The arrival of Sir Redvers Buller at Cape Town on October 31, 1899, the morrow of the battle of Lombard's Kop, encouraged the despondent at home and in Cape Colony.19 Twenty years previously he had distinguished himself in the command of a Boer contingent which served with the British Army during the Zulu campaign; and it was doubtless from the experience then gained that he formed the opinion that the war which he was now called upon to direct, could be brought to a successful conclusion only "by the actual conquest of every man in the field: a task doubly difficult owing to the extreme mobility of the enemy."
In his first telegram to Lord Lansdowne he described the situation as one of "extreme gravity."
White, with five-sixths of the British Troops in South Africa, was shut up in Ladysmith; a month at least must elapse before the Expeditionary Force, which the British Government had on September 22 decided to send out, would be able to take the field; Mafeking was besieged; the diamond men of Kimberley, like a passionate child interned in a dark room, were screaming for release; Sir Alfred Milner was pleading that the defence of the Cape Peninsula, an area of a few thousand square miles as far removed from the front as Marseilles is from Berlin, must be first attended to; President Steyn had overcome his scruples and was sending Free State commandos across the Orange River into the Cape Colony at Bethulie and Norval's Pont; the disaffected colonials were restive; and the fall of Ladysmith, which seemed probable, would lay Natal open from the Tugela to the Indian Ocean.
It was a dismal outlook; but Buller, after a few days' review of the situation, was able to report that in his opinion the opposition would probably collapse when Kimberley and Ladysmith were relieved. His optimism at Capetown was destined soon to be superseded by pessimism on the Tugela. He compared himself to a man who, having a busy day before him, has overslept himself. The original plan of campaign, a march on Pretoria through the Free State, had necessarily to be postponed; and the important railway junctions at Naauwpoort and Stormberg were too weakly held and too liable to investment by the Free State commandos which had crossed the Orange to justify their retention, and the little garrisons were withdrawn. To Gatacre and French, who had just escaped from Ladysmith, was assigned the duty of holding the centre, while Lord Methuen advanced to the relief of Kimberley.
It was, however, the situation in Natal which gave the most anxiety to Buller. The Free State commandos which had been seen passing Ladysmith shortly before the investment were now at Colenso, having driven back to Estcourt the small British force which was all that was left to stem the tide of an invasion. The Free Staters, fortunately, were not active and delayed to avail themselves of the opportunity. When at length, after eleven days of inertia, L. Botha persuaded Joubert to undertake an offensive movement south of the Tugela, it had passed away, as Estcourt had in the meantime been reinforced by troops from England under the command of Hildyard.
Encouraged by the capture of an armoured train at Chieveley, Joubert advanced south in two bodies, one on each side of Estcourt, and seized the railway at Highlands, thus cutting off Hildyard's communication with Pietermaritzburg; and Hildyard having no cavalry was unable to touch him. The raid, which for a time seemed dangerous, was however soon checked by troops coming up from the south under Barton, and Joubert found himself pressed between two forces each as strong as his own. After an action at Willow Grange, which each side claimed as a victory, Joubert, fearing lest he should be cut off, retired unpursued, against the wishes of the more pushful and energetic Botha, who was in favour of an advance on Pietermaritzburg.
The alarms and excursions of October and November were the cause of the dissolution of a military apparatus which had been put together at home with much care and thought, and which had never yet been seen in warfare. Its designers and constructors were proud of it and they looked forward with confidence to its successful working. The apparatus was the British Army Corps. It was taken to pieces as soon as it reached South Africa; but fortunately the ties, ligaments, and braces which held it together yielded to slight pressure and little difficulty was experienced in resolving it into its constituent elements. The more important of these were despatched to Natal and the rest were distributed over the western and central commands.
Buller, perhaps leaving the pessimistic atmosphere of Capetown with relief, went by sea to Durban, the defence of which was entrusted to the Royal Navy, and reached Pietermaritzburg on November 25. By this time the situation had improved all along the line, and it seemed that it might still be possible to resume the original plan of a central advance on Bloemfontein and Pretoria as soon as Ladysmith was relieved. The Boer raid towards southern Natal which caused so much consternation had been easily foiled and British troops were now at Frere.
Buller, soon after his arrival in Natal, found himself in command of a force of 19,000
men with whom to tackle about 21,000 Boers under the command of L. Botha. Joubert was invalided after the unsuccessful Estcourt raid, and the change was, from the enemy's point of view, for the better. The new Head Commandant was a more strenuous and active leader than his predecessor.
Little was known of the topography of the country in which Buller was about to operate. It had never been systematically surveyed, and the existing maps had been constructed for agricultural rather than for campaigning purposes, and could not be trusted. The Tugela formed the ditch of a natural fortress covering Ladysmith. On its left bank rose an almost continuous ridge or rampart from which the easy open ground on the right bank could be watched for miles, and reconnaissances kept at a distance.
Reconnaissances were, however, not needed to prove to Buller that Colenso, where the railway passed up into the Tugela ridge, was immune to a frontal attack, and that Ladysmith must be relieved by a turning movement. Two alternatives offered themselves. The advance might be made through Weenen and across the Tugela some distance below Colenso, and thence to Elandslaagte, where the Boer line of communication with the Transvaal might be cut; but to Ladysmith this was a circuitous route. It also would necessitate the traversing of a rough bush country, into which Buller was reluctant to throw raw troops just off the transports who had not yet heard the sounds of war.
He therefore decided upon a westerly flank march by way of Potgieter's Drift, twenty miles west of Colenso; and once on the left bank of the Tugela he would be within a day's march of Ladysmith and the railway into the Free State. White was heliographically consulted, and all the arrangements for an advance on December 11 were made. The force had even been set in motion when certain disturbing news came out of the west. Gatacre had suffered a reverse at Stormberg, and simultaneously Methuen had been roughly handled at Magersfontein, and was unable to continue his march on Kimberley.
