wo serious defeats had within the week been inflicted upon the British forces in South Africa. The dark Cronje, lurking behind his trenches and his barbed wire entanglements, barred Methuen’s road to Kimberley, while in the northern part of Cape Colony Gatacre’s wearied troops had been defeated and driven by a force which consisted largely of British subjects. But the public at home steeled their hearts and fixed their eyes steadily upon Natal. There was their senior General and there the main body of their troops. As brigade after brigade and battery after battery touched at Cape Town, and were sent on instantly to Durban, it was evident that it was in this quarter that the supreme effort was to be made, and that there the light might at last break. In club, and dining room, and railway car — wherever men met and talked — the same words might be heard: ‘Wait until Buller moves.’ The hopes of a great empire lay in the phrase.
Map of Colenso showing the location of English and Boer forces. From My reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War by General Ben Viljoen (London: Hood, Douglas, & Howard, 1902). Compare the map below included in Doyle. Click on map to enlarge it.
It was upon October 30th that Sir George White had been thrust back into Ladysmith. On November 2nd telegraphic communication with the town was interrupted. On November Brd the railway line was cut. On November 10th the Boers held Colenso and the line of the Tugela. On the 14th was the affair of the armoured train. On the 18th the enemy were near Estcourt. [175/176] On the 21st they had reached the Mooi River. On the 23rd Hildyard attacked them at Willow Grange. All these actions will be treated elsewhere. This last one marks the turn of the tide. From then onwards Sir Redvers Buller was massing his troops at Chieveley in preparation for a great effort to cross the river and to relieve Ladysmith, the guns of which, calling from behind the line of northern hills, told their constant tale of restless attack and stubborn defence.
A Commando bound for Colenso crossing the Klip River. Source: Rompel’s Heroes of the Boer War, a work presenting the Boer side of the conflict. Click on image to enlarge it.
But the task was as severe a one as the most fighting general could ask for. On the southern side the banks formed a long slope which could be shaved as with a razor by the rifle fire of the enemy. How to advance across that broad open zone was indeed a problem. It was one of many occasions in this war in which one wondered why, if a bullet-proof shield capable of sheltering a lying man could be constructed, a trial should not be given to it. Alternate rushes of companies with a safe rest after each rush would save the troops from the continued tension of that deadly never-ending fire. However, it is idle to discuss what might have been done to mitigate their trials. The open ground had to be passed, and then they came to — not the enemy, but a broad and deep river, with a single bridge, probably undermined, and a single ford, which was found not to exist in practice. Beyond the river was tier after tier of hills, crowned with stone walls and seamed with trenches, defended by thousands of the best marksmen in the world, supported by an admirable artillery. If, in spite of the advance over the open and in spite of the passage of the river, a ridge could still be carried, it was only to be commanded by the next; and so, one behind the other, like the billows of the ocean, a series of hills and hollows rolled [176/177] northwards to Ladysmith. All attacks must be in the open. All defence was from mider cover. It was a desperate task, and yet honour forbade that the garrison should be left to its fate. The venture must be made.
The Tugela Railway Bridge at Colenso, destoryed 16 November 1899. Source: Rompel’s Heroes of the Boer War, a work presenting the Boer side of the conflict. Click on image to enlarge it.
The most obvious criticism upon the operation is that if the attack must be made it should not be made under the enemy’s conditions. We seem almost to have gone out of our way to make every obstacle — the glacislike approach, the river, the trenches— as difficult as possible. Future operations were to prove that it was not so difficult to deceive Boer vigilance and by rapid movements to cross the Tugela. A military authority has stated, I know not with what truth, that there is no instance in history of a determined army being stopped by the line of a river, and from Wellington at the Douro to the Russians on the Danube many examples of the ease with which they may be passed will occur to the reader. But Buller had some exceptional difficulties with which to contend. He was weak in mounted troops, and was opposed to an enemy of exceptional mobihty who might attack his flank and rear if he exposed them. He had not that great preponderance of numbers which came to him later, and which enabled him to attempt a wide turning movement. One advantage he had, the possession of a more powerful artillery, but his heaviest guns were naturally his least mobile, and the more direct his advance the more effective would his guns be. For these or other reasons he determined upon a frontal attack on the formidable Boer position, and he moved out of Chieveley Camp for that purpose at daybreak on Friday, December 15th.
