December 15th, 1899
General Sir Redvers Buller put his army in motion early on the morning of December 15th, while the pall of darkness still enshrouded the camp, so that the attacking brigades could arrive at their assigned positions before sunrise, ready for the general advance.
Briefly, the dispositions of the force, with the main objective of each brigade, were as follows :—
General Hildyard's (2nd) Infantry Brigade had the post of honour in the centre. This brigade was to march north at 4 a.m. towards the railway bridge, cross the Tugela at that point, and attempt the capture of the kopjes immediately opposite, Fort Wylie being the position demanding closest attention.
General Hart's (5th) Infantry Brigade was to advance at 4.30 a.m. to the left, force a passage across the Tugela at Bridle Drift, west of Colenso, and, after crossing, to wheel right and assault the central kopjes in flank, to facilitate the crossing of Hildyard's Brigade.
General Lyttleton's (4th) Infantry Brigade was to advance at 4.30 a.m. to a point west of the railway, between the aforementioned brigades, ready to support either.
General Barton's (6th) Infantry Brigade was to advance at 4 a.m. to a position east of the railway, from whence it could cover Hildyard's right flank, and, if necessary, support the main attack, or the force sent against Hlangwani Hill.
The Mounted Brigade, under Lord Dundonald, about 1000 strong, and one field battery, was to proceed at 4 A.M. in the direction of Hlangwani; if possible, secure that position, from whence the central kopjes could be enfiladed, and also to cover the right flank of the army. Two small forces of mounted troops guarded the extreme right and left flanks. Four infantry brigades and the mounted force, representing over 16,000 troops, have now been disposed of.
The Royal Field Artillery and Naval Brigade guns were detailed to support the respective movements thus: Two batteries, under Colonel Long, were to advance at 3.30 A.M. east side of the railway, to prepare the crossing for and cover Hildyard's attack. Two batteries, under Colonel Parsons, to move forward at 4.30 A.M. west of the railway, and take up a position from whence the central kopjes could be shelled in flank. One battery, as previously mentioned, was attached to Lord Dundonald's command. Consideration for the main subject calls for greater detail respecting the naval dispositions.
Six guns, two 4'7 and four 12-pounders (termed the central battery), under Commander Limpus, were to move forward at 3.30 A.M. and take up a position on a slight eminence about 3000 yards from the river, and some 800 yards west of the railway. These guns were to do all possible harm to the enemy's men and materiel, to engage any guns which disclosed themselves, and to follow the infantry, if successful, across the river. The unit commanders and captains of guns of this battery were:—Lieutenant England and C.P.O. Bate, No. 1 4'7; Lieutenant Hunt and C.P.O. Stephens, No. 2 4'7 ; Lieutenant Richards, P.O. Jeffrey and Sergeant Roper two 12-pounders ; Lieutenant Wilde and P.O.s H. Mitchell and Metcalfe, two 12-pounders. Lieutenants Anderton and Chiazarri, and the naval volunteer detachment, were equally divided for duty with the 4'7 guns. Mr. Cole, gunner, and Chief Gunnery Instructor Baldwin were attached to the battery for general duties ; the remainder of the naval staff, under Captain Jones, also took station at this position.
Ogilvy's 12-pounder battery was assigned to Colonel Long's command, and comprised the following units:—
Lieutenant James, P.O.s Epsley and Bird, with the Tartar's two 12-pounders; Lieutenant Deas, P.O.s Symons and Ward, two 12-pounders ; Mr. Wright, Gunner, P.O.s Venness and Taylor, two 12-pounders. Surgeon Macmillan had command of the ambulance section, and C.P.O. Cornish, general battery duties. To assist in guarding the flanks, the unit of Lieutenant Burne remained on Shooters Hill—P.O.s Mullis and R. Mitchell, captains of guns.
The baggage and stores, all parked together, were to be left behind under a strong guard, the troops dispensing with all except their actual fighting kit.
The General Orders stated :—
" The enemy is entrenched in the kopjes north of Colenso Bridge. One large camp is reported to be near the Ladysmith Road, about five miles north-west of Colenso. Another large camp is reported in the hills which lie north of the Tugela in a northerly direction from Hlangwani Hill.
" It is the intention of the General Officer Commanding to force the passage of the Tugela to-morrow."
Completion of these details—the synopsis of the battle of Colenso—has placed some 17,000 British naval and military forces, and 44 guns, in battle array.
Without a sign of molestation the army quietly carried out the preliminary instructions. The central naval battery, having the least distance to traverse, arrived at its destination with strict punctuality. The guns were quickly unlimbered for action, ready to cover the general advance. The teams of oxen were outspanned and sent back to Shooters Hill for safety under the charge of our very timorous but well-paid chief conductor, who expostulated against coming so close to the enemy's lines, which he emphasized the terms of his contract did not include.
Meanwhile the various brigades could be observed nearing the