With Lord Roberts came, as Chief of the Staff, Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, a hard and ready man who for fifteen years had been scouring the Nile. All his war service had been in Egypt, where recently he had not only smashed the dervishes and secured the Soudan, but by his diplomatic tact in the Fashoda affair had relaxed the tension of a dangerous international situation. He belonged to the Royal Engineers, who are, like the Army Service Corps, a semi-combatant body engaged in technical duties that do not offer much opportunity of gaining experience in the art of war or of practice in handling troops, but who have, nevertheless, given to the nation not a few soldiers of distinction. It was, perhaps, for this reason that Lord Roberts generally employed Lord Kitchener as an expert military foreman, entrusted with the supervision of the work of others.
The situation in South Africa at the time of Lord Roberts’ arrival was as follows:—
Methuen was established at Modder River; Mafeking and Kimberley were holding out, and the latter at least seemed to be in no immediate danger; French was in a good position before Colesberg; Gatacre was maintaining himself without difficulty at Sterkstroom; the garrison at Ladysmith, after sixteen hours’ fighting, had recently warded off a determined attack; the disaffected districts in the Cape Colony had not risen; and the despondent Buller, quickened by reinforcements and stimulated by the approach of the Dunottar Castle, was about to make another attempt to relieve Ladysmith.
Schemes for a South African campaign had been for some time under consideration by the War Office, but as the attitude of the Free State could not be forecasted, they were more or less provisional. As late as the end of September the Premier and the War Minister scouted the idea of war with the Free State, and the official plan of a central advance on Bloemfontein by way of Bethulie and Norval’s Pont, which held good until some little time after Lord Roberts’ arrival, must therefore have been subterraneously drawn up without their knowledge. It was no doubt an excellent solution of a strategical problem studied by men in an office with a map of South Africa before them which showed several lines of communication converging on the Orange River; and Buller was about to carry it out when he was called aside to Natal.
[Sidenote: Map, p. 260.]
Lord Roberts had, however, two years before drawn up a scheme for an advance on the Transvaal by way of the Kimberley line as far as Mafeking and thence across country to Pretoria, and before leaving England he modified it so as to adapt it to action in the Free State. He proposed to leave the Kimberley line at some point between the Orange River and the Modder River, and to march in a S.E. direction on the Bloemfontein line. He was a firm believer in the indirect results of military movements, and he expected that his arrival at Springfontein or Edenburg and the menace to the Free State capital “must draw the Free Staters back from Kimberley and Natal,” and that the occupation of it “would render the Boer positions south of the Orange River untenable.” The official plan of an advance from the centre would force back the Free Staters engaged in the Cape Colony, and instead of isolating them would enable them to reinforce Cronje.