When Lord Roberts landed at Cape Town on 10 January 1900, he received some unwelcome news. Despite repeated instructions he had sent to Buller to remain on the defensive, Buller, hoping to redeem his battered reputation, had decided to try to cross the Tugela River once more and lift the siege of Ladysmith. Yet another British disaster was in the making.
The crossing point that Buller chose was a drift eighteen miles upstream from Colenso. The massive force that he assembled - 24,000 infantry, 2,500 mounted troops, eight field batteries, ten naval guns and vast amounts of supplies - took more than a week to deploy. Heavy rains had left rivers in flood and roads waterlogged. A correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, John Atkins, described how Buller’s army waded, ‘sliding, sucking, pumping, gurgling through the mud’, with men, animals and wagons strung out for miles. Forewarned of the attack, Louis Botha had ample time to prepare his defences, bringing reinforcements from Colenso and deploying his artillery in advantageous positions.
Buller’s main force crossed the Tugela River on 20 January in good order, gained a foothold on the northern bank and then tried to advance between two summits, Spion Kop and Twin Peaks, hoping to reach the open plain beyond leading to Ladysmith. After two rebuffs, Buller authorised General Sir Charles Warren’s division to make an assault on Spion Kop - Lookout Hill - the highest peak in the area rising more than 1,500 feet above the Tugela, believing it would give him a commanding field of fire.
A night assault was made on 24 January. Only a light Boer picket had been posted to defend Spion Kop. Clambering up the steep, rock-strewn slope, Warren’s men soon put the picket to flight and in the dark started digging defence works. As the ground was rocky, the main trench they managed to gouge out was no more than a broad, shallow ditch, running for some 200 yards. When the morning mist lifted, they discovered they had won only part of the summit. Their position, moreover, was exposed both to Boer artillery fire from surrounding hills and to Boer fighters creeping up the slopes below them, unsighted, determined to recapture the hill. Among them was Deneys Reitz:
Many of our men dropped, but already the foremost were within a few yards of the rocky edge which marked the crest, and the [British] soldiers were rising from behind their cover to meet the final rush. For a moment or two there was confused hand to hand fighting, then the combatants surged over the rim of the plateau.
With no adequate cover, British ranks were ripped apart by Boer artillery fire. The main trench was soon filled with bodies, two or three deep. In the British command, there was muddle and confusion. Reinforcements were sent up, but counter-attacks and diversions on Boer positions elsewhere to relieve the pressure on Spion Kop were delayed or called back. Watching the carnage unfold through a telescope from Buller’s headquarters on a hill south of the Tugela River, John Atkins wrote: ‘I shall always have it in memory - that acre of massacre, that complete shambles.’
Some soldiers surrendered to the Boers; others fought on, while the vast bulk of Buller’s army stood idle. In the late afternoon, Winston Churchill climbed up the narrow track to the summit, passing streams of wounded men:
Men were staggering along alone, or supported by comrades, or crawling on hands and knees, or carried on stretchers. Corpses lay here and there . . . The splinters and fragments of shell had torn and mutilated in the most ghastly manner. I passed about two hundred while I was climbing up. There was, moreover, a small but steady leakage of unwounded men of all corps. Some of these cursed and swore. Others were utterly exhausted and fell on the hillside in stupor.
During the night, the British retreated in disarray, having lost 1,100 men, killed, wounded and captured. The Boers too suffered heavy casualties - more than 300 men - and abandoned their forward positions:
We were hungry, thirsty and tired [wrote Reitz], around us were the dead men covered with swarms of flies attracted by the smell of blood. We did not know the cruel losses that the English were suffering and we believed that they were easily holding their own, so discouragement spread as the shadows lengthened. Batches of men left the line . . .
The Boers were on the brink of retreating altogether when a few scouts climbed up to the summit at dawn and found it deserted.
Rather than hold on to a bridgehead across the Tugela, Buller withdrew his entire army to the south bank and began to prepare for yet another assault. But his third attempt was no more successful. Crossing the river by pontoon downstream from Spion Kop on 5 February, Buller’s 20,000-strong army greatly outnumbered the Boer commandos ranged against it around Vaalkranz and Doornkop, but Buller dithered, countermanded his own orders and, after incurring 400 casualties, decided to retreat across the Tugela once more. Two months after setting up his headquarters at Frere, Buller was still no further forward. In England, he became known derisively as the ‘Ferryman of the Tugela’.