Map from Conan Doyle showing the geographical area including Colenso and Ladysmith. Click on image to enlarge it.
The force which General Buller led into action was the finest which any British general had handled since the battle of the Alma.1 Of infantry he had four strong [177/178] brigades: the 2nd (Hildyard’s) consisting of the 2nd Devons, the 2nd Queen’s or West Surrey, the 2nd West Yorkshire, and the 2nd East Surrey; the 4th Brigade (Lyttelton’s) comprising the 2nd Cameronians, the 3rd Rifles, the 1st Durhams, and the 1st Rifle Brigade; the 5th Brigade (Hart’s) with the 1st Inniskilhng Fusiliers, the 1st Conn aught Bangers, 1st Dubhn Fusiliers, and the Border Regiment, this last taking the place of the 2nd Irish Rifles, who were with Gatacre. There remained the 6th Brigade (Barton’s), which included the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, the 2nd Scots Fusiliers, the 1st Welsh Fusiliers, and the 2nd Irish Fusiliers — in all about 16,000 infantry. The mounted men, who were commanded by Lord Dundonald, included the 13th Hussars, the 1st Royals, Bethune’s Mounted Infantry, Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, three squadrons of South African Horse, with a composite regiment formed from the mounted infantry of the Rifles and of the Dublin Fusiliers with squadrons of the Natal Carabineers and the Imperial Light Horse. These irregular troops of horse might be criticised by martinets and pedants, but they contained some of the finest fighting material of the army, some urged on by personal hatred of the Boers and some by mere lust of adventure. As an example of the latter one squadron of the South African Horse was composed almost entirely of Texan muleteers, who, having come over with their animals, had been drawn by their own gallant spirit into the fighting line of their kinsmen.
Cavalry was General Buller’s weakest arm, but his artillery was strong both in its quality and its number of guns. There were live batteries (30 guns) of the Field Artillery, the 7th, 14th, 63rd, 64th, and 66th. Besides these there were no less than sixteen naval guns from [178/179] H.M.S. Terrible — fourteen of which were 12-pounders, and the other two of the 4-7 type which had done such good service both at Ladysmith and with Methuen. The whole force which moved out from Chieveley Camp numbered about 21,000 men.
The work which was allotted to the army was simple in conception, however terrible it might prove in execution. There were two points at which the river might be crossed, one three miles off on the left, named Bridle Drift, the other straight ahead at the Bridge of Colenso. The 5th or Irish Brigade was to endeavour to cross at Bridle Drift, and then to work down the river bank on the far side so as to support the 2nd or English Brigade, which was to cross at Colenso. The 4th Brigade was to advance between these, so as to help either which should be in difficulties. Meanwhile on the extreme right the mounted troops under Dundonald were to cover the flank and to attack Hlangwane Hill, a formidable position held strongly by the enemy upon the south bank of the Tugela. The remaining Fusilier brigade of infantry was to support this movement on the right. The guns were to cover the various attacks, and if possible gain a position from which the trenches might be enfiladed. This, simply stated, was the work which lay before the British army. In the bright clear morning sunshine, under a cloudless blue sky, they advanced with high hopes to the assault. Before them lay the long level plain, then the curve of the river, and beyond, silent and serene, like some peaceful dream landscape, stretched the lines and lines of gently curving hills. It was just five o'clock in the morning when the naval guns began to bay, and huge red dustclouds from the distant foothills showed where the lyddite was bursting. No answer came back, nor was there any movement upon the [179/180] sunlit hills. It was almost brutal, this furious violence to so gentle and unresponsive a countryside. In no place could the keenest eye detect a sign of guns or men, and yet death lurked in every hollow and crouched by every rock.
It is so difficult to make a modern battle intelligible when fought, as this was, over a front of seven or eight miles, that it is best perhaps to take the doings of each column in turn, beginning with the left flank, where Hart’s Irish Brigade had advanced to the assault of Bridle Drift.
