THE BATTLE OF COLENSO
December 15.—We were called at 2 A.M., made a hearty breakfast and, two hours later, moved down the slopes of Shooter's Hill with two 4.7s and four 12-pounders and marched towards Colenso. Day dawned, and the yells of the native drivers, and the rumbling and jolting of the gun and wagon wheels over the crisp veldt, alone broke the silence of that calm peaceful morning.
As the light became stronger we could make out, away across the river, the dim outlines of what we thought must be Boer gun positions, and being in the open and making a large target, we were naturally very anxious lest they should open fire on us, for had they done so, there is no doubt that our oxen and natives would have stampeded, and we should have been badly mauled.
However, they left us alone and the six naval guns were slowly drawn up a slight eminence, 800 yards to the left of the railway, facing Colenso and Fort Wyllie, and distant from the latter, the centre of the enemy's position, about 4,500 yards. Unmolested they unlimbered, and the first shot—the first shot of the day—was fired at 5.20 A.M. from a 4.7. Every one expected this to have the effect of a stick in a wasps' nest, and bring a score of replies about our ears, but not a sign or a move did they make along their whole line.
We kept at it, steadily plugging rifle-pits and trenches for half an hour, whilst Hart and Dundonald slowly worked their way to the left and right respectively, and Long's batteries, with six naval 12-pounders in rear of them, marched slowly along the other side of the railway towards the centre to make their great artillery attack on Fort Wyllie and the neighbouring trenches and rifle-pits.
They appeared to have almost gained the river banks, and were just coming into action, when the pent-up storm burst, and a tremendous rifle-fire was opened on them from rifle-pits among the trees, from the river banks, and the triple row of trenches beyond it; Fort Wyllie also opened with pom-poms.
Firing now became general all along the line, nor could rifle-fire, more continuous and intense, be imagined. Pom-poms, cunningly concealed, added their horrid noise, and now, at last, the Boer big guns, very scattered and very well hidden, commenced to open fire, the smokeless powder they used making it most exceedingly difficult to locate them.
In half an hour, Long's guns were out of action in the centre, the naval guns with him could not keep down the fire and had to be withdrawn, Hildyard was barely maintaining himself in Colenso, and Hart was in difficulties on the left. The attack was a failure, and, to enable Hart to extricate himself, more batteries and Lyttelton's brigade were hurried forward in support. These batteries, coming into the open, were vigorously shelled by three long-range guns at 7,000 yards, to which they could not reply and were badly hammered, till we turned on the three and eventually silenced them.
Then a general retirement was ordered, and it was our job to cover it, and keep down the fire from the big guns. We discovered something like twenty of them, and our men sweated away in the terrible heat, silencing, temporarily, one after another, and making grand shooting; but our guns were all too few and what with the mirage and the enemy using smokeless powder it was almost impossible to hit them.
It was now nearly midday—the heat terrible— and the weary troops, tortured with thirst and burning with anger, came slowly back, repulsed indeed, but no one who saw them turning sullenly, as occasional shells from big gun or pom-pom fell amongst them, could call them beaten.
Then came our turn to retire, and one gun after another was slowly withdrawn, but it was not till 2 P.M. that all were back again at Shooter's Hill.
Not a man had been touched with the 4.7's, though shells fell frequently all round the guns—fortunately they seldom exploded, but went bounding from rock to rock and finally burying themselves in the ground. Most amusing it was to see the bluejackets and the men of our escort chasing them.
Some of us jolted back to camp on an ammunition wagon and were made a target of, one shell dropping just behind it. We kept our seats, but concluded on the next similar occasion to avail ourselves of a less conspicuous means of transport.
Close to Shooter's Hill the field hospitals had been established, and here the naval doctors lent a hand till a late hour, attending to the wounded, who were brought back the three miles and more from where they fell, by the volunteer stretcher-bearers— a very saddening sight.
Thus ended a memorable and ill-fated day.
