Battle of Colenso--Defeat of General Buller.
[Sidenote: "Tied by the Leg"]
South Africa has several lines of railroads scoring the country with outline improvements, and there are many bridges easily broken, and then the iron lines are lost and the armies dependent upon them are, to employ a phrase common in England to describe immobility without imprisonment, "tied by the leg." South Africa is of enormous extent. It is, for example, 641 miles by railroad from Cape Town to Kimberley, and the country is diversified and divided by mountain ranges and rivers, and yet it is extraordinarily open but rugged, giving sharpshooters with long range rifles concealment and shelter, while the columns of an army on the march can hardly be missed by the eye or the rifle. The Boer wagons with oxen for motors are phenomenally slow, but the Boer on his pony with rifles and a supply of cartridges gallops fifty miles in a few hours, while Europeans with indispensable impediments, have hard work to cover one quarter of the distance in the same time. The war was rushed just in the season for the grass to feed the ponies. While the English statesmen were debating with the Boer President the details of fractional representation based upon restricted constituencies, the Transvaal Government used the money extracted from disarmed and unprotected Englishmen in preparing for war, and it was held that a British subject unwilling to be of a servile class and have the people speaking his language in the great city enslaved to the burghers, was in a sense irrational, a disturber, and one who would be a usurper, sordidly seeking to plunge the world into war. [Sidenote: American and Boer revolutions Compared] Our revolutionary fathers fought for representation, or rather against taxation without representation, but the Boers regarded it as an insult that the majority paying nine-tenths of the taxes should claim that it would be no more than fair to have one-sixteenth of the law-making power of the Transvaal Congress and none at all of the executive. The British did not prepare for war, but the Boers accused them of it, as the wolf accused a sheep of muddying the water when it was taking a drink down stream; and when the Boers were ready to fight they went at it and took the British unawares, at the same time charging them with responsibility for the conflict.
[Sidenote: Buller's Difficult Position]
If Sir Redvers Buller comprehended the full extent of the dangers of the duties of his assignment, he made no sign. He might have had apprehensions that a pushing advance would mean, at best, delays for an indefinite period, but it seemed preposterous to sit down on a river with 18,000 men and watch the water glide away with the days and get news, perhaps, of the fall of Ladysmith, the place of the trial of strength of the combatants. He did wait long enough to cause comment in the press of his country to the effect that there was no break in the monotony of his camp beside the Tugela. This was equivalent to the old sarcasm in the American war, during the time that McClellan was making ready to move; "All is quiet on the Potomac." It was not the first appearance of General Buller in South Africa. He was with Sir Evelyn Wood after Majuba, and it was assumed his knowledge of the country would be valuable. The resources of the English Empire were at his command, but he was made to feel the want of time. He was where he could hear the thunder of cannon at Ladysmith day after day, but there was a river before him and beyond it the enemy in unknown numbers digging trenches, and they also occupied a position on the British side of the river, as was soon ascertained when the attempt was made in full force to pass it. The Boers were engaged in constructing rifle pits in the shape of the letter S, a double curve that gives occupants facilities for keeping out of raking shell fire, but making drainage difficult in rainy weather, and as the ground to cover was rough and the time to turn the tide that had been running against the British had come, if it was to be done before the fall of the besieged places, the General-in-Chief attempted to force the river and the first line of his report, after stating that he had moved in "full force" in the morning was to regret a "serious reverse."