Under an unanswered and therefore an unaimed fire from the heavy guns the Irish infantry moved forward upon the points which they had been ordered to attack. The Dublins led, then the Connaughts, the Inniskillings, and the Borderers. Incredible as it may appear after the recent experiences of Magersfontein and of Stormberg, the men in the two rear regiments appear to have been advanced in quarter column, and not to have deployed until after the enemy’s fire had opened. Had shrapnel struck this close formation, as it was within an ace of doing, the loss of life must have been as severe as it was unnecessary.
On approaching the Drift — the position or even the existence of which does not seem to have been very clearly defined — it was found that the troops had to advance into a loop formed by the river, so that they were exposed to a very heavy cross-fire upon their right flank, while they were rained on by shrapnel from in front. No sign of the enemy could be seen, though the men were dropping fast. It is a weird and soul-shaking experience to advance over a sunlit and apparently a lonely countryside, with no slightest movement upon its [180/181] broad face, while the path which you take is marked behind you by sobbing, gasping, writhing men, who can only guess by the position of their wounds whence the shots came which struck them down. All round, like the hissing of fat in the pan, is the monotonous crackle and rattle of the Mausers; but the air is full of it, and no one can define exactly whence it comes. Far away on some hill upon the skyline there hangs the least gauzy veil of thin smoke to indicate whence the six men who have just all fallen together, as if it were some grim drill, met their death. And somewhere else, up yonder among the boulders, there rises a horrible quacking, a dreadful monotonous hyena laugh, which comes from the worst gun of all, the malignant one-pounder Maxim, the hateful ‘Pom-pom.’ Into such a hell-storm as this it was that the soldiers have again and again advanced in the course of this war, but it may be questioned whether they will not prove to be among the last of mortals to be asked to endure such an ordeal. Other methods of attack must be found or attacks must be abandoned, for smokeless powder, quick-firing guns, and modern rifles make it all odds on the defence!
The gallant Irishmen pushed on, flushed with battle and careless for their losses, the four regiments clubbed into one, with all military organisation rapidly disappearing, and nothing left but their gallant spirit and their furious desire to come to hand-grips with the enemy. Rolling on in a broad wave of shouting angry men, they never winced from the fire until they had swept up to the bank of the river. Northern Inniskilling and Southern man of Connaught, orange and green, Protestant and Catholic, Celt and Saxon, their only rivalry now was who could shed his blood most freely for the common cause. How hateful seem those [181/182] provincial politics and narrow sectarian creeds which can hold such men apart!
The bank of the river had been gained, but where was the ford? The water swept broad and unruffled in front of them, with no indication of shallows. A few dashing fellows sprang in, but their cartridges and rifles dragged them to the bottom. One or two may even have struggled through to the further side, but on this there is a conflict of evidence. It may be, though it seems incredible, that the river had been partly dammed to deepen the Drift, or, as is more probable, that in the rapid advance and attack the position of the Drift was lost. However this may be, the troops could find no ford, and they lay down, as had been done in so many previous actions, unwilling to retreat and unable to advance, with 'the same merciless pelting from front and flank. The naval guns had silenced the Boer artillery, but who could silence the unseen riflemen? In every fold and behind every anthill the Irishmen lay thick and waited for better times. There are many instances of their cheery and uncomplaining humour. Colonel Brooke, of the Connaughts, fell at the head of his men. Private Livingstone helped to carry him into safety, and then, his task done, he confessed to having ‘a bit of a rap meself,’ and sank fainting with a bullet through his throat. Another sat with a bullet through both legs. ‘Bring me a tin whistle and I'll blow ye any tune ye like,’ he cried, mindful of the Dargai piper. Another with his arm hanging by a tendon puffed morosely at his short black pipe. Every now and then, in face of the impossible, the fiery Celtic valour flamed furiously upwards. ‘Fix bayonets, men, and let us make a name for ourselves,’ cried a colour sergeant, and he never spoke again. For five hours, under the tropical sun, the [182/183] grimy parched men held on to the ground they had occupied. British shells pitched short and fell among them. A regiment in support fired at them, not knowing that any of the line were so far advanced. Shot at from the front, the flank, and the rear, the 5th Brigade held grimly on.