The strategic timidity of Buller and his curious habit of allowing himself to be influenced by psychological probabilities were at once apparent. The anticipated moral effect of these successes upon the enemy swayed him back to the plan which a day or two previously he had rejected as impracticable. The plan of a flank march by way of Potgieter's Drift was thrown aside. It might have been justifiable in the presence of a dispirited enemy; but now the burghers on the Tugela had been suddenly encouraged by news of victories won on two widely separated scenes of action and were no doubt anxious to rival the exploits of their comrades far away.20 The flank march would expose the army to the danger of being cut off by a quickened and revived foe, and Buller determined not to run the risk. On December 12 he ordered an advance on Colenso.
The course of the war in the western and central scenes of action up to the time of the two defeats which caused Buller to revise the plan of campaign for Natal must now be traced.
Map p. 260.
The force of nearly 10,000 men under Lord Methuen detailed by Buller for the relief of Kimberley, advanced from De Aar and Orange River Bridge along the railway. At Belmont a body of Free Staters under Jacob Prinsloo was found strongly posted on the heights east of the line, and although reinforced by Delarey from Kimberley, it was unable to hold to its positions, and was compelled to retreat eastwards on November 23.
Prinsloo withdrew with his Free Staters across the border, but was persuaded by Delarey, who had fallen back on Graspan about eight miles N.E. of Belmont, to rejoin him; and a favourable position was occupied on a group of kopjes astride the railway, where on November 25 another battle was fought, in which the Naval Brigade suffered a loss of nearly half its strength. The enemy, though driven back, retreated in good order, as at Belmont two days previously, there being no cavalry available for effective pursuit. Methuen pushed on to Witkoplaagte.
The Boers were greatly discouraged by Belmont and Graspan, where, as at Talana and Elandslaagte, they had been ejected from strong kopje positions chosen by themselves. The moral was not lost upon Delarey, who determined to try whether a better stand could not be made in a river position, and selected the junction of the Modder and the Riet for the experiment. His idea was not so much to dispute the passage of the river as to use the deep channels as covered ways and as natural trenches from which the plain could be grazed by rifle fire. The Modder after approaching the Riet changes its direction abruptly three tunes above the junction, enclosing a diamond-shaped area which provided the Boers with a ready-made perimeter camp.
Map. p. 59.
Methuen, thinking that the enemy would as before select the good kopje position which offered itself on Spytfontein halfway to Kimberley, determined to diverge from the railway with the greater part of his army and circling through Jacobsdaal, Brown's Drift and Abon's Dam to attack Spytfontein in flank, where he had little doubt that he would find the Boers in position; but Modder River, which he was inclined to believe was only held as an advanced post, must first be taken. Delarey had been joined by P. Cronje, who unperceived by Methuen's cavalry came in with a body of Transvaalers from Mafeking, and was in occupation of the loop between the rivers.
At sunrise on November 28 Methuen advanced from his camp at Witkoplaagte six miles south of the river. The fight began under misapprehensions on each side. Methuen believed that only the river bank above the railway bridge was held in force; while he was credited by his opponents with the intention of crossing the Riet River by Bosnian's Drift of which he did not know the existence.
Everything promised well for Delarey and Cronje, but they made little use of their opportunities. Methuen fought in the dark, and whenever the Fog of War lifted, found that the situation had changed. He attacked the Modder as the opening move of his flank march on a mythical position on Spytfontein and suddenly discovered before him, not a mere advanced post to be checked or masked, but an enemy holding a well-entrenched and defended front several miles in length. The maps at his disposal did not shew the extraordinary windings of the two rivers over part of the area on which he was engaged, and some of the reaches were only discovered when they tripped up the advancing troops. The result of a hard day's work, in which Methuen was wounded, was the capture of Rosmead, a village on the right bank below the railway bridge. The troops of the right attack did not succeed in crossing the river, and an attempt to work up the right bank from Rosmead failed. What effect the battle would have upon the situation, and whether on the whole it had been a success for Methuen, were not apparent at nightfall. The question was answered next morning when it was found that the Boers had retired to Jacobsdaal. Next day the British troops took up a position north of the river.
So far, the Kimberley relief force had done its work well. The obstacles in its way at Belmont, Graspan, and Modder River had been thrust aside, and it was now within two easy marches of its destination. It seemed therefore that in three days at the most, allowing one day for another battle, it would be reported to Buller as having finished its task: and had the necessity been urgent the relief could no doubt have been effected within that time. Kimberley, however, appeared able to take care of itself for a few weeks, and Methuen halted for twelve days at Modder River in order to receive supplies and reinforcements, and to strengthen his slender and vulnerable line of communication with the south. He still believed that the Boers would make their next stand at Spytfontein.
The Boers remained but a few days at Jacobsdaal. After a council of war at which Cronje declared himself in favour of remaining there as a menace to the British line of communication which would attract Methuen to the town, a movement which Methuen himself had had in mind; while Delarey advocated the taking up of a position between the Modder River and Kimberley; the plan of the latter was adopted and the Boer forces trekked northwards to Spytfontein. They found, however, that between Spytfontein and the river, the Magersfontein group of kopjes would afford excellent positions to Methuen from which Spytfontein could be attacked.
During Methuen's halt at Modder River Delarey and Cronje received considerable reinforcements. From Natal, from the Basuto border, and from Kimberley, commandos were summoned to Spytfontein. That position was, however, for the reason just stated, insecure; and on the December 4 the Magersfontein position was taken up and prepared for defence by Delarey. A low arc stretching from the position towards the Modder was discovered, from which a flanking fire could be poured in upon a frontal attack.
