The autumn of 1805 was a time of great peril for Britain. For two years she had been standing alone against the might of the French emperor and the most powerful army in the world. Britain's own army was miniscule by comparison, and would have been unable to withstand the invasion that had been threatening since the war with France had resumed two years before. All that stood between Britain and defeat were the storm-lashed ships of the British Navy, and the resolute determination of its greatest commander, the one-armed, one-eyed Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, son of a humble Norfolk clergyman.
At the very pinnacle of his powers and popularity, Nelson's reputation was founded on his two spectacular victories over the French at the Nile and Copenhagen. On 19th August he had stepped ashore for the first time in two years of blockading and chasing the numerically superior, but inadequately trained and disciplined French fleet. His one remaining objective in life was to annihilate his country's enemies at sea. This he was to achieve only a few weeks later off Cape Trafalgar, at the cost of his own life.
The 36-year-old Major General Arthur Wellesley was 11 years Nelson's junior. He was the third son of the 2nd Lord Mornington, a heavily-indebted Irish Peer, and younger brother of the 3rd Lord Mornington, Governor-General of India. The young Major General had arrived from India only two days before, where his nine years of victorious service had earned him little publicity in Britain, but enough wealth to make him independent of immediate employment. Both Wellesley and Nelson were waiting for an audience with the secretary for war, Lord Castlereagh, when they met in the early afternoon of 12 September 1805 in an ante-room to the right of the main entrance of the Colonial Office. Nelson was to leave the day after the encounter for his date with destiny, so we only have Wellesley's version of events. He had recognised Nelson, but not been recognised in return, and the meeting was off to a poor start when he was treated to a typical display of the great sailor's egotism. Shortly afterwards Nelson left the room to ask the identity of the haughty, aristocratic, young soldier. On finding out, his attitude changed completely, and for the rest of their time together the two discussed those questions of military and naval strategy that eventually let to the great allied victory at Waterloo a decade later.
Clements' force, whose objective was to clear the valley at the foot of the Magaliesberg range, had been seriously depleted by the time of the battle, and he had made this clear to headquarters. But his plea for the return of his detached units, and for other reinforcements, was disregarded until it was too late for them to make any difference to the outcome. Captain Yatman, whose forward picquets on the crest of the mountains were inadequate in strength and numbers to cover ground allocated to them, was forced to surrender to the attacking Boers without offering the resistance expected of him. Both considered themselves the victims of other people's bungling.
Kitchener went on to achieve his ambitions. On leaving South Africa he took up the long-coveted appointment of C-in-C India, was promoted to Field Marshal in 1909 and Minister of War in 1914. This was an odd position for a man whose greatest weakness was his neglect of paper work and lack of interest in administration, the very shortcomings mainly responsible for what happened at Nooitgedacht. Had the truth of what happened there been known it is doubtful whether Kitchener could have achieved such heights. Fortunately for him, the truth was to lie buried in the archives until long after his death.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
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