[Sidenote: A Possible Preliminary Demonstration]
It was indeed serious. If there had been a chance to flank the position of the enemy, General Buller had not discovered it. The presumption is he had a force much stronger than the enemy would be in the open field, and one would think a violent cannonade at the bend of the river where there were two fords might have commanded attention in that quarter, and that there were British troops enough to make a demonstration that could be converted into a real attack at another point. In the report there is nothing about a pontoon train to put promptly two or three bridges across the Tugela, and no flanking operation seemed to be possible; but that movement should always be at the command of a superior force. Napoleon crossed the Alps to get behind the Austrians, who were furiously besieging Genoa, drew them out and defeated them. General Sherman flanked the Confederate army out of strong positions from Resaca to Atlanta, and his method was as simple as effective. Having the superior force, thirty per cent., probably more, he occupied the whole front of his antagonist and extended one of his flanks so as to overlap the line of the enemy; then swung a division or corps like a gate to strike the tip of the Confederate wing and crumple it up. When Joe Johnston, who had a great faculty for the business of war, was pressed by this flanking operation, he fell back to another position. The flanking compelled him to retire or to advance, and it was not his game to challenge a general battle with an army greatly stronger than his command. Rivers were not found an insurmountable obstacle in the American war at any time or place. At Fredericksburg the Americans laid pontoons across the Rappahannock in the face of the fire of Mississippi riflemen admirably posted in the cellars whose ventilating windows served as port-holes overlooking the river and the landing. [Sidenote: New Conditions of Warfare] It is to be said, however, that the firearms a generation ago did not have a range of a mile, even of half a mile, but the Confederate rifles were effective the whole breadth of the river. The material difference is that the Mausers of to-day have combined four times the range of our old "Springfields" with magazines of four metal cartridges in a "clip"; and one of the problems of the Boer and British war is as to the change made in and by the improvement of the small arms. It must affect the conditions of combats radically; and all the nations are going to the war school in South Africa.
[Sidenote: Plan of the Fight]
General Buller's report of the action in which he was discomfited is as noticeable for what it does not contain consecutively as for its communicativeness in some respects. He "moved in full strength," starting at four A.M. The first attack was at the left-hand ford, and a failure. The selection of that point for an assault is a curious one, as it was on ground two-thirds surrounded by a curve of the river, and exposed to fire on the front and both flanks. The general says the work could not be done there, but he does not say how soon he became convinced of that; and there was a second attack made on what may be best described as the right center. The British succeeded in occupying Colenso Station and the houses near the bridge. How great the expectations of the British general were to force a passage of the second ford, then assailed, we have to conjecture, for no two accounts agree, except--and this is between the lines--that the British army at last lost hope and heart. The plan was first to strike with the left wing, and when that had failed, with the right, supporting right and left with the center. The turn of the day was soon to be determined, and "at that moment" the general truly says--he means the crisis of the affair--he "heard" that two field batteries and also six naval guns, twelve pounders, quick fire, were "out of action," Hors du combat. The general adds that Colonel Long, who commanded the artillery, "in his desire to be within effective range, advanced close to the river. It proved to be full of the enemy, who suddenly opened a galling fire at close range."
[Sidenote: Mistaken but Heroic Advantage]
The general commanding does not appear to have been well informed. He must have been exceedingly ill supplied with intelligence that should have been commonplace, if he didn't expect to find the ground near the river full of the enemy, and there is a peculiarity in announcing the sudden opening of a galling fire at close range that one feels it to be needful to account for. The location of the battery was 800 yards from the bank of the river. This is stated by the correspondent of the Times, who adds the action of Colonel Long in advancing his guns was "mistaken but heroic," and this writer imparts definiteness to the situation when he tells that Long took his batteries into action "within 800 yards of the river to the left of the railway, and 1250 yards from his objective--a ridge situated beyond Fort Wylie." It was, therefore, "heroic" to go with artillery within three quarters of a mile of the "objective!" The consequence, the correspondent says, was "the guns were exposed to a perfect inferno of rifle and shell fire; officers, men and horses fell in rapid succession, but, nevertheless, the guns went on, unlimbered and opened a steady fire, causing that of the enemy to abate to an appreciable degree. In this position the batteries remained for an hour and a half."
