The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 11 No 3/4 - October 1999

The uncertain path: War Office administration
and the journey into war, South Africa, 1896-1899

Jeffrey Lee Meriwether
University of Exeter, Exeter, England

Between 1895 and 1899 the Uitlander question defined British relations with the South African Boers. Protecting British settler rights in the region meant facing off against the dominant Boer society in the Transvaal. The possibility that Britain would go to war in South Africa became very real as cultures conflicted in an air of heightening British imperialism. With the army spread all over the Empire, the last thing the War Office needed was to scramble to collect thousands of troops for a conflict 6 000 miles (9 600 km) from Britain. Soldiers and civilians already were at odds over the ideal techniques with which to administer the army. Difficulties in South Africa would force the two factions to work together in an effort to deliver an effective force ready to face the Boers in the field. Differing perceptions of a Boer threat, in addition to the War Office's style of war-making, would unite to place the army on an uncertain footing on the path to war in South Africa.

Tensions first soared in January 1896 when an invasion party under Leander Starr Jameson moved into the Transvaal and drove on Johannesburg. By prior arrangement with the city's Uitlanders, the foreign (non-Boer) miners in the Transvaal's Rand gold mines, Jameson's column was to link up with the miners after the latter's successful revolt in Johannesburg. The uprising was the brainchild of Cecil Rhodes, the Kimberley diamond magnate and premier in the Cape. Rhodes envisioned a British South Africa and, toward that end, set about dispatching his trusted lieutenant Jameson to take over the Transvaal's main source of revenue, the gold mines. Gold production was booming and the Transvaal Boers, led by their president, Paul Kruger, feared the swelling gold city would soon attract enough foreigner labour to tip the balance of political power in the Uitlanders' favour. In order to forestall such a shift, Kruger led the campaign to deny the franchise to the foreigners. Britain managed to remain clear of the Uitlander plight until the beginning of 1899, when Transvaal population policy began to loom menacingly at the forefront of British-Boer relations.

Although it was not until 1899 that the temperature increased rapidly in the region, the War Office already had made some offers to analyse the potential Boer threat. This was not an institution given to the 'proper' war planning so vital in the twentieth century. It would take a long campaign in South Africa to impress upon ministers the importance of thorough planning. In 1896, a possible South African conflict appeared to be yet another in a long line of colonial affairs. On 11 June, the Deputy Adjutant-General, Major E A Altham, assessed the strategic situation in South Africa. Aitham suggested establishing an operation plan to meet a possible Boer invasion of Natal and the Cape. In October of the same year, the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General Sir John C Ardagh, reported on the present status of Boer offensive strength. If faced in battle the Boers could prove to be formidable opponents. In the afiermath of the Jameson Raid, the Transvaal government had enhanced. its military arsenal.

The Transvaal military budget in 1896 was 2,35 million. Ardagh argued that this was concrete evidence that, as the Transvaal was surrounded almost entirely by British territory, the Boer military build-up certainly foreshadowed aggressive intent. He also warned the War Office not to count out the Orange Free State (OFS). Relations between the Cape and the OFS were very cordial, but in a war situation between the Transvaal and Britain, the Free State would face only two options. The first, Ardagh wrote, was benevolent neutrality. The second was alliance with the Transvaal burghers, in spite of the relationship with the Cape Colony. Because of the shared culture between the Transvaal and the OFS, Ardagh concluded that Britain must prepare to face both republics in a conflict. The Free State had the potential to field 13 000 burghers in commando. These alone were 13 000 reasons not to discount the smaller republic.(1)

The British Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Lord Wolseley (1895-1900), understood the implications of Boer agitation. Nevertheless, he continued to concentrate his efforts on maintaining the South African garrison as a resource for excursions against continental European powers. Europe was at peace, but with the imperialist scramble at its height, the potential for a European war remained. Wolseley's tasks were divided, for in addition to colonial defence, he continued to concern himself with imperial military preparedness. Divided as his duties were, the fact remains that he did recognise the potentially vulnerable position in which the Cape and Natal would find themselves. Yet, why was his approach to South African affairs so lacklustre? This may be a point more easily explained by a bout of influenza he suffered in 1897. In his absence, the Adjutant-General, Sir Evelyn Wood, assumed command. Wolseley returned later in the year and, from that point on, appears to have suffered from occasional memory lapses and difficulties in decision making. One historian described his overall failure at the War Office.(2) However, another source suggests that, even before his illness, Wolseley was suffering from what later would be termed 'Alzheimer's Disease'.(3) Obviously, under conditions in which difficulties with his memory hampered Wolseley's performance of his duties, his bearing would have appeared quite uncooperative to colleagues. Furthermore, the absence forced by his bout of influenza surely would have made the Commander-in-Chief feel even more detached from other officers and civilians in Pall Mall.