With an unerring instinct which was more useful to him than most of the knowledge he could have acquired in a European Staff College, and with an originality which if it had been displayed by a young British officer in an examination for promotion would probably have injured that officer's prospects, Delarey dug his trenches not at the foot of the hill but in sinuous lines some little way in advance of it, by which he gained the power of meeting an attack with grazing or skimming fire, and which also removed the firing line from physical features on which the British guns could be laid. It is said that he manned the works on the slope with burghers firing black powder so as to draw the enemy's fire away from the trenches in which only smokeless powder was used.
Methuen obtained little information during his halt at Modder River. The country was so much intersected by the wire fences of the farms that cavalry scouting was difficult. He decided to make a direct frontal attack upon Magersfontein on December 11 after a bombardment on the previous evening; and here, as at Colenso, the text-book preliminary shrapnel practice put the enemy on the alert and did no harm. It greatly encouraged the burghers in their trenches. Only three men were touched by the projectiles hurled by the naval, howitzer, field, and horse batteries; and an impending infantry advance was clearly indicated. To the Highland Brigade under Wauchope, who had joined the command since the Modder River battle, was entrusted the execution of the night attack. He does not appear to have altogether approved of Methuen's scheme; but with the same dogged valour which he displayed many years before when he threw himself upon the Gladstonian political Magersfontein in Midlothian, he incorporated himself in it.
At 1 a.m. on December 12 in a storm of rain and thunder the Brigade in mass of quarter-columns marched out of its bivouac, guided by a staff officer's compass which the lightning and the rain soon made unreliable. The objective point was the southern edge of the Magersfontein Ridge, about three miles distant. The progress made over the rough and encumbered veld was slow, and it was difficult to judge in the darkness how much ground had really been covered. Wauchope either underestimated the distance made good or, as is more probable, did not expect to find the enemy entrenched in advance of the foot of the hill, and the error cost him his life and the lives of many other gallant Highlanders. Afraid lest dawn should find his Brigade too far away from the position to rush it, he hesitated to deploy, and when at last he was about to give the order, a further delay was caused by a line of thorn bushes. The Brigade passed through or avoided the obstruction and was at the halt on the point of changing formation when the Boers in the advanced trenches, which had been so stealthily excavated that no one in the British Army seems to have been aware of their existence, received the alarm and opened fire. Possibly the situation might have been saved if an order to charge had been given at once, and the Highlanders had heard the skirl of the pipes; but Wauchope had at the first shot rushed forward impetuously towards the flashing Mausers. With his life he measured the unknown distance to the trenches, and at the supreme moment his Highlanders lost their leader and knew not whom to follow.
The sudden stroke of the impact falling upon men of dissimilar temperament reacted on them diversely. The majority absorbed it by throwing themselves upon the ground on which they stood; others recoiled mechanically upon the companies in rear; while to not a few it was a stimulus which projected them into the jaws of death gaping before them in the dim light. A mixed body, hardly exceeding the strength of three companies, pushed on in obedience to the last words that fell from Wauchope's lips, to reinforce the right; and succeeded in wriggling round the eastward flank of the enemy's advanced trenches and in shattering a foreign contingent in the Boer service which was holding the gap of level ground between the low arc and the Magersfontein Ridge. The little force of progressives came under the fire of the British guns which opened upon the ridge at daybreak, but a remnant under Wilson drove a keen-edged but slender wedge into the curve of the Boer position, and was favourably placed to storm the ridge. A few score of Highlanders were now fingering the key with which it seemed possible to unlock the sluice gates and allow the flood waters of war to overwhelm the foe. But War is a game of chance. The key was snatched away and the issue of the day reversed by a man who had lost his way.
In the absence of Delarey, who was absent at Kimberley, P. Cronje was in chief command of the Boer forces. His Head-Quarters were at Brown's Drift on the Modder, six miles from the key of the position on Magersfontein. The sound of the bombardment notified him that an infantry attack was imminent, and he hurried off to make the final arrangements for meeting it. These he seems to have completed to his satisfaction, and he rested for an hour or two, rising soon after midnight. In the darkness and rain he lost his way on the unfamiliar ground. But chance found him at daybreak close to the gap which Wilson's little band of Highlanders had hewn in his line, and their promising advance was effectually repressed, as they were simultaneously fired on by Cronje's escort on their front and by a commando which had come up on their right rear.
Daylight found the shattered and dismembered Highland Brigade lying in patches upon the veld, with their leader dead before their eyes; themselves unable to advance or retreat, conspicuous, hungry, thirsty, and soon to be scorched by the midsummer sun at the zenith; and there they lay for eight hours. Only the shells of the artillery, which from daylight onwards played upon the trenches and partially mastered the fire from them, saved the Highland Brigade from destruction.
The Guards' Brigade under Colvile was in the first instance detailed as the reserve of the Highland Brigade, but the repulse of the latter and the probability that it would sooner or later be compelled to retreat gave the former a definite objective, the low arc held by the left of the Boer line. In marching on this the wire fence which was the boundary between British territory and the Orange Free State was crossed, and the Guards' Brigade had the honour of being the first body of troops to go into action in the enemy's country. Colvile held his own, but although he was unable to occupy the arc he screened the right flank of the Highlanders. On their left a weak Brigade under Pole-Carew was drawn up astride the railway, and thus apparently the firing line, which had been so hardly pressed during so many weary hours, was secure on either flank. But Pole-Carew was paralysed by the variety of the duties which had been assigned to him, and was unable to operate offensively on the enemy's right. His original orders were to act as camp guard and to demonstrate northwards in support of the Highland Brigade; and subsequently he seems to have been instructed to hold himself in readiness to cross over to support the Guards' attack on the enemy's left, with the result that his Brigade was never seriously engaged.
