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The Refights
The Battle of Colenso, 15 December 1899

Buller in Natal. Assembly of Ladysmith Relief Force at Frere. 2
The Boers behind the line of the Tugela. 2
Futile British reconnaissances. Lack of information. 3
Alternative ways round Boer position. Buller decides to go by the Upper Tugela. 3
Dec.12. Buller suddenly changes his plans and decides to attack Colenso directly. 4
The Colenso position. 4
Boer preparations for its defence. 5
Boers evacuate and then reoccupy Hlangwane. Dec. 13-15. 6
Inadequacy of Boer force on Hlangwane. Its explanation. 6
Dec. 18-14. Boer position shelled without provoking any reply. 7
The two armies on the eve of the battle. 7
Buller's plan of attack. 7
The detailed orders for the battle. 8
Criticism of Buller's plan. 9
White not informed of the intended attack. 10
Dec.15, 5.50 AM. The opening of the battle. 10
Long recklessly rushes forward his guns within 1200 yards of Boer position. 6 A.M. 10
After fighting the Boer position alone for nearly an hour, gunners retire from guns. 11
No infantry sent up in time to support guns. 11
Hart's advance on left. Misled by Kaffir guide. Surprised in close formation. 6.30 A.M. 12
Gallant but useless advance of Hart's brigade into the loop. 12
7.15 A.M. Buller orders Hart to retire covered by Lyttelton. 13
Artillery in action on the left. 13
Dundonald's attack on Hlangwane 7.15 - 9 .A.M. 13
Dundonald asks Barton for support but is refused. 14
Buller, hearing that Long's guns are out of action, decides to abandon the attack after getting away the guns. 14
Skilful advance of Hildyard's brigade into Colenso. 8 - 10.30 A.M. 14
Gallant attempts to get away the guns. 9 - 10.30 A.M. 15
Advisability of covering the guns till nightfall. 15
11 A.M. Buller decides to abandon the guns altogether. 16
His action inexcusable. 16
General retirement. 11.30 A.M. - 2.30 P.M. 16
Scattered parties made prisoners. 17
Dec. 16-17. Armistice. British retire to Chieveley and Frere. 17
The casualties. Work of the field hospitals. 17
No attack was ever made at Colenso. 18
Criticism of the battle. Buller's failure. 18
Abandoning all hope of relieving Ladysmith, Buller suggests its surrender to White. 19
Buller's own account of the message to White. 20
Discussion of Buller's action. 20
Spirited attitude of White and of Government. Lord Roberts appointed to the command. 21
Retrospect. Estimate of the Boer success. 21
The British military failure. 21
British patriotism and steadfastness. 22

Buller in Natal. Assembly of Ladysmith Relief Force at Frere.

SIR REDVERS BULLER arrived in Maritzburg on the night of November 25. During the three days that he had been at sea the face of the war had been completely transformed. On the West, Methuen had won the victories of Belmont and Enslin, and was marching rapidly on to Kimberley; French was already busy pushing forward his patrols from Naauwpoort; Gatacre was moving his troops up from Queenstown to Putter's Kraal. In Natal the invading swarms which, when he so hastily took ship, enveloped Estcourt and Mooi River, and threatened instantly to swoop on Maritzburg, were now melting away like snow in thaw time. By sunrise next morning they had vanished, and all the British camps, reviving from the chilly spell that had numbed them, were on the move to Frere. Only the task of relieving Ladysmith remained, and the Boers would disappear behind the Drakensberg and the Buffalo as they were now disappearing behind the Tugela. To that task Sir P. Buller set himself, little doubting but that before Christmas it would be accomplished, Natal clear of the Boers, and he himself free to return and resume the suspended march to Bloemfontein - as he had promised the Government when he left Cape Town. But, however confident of the issue, Buller foresaw that the Boers would not relax their grip on Ladysmith without a determined struggle, and he was resolved to complete every preparation to ensure success before taking the field.  So sending General Clery up to Frere to superintend the organisation of the large field force collecting there, he himself stayed at Maritzburg and devoted the next week to the perfecting of transport, supply and hospital arrangements - especially solicitous about the last.  A corps of Colonial Scouts, started a few days before at General Hildyard's suggestion, was also raised and soon numbered about 500 men.  On December 5 Buller went up to Frere, followed in the next few days by the last contingents of the force destined for the relief of Ladysmith. The force at Frere now consisted of four brigades of infantry: Hildyard's, Barton's, Lyttelton's, and Hart's ; [1] a mounted brigade under Lord Dundonald, comprising, besides the Royal Dragoons and 13th Hussars from England, some 1300 mounted infantry, made up of the mounted troops previously at Estcourt and Mooi River, strengthened by two squadrons of the newly-raised South African Light Horse sent round from Cape Town; five field batteries (7th, 14th, 64th, 66th and 73rd), and two 4.7 and 12-pounder naval guns from Durban. The whole of the field artillery was put under Colonel Long, who had commanded the artillery at Omdurman, while the naval contingent was under Captain E. P. Jones of H.M.S. Forte.  In all there were at Frere by December 10 nearly 18,000 men, while another 2000-3000 [2] were on the line of communications.  The railway bridge at Frere had been repaired by the 8th, and all was ready for the advance.

 

The Boers behind the line of the Tugela.

Meanwhile the enemy had not been idle behind the Tugela.  General Joubert, indeed, had returned from the Estcourt expedition so seriously ill that he was obliged to take train for Pretoria almost at once. But his injury proved no loss to the Boer cause, for it resulted in the command of the force left at Colenso being temporarily entrusted to Louis Botha.  After a krygsraad held by Joubert on his way through Modder Spruit on December 1, a further 3000 men were sent down to Colenso on the 2nd, and by the 10th Botha had nearly 8000 men available to hold the line of the Tugela against Buller's advance. That line, from the Drakensberg to the junction of the Buffalo, was over 100 miles in length, though, owing to the limitations of the British transport and the difficult character of the country on both flanks of the line, only about 60 miles of it came seriously into consideration. The river, fordable, except during freshets, at drifts every few miles, was not in itself a very formidable barrier, but it limited the points of attack, acted as a delay which would give the defenders time to take up positions behind it, and in some places could be utilized as part of the line of defences. For this last purpose only the ten miles or so from the junction of the Little Tugela to Colenso village were really well adapted. There the south bank slopes down to the river everywhere in open undulating downs, completely dominated by the lofty hills which line the northern bank. Above that the river winds in and out among the heights on both banks, while east of Colenso, where it flows north and north-eastwards in deep gorges, edging up towards Ladysmith, the southern bank for some distance dominates the northern, while on both sides the grass-grown hills and open veld are replaced by rocky ridges and broken ground intersected by dongas and covered with bush and stunted trees-the bush country of eastern Natal. But neither the length of line to be defended nor the weak points in it caused much anxiety to Botha and his commandants, who entertained no doubt but that the British would advance directly along the railway and attempt to force their way into Ladysmith by the straightest road. With this conviction they set busily to work intrenching and perfecting their position - already of great natural strength - astride of the river and railway at Colenso, detaching only small patrols to watch the upper and lower course of the river.

Futile British reconnaissances. Lack of information.

Since Lord Dundonald's reconnaissance of November 28 three more reconnaissances had been made by the British on December 3rd, 6th and 8th without adding anything further to the information gleaned on that occasion. These reconnaissances, the last two of which were personally accompanied by Sir R. Buller, were simply made over the open ground in front of Colenso, or slightly to the west of It, in the hope of drawing the Boer artillery fire. But the Boers, who on November 28 had probably only fired because they were not yet sure in their positions, had no mind to disclose themselves now, and the reconnaissances showed nothing that could not be seen from anywhere on the right bank. Reconnaissances to test the flanks of the position, if possible by crossing the Tugela, were not attempted.  Nor was there any adequate effort made to ascertain the Boer position by the use of spies or scouts.  Sketches of the hills were drawn by some Engineer officers and ranges taken, but practically no attempt was made to find out anything about the river itself or what lay behind, though there were dozens of young officers who would have given a quarter's pay to be allowed to swim the Tugela at night and crawl over the Boer positions. The failure to realise the value of information which pervaded the whole army system was shown no less strikingly by the fact that south of Ladysmith the country had never been adequately mapped at all. The Intelligence Department at Maritzburg had compiled a map from farm surveys and other available sources immediately before the war. That was shut up in Ladysmith, but another, showing the country about Colenso at an inch to a mile, had been hurriedly compiled since, and was issued to commanding officers before the battle.

Alternative ways round Boer position. Buller decides to go by the Upper Tugela.

But even without full information the formidable character of the Colenso position and of the positions between it and Ladysmith was evident to any one who saw, even at a distance, the frowning barrier of hills, or who studied the character of the country on the most general map.  Sir R. Buller realised it after his reconnaissances, and came to the conclusion that Colenso was impregnable to a frontal attack and that it would be necessary to turn the position by a wide flanking march, a conclusion he forthwith communicated to the War Office. It was a conclusion which already commended itself on strategical grounds. A flank march might enable Buller to strike a blow at the Boer lines of communication behind Ladysmith and thus break up the main Boer force in Natal, a far more important object than the mere entry into Ladysmith.  Two possible lines of advance then presented themselves to the General.  One was to march eastwards through Weenen, cross the Tugela at the wagon drift thirty miles below Colenso, and then make straight for the railway at Elandslaagte. The other was to march to one of the drifts on the Upper Tugela, seize the commanding heights to the north and from there strike at the Free State communications.  The Weenen expedition offered by far the greatest rewards for success. The main Boer army at that date was still immobile and dependent on the railway to an extent that subsequent Boer exploits have somewhat caused to be lost sight of, and there can be little doubt that if Buller could have got within striking distance of the railway he would not only have broken up and dispersed the Transvaal forces, but would have secured most of the guns on Pepworth, Lombard's Kop, and Bulwana, and the supplies in the laager at Modder Spruit.  As regards feasibility, the hilly and bushy character of the country, and the distance of the Weenen route from the Boer positions, increased the chances of the manoeuvre being carried out in secrecy - especially if any adequate attempt had been made to use the mounted troops to screen the right bank of the Tugela - while the great northward bend of the Tugela east of Colenso and the roughness of the country made it difficult for the Boers to get round in time to dispute the passage, and somewhat compensated for the slowness of an infantry force. In fact it was just possible, if a really vigorous feint were made upon the Colenso position, or, better still, some point west of it, that Buller's cavalry might be almost on the railway before the Boers realised what was happening.  But the Weenen route also presented grave difficulties.  It meant a march of over sixty miles, a very serious problem for the transport, though Yule's retreat had shown that it was not insuperable.  From the Tugela to within a few miles of the railway the road led through the roughest of bush country.  It was the prospect of fighting his way with a long convoy and little spare food through twenty miles of this country, swarming with Boers who could take up a new position at every step, that led Buller to dismiss the scheme as impracticable. But considerable as the risks were, they were not comparable to those that great generals have at all times taken to achieve great objects. Buller preferred the seemingly less venturesome course. The western route had the advantage of nearness, for, once in possession of the heights across the river, Buller would be separated from Ladysmith and from the Harrismith Railway by nothing more than fifteen miles or so of open rolling veld, and could either attempt to cut off the Free Staters on the west of Ladysmith, or, in conjunction with Sir G. White, endeavour to destroy the force now at Colenso. The chief drawback to this route was the difficulty of concealing the march from the Boers, who, owing to the winding of the Tugela, were on inner lines, and could reach Vaalkrantz or Spion Kop in three or four hours.  Still Buller may very well have considered an attack on these open heights preferable to the prospect of making Ms way through a maze of rocky bush-clad kopjes, in which it would be extremely difficult to keep control of his men, and the operation offered the prospect of great, though not of the greatest, results.

