World at War - M. B. Synge




War in South Africa

"This ideal of Imperial Britain—to bring to the peoples of the earth beneath her sway the larger freedom and the higher notice—the world has known none fairer—none more exalted."
—J. A. CRAMB.

The Jameson Raid had deservedly failed, but south Africa was seething with trouble.

For while Cecil Rhodes was planning for British rule from the Zambesi to the Cape, was not Paul Kruger eagerly scheming for a Dutch sovereignty over the same area? He was busy obtaining the best weapons that Europe could supply, and gaining helpful information from German and French experts.

But these larger questions were swallowed up in the lesser, with the demand from the British in the Transvaal for a voice in the Government. This Kruger refused.

"This," he repeated, "is my country; these are my laws. Those who do not like to obey my laws can leave my country."

The British Government, whose leading spirit at this time was Mr Joseph Chamberlain—Colonial Secretary,—now sent out Sir Alfred Milner as High Commissioner to the Cape. The appointment was popular with all parties at home.

A conference at Bloemfontein was called in the summer of 1899, and men strove for a basis of settlement. But the war cloud grew and over-shadowed the land, until one October day the Dutch ultimatum burst upon the world. The two little Boer Republics—the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony—had joined hands and were at war, not only with Great Britain, but with the whole British Empire. The Dominions had been closely watching affairs in South Africa, and realising the justice of our cause they were ready with help should open quarrel arise.

In the spirit of the Australian poet (Hales) Australia, Canada, and New Zealand prepared to take their part.

"Are we only an English market

Held dear for the sake of trade?

Or are we part of the Empire

Close welded by hilt and blade?

If we are to cleave together

As mother and son through life,

Give us our share of the burden,

Let us stand with you in the strife."

Such was the spirit of the hosts that assembled voluntarily at the outbreak of war from all quarters of the Empire, ready to fight, not for the wealth of the Transvaal gold and diamond mines, but for a great ideal.

The Dutch wanted freedom for a single race, their foes wanted equal rights for all white men."

Under the skilful leadership of Piet Joubert, Cronje, De Wet, and others, thousands of swarthy bearded burghers rode to war, well armed, well mounted, knowing every inch of their country, and patriotic to the heart's core. "We will drive the British into the sea," they boasted.

Down into Natal they poured, and on 20th October they took up their position on Talana Hill, not far from Ladysmith, where British forces were collecting. As the mist on the hillside lifted, a curious wailing sound came through the air, and a shell, from a range of some 5,000 yards, buried itself in the soft turf near the British camping ground.

It was the first great surprise of the war, for there was not a gun on the British side which could carry anything like that length. Undaunted, however, they forced their way up the hillside under a storm of bullets and won the summit, but not before officers and men had been mown down by the deadly aim of the foe. Retreating, through torrents of rain, to Ladysmith, some twelve thousand troops were soon besieged under their leader, Sir George White—the Boer army in great force holding the surrounding hills.

Meanwhile Cronje was laying siege to Mafeking, a small town across the western borders of the Transvaal—now famous in history, which was ably and cheerfully defended for 218 days by Col. Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout Association. The day of its relief, 12th May 1900, was one of almost unparalleled enthusiasm throughout the Empire.

"Just because a little gallant band,

Eight thousand miles away and very lone,

With hunger hollowing the fevered cheek

And parching thirst to grip the throat,

Against the leaguer's odds have shown

How the old force of England's fighting creed

Lives in her sons at need,

Made soldiers of the fierce baptising flame;

Because for love of Queen and land,

Because for honour's sake they played the game,

Stood to their task from week to lingering week,

And kept the flag afloat."

Before the end of October, Kimberley, the Diamond City—containing Cecil Rhodes, founder and director of the diamond mines, was blockaded by a formidable force of Boers, not to be relieved till the middle of February 1900.

The whole situation was indeed serious—Ladysmith besieged, Kimberley in a state of blockade, Mafeking closely invested. So far the war had been one long record of disaster with great loss of life, which seemed to culminate in the "Black Week" before Christmas—the most disastrous for British arms during the 19th century.

But even before news of the Black Week had reached England, Lord Roberts of Kandahar, with Lord Kitchener of Khartoum as his Chief of Staff, were on the high seas, bound for the Cape and charged with the management of the whole campaign.

Confidence returned, and early in the New Year the whole situation changed as if by magic.