But fortunately their orders to retire were at hand, and it is certain that had they not reached them the regiments would have been uselessly destroyed where they lay. It seems to have been Buller himself, who showed extraordinary and ubiquitous personal energy during the day, that ordered them to fall back. As they retreated there was an entire absence of haste and panic, but officers and men were hopelessly jumbled up, and General Hart — whose judgment may occasionally be questioned, but whose cool courage was beyond praise — had hard work to reform the splendid brigade which six hours ago had tramped out of Chieveley Camp. Between five and six hundred of them had fallen — a loss which approximates to that of the Highland Brigade at Magersfontein. The Dublins and the Connaughts were the heaviest sufferers.
So much for the mishap of the 5th Brigade. It is superfluous to point out that the same old omissions were responsible for the same old results. Why were the men in quarter column when advancing against an unseen foe? Why had no scouts gone forward to be certain of the position of the ford? Where were the clouds of skirmishers which should precede such an advance? The recent examples in the field and the teachings of the text-books were equally set at naught, as they had been, and were to be, so often in this campaign. There may be a science of war in the lecture rooms at Camberley, but very little of it found [183/184] its way to the veldt. The slogging valour of the private, the careless dash of the regimental officer — these were our military assets — but seldom the care and foresight of our commanders. It is a thankless task to make such comments, but the one great lesson of the war has been that the army is too vital a thing to fall into the hands of a caste, and that it is a national duty for every man to speak fearlessly and freely what he believes to be the truth.
Passing from the misadventure of the 5th Brigade we come as we move from left to right upon the 4th, or Lyttelton’s Brigade, which was instructed not to attack itself but to support the attack on either side of it. With the help of the naval guns it did what it could to extricate and cover the retreat of the Irishmen, but it could play no very important part in the action, and its losses were insignificant. On its right in turn Hildyard’s English Brigade had developed its attack upon Colenso and the bridge. The regiments under Hildyard’s lead were the 2nd West Surrey, the 2nd Devons (whose first battalion was doing so well with the Ladysmith force), the East Surreys, and the West Yorkshires. The enemy had evidently anticipated the main attack on this position, and not only were the trenches upon the other side exceptionally strong, but their artillery converged upon the bridge, at least a dozen heavy pieces, besides a number of quick-firers, bearing upon it. The Devons and the Queens, in open order (an extended line of khaki dots, blending so admirably with the plain that they were hardly visible when they halted), led the attack, being supported by the East Surrey and the West Yorkshires. Advancing under a very heavy fire the brigade experienced much the same ordeal as their comrades of Hart’s brigade, which was mitigated by the [184/185] fact that from the first they preserved their open order in columns of half-companies extended to six paces, and that the river in front of them did not permit that right flank fire which was so fatal to the Irishmen. With a loss of some two hundred men the leading regiments succeeded in reaching Colenso, and the West Surrey, advancing by rushes of fifty yards at a time, had established itself in the station when a catastrophe occurred to the artillery which was supporting it which rendered all further advance impossible. How far the bridge was mined and what the chances were of the brigade winning its way across it are questions still undecided. For the reason of this we must follow the fortunes of the next unit upon their right.
This consisted of the important body of artillery who had been told off to support the main attack. It comprised two field batteries, the 14th and the 66th, under the command of Colonel Long, and six naval guns (two of 4-7, and four 12-pounders) under Lieutenant Ogilvy of the Terrible. Long has the record of being a most zealous and dashing officer, whose handling of the Egyptian artillery at the battle of the Atbara had much to do with the success of the action. Unfortunately, these barbarian campaigns, in which liberties may be taken with impunity, leave an evil tradition, as the French have found with their Algerians. Our own close formations, our adherence to volley firing, and in this instance the use of our artillery all seem to be legacies of our savage wars. Be the cause what it may, at an early stage of the action Long’s guns whirled forwards, outstripped the infantry brigades upon their flanks, left the slow-moving naval guns with their ox-teams behind them, and unlimbered within seven hundred — some say five hundred — yards of the enemy’s trenches. From [185/186] this position he opened fire upon Fort Wylie, which was the centre of that portion of the Boer position which faced him.