While Buller set about planning a fourth assault across the Tugela, three hundred miles to the west Lord Roberts marshalled a ‘grand army’ of 60,000 men south of the Modder River. Roberts’ original plan had been to make a direct thrust at Bloemfontein, forcing its capitulation, before turning to sort out other difficulties like the siege of Kimberley. Though Kimberley had been under siege for nearly four months, it was in no danger of imminent collapse. Its population of 50,000 civilians - 13,000 whites, 30,000 Africans and 7,000 Coloureds - had grown accustomed to the hazards of being shelled almost daily by artillery; most of the Boer bombardment was ineffective. While many blacks were close to starvation, whites had survived the ordeal with relative ease.
Roberts had been obliged, however, to amend his plan to deal with agitation by Rhodes insisting that the relief of Kimberley should take priority. Rhodes was openly contemptuous of the British military for their endless delays in lifting the siege. His running feud with the garrison commander, Colonel Kekewich, had become increasingly fractious. He constantly sought to undermine Kekewich’s authority, obstructing his orders and setting up his own communication system with the outside world to make his views known.
What brought matters to a head was a panic that set in when the Boers began pounding the town on 7 February with a devastating new weapon: a six-inch ‘Long Tom’ Creusot gun. It was more accurate than anything they had hitherto used at Kimberley.
Twenty-two shells fell that day; thirty the following day; seventy-four the day after. Calling at Kekewich’s headquarters near the Kimberley Club on 9 February, Rhodes threatened to organise a public meeting to protest against the delays in rescue, hinting at the possibility of surrender. When Kekewich responded by banning the holding of a meeting, Rhodes became abusive, telling Kekewich he would go ahead despite the ban unless Kekewich disclosed within forty-eight hours ‘full and definite’ information about Roberts’ plan to advance. ‘Before Kimberley surrenders,’ Rhodes shouted, ‘I will take good care that the English people shall know what I think of all this.’
The following day, Rhodes’ newspaper, the Diamond Fields Advertiser, carried an editorial entitled ‘Why Kimberley Cannot Wait’ which heaped scorn on the British military.
How utterly the public and the authorities have failed to grasp the claim which Kimberley, by the heroic exertions of her citizens, has established upon the British Empire is only too apparent . . . [from] the utter indifference with which our fate appears to be regarded by the military hierarchy . . . We have stood a siege which is rapidly approaching the duration of the siege of Paris . . . They shout to us ‘Have patience’ . . . Is it unreasonable, when our women and children are being slaughtered, and our buildings fired, to expect something better than that a large British Army should remain inactive in the presence of eight or ten thousand peasant soldiers?
Outraged by the paper’s breach of censorship rules, Kekewich ordered the arrest of the editor, only to be told that Rhodes had hidden him down a mine.
Rhodes followed up his newspaper attack by convening a meeting of twelve of Kimberley’s leading citizens. He then took a statement they produced to Kekewich, demanding that it should be transmitted immediately to Roberts. The statement was a long one, listing the suffering that Kimberley’s residents had endured while British troops had been camped for more than two months ‘within twenty miles’. Residents wanted to know, said the statement, ‘whether there is any intention on your part to make an immediate effort for our relief’.
Kekewich pointed out that signallers were working under great pressure and could not send the full statement for some time, but he offered to send an abbreviated version. At this, Rhodes flew into a rage, hurling insults and making a lunge at Kekewich. ‘I know what damned rot your signallers are wasting their time in signalling,’ he shouted. ‘You low, damned, mean cur, Kekewich, you deny me at your peril.’
On receiving the abbreviated version, Roberts responded with two messages. One authorised Kekewich to arrest anyone, no matter how illustrious, if they presented a danger to security. The other urged Kekewich to try to mollify Rhodes and his colleagues, to stress ‘as strongly as you possibly can disastrous and humiliating effect of surrendering after so prolonged and glorious defence’. In a cable marked ‘secret’, he told Kekewich that only a few more days would pass before Kimberley was relieved. ‘We commence active operations tomorrow.’ Shown the cable, Rhodes took it to read aloud to passers-by from the steps of the Kimberley Club.
Keeping himself at the centre of the drama, Rhodes made arrangements to use the diamond mines as shelter against the Long Tom. During a respite from the shelling on Sunday, 11 February, while frantic efforts were made to build sandbagged shelters on the surface, Rhodes posted notices in prominent parts of the town, telling residents:
I recommend women and children who desire complete shelter to proceed to Kimberley and De Beers shafts. They will be lowered at once in the mines from 8 o’clock throughout the night. Lamps and guides will be provided.
