An episode of Victorian military strategy

These two books of military anecdotes I obtained after years of search – due to a quick eye and spot of luck, and the other due to the beneficence of the Ustaad – are priceless and will always be among my most valued possessions.  All of the accounts are a delight to read…. this one in particular, with the way it lays the background, introduces the principal characters, and slowly builds up to a….. I do say, you should read it for yourself.

~~~~To be able without controversy to name a town after your wife is an opportunity available to few modern men. In the British colony of Natal in South Africa the chance was given during the early nineteenth century to General Sir Harry Smith. With a Victorian distaste for exposing publicly the intimacies of his domestic nomenclature, he didn’t call it after her Christian name. He called it Ladysmith.

As towns went, there was little to be said for it.  It grew into a small, ugly agglomeration of dwellings and public buildings with corrugated iron roofs, grouped around a railway yard, and lying hotly in a dusty plain enclosed by low hills. As war with the Boers shifted from a possibility to imminence at the end of the 1890s, the railway sidings offered a useful facility for the establishment of a military supply base. When, in 1899, war broke out Ladysmith held a massive accumulation of stores.

The presence of these stores stood normal strategic thinking on its head. Instead of the stores being used to service the army on its operations, it became the aim of the army to protect the stores. In the pattern of where everyone and everything of relevance to both sides was at the outset of the campaign, Ladysmith was in the wrong place.

Strategic purists argued that the only sensible thing for the garrison to do was to destroy the stores, evacuate the town, and go south to a defensible position behind the Tugela river, there to unite with the reinforcements on their way from Britain. The garrison commander, General Sir George White (“That ass White”: Field Marshal Sir Garnet Wolseley), considered it to be his duty to stay where he was, a decision warmly seconded by the Governor of Natal, Sir Walter Hely-Hutchinson. The Governor felt that an abandonment would be bad for British prestige.

White’s force fought and lost two chaotically conducted battles against the Boers in the countryside adjacent to Ladysmith, and then, in early November, withdrew to establish a defensive perimeter, fourteen miles long, around the town. Behind this, loosely surrounded by Boers, they settled down to await relief.

The relieving force, commanded by General Sir Redvers Buller (“Perhaps his mind is unhinged”: Lord Lansdowne, Secretary of State for War) reached the Tugela shortly afterwards. Buller, who had left England in the belief that he had a range of strategic options open to him, found himself in practice restricted to one course only, the relief of Ladysmith. To achieve this it would be necessary to defeat, or circumvent the Boers blocking his way on the far bank of the river.

Buller set about the task of clearing the blockage with spectacular ineptitude. He was aided by a former commandant of the Staff College, Lieutenant General Sir Francis Cleary, an officer of arresting appearance who dyed his side-whiskers blue and was condemnatory of Boer behaviour (“Their tactics are never according to rule”); by Major-General Hart , who held the view that for troops in assault to spread out was both unsoldierly and un-British, and by a broadly similar supporting cast.

The preparations were hampered by Buller’s miscalculation of the size of the Boer forces. In a signal to the War Office he estimated the total Boer strength to be 140,000 men, of whom 85,000 were from the Transvaal. 46,000 of these Transvaalers were, he said, either now in Natal or on the border, facing him. The reply came from Lord Lansdowne in person, who suggested that Buller might recheck his arithmetic. The entire white population of the Transvaal, male and female and including children, was 90,000.

Buller’s force was still on the wrong side of the Tugela in February. It had been defeated comprehensively at Colenso and at Spion Kop. Its fortunes were followed with concerned self-interest by the beleagured defenders of Ladysmith, who after nearly three months were becoming impatient.

To be continued……


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