CHAPTER 39. THE END.
It only remains in one short chapter to narrate the progress of the peace negotiations, the ultimate settlement, and the final consequences of this long-drawn war. However disheartening the successive incidents may have been in which the Boers were able to inflict heavy losses upon us and to renew their supplies of arms and ammunition, it was none the less certain that their numbers were waning and that the inevitable end was steadily approaching. With mathematical precision the scientific soldier in Pretoria, with his web of barbed wire radiating out over the whole country, was week by week wearing them steadily down. And yet after the recent victory of De la Rey and various braggadocio pronouncements from the refugees at The Hague, it was somewhat of a surprise to the British public when it was announced upon March 22nd that the acting Government of the Transvaal, consisting of Messrs. Schalk Burger, Lucas Meyer, Reitz, Jacoby, Krogh, and Van Velden had come into Middelburg and requested to be forwarded by train to Pretoria for the purpose of discussing terms of peace with Lord Kitchener. A thrill of hope ran through the Empire at the news, but so doubtful did the issue seem that none of the preparations were relaxed which would ensure a vigorous campaign in the immediate future. In the South African as in the Peninsular and in the Crimean wars, it may truly be said that Great Britain was never so ready to fight as at the dawning of peace. At least two years of failure and experience are needed to turn a civilian and commercial nation into a military power.
In spite of the optimistic pronouncements of Mr. Fischer and the absurd forecasts of Dr. Leyds the power of the Boers was really broken, and they had come in with the genuine intention of surrender. In a race with such individuality it was not enough that the government should form its conclusion. It was necessary for them to persuade their burghers that the game was really up, and that they had no choice but to throw down their well-worn rifles and their ill-filled bandoliers. For this purpose a long series of negotiations had to be entered into which put a strain upon the complacency of the authorities in South Africa and upon the patience of the attentive public at home. Their ultimate success shows that this complacency and this patience were eminently the right attitude to adopt.
On March 23rd the Transvaal representatives were despatched to Kroonstad for the purpose of opening up the matter with Steyn and De Wet. Messengers were sent to communicate with these two leaders, but had they been British columns instead of fellow-countrymen they could not have found greater difficulty in running them to earth. At last, however, at the end of the month the message was conveyed, and resulted in the appearance of De Wet, De la Rey, and Steyn at the British outposts at Klerksdorp. The other delegates had come north again from Kroonstad, and all were united in the same small town, which, by a whimsical fate, had suddenly become the centre both for the making of peace and for the prosecution of the war, with the eyes of the whole world fixed upon its insignificant litter of houses. On April 11th, after repeated conferences, both parties moved on to Pretoria, and the most sceptical observers began to confess that there was something in the negotiations after all. After conferring with Lord Kitchener the Boer leaders upon April 18th left Pretoria again and rode out to the commandos to explain the situation to them. The result of this mission was that two delegates were chosen from each body in the field, who assembled at Vereeniging upon May 15th for the purpose of settling the question by vote. Never was a high matter of state decided in so democratic a fashion.
Up to that period the Boer leaders had made a succession of tentative suggestions, each of which had been put aside by the British Government. Their first had been that they should merely concede those points which had been at issue at the beginning of the war. This was set aside. The second was that they should be allowed to consult their friends in Europe. This also was refused. The next was that an armistice should be granted, but again Lord Kitchener was obdurate. A definite period was suggested within which the burghers should make their final choice between surrender and a war which must finally exterminate them as a people. It was tacitly understood, if not definitely promised, that the conditions which the British Government would be prepared to grant would not differ much in essentials from those which had been refused by the Boers a twelvemonth before, after the Middelburg interview.