Residents assumed that Rhodes had definite information about a worse bombardment to come. In renewed panic, hundreds of women and children fled to the mine shafts, huddling together three hundred feet below the surface.
Four days later, a British cavalry division led by General John French charged through Boer lines and ended the 124-day siege. Rhodes, relishing the limelight, greeted French and his accompanying press contingent with a champagne reception. British newspapers were exuberant. ‘Kimberley is won,’ exulted the London Daily Mail, ‘Mr Cecil Rhodes is free, the De Beers shareholders are all full of themselves, and the beginning of the war is at an end.’
On the Tugela front, Buller resumed his offensive on 14 February, this time concentrating his army - 25,000 strong - on a six-mile arc of territory downstream from Colenso. The Boers threw in reinforcements but could only muster 5,000 men to oppose him. Demoralised after losing possession of key hill positions, Boer fighters began to drift away, making for home. Botha tried in vain to stop them and in despair telegraphed Kruger suggesting that the Tugela and the siege of Ladysmith should be abandoned. Kruger replied with a stern rallying call, quoting at length from the Bible.
The moment you cease to hold firm and fight in the name of the Lord, then you have unbelief in you; and the moment unbelief is present cowardice follows and the moment you turn your backs on the enemy then there remains no place for us to seek refuge, for in that case we have ceased to trust in the Lord. No, no, my brethren; let it not be so . . . Has not the Lord hitherto given us double proof that He stands on our side? Wherever our burghers have stood fast, however hard the task, the Lord has beaten back the enemy with a small number of our burghers.
Botha fought on for ten more days. But by 27 February, Buller was firmly in control of the Tugela heights, the Boers were in retreat and the way to Ladysmith was open. Mounted troops entered Ladysmith on 28 February, ending 188 days of siege. ‘I thank God we have kept the flag flying,’ General White told a cheering crowd. Enjoying his victory, Buller organised a formal entry into the town three days later. In a Special Army Order, he claimed that the campaign to relieve Ladysmith had been a ‘glorious page’ in the history of the British empire. The cost of the ‘glorious page’ had been more than 5,000 British casualties.
Having secured Kimberley, Roberts’ ‘steamroller’ army advanced into the Orange Free State, eastwards along the Modder River, heading for Bloemfontein with overwhelming numerical superiority. After bombarding Boer positions at Paardeburg for ten days, the British forced General Piet Cronjé’s surrender on 27 February, capturing 4,000 Boer combatants. As Boer morale crumbled, Kruger rushed to the Modder River front to rally burghers to the cause. But he had barely arrived at General Christiaan de Wet’s camp near Poplar Grove on 7 March when British shells began falling nearby. De Wet bundled Kruger back into his Cape cart and sent him off with an armed escort. Rather than make a stand at Poplar Grove, the last strongpoint before Bloemfontein, fifty miles to the east, De Wet fought a rearguard action, then escaped with 6,000 men.
As the British approached Bloemfontein, Boer resistance melted away. Thousands of burghers fled northwards. President Steyn left on 12 March on one of the last trains to get away before the British cut the line. On 13 March, Roberts’ army entered Bloemfontein without firing a shot. Cheered on by English residents, Roberts rode at the head of a triumphal procession to Steyn’s Presidency and watched as the Union flag was hoisted aloft in the garden.
Roberts endeavoured to put the Boer population at their ease by allowing most Boer officials to remain in their posts and inviting them to banquets and parties. He launched a new bilingual daily newspaper called The Friend, telling British war correspondents to produce it in their spare time. Among those whom he recruited to the task was Rudyard Kipling who arrived from Cape Town at Roberts’ behest shortly after Bloemfontein had been captured. Printed on the presses of an anti-British newspaper that the British had banned, The Friend contained proclamations and a large number of old advertisements. Kipling recalled: ‘We used all the old stereos [stereotype plates], advertising long-since-exhausted comestibles, coal and groceries (face powder, I think, was the only surviving commodity in the Bloemfontein shops).’
The impact of British occupation was nevertheless devastating. Bloemfontein, a town with a total population of 4,000, was suddenly inundated with 50,000 troops in need of shelter, supplies and sanitation. The Raadzaal, schools, clubhouses and private residences were commandeered for British use. An outbreak of typhoid among British troops brought further crisis. Hundreds of soldiers were struck down and left lying packed together on the ground in filthy conditions with no adequate care or medical attention. By early April, nearly a thousand soldiers had died; by the end of April, two thousand had died.