Dec.12. Buller suddenly changes his plans and decides to attack Colenso directly.

On December 11 orders were issued for an advance by Springfield on the Little Tugela to Potgieter's Drift. At dawn on the 12th, Barton's brigade, with two 4.7 and six 12-pounder naval guns, were sent off to the rise since known as Gun Hill, 7000 yards in front of Colenso village, to play the part of a containing force, while the rest of the army made ready for the march.  Suddenly that same evening Sir R. Buller changed his mind, abandoned the whole plan, and decided to make a direct attack upon the Boer position at Colenso.  The difficulties of the transport problem, and the fear of exposing his line of communications, may already have inclined him to waver in his purpose.  But the determining moment seems to have been Methuen's defeat at Magersfontein.  For the last fortnight Buller had left his generals in Cape Colony largely to themselves, and had tended to sink his position as Commander-In-Chief in that of director of the Ladysmith Relief Force.[3] The news of two disasters, Stormberg and Magersfontein, following so close upon each other was a heavy blow to him, and he may well have in part ascribed the failures of his subordinates to the absence of his direct control.  By a march to the Upper Tugela he ran some risk of being cut off from all communication with the outer world for several days, and, in the critical state of affairs in Cape Colony, that was a risk from which he, as Commander-In-Chief; shrank.  It was a fatal conclusion to draw.  The one important thing now was to make sure of victory in Natal; the one clear lesson of Methuen's and Gatacre's reverses was that victory was no easy matter - attainable by a second best plan - but that it could only be secured by the utmost skill and the utmost effort.  But from the first Buller had been curiously slow to grasp the essence of the military situation, namely, that the Boers were more formidable in the field than had ever been suspected, and the last disasters taught him no more than White's failure and the confusion in Natal had taught him a month before. Nor did he possess the strength of purpose necessary to enable him to postpone all non-strategic considerations to the one consideration of victory.  It was not a mere coincidence, perhaps, but a symptom that White before the battle of Ladysmith, Methuen before Modder River and Magersfontein, Gatacre before Stormberg, and Buller before Colenso, should in each case first have decided on the better and safer plan, and then, through hesitations and doubts of various kinds, have gravitated fatally towards the worse.

The Colenso position.

Seen from the south the hills behind Colenso resemble a great semicircular amphitheatre, six miles in diameter, with sides rising from 500-1000 feet above the arena, across which the Tugela winds in a series of intricate curves. These windings form two main loops.  Inside the eastern of these loops, and on the right or south bank of the river, lie the railway station, goods-shed, and handful of scattered houses which make up the village of Colenso. From Colenso to Chieveley, six miles away, the right bank slopes upwards in gentle, smooth undulations.  But north of the village, across the river, the ground is broken into ridge after ridge of low kopjes, like waves of a choppy sea, through which the railway winds its course to disappear through a tortuous gap ill the seemingly unbroken crescent of hills behind. These ridges, the "Colenso kopjes" as they were always called afterwards, stretch down to the very bank of the river. The most prominent is Fort Wylie, lying immediately to the east of the railway bridge. To the left of the village across the western side of the loop runs the old iron road bridge across the Tugela - then still intact.  The western horn of the amphitheatre comes down to within a few hundred yards of the river, and at its foot are two farms (H. and E. Robinson's), the eastern one backed by a long line of tall gum-trees, a conspicuous object against the bare hill-side. Several watercourses cross the arena of the amphitheatre, the largest of these, the Onderbroek Spruit and Langverwacht Spruit, running in an easterly direction, and forming deep kloofs or gullies invisible from the southern bank.  In the centre the ground rises gradually from the undulating plain on the left bank in terrace on terrace to the flat-topped heights of Grobelaar's Hill and Onderbroek Mountain. The eastern horn ends in a bold hill, Hlangwane, in the dark line of bushes at whose foot the eye imagines it can follow the eastward course of the Tugela.  But herein lies the surprise of the Colenso position. For a mile and a half east of the railway bridge, almost to the foot of Hlangwane, the line of bushes truly denotes the course of the river. But beyond that it merely marks one of the many dongas that intersect the surface of the country. The Tugela itself doubles back suddenly to west and north, feeling its way along the inner curve of Hlangwane for nearly three miles before, tumbling over mighty falls, it can escape eastwards again through the same gap that lets out the railway. A quarter of the seeming amphitheatre is thus cut off from the rest by the river. And seen from within, from the lower slopes of Grobelaar's or from the Langverwacht Spruit, the semblance of an amphitheatre disappears, and Hlangwane stands up as the western flank of a great square bastion of heights, girt round their base by the Tugela, and everywhere commanding the lower kopjes on the left bank.

Boer preparations for its defence.

Such was the position which, for the last fortnight, the Boers had been busily strengthening. In front its strength now left little to be desired.  The right bank everywhere offered a perfect field of fire. The river, unfordable except at five or six points [4] along the front, formed the first line of defence. But it was here used in the ordinary way as an impediment to the attack, and not, like the Riet at Modder River, as a shelter trench, a purpose for which the more irregularly shelving banks and the undulations of the ground in front hardly lent themselves. No attempt was made anywhere to line the right bank, and in many places the line of defences was several hundred yards away from the river altogether.  Botha's expressed wish was that the British should be allowed to get as near the river as possible, and even begin crossing before the Boers should open fire upon them.  Observation posts had been established, and slight defences thrown up here and there, in case they were wanted, as far up as the junction of the Little Tugela. But the Boer right properly began at the wagon drift opposite H. Robinson's farm. The section of the defences along the front of the heights from here to E. Robinson's farm was manned by the Free State contingent under A. P. Cronje, strengthened by Ben Viljoen's Johannesburgers.  East of this, on the day of the battle, the Zoutpansberg, Swaziland and Ermelo commandos under the General's brother, Christian Botha, occupied an almost continuous line of shelter extending for about a mile towards the head of the first big loop of the river, and formed by a long trench at the foot of the row of trees already mentioned, and by a previously existing stone wall. At the head of the loop several deep dongas converging to the river afforded excellent cover, and a screened approach from the folds of the ground further back. These dongas and a sharp little bluff immediately above the river bank needed little improvement to make them enormously strong. This position was held by the Ermelo and Standerton burghers and by some of the Middelburg commando.  From this point eastward for about a mile and a half there were no trenches except round a small kraal strongly held by the Middelburgers.  But the unfordable river in front, and the power of directing a crossfire from either flank on to the open plain, were a sufficient protection for this section of the defence.  The centre of the position, on which the main Boer force was massed, was formed by the Colenso kopjes. These were seamed with trenches, the lowest tier cut in the very bank of the river, with loop-holes pierced through it, the highest a hundred feet above. West of the railway the kopjes were held by the Middelburg, Heidelberg and Boksburg commandos, and the Johannesburg Police, while Vryheid and Krugersdorp were intrenched on Fort Wylie. Four or five field guns and "pom-poms," the bulk of Botha's weak artillery, were also concentrated on the kopjes.  Of the other guns three were placed so as to command the big western loop, one just above the row of trees, a second in the very centre of the position where the Onderbroek Spruit emerges from the deep gorge known as Grobelaar's Kloof, and the third, a 5-inch Howitzer, between the two on the eastern shoulder of the flat-topped hill, usually called Red Hill, nearly 700 feet above the river. Lastly, one of the 6-inch Creusots was posted on a rise near the railway, 3000-4000 yards north of the Colenso kopjes. The bulk of the laagers were well in rear, mostly along the Onderbroek Spruit, one of the largest being fully five miles north-west of Colenso, where a considerable reserve was kept available either for reinforcing the main position or for galloping round to check a turning movement on the west. In the unlikely event of the British forcing their way across the river, the Onderbroek Spruit and the towering heights behind offered a good second line of defence. Against a frontal attack the Colenso position seemed almost impregnable.

Boers evacuate and then reoccupy Hlangwane. Dec. 13-15.

But even this great position had its weak point. From Fort Wylie back to the Langverwacht Spruit the whole of the defences could be enfiladed or taken in reverse from the right bank of the Tugela. To prevent this it was essential to occupy HIangwane, on the British side of the river, and up to December 13 Hlangwane was held by the Zoutpansberg and Boksburg commandos.  But this entailed a most awkward splitting up of the force. There was a drift west of Hlangwane and another north of it just below the falls, and the Boers had supplemented these by a rough bridge made of railway sleepers and a wire cable with a traveller near the junction of the Langverwacht Spruit.  But anything like rapid reinforcement of the Hlangwane position or rapid retreat from it were alike out of the question, while it might be entirely cut off for days by a sudden rise of the river. Nor did Hlangwane lend itself well to defence.  The ground in front of it, though not exactly favouring infantry attack, was more broken and bush-covered than anywhere else along the position. On the east, where the drainage flows away from the Tugela towards the Blaauwkrantz, the Gomba Spruit and its tributaries offered a means of approach completely screened from the main Boer position, while across the Gomba the hill was confronted by excellent artillery positions. So forcibly indeed did the precariousness of this isolated position strike the Boers on Hlangwane that the mere sight of Barton's brigade proved too much for their courage. They recrossed the Tugela on the morning of the 13th, and all Botha's persuasion was powerless to induce them to return.  In this quandary the young general telegraphed to Joubert at Pretoria, hoping to get some reply that would impress the burghers more than his own comparative inexperience. Kruger, Joubert and Meyer at once held a council of war, at which the two latter, who knew the Colenso district well, expressed their agreement with Botha's view as to the vital importance of Hlangwane.  But even their reply that the position was to be reoccupied at all costs seemed at first to have no effect, and it was not till the evening of the 14th, after drawing of lots, that the Wakkerstroom burghers joined by volunteers from other commandos, consented to undertake the task. At 3 A.M. on the 15th, an hour before the first British troops marched out of camp to the battle of Colenso, Hlangwane was reoccupied by a force of about 800 Boers.

Inadequacy of Boer force on Hlangwane. Its explanation.

