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A Handbook of the Boer War

But not necessarily the Vth Division


The repulse at Colenso staggered Buller's humanity. He was a brave man on the right of whose many war medals hung the Victoria Cross which he had won not far away from the field on which he was now fighting; but he was lacking in bull-dog tenacity, and in the ascetic temperament which is quickened rather than disheartened by failure. He returned to his tent, wrung his hands, and announced to those whom it might concern that all was lost. In the telegram in which he reported his defeat to Lord Lansdowne and of which the frankness, the candour, and the copious yet not egotistical use of the first personal pronoun were in curious contrast to the formal and sterilized paragraphs of an official account, he confessed that with the force at his disposal he had little hope of relieving Ladysmith and he proposed that he should let it go. He ordered the staff to select a defensive line eastward from Estcourt which his army might occupy until the end of the hot season.

His message to White in Ladysmith was still more pessimistic, and with an intention that was chivalrous but was not war he "spatchcocked"[25] into it a suggestion that White should surrender, and even indicated how the gain to the enemy could be minimised. The magnanimity of Buller was manifest: he desired to give White the opportunity of surrendering without incurring the full responsibility for the act, but the lack of military instinct in Buller's mind was likewise manifest. To this message, which was suspected in Ladysmith to have originated in the Boer laagers, White replied that he had no intention of surrendering.

Nor did Buller's pessimism turn the Home Government from its purpose. He was ordered to hold on, and on December 17 Lord Roberts accepted the chief command in South Africa. In announcing the appointment, the War Office explained that Buller was superseded because it was advisable to relieve him of responsibility for the operations outside Natal, which he could not effectively control from his detached position on the right flank. The Vth Division under Sir C. Warren which had been ordered at his request a month before, and which he found was available for service on the Natal side, was on the point of landing in South Africa; the VIth Division was embarking at home; the components of a VIIth Division were being assembled, and he became less despondent.

The War Office thought that the Magersfontein mishap called for the supersession of Methuen, and when Warren reached Capetown with the Vth Division he found orders from home directing him to assume command of the force at Modder River. It would probably have been better for Buller if he had freely acquiesced in the idea of Pall Mall and had allowed Warren, but not necessarily the Vth Division, to operate in a country with which he had become acquainted twenty years before in the Bechuanaland Expedition, but he could not foresee Spion Kop; and Warren while moving towards the Orange was suddenly recalled to Capetown and ordered to reinforce the Army of Natal with the Vth Division; and Methuen was allowed to retain his command at Modder River.

The transfer of the Vth Division to Natal was undoubtedly called for; but the position in the districts of Cape Colony bordering on the Free State was alarming. A belt extending from Barkly East near the Basuto border westwards and northwards as far as the Molopo River, and interrupted only near the Orange and Modder Rivers, had been annexed by the Boers and was more or less effectively occupied by them; and had they acted with enterprise and concurrence during the period of Lord Roberts' journey from England, the task before the new Commander-in-Chief would have been still more formidable. In rear of French and Gatacre was an indefinite area through which ran the British lines of communication, and which, if not indeed actually under arms, was ready to spring up whenever a favourable opportunity presented itself.


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