THE minute the ultimatum expired at five o'clock in the afternoon, the Dutch came riding over the frontier into Natal and into Cape Colony — into English territory — riding in loose commandos, each man in whatever clothes he thought best, working clothes from the farms mostly, with his horse and saddle and bridle, with rations slung from the saddle, a rifle and ammunition, and sometimes a blanket, groups of men and youths from the same district under some recognised leader whom they had themselves elected.
One body under Cronje, with de la Rey to help him, made west for Kimberley on the direct rail-route from the far north in Rhodesia to the Cape, and where there were the diamond mines and a small English garrison. Two smaller bodies went south and over the Orange River and the Free State frontier into Cape Colony at Bethulie and Norvals Pont. The main body concentrated on Natal.
At its northern end Natal narrowed to a strip with the Transvaal on one side and the Free State on the other. Down the strip ran the railway from Pretoria and Johannesburg to Durban, and in it were coal mines at Dundee. There was an English force across the railway concentrated at Ladysmith, beyond the Tugela River, with an advanced body at Dundee and at Glencoe to guard the mines. The English main force under General Buller was being slowly landed and prepared at Durban.
The Dutch came forward confident in their success: they were going to sweep the English helter-skelter in front of them into the sea. "From the Zambesi to Simonstown, all Africa for the Afrikander." Their leaders told them that they were vastly superior in numbers to the English troops against them and their artillery better; their Creusot guns could outshoot the English; the Germans had promised them help; their cause was just. As they came out of the high, barren steppes of the Transvaal and the Free State they saw before them the green fertile land of Natal. It was to them like the Promised Land to the Israelites, and they came on singing the Volkshed, the national hymn, cheering with excitement and filled with a high exaltation as if they were Crusaders.
The main body under the Commander-in-Chief, Joubert, came straight down the railway, a smaller one in which Louis Botha was a junior field-comet from Vryheid on one flank and a second from the Free State side concentrating straight at Lady-smith; it beat the English out of Dundee, looted the place, fought the English back through Glencoe to Ladysmith, and surrounded the town.
Cronje likewise surrounded Kimberley and cut the railway to Cape Town. The two smaller bodies which had crossed the Orange River into Cape Colony drove the English back some way and sat down opposite them.
For the English the position was critical. If the Dutch came on there was nothing to prevent their overrunning Natal and the Cape before Buller had his men ready. If Dutch commandos came into Cape Colony, the Dutch of the Cape might rise to help them. There were English troops coming, but they were in transports which were still at sea, and only a few had arrived.
Joubert decided to sit down round Ladysmith and besiege it. The younger men begged him to push on; leave a screen of men to cover Ladysmith; thrust the commandos on forward at full pace. Louis Botha did his best. Smuts, who had come down on an ammunition train, backed him up; they urged this was their chance; time was now their enemy; given time the English would bring up reinforcements; this was the chance they had manoeuvred for; they must take it and push on. But old Joubert would not hurry. "We have done well," he said; "let us be content." "When God holds out a finger, do not grasp the whole hand," he quoted. His commando leaders were old men also and agreed with his caution.
The chance went while he sat round Ladysmith. Buller formed his army, took the initiative, and advanced to relieve Ladysmith, while up from Cape Town went Lord Methuen to save Kimberley; and English troops were pushed into the gap between the two main forces to hold the invaders back. Each day from over the sea came more English troops.
The Dutch had lost their chance of driving the English out of Natal and the Cape, but they prevented these English from advancing. Their organisation and discipline were improved. Their commando leaders were changed: the older men were replaced. Joubert had been injured by a fall from his horse. Louis Botha had shown such ability that he had been elected to lead his commando, and then he was made Commanderin-Chief. Joubert had recommended him. Several of the old leaders had objected because of his youth: he was only thirty-eight. Kruger had hesitated, but Smuts had persuaded him to agree.
Botha had no office or book training and no scientific theories, but he had a natural genius for handling men and for war. Tall and strong, always composed, never flustered, using humour and good nature instead of force or bullying to get men to work for him, quiet in manner, he inspired confidence: his men trusted and liked him. He had an eye for ground, for a position, an instinct for knowing what his enemy, the man beyond the hill, would do; and he could, out of the mass of vague, contradictory reports which his patrols and spies brought him, make quick and accurate deductions.