[Sidenote: Attack Fruitless]
The specific statements appear to show that the correspondent had a better comprehension of the situation than the general. The correspondent says that the guns were fired upon with rifle and shell fire, but went on and opened a steady fire and remained there an hour and a half. What point of time of this hour and a half General Buller refers to in stating that at this "moment" he heard that the batteries were "out of action," is for investigation. Later on, we ascertain that the general had sent these guns "back." They must, therefore, have been turned from the fruitless attack on the left to help the one that seemed more hopeful on the right, but this couldn't happen in a moment. The artillery fire caused that of the enemy to abate, but at the distance of 1,250 yards from the objective the horses of the batteries were killed and so many of the men fell that the guns could not be served, and more than that, the ammunition could not be replenished.
This is the most striking example given in active service of the efficacy of the modern rifle. It overpowered the well-served artillery rapid-fire twelve-pounders. The exhaustion of the ammunition may be in part attributed to the activity of the batteries in the attack on the left. As the men were disabled, so that the guns could not be served, it was not worth while to forward ammunition, and dispatches state that at the time when the guns ceased firing, "twenty carts went to the rear with the wounded." This, of course, by grace of the Boers.
[Sidenote: Boers Capture the Guns]
A further statement is that the artillery detachment "doubled back," which means retreated without order and into a depression--a donga or ravine--where they "found they were protected from the enemy's fire, but exposed to the burning heat of the sun." General Buller and staff rode in that direction. Two of the staff were hit, and the General himself touched, when heroic efforts were made in which the only son of Lord Roberts fell in the act of rescuing the two guns that were restored to the British army. The presence of the Commander-in-Chief at the scene of the greatest danger is noted, but his resources must have been at the time exhausted. The correspondent we have just quoted covers a considerable lapse of time in these words: "At a late hour in the afternoon, while the men were lying without hope of succor under the rays of the still blazing sun, a strong party of Boers crossed the river. Firing was stopped, and they surrounded the guns which had been taken to the donga for shelter, and captured the whole of them. This is positive, and appears to be at least as authentic as anything official. There is a great gap in the story of the battle that still is to be credited to the censor. A correspondent's letter, early wired, says the Boers crossed the river, and it would appear at this place, but other accounts say that they were intrenched on the British side of the river a little further to the right so extensively they could not be flanked, and they were so numerous they had been offensive and caused the Commander-in-Chief to refer to them as "oppressing his right flank," which was to threaten his retreat. General Buller and his staff are not referred to further than in their appearance in attempting to save the guns. Whether the British artillery and small arms were of as long range as those of the enemy, is one of the questions that rises up and will not down in this connection. The extent of the disaster to the British is emphasized by the knowledge that the guns captured and carried off by the Boers were not only 800 yards distant from the river, but had been, after the batteries had ceased firing, taken into the ravine which was used for shelter only--at least, that is one of the assertions that are made. Colonel Bullock, who attempted to reinforce the artillery and was driven into the ravine, and forced to surrender, but at the same time the men with him "managed to make good their escape in the confusion."
 They had a bridge behind a hill over the Tugela, bearing on Buller's right.
[Sidenote: Why Were the Guns Lost]
Another question forces itself upon the student of the situation as it existed at this time: Why could not the guns on the British side of the river, more than a furlong from the bank, be put under the fire of British marksmen and saved? Why were the Boers, who came over and swarmed around them safe, while the British had been crushed on that very spot by an "inferno" fire? The Boers could hardly have been in superior force and position on both sides of the river. Early in the action the British had captured Colenso and the houses near the bridge. That position should have offered advantages for those who could consider the propriety of remaining upon the defensive. General Buller certainly was wise in not sacrificing lives in attempts that he saw would for some cause be vain to bring off the guns; indeed, he should have desisted when beaten on the left. The life of Captain Roberts had been sacrificed in the attempt to recover the guns, but the long-range rifle in the hands of marksmen could have detained them on the ground where they were abandoned. If the position of the enemy was impregnable from the beginning, as is the conclusion in England, the commanding general should have known it and had the courage of his conviction to accept the defeat on the left as the end of the day's experiment. It was according to his reputation, however, to repeat the effort to force the river with increase of energy. But all depended upon the distance from the river that was to be passed--a battery could be in range of the Boer's position and not stricken with their rifle fire and put out of action. There was no eye that made and applied this measurement. It is another form of the question: At what distance is a self-cocking revolver a better weapon than a magazine rifle?