Two weeks after the British took control at Bloemfontein, Lord Milner arrived to inspect his new domain. His journey from Cape Town had given him little cause for comfort. In a letter to Lady Edward Cecil, he described the north-east of the Cape as ‘reeking with treason’. Nor did he have much faith in the army. ‘The more I see of the Army,’ he wrote, ‘the more unhappy I feel about it.’ To cheer him up, members of staff at The Friend held a banquet in his honour at the Railway Bureau in the very room where Milner had met Kruger nine months before. Kipling rose to propose a toast to Kruger, a man, he said, to whom they owed so much - ‘who has taught the British Empire its responsibilities, and the rest of the world its power, who has filled the seas with the transports and the earth with the tramp of armed men . . .’
On 3 May, Roberts led his army out of Bloemfontein and headed northwards along the line of rail, confident of bringing the war to a swift conclusion. ‘We are marching to Pretoria’ became a popular imperial song. At his disposal Roberts had a total of 170,000 troops, with more reinforcements still due. The Boers’ fighting forces consisted of no more than 30,000 men scattered over a wide area. To the east, Buller’s army crawled northwards through Natal, on a direct route to the Transvaal through Laing’s Nek. To the west, a flying column left Kimberley heading for Mafeking.
The relief of Mafeking by now had become a matter of urgency. Food supplies were nearly exhausted. Through strict rationing, Colonel Baden-Powell had managed to keep going for six months of siege but warned Roberts that the town could not hold out much longer. The white population, given superior rations, had survived in relative comfort, but hundreds of blacks had died of starvation. Baden-Powell tried to shore up morale by organising sports events and amateur theatricals, often playing a leading role himself. ‘What a wonderful man our Colonel is,’ wrote his chief clerk, ‘he can sing, recite, mimic, in fact do almost anything under the sun.’ Baden-Powell had also successfully improvised a series of defences, fortifying the town with trenches, shelters and makeshift artillery. But boredom and frustration had sapped morale. Nobody much liked horse-meat. ‘Heard from three sources,’ Baden-Powell wrote in his diary on 18 March, ‘that the townspeople are expressing themselves tired of the siege and of me etc. They say . . . that I am asking for reinforcements not to be sent in order that I may gain Kudos afterwards . . .’
The plight of Mafeking gripped the imagination of the British public. It stood as a symbol of seemingly heroic resistance, a dusty outpost in the African wilderness bravely defying bombardment and bullets for the sake of the empire. In April, Queen Victoria sent Baden-Powell a message expressing her admiration for ‘the patient and resolute defence’ of Mafeking ‘under your ever resourceful command’.
When the relief column from Kimberley finally broke through to Mafeking on 17 May after 217 days of siege, Britain celebrated in an orgy of nationalist fervour; crowds erupted on to the streets, cheering, dancing, waving flags and banners and singing patriotic songs. A new verb was added to the English language - to maffick - meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to exult riotously.
Ten days later, Roberts’ grand army crossed the Vaal River into the Transvaal, only forty miles south of Johannesburg. By arrangement with Boer commanders, he paused on the outskirts of Johannesburg to allow Boer forces to withdraw unhindered, then entered the town on 31 May, raising the Union flag in the main square.
The British made plain that their intention now was to turn both the Orange Free State and the Transvaal into British territories. Despite Salisbury’s previous protestations that ‘We want no gold, we want no territory’, on 28 May Britain formally annexed the Orange Free State, renaming it the Orange River Colony. The Transvaal was destined for the same fate.
As Boer forces retreated on all fronts, Kruger’s inner circle decided that rather than make a stand at Pretoria with the inevitable result of defeat, they would abandon the capital, relocate the government in the eastern Transvaal and take the war into the veld. A special train was prepared for Kruger’s escape; it included a sleeping car, a dining car, a conference car, a communications room, an office, a bathroom and kitchen. On his last day in Pretoria - 29 May - Kruger’s house on Church Street was full of relatives and friends come to bid him goodbye. His wife, Gezina, was too infirm to accompany him, so she too had to say farewell. After conducting family prayers in the sitting room, Kruger took his wife’s hand and led her into their bedroom. Nobody spoke or moved. Outside the carriage horses snorted. Then the old couple reappeared. Kruger pressed her against him, then released her, looking at her intently, silently. Then he turned and walked out to the carriage. They were never to meet again.
