Buller, an Etonian from Devon. He decided to split his force in two: half to Natal to join up with White at Ladysmith and half to march to Kimberley. He himself would command in the Natal sector, his force disembarking at Durban. The relief column for Kimberley disembarking at Cape Town was to be commanded by Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen whose experience of war was minimal
Buller, against his inclinations, had been forced to treat the relief of Kimberley as an urgent matter. Cecil Rhodes, ignoring the authority of the military commander, Kekewich, had been getting messages out of the town claiming that it was on the verge of being taken, “Boers oozing around on every side”, he told Milner. He predicted a “terrible disaster”. He created real alarm despite official dispatches from Kekewich giving no cause for it.
Kimberley covered some of the richest few square miles in the world and its loss to Kruger would have sensational consequences. In fact the defence of Kimberley was progressing without the slightest trouble. Rhodes had grossly exaggerated the situation. He was worried not only about his mines and his dividends, but about the route from the Cape to his beloved Rhodesia, which passed through both Kimberley and Mafeking. From the start the relationship between Rhodes and Kekewich was frigid. Blandly ignoring correct procedure, Rhodes sent off a message to Baden-Powell at Mafeking. He urged him to exaggerate the situation at Mafeking as he had done at Kimberley.
Baden-Powell unlike Rhodes, was enjoying himself. A chirpy, jolly little man he sent back cheery reports about the real state of affairs. The Boer bombardment was so inefficient it was a joke. With generous stocks of food, the population was in some respects, better off than they were before the siege began. Baden-Powell’s first message to reach London said “All well, four hours bombardment. One dog killed”. Baden-Powell. It was received with delight in London as a classic example of British understatement of the kind Wellington had made famous. Who was this man Baden-Powell? Clearly he had true British “grit”. The public could not hear enough from or about him. The heroic Baden-Powell in which the public believed did not exist. The real man was quite different; a showy, artistic and thoroughly un bellicose man. He had always been the life and soul of every party, and he had never had such an excellent party as this. Baden-Powell told his troops: “We only have to sit this out ” Officers who suggested offensive action were disappointed.
The only siege that was in fact severe was at Ladysmith. Joubert, ignoring the advice of younger men like Louis Botha, who begged him to forget about Ladysmith and drive for the coast, had made a better job of his siege. But, as at Kimberley and Mafeking, it was to be a matter of starving the town out rather than rushing in. There were about 22,000 people inside the perimeter at Ladysmith. Since there was much more artillery, and over ten times more troops than at the two other defending towns, White was able to construct a sophisticated system of defence, with forts and posts all linked by telephone. The Boers with more than 20,000 men, also began digging-in. The bombardment with two heavy “Long Tom” siege-guns was no joke.
Away in Cape Colony, Lord Methuen had assembled his column for the relief of Kimberley and Mafeking. His 8,000 men were ready to march off from some 65 miles south of Kimberley. Methuen had been schooled in traditional methods: he relied on the invincibility of British infantry. They would march up the railway track to Kimberley, brushing aside the unskilled opposition. The Boers appreciating Methuen’s supply problems, and his reliance on the railway, were preparing themselves at a number of strong points on the way.
At Belmont a steep escarpment, defended by the Boers, barred the way. A staff officer asked Methuen whether he was going round it “My dear fellow” said Lord Methuen “I intend to to put the fear of God into these people”.
His troops succeeded in taking the ridge but not without heavy casualties. After only 24 hours rest the march was resumed. The troops undismayed by the first action, proceeded to the next enemy position, a ridge of hills at Enslin.
As Methuen’s men advanced over the grass, in the brightness of the morning, in perfect order, they were mown down; as they clawed their way up the side of the hills they were picked off by the sharp shooters above. Nearly half of the attacking force were killed or wounded. The column prepared to march on to the Modder River. That night, far away, a searchlight could be seen stabbing the sky; it was Kimberley beckoning them on.
Over in Natal, about 14,000 Boers had begun the invasion. They streaked down the passes toward the coast where fresh arms and ammunition could be landed. Under Commandant-General Piet Joubert, they rode in bitter cold through the mountains that formed a natural barrier between Transvaal and Natal
The country as more aware of the Empire than ever before; the word “imperial” was uttered with pride and frequency and there were constant comparisons with the Romans. Most people were determined not to allow a lot of irritating Boers to disturb imperial rule. Soon stokers were sweating away in the transports, speeding the arrival in south Africa of the invincible Soldiers of the Queen. Of the 50,000 men being sent out straight away, only 5,000 were mounted although it was well known that the Boers had virtually no infantry, it was felt however, that the quality of the British soldier would make up for this handicap