The interval between the Highlanders' right facing the trenches and the Guards' left had never been effectively closed and early in the afternoon the Boers renewed their attacks upon it, and threatened to enfilade the line. Hughes-Hallett, who after the death of Wauchope succeeded to the command of the Highland Brigade and to whom Methuen had sent orders to hold on until nightfall, asked Colvile in vain to support him and at last was compelled to throw back his right. Methuen's orders were unfortunately known only to Hughes-Hallett and the movement was interpreted as an order from the brigadier for a general retirement. The wave of retreat beginning on the right passed rapidly down the line, and soon all but a few score of men who held on gallantly as long as there was light were streaming back in confusion to the field batteries in rear. Even the shelter of the guns did not wholly avail them for protection, for they were shelled while rallying by the Boer guns which had been strangely silent during the battle; and the retreat was continued to the bivouac ground which so many more of them, now lying on the veld, had quitted seventeen hours before. The battle was lost.
It is probable that if the work had been more evenly distributed the result might have been, at least, less disastrous. An intolerable strain was put upon one Brigade which it was unable to bear. The Highlanders were blundered into action, then abandoned to their fate for many hours, and finally withdrawn by a misunderstanding. The inequality of the tasks set to the various columns is strikingly shown in the return of casualties. To the total of 948 killed and wounded the Highland Brigade contributed no less than 752. Two of its battalions lost 37 per cent of their strength; while the losses of the Division were but 7 per cent.
Methuen's expectations that as at Modder River after the fight of November 28 so also at Magersfontein the Boers would evacuate their positions during the night were not realized. Next day he retired to the Modder River Camp, where he received orders from Buller either to attack Cronje again or to fall back upon the Orange River; but at the instance of Forestier-Walker, who was in command of the Lines of Communication, the orders were cancelled and Methuen was allowed to remain.
Magersfontein of itself would probably have sufficed to disarrange the plans of Duller in Natal, but coming a few hours after a serious rebuff in the centre, of which the story must now be told, it loomed fearfully on his near horizon. Soon after he landed at Capetown he ordered the weak and vulnerable detachments at Naauwpoort and Stormberg to be withdrawn to De Aar and Queenstown. The movement opened to the enemy the gates of access to a district in the Cape Colony teeming with Dutch disaffection. The Free Staters, however, did not avail themselves of the opportunity with alacrity, as they were more or less committed to defensive action within their own territory; and a fortnight elapsed before Colesberg was occupied by a force under the command of a Transvaaler named Schoeman, who on November 1 had crossed the Orange River at Norval's Pont. A few days later the Colesberg district was formally annexed by proclamation to the Orange Free State and the transfer of allegiance was enthusiastically approved by a public meeting held at Colesberg on November 14. This action not only brought the inhabitants under the commando law of the adjacent Republic by which a form of conscription was enforced, but also overcame the scruples of the Free Staters who could still maintain that they were only engaged in defending their own territory. Simultaneously Du Plooy with a commando which had crossed at Bethulie annexed the Burghersdorp district; while Olivier with a force mainly composed of colonial rebels took over on behalf of the Free State all that remained of the border districts of Cape Colony as far as Basutoland. By the end of November the easy process of annexation by proclamation had augmented the territory of the Orange Free State by about 7,000 square miles; and then almost as an afterthought the burghers occupied the important strategic post of Stormberg Junction.
To meet and if possible to thrust back these intrusions French was sent to the Naauwpoort and Gatacre to the Stormberg district. Buller soon found it necessary to order Naauwpoort to be re-occupied, as that town would have afforded a useful base to the enemy from which the main line of railway could be raided in the neighbourhood of De Aar. French arrived at Naauwpoort on November 20 and was for some weeks engaged in protecting the lines and in checking rebellion.
The little force of half a battalion of infantry which evacuated Stormberg withdrew to Queenstown, where Gatacre arrived on November 18. He intended to march on Stormberg as soon as he had collected a sufficient force; his own Division, which he had brought out from England, having been diverted to Natal. He soon advanced to Putterskraal near Sterkstroom and about thirty miles from Stormberg, the occupation of which by the enemy on November 25 prevented co-operation between him and French at Naauwpoort.
Meanwhile rebellion was spreading, and owing to the dilatory proclamation of Martial Law by the Cape Government, always reluctant to take action which might wound the susceptibilities of the Dutch population, it had assumed a formidable aspect. Buller was uneasy, and although at first he had cautioned Gatacre to be careful he now suggested his closing with the enemy.
On December 7, by which time considerable reinforcements had come in, Gatacre felt himself strong enough to tackle Olivier at Stormberg. His plan was to take his column by train as far as Molteno, whence a night march of about eight miles would bring it into position for attacking the Boer laager. The use of the railway would not only enable him to strike more suddenly and with a greater chance of taking Olivier by surprise but would also economise the strength of his force, a portion of which having left the transports only a few days previously was not yet in hard condition. The force with which he proposed to take Stormberg amounted to 2,600 men, who detrained at Molteno soon after sunset on December 9. Gatacre calculated that after a march of about six hours he would be able to rush the position before dawn.
The Boers, to the number of 1,700 men, were in occupation of the Kissieberg ridge, and of a nek which runs westward from its southern end towards a higher hill overhanging Stormberg Junction called Rooi Kop. Gatacre had originally intended to attack the Boer position frontally, but the reports which he received on arrival at Molteno determined him to turn it. The change of plan was not made known to all the troops, with the result that the ambulance and ammunition wagons left the town by the Stormberg road instead of by the Steynsburg road, along which the rest of the column was marching to the new objective. No trustworthy maps were available, and the enterprise was dependent for its success upon the knowledge and fidelity of a sergeant of police and a few native constables who acted as guides and who professed to know "every inch of the way."
