Stumbling Towards War

Vanity Fair's caricature of Jameson after he returned to London. Photo Credit: Vanity Fair.
Vanity Fair’s caricature of Jameson after he returned to London. Photo Credit: Vanity Fair.

While the Jameson Raid had been a military bellyflop, its aftermath started the engine for a much larger war. As the Boers picked up the pieces and combed through Jameson’s correspondence, there was no question of Rhodes’ support for the operation. But nothing Jameson possessed explicitly linked Chamberlain or the other shadowy backers of the coup, and Jameson was savvy enough to know the rewards of staying quiet outweighed the stint in jail. For his part, Chamberlain had hopped on a train to London and denounced the whole affair as soon as it was clear which way the wind was blowing. He also made it clear that if Rhodes “accidentally” let some of their internal communications slip, the Colonial Secretary would revoke Rhodes’ company charter and seize his business holdings. Conveniently for the failed plotters, the one person in Chamberlain’s office threatening to expose the mess died of a fatal stroke before he could testify.

Incredibly, Jameson and the surviving Rhodesians extradited, with Jameson returning to London for trial in 1896. He ultimately received a depressingly short fifteen month jail sentence for trying (and more importantly failing) to overthrow the Transvaal.  He would go on to become Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in 1904, and would later receive a baronet.  In the end Rhodes was forced to resign as Prime Minister of the Cape, but the fallout pretty much ended there on the British side. However, Rhodes soon discovered what happened a colony’s military is stripped for a personal adventure. Two separate uprisings by the Ndebele and the Shona flared in Rhodesia, and he spent all of 1896-97 struggling to stamp them down again.

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1887, demonstrating the level of political nuance and subtlety that won him friends throughout his entire career. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.
Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1887, demonstrating the level of political nuance and subtlety that won him friends throughout his entire career. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

The political embarrassment could have rippled out further, and probably should have, but any British outcry was disrupted by a surprise cameo from Kaiser Wilhelm II. In a very public telegram, Wilhelm congratulated Kruger for staving off the attempted invasion, with an implied recognition of Transvaal sovereignty. This was too much for the British public. Yes, the conspiracy was incompetent, yes, it had happened without their knowledge, but they were outraged that the Germans would dare to interfere in what they saw as their sphere of influence. From his jail cell, Jameson became a national hero, and Rhodes got to enjoy a healthy return to form after the initial disgrace.[1]

Kruger and the Boers also stoked the British sentiments as well with their response to perceived treason. Furious over the attempted power grab, Kruger turned on the Uitlanders who had at least signaled interest in the plot. The motley collection of British politicos and gold bugs, including Rhodes’ younger brother and active British Colonel Frank Rhodes, soon found themselves facing a death sentence. Political pressure from the British commuted this to a fifteen year jail term, and then after just two years to a heavy fine. However, compared to Jameson and the Rhodesians, even two years in a deliberately harsh Boer jail was no walk in the park for the Uitlanders and several nearly died. It didn’t exactly set the tone for a reset of Anglo-Boer relations, not that either side was interested in doing so.

Lord Milner, like Rhodes an implacable believer in a global Britain, and had little time for any other nation that got in the way. He would later help cofound the Round Table. Photo Credit: Elliott & Fry
Lord Milner, like Rhodes an implacable believer in a global Britain, and had little time for any other nation that got in the way. He would later help cofound the Round Table. Photo Credit: Elliott & Fry

Though Rhodes was no longer Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, the new dominant figure in British South Africa was if anything more bent on ending the Boer republics. The new colonial governor Alfred Milner was nothing like his old predecessors. He had no military record, a minimal ego, and was a quiet and reserved figure personally. He was also convinced the British were the “superior race”, and was bent on stamping out the Boers entirely. While Chamberlain had actually walked back from using force to support the disenfranchised Uitlanders, Milner began to use his considerable political talent to push the Boers towards a final confrontation. Even as tentative negotiations began to set up a “path to citizenship” style solution to the Transvaal Uitlanders, with maybe a five or seven year waiting period, Milner began to monkey wrench the process where he could.

Kruger was also personally against some resolution for the Uitlanders, and regarded Britain’s use of Gladstone’s old treaty as foreign interference. Since the end of the Jameson Raid, Kruger had also begun to view a final war as inevitable and had started to plan accordingly. The Raid had crystallized thinking in the Orange Free State, and they had agreed to sign a military alliance with the Transvaal in 1897. It was just too likely that the British would turn on the last Boer Republic as soon as they had dispatched Kruger. The Boers poured their newfound gold into modernizing their armies. It’s hard to understate the kind of resources Piet Joubert and the other Boer generals were given here. Each Transvaal Boer commando was given a Martini-Henry, then when Kruger deemed that obsolete, 37,000 Mauser rifles were procured instead. The Mausers were fed from a magazine, and utilized smokeless powder, allowing the Boers the modern advantage of rapid fire from a concealed location. In addition to buying 40 to 50 million rounds of ammunition for the rifles, the latest horse drawn siege artillery was also bought from France and Germany. Kruger also appealed to both nations for a political and military alliance, but the timing was more than a little awkward. The lines for the First World War were already being drawn, and the French were hoping to acquire the English as allies in the eventuality of another European war, and the Germans were busy trying to prevent precisely that scenario from unfolding. The Boer Republics were too small and too far away for anyone to contemplate a real war with Britain.[2]

Given that both nations were landlocked, it was hard for the Boers to sneak 50 million rounds of ammunition past the British, who began to mobilize themselves. There were only about 5,000 British regulars in the region to start with, and the Commander in Chief of the British Armed Forces Garnet Wolseley opted to dispatch another 10,000 men to Natal Province immediately.

Wolseley in 1903. Already by the Boer War Wolseley was at the pinnacle of a long career. Photo Credit: A Soldier's Life.
Wolseley in 1903. Already by the Boer War Wolseley was at the pinnacle of a long career. Photo Credit: A Soldier’s Life.

Sir Garnet Joseph Wolseley also deserves a brief introduction. He was a soldier’s soldier, having fought everywhere from Burma, India, Canada,[3] Egypt, the Crimea (where he lost an eye), and a stint in South Africa against the Pedi. For a time Wolseley had also served as an observer during the American Civil War, demurring politely when men like Longstreet or Lee spoke of British assistance for the rebelling Confederacy. Years of experience had turned Wolseley into a bit of an egotistical stickler, but there was no denying his efficiency.[4] He perceived much of the coming change the British military would need to undergo for the coming wars, and spent a great deal of mental energy neutering old aristocratic officer’s clubs like the Horse Guards and expanding a program to modernize the army. Most apparently Wolseley changed the very uniforms the British Army now wore. Gone was the crimson, swapped out for the kakis their forces in India had been wearing as a matter of course. However for all the critical introspection, Wolseley was not the only general. Though he identified the need for additional, potentially massive reinforcements in the event of a war, for a variety of political and racial reasons, it was assumed that sending even more soldiers in the region could provoke a conflict (something Milner was already doing), or prove unnecessary to defeat the unprofessional Boers. Both assumptions would have lethal consequences.

[1] For those curious, Rudyard Kipling even wrote a poem inspired by Jameson, which should come as no surprise from the author of “The White Man’s Burden”.

[2] This wouldn’t stop the Germans from inciting a short lived Afrikaner uprising during WWI.

[3] Stomping an attempt by the indigenous Metis to assert independence.

[4] The phrase “Everything’s all Sir Garnet” actually came into existence as a euphemism for “everything’s in order”. Slang is always a product of its time, and it is the prerogative of later generations to question it.

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