An 1895 War Office reform, curtailing Wolseley's authority, continued to anger him. With the increasing tensions in South Africa, Wolseley began to vent his frustration through verbal attacks against the civilian administration. His prime target was the War Secretary, Lord Lansdowne (1895-1900). In addition to the Commander-in-Chief, Lansdowne also had to consider the government's position on a South African war. Britain had become accustomed to cheap imperial wars and, with a history of success on the battlefield, Her Majesty's Treasury especially saw no reason why the War Office should have to spend any more funds than necessary to fight the Boers. So, when Altham and Ardagh began to predict a potentially large war in South Africa, Lansdowne found himself pulled between his military and economic advisors.

The War Office acted on the military intelligence in early 1897. Lansdowne ordered copies of Altham's sketches and sent them back to the General Officer Commanding South Africa, Lieutenant-General W H Goodenough, for distribution to his commanders.(4) Lansdowne's actions offer some evidence that the War Office paid attention to events possibly unfolding in South Africa. The difficulty arose with the questions of how much the War Office was willing to do about possible Boer agitation in the region, and whether War Office officials acted in a manner they believed sufficient for the situation? This was a muddy period for War Office activity. Lansdowne performed appropriately as War Secretary by making moves to identify the magnitude of the possible Boer threat. It cannot be argued that the War Office remained idle, but did their efforts make a difference?

In some instances it required the Colonial Office to bring events to War Office attention. It was the Colonial Office that reported an arms build-up in the Transvaal. Colonial officials also reported the presence of European military advisors, as well as the distinct possibility that burghers would hit Natal and drive on to Kimberley in the Cape. It was time to act, the Colonial Office argued. Intelligence suggested that too few troops were stationed in the region to quell a Boer advance. Therefore, the risk existed that, should the Boers invade, Natal colonists would blame the British government for expecting a raid and failing to provide adequate defence.(5) Again the Colonial Office requested that Lansdowne see the intelligence reports before it was too late for Natal.(6)

Finally, at the end of April, Lansdowne stated his position. With the aid of the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, the War Office dispatched three artillery batteries and one infantry battalion to South Africa.(7) This was a step in the right direction as far as defence was concerned, hut it also illustrates the difficulty the War Office found in deciding the best course of action for South Africa. Lansdowne believed it a good idea to increase artillery in the region, but the infantry reinforcements were really only a token gesture: The War Office needed to send something, hut in what quantity? Firstly, the War Secretary argued that appropriate reinforcements depended upon the political situation in the region. Anger caused by the Jameson Raid still lingered, and with intelligence reporting Boers bragging about the ease of invasion and the importation of arms, any kind of War Office gesture towards reinforcements in the region may have motivated the Boers to invade the colonies. In addition, Lansdowne argued that he had no idea what course the government should take in dealing with the Transvaal. As War Secretary, that was not his decision to make. Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary, was much more involved with the process and while he may have desired the dispatch of many troops to force the Transvaal to sit up and take notice, only the government could decide this and how much to spend. If Britain did require a large number of reinforcements (Lansdowne estimated 30 to 40 000) then there was a chance that sending them out in small bodies to different points on the frontier would degrade their initial impact altogether.(8)

Lansdowne made very good arguments, proving that he had considered the ramifications of overreaction to Boer movements. Therefore he chose inactivity as the best method for dealing with the Transvaal. Perhaps this was the best option, for the government still had no idea of what course, if any, the Orange Free State would follow should Britain and the Transvaal go to war. Perhaps it was wiser to ascertain the Free State burghers' intentions before making any move that might find the British still unprepared, having suddenly to fight two enemies rather than one. It is too easy to argue that the War Office should have prompted the government to act in 1897. This ease emanates from understanding the difficulty Britain would face in a war against the Boers two years later. Yet, to place ourselves in the War Office in 1897 would be to place ourselves into the mire of bureaucracy in which Lansdowne and his staff were forced to function. Budgetary concerns were very real and they did keep War Office administrators on a tight reign. Also, it was impossible to land an effective British force in South Africa in a short amount of time. If a war occurred, it would not be on Britain's frontier in the manner France and Germany anticipated in their military planning. British troops would have to travel 6 000 miles (9 654 km) to the battlefield; a journey that could take 40 000 men up to two months to accomplish. This would be more than enough time for Boer commandos to make a dash for Natal and the Cape. For these reasons, Lansdowne decided that the addition of just three artillery batteries and one battalion was adequate. For the time being, he and his advisors firmly believed they could do nothing else.