Boer Artillery in Action at Colenso, 15 December 1899. Source: Rompel’s Heroes of the Boer War, a work presenting the Boer side of the conflict. “Seven times the English made heroic efforts to save the guns; but the teams were shot down and the men trying to serve them were each time driven back with heavy loss. Eleven guns with all their ammunition fell into the hands of the Boers.” Click on image to enlarge it.
But his two unhappy batteries were destined not to turn the tide of battle, as he had hoped, but rather to furnish the classic example of the helplessness of artillery against modern rifle fire. Not even Mercer’s famous description of the effect of a flank fire upon his troop of horse artillery at "Waterloo could do justice to the blizzard of lead which broke over the two doomed batteries. The teams fell in heaps, some dead, some mutilated, and mutilating others in their frantic struggles. One driver, crazed with horror, sprang on a leader, cut the traces and tore madly off the field. But a perfect discipline reigned among the vast majority of the gunners, and the words of command and the laying and working of the guns were all as methodical as at Okehampton. Not only was there a most deadly rifle fire, partly from the lines in front and partly from the village of Colenso upon their left flank, but the Boer automatic quick-firers found the range to a nicety, and the little shells were crackling and banging continually over the batteries. Already every gun had its litter of dead around it, but each was still fringed by its own group of furious officers and sweating desperate gunners. Poor Long was down, with a bullet through his arm and another through his liver. ‘Abandon be damned! We don't abandon guns!’ was his last cry as they dragged him into the shelter of a little donga hard by. Captain Goldie dropped dead. So did Lieutenant Schreiber. Colonel Hunt fell, shot in two places. Officers and men were falling fast. The guns could not be worked, and yet they could not be removed, for every effort to bring up teams from the shelter where the limbers lay ended [186/187] in the death of the horses. The survivors took refuge from the murderous fire in that small hollow to which Long had been carried, a hundred yards or so from the line of bullet-splashed cannon. One gun on the right was still served by four men who refused to leave it. They seemed to bear charmed lives, these four, as they strained and wrestled with their beloved 15-pounder, amid the spurting sand and the blue wreaths of the bursting shells. Then one gasped and fell against the trail, and his comrade sank beside the wheel with his chin upon his breast. The third threw up his hands and pitched forward upon his face; while the survivor, a grim powder-stained figure, stood at attention looking death in the eyes until he too was struck down. A useless sacrifice, you may say; but while the men who saw them die can tell such a story round the camp fire the example of such deaths as these does more than clang of bugle or roll of drum to stir the warrior spirit of our race.
For two hours the little knot of heart-sick humiliated officers and men lay in the precarious shelter of the donga and looked out at the bullet-swept plain and the line of silent guns. Many of them were wounded. Their chief lay among them, still calling out in his delirium for his guns. They had been joined by the gallant Baptie, a brave surgeon, who rode across to the donga amid a murderous fire, and did what he could for the injured men. Now and then a rush was made into the open, sometimes in the hope of firing another round, sometimes to bring a wounded comrade in from the pitiless pelt of the bullets. How fearful was that lead-storm may be gathered from the fact that one gunner was found with sixty-four wounds in his body. Several men dropped in these sorties, and the [187/188] disheartened survivors settled down once more in the donga.
The hope to which they clung was that their guns were not really lost, but that the arrival of infantry would enable them to work them once more. Infantry did at last arrive, but in such small numbers that it made the situation more difficult instead of easing it. Colonel Bullock had brought up two companies of the Devons, and a few Scots Fusiliers were joined with them, but such a handful could not turn the tide. They also took refuge in the donga, and waited for better times.
In the meanwhile the attention of Generals Buller and Clery had been called to the desperate position of the guns, and they had made their way to that further nullah in the rear where the remaining limber horses and drivers were. This was some distance behind that other donga in which Long, Bullock, and their Devons and gunners were crouching. ‘Will any of you volunteer to save the guns?’ cried Buller. Corporal Nurse, Gunner Young, and a few others responded. The desperate venture was led by three aides-de-camp of the Generals, Congreve, Schofield, and Roberts, the only son of the famous soldier. Two gun teams were taken down, the horses galloping frantically through an infernal fire, and each team succeeded in getting back with a gun. But the loss was fearful. Roberts was mortally wounded. Congreve has left an account which shows what a modern rifle fire at a thousand yards is like. ‘My first bullet went through my left sleeve and made the joint of my elbow bleed, next a clod of earth caught me smack on the right arm, then my horse got one, then my right leg one, then my horse another, and that settled us.’ The gallant fellow managed to crawl to the group of castaways in the donga. Roberts insisted [188/189] on being left where he fell, for fear he should hamper the others.
