In high spirits, Boer commandos assembled along the borders of Natal in early October, 1899, ready to strike deep into British territory. ‘There was not a man who did not believe that we were heading straight for the coast,’ wrote Deneys Reitz, the 17-year-old son of Frank Reitz, who signed up with the Pretoria commando. Addressing a huge parade of mounted riflemen on 10 October at his headquarters at Sandspruit, ten miles from the border, Piet Joubert, the 68-year-old commandant-general, told them of the ultimatum that had been sent to the British. ‘The excitement that followed was immense,’ wrote Reitz. ‘The great throng stood in its stirrups and shouted itself hoarse.’ In the early hours of 12 October, after war had been officially declared, the commandos moved out on the road towards Laing’s Nek and Majuba Hill, where British forces had been humiliated eighteen years before. ‘As far as the eye could see the plain was alive with horsemen, guns and cattle, all steadily going forward to the frontier,’ wrote Reitz.
The invasion of Natal formed a central part of the Boers’ war strategy. Based on a plan drawn up by Smuts in September, the aim was to use overwhelming numbers of men to punch through the lightly defended north-western districts of Natal, capturing the line of rail all the way to the port of Durban and thwarting the landing of Britain’s expeditionary army. Some 21,000 men - 15,000 from the Transvaal and 6,000 from the Free State - were committed to the Natal offensive. Simultaneous offensives were launched into the northern Cape, cutting off the railway linking the Cape to Rhodesia and isolating the towns of Mafeking and Kimberley. By seizing control of the main rail network, the Boers intended to block the advance of British troops heading for the Transvaal. Early victories, Smuts believed, would dishearten the British and induce them to negotiate a settlement, just as they had done after General Colley’s defeat at Majuba Hill in 1881. Military success would also encourage Cape Afrikaners to rally to the republican cause. Moreover, it would result in ‘an immediate shaking of the British Empire’ that Britain’s rivals - Germany, France and Russia - would hasten to exploit.
As well as the military campaign, Smuts placed great store on the use of propaganda, hoping to stir up both Boer outrage in the colonies and international opinion against Britain. He compiled a 100-page tract entitled Een Eeuw Van Onrecht - A Century of Wrong - portraying British rule since 1806 as a bloodstained tyranny. Written in High Dutch and translated into English by Smuts’ wife Isie, the tract pinned the blame for the present crisis on a conspiracy between mine-owning capitalists and the British government to seize the riches of the Transvaal, a conspiracy that had first surfaced during the Jameson Raid. The Jameson Raid, according to Smuts, was ‘the real declaration of war in the great Anglo-Boer conflict’. He concluded with the slogan: ‘Africa for the Africander’.
If it is ordained that we, insignificant as we are, should be the first among all peoples to begin the struggle against the new-world tyranny of Capitalism, then we are ready to do so, even if that tyranny is reinforced by the power of Jingoism.
As the Boers struck deep into British territory, Britain’s main expeditionary army was still being assembled in England. After months of wrangling, the order for mobilisation, calling out the reserves, had not been issued until 7 October. It was only at the last minute, once Kruger had issued his ultimatum, that public opinion rallied behind the war effort. ‘You cannot realise the enormous difficulty we have had with public opinion at home,’ Selborne wrote to Milner. As a result of the press campaign conducted by Milner and Chamberlain, the public was eventually persuaded that war was necessary to liberate the maltreated English-speaking population of the Transvaal from Kruger’s repressive regime. Appeals went out for funds to support soldiers’ dependants and for gifts of clothing, tobacco, cigarettes and ‘delicacies’ for the men. The most potent appeal of all was made by Rudyard Kipling:
When you’ve shouted ‘Rule Britannia’, when you’ve
sung ‘God Save the Queen’,
When you’re finished killing Kruger with your mouth,
Will you kindly drop a shilling in my little tambourine
For a gentleman in Khaki ordered South?
He’s an absent-minded beggar, and his weaknesses are
But we and Paul must take him as we find him -
He’s out on active service, wiping something off a slate -
And he’s left a lot of little things behind him! . . .
It was not until 20 October that the first infantry transports sailed for Table Bay. By 31 October, some 27,000 men, 3,600 horses and 42 artillery guns were on the high seas. The last transport ship sailed on 15 November, bringing the expeditionary army to 47,000 men. But by then, British forces on the ground were in retreat.
Within two weeks of crossing the border into Natal, Boer commandos had routed a brigade of British troops at Dundee, driven British forces in northwestern Natal back to Ladysmith, the third largest town in the colony, and taken prisoner more than a thousand British soldiers. By the end of October they had encircled Ladysmith, cutting the railway line to the capital, Pietermaritzburg, and trapping 12,000 troops there, the largest British force in Natal. Only 3,000 British troops were left to defend the whole of the south of Natal. Moving further southwards, a Boer group of 2,000 men crossed the Tugela River on 14 November, heading along the line of rail towards Pietermaritzburg. The next day, a commando led by Louis Botha, a 38-year-old farmer and politician, ambushed an armoured train near Chievely. Among the sixty prisoners captured was Winston Churchill, then a correspondent for the Morning Post. As the son of Randolph Churchill, he was a prize captive. Brought before Smuts for interrogation, he appeared ‘dishevelled and most indignant’, Smuts recalled, claiming immunity as a non-combatant. Smuts pointed out that he had been carrying a pistol when captured and sent him off to a detention camp in Pretoria. Boer patrols, meanwhile, rode further south.