Soon after midnight, however, Gatacre's suspicions were aroused by the sudden appearance of a railway which ought not to have been there, and it was discovered that the guides had a mile or two back missed a path on which the column should have diverged to the right. They assured him, however, that they had chosen a better road and that he was now less than 3,000 yards from the Boer position. He therefore halted the column for an hour's rest, and hoped for the best.
When the march was resumed another railway was almost immediately encountered. It was in fact the colliery line which had been crossed before the halt and which here curves almost to the extent of a semicircle; but Gatacre believed that he had come upon the main line to Steynsburg and judged that he was now N.W. of the Boer position; while many of the officers in the rear of the column, unaware of the change of plan, imagined that they were approaching it from the S.E. along the Stormberg road originally selected for the advance on which the ambulance and ammunition wagons had already gone astray.
The direction of the march was now almost reversed, owing to Gatacre's misapprehension of his position; and at dawn the column unknown to itself reached certain cross roads on Van Zyl's farm which had been fixed upon as the point from which the attack should be delivered; but the locality was not recognized by the staff, and the guides, who seem to have misunderstood the object of the march, conducted the column still deeper into the valley beneath the Kissieberg ridge.
Suddenly a shot from the heights startled the errant and plodding column. The Boers had indeed been taken by surprise, but were at once on the alert and the crest line was soon occupied. The column marching in fours halted and turned to the right and, except the leading companies of Irish Rifles, which were formed to the front in order to seize a detached hill at the end of the ridge, sprang up the slope, but were soon baffled by the irregular tiers of krantzes or rock walls on the hill side. The artillery diverged to the left, losing one gun in the donga which ran down the valley, and took post on the detached hill from which the Kissieberg ridge could be shelled. The companies of Irish Rifles, after seizing this hill, passed along the nek which joined it to the ridge and almost won the crest line.
Meanwhile the Northumberland Fusiliers and the remaining companies of the Irish Rifles found the task of mounting the encumbered slope beyond their powers, and were soon ordered to fall back into the valley. The artillery noticed the movement, and in order to cover the retreat opened upon Kissieberg; not perceiving in the eastern dazzle of the sun about to rise above the sky line that some of the infantry who had not heard the order to retire were still clinging to the darkened westward hillside, and these were shelled by their own guns.
Gatacre, confident of an easy success, had thrown all his infantry into the firing line, and had no reserves to fall back upon to support the companies of the Irish Rifles which were still holding their own on the left flank of the attack. As soon as the troops had crossed the valley to reform on the opposite ridge a new entanglement beset them.
A commando under E.R. Grobler and Steenkamp, chiefly composed of rebels, which had been sent by Olivier on the previous day to stir up trouble in the district, was halted for the night a few miles out on the Steynsburg road. The sound of the firing quickly called it to attention, and a position which seriously threatened Gatacre's line of retreat was quickly seized. The commando, however, was handled with little judgment or energy, and was soon checked by the field guns which had been withdrawn from the detached hill near the Kissieberg ridge to cover the retreat of the infantry; and which at one time were firing trail to trail, some still engaging Olivier on Kissieberg while others were shelling Grobler.
The raid on Stormberg had manifestly failed and Gatacre ordered a retreat to Molteno.
Thither the weary, dispirited column trudged all through the forenoon of December 10. A gun was abandoned on the way, and even the wagon in which the breech block had been secreted fell also into the enemy's hands. But this was a comparatively insignificant loss. It was soon discovered that nearly a third of the infantry was absent. When the troops were withdrawn from the attack on Kissieberg not a few of them remained in the donga or under the krantzes on the hill side, while others appear to have held on to the ridge. By some extraordinary neglect or default nearly 600 men were left to their fate. No one seems to have missed them at the time and they were made prisoners of war without an effort to extricate them.
In less than two hours all the fighting except the little affair with Grobler was over. On neither side were the casualties of killed and wounded heavy. No British officer was killed and of the eight who were wounded four had been struck by shells not fired by the enemy.
Stormberg on December 10, followed by Magersfontein on December 13, brought about Colenso on December 15. The latter was Buller's attempt to retrieve the former mishaps.
A naturally strong position on the left bank of the Tugela had by the efforts of the Boers during the previous three weeks been almost perfectly secured. They showed, however, some hesitation with regard to Hlangwhane, a detached hill on the right bank from which the Tugela line could be enfiladed. It was a somewhat precarious position as it was accessible from the left bank only by two bridle drifts. It had been originally held by the Boers, but the garrison was withdrawn when Barton's Brigade appeared at Chieveley; and now all Botha's persistence, and even a reference to Kruger and Joubert at Pretoria, were required to induce the burghers to re-occupy it on December 15. From the south Hlangwhane, though separated from the Colenso kopjes by the river, appears to be an integral continuation of them.
The enemy's general idea was a defensive occupation of the Colenso position, although Botha, with characteristic spirit, proposed to send a commando across the river to face the British on the open. The initiative, always a disadvantage when attacking an enemy strongly posted and entrenched, was thus imposed upon Buller. It was not doubted that he would be compelled to make a frontal attack on Colenso and in this the Boers showed the more correct appreciation of the situation. Botha hoped to lure Buller on and was prepared even to allow him to cross the river; and having crushed him to act upon the British flanks, an operation which the wide extension of Botha's front from Hlangwhane to Robinson's farm, a distance of seven miles, gave him a good chance of being able to carry out. If necessary, reinforcements could be drawn from the investing circle around Ladysmith, which seemed to be detaining more burghers than were necessary for the maintenance of the siege.
