Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Boer Wars: Part VI

Valley of the Tugela

by Capt. Alfred Mahan

Before proceeding to the narrative of the hostilities which, so far as events of decisive interest are concerned, began in Natal, it is desirable to note one broad topographical feature distinguishing the region to which, in its eastern development, the war has been confined.

From the capital, Pietermaritzburg, the railroad ascends rapidly, so that in twentyfive miles it has risen from 2,200 to 4,800 feet, after which it begins again to go down, till fifty miles further, at Estcourt -- the most southern of the stations prominently named in the narratives of the war -- the elevation is 3,800 feet.

Thence, till near Glencoe and Dundee, there is an extensive area of comparative depression, rarely itself higher than 3,500 feet, but on the western side skirted by the precipitous spurs of the border mountains, close to which the railroad passes.

This district may be called the valley of the Tugela ; for all the streams tend to the latter, which finds its own bed in a broad belt of ground, trending to the eastward, where the surface sinks to less than 3,000 feet.

Ladysmith itself, important not only as a railroad crossing and military depot, but now also historically, on account of the operations centering around it, is at a height of 3,300. Beyond it the country, though often rough in detail, is gently rolling in general contour till near Glencoe, where the road climbs eight hundred feet in ten miles. From Glencoe a branch runs five miles east to Dundee, the site of extensive collieries, upon which Natal largely depends for fuel.

The railroad from Ladysmith to Glencoe passes therefore through a district the nature of which is favorable to rapid advance or retreat of mounted men, as the Boer forces chiefly are, and which at the same time is marked by frequent and steep detached elevations, adapted for defensive positions hastily assumed.

These conditions, with the nearness of the declivities of the western mountains, and the proximity of the enemy's frontier, behind which movements of troops would be "curtained " -- to use a graphic military metaphor -- gave the Boers particular facilities for striking unexpectedly the railroad between Ladysmith and Glencoe, upon which, in defect of other transportation, the two British posts must depend for communication between themselves, and with their base on the sea.

Further to the south, movements of the same kind would be decisively more difficult. Not only would the Boers there be further from their base, and the British nearer theirs, but the country is less favorable to rapid horse movements, the line of the rail is contracted by lofty and continuous ranges of hills, the space between which gives but a narrow front to be covered by a defence, and the river beds, as already said, are broader and deeper; notably, of course, the Tugela.

Moreover, not only are the mountains on the western frontier higher and more difficult as one goes south, they are also more remote; and, south of Colenso, form the boundary of Basutoland, upon which the Boers could not intrude without arousing armed resistance by the blacks.

All these conditions are more favorable to a pure defensive attitude, which was that imposed at the outset upon the British, because they were then numerically the weaker party.