Buller tried to cross the Tugela River and save Ladysmith. Botha pushed him back, beating him by skill, judgment, and tactics in battle after battle, so that Buller telegraphed to England that he had failed, he could not get forward, and sent word into Ladysmith advising White, its commander, to surrender, but White ignored the advice. Meanwhile Cronje held Methuen and kept his circle round Kimberley, and the two central forces pushed the English facing them farther back.
Again for the English it was a crisis. They had lost five hundred miles of railway; been beaten with heavy losses in several battles; Ladysmith and Kimberley were both besieged and getting desperate; they could not advance; it was likely that the Dutch of Cape Colony might rise behind them. Disaster in South Africa meant a great moral disaster for the whole of the British Empire and no one could foresee the ultimate result.
Now that disaster threatened, the English Government acted, at last, with vigour. Troops were hurried out to South Africa at top speed. Buller, though personally brave, and popular with his men, had failed: he was not up to his responsibilities, lost heart, became pessimistic, even defeatist; his tactics had been bad: he had shown neither vigour nor initiative. The English Government chose their two best, Lord Roberts to command and Lord Kitchener as the Chief of his Staff, and sent them off hot-foot to save the situation.
Roberts and Kitchener arrived in the middle of January of 1900 with fresh troops and with fresh determination and vigour. Ignoring Natal, they decided to strike up from Cape Town straight at Pretoria. Quickly ready, they advanced, relieved Kimberley, chased and captured Cronje and his force, and turned on Bloemfontein.
The effects were electric. The Dutch were seized with panic. Old renowned Cronje captured! Kimberley relieved! They could not believe it. They began to desert. Buller pushed through and relieved Ladysmith and the whole Dutch force went streaming back, a mob in panic.
Roberts pushed on at once, keeping the enemy on the run. It was late summer on the veld: the heat was terrific. Food and forage ran short. Men and horses dropped under the blazing sun. But Roberts drove them relentlessly on. Botha tried to re-form and to take up a position to cover Bloemfontein. Presidents Steyn and Kruger hurried down to encourage the burghers to stand and fight. Roberts outflanked Botha's position, drove him back, and took Bloemfontein.
In Bloemfontein he sat down to reorganise. His troops were worn out: many were ill with enteric. His animals were unfit to march. Stores, ammunition, and forage had to be brought up. Some of his staff and the newspapers in England urged him to push on and finish the enemy. Botha and de Wet, one of the Free State leaders, cut at his communications. He drove them off and continued to prepare solidly.
During these swings of the pendulum of war Smuts was principally with the Government, in his office in Pretoria, helping the President, making a few visits to the various fronts, but taking little part in the active fighting.
The big guns had been taken out of the forts round Pretoria and sent to the front. He had taken the first gun down to Glencoe and an Englishman reported that he saw him striding impatiently up and down the station platform, a thin, cadaverous man dressed in an old raincoat with a felt hat pulled down over his eyes.
He had much work in his own department: the usual legal problem of war; spies and treason cases; the expulsion of English subjects and the internment of others; debts, sequestration of goods; the adjustment of the ordinary legal procedure to war time; the handling of the mines. But in addition there was a mass of new problems. In accordance with the policy of making all South Africa into a Dutch State, the commando leaders were told to annex as they advanced; to ride into each village and read a formal proclamation and force the people to give up English nationality or to eject them and seize their property. The commando leaders had to be instructed how to act and supplied with forms and proclamations; the legal position of the population in these new areas had to be decided; the annexation given some semblance of legality.
Not satisfied with this work, Smuts did everything he could lay his hands on — collection and sorting of information; helping with the President's dispatches, his letters, his telegrams to his commanders; propaganda to mislead the enemy, for the newspapers, for world-consumption; advice to the generals at the front; organisation of the commissariat and ammunition supplies, Fiery and angrily energetic, grimly concentrated, he became under the strain even more harsh, tactless, and more hatchet-faced in looks. Constitutionally unable to delegate work to others or to trust others to act for him, doing all he could personally, he was always at work, tireless, pushing, shouldering his way up against the haphazard officials of Pretoria and the casual commanders, trying to create some organisation, urging without respect of persons or caring whose feelings he hurt or who became his enemy, forcing things to be done by his very persistency.