By 15th February 1900, Kimberley was relieved, by 27th February Cronje and 5,000 men had been skilfully surrounded and captured at Paardeburg, and a week later, dust-covered and weary horsemen made their way into Ladysmith, where the flag had been kept flying for 118 days. The strength of the besieged men was wellnigh spent, their ammunition almost at an end, their food fast failing them—not a day too soon had relief arrived.

Thousands of half-starved men were actually crying for joy. The price of relief was great, for no less than 5,000 of the relieving army had been killed or wounded.

But the dark days were over and the light of the new year was dawning. Lord Roberts now began his great march to Bloemfontein, in the very heart of the Orange River Colony. The Boers had been massing in front of the British troops, but the old British commander swept round their flanks, and avoiding the carefully prepared Boer trenches, he led his army round by the open plains. Then, worn with living on short rations and forced marches under a semi-tropical sun, the army swung into the city "with the aspect of Kentish hop-pickers and the bearing of heroes."

President Kruger had just fled with a handful of followers, and the Union Jack soon proclaimed that the conquest was complete.

For six weeks Lord Roberts and his army stayed in Bloemfontein preparing for the next move. Enteric fever broke out, and over a thousand men died from the effects of poisoned water.

It was in the early days of May, when the rainy season was past and the veldt was again green, that Lord Roberts was ready for another of those tiger springs that had brought him in the old days from Kabul to Kandahar, from Belmont to Bloemfontein. Once again, with a front of forty miles, the great British army streamed northwards and ever northwards, for the distance from Bloemfontein to Pretoria was over 200 miles. The way was hard, the foe stubborn. Moreover, Kruger, the old President, had promised them a reception at Pretoria that should "stagger humanity."

The capital of the Transvaal was guarded by two hills, and its gateway is a narrow neck between them. On these hills the Boers were posted in strength, and a terrific fire greeted the advance of the British army. But Lord Roberts pushed on; the gateway was bought with a price of seventy men, Botha's army "sullenly retreated," and the treasure-house of Africa was left to the victorious army. Kruger had left Pretoria with a few faithful friends, but refused to leave the country, his old wife being too ill to be moved.

Soon the Union Jack floated from the top of the Raad-Saal, a symbol that the Transvaal as well as the Orange River Colony had been conquered.

Lord Roberts' proclamation annexing the South African Republics in August 1900 was answered by President Kruger in a counter proclamation: "The people of the South African Republics are and remain a free and independent people, and refuse to submit to British rule."

A week later he was persuaded to leave for Europe, and a man-of-war was put at his disposal by the Queen of Holland. Though the Kaiser refused to receive him in Germany, France had shown sympathy with the old man, who died at the Hague before the peace had been signed.

Ten thousand irreconcilables still held the field against the British, and for more than two years carried on a hopeless guerilla warfare. Their astonishing resistance kept the whole force of the Empire busy, till the utmost limits of exhaustion were reached. Not till 20,000 British soldiers had been killed and Boer resistance had worn itself out—not till the spring of 1902—did the leaders dream of peace. It might have been that bitter memories on both sides would have prevented any hope of conciliation. But "statesmanship and good feeling triumphed over fear and revenge."

By the Treaty of Vereeniging, signed on 31st March 1902, the Dutch acknowledged Edward VII. as their king and became British subjects. They were free men, free to return to their homes and rebuild their farms, civil rule would replace the military rule under which they had lived for the past three years, leading to self-government with the other Dominions as soon as possible.

With the surrender of the Boers at Vereeniging, South Africa (apart from the possessions of Germany and Portugal), from Lion's Head to Line, from the southern shores of the Great Lakes to Table Bay, became part of the British Empire.

Two of the most skilful of the Boer leaders— General Botha and General Smuts—soon rose to the head of affairs.

In 1906 self-government was granted, and four years later a still more far-reaching change took place in the Act of Union, from which date a new South Africa came into being. For it represented the "free and unfettered choice" of the people of South Africa as a whole. The "Great Adventure was undertaken under a stress of deep natural emotion. Men saw visions and dreamed dreams of what the future would bring forth. . . . The slate had been wiped clean, and the new Constitution, written clean and broad and based on absolute equality, was to obliterate the dread past with its misunderstandings and bitter memories and to bring about a spirit of partnership and goodwill."