The mistake soon became manifest, although the artisans did their best. The Wedge was not an effective instrument; its cutting edge was never in operation; and in a very few weeks it was hewn into a mangled, cumbrous and irregular mass, which could neither be advanced nor withdrawn and which for nearly five months led a precarious and unhappy existence. Its distress necessitated the recasting of the plan of the South African campaign and a pernicious “moral effect” was not avoided. One British Army besieged in an open town surrounded by heights, while another was lying impotent upon the banks of the Tugela, eighteen miles distant, was the result of a few weeks’ work with the Natal Wedge, which had been forced by the civilian strategists into the reluctant hands of the troops.
When Sir George White arrived in Natal on October 7 he found Sir W. Tenn Symons carrying out the wedge policy of the Colonial Government. Part of the latter’s force was at Ladysmith and part was protecting the collieries in the Dundee district. It was his intention to advance northwards to Newcastle as soon as he was reinforced by the contingent on its way from India, the full strength of which had not arrived at Durban. The position at Dundee was strategically defective, as it was exposed to a raid from the Transvaal border only twelve miles distant, and it was actually further from the Orange Free State than Ladysmith. Its defects as a tactical position were still more obvious as it was commanded by hills.
Such, in a few words, was the situation with which White was called upon to deal. He had two courses before turn; he could accommodate himself to it or he could endeavour to modify it. He attempted the latter, and failing he recurred to the former. He saw at once the insecurity of Symons’ detached force, but being unable to convince the Natal Government of the necessity of withdrawing it he reluctantly allowed it to remain.
Soon the Boer plan of campaign, which aimed at the isolation of the British Troops in the wedge, began to unroll itself. Fourteen thousand Transvaalers under Joubert, who had first tested the cutting edge by sending a coal truck through the tunnel at Laing’s Nek and who suspected an ambush when he found it clear, were moving south on Newcastle, while six thousand Free Staters under Martin Prinsloo were pouring through the Drakensberg passes west of Ladysmith. The Natal Government now began to feel uneasy about the safety of the colonial capital and even of Durban; and informed White that undue importance had been attached to the occupation of Dundee and that its retention was no longer desirable. Thus in little more than a week White’s original objection was reconsidered and upheld. But again he allowed his better judgment to be over-borne. Symons, whom he instructed to withdraw southwards unless he felt his position to be absolutely secure, was at his own urgent request allowed to remain. Next day, October 19, Elandslaagte, on the railway between Ladysmith and Dundee, was occupied by a Boer commando, and it was reported that 4,000 burghers were ready to cross the Buffalo River at Jager’s Drift during the night.