Botha deserves every credit for his determination in insisting that Hlangwane should be held.  But it cannot be said that the force sent over was even now adequate to the importance of the position.[5] A much smaller force would probably have sufficed to hold the almost impregnable river front, while a larger force on Hlangwane would not only have made sure the key to the position, but would, if occasion offered, have been able to deliver an effective counter-attack.  The true explanation, unquestionably, is that Botha never for a moment doubted but that the main British attack would be directed straight against the Colenso kopjes, and only feared that if Hlangwane were entirely unoccupied some detachment on the British flank might be tempted to seize it, and might then realise its importance. Nothing indeed, at this stage of the war, is more astonishing than the contempt the Boer generals showed for their opponents, except the fact that that contempt was almost invariably justified by the event.  Besides deciding the vital question of Hlangwane, Botha was busy during these last few days encouraging his men, many of whom were by no means pleased at the prospect of meeting the redoubtable British Commander-in-Chief.  It was not only the confidence felt in Buller by the British, but also the memory of some of his gallant exploits in the Zulu War which still lingered among the older men, that helped to create the apprehension with which the Boers awaited his onset. Strict orders were issued to the doctors to suppress the practice, very frequent in the laagers, of shamming sickness to escape duty in the trenches. Above all, Botha was anxious to impress on his artillery and on his burghers the necessity of not disclosing their positions till the teal attack began.

Dec. 18-14. Boer position shelled without provoking any reply.

Barton's advance on the 12th met with no opposition, though the Boers could be seen moving rapidly about in considerable numbers on the other side of the river, and the guns were placed in position to open the bombardment the next day. At 7.15 on the morning of the 13th the first naval gun opened, and for three hours the Colenso kopjes were bombarded with common shell and lyddite.  The shelling produced little visible effect.  One trench, half way down the face of one of the kopjes, so plainly visible that it was probably a dummy, suffered considerably, great gaps being made in the parapet.  The real trenches, along the crest lines of the kopjes and along the river banks, were so skilfully made as to be invisible at long range and escaped almost unscathed. Small parties of the enemy rode carelessly to and fro, and occasionally a shell would dislodge a few from one trench to bolt like rabbits into another. That was all that the cannonade revealed of the enemy's dispositions.  That same day Lyttelton's and Hart's brigades marched out from Frere and pitched their camps on the west side of the railway near the Doornkop Spruit and somewhat in front of Gun Hill, and the next day they were followed by headquarters and the rest of the force.  On the 14th the naval battery advanced to a small kopje west of the line, 3000 yards nearer Colenso, and again bombarded the enemy's position all the morning and afternoon. But the enemy lay closer than ever. During the night they had repaired the breaches made in their trenches by the lyddite, and even during the day they went on at intervals with the Work of perfecting their shelters.  But so little did they betray their presence that in the British army the suspicion already began to lurk in some men's minds that the position had been evacuated. Even the general, who spent a good part of the day near the naval guns examining the enemy's positions, was apparently, to judge by his dispositions, affected by the peaceful silence of those harmless-looking hillocks and bare mountain sides. He had come to Chieveley in the full expectation of heavy fighting, but, like Methuen at Modder River, he seems at the last moment to have let the delusive testimony of his own eyes override his first conviction.

The two armies on the eve of the battle.

That night the two armies lay four miles apart, with the river between them.  The British camp seemed almost to invite the fire of the enemy's long-range guns, for so open was it that every tent and gun could have been counted from the heights behind Colenso.  Buller certainly was making no attempt to conceal his intention of attacking Colenso.  It was as if he wished to impress the enemy with the irresistible strength of his force. And there were few officers or men in the camp who, looking round on the many splendid regiments and batteries of deep-throated guns there assembled, doubted but that the next few days would see Colenso occupied and Ladysmith relieved.  Over against them the enemy, motionless and invisible in their trenches, waited in dour patience for the attack. As at Magersfontein, the last two days' shelling had not only warned them of the impending advance but had given them confidence in the security of their defences and in the harmlessness of artillery fire - a point on which they were already reassured by a special message from Cronje. Relieved of all fear of the much-vaunted lyddite, they confidently trusted in their Mausers to check any attempt to cross the river. The only apprehension they still felt was that the British might cross the river unawares and get into their trenches by a night attack - a very unlikely contingency, but one that at that time still had great terror for the Boers.

Buller's plan of attack.

In the evening Buller called his senior officers together, announced that he was going to attack Colenso next morning, and briefly explained his plan.  The previous description of the Colenso position has shown that, while enormously strong in front, it was weaker on its flanks, especially on its left, where it was completely cut in two by the river. The obvious method of dealing with it, therefore, was to begin by an attack on the isolated left wing, in other words to seize Hlangwane and its northern continuation.  If the Boers on Hlangwane determined to resist the attempt Buller could concentrate practically his whole force on them, and enjoy the rare opportunity of overwhelming his enemy in detail in a position where reinforcement or retreat were alike difficult. If not, the mere occupation of the hill would, without further fighting, suffice to make the Colenso position untenable, and force the Boers to fall back on a second line. Assisted by the possession of a bridge-head across the river at Colenso, Buller could then pierce this second line somewhere opposite the Falls under cover of artillery fire from the heights on the right bank. When that was achieved he would be almost in touch with White. A possible alternative to seizing Hlangwane might have been to force the passage of the Tugela at the wagon drift on the extreme right of the Boer position and seize the heights forming the western horn of the amphitheatre of hills. This move, if successful, would equally have forced the Boers to abandon Colenso, and would have provided a starting-point for the outflanking or seizure of the heights across the Onderbroek Spruit. Neither of these plans commended themselves to Sir R. Buller; it is difficult to believe, in view of his actions, that the move by Hlangwane can even have occurred to him. The plan he now set forth was for a simple frontal attack on the Boer trenches, the very thing he had declared impossible a few days before.  Hildyard's brigade was to fight its way across the river straight opposite the Colenso kopjes; Hart was to cross at the bridle drift just above the junction of the Doornkop Spruit, and move down the left bank to enfilade the Colenso kopjes from the west, while Dundonald, with the greater part of the mounted men, was to take a field battery round to the slopes of Hlangwane and enfilade them from the east.  The remaining two infantry brigades, Lyttelton's and Barton's, were to be in reserve, covering the gaps between the centre and the wings, so as to be able rapidly to reinforce either of the two main points of attack, or Dundonald, if the latter should get into a difficulty. The essence of the plan was the attack in the centre. As for Hart's attack, which was to be developed before Hildyard's, it would, if unsuccessful, still serve its purpose by containing the Boers on that flank. To Dundonald's movement Buller did not attach any particular importance.  The great thing in his view was to secure a lodgment on the left bank under Fort Wylie; once there his men would be under cover, and shell-fire and the want of water would in time turn the Boers out of the rest of the Colenso kopjes.[6]  The force was to bivouac in Colenso village for the night. His officers accepted the plan without discussion.  Such was the confidence they felt in Sir R. Buller, that however inwardly surprised some of them may have been, they never doubted for a moment but that their general had sufficient reasons for his decision.

The detailed orders for the battle.

At 10 P.M. the following detailed orders were issued by Sir C. F. Clery, still nominally in command of the South Natal Field Force :-

 

1. The enemy is entrenched in the kopjes north of Colenso Bridge. One large camp is reported to be near the Ladysmith Road, about five miles north-west of Colenso. Another large camp is reported in the hills which lie north of the Tugela in a northerly direction from Hlangwane Hill.

2. It is the intention of the General Officer Commanding to force the passage of the Tugela tomorrow.

3. The 5th Brigade will move from its present camping-ground at 4.30 A.M. and march towards the Bridle Drift, immediately west of the junction of Dornkop Spruit and the Tugela. The Brigade will cross at this point, and after crossing move along the left bank of the river towards the kopjes north of the iron bridge.

4. The 2nd Brigade will move from its present camping-ground at 4 A.M., and passing south of the present camping-ground of No.1 and No.2 Divisional Troops, will march in the direction of the iron bridge [7] at Colenso. The Brigade will cross at this point, and gain possession of the kopjes north of the iron bridge.

5. The 4th Brigade will advance at 4.30 A.M. to a point between Bridle Drift and the railway, so that it can support either the 5th or the 2nd Brigade.

6. The 6th Brigade (less a half battalion escort to baggage) will move at 4 A.M. east of the railway in the direction of Hlangwane Hill to a position where he can protect the right flank of the 2nd Brigade, and, if necessary, support it or the mounted troops referred to later as moving towards Hlangwane Hill.

7. The Officer Commanding Mounted Brigade will move at 4 A.M. with a force of 1000 men and one battery of No.1 Brigade Division in the direction of Hlangwane Hill; he will cover the right flank of the general movement, and will endeavour to take up a position on Hlangwane Hill, whence he will enfilade the kopjes north of the iron bridge.

The Officer Commanding mounted troops will also detail two forces of 300 and 500 men to cover the right and left flanks respectively and protect the baggage.

8. The 2nd Brigade Division, Royal Field Artillery, will move at 4.30 A.M., following the 4th Brigade, and will take up a position whence it can enfilade the kopjes north of the iron bridge. This Brigade Division will act on any orders it receives from Major-General Hart.

The six Naval guns (two 4. 7-inch and four 12-pounder), now in position north of the 4th Brigade, will advance on the right of the 2nd Brigade Division, Royal Field Artillery.

No.1 Brigade Division, Royal Field Artillery (less one battery detached with Mounted Brigade), will move at 3.30 A.M. east of the railway and proceed under cover of the 6th Brigade to a point from which it can prepare the crossing for the 2nd Brigade.

The six Naval guns now encamped with No.2 Divisional Troops will accompany and act with this Brigade Division.

9. (Detailed orders for disposition of baggage in readiness to move to Colenso.)

10. The position of the General Officer Commanding will be near the 4. 7-inch guns.

The Commanding Royal Engineer will send two sections, 17th Company, Royal Engineers, with the 5th Brigade, and one section and headquarters with the 2nd Brigade.

11. Each infantry soldier will carry 150 rounds on his person, the ammunition now carried in the ox wagons of regimental transport being distributed.  Infantry greatcoats will be carried in two ox wagons of regimental transport, if brigadiers so wish; other stores will not be placed in these wagons.

Criticism of Buller's plan.