Natal's defence remained chief amongst the strategic questions in South Africa, yet the War Office remained tied down to the 'what ifs'. The possibility for agitation existed, but so too did that for reconciliation. Because of this, the government would not push the war buttons. In early 1898, the Colonial Office again was the first to act, this time focussing on availing transport to the troops in South Africa. As it stood, not even a battalion could mobilise in less than three weeks.(9) In April, the War Office responded, but their apparent lack of interest and casual treatment of defence preparations worried Colonial Office officials.(10) Administrators were also concerned that Lansdowne's team could not and would not recognise the potential instability which could be created by asking the colonial governments to contribute to transport costs. In South Africa, they were not talking about an African enemy, but a Dutch one, whose sympathisers in the Cape never would accept paying for possible war preparations against the Transvaal burghers, the Colonial Secretary argued. It was much better to conduct the planning as quickly and quietly as possible.(11)

While not overly active, as of 1898 it appeared that the War Office was at least considering potential problems in South Africa. Intelligence reported increased activity in the Transvaal, prompting Lansdowne to go ahead with early equipment purchases in addition to establishing contracts with South African haulage firms.(12) The War Secretary was confident that this latest decision was adequate to meet conditions in South Africa. While it required some prodding by the Colonial Office, Lansdowne's team did act. Yet, his actions were made only to a certain degree and this forced the defence staff to slide slowly into the mire of indecision created by political pragmatism. Lansdowne and the cabinet were afraid to move ahead too rapidly, lest the Boers should retaliate with invasion. The War Secretary especially was aware of the danger that lay in goading the Boers. Incremental advances, surrounded by a 'wait and see' policy, increasingly became the War Office signature in defence preparations for South Africa. It is ironic that in 1897 Lansdowne shied away from dribbling troops out to frontier stations for fear of creating an inefficient defence. In 1898, however, as he faced incoming Colonial Office demands for something to be done, he believed that he could do nothing but dribble out defensive measures. In the process, he and his staff developed a piecemeal approach to its South African defence policy. They decided that reaction was the best way forward; in essence, waiting each time for the Boers to make the next move. It is obvious in hindsight that this approach was self-defeating, pushing as it did the Boers to build up still further with the knowledge that Britain's response would be limited. Yet, we must remember that Britain's only force in place in Natal and the Cape was a brigade. Any Boer movement would have to be checked by this force until the War Office could dispatch adequate reinforcements. But even the dispatch of reinforcements, sailing not in response to a Boer drive across the border, but as a counter-move to ucreased military activity inside the Transvaal, may have provided adequate reason for Boer hostility. The War Office's difficulty was shaped as much by geography as it was by concern for economy. It was the problem of Empire and a problem with the potential of discrediting the War Office severely.

The year 1898 did not see an end to Anglo-Boer tension, but rather the lighting of fires that would ignite a colonial war in 1899. In the spring of that year, British-Boer relations encountered a new twist. The British High Commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner, was successful in bringing the Transvaal to the bargaining table in the hope of securing the franchise for the Uitlanders. By 5 June, however, discussions broke down, for despite his pressing, Milner could not push Kruger to accept his demands. Milner ended the talks, even as Whitehall urged patience with Kruger. Both sides were then lefi to watch and wait.

There is a difference between commitment to policy and brilliant leadership, however. Perhaps in Lansdowne's War Office the difference was marked, especially in 1899. Britain faced a growing challenge in 1898 and 1899 and the nation required a fiery leader to take the battle to the Boers. Lansdowne preferred to sit and wait, and watched for the Boers to make the first move, thus proving his commitment to the government's military policy of non-intervention. The War Secretary was a thoughtful, caring man. His attention to detail and his ability to view issues from all angles help to explain the short, measured steps with which the War Office chose to approach the potential war with the burghers.