[Sidenote: Buller's Explanation]
The key to the intelligence of the further proceedings is that the Boers were strongly posted on the south side of the river and pressing at close quarters the right wing of the British army. General Buller explains his refusal to continue the effort to gain possession of the abandoned artillery and the men sheltered in the ravine of retreat, saying, "Of the eighteen horses thirteen were killed, and, as several of the drivers were wounded, I would not allow another attempt, as it seemed they would be a shell mark." This is definite, but not conclusive. The wounding of several drivers does not seem to have been important enough to change the fortunes of the fight; but the fact that, the general adds, he could not sacrifice life in a gallant attempt to force a passage, "unsupported by artillery," gives the reason, and a good one, for not attempting to "force a passage." The language implies that Buller was at the moment the battery was put out of action attempting to cross at the second ford--the one on the right. Of course, it was not possible to do that without the support of artillery, and it might be very difficult with the support of artillery. [Sidenote: Conduct of the Men] The general in one sentence refers to the intense heat, and adds that the conduct of the troops was "excellent," and says, in conclusion, "We abandoned ten guns." Right after saying he would not try to force a passage without artillery he remarked, "I directed the troops to withdraw, which they did in good order. Throughout the day a considerable force of the enemy was pressing on my right flank, but was kept back by the mounted men under Lord Dundonald." Though they were kept back, they were making themselves very disagreeable on General Buller's side of the river; and this happened, as exactly stated, under "the still blazing sun." One company of riflemen, half a mile away, with plenty of ammunition, if marksmen, could have made the abandoned guns too hot for the Boers to take away. The last line of the official report is, "We have retired to our camp at Chieveley." There was nothing else to do. The day was lost, and full particulars show the Boer position was impregnable. Buller had to make the attacks, and it was good generalship that gave up the assaults with a loss less than eight per cent. of troops engaged.
[Sidenote: Fuller Accounts Needed]
There is a great deal in General Buller's report that some day will have to be made more intelligible--if not to himself, in justice to the world at large. If the Boer position was impregnable, he ought not to have assaulted it, and he should have known the fact when he ceased fighting on the left. There are many indications that the first attack was more disastrous than has been reported, certainly more so than the official reports represent it, and the second effort, that on the right, according to the facts that have emerged from the turbid dispatches, was a palpable mistake; for the loss of the guns and the retreat five miles to the camp from which the army had moved in the morning, was in consequence of the second failure of the day, and the pressure, which General Buller noticed with grave concern, of the Boers on the right flank of the British. The mystery of that "pressure" is partially cleared through Laffan's Agency in these words: "The cavalry brigade had a very hot engagement. Lord Dundonal, who was in command, tried to take Lhangwana Hill on our extreme right. He found the hill occupied, by a strong force of Boers." This, of course, was on the British side of the river. [Sidenote: Pressed All Along the Line] A flanking attack was made on the Boers, but their lines "ran along some high ground to the right of the flanking party," and that prevented the capture of the hill. Lord Dundonald had a battery which shelled the Boers "until at mid-day" an order to retire was received. The battle was, therefore, going on on the right flank at the same time that it was taking place at the left hand, and, therefore, when the central movement was made by bringing up the artillery to the point where it was put out of action and the guns were captured, the British had been hard pressed all along the line, for Dundonald--we quote the correspondent--"was unable to carry out the order (given out immediately to retire) for another two hours, because as soon as the men began to move they became a target for the enemy's fire, and it was only under a continuous shell fire that the retirement was eventually effected." Here we have Dundonald, with his battery and his mounted men, attempting to carry the extreme Boer left and getting into the same shape that Colonel Long got the battery, which was to put themselves forward as a target of the Boer rifle fire, so that they could not get away for hours, if at all. The Boers dominated the whole field of battle. At this point, on the right wing the British losses were not very heavy, and the men were not discouraged, but fell back reluctantly. [Sidenote: Bad Light and No Smoke] The failures in other parts of the contested ground could not be remedied there, for, "owing to the bad light, it was impossible to see the Boers, and as they used smokeless powder, firing did not reveal their position." This "bad light" on the right flank comes in as a last and lamentable resort, when there was so much complaint of the intensity of the sunshine in other parts of the field; and it is a strain to try to understand the strange story that the Boers were obscure at all times and places and the British everywhere conspicuous. The loss of the cavalry brigade was "something more than 100 killed and wounded," but, as a writer on the spot says, this was not "tremendous."