Colenso, 15.XII.1899 by Fritz Neumann (b. 1881). This depiction of the battle by a German artist shows Boer cavalry charging the English gunners, but Doyle’s narration of the battle makes quite clear that distant rifle fire killed almost all the gun crews before the capture of the survivors. Click on image to enlarge it.
In the meanwhile Captain Keed, of the 7th Battery, had arrived with two spare teams of horses, and another determined effort was made under his leadership to save some of the guns. But the fire was too murderous. Two-thirds of his horses and half his men, including himself, were struck down, and General Buller commanded that all further attempts to reach the abandoned batteries should be given up. Both he and General Clery had been slightly wounded, and there were many operations over the whole field of action to engage their attention. But making every allowance for the pressure of many duties and for the confusion and turmoil of a great action, it does seem one of the most inexplicable incidents in British military history that the guns should ever have been permitted to fall into the hands of the enemy. It is evident that if our gunners could not live under the fire of the enemy it would be equally impossible for the enemy to remove the guns under a fire from a couple of battalions of our infantry. There were many regiments which had hardly been engaged, and which could have been advanced for such a purpose. The men of the Mounted Infantry actually volunteered for this work, and none could have been more capable of carrying it out. There was plenty of time also, for the guns were abandoned about eleven and the Boers did not venture to seize them until four. Not only could the guns have been saved, but they might, one would think, have been transformed into an excellent bait for a trap to tempt the Boers out of their trenches. It must have been with fear and trembling that they first approached them, for how could they believe that such incredible good fortune had come to them? However, [189/190] the fact, humiliating and inexplicahle, is that the guns were so left, that the whole force was withdrawn, and that not only the ten cannon, but also the handful of Devons, with their Colonel, and the surviving gunners were taken prisoners in the donga which had sheltered them all day. Some explanation may be forthcoming for these facts. The ill-informed chronicler can only narrate them without attempting to make them rational.
We have now, working from left to right, considered the operations of Hart’s Brigade at Bridie Drift, of Lyttelton’s Brigade in support, of Hildyard’s which attacked Colenso, and of the luckless batteries which were to have helped him. There remain two bodies of troops upon the right, the further consisting of Dundonald’s mounted men who were to attack Hlangwane Hill, a fortified Boer position upon the south of the river, while Barton’s Brigade was to support it and to connect this attack with the central operations.
Dundonald’s force was entirely too weak for such an operation as the capture of the formidable entrenched hill, and it is probable that the movement was meant rather as a -reconnaissance than as an assault. He had not more than a thousand men in all, mostly irregulars, and the position which faced him was precipitous and entrenched, with barbed wire entanglements and automatic guns. But the gallant colonials were out on their first action, and their fiery courage pushed the attack home. Leaving their horses, they advanced a mile and a half on foot before they came within easy range of the hidden riflemen, and learned the lesson which had been taught to their comrades all along the line, that given approximately equal numbers the attack in the open has no possible chance against the concealed defence, and that the more bravely it is pushed the more heavy is the [190/191] repulse. The irregulars carried themselves like old soldiers, they did all that mortal man could do, and they retired coolly and slowly with the loss of 130 of the brave troopers. The 7th Field Battery did all that was possible to support the advance and cover the retirement. In no single place, on this day of disaster, did one least gleam of success come to warm the hearts and reward the exertions of our much-enduring men.