If anyone recognised this in Lansdowne, it was Wolseley. In planning for war, Wolseley was in his element and it was in this atmosphere that he believed Lansdowne's civilian mind and sensibilities did not belong. The potential for conflict did not alter the fact that the civilian War Minister remained in overall charge of military policy. Yet, that did not stop the Commander-in-Chief from blaming the War Office system for his less than complete command. War planning could not be accomplished effectively under such a civilian-controlled system. Lansdowne, Wolseley argued, administered policy as if he were running a company. Nobody in the cabinet recognised the absolute need for a soldier to take command. Only a major disaster would open the civilians' eyes to this.(13) London had become a sentence of solitary confinement for Wolseley. With his wife in Glynde, Sussex, and all his power seemingly usurped by the military department heads and the War Secretary, the Commander-in-Chief wearied of his military career.(14) Only command of the Field Force could have raised his spirits, but that too was denied the ageing warrior. Instead, Lansdowne asked him to name the man most suitable to lead the forces in South Africa. Wolseley named his trusted lieutenant from his campaign days, General Sir Redvers Buller.(15)

On 6 June, Lansdowne met Buller in his office in Pall Mall and gave him his orders to command the Field Force should it sail to South Africa.(16) As GOC First Corps and the former Adjutant-General, Buller was the likely choice for command. His experience, however, proved he was better as second-in-command to a much more able commander. Wolseley recognised this quickly when he first campaigned with Buller in Canada on the Red River Expedition. To be a commander's able lieutenant was a trait expected in an up and coming junior officer. Yet, Buller understood that he had never taken the next step and acquired the ability to command a force of the size slated to go to South Africa. Worse still, the general had spent the last few years sitting behind the Adjutant-General's desk in the War Office. After his promotion to the Aldershot (First Corps) command in October 1898, he continued to exercise his administrative duties over those of field craft. Regardless of this, however, the duty lay with Buller should Britain go to war.

In June 1899, with the aid of the Intelligence Department's latest information, Lansdowne and Wolseley reviewed the South African situation.(17) By then, they had just under 10 000 men in the colony, the result of reactive piecemeal troop additions. This was the developing style at the War Office. Lansdowne did not want to demand too much money. His lack of leadership required all Wolseley's strength to guide him in the right direction. The War Secretary's 'small mind' and 'undecided view' made working with him next to impossible. As far as the Commander-in-Chief was concerned, Lansdowne was a drag on military arrangements Wolseley could not work in a system that humiliated the army and its leaders, and was completely opposed to the service's efficiency.(18)

Regardless of the Commander-in-Chief's desire for action, Lansdowne could not justify the outlay of money required to mobilise a large body of troops. What was more, argued the War Secretary, Britain had no concrete proof that the Boers would start a war. He did not want to push the issue with the Boers until he understood exactly their intent, lest they should come cascading into Natal and the Cape Colony. The more militarily intelligent approach was to concentrate resources on the troops already in the Cape and Natal.(19) The War Secretary's reaction to Wolseley's advice was an example of the behaviour the Commander-in-Chief had already come to expect from his supervisor. He had dealt with Lansdowne's tight-fisted approach to the annual army estimates, but now the situation was much more serious and potentially very damaging. Still, Lansdowne maintained the stop/start, incremental pace that confused the military and encouraged the Boers. How Wolseley longed to have a soldier in the War Office.(20) Then the army would be prepared to face a foe, instead of having to scrape by to defend itself against the burghers. In the process of avoiding war, Wolseley argued, civilians had a way of drifting into it and they refused to accept any advice from the professionals.(21)

Again, Wolseley viewed the War Office behaviour with army blinders and although his fears were genuine, he disregarded real issues perplexing Lansdowne and the cabinet. For the Commander-in-Chief, the affair was very simple: Britain either prepared for war or it did not. Alternatively, for Lansdowne the process could be accomplished only in a reactive manner, so that a British build-up would occur as a result of Boer agitation. The difficulty was that the burghers held the advantage of geography and numbers. Britain had the might, but no speedy method with which to deliver it. Lansdowne understood this, but found no other option except that of reaction. The only way out was to negotiate with the Boers. As with so many issues surrounding the War Office and the Boer War, the picture is clouded by economic constraints, public opinion and diplomatic concerns. While he may have underrated the threat presented to him by his advisors, Lansdowne and his fellow ministers more than compensated for this with their overly delicate handling of defence planning.

It cannot be argued, however, that the War Secretary sat idly by watching Britain slip into a large colonial war. Preparations had been made in regard to logistical support in the Cape and Natal. On a more general level, since his arrival at the War Office, Lansdowne had worked to augmenot the army with men and equipment. The numbers were not high enough for Wolseley, but both agreed that the army could be assured that some of its requirements were being met. But, as tensions heated between Britain and the Boers, cooperation began to ebb.

