The Tide Turns

The attempt to salvage the guns at Colenso. Photo Credit: Sidney Paget
The attempt to salvage the guns at Colenso. Photo Credit: Sidney Paget

While Buller continued to alternately slam his head into the Tugela line, try to look for a flanking edge, then concuss himself again, the new commander of the Boer War arrived. Field Marshal Frederick Roberts already had a personal stake in this war, as his young son Freddie Roberts had been killed at Colenso leading a team to save one of the misplaced British field guns.[1] Roberts was also former commander of the cabal of generals in charge of running the Indian segment of the British army, and had a very different idea of how to run a war. He had also brought men who shared his thinking to support his plans. In another sign of the Boer War’s long shadow, many of these rising generals like the newly appointed Cavarly commander Sir John French would go on to lead the British into World War One. Other leaders were already prominent in their own right, none more so than Lord Kitchener’s stunning mustache (along with the rest of him) had come to serve as Robert’s second in command in December 1899.

The famous World War One recruiting poster. A force so compelling it was a call to British action. Photo Credit: Alfred Leete
The famous World War One recruiting poster starring Kitchner. A force so compelling it was a call to British action. Photo Credit: Alfred Leete

It is difficult to explain, let alone sum up the life of Lord Herbert Kitchener. In the eyes of his contemporaries, Kitchener was already something of a military darling by the time he arrived in South Africa, and his subsequent actions against the Boers would go to great lengths towards cementing that legacy. In the eyes of many, they also condemn him as a war criminal who sought victory with no regard for the cost.[2] Prior to stepping off the boat, Kitchener’s career had been a lively one. At 24, he had played a role in surveying Palestine, creating the maps that are still used (contentiously) today for Israel and Lebanon. He had raced across the Sudan on the back of a camel, leading a desperate column to relieve the besieged city of Khartoum from an assault by the self-declared revolutionary prophet known as the Madhi. Though they arrived too late to save the city, he had led the vengeful force that had wiped out the Madhi’s army in later years. He had become commander in chief (Sirdar) of the colonial Egyptian army, and later governor general of Sudan. Though most American readers may not recognize the name, the eternal poster of his glowering, mustached head jabbing at the viewer, telling Britons that he “wants YOU” for the army was the inspiration for America’s own Uncle Sam posters in World War I.[3]

For now, the arrival of three more competent leaders and a swarm of fresh troops began to swing the war decisively in Britain’s favor. Even Buller seemed to pick up some spring in his step. On a fourth attempt to batter his way through he finally forced the Boers off the Tugela River on February 14. On the same day General Piet Cronje and his men were forced to abandon the siege of Kimberley when French’s cavalry raced onto their flank. Cronje withdrew and Cecil John Rhodes greeted French with a hero’s welcome.

John French in Vanity Fair. French was not shy about expressing his frustration with Rhodes' insistence on immediate relief. Photo Credit: Vanity Fair
John French in Vanity Fair. French was not shy about expressing his frustration with Rhodes’ insistence on immediate relief. Photo Credit: Vanity Fair

Left off the front pages celebrating the relief was the horror Rhodes had wrought to make this bit of theater. Rations were divided by race and role within Kimberly, with soldiers getting the most, white civilians second most, and then black Africans whatever was left. By the end of the siege, scurvy had killed more than 500 child mineworkers, and infant mortality had leaped to more than 93 percent. The British garrison was there at Rhodes’ insistence, as was the relieving force. If neither had been obligated to bother defending the De Beers holding, it’s doubtful a battle would have been fought at all, and French’s cavalry could have played a more effective role instead of literally killing their horses to reach Kimberly as soon as possible. Rhodes had his victory, his press, and General French got a glass of champagne from the hoarded supplies that Rhodes had naturally kept for himself.

The Boer collapse after Kimberley and the Tugela River was abrupt. Roberts now loomed over the Boers with a 5 to 1 advantage in manpower, and a 10 to 1 advantage in artillery. Never the most disciplined under the best of circumstances, the sensation of military inertia caused many Boer commandos to desert on their own. On February 26 the main garrison at Ladysmith was relieved. Churchill, still attached to Buller’s forces, found himself commiserating with one of the captive Boers, “we agreed that it was a sad and terrible war, and whoever won we would make the gold mines pay, so that ‘the damned capitalists’ should not think they had scored, and thus we parted.”[4]

Just two months after Black Week had left the British picking up their teeth from the gutter a major Boer force under Piet Cronje was surrounded and crushed. At the subsequently named Surrender Hill, Cronje and 4,000 Boers handed in their rifles. Concerned about local sympathies, the Boer prisoners were actually bundled out of country and shipped to other parts of the empire to wait out the war. By March 1900 the situation was so bad that Presidents Kruger and Steyn were almost captured on a visit to the front, as yet another British attack sent the Boers fleeing for the hills.

Roberts, entering Kimberley after the siege. Yet another Rhodes production. Photo Credit: unknown (public domain)
Roberts, entering Kimberley after the siege. Yet another Rhodes production. Photo Credit: unknown (public domain)

By June 1900 Bloemfoentein and Pretoria had both fallen, with Roberts actually hoisting the adorably dainty Union Jack his wife had made over the former capitals. Like any people the British loved the decisive military touchdown this represented. There were celebrations at home, and the relieved soldiers at Mafeking greeted their comrades with the stiffest upper lip possible, “oh yes, I heard you were knocking about”. By November the last major Boer forces with artillery and a semblance of formal order were crushed in the eastern Transvaal. Paul Kruger caught a Dutch steamer and fled to Europe to avoid capture, and would die in exile begging the monarchs of Europe for aid. But the war wasn’t over. Men like Transvaaler Louis Botha and the Orange Stater Christiaan De Wet seemed to vanish into the bushveld with about half the Boer forces.

[1] Buller’s telegram home hadn’t helped much, “regret to inform you your son has been killed at Colenso. Condolences, Buller”.

[2] Case in point, this South African website.

[3] In another legacy of the Boer War, when Kitchener’s ship sank in 1916, Boer soldier and later German Spy Frederick Joubert Duquesne took credit for an assassination. Another conspiracy theory that will live on until the end of time.

[4] Churchill 1902.

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