Buller proclaimed his intention of attacking Botha by a preliminary bombardment of the Colenso kopjes on December 13 and 14; but the burghers lay low and gave so little indication of their presence that it almost seemed that they had abandoned the line of the Tugela. The British Army was encamped near Chieveley four miles south of Colenso.
On the evening of December 14 the scheme of attack was delivered to the Brigadiers. The leading idea of it was a frontal attack to be delivered from the village of Colenso, where the Tugela is crossed by an iron railway bridge as well as by an iron wagon bridge. The latter had been left intact by the enemy, possibly in order to entice the British troops across the river. Buller appears to have been unaware how far the Boer trenches extended towards the west, and to have assumed that only the kopjes immediately opposite Colenso were occupied. Hildyard's Brigade was ordered to march in the direction of the "iron bridge,"21 to cross at that point, and then to "seize the kopjes north of the iron bridge." The attack on the enemy's right, which was believed to be weak, was assigned to Hart's Irish Brigade. He was instructed to cross the Tugela at a bridle drift about two miles west of Colenso and work down the left bank towards the occupied kopjes. Two infantry Brigades were retained as reserves to be used when required; and the mounted Brigade was ordered to move towards Hlangwhane and occupy it, if possible, and cover the right flank; but the weakness of the Boer position on that hill, which was cut off by the river from the main line of defence, does not seem to have been realized. A few batteries were sent with Hart, but the bulk of the artillery was ordered east of the railway to support Hildyard.
Buller's scheme has been severely criticized ever since its failure, but Clery who was in nominal command of the Natal force, and in whose name the battle orders were issued, as well as the other general officers, acquiesced in it. But in fact hardly any scheme could have been devised more likely to play into Botha's hands. Buller hoped to get a footing on the left bank and Botha hoped that he would succeed in doing so. Botha's special idea was to allure the troops of the frontal attack to his own side, where he could easily pound them from his kopjes and carry out his general idea of netting the British flanks.
Buller had not then been in action with the Boers and he probably underrated their tactical capacity; but already he seems to have contemplated the possibility of the loss of Ladysmith, for in his despatch of December 13 to Lord Lansdowne, in which he justified his sudden change of the plan of campaign, he said that "it would be better to lose Ladysmith than to leave Natal open to the enemy."
Nor did the Boers enter into the contest with much confidence. They had not yet tried Buller's mettle and his name was to them a tradition of courage handed down from the Zulu war, in which some of the older burghers now opposing him on the Tugela had served under him. The curious omission to inform White in Ladysmith that an attack on Colenso was to be made on December 15 may have arisen from Buller's doubts as to its issue, or from reluctance to heliograph a message in a cipher of which the enemy might have the key.
The story of the Battle of Colenso is mainly the narrative of the action of two important components of the Army of Natal. Each of these was led by a dangerously brave man, whose impetuosity crippled the tactical scheme and whose method of working his command was, at least, unusual. If in Hart and Long, who commanded the Artillery, the quality of personal courage had been less prominent it is probable that Colenso would not have filled up the cup of Stormberg and Magersfontein in that dark midsummer December week.
The naval guns on the west of the railway had the honour of opening the battle, and shelled Fort Wyllie for some time without eliciting any response. Long joined Hildyard with another naval battery and two field batteries. He was not only an impetuous man but he also belonged to the short range school of artillerists;22 and he soon outpaced his infantry escort and came into action with his field batteries in the open a little in advance of a shallow intersecting donga, and within 1,100 yards of the Boer entrenchments across the river. The naval battery had been compelled by the flight of the Kaffir ox drivers to outspan astride a deeper donga about a quarter of a mile in rear, to which Long had sent back his gun teams. A terrific rifle and shrapnel fire, which the infantry escort which soon came up was powerless to subdue, was now opened upon the guns, and for an hour the batteries were beaten on until the casualties left but four men to each gun, and ammunition was running short. Long, who was one of the first to be wounded, withdrew the dwindled gun detachments to the shallow donga and sent back for a fresh supply of ammunition, intending to resume fire as soon as the general attack developed.
All the while the batteries had been unsupported except by the escorting companies, which were not under Long's orders, and no attempt was made by Hildyard's or Barton's brigade in rear to relieve or divert the pressure on the guns, which had succeeded in silencing temporarily some of the Boer artillery and in checking the rifle fire.
Earlier in the action Buller had been informed that the guns were "all right and comfortable," but later reports gave him the impression that this cheery optimism was delusive, and that owing to loss of men and exhaustion of ammunition the artillery told off to support Hildyard was now permanently out of action. The rest of the artillery was engaged in assisting Hart, who was in trouble, and Buller came to the conclusion that the attack on the Colenso kopjes must be withdrawn.
Hart's Brigade was ordered to march "towards the Bridle Drift at the junction of the Doornkop Spruit and the Tugela, and to cross at that point." Here was yet another ambiguity. As there were two "Iron Bridges" so also were there two "Bridle Drifts," one on each side of the isthmus of the river loop, and yet another at the head of it. The West Drift was unfordable on the morning of December 15, and a hasty sketch which had probably been filled in from hearsay evidence and which was Hart's only map, showed the Doornkop Spruit as entering the Tugela below that Drift instead of just above the East Drift.23 The sketch also duplicated the loop.
In dense formation, although the enemy was reported to be in force on his front, Hart crossed the Doornkop Spruit without recognizing it and advanced to the West Drift guided by a Kaffir who lived close by. The native seems either to have had misgivings as to the fordability of the Drift or to have been carelessly instructed, for as the column approached the river he pointed to a Drift which was not the East Drift, but the Drift at the head of the loop near his own kraal; and Hart was induced to change direction and lead the Brigade into the loop.