The most striking feature of these orders, perhaps, is the meagreness of the information they convey about the enemy's dispositions.  Reading them as they stand, one might almost conclude that in Sir R. Buller's conception of his plan the Colenso kopjes marked the whole extent of the Boer position.  Is it possible that this really was the case? If so the tactical scheme at once becomes, if not brilliant, at any rate intelligible.  Colenso was in that case meant to be an enveloping attack carried out simultaneously in front and on both flanks.  But the supposition is an almost impossible one. Inadequate as Sir R. Buller's information was, and in-sufficient as were the means used to secure it, he cannot have been unaware of the presence of the Boers as far up as, and beyond, the drift Hart was to cross, and in fact the possibility of Hart's being checked entered into his calculations. As regards Hlangwane, his scouts had for the past fortnight reported it held, and it is very doubtful if any information of the temporary abandonment reached Buller. And even if he had had no information he could hardly have assumed that the Boers, who in every larger engagement hitherto bad taken up the most extended positions, would now attempt to defend the passage of a river by massing all their force at one point. The most that can be admitted is that Buller believed, and with good reason, that the flanks of the position were considerably weaker than the centre.  The plan then resolves itself into a frontal attack directed on three separate points of an insufficiently reconnoitred position held in unknown strength by an intrenched enemy, a position sheltered along the greater part of its front by a broad river believed to be fordable at two or three points only, and resting on its left on a high rocky hill.  The two main attacks were to take place across absolutely open ground. There was to be no attempt to save the troops either by getting down to the river under cover of darkness and crossing in the grey light of morning, or by working up to the position by a series of intrenchments.  Against any enemy, at any period since the introduction of the rifle, such tactics would have been difficult to justify. After the experience of Modder River, the written report on which battle must already have been in Buller's hands, and after the last revelations of Boer fighting power, they were almost inconceivable.  Whether, undeterred by the fate of others, Buller still believed at heart that a force of British infantry such as his could "do anything and go anywhere," or whether, on the contrary, he was so bewildered by the terrible responsibility of his position and by the paralysing intangibility of the enemy as to be unable to think out any better plan, it is impossible to say. What-ever the true psychological explanation of the plan for the attack on Colenso, the fact remains that a worse plan could not have been devised.  Only by a miracle of good fortune could it hope to succeed. Nor can it even be urged that the dangers of the dispersed frontal attack were compensated by the exceptional rewards that would have accompanied success.  On the contrary, the army would only have found itself in the pit of the Colenso amphitheatre, cramped in between the Tugela and the heights, and face to face with a series of positions which, as the events of February 23-27, 1900, showed, could only be overcome by moving the main body of the force back across the Tugela again.

White not informed of the intended attack.

There is one other point of interest in connection with Sir R. Buller's decision to attack Colenso on December 15. He had previously announced to Sir G. White by heliograph that he would attack on the 17th, and the latter made arrangements to have a force ready to sally out and help the advance.  But when the attack was fixed for the 15th, no information was sent to Ladysmith, so that White remained inactive.  As things turned out his inactivity can have made no difference to the result. From the information sent him by White, Buller concluded that Ladysmith could give him no direct help until he himself had got as far as Onderbroek Mountain or Pieter's Station, a point which he was not likely to reach at the earliest before the l7th.[8] Still, Ladysmith and Colenso were so near for mobile horsemen like the Boers, that Botha might very easily, if things had gone hard with the Boers in the morning, have telegraphed for reinforcements which might have arrived in time to turn the scale of battle in the afternoon, a move that a vigorous sortie from Ladysmith might have prevented.

Dec.15, 5.50 AM. The opening of the battle.

Cloudless and windless broke the morning of the 15th, the presage of a burning, fiery day  to follow.  Before dawn the British columns were in motion, and the sun rose upon them winding silently across the plain. From where they marched no sign of life could be seen across the dip that marked the river bed.  But a watcher close by would have observed groups of uncouth, resolute men moving about by the trenches where they had been passing the night, making a hasty breakfast of Boer rusks and coffee, and eagerly discussing the long-expected attack-now at last a certainty. The deep peace of that beautiful still morning was not long to rest unbroken. At 5.30 the heavy naval battery rumbling along the Colenso road to the west of the railway came into action at a range of 5000 yards from the Colenso kopjes, and began to shell Fort Wylie.  Under this bombardment the hillock soon looked like an active volcano from which the red clouds or dust, the green fumes of lyddite, and the grey smoke of common shell floated up in a great column some hundreds of feet straight into the still air. No guns opened in reply; not a sign showed whether the pall of smoke covered torn and mangled bodies or a bare, untenanted hump of earth and rocks.

Long recklessly rushes forward his guns within 1200 yards of Boer position. 6 A.M.

At 6 A.M. occurred a new and unexpected development of the artillery attack. Colonel Long, commanding the artillery, that morning accompanied the two batteries (14th and 66th) of the 1st Brigade Division and the six naval guns which had been detailed to cover Hildyard's attack on the centre. His orders were to move under cover of Barton's brigade, and a note from Sir R. Buller had warned him that he would probably at first have to rely on his naval guns alone as he could not with safety get the field guns into action.  But Long was a convinced believer in a theory which had for some time been growing up among some artillerists in favour of pushing guns right forward and securing an overwhelming short-range fire.  Practised within limits that theory had been justified both at Modder River and Magersfontein, where

the guns had pushed up to within 1200 yards of the Boer trenches.[9] Possibly, too, a certain ambiguity in Buller's note may, instead of deterring, have piqued Long into attempting to put his theory in practice against the Boers. Whatever the cause, whilst still about three miles from the river on the east side of the railway, Long gave the order to advance. Clattering past their infantry escort of Barton's brigade the batteries trotted across the plain towards Colenso. They were preceded at a distance of a quarter of a mile by the battery ground scouts. Between these and the guns rode a small group of officers consisting of Long and his staff officer, Captain Herbert, Colonel Hunt, commanding the brigade division, and Lieutenant Ogilvy, R.N., commanding the naval 12-pounders. Without stopping to take up a first position at medium range, and paying no heed to repeated messages from Barton asking him to wait for his escort, Long rode recklessly on till he was nearly abreast of the village of Colenso, and within about 700 yards of the river, before he gave the order to come into action. The mounted scouts had by this time reached the belt of scrub concealing the bank and had not seen a sign of the enemy. The batteries were 200 yards behind.  Scarcely had Long given the order when a single gun was fired from the Colenso kopjes.  This was the signal for which the Boers had patiently waited, and before the echo had died away a rattle of musketry burst from the silent trenches.  Long and his guns, a mile and more in front of the infantry, were the only objects within range, and on them a terrific fire was concentrated. The batteries at once galloped up, bumped across a small ditch in their way, unlimbered, and got the teams away to a big donga 400 yards in roar-almost without loss, for the enemy's fire was at first erratic. The naval 12-pounders, which, being drawn by oxen, travelled slower than the field guns, were at that moment in the act of crossing the deep donga. Two guns under Lieutenant James, which were already through, quickly came into action against Fort Wylie.  The native drivers of the last four guns bolted the moment the Boers opened fire, but Lieutenant Deas, who was behind, managed to unlimber his guns some little way in the rear of the donga, while the two which were stuck in the donga were eventually got out by Ogilvy and opened fire from close behind it. These six guns were thus considerably scattered, and their commanders had moreover taken what advantage they could of the slightly rolling ground to get cover.

After fighting the Boer position alone for nearly an hour, gunners retire from guns.

The field batteries were in a perilous plight.  After shooting wildly for the first minute or two the enemy began to pour in a most deadly fire, for they could scarcely have wanted a better target than was presented by the line of twelve guns drawn up with parade4ike regularity in the open. The guns, on the other hand, were in a slight hollow and in a far worse position to reply than if they had been 1000 yards further back. Under a terrific volume of fire officers and men began to fall. The men did not suffer so much, but in the first few minutes Colonel Hunt and three other officers were wounded, and Captain Schreiber and Captain Goldie killed.  But the way the guns were fought that day was a splendid example of skill and discipline. Concentrating, at 1250 yards [10] range, on Fort Wylie, from which most of the fire came, they kept up so steady a hail of shrapnel and made such good practice, that after about fifteen minutes they actually succeeded in considerably beating down the enemy's fire, though not less than 1000 rifles, and perhaps double that number, were directed upon them. But though the rifle-fire was now less deadly, the shell-fire was increasing in intensity and accuracy. At 6.30 Long was desperately wounded through the body by a shrapnel bullet. They carried him back to the little ditch just behind the guns, already filling with wounded, but he refused to let any one attend him till all his men had been seen to.  By dint of rapid firing the batteries held their own for some while longer against Boer shell and rifle-fire combined, but by 7 A.M. they had expended nearly all their ammunition. Under the circumstances it was thought best to order the men to cease firing and fall back to the big donga till fresh ammunition could be brought up.  The men retired slowly and in perfect order, carrying as many of the wounded as they could with them.  Captain Herbert rode off to inform General Buller of what had taken place, and a little later to find the ammunition columns, which were about three miles in rear, and ask for some ammunition wagons to be sent forward immediately.

No infantry sent up in time to support guns.

All this while the infantry - Barton's brigade on the right of the railway, and Hildyard's waiting near the big naval guns on the left - remained entirely inactive.  However culpable tong's blunder, it was necessary to save him from its consequences at all hazards by an immediate advance of the infantry.  If several battalions had been hurried forward at once they might not only have diverted the Boer fire and enabled some of the guns to be withdrawn to safer range, but would themselves have had the advantage of advancing under cover of a concentrated artillery fire; in fact the chances of the attack in the centre, such as they were, would not have been seriously compromised by Long's precipitancy.  But beyond the gun escort, consisting of half the Irish and half the Scots Fusiliers, which had been outstripped and now rejoined the guns, taking up positions behind them to left and right, not a man moved forward to support.  It was scarcely a matter in the discretion of the brigadiers.  But Clery or Buller, by the naval guns, must have known the moment fire broke out that Long's batteries were engaged at close range with the Boer trenches, and ought either at once to have sent a galloper to order Long to withdraw his guns or to have accepted the situation and ordered Hildyard's and Barton's brigades to advance to the attack without delay.

Hart's advance on left. Misled by Kaffir guide. Surprised in close formation. 6.30 A.M.

Buller's attention was, it would seem, at that moment absorbed by the infantry attack on the left which was then just developing. The Irish Brigade, with the Dublin Fusiliers leading, the Inniskilling Fusiliers in second line, and the Connaught Rangers and Border Regiment in reserve, left camp at 4.30 and moved towards the bridle drift under the guidance of a native supplied by the Intelligence. They crossed the Doornkop Spruit with the leading battalion in fours from the right of companies at deploying intervals, and the rest of the brigade in mass of quarter columns. A pontoon section of Engineers followed to make a bridge for the guns, if required, after the passage was forced.  On the left of the infantry were Colonel Parsons's two batteries, and on the extreme left, guarding the flank, were the Royal Dragoons.  From their position the latter could see the Boers all along the bank, and could look right into the trenches by E. Robinson's farm.  Colonel Burn-Murdoch immediately and more than once reported to General Hart that the Boers were in strength all along his front and to his left. But Hart refused to pay any heed to these warnings. Nor would he alter the formation in which he was advancing                his brigade, though it was one quite inexcusable in broad daylight and when almost in touch with the enemy.  For if Long had been possessed of one theory, Hart was possessed of another, that open order was a fallacy and that the great thing was to keep men "well in hand," and to push right through regardless of losses.  Towards 6.30 the head of Hart's brigade had got within 300 yards of the river, having for some reason or other branched off rather to the right of the track which led to the drift. At this juncture the Kaffir suddenly declared that the drift was not in front, but away to the right, at the very head almost of the great loop which receded into the Boer position.  Whether he had been badly instructed by the Intelligence who sent him, whether he saw the Boers on the left and wished to avoid them, or whether he just thought that the white men being on foot would naturally wish to cross the river by ferry boat at the "pont drift," it is impossible to say.  It was an awkward predicament for the general, and it does not speak well for the Intelligence that the Kaffir was sent without any one accustomed to dealing with natives. At the same time it seems clear that if Hart had studied either the map or Sir R. Buller's  plan with any care, or had reflected for a moment, he must have realised that he was certainly not meant to go into such an obvious death-trap as the loop, and that if there was no drift where he was, he ought to look for one higher up stream. That the track along which he had originally been marching presumably led to a drift apparently never occurred to him. There was no opportunity for further cross-questioning the guide. For suddenly, as the leading companies got within about 200 yards of the river, fire opened on them with the same unexpected crash with which it had opened on Long a quarter of an hour before, from trenches in front and flank, from the heavy gun on Red Hill, and from the field pieces on the plain  At the first shot the Kaffir bolted and was never seen again.

