Despite all the talk of war, the British government dithered over preparing for one. Ministers were worried about the lack of popular support for military action. ‘The state of public opinion in this country is so strongly against going to war, that it is not possible for the Government to go to that length upon the present issue respecting the franchise,’ Sir Edward Grey told Milner in July 1899. ‘War, in the absence of provocation, is not practicable.’ Selborne gave Milner a similar warning. ‘Public opinion insists on our using great patience and endeavouring to avert war.’
Ministers were also reluctant to approve any expenditure on military preparations that might prove unnecessary. Most believed that Kruger would ‘bluff up to the cannon’s mouth and then capitulate’ rather than contest the might of the greatest empire in the world. When the War Office requested funds for military preparations in August, Lord Salisbury remarked: ‘The wiser plan is not to incur any serious expenditure until it is quite clear that we are going to war.’ Moreover, it was thought that war preparations might themselves jeopardise the chance of a peaceful settlement and provoke Kruger into making a pre-emptive strike.
There was also considerable unease at Milner’s appetite for confrontation. His inflammatory language; his lack of flexibility; his relentless demands for action; his manipulation of the press; the abrupt manner in which he broke up the Bloemfontein conference; all had aroused deep concern that he was committed to ‘working up a crisis’. Officials at the Colonial Office complained that Milner was becoming ‘too excited and impatient’, in danger of being ‘carried away’ into siding with the extremist camp that wanted to avenge Majuba and re-annex the Transvaal. Opposition politicians accused Milner of attempting to ‘bully the Transvaal government’. A growing section of the Liberal Party talked of ‘Milner’s war’.
Salisbury himself wanted to move at a slower pace. ‘There is no need to hurry,’ he said after the failure of the Bloemfontein conference. ‘Anything approaching an ultimatum should be delayed as long as possible. ’ As the momentum towards war increased, he rued the fact that Milner had been allowed such a loose rein. Writing to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Lansdowne, on 30 August, Salisbury grumbled:
His view is too heated, if you consider the intrinsic significance and importance of the things which are in controversy. But it recks little to think of that now. What he has done cannot be effaced. We have to act upon a moral field prepared for us by him and his jingo supporters. And therefore I see before us the necessity for considerable military effort - and all for people whom we despise, and for territory which will bring no profit and no power to England.
While ministers dithered, Britain’s military commanders fretted at the lack of decision-making, fearing that they would be landed with a war for which no adequate preparations had been made. Three days after the failure of the Bloemfontein conference in June, the army chief, Field Marshal Lord Wolseley, recommended mobilising an army corps and a cavalry division - some 35,000 men - for manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain as a ‘demonstration’ to overawe Kruger and induce him to submit to British demands. In July, he urged the despatch of 10,000 troops to double the size of existing garrisons in the Cape and Natal as ‘an open demonstration of a warlike policy’. But Lansdowne rejected both proposals.
Wolseley judged that in the event of a war with the Transvaal some 50,000 troops would be needed in addition to the existing garrisons. In August, the War Office calculated that to equip, mobilise and position an army corps of 50,000 men in the Cape would take four months, but that the time-lag could be reduced to three months provided that orders for a million pounds’ worth of mules, carts and clothing were placed immediately. But Salisbury, Lansdowne and Chamberlain decided against ‘the expenditure of a million which we cannot recover if we do not go to war’. The most that ministers were prepared to countenance in August was the despatch of 2,000 men to shore up Natal’s defences.
Amid the wrangling, however, there was general agreement that if war came, it would be a ‘small’ war, of short duration. Wolseley reckoned it would last for three to four months. An assessment by the War Office Intelligence Department dismissed the Boers as a serious military adversary. It predicted that the Orange Free State would join the Transvaal in a war against Britain, but maintained that, although on paper the two republics could commandeer citizen forces totalling 54,000 men, they would be no match for a professionally trained British army. The only threat that the Cape and Natal would face was from ‘raiding parties’. British forces would meanwhile sweep across the highveld, overwhelming Boer resistance. ‘It appears certain that, after [one] serious defeat, they would be too deficient in discipline and organization to make any further real stand.’ The British also assumed that they would be able to control the timing of the war, that it would only start when they were ready and that therefore there was no cause for undue haste.