To the west, a Boer army commanded by Piet Cronjé, veteran of the 1881 war and the Jameson Raid, encircled Mafeking, ten miles from the Transvaal border, calling for its surrender. A dusty outpost of some 1,500 whites, with 5,000 Africans living in the adjacent settlement of Mafikeng, Mafeking was held by a British garrison of 750 colonial troops and mounted police. The garrison commander, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, was a resourceful 43-year-old officer with a passion for scouting and an eye for self-promotion, who had been sent there with secret instructions to raid the Transvaal in the event of war but found himself instead under siege. Baden-Powell not only refused to surrender, but decided to arm Africans to help defend the town. Cronjé was outraged: ‘an enormous act of wickedness’, he told Baden-Powell. ‘I would ask you to pause and even at this eleventh hour, reconsider the matter, and even if it cost you the loss of Mafeking, to disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man’s war.’ To show what was in store for the British unless they surrendered, Cronjé ordered an artillery bombardment. But Baden-Powell was unimpressed. After the first day’s shelling, he sent out a message by runner saying: ‘October 21st. All well. Four hours’ bombardment. One dog killed.’ His stiff-upper-lip manner made him an instant hero in England. Mafeking fortuitously possessed substantial supplies. But the garrison’s isolated position nevertheless made it vulnerable.
The day after Mafeking’s siege began, Kimberley came under threat from Free State forces. It stood not only as a symbol of British industrial might, but possessed workshops and supplies useful for the Boer war effort. Another prize was Cecil Rhodes, who arrived there by train on 10 October, a day before the Boer ultimatum was due to expire. Fearing that his presence would encourage attack, the mayor of Kimberley had urged him to stay away, but Rhodes saw a heroic role for himself, defending the front line of empire. He set up headquarters in the Sanatorium, a double-storeyed, red-brick hotel recently refurbished by De Beers as a health resort. No sooner had he arrived than he sought to wrest control of the town’s defences from the garrison commander, Colonel Robert Kekewich, causing rows and disruption. He also bombarded highly placed contacts like Milner with messages pleading for the immediate despatch of relief forces - ‘otherwise a terrible disaster’. On 5 November, he cabled Milner: ‘If you do not advance at once from Orange River you will lose Kimberley.’
For Milner, the news went from bad to worse. Not only were three strategic towns in British territory under siege - Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley - but on 1 November, Free State commandos crossed the Orange River, overrunning frontier districts of the Cape Colony and recruiting rebel Afrikaners as they went. A string of frontier towns and villages fell into Boer hands. What Milner now began to fear was the possibility of a wider Boer uprising all over the colony. In his diary, he wrote on 4 November: ‘The blackest of black days . . . everything going wrong.’ To Chamberlain, he cabled on 9 November: ‘I write this quaking, for one fears every hour for Kimberley.’
But just when Milner was giving way to despair, the first British troopship steamed into Table Bay. The arrival of the expeditionary army, led by General Sir Redvers Buller, seemed certain to turn the war in Britain’s favour. It was, however, to lead to yet more disasters.
Although he had been given overall command of the army corps, General Buller decided to take personal charge of the Natal campaign, leaving the Cape’s troublespots in the hands of other generals. Natal was an area with which he was familiar. During the Zulu war in 1879, he had won a Victoria Cross for rescuing wounded British soldiers. A tall, burly figure, with a florid complexion, multiple chins and a walrus moustache, sixty years old, he looked the epitome of a British bulldog commander, stolid and resilient. Taking half of the army corps with him, Buller established a huge forward base at Frere, a railway halt south of the Tugela River, some twenty-five miles from Ladysmith. The force he commanded included 14,000 infantry, 2,700 mounted men and 44 field guns. His aim was to punch his way across the Tugela and relieve Ladysmith. The river crossing was expected to be a ‘walk-over’.
For several weeks, however, the Boer commander at Tugela, Louis Botha, had been preparing for a British assault, anticipating they would attempt to cross the river at Colenso on the line of rail. A network of trenches had been dug over a stretch of nine miles running along the hills overlooking the river, keeping the Boer defenders protected and hidden from view.
Buller’s plan of attack was spectacularly inept. On 13 December he launched two days of artillery bombardment, expecting Boer resistance to crumble, then sent infantry battalions across exposed ground in broad daylight with orders to cross the river. Buller’s forces were cut to pieces in a storm of rifle-fire; more than a thousand men were killed or wounded. At eight o’clock in the morning, Buller decided to withdraw; ten field guns had to be abandoned. Newspapers spoke of ‘another Majuba’. Despondent at the outcome, Buller sent a heliograph message to the British commander in Ladysmith, General George White, warning that it would take at least another month for him to break through Boer defences and suggesting that if the town proved unable to hold out that long, the garrison should destroy its ammunition and seek ‘the best terms you can’.