[Sidenote: Defeat Admitted]
The soldierly character of General Buller is that of a man in full command of his faculties in extra hazardous situations. This has been shown in the Ashantee, Egyptian, Soudan and Indian fighting in which he has participated with great distinction. No other British officer has seen as much war in Africa as General Buller before his recent experience, and as his report of the reverse on the Tugela is read and examined line by line, it is seen the general felt he could afford better to take the blame on himself in full, with the exception of the placing of the batteries, than to make criticisms upon the conduct of any of the officers and men of his command; and he tells that he "heard," did not see, that "the whole of the artillery I had sent back," etc. The guns must have been used in the first attack on the left, and sending "back" was moving to the right. It is not in evidence that the batteries were exceptionally hurt until then, and there are accounts to show that they were not quickly put out of action, and so situated that they could not be helped to ammunition, nearly all the horses killed and the men wounded. The guns were not abandoned until after "continuous heavy firing we ran short of ammunition," and the men were "ordered under cover," but with "absolutely no thought of abandoning the guns, which were in no way disabled." There could be no more expressive admission of defeat.
[Sidenote: Dazed by Defeat]
As the case is critically examined, the magnitude of the British disappointment on the left, in the hook of the river, clearly amounted to a serious reverse. The general commanded the guns "back," and Colonel Long got with them too close to the river. The circumstances do not indicate that this movement was absolutely aggressive. The judgment of the general that nothing more could be done on the left was correct, but we can hardly appreciate the extreme surprise that he showed when the failure on the left was repeated with on the right; and it strikes one who strives to follow the changes of the engagement that the "pressure" from the Boers on the British right was the factor that determined General Buller to give the order to retreat. The explanation of this is that in the afternoon the situation of the British army was more critical than has been admitted, and yet General Buller had more than 15,000 neither killed, disabled nor captured. It must be true that the defeat added to the series of serious reverses of which it was the culmination, affected the army, so that the general was impressed there might be in the conditions the elements of a far greater disaster, and he took on himself more blame than was his share of the responsibility for the issue. If this is controverted, he must himself have been profoundly affected and awed, if not dazed, by the immense disappointment of the day, during which the three British attacks were successive demonstrations of an impracticable undertaking; and late in the day, the four o'clock march in the morning, the intense heat, the extreme exertion, and the discouraging results of all encounters with the enemy "took it out" of the British army for the day, until it was the belief of the general, whose fame has been that of coming out under desperate circumstances with striking achievements, that there would be more certainly risked than possibly gained in further efforts to save the guns and hold the field, and hence the order to return to camp.
[Sidenote: Startled and Disturbed but Haughty]
The call for Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener to save the campaign, the refusal of risks until Lord Roberts arrived, is based upon information that the War Office and the Commander-in-Chief have not shared with the world at large. The defeat of the army of General Buller in attempting to cross the Tugela River for the relief of the strenuously besieged city of Ladysmith was in the positive likeness of the preceding reverses of the British arms on three other lines and, therefore, more startling and disturbing to the people of Great Britain and the Greater Britain, but they met the renewed and increased demands upon them with a gloom that was haughty, and a resolution that did not falter, for they knew it was in the issue to lose or gain an empire. The official figures of British casualties in the Battle of Colenso were, officers killed 5, wounded 36; men killed, 145, wounded 751; missing, officers 21; men 332. Total, 1,290--about eight per cent.