On the streets of Pretoria, as the British approached, there was confusion and looting. The main road from Johannesburg was crowded with retreating burghers, wagons and herds of cattle. With a cry of ‘Huis-toe’ - ‘off-home’ - thousands abandoned the fight. Meeting at the telegraph offices on 1 June, the Transvaal’s generals, including Botha, debated whether to surrender. Only 7,000 burghers could be mustered. The cause seemed hopeless. ‘I shall never forget the bitter humiliation and despondency of that awful moment when the stoutest hearts and strongest wills in the Transvaal army were, albeit but for a moment, to sink beneath the tide of our misfortune,’ wrote Smuts.
What all felt so deeply was that the fight had gone out of the Boers, that the heroes who had stood like a stone wall on the Tugela and the Modder River, who had stormed Spion Kop and Ladysmith and many other forlorn hopes, had lost heart and hope, had gone home and forsaken these great officers. It was not Lord Roberts’s army that they feared, it was the utter collapse of the Boer rank and file which staggered these great officers.
On his train at Middelburg, ninety miles east of Pretoria. Kruger was equally despondent. He consulted President Steyn by telegraph, sending a message to his hide-out near Lindley in the eastern Free State suggesting surrender. Steyn was furious. Having lost his own capital two months before, he had embarked on a new phase of the war based in the countryside. He was shocked by the lack of resolve now shown by the Transvaalers and virtually accused them of cowardice. No sooner had the war spread to their own territory, Steyn replied, than they were prepared to conclude a ‘selfish and disgraceful’ peace. Whether or not the Transvaalers made peace, his own people would fight on to the bitter end. Stung by Steyn’s rebuke, Kruger and the Transvaal generals went back to the fray.
With only hours to spare before the British arrived, Smuts rushed to get the government’s coin and gold reserves, worth about £500,000, out of Pretoria. When bank officials refused to release the gold, Smuts issued warrants for their arrest, then sent a detachment of fifty police to collect it. The gold was put on one of the last trains to leave Pretoria, with shells bursting around the railway station as it left.
On 5 June, by arrangement with Boer officials, Roberts made a triumphal entry into Pretoria. His army had made the 300-mile march from Bloemfontein in only thirty-four days. With control of both capitals, Johannesburg and the gold mines, Roberts confidently expected the Boers to capitulate. The British were in an unassailable position. Boer morale had collapsed. Thousands of Boer combatants - hensoppers or ‘hands-uppers’ - had already surrendered. Roberts’ promise of an amnesty, and protection for all burghers who agreed to take no further part in fighting, prompted thousands more to return home. The war, it seemed, was all but over.
Even though sporadic Boer resistance continued, Roberts assumed it would be dealt with in ‘mopping-up’ operations. In the eastern Free State, Steyn was harried from one makeshift headquarters to the next; in July, half of the remaining Free State army - 4,500 burghers - was forced to surrender at Brandwater Basin.
In the eastern Transvaal, Kruger’s government set up temporary headquarters in long lines of train carriages at a railway halt at Machadodorp. But after Botha’s commandos were defeated in the last major set-piece battle of the war, Kruger was forced to retreat further down the line to Nelspruit, sixty miles from the Portuguese border. When Roberts formally announced the annexation of the Transvaal on 1 September, Kruger issued a message of defiance from his railway carriage in Nelspruit, declaring the annexation ‘null and void’. But his days in the Transvaal were now numbered. Deneys Reitz caught a final glimpse of him. ‘He was seated at a table in a railway saloon, with a large Bible before him, a lonely, tired man . . . bowed in thought.’
As British troops advanced on Nelspruit, Kruger left by train for Delagoa Bay, crossing the border at Komatipoort on 11 September with tears coursing down his cheeks. He was never to return. ‘If my departure from Pretoria was a bitter blow to me,’ he said in his memoirs, ‘my departure under such sorrowful circumstances, from the land to which I had devoted my life was doubly bitter. I saw it swarming with the enemy, who, in his arrogance, was already declaring that the war was over . . . I had to bid goodbye to the men who had stood beside me for so many years and to leave my country and my people, my grey-haired wife, my children, my friends and the little band of lion-hearted fighters . . . But I had no choice.’
On 20 October, Kruger, at the age of seventy-five, left for exile in Europe on board a Dutch warship sent to collect him by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.
Lord Roberts, too, left the Transvaal, handing over command to his chief of staff, General Kitchener, at the end of November. The war, he proclaimed, was ‘practically’ over. On his return to England, he was given a rapturous reception. Queen Victoria bestowed an earldom upon him; Parliament voted him £100,000. The celebrations, however, were premature. One phase of the war had ended. Another had only just begun.