At a cabinet meeting on 8 September, Chamberlain pressed the case for sending a force of 10,000 men as reinforcements. In a memorandum he prepared for the meeting, he insisted that after three months of negotiating in an attempt to reach an ‘amicable’ settlement over uitlander grievances, the time had now come ‘to bring matters to a head’ and formulate demands for a final settlement. The example of the Transvaal ‘flouting, and flouting successfully, British control and interference’ was affecting the whole of southern Africa. Afrikaners, he claimed, were bent on ousting British influence from the region and establishing their own ‘United States of South Africa’. It was now up to the British government to decide ‘whether the supremacy which we have claimed so long and so seldom exerted is to be finally established or for ever abandoned’. What was at stake was not only the reputation of Britain in southern Africa but its standing throughout the world.
The cabinet sanctioned the despatch of reinforcements and authorised the army to set up an expeditionary force, but held back from sending an ultimatum to Kruger until the reinforcements had arrived. Salisbury was still determined not to be rushed, hoping that Kruger in the meantime might capitulate. Only gradually during the course of September was an army corps for southern Africa mobilised. In a note to an intelligence officer, Wolseley fulminated over the dilly-dallying of the politicians:
We have lost two months through the absolute folly of our Cabinet & the incapacity of its members to take in the requirements & the difficulties of war . . . It is no wonder we never achieve much in war & have to struggle through obstacles created by the folly & war ignorance of civilian ministers & War Office clerks.
In Pretoria, the effect of Britain’s war preparations, far from intimidating Kruger’s government, was to make it all the more determined to resist. ‘The only thing that can bring an end to the situation is a definite answer that will show the British Government that we will not go further upon being threatened,’ said Smuts. ‘They must then make peace or war.’ Kruger was convinced that nothing would satisfy Chamberlain except total surrender. The Transvaal government accused Britain of acting in bad faith and withdrew its conditional offer of a five-year franchise. ‘With God before our eyes,’ Kruger told Hofmeyr, ‘we feel that we cannot go further without endangering if not totally destroying our independence. ’
In Johannesburg, the momentum towards war aroused increasing alarm. The gold industry was booming. Gold output in 1899 was double that of 1895, making the Transvaal the world’s leading producer. In July, output reached record levels, valued at £1.7 million for the month. Whatever complaints the mining companies raised against Kruger’s government, they enjoyed substantial profits and a relatively benign regime. Investment in the Rand gold mines by 1899 had reached about £75 million; about two-thirds of it was British. The president of the Chamber of Mines, Georges Rouliot, a senior partner in Wernher, Beit & Co., believed that war would have disastrous consequences. The mining companies faced not only disruption but possible closure and the risk of long-term damage through flooding and sabotage. Already, the business sector was faltering; trade was at a standstill; uitlanders were being thrown out of work.
In August, an exodus set in. Trains to the Cape Colony and Natal were packed with immigrant miners, shopkeepers, artisans, prostitutes and pimps. In September, panic took hold; passengers stood in open cattle-trucks to get away. In all, an estimated 100,000 whites fled the Transvaal. Tens of thousands of black workers were sent home. By the end of September, two-thirds of businesses in Johannesburg and most mines on the Witwatersrand had shut down. An eerie calm descended over the town.