[Sidenote: Buller Attacks]
The Boer account of the battle dated Colenso, December 15, 1899, said:
"At dawn to-day the long-expected attack by the British was made. Commandant Pretorius, with the artillery, gave the alarm that General Buller's Ladysmith relief column was advancing on the Boer positions close to the Tugela and Colenso, and was in full battle array.
"The centre consisted of an immense body of infantry, while the flank was formed by two batteries of artillery. On each side were strong bodies of cavalry supporting the troops.
"The Boer artillery preserved absolute silence and did nothing to disclose their position. Two batteries of British artillery came up within rifle range of our foremost position, and the Boers then opened fire with deadly effect. Our artillery next commenced operations, and, apparently, absolutely confused the enemy, who were allowed to think the bridge open for them to cross the river.
"The British right flank meanwhile attacked the southernmost position held by the Boers, but our Mauser rifle fire was so tremendous that they rolled back like a spent wave, leaving ridges and ridges of dead and dying humanity behind them.
"Again the British advanced to attack, and again they fell back, swelling the heaps of dead. The cavalry charged up to the river, where the Ermelo commando delivered such a murderous fire that two batteries of cannon had to be abandoned. So tremendous a cannonade has seldom been heard. The veldt for miles round was covered with dead and wounded.
"The result of the engagement was a crushing British defeat. Nine cannon were captured and brought across the river.
"The official returns of the Boer losses were thirty killed and wounded."
[Sidenote: "A Crushing British Defeat."]
All this about a combat in which the British losses, the names of the killed, wounded and missing given, assuring accuracy were one per cent. of Buller's men in action were killed. One wonders what words the Boers will have left to use if they do win a great battle. The British account is in some respects less florid than that of the Boers. We quote the account least picturesque of the correspondents:
[Sidenote: A British Account]
"The Dublins and Connaughts advanced magnificently against the almost overwhelming fire, men falling at every step. As they approached the river the enemy's fire seemed to redouble. Every time a company rose to its feet to advance there was a perfect crash of musketry, and the plain all round them became a cloud of dust spurts. It seemed wonderful that any man could survive it. And yet there was nothing to tell where the enemy lay concealed. Not a single head even was visible; nothing but a long line of smoke, scarcely visible, and the incessant crackling roar. The batteries sent shell after shell wherever they could distinguish the line of the trenches, but they failed to silence the terrible fire. At last our men reached the river, but where there should have been a ford there was seven feet of water. The few who tried to cross it, overcome by the weight of rifle and ammunition, were drowned. The rest lined the bank, and poured in a tremendous fire on the still almost invisible enemy. Then came the general's order to retire."
A letter from General Buller's camp, showing that the British army, on the way presumably to relieve Ladysmith, consisted of twenty-three battalions (23,000 men), says, "It is not to be expected that a single battalion had 600 men in the firing line. Many barely had 400. I am making a generous calculation by allowing 500 men per battalion."
The press states Buller had 30,000 men, including the sick, camp guards, camp duties, lines of communication troops, standing pickets and standing posts, permanent signallers, clerks, orderlies, cooks, bakers, butchers.
[Sidenote: A Foredoomed Failure]
Then come the deductions made on the field escorts, flag signallers, orderlies, detached flankers, ammunition bearers, stretcher bearers, fall-outs, and Buller's attacking force was 10,000 infantry, 700 sabers and 48 guns. It requires infantry to take a position, and it is the drill book defined principle that an attack to have a chance of success must be four assailants to one defender. The Boers could put as many in the trenches as the British could send against them, and, therefore, the assault was a foredoomed failure.