Of Barton’s Brigade there is nothing to be recorded, for they appear neither to have supported the attack upon Hlangwane Hill on the one side nor to have helped to cover the ill-fated guns on the other. If General Buller’s real idea was a reconnaissance in force in order to determine the position and strength of the Boer lines, then of course his brigadiers must have felt a reluctance to entangle their brigades in a battle which was really the result of a misunderstanding. On the other hand, if, as the orders of the day seem to show, a serious engagement was always intended, it is strange that two brigades out of four should have played so insignificant a part. To Barton’s Brigade was given the responsibility of seeing that no right flank attack was carried out by the Boers, and this held it back until it was clear that no such attack was contemplated. After that one would have thought that, had the situation been appreciated, at least two battalions might have been spared to cover the abandoned guns with their rifle fire. A few of the Scots Fusiliers did find their way up to the guns and were taken in the donga with the others, but the brigade as a whole, together with the 1st Royals and the 13th Hussars, might as well have been at Aldershot for any bearing which their work had upon the fortunes of the day.
And so the first attempt at the relief of Ladysmith [191/192] came to an end. At twelve o'clock all the troops upon the ground were retreating for the camp. There was nothing in the shape of rout or panic, and the withdrawal was as orderly as the advance; but the fact remained that we had lost 1,200 men in killed, wounded, and missing, and had gained absolutely nothing. We had not even the satisfaction of knowing that we had inflicted as well as endured punishment, for the enemy remained throughout the day so cleverly concealed that it is doubtful whether more than a hundred casualties occurred in their ranks. Once more it was shown how weak an arm is artillery against an enemy who lies in shelter.
Our wounded fortunately bore a high proportion to our killed, as they always will do when it is rifle fire rather than shell fire which is effective. Roughly we had 150 killed and about 720 wounded. A more humihating item is the 250 or so who were missing. These men were the gunners, the Devons, and the Scots Fusiliers, who were taken in the donga together with small bodies from the Connaughts, the Dublins, and other regiments who, having found some shelter, were unable to leave it, and clung on until the retirement of their regiments left them in a hopeless position. Some of these small knots of men were allowed to retire in the evening by the Boers, who seemed by no means anxious to increase the number of their prisoners. Colonel Thackeray, of the Irish Fusiliers, found himself with a handful of his men surrounded by the enemy, but owing to their good humour and his own tact he succeeded in withdrawing them in safety. The losses fell chiefly on Hart’s Brigade, Hildyard’s Brigade, and the colonial irregulars, who bore off the honours of the fight.
In his official report General Buller states that were [193/194] it not for the action of Colonel Long and the subsequent disaster to the artillery he thought that the battle might have been a successful one. This is a hard saying, and throws perhaps too much responsibility upon the gallant but unfortunate gunner. There have been occasions in the war when greater dash upon the part of our artillery might have changed the fate of the day, and it is bad pohcy to be too severe upon the man who has taken a risk and failed. The whole operation, with its advance over the open against a concealed enemy with a river in his front, was so absolutely desperate that Long may have seen that only desperate measures could save the situation. To bring guns into action in front of the infantry without having clearly defined the position of the opposing infantry must always remain one of the most hazardous ventures of war. ‘It would certainly be mere folly,’ says Prince Kraft, ‘to advance artillery to within 600 or 800 yards of a position held by infantry unless the latter were under the fire of infantry from an even shorter range.’ This ‘mere folly’ is exactly what Colonel Long did, but it must be remembered in extenuation that he shared with others the idea that the Boers were up on the hills, and had no inkling that their front trenches were down at the river. With the imperfect means at his disposal he did such scouting as he could, and if his fiery and impetuous spirit led him into a position which has cost him so dearly it is certainly more easy for the critic to extenuate his fault than that subsequent one which allowed the abandoned guns to fall into the hands of the enemy. Nor is there any evidence that the loss of these guns did seriously aftect the fate of the action, for at those other parts of the field where the infantry [193/194] had the full and unceasmg support of the artillery the result was not more favourable than at the centre.
So much for Colenso. It was an action which taught us nothing save that we had failed to grasp what had been taught us before. But this time the lesson was learned. Not again should we deliberately fight upon the ground which had been prepared by our enemy. Not again should we in cold blood make frontal attacks upon strong positions. Not again should troops in close formation come under the Boer rifles. We had taken long to learn and had paid dear for our lesson, but now we had mastered it at last. In this darkest hour was born the knowledge which was to lead us to the light.
Last modified 17 December 2013