Gallant but useless advance of Hart's brigade into the loop.

The brigade was fairly caught in close order and lost no order as possible, a movement time in deploying in as loose which the brigadier, with characteristic vigour, at once set himself to restrain. When the Dublins reached the bank of the river no signs of a ford were to be seen, and in the pause that ensued the regiments became once more massed on the bank and men began falling fast. Colonel Cooper, commanding the Dublins, was just starting to lead his men up stream in search of the drift, when unfortunately Hart came up and ordered the brigade to the right into the big loop. Leaving the Border Regiment lining the river bank the three Irish regiments recrossed the Doornkop Spruit and pushed forward up the salient.  The fire they now met was murderous.  The rolling volleys of musketry took them full in the face and smote upon both flanks. There was scarcely a vestige of cover, the enemy were invisible, but the advance never faltered.  Hart was conspicuous everywhere as he fearlessly rushed about urging his men forward.  But he had committed a desperate mistake.  He had no idea where he was taking his men beyond the recollection of the fact that the vanished Kaffir had pointed to the end of the loop.  The leading companies were given no definite point to march on. The inevitable result followed. With a definite goal to make for, such as is furnished by a line of visible intrenchments, the soldier knows that his safety as well as his glory lies in reaching it. Here it was different. Not only was there no visible point to aim at, but very soon the men were beset by a fatal uncertainty even as to the direction they were meant to move in. With their flanks becoming more enveloped and the fire in front more deadly at every step, that pitch of endurance beyond which men will not go without some very strong motive power to carry them forward was reached. The crowding of the men and confusion of units, due to Hart's refusal to allow a wide extension and to the continual sending up of reinforcements into the firing-line to keep up the advance, only made matters worse.  Very soon the splendid dash with which the advance had begun died away. A little later the advance ceased altogether and the men remained lying under such scanty cover as they could find. Several gallant individual attempts to reach the river were made, and a small party reached a Kaffir kraal 300-400 yards from the end of the loop, while others on the right got into some low scrub near the bank, and made their way down to the river, though without finding any trace of a drift.

7.15 A.M. Buller orders Hart to retire covered by Lyttelton.

At this point General Buller, who had watched the attack from the higher ground in rear, saw that it was hopeless to persevere with it.  Riding down to the salient himself he ordered Hart to retire. It was then a few minutes after seven.  The attack had lasted barely forty minutes, and in that short time had already cost over 400 casualties. Lyttelton, whom Buller had ordered to cover the retirement, moved out with the Rifle Brigade and Durham Light Infantry to the mouth of the big loop, where he drew up his men across the Doornkop and along the bank of a small spruit and let the Irish retire through him. It was with the greatest difficulty at first that the brave Irish could be induced by their officers to obey the unwelcome order.  At last they came back, exhausted and parched with thirst, but otherwise seemingly indifferent to the terrific fire with which the enemy followed up their retirement.  Arrived at the spruit they threw themselves into it; and could not be induced to move on until they had slaked their thirst and cooled their bodies. Then they passed on as cool and indifferent as ever. Bringing up the rear came the gallant Cooper with the last company of his faithful Dublins. The whole business was over in an hour and a half.

Artillery in action on the left.

Meanwhile Parsons, who had been placed at Hart's disposal but never received a single order from him, had brought  his guns into action on the left, behind the place where the brigade first reached the river, and all through Hart's attack and retirement did his utmost to cover him. Against a position so vast and so carefully masked, however, the fire of twelve guns was of little avail.  In fact the batteries came in for some rough handling from the enemy's guns of position by which they had a gun put out of action and against which they could make no reply.

Dundonald's attack on Hlangwane 7.15 - 9 .A.M.

Turning awhile from Hart's decimated battalions reforming out of range on the left, and from Long's guns standing  silent and deserted on the plain in front of Colenso, we may direct our attention to the right, where Dundonald was entrusted with the task of covering the flank and of occupying Hlangwane so as to enable the 7th Battery to enfilade the Colenso kopjes.  For the former purpose Dundonald detailed the 13th Hussars, reserving his brigade of irregulars for the occupation of Hlangwane.  This brigade, from which Bethune's Mounted Infantry had already been withdrawn for baggage guard and other duties, numbered about 800 troopers, in other words, a fighting strength when dismounted of barely 600 rifles.  The size of the force indicates both the character of the resistance expected on that wing, and the slight importance attached by Sir R. Buller to the occupation of Hlangwane. At 7.15 the brigade dismounted in the bushy bed of the Gomba Spruit, rather more than a mile south of Hlangwane, and advanced on the hill in attack formation.  The South African Light Horse were on the left, the Composite Regiment [11] was in the centre, and Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry on the right.  The first part of the advance was across bare mealie fields, and the heavy fire which was at once poured into the loose line of the irregulars showed that they had before them a much stronger force of the enemy than they had been led to expect. Pushing on rapidly they reached the foot of the hill where the loose rocks and scrubby bushes scattered over its slopes gave somewhat better coven  But the cover was equally good for the Boers, and they kept up so hot a fire that the further advance was very slow.  Thorneycroft's were sent up the valley on the east of Hlangwane to try and work round that flank of the hill.  But they found them-selves in turn outflanked by a party of Boers who had anticipated this move and had taken up a position on the far side of the valley, and could not continue their advance. On the left Colonel Byng with the South African Light Horse, who went through their baptism of fire that day with all the gallantry of veteran soldiers, pushed doggedly forward and got a considerable way up the side of the hill. The Composites in the centre had less cover than either of the others and could only hold their ground and keep up a heavy fire on the crest.

Dundonald asks Barton for support but is refused.

Considering that the attacking force was barely two-thirds the strength of the Boers on the hill, and that for artillery support it could only get the partial attention of one battery which was mainly devoting itself to enfilading the Colenso kopjes, the attack had so far been distinctly successful.  But it was now likely to fail for want of men. Dundonald rode off to ask Barton, whose support he could claim in accordance with the orders for the day, for a battalion of infantry to help carrying the hill. But Barton had meanwhile received orders not to commit his brigade, and refused to do anything, even to send two companies. And so the mounted brigade were left to hang on to the slopes of Hlangwane, and the one chance of success which offered itself that day was thrown away.  Barton's refusal was no doubt covered by the letter of his orders and it may be urged in his justification that Buller had already decided to abandon the conflict as soon as he could get away Long's guns, and that Barton could hardly be expected to realise the importance of Hlangwane better than Buller himself. Still, apart from a clear realisation of its value, it should have been obvious that the occupation of Hlangwane would have very effectively secured Buller's object, viz., the protection of Hildyard's flank and the withdrawal of the guns; and it is difficult not to ascribe Barton's refusal mainly to that deplorable fear of taking responsibility, which was one of the worst features of our Army system.

Buller, hearing that Long's guns are out of action, decides to abandon the attack after getting away the guns.

From this narrative of events on the right we must go back two or three hours to pick up the main thread of the battle. When Sir R. Buller rode down to the loop to recall Hart's brigade, he at once abandoned all thought of making another attempt to force a passage on the left, and decided to concentrate all his strength on the main attack. He accordingly rode back to superintend the advance of Hildyard's brigade, whose two leading battalions, the Queen's and Devons, had just begun to move down on the left of the railway in attack formation.  Before he reached his station by the naval battery, Captain Herbert galloped up to him with the news that Long's guns were out of action.  Coming immediately after Hart's failure, this was a heavy blow, one that it required all the iron nerve and quick judgment of a great general to meet and overcome.  Could the attack still be pushed through under cover of all the other guns available sufficiently to enable Long's guns to get into action again, and by their fire decide the issue? Or was it wiser generalship to give up all thought of crossing the Tugela that day, and withdraw the guns with as little delay and loss as possible?  General Buller, already disheartened, and influenced, perhaps, by the impression that Ogilvy's guns were out of action too, decided against the bolder course. He ordered Hildyard not to proceed with the attack, but to send one of his leading battalions across the railway to support the guns, and to advance with the other towards Colenso village, but without becoming too hotly engaged. He himself, accompanied by General Clery and the rest of his staff rode down to the donga behind the guns to see what could be done, the little group of Horsemen freely attracting the enemy's shells as it threaded its way through the lines of the advancing infantry.

Skilful advance of Hildyard's brigade into Colenso. 8 - 10.30 A.M.

Hildyard's brigade, which had been halted pending the last change of instructions, now resumed its advance, the Queen's and Devons in front and the East Surreys and West Yorks in support.  Skilfully adapting his formation both to the conditions of modern warfare and to the narrow front, barely 400 yards, available between the railway and the Tugela, Hildyard sent forward his battalions in line after line widely extended on a front of only two half companies.[12] As soon as they saw this advance the enemy gathered from their right flank, now no longer menaced, to resist what they believed to be the prelude to the main attack. Hart's repulse and the silencing of Long's guns had been followed by a lull in the battle, but as soon as Hildyard's leading companies came within range the storm burst again. Moving forward steadily the Queen's reached a shelter trench, dug by the Durban Light Infantry two months before, about level with Ogilvy's guns, and some 400 yards from the village.  Here they paused while the Devons advanced obliquely through them, crossed the railway, pushed forward under a fairly heavy fire to the deserted guns, and then worked past them across the open almost into the scrub by the river bank.  Seeing their old friends the Devons right ahead the Queen's would not be denied, and Colonel E. O. Hamilton ordered his leading half battalion under Major Burrell to occupy Colenso. The men were out on to the deadly slope at once, and as they crossed the lip of the trench the storm of bullets burst on them with redoubled fury. In vain Ogilvy's and Jones's crews slaved at their guns to stem the terrific tide of fire.  But it was not for nothing that Hildyard had spent the last two years training his brigade at Aldershot.  In loosest order and taking every advantage of the scanty cover that offered itself, but still in perfect cohesion, the Queen's went swiftly and steadily forward. With remarkably few casualties they got to the village, where they were joined by some of the Devons who had recrossed the line, and by some of the Irish Fusiliers escorting the guns.  Some of the Queen's tried to push on to the river, a few men actually getting on to the road bridge. The rest occupied the houses and sheds in the village and from windows and over walls kept up a hot fire on the trenches.  So effective was this fire that they drove the Boers from their trenches on the opposite bank to take refuge in the higher ones behind. At the naval battery nearly three miles in rear the gunners had lost sight of the advance from the moment when the Queen's went charging down the slope into the village.  Watching anxiously, the next thing they saw was a swarm of little brown figures scrambling desperately up the kopjes. In a moment every muzzle was turned upon them.  But before the order to fire could be given somebody shouted, "They're our men!" The gunners cheered but they lost the only chance the enemy gave them that day. The Queen's and Devons now stayed in the positions they had won, and at 10.30 A.M. Major Burrell received General. Buller's order to retire from Colenso as soon as the guns were withdrawn.