The following account taken from Lieutenant Ogilvy's Report gives a very vivid idea of the work of his six 12-pounders attached to Colonel Long's batteries.
Acting under orders received from Captain Jones, R.N., I reported myself to Colonel Long, C.R.A., who directed me to attach myself to him until the guns had been placed in a suitable position. I therefore directed Lieutenant James of the ' Tartar' to lead the battery behind the Royal Artillery field guns, and told him we were to form up on the left of these guns when they came into action. About 6 A.M., the guns being in column of route march with naval guns in the rear, I was riding in front beside Colonel Long about 450 yards from Colenso Station, when he directed Colonel Hunt to bring his guns into action just in front of a deep ‘ donga' running across our front at right angles to the railway. He then told me to come into action on the left, and proceeded to arrange our different zones of fire, while the Royal Artillery guns were getting into position. In front of us was a line of trees up to which our skirmishers had advanced, also a few artillery outposts. Just as I was about to direct my guns where to go, and as the Royal Artillery were unlimbering, the outposts turned sharply, and a murderous fire, both rifle and shell, was opened on the guns and ammunition column.
I immediately galloped back to my guns and found that the fire had caught them just as the two centre guns were going through a drift across another donga parallel to the first mentioned one but about four hundred yards in the rear. When I arrived I found that all the native drivers, with the exception of Lieutenant James's gun teams, had bolted. [These men behaved with great gallantry and, turning up their coat-collars as if the pattering round them was only a rain shower, worked their teams with great coolness.—ED.] These guns had just crossed the drift, so I directed him to take up a position on the left and open fire on Fort Wyllie, from which the majority of the shell fire seemed to come. . . The two rear guns under Lieut. Deas, of H.M.S. ' Philomel,' not having crossed the drift, I directed him to take ground to the left and open fire also on Fort Wyllie. The two centre guns under Mr. Wright, gunner, of H.M.S. ‘ Terrible.' were unfortunately jammed with their ammunition wagons in the drift, the wheels of the wagons being locked and the oxen turned round in their yokes. I managed by the aid of some artillery-horses to extricate these guns from the drift and to bring them into action on each side of the drift to the rear of the donga, one of the horses being shot whilst doing this. I could not manage to move the ammunition wagons, as the rifle and shell fire was too severe at the time, a 1|-pounder Maxim-Nordenfeldt being particularly attentive, and sending three shells into the drift at every discharge. Repeated messages for more men came back from the Royal Artillery batteries, and these were sent to the front by a Royal Artillery sergeant in charge of the ammunition column. After about half an hour's firing, as I should judge, the Royal Artillery guns were silenced, nearly all the men being apparently killed or wounded. Soon after this the fire from Fort Wyllie slackened considerably. The Commander-in-Chief now rode up and directed me to move our guns and ammunition as soon as I could. The guns were got away each by a team of artillery-horses who galloped them op the hill in the rear. The wagons were far more difficult, owing to their weight, the large circle they required to turn in, and to the fact that they had to be got out from the drift and turned round by the guns' crews before the horses could be put on.
About this time a most brilliant feat was performed by two teams of artillery, who galloped to the front, against a most murderous fire, limbered up and rescued two guns; a similar attempt by one other team, at least, resulted in the entire team, as far as I could see, being destroyed. . . . The conduct of our men without exception was particularly fine, the day being a very hot one and the work hard. The way Nos. 1 and 2 guns' crews of the ‘ Terrible' got their wagons out of the drift under heavy fire from shell and rifle was quite up to the standard expected of all seamen. . . . Our loss was very small, three wounded, one of them very slightly, and I attribute this (1st) to the Port Wyllie guns and rifle fire being directed principally on the R.A. guns, which were some three hundred yards nearer than we were; (2nd) to the enemy directing most of their fire on our ox-teams and wagons, they being so much more conspicuous than the guns; twenty-eight oxen were killed, wounded, or lost. . . .