In London, after further prevarication, the cabinet decided on 29 September to press ahead with preparations for mobilising an expeditionary army and to draw up an ultimatum to be delivered to Pretoria after the arrival of reinforcements in southern Africa. Considerable effort was put into producing the draft of an ultimatum. Milner’s advice, after he heard that Kruger was planning to issue an ultimatum of his own, was to postpone the whole matter. In a cable to Chamberlain on 29 September, he remarked:
Personally I am still of opinion not to hurry in settling ultimatum, as events of next few days may supply us with a better one than anybody can compose. Ultimatum has always been great difficulty, as unless we widen issue, there is not sufficient cause for war, and if we do so, we are abused for shifting our ground and extending our demands.
The following day, he pointed out another reason for withholding the ultimatum:
It will be great moral advantage to us, especially here, that conflict should be brought about by attack on us without the excuse which the ultimatum would give them.
Chamberlain agreed that ‘the technical casus belli is a very weak one’. But he doubted that the Boers would stage a pre-emptive strike and put themselves in the role of aggressor. Nor did he fear a British reverse if they did. ‘When all the reinforcements are landed, my own feeling is that we shall be quite a match for the Boers even without the army corps.’ His main concern, he told Milner, was that a deal to avoid war might be cobbled together at the last minute.
What I fear is some suggestion of compromise from them which will be totally inadequate to provide a permanent settlement but will nevertheless strengthen the hands of the Opposition at home and make many foolish people inclined to give more time and to patch up some sort of hollow agreement.
In an exchange over the draft ultimatum, the chancellor of the exchequer, Sir Michael Hicks Beach, wanted clarification over the objective. Provided that a political settlement was reached ‘with the equality of the white races as its basis’, then he saw no harm in maintaining the ‘present independence’ of the Transvaal. ‘I see no reason for proposing anything now which could be taken as a revocation of independence. We can never govern from Downing Street any part of South Africa in which the whites are strong enough to defend themselves against the natives: so that equality of white races in the Transvaal would really secure all we can desire, viz. British supremacy.’
Chamberlain concurred: ‘I agree we do not want . . . to make ourselves responsible for the Government of the Transvaal. It must be a Republic or a self-governing Colony - under the British flag in either case.’
While these discussions were under way, Kruger mobilised his commandos, anxious to take advantage of the delays in British troop movements. ‘The Lord will protect us,’ Kruger told the Volksraad. ‘The Lord orders the flights of bullets. The Lord gave us the triumph of the War of Independence and the capture of Jameson. The Lord will also protect you now, even if thousands of bullets fly about you.’
The Orange Free State followed suit on 2 October. Even though the risks of defeat were high, when members of the Free State Volksraad met in secret to decide whether to stand together with the Transvaal, their view was unanimous, as Abraham Fischer recorded: ‘There was no bounce orgrootpraat [boasting] but quiet determination, and the spontaneous and unmistakable enthusiasm with which the members burst out into the Volkslied [the national anthem] was something to remember. They were all most cheerful learning that the best had been done to avert war and that they were unjustly being dragged into it.’
In a letter to Hofmeyr, Fischer explained:
Every reasonable concession has been granted and the British Government’s requests complied with, and the only result of every concession has been trickery and increased demands. Further compliance would, I feel sure, only be an inducement for, and lead to further dishonourable and insulting treatment of [the Transvaal] . . . We have honestly done our best, and can do no more: if we are to lose our independence - since that is palpably what is demanded - leave us, at all events, the consolation that we did not sacrifice it dishonourably.
On 9 October, the Transvaal presented its own ultimatum, demanding the withdrawal of British troops from its borders and the recall of all reinforcements. Unless the British government complied within forty-eight hours, the Transvaal would ‘with great regret be compelled to regard the action as a formal declaration of war’. Awakened on the morning of 10 October, Chamberlain read the ultimatum with a sense of relief. ‘They have done it!’ he exclaimed. Lord Salisbury was similarly jubilant. The Boers, he said, had ‘liberated us from the necessity of explaining to the people of England why we are at war’. Lansdowne remarked: ‘My soldiers are in ecstasies.’ London newspapers predicted a short war - ‘a tea-time war’. It would all be over by Christmas.