Gallant attempts to get away the guns. 9 - 10.30 A.M.

Meanwhile, during Hildyard's advance the most dramatic incidents of the day were taking place in close proximity. When Buller got down to the donga and saw the deserted guns his only thought was to get them away at once.  The  ammunition wagons asked for by Herbert were already on their way down.  But Buller ordered them back again, not thinking it any use, apparently, to try to get the guns into action again in order to cover their own withdrawal. He now told his A.D.C., Captain Schofield, R.H.A., to try and bring some of the guns out.  Schofield called for volunteers, and Corporal Nurse and two limber teams, all of the 66th Battery, offered themselves.  Then Captain Congreve, Rifle Brigade and Headquarters Staff; and Lieutenant the Hon. F. S. Roberts, 60th Rifles, A.D.C. to General Clery, volunteered also in order to assist in limbering up.  Schofield started from the big donga and reached the guns with the two teams untouched, but fifty yards from the little ditch behind the guns Roberts fell from his horse mortally wounded in the body. At the edge of the ditch Congreve, who had already been hit repeatedly through the clothes, was hit in the leg by a bullet which killed his horse.  Meanwhile Schofield and Nurse had limbered up two guns of the 66th Battery and returned safely, without having a man or horse touched, to the big donga.  Roberts was lying helpless in the open under a heavy fire, and as soon as Congreve saw it he started to crawl out, wounded as he was, to bring him in. He was joined by Major Babtie, R.A.M.C., who, under a heavy fire, had remained tending the wounded in the little donga for the last two hours, and between them they carried Roberts into comparative shelter. A little later, in response to a message for assistance sent over to the 7th Battery on the right, Captain Reed took three wagon teams and rode with them straight across the plain.  He had much further than Schofield to go, and was in view of the enemy the whole way. Before he reached the guns he had lost 13 horses out of 22, and 7 men out of 13, being himself wounded in the leg, and the attempt had to be abandoned.[13] All this while Buller stayed at the big donga under a heavy fire, to which he paid not the slightest attention.  His staff surgeon, Captain Hughes, was killed beside him, and he himself was struck in the side and severely bruised by a partially spent fragment of shell, though he never let it be known at the time that he was hit.

Advisability of covering the guns till nightfall.

It was evident that the fire directed on the guns was still too heavy to enable them to be withdrawn, and that it would be necessary to make a much stronger demonstration against Fort Wylie than that made by the handful of Queen's and Devons before another attempt could be made. Buller still had eight practically untouched battalions in hand, not counting the two battalions of Lyttelton's on the left, and three field batteries, besides the naval guns. He therefore had plenty of material for concentrating a really powerful fire on the Boer trenches, and giving all the impression of an intended attack in force.  But such a demonstration might have meant several hundred casualties, and it would have been a perfectly reasonable alternative to have withdrawn the greater part of the force out of rifle-range, and to have disposed the guns and intrenched the infantry in positions which would command all the approaches to the deserted batteries. Across that open ground no force of Boers would ever have dreamt of carrying out a counter-attack. Arrangements could have been made to bring up food and water - the latter an important want unprovided for in the preparations for the battle-and at dusk the guns could have been removed with-out greater danger than that created by snipers from the bushes or from Colenso village.  If that had been done Colenso would have gone down to history as a repulse, indeed, but not more discreditable to the British Army than Magersfontein or many another hard-fought fight in which British troops have been worsted by the force of circumstances or the mistakes of their generals.

11 A.M. Buller decides to abandon the guns altogether.

But the real disaster of Colenso was now at hand. The amazing confidence with which Buller had made his plan for the battle had been giving way to a steadily growing disheartenment, as  that plan was checked at one point after another. And now the awful sights of the battlefield, the emotion of being compelled passively to watch those splendid attempts to rescue the guns, which we may well believe a man of Buller's personal courage would sooner have taken part in himself than have had to ask of his men, the shock of his wound, and the prostrating effect of long hours in the saddle under the glowing African sun, added to all the mental anxieties and disappointments of the day, completely broke his spirit.  Utterly losing heart, indifferent to all consequences, and intent only on making an end of a miserable business, he decided to abandon the guns to the enemy and get back to camp. At 11 A.M. he sent word to Hildyard to tell the Queen's and Devons to retire at once without waiting for the removal of the guns. Then, after ordering Ogilvy's naval guns to be withdrawn from the big donga, he rode off to the east to recall Dundonald.

His action inexcusable.

To know when to acknowledge defeat and to refuse to make needless sacrifices to prestige is sometimes part of wise generalship.  But there can be no such justification for the abandonment of the guns at Colenso. It is not as if the guns had been captured by the enemy and could only have been re-captured at a cost of life far exceeding their value. They were still in the British firing-line, half a mile away from the river, which the Boers would have to cross to come near them.  If they had been covered it is doubtful if the enemy would even have attempted to interfere with their removal at nightfall.  But even supposing that the retention of the guns had doubled the casualties of the day, that loss should have been faced-not for the sake of mere prestige, but because at that moment guns were far more important than men.  They were nearly half of Buller's field artillery; without them there could be no question of relieving Ladysmith. Weeks would elapse before new guns cou14 reach Natal from England, and during those weeks the fate of Ladysmith, perhaps of the whole war, might be decided. But it is idle to suppose that Buller at that moment was capable of balancing loss and gain, when he could not even think of rendering the guns useless to the enemy by dismantling the breech blocks-a far less dangerous and conspicuous undertaking than bringing up a limber team.[14]

General retirement. 11.30  A.M. - 2.30 P.M.

The general retirement now began. Ogilvy's guns, whose ox teams had suffered heavily, were with some difficulty got away with the assistance of the limber teams of the abandoned batteries. A number of ammunition wagons were, however, left behind at the big donga. Dundonald's brigade had the greatest difficulty in disentangling themselves from their position, and though covered by the 7th Battery and afterwards supported by the Royal Fusiliers sent forward by Barton, took nearly three hours to get away, and suffered as many losses as in the attack.  The Queen's in Colenso received the order. to retire before 11.30 A.M., but it did not reach the Devons till an hour later, and apparently never reached Colonel Bullock, commanding the Devons, who with two sections of his men occupied a crack in the ground a little way in front of the guns, or some of the companies of Irish and Scots Fusiliers who were also right in front east of the railway.  The rest retired as skilfully as they had advanced, under an equally heavy fire, their retirement being well covered on both sides of the railway by the East Surreys, who in their turn fell back under cover of Parsons's guns.  By 2.30 P.M. everything was over, and the last troops to leave the field, the heavy naval battery with its escort of two of Lyttelton's battalions, and Bethune's Mounted Infantry seeing in the stragglers, were following the weary columns back into the previous day's camp, where the men, jaded, weary, and annoyed, but unconscious of defeat, were already pitching the tents which a few hours before they had struck in the confident belief that they would not need them till Ladysmith was relieved.

Scattered parties made prisoners.

The difficulty of communicating an order to retire over the scattered area of a modern battle was again illustrated at Colenso. The case of the sections of Devons and Irish and Scots Fusiliers has already been mentioned.  On the left some rather curious incidents occurred. A few men under Colonel Thackeray of the Inniskillings had got into some scrub close by the river on the right of the loop, and remained there till 5 o'clock, in ignorance of Hart's retreat. At that hour a Boer commandant who had crossed the river with a few men came up and claimed the group as his prisoners. An animated argument ensued between Thackeray and the Boer, with the result that the Colonel and his men were allowed to return to camp. A similar incident happened to half a company of the Borders under Lieutenant Warren, still further to the left.  Other scattered details were taken prisoners. A considerable number of unwounded artillery-men remained behind in the little donga by the deserted guns without attempting to escape, presumably unaware of the general retirement.

The Boers made no attempt to interfere with the retirement, and only crossed the river several hours later, towards 5 P.M., when everything was clear, to pick up stragglers and take away the abandoned guns.  Crossing the road bridge with a few wagon teams, a number of Vryheid and Krugersdorp burghers and Johannesburg Police, under Field-Cornet Emmett, Botha's brother-in-law, went to fetch the guns. They were suddenly met by a hot fire from Bullock's men in the little crack of ground before the guns, and a regular fight ensued, till Emmett, getting hold of a British ambulance orderly looking for wounded, went up under cover of the red cross to ask Bullock to surrender.  Bullock ordered him back, and declared he would fight it out.  But meanwhile the Boers had come round behind, and the soldiers, perishing of thirst, began surrendering freely.  Finally, one of the Boers behind, seeing Bullock make a movement as if he

would draw his revolver, stunned him with a blow from the butt end of his rifle. The rest then gave in. The Boers then took the ten "great, splendid cannons," more than all the artillery they had at Colenso, with their limbers and ten ammunition wagons with about 600 rounds of shell, limbered up, and drove unmolested and at their leisure back to the bridge and across the river.  Thus ended the battle of Colenso.

Dec. 16-17. Armistice. British retire to Chieveley and Frere.

On the following morning Sir R. Buller asked for an armistice in order to collect the rest of the dead and wounded. Botha consented to an armistice till midnight. In view of the possibility of the Boers shelling the camps, orders were given that they were to be withdrawn as soon as the armistice expired. This order was carried out, though the movement was somewhat retarded by a total eclipse of the moon, and before morning the army was in its new positions. Hildyard's and Barton's brigades and the irregular cavalry remained at Chieveley under command of General Clery, and Lyttelton's and Hart's brigades, under the command of Lyttelton, with the regular cavalry returned to Frere, where General Buller took up his headquarters.

The casualties. Work of the field hospitals.

The British casualties at Colenso included 7 officers and 138 men killed, 43 officers and 719 men wounded, 21 officers and 199 men missing and prisoners, a total of 1127.  Out of this number 523 had occurred in Hart's brigade in the space of an hour and a half, the Dublin Fusiliers alone sustaining

216, five more than the Seaforths at Magersfontein. Hildyard's brigade, more skilfully handled, only lost 235, of whom 4 officers and 47 men were made prisoners. The 14th and 66th Batteries had 2 officers and 7 men killed, 6 officers and 20 men wounded, and 5 officers and 44 men missing.[15] The average of killed to wounded was very low, less than one in five, and many of the wounded were able to walk the two or three miles back to the hospitals unassisted. The ambulances were out all day on the 15th, and often under fire, assisted by a specially raised corps of civilian stretcher-bearers, and by a small body of Indian stretcher-bearers raised as a testimony of their loyalty by the Indian community of Natal. Four brigade field hospitals took up their position under cover of a slight rise, while a general hospital was pitched at Chieveley. The wounded began to be brought in at 8.30 A.M. From about 2 P.M. onwards the less serious cases were removed by train to hospitals at Estcourt and Maritzburg.  The work of the doctors, continued all through the night and till 4 P.M. the following afternoon, with only two hours rest, was beyond praise. Lieutenant Roberts was brought into the 4th Brigade Field Hospital on the evening of the 15th, wounded in three places. He was transferred to Chieveley early on the 16th, and died there that night. The Boer casualties were insignificant, perhaps 40 all told. None of the British guns except Long's seem to have located their trenches to any effect, while, except on Hlangwane, the Boers were never really attacked by the infantry at all.