At 6 a.m. against the orders of Botha, who wished to lure on his foe, the Boer guns commanding Hart's loop suddenly opened on the dense battalions, and the trenches on the left bank took up the firing. The Kaffir guide disappeared in terror. But Hart still believed that there was a drift to be found somewhere or other and pushed his Brigade, like a shoal of herrings driven into a purse net, up the loop; and some companies even reached the kraal near the head of it. Without artillery—for Hart had not brought up the field batteries assigned to him—and exposed to a concentrated fire from front, left, and right, the unhappy Irish Brigade, which suffered 400 casualties in less than three quarters of an hour, was helpless. Hart began to deploy, but Buller who from Naval Gun Hill was watching, possibly with astonishment, the entanglement in the loop ordered him to withdraw, at the same time sending two battalions to dig him out of his hole. It was not an easy task and it was made more difficult by the gallant reluctance of the Irishmen to retreat before the enemy. Thus Hart and Long, the former with his Hibernian zeal to move in the line of the greatest resistance, the latter with his rash generalization that entrenched Boers could be coerced as if they were Omdurman dervishes in the open, brought about the reverse at Colenso.
By this time it was evident to Buller that his scheme must fail. He had already arranged the extrication of Hart and now the extrication of Long called for immediate action. He therefore rode across to the deep donga east of the railway; on his way informing Hildyard, whose brigade was awaiting an opportunity to carry out its orders, that the attack was abandoned and that the brigade must cover the withdrawal of the field batteries. He ordered the naval battery to retire, and sent back the ammunition wagons, which after long delay were on their way to the field guns: and acknowledged that he was baffled.
Hildyard occupied Colenso but was unable to prevent the Boers re-opening fire from Fort Wyllie on the desolate batteries lying on the veld. No troops could move across the open; and only individual efforts could now save the guns. Not a few officers and men offered for the forlorn hope, and at the first attempt two guns were rescued. A later attempt was not successful, and at 11 a.m. Buller ordered a general retirement and the abandonment of the guns. The main naval battery remained in position west of the railway for some hours, and in its presence the Boers were afraid to cross the river and take possession of the derelict but not disabled guns; which were not captured until all the British troops had left the field except a few gunners and infantry details who had taken refuge in the deep donga and whom the order to retreat had not reached; and these were made prisoners of war.
The mounted Brigade under Lord Dundonald acting on the right flank with orders to take Hlangwhane, if possible, was too weak to support the main attack effectively. Assistance was refused at first by Barton and afterwards by Buller, who thought that Hlangwhane would be of little use to him without the possession of the Colenso kopjes; yet these could have been enfiladed from it. As the Brigade retired it passed within striking distance of the field guns and their captors; but nothing could be done as ambulances and groups of prisoners were bemingled in the throng. Dundonald seems to have been alone in his recognition of the value of the Hlangwhane position.
A retirement to Chieveley and Frere completed the triad of December disasters.
Buller, of whom so much was expected, had failed in his first attempt to measure swords with the burghers. His 19,000 men and forty-two guns fighting for six hours inflicted on the enemy a loss of less than two score. His casualties exceeded 1,100, he lost ten guns, and he then returned to the place from which he came. He thought that he had fought a battle, but in reality he had only made a reconnaissance in force, a dangerous operation only justifiable by urgent necessity.24
Possibly if Buller, who was practically without a staff, had allowed a freer hand to Clery, that authority on Minor Tactics might have done better. It has been said that the defeat was due to insufficient reconnaissance; and this is to a certain extent true, for a more accurate knowledge of the terrain and the dispositions of the enemy would have clearly demonstrated the hopelessness of a frontal attack on the Colenso Kopjes, and the attempt would never have been made. Again, as at Magersfontein four days before, a considerable portion of the troops was not seriously engaged; and the total casualties in eight battalions were but 120.
The loss of the guns is the chief fact in the story of Colenso. What were Buller's intentions with regard to the Naval battery and the two Field batteries which he sent to "a point from which they could prepare the crossing for Hildyard's Brigade," and how did Long understand and carry out his orders.
The battle orders had been orally anticipated by Buller, who before they were issued, explained his intentions personally to Long: and, as often happens in conferences, the impression retained by one conferent differed from that intended to be conveyed by the other. Long believed that he was instructed to shell the Kopjes and entrenched positions behind Fort Wyllie, which he did not at first know was held by the enemy, and he opened at a range of a mile; and Buller's statement that he was ordered to open fire with the long-range naval guns only, the position not being within reach of the field batteries, is contradicted; while Buller complained that Long had taken up a position within 1,200 yards of a fortified hill and less than a quarter of a mile from cover occupied by the enemy. There is, indeed, a small area of low trees and scrub near the right bank of the Tugela a few hundred yards on the right front of the line of guns, but there is no evidence that the Boers had ever crossed the river to hold it.
When the field guns, after firing nearly 100 rounds each, became silent, Buller, who was already perturbed by Hart's discomfiture, jumped to the conclusion that they were exterminated, and that it would be useless to proceed with the attack without them; but the gunners were only waiting for more ammunition. Not until the following day did he know that men enough to fight the guns were still untouched. If the whole of his force had been seriously engaged he would perhaps have been justified in his decision not to hold on to Colenso with exhausted and parched troops in the burning heat of the South African midsummer in the hope of rescuing the guns at night; but several battalions had been doing little more than watching the fight during the morning, and he might have left them on the field; and it is clear from a telegram sent by Botha early in the afternoon that if the Naval battery had remained with an effective infantry support no attempt would have been made by the Boers to cross the river, and that the guns would not have been lost.