The potential for military action offered the greatest opportunity for Wolseley. Admittedly, he had some trouble in the planning stages. The government would not take his advice and civilian control had humiliated the army. Under such conditions, Wolseley longed for the peaceful life of retirement. To make the system operate effectively required calm professionals full of inbred patriotism.(22) Lansdowne would not do, believed Wolseley, and the War Secretary's jealousy fuelled his selfish need for everyone to see that he controlled all aspects ofihe army.(23) Surely, with all his procrastination, a South African war would spell the end of the War Secretary. If Wolseley could be rid of 'Little Lansdowne', there would be time to manage a conflict properly and successfully.(24)

Perhaps the greatest irony ofthe Wolseley/Lansdowne relationship was their similarity. Both viewed the other as all controlling, and therefore tightened their grips on what each believed was the most efficient and effective and correct method of preparing for war. Both men waffled, according to the circumstances, portraying both uncertainty and a lack of understanding or the full implications of a possible conflict in South Africa. There was something about a South African war that made it different from other colonial conflicts. Neither man, nor any of the other players, understood that difference. Intelligence reports hinted at possible dangers, but a faith based on the traditions of decades of successful colonial campaigns would not be shaken. Lansdowne slowly opened the door to a Boer invasion. Wolseley believed in strength through numbers. If he could place enough men in the field, combat would take care of itself. He understood that a South African war threatened something more sinister than any previous colonial engagement, but his answer to this was an ample logistical preparation. He believed that he had solved the tactical questions. What remained was to prepare the ground for his Field Force. With such support, Britain's army would be unstoppable.

Nobody considered the effect that irregular warfare would have on a highly regular force. Meet the Boers on the veldt, take the capitals, and win the war - that was the plan. After all, the Illustrated London News, reporting on the army's September manoeuvres, praised the value of such 'sham fights'. Surely these exercises were the key to defeating the Boers' commando-style warfare. The British army had every faith in its methods.(25) However, the Boers did not care about their capitals and their marksmanship and field craft were to prove too good for Salisbury Plains manoeuvres. This was modern warfare, and the army and War Office were about to begin learning all over again.


1. Major-General Sir John C Ardagh. 'Transvaal Boers from a military point of view'. PRO 30/40/14, October 1896 f8.
2. H M Kochanski, 'Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley as Commander-in-Chief, 1895-1900: A reassessment' in The Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol 20, No 2 (June 1997), pp 119-39, 125, 120.
3. Byron Farwell, Eminent Victorian soldiers: Seekers of Glory (New York, 1985), p 237.
4. Major E A Altham to Lieutenant-General W H Goodenough, 25 March 1897, Report of His Majesty's Commissioners Appointed to Enquire Into the Military Preparations and Other Matters Connected to the War in South Africa (RCSAW), p 183.
5. CO to WO, 5 April 1897, RCSAW, pp 183-4.
6. CO to WO. 14 April 1897, RCSAW, p 184.
7. RH Knox to CO. 29 April 1897, RCSAW, p 185.
8. WO to CO. 29 April 1897, RCSAW, p 185.
9. Sir Alfred Milner to Lord Chamberlain. 1 February 1898, RCSAW, p 191.
10. Unknown to Fred Graham, 18 April 1898. CO 417/252/8358.
11. CO Minute. 18 April 1898. CO 417P52/8358.
12. QMG to GOC SA, 8 June 1898, RCSAW, p 194.
13. Wolseley to George Wolseley, 13 July 1899, W/W 4/97, WP, ff 2-3.
14. W to George Wolseley, 20 April 1899, W/W 4/90, WP, ff l-2.
IS. W to George Wolseley, 6 July 1899, W/W 4/96, WP, f2.
16. RCSAW, Q14964.
17. Altham. Notes on the Lines of Communication in the Cape Colony, June 1899, PRO 30/40/14; Military Notes on the Dutch Republics of South Africa (Revision), June 1899. PRO 30/40/14.
18. W to LW, 4 July 1899, W/P 28/35, WP, f2; W to LW, 6 July 1899, W/P 28/36, WP, f 1; W to LW, 24 June 1899, W/P 28/30, WP, f 4.
19. Lansdowne to W. 29 June 1899. Lan (5)31; Lansdowne Minute, 16,17 June 1899, WO/32 7846-47.
20. W to George Wolseley, 13 July 1899, W/W 4/97, WP, f3.
21. W to George Wolseley, 3 August 1899, W/W 4/99, WP, ff 3-4.
22. W to George Wolseley, 21 September 1899, W/W 4/103, WP, f 3.
23. W to George Wolseley, 6 October 1899, W/W 4/105, WP, f 1.
24. W to LW, 13 July 1899, W/P 28/40, WP, f 4.
25. Illustrated London News. 2 September 1899, No 3150, Vol CXV, p311.

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