No attack was ever made at Colenso.

This last fact, indeed, is the most striking feature of that extraordinary action, the key to its real military significance. The battle of Colenso was not an unsuccessful attack on the Boer position behind the Tugela, for the sufficient reason that no attack was ever made. The main Boer defence, the deep and broad Tugela, was never even essayed.  Only scattered parties of soldiers here and there reached its banks, there never was any organised attempt to force a passage.  The Boers were not pressed, they suffered no losses worth mentioning, they never even found it necessary to move their few and scattered guns.  Before any attack could begin the blunders of two subordinate officers had caused considerable losses to one of the infantry brigades and had put two batteries out of action. The attack was immediately abandoned. A few hours later, after a half-hearted and inadequate effort to cover the removal of the batteries the general abandoned these also and retired. That was all.

Criticism of the battle. Buller's failure.

Colenso was a striking demonstration of the power of modern weapons to punish those who refused to recognise or pay heed to the new conditions of war. First and foremost of these was General Buller himself.  His plan of attack would have been difficult to justify at any time - against the modern rifle it was bound to fail. For even had his subordinates made no mistakes, even had Buller been as iron-willed and as prodigal of the lives of his men as Napoleon himself, it is hard to believe that the frontal attack on such a position could ever have succeeded. And, perhaps, the very mistakes that prevented the attack thus proved blessings in disguise.  Had Long not prematurely unmasked the Boer trenches, had the Boers felt sufficient confidence in themselves to allow the heads of the attacking brigades to cross the river before opening fire, Colenso might well have gone down to history as a sheer massacre. The execution of the plan was on a level with its conception.                Long's reckless advance and Hart's frantic dash into the deadly loop only exemplified the same spirit, the same lack of information, the same disregard of the enemy and contempt of his powers, as the intended frontal attack itself.  In a sense Buller certainly had bad luck, but it was the bad luck that almost inevitably attends faulty plans and inadequate preparations.  Nothing was done to retrieve that ill luck. No support reached Long while he was still in action, no covering movement was made sufficient to allow the guns to get into action again or to be withdrawn.  The one chance of success that offered itself during the day, the capture of Hlangwane, was rejected, partly because Barton lacked initiative, partly because Buller had already given up all hope of achieving anything.  Bad in its conception, and worse in its execution, Colenso was worst of all in its abandonment. For that there can be no excuse. It cannot be said that the men were beaten and that immediate withdrawal averted worse consequences. Barely half the force had been under fire at all. The battalions that had been engaged had been under very heavy fire, which they had faced with admirable courage, but the physical strain they had undergone - hardly comparable with the strain Methuen's troops endured at Modder River or Magersfontein - cannot have exhausted them completely.  Buller's men had not failed him, nor would they have failed him then whatever he had asked of them.  But it was the general who, at the critical moment, failed his troops.  Already before the battle his purpose and his spirits seem to have wavered more than once, and under the stress of temporary failure his judgment and nerve alike forsook him.

Abandoning all hope of relieving Ladysmith, Buller suggests its surrender to White.

But the worst was yet to follow. Just as in the crisis of the battle he had failed the men whom he led, so now in the hour of trial he was to fail his country which had entrusted the fortune of the war into his hands. Fortunately for England she still had men in the field and in the council chamber who preserved her from the consequences of that failure.  It is in justice to them that it is necessary to tell the painful story which one might otherwise well have wished to pass over in silence.  Serious and humiliating as was the check at Colenso, it was no irretrievable disaster.  But such it seemed to Sir R. Buller when he returned to Chieveley and reflected on the position in which his easy acceptance of defeat had left him. He now realised, what he had forgotten when he abandoned the guns, that he could not relieve Ladysmith without them.  Once again he utterly lost heart. Not only did he despair of doing anything himself, but he despaired for others. With a confused recollection of certain messages from Ladysmith in which Sir G. White had urged the desirability of speedy relief, and completely forgetful of all the examples furnished by the endurance of beleaguered garrisons at all periods of history, he abandoned himself to the conclusion that Ladysmith must fall before any attempt could be made to relieve it.  On the morning of the 16th he telegraphed to Lord Lansdowne that the relief of Ladysmith was impossible, that Sir G. White would be compelled to lay down his arms, and that he proposed to intrench himself in a defensive position near Chieveley. Then, on that same morning, without waiting for a reply, without waiting to get the fullest information from Sir G. White as to the resources at his disposal, without consulting his senior officers, he sent a heliographic message to White suggesting the surrender of Ladysmith. The exact wording of that message has not yet been officially disclosed,[16] but its general purport has long been a matter of common knowledge. It was a suggestion or recommendation to Sir G. White to make what terms he could with the Boers.  The only provisos were that he should not surrender without taking the precaution first to destroy his ciphers, ammunition and military stores, and that he should not do so before giving the force at Chieveley time to intrench itself.  It was not actually an order. But it was sufficiently strong to have been taken as such by any one who had already let the idea of surrender cross his mind, and it is almost impossible to regard it as a mere incidental discussion of the precautions that might have to be taken if the worst came to the worst. It certainly was not understood in that sense in Ladysmith, nor is it easy to make the request for time to intrench, read together with the message sent by Sir R. Buller to the Secretary of State that he would in-trench at Chieveley, bear any other meaning than that the surrender referred to was immediate surrender.

Buller's own account of the message to White.

Nearly two years later, on October 10, 1901, in a speech which directly led to his dismissal from the command of the Aldershot Army Corps, Sir R. Buller referred to this message in the following curious passage: -

"They attack me, and they say that I wrote a telegram in which I ordered Sir George White to give up Ladysmith, to destroy his books, and so forth. I wrote a good many telegrams and I wrote one telegram that admits partially of that description. . . . I attacked Colenso on December 15. 1 was unsuccessful; it was a very trying day; I was thirty-six hours at work; I was fourteen hours in the saddle. It was the hottest day we had the whole of the time I was out there, and I had rank bad luck, and I hope to show some day that if I had not had bad luck I had good enough men with me to get in. I attacked Colenso and I failed; and, having failed, I had to consider the people in front of me in Ladysmith. . . . I knew that horse sickness was almost certain to become very prevalent in the Tugela Valley; I knew that enteric fever was endemic, and was likely to become epidemic in the Tugela Valley at that time. I believed also that the Boers were engaged in putting dead horses into the water which the garrison was obliged to drink. I knew that the garrison would have trouble, and great trouble, with their sick. I did not know what supplies there were. I thought at that time I had officially in writing that the garrison could not be fed beyond the end of the year. I was wrong, but at that time I thought it and believed it. The end of the year was fifteen days off. The message I had to send to Sir George White was that I had attacked, that I had failed, that I could not possibly make another attempt for a month, and then I was certain I could not do it except by slow fighting, and not by rushing. That was the message I had to send, and I had to ask him certain questions. I wrote the telegram out, and I read it through several times, and I said, 'It is a mean thing to send a telegram like that to a fellow like that. He will sit still till the end. What about his sick?' I was in command of Natal, and it was my duty to give my subordinate some assistance, some lead, something that in the event of his determining to surrender he would be able to produce and say, 'Well, Sir Redvers Buller agreed.' I, therefore, spatchcocked into the middle of that telegram a sentence in which I suggested it would be necessary to surrender the garrison, what he should do when he surrendered, and how he should do it. I put it after one question he had to answer, and followed it with another question. I did not like to suggest to a man I believed to be a brave soldier that he should do this, that, or the other; but I put in the sentence in order that if he found he was obliged to surrender it would be some sort of cover for him. In fact, what I felt at the time was that if surrender came I should be just as responsible for it as he was, and I did not mean to stand up and say it was all his fault."

Discussion of Buller's action.

As regards the amazing assumption that it is a general's duty to make it easier for his subordinates to surrender by giving them a "lead" nothing need be said, except that to have given utterance to it was in itself more than sufficient reason for Sir R. Buller's immediate dismissal.  As for the other reasons given, they were mere surmises of what might take place.  Not one of them was correct, as a matter of fact, and not all of them together, if they had been correct, would have justified the suggestion of surrender.  But the whole passage throws an interesting light on Sir R. Buller's state of mind after Colenso.  The fact is that he had acquiesced in the surrender of Ladysmith as inevitable, and one cannot help surmising that in his despair he may even have thought of it as the best solution.  It must be remembered that, from Buller's point of view, White's failure to hold his own in the field and his submission to investment had been the cause of the break-up of the army corps and of its defeat all along the line.  The attempts to relieve it might cost infinitely more in lives than Ladysmith was worth. Might it not be better if White's 13,000 men were just "written off" as a bad debt, and the original defensive scheme for Natal reorganised on the line of the Tugela? Then it might still be possible for Buller to return to Cape Colony to carry out the original plan of campaign.  To abandon the idea of relieving Ladysmith in order to push the campaign more vigorously elsewhere was in itself not an unreasonable scheme, though it is doubtful whether it would have been the best under the circumstances.  But it was essential to its success that Ladysmith should hold out to the last breath, and should even then attempt to cut its way out rather than surrender. The surrender of Ladysmith at that moment would have had a terrible moral effect. Not only would it, in all probability, have meant a general rising in Cape Colony, but it might well have emboldened foreign powers to intervene. And in any case it would have released the whole of the Boer forces in Natal for active operations against Buller, who, on the utterly indefensible south bank of the Tugela, would soon have been invested himself or forced to retire towards Maritzburg and Durban. Every hour that Ladysmith held out while reinforcements were coming from England, was precious to the Empire. But Buller, his imagination and reason alike numbed by despair, was ready that Ladysmith should surrender without more ado.

Spirited attitude of White and of Government. Lord Roberts appointed to the command.