The repulse at Colenso staggered Buller's humanity. He was a brave man on the right of whose many war medals hung the Victoria Cross which he had won not far away from the field on which he was now fighting; but he was lacking in bull-dog tenacity, and in the ascetic temperament which is quickened rather than disheartened by failure. He returned to his tent, wrung his hands, and announced to those whom it might concern that all was lost. In the telegram in which he reported his defeat to Lord Lansdowne and of which the frankness, the candour, and the copious yet not egotistical use of the first personal pronoun were in curious contrast to the formal and sterilized paragraphs of an official account, he confessed that with the force at his disposal he had little hope of relieving Ladysmith and he proposed that he should let it go. He ordered the staff to select a defensive line eastward from Estcourt which his army might occupy until the end of the hot season.
His message to White in Ladysmith was still more pessimistic, and with an intention that was chivalrous but was not war he "spatchcocked"25 into it a suggestion that White should surrender, and even indicated how the gain to the enemy could be minimised. The magnanimity of Buller was manifest: he desired to give White the opportunity of surrendering without incurring the full responsibility for the act, but the lack of military instinct in Buller's mind was likewise manifest. To this message, which was suspected in Ladysmith to have originated in the Boer laagers, White replied that he had no intention of surrendering.
Nor did Buller's pessimism turn the Home Government from its purpose. He was ordered to hold on, and on December 17 Lord Roberts accepted the chief command in South Africa. In announcing the appointment, the War Office explained that Buller was superseded because it was advisable to relieve him of responsibility for the operations outside Natal, which he could not effectively control from his detached position on the right flank. The Vth Division under Sir C. Warren which had been ordered at his request a month before, and which he found was available for service on the Natal side, was on the point of landing in South Africa; the VIth Division was embarking at home; the components of a VIIth Division were being assembled, and he became less despondent.
The War Office thought that the Magersfontein mishap called for the supersession of Methuen, and when Warren reached Capetown with the Vth Division he found orders from home directing him to assume command of the force at Modder River. It would probably have been better for Buller if he had freely acquiesced in the idea of Pall Mall and had allowed Warren, but not necessarily the Vth Division, to operate in a country with which he had become acquainted twenty years before in the Bechuanaland Expedition, but he could not foresee Spion Kop; and Warren while moving towards the Orange was suddenly recalled to Capetown and ordered to reinforce the Army of Natal with the Vth Division; and Methuen was allowed to retain his command at Modder River.
The transfer of the Vth Division to Natal was undoubtedly called for; but the position in the districts of Cape Colony bordering on the Free State was alarming. A belt extending from Barkly East near the Basuto border westwards and northwards as far as the Molopo River, and interrupted only near the Orange and Modder Rivers, had been annexed by the Boers and was more or less effectively occupied by them; and had they acted with enterprise and concurrence during the period of Lord Roberts' journey from England, the task before the new Commander-in-Chief would have been still more formidable. In rear of French and Gatacre was an indefinite area through which ran the British lines of communication, and which, if not indeed actually under arms, was ready to spring up whenever a favourable opportunity presented itself.
Of the four Generals set to stem the tide of war until the arrival of Lord Roberts, French alone did not restrict himself to restraining its flow. A policy of "worry without risk" had been recommended to him by Buller, and he carried it out with good effect. He thrust Schoeman out of Arundel and Rensburg, and occupied a commanding position outside Colesberg, which he maintained until he was summoned on January 29 to confer with Lord Roberts at Capetown, where he was confidentially informed of the plan of campaign. Clements, who a few weeks before had reinforced him with a brigade of the recently landed VIth Division under Kelly-Kenny, took over the command of the troops before Colesberg. But the force which he had to his hand had been considerably reduced by the withdrawal of the cavalry and nearly half the infantry to serve elsewhere, while Schoeman and Delarey, who had come from Magersfontein, had been strongly reinforced.
The Boers doubted not that the positions taken up by Gatacre and French indicated that the impending advance of the British Army into the Free State would be by way of Bethulie and Norval's Pont, and were accordingly disposing all their available men, one commando even being sent to Colesberg from Natal; but fortunately they were at first unaware that Clements had been almost simultaneously weakened. He soon found that he was not strong enough to hold on to the Colesberg positions and on February 14 retired to Arundel; losing on the way two companies of infantry which had been mislaid and forgotten and which after a gallant running fight of three miles were captured.
But now ominous reports of Lord Roberts' movements in the West began to come in, and the Boers realized that they had misinterpreted the signs which had been so ostentatiously displayed. They hesitated and wavered, and on February 20 hurried away from Colesberg to succour Cronje and the threatened capital of the Free State.
Buller aroused a "now-we-shan't-be-long" feeling. He would certainly be in Pretoria by Christmas. It is said that a large number of plum-puddings intended for the soldiers' dinners on December 25 were addressed to Pretoria "to await arrival," by their good friends at home.
The history of the war showed, however, that generally the Boers fought more strenuously and effectively when the tide was against them than when it was flowing with them.
The two chief authorities on the events of the day are not in agreement as to which of the iron bridges was meant; and in the absence of information of what was in the mind of the staff officer who drew up the battle orders the question cannot be answered. The context and certain expressions in other paragraphs seem to show that the railway bridge was indicated. It was, indeed, broken but there were drifts used by the natives above and below it. Probably the river had not been carefully reconnoitred and the two bridges were confused, or one only was believed to exist.
At the battle of Omdurman he had put short range principles successfully into practice against dervishes.
The mistake in Hart's map is shown by a broken line in the sketch map. It is, curiously enough, reproduced in the Colenso map not only of the Times History, but also of the German Official Report on the War.
See Combined Training, 1905, p. 109.
Sic in his speech of October 10, 1901, but he probably meant "sandwiched."