In the space of a week - ‘Black Week’, as it became known - Britain’s army corps suffered two other reverses. Advancing northwards along the line of rail to relieve Kimberley, General Methuen’s force of 8,000 infantry crossed the Orange River on 20 November, fought past Boer resistance at Belmont, Graspan and Modder River and then, bolstered by reinforcements, prepared to challenge Koos de la Rey’s stronghold in the Magersfontein hills that barred its way to Kimberley, sixteen miles beyond. Methuen opened his attack with an artillery bombardment, expecting the Boers to retreat, but the Boers were already dispersed in different positions. When Methuen ordered his Highland Brigade to advance after a night march, they ran into withering fire from Boer fighters concealed in a line of trenches at the foot of Magersfontein Kop. With casualties of nearly a thousand men, Methuen was forced to retreat back to the Modder River.
Further south in the Cape Colony, General Gatacre set out to dislodge invading Boer commandos who had occupied a key railway junction at Stormberg. Without making any preliminary reconnaissance, he ordered his 3,000 troops to embark on a night march over rough and broken countryside before launching a dawn assault. In muddle and confusion, Gatacre’s force lost its way and he was forced to retreat, leaving behind 600 men to be taken prisoner.
Far from winning the war by Christmas, Britain’s army corps, including several elite units, had been subjected to one humiliating defeat after another. The level of casualties was shattering: seven hundred killed in action or dead of wounds; three thousand wounded, and two thousand taken prisoner; and three strategic towns still under siege, facing disease and starvation. And all at the hands of a group of peasant farmers dressed in civilian clothes - ‘stock-breeders of the lowest kind’, according to the Economist - whom the British had confidently predicted would pack up and go home after firing a few shots. The only light relief came when Winston Churchill managed to escape from his detention camp in Pretoria, crossed the border into Portuguese territory on a train, hidden in wool bales, and turned up on the Natal war front in time for Christmas.
Stung by accusations that the war had been mismanaged, the British government ordered a change of command and appointed as commander-in-chief Field Marshal Frederick Roberts - ‘Lord Bobs’ - a diminutive, 67-year-old war hero, blind in one eye; but it was decided to leave Buller in charge of the Natal army. Two more divisions - the last readily available - were despatched from England. The government also realised that it had been trying to fight the wrong kind of war, relying too much on slow-moving infantry battalions to deal with mounted Boer riflemen using highly mobile tactics; British mobility needed to match Boer mobility. Britain called for civilian volunteers to join a new ‘Imperial Yeomanry’. Some 20,000 men from the ‘hunting and shooting’ fraternity signed up, including thirty-four members of parliament and peers. The City of London paid for one thousand volunteers. Further reinforcements came from other parts of the empire - from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. By January 1900, the total number of troops Britain had shipped to South Africa had reached 110,000. Additional support was provided by uitlander refugees and colonial volunteers formed into two mounted corps of their own - the Imperial Light Horse and the South African Light Horse - financed in part by Wernher, Beit & Co.
Even members of the Indian community in Natal - originally immigrants employed as indentured labourers to work on sugar plantations - volunteered to serve as stretcher-bearers. Their organiser was a 28-year-old lawyer, Mohandas Gandhi, who had arrived from India in 1893, spending a year in Pretoria before settling in Durban. Gandhi expressed sympathy for the Boer cause but considered he was bound by loyalty to Britain. ‘I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire.’ The Natal authorities at first turned down Gandhi’s offer. But after Black Week, their attitude changed. Gandhi’s ambulance corps of ‘free’ Indians and indentured labourers recruited 1,100 volunteers.
Just as the British won support from the empire, so Boer ranks were bolstered by foreign volunteers. Some 2,000 uitlanders - Germans, French, Dutch, Irish, Irish-Americans, Russians, Scandinavians, even some English - joined the Boer cause. Another 2,000 foreign volunteers arrived from abroad. A retired French army colonel, Count de Villebois-Mareuil, enlisted, hoping to capture Cecil Rhodes. ‘History will add a fresh flower to the glory of France,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘To take Kimberley and see the face of the Napoleon of the Cape.’ He rose to the rank of Vecht-generaal - combat general - but was killed in action in April 1900. In all, the Boer allies were able to raise armed forces totalling more than 70,000 men. In addition, about 10,000 Africans served as auxiliaries to Boer commandos - retainers, porters, gun-bearers and labourers - many of them conscripted under duress.
Yet early Boer advantages were soon frittered away by poor strategy. By committing such a large proportion of their forces to the siege of three towns, Boer generals lost the opportunity to drive deeper into Natal and the Cape Colony when both areas were highly vulnerable to mobile attack. As their forward thrusts began to ebb, they turned to a more defensive stance, preparing for a much tougher British assault. By December, the Boer offensive had reached its limits. Unlike 1881, there had been no crushing blow to induce the British to negotiate.