To Sir G. White and his staff the message at first seemed hardly credible.  The first idea that suggested itself was that the Boers had got hold of the British cipher.  But repetition of the message silenced all doubts.  Sir U. White replied that he had not the slightest intention of surrendering, but expressed the hope that Sir P. Buller would continue to keep some of the enemy engaged so that they should not all concentrate against Ladysmith. At the same time he issued a proclamation in Ladysmith that the defence would be continued, "in the same spirited manner as it has hitherto been conducted until the general officer commanding-in-chief in South Africa does relieve it." At home Buller's despairing message created the utmost consternation. Especially was this the case in the War Office, which, overwhelmed by the successive tidings of disaster, seemed almost inclined to acquiesce in his conclusions. For once, the much- abused politicians showed themselves stronger men than the soldiers. Most of the Ministers had left town for Christmas.  But Lord Lansdowne had stayed on at the War Office, and, fortunately, he had at his side, in Mr. Balfour, a colleague on whose firm support and courageous counsel he could rely at this critical moment. A message was immediately cabled to Sir R. Buller directing him to persevere, or, if unwilling to

do so, to hand over the Natal command to one of his subordinates and to return home. Later in the day Lord Salisbury arrived, and at an informal meeting of such Ministers as were in town it was resolved, without waiting to consult Lord Wolseley or the War Office, to offer the supreme command in South Africa to Lord Roberts, with Lord Kitchener to accompany him as chief of the staff. It was a sudden decision, but the idea itself was not altogether a new one.  Buller's previous hesitations and changes of mind, his sudden departure to Natal, where he first announced that he had only gone to inspect the situation, and then that he was going to take the field in person, and the evident lack of a controlling hand in Cape Colony, had already raised the question of the advisability of sending out another commander. The contradictory messages sent by Buller before Colenso increased the uneasiness of the Government, an uneasiness quickened to instant decision by the news of his defeat and the clear evidence of his demoralisation. Lord Roberts was telegraphed for, was brought to a meeting of Ministers at Lansdowne House at an early hour on Sunday the 17th and there told the object of his summons.  After a few minutes' silent consideration he accepted, believing that in spite of his years the careful and vigorous life he had led would enable him to meet the heavy physical strain of a long campaign.  The appointment was published by the War Office that same evening on the ground that the situation in Natal called for Sir R. Buller's undivided attention. At the same time it was announced that all the rest of the Army Reserve would be called up, the Seventh Division hurried forward, reinforcements of artillery sent, nine Militia battalions allowed to volunteer for foreign service, a force of Yeomanry volunteers and a contingent of infantry volunteers enrolled for South African service, that the patriotic offers received from the colonies would be accepted, "preference being given to offers of mounted contingents," and that further local mounted corps would be raised in South Africa.

Retrospect. Estimate of the Boer success.

With the "Black Week" of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso the first main period of the war comes to a close. For the Boers it was on the whole a period of success.  It is true their success was not all that they had expected, nor all that it might have been.  They had lost rare opportunities by delays in mobilisation, by faulty strategy, by the lack of the dash and readiness to sacrifice life necessary to successful attack, but for which they might have overrun all South Africa before Buller's army landed, or at least been in possession of the garrisons which at the end of this period they were still besieging. They were already standing on the defensive. Still they had achieved great things.  They had defeated and corralled one large British force, they had invaded and annexed vast tracts of country, and now they had won three signal victories within one week on British soil. Well might the Boers declare on the day after Colenso that the God of their fathers had been with His chosen people as on that self-same day sixty-one years before when He had helped them to rout the Zulu hordes of Dingaan.  Compared with these victories, Dingaan's Day and Majuba were alike insignificant, and to men who like old Paul Kruger could remember the whole history almost of British policy in South Africa - knowing nothing of the real spirit of England when once awakened - there could be little doubt but that England would soon surrender as she had surrendered before.

The British military failure.

As for the British the war had taken them unprepared. They started behindhand and they never made up what they had lost.  The scheme on which all their calculations were framed was unstrategical in its character, largely determined by political considerations, and based on an unwarrantable underestimate of the enemy's fighting capacity.  The keystone of the whole scheme was the assumption that Sir G. White could hold his own in Natal for an indefinite length of time. That assumption gave way at the very outset and the great army corps had to be broken up to stop the gap which the scheme had overlooked. Even for this task it proved insufficient. Each of the fragments proved incapable of fulfilling the task assigned to it. The fault lay not with the soldiers and regimental officers, who as a rule behaved magnificently. Nor did it lie altogether with the generals. They were indeed responsible for much, as the foregoing chapters have shown.  But the lack of adequate preparation, of organised information, the terrible immobility of their forces hampered them at every turn. Had they been men of commanding ability they might have triumphed over even these obstacles.  But then the system which in spite of all past experiences sent an infantry force to conquer the Boers, which had provided no maps of Natal south of Ladysmith, which made its plans without any reference to what the Boers might do, was not a system likely to produce men of commanding ability.  It produced generals in its own likeness, and the strategy of those generals often bears a curious psychological resemblance to the general strategy of the plan of campaign.  The real fault lay with the nation, a nation ready to spend money on its Army, but utterly indifferent to the conditions of military efficiency. And of that national indifference not only the first months of failure, but the long and costly struggle that followed, have been the fruit and the punishment.

British patriotism and steadfastness.

But if the nation had been indifferent to the need for military efficiency it was not indifferent to the demands of patriotism.  Its reverses, instead of proving it soft and without spirit, as its enemies confidently hoped, only brought out its highest qualities, its sober judgment and its unwavering resolution.  In that hour of trial it made no unworthy attempt to seek a scapegoat for its own omissions and negligences either in the Government or in the generals in the field. Convinced only the more firmly by defeat of the justice of its cause, it plainly showed its resolve to see the war through at any cost.  And not in England alone, but in every part of the British dominions did that resolve find utterance.  Deep as was the gloom of that "Black Week," humiliating as was the sense of defeat and failure, one may wonder whether the thrill of a common sympathy and a common purpose through-out the whole length and breadth of the Empire may not have been worth more than many easily won victories.



[1] To complete this brigade the Irish Rifles, which had remained with Gatacre, were replaced by the Border Regiment, while the 1st Dublin Fusiliers, left on the line of communications, were replaced by the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers.

[2] 1st Dublin Fusiliers, Somerset Light Infantry, Durban Light Infantry, Imperial Light Infantry.

 

[3] The fiction that Clery commanded in Natal, and that Buller - who, it is worth noting, had no staff with him except Colonel Stopford and a few A.D.C.'s - was only present on a short visit of inspection, was, indeed, outwardly kept up, and was maintained in the orders issued before Colenso. But in reality Buller directly commanded the force. If it had been otherwise, he might very well have ordered Clery to carry out the movement by Potgieter's Drift, and remained behind himself to keep in touch with Cape Colony.

 

[4] A wagon drift six miles west of Colenso just above the right flank of the position where a road led up a valley to join the main road from Colenso to Ladysmith, a bridle drift opposite Robinson's Farm, another a mile lower down above the junction of a large watercourse on the right bank known as the Doornkop Spruit, then a sinuous four miles of deep water to the wagon drift just below the road bridge, and two drifts on each side of the railway bridge. At the head of the western loop, and half a mile above the road bridge, the map indicated so-called "pont drifts," i.e., deep still reaches crossed by a ferry-boat. The boats, if in use at that time, had certainly been removed before the battle, but the name pont drift may possibly have helped to mislead General Hart in the battle, and may perhaps account for the legend of the Boers having dammed the river.

 

[5] At a later date the Boers kept fully half their force across the river on Hlangwane and the adjoining heights, from which they were only driven in February 1900 after nearly a week's fighting.

 

[6] This is the explanation given in Sir R. Buller's despatch, but it is difficult to see why the Boers could not, on their side, have remained under cover behind the reverse of the kopjes, fetching their water supply from the Tugela on their left or from the Onderbroek Spruit, a mile in rear.

 

[7] There were two iron bridges at Colenso, more than half a mile apart, viz., the road bridge to the west of the village and the railway bridge to the north of it. The former was the one commonly spoken of as the "iron bridge," but it is quite clear from Sir R. Buller's description of what he intended Hildyard to do that "iron bridge" in these orders meant the railway bridge. The vagueness of the description is characteristic.

 

[8] It is not impossible, however, that Buller was also influenced by a suspicion that the Boers could read his cipher, and deliberately wished to mislead them.

 

[9] In these oases, however, only after taking up preliminary positions and with infantry support. It is interesting to note that as early as 1889 the Drill Book fixed 1700 yards as the limit beyond which artillery, unless itself supported by infantry, could not approach unbroken infantry without extreme risk.

 

[10] There is no reason to believe that there were any Boers nearer than this. There were none on the right bank nearer than Hlangwane, while those intrenched on the left bank could not have seen the batteries owing to the dip in which they stood and to the scrub between.

 

[11] Formed of the various miscellaneous mounted units originally at Estcourt.

 

[12] Columns of half-companies, at from fifty to eighty paces distance, men in single rank at sir to eight paces interval. Reserve companies about eight hundred yards in rear of supports.

 

[13] Captains Congreve and Reed, Lieutenant Roberts, Corporal Nurse, and Major Babtie received the Victoria Cross. Captain Schofield received it eventually, though Sir R. Buller at first refused to recommend him on the ground that he had been told to make the attempt. Eighteen non-commissioned officers and artillery drivers also received the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

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[14] Volunteers for this task could have crawled round under cover of ditches almost all the way to the guns. It might have been possible, too, after removing the wounded-or even without doing so-for a general free from the ordinary sentiment about endangering the lives of wounded men to have let the naval guns shell the deserted batteries at close range.

 

[15] The following were the casualties among officers: - Staff: mortally wounded, Lieutenant Hon. F. Roberts; wounded, Captains Congreve and Hon. St. L. Jervis. Royal Field Artillery: killed, Captain Goldie and Lieutenant Schreiber; wounded, Colonels Long and Hunt, Captains White Thomson, Reed, Elton, and Lieutenant Goodson. 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers: killed, Captains Loftus and Charley; wounded, Captains Hancocks, Hessey, Buckley, Lieutenants Leverson, Whiffin, Best, Weldon, and Devenish. 2nd Devonshire Regiment: wounded, Captains Goodwyn, Radcliffe, Vigors, Lieutenants Gardiner and Storey. Rifle Brigade: wounded, Lieutenant Graham. 1st Border Regiment: wounded, Major Heygate, Captain Probyn, Lieutenant Marsh.  1st Connaught Rangers: wounded, Colonel Brooke and Lieutenant Brooke.  2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers: wounded, Captain Brush. 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers: killed, Captain Bacon, Lieutenant Henry; wounded, Major Gordon, Captain Shewan, Lieutenant M'Leod. 2nd Queen's: wounded, Lieutenants Tuinell and Vesey.  Thorneycroft's M.I.: killed, Lieutenant Jenkins; wounded, Lieutenants Otto, Ponsonby, and Holford. Natal Carabiniers: wounded, Lieutenants Mackay and Wilson. South African Light Horse: wounded, Lieutenants Banhurst and Cook.  Royal Army Medical Corps: killed, Captain Hughes; wounded, Major Brannigan.

 

[16] The following version may be taken as representing the purport, though not necessarily the exact wording, of the leading clauses of this message: "As it appears certain that I cannot relieve Ladysmith for another month, and even then only by means of protracted siege operations . . . you will burn your ciphers, destroy your guns, fire away your ammunition, and make the best terms possible with the general of the besieging forces, after giving me time to fortify myself on the Tugela." But it is only fair to suppose that the message, read as a whole and in connection with other messages sent on that same day, was somewhat less uncompromising, and suggested rather than ordered surrender. It is certainly to be regretted, from the historian's point of view, that it has not been possible to treat this question with such full and complete knowledge of the exact contents of all the official documents as may some day be furnished to the public. But it would be even more undesirable to dismiss the Colenso episode without any discussion of this all-important question so closely connected with it. In its main lines, at any rate, the story is perfectly clear. The essential facts could scarcely be said to be in dispute, even if Sir R. Buller had not made a public admission of them, And it is upon these facts and not upon the exact wording of a particular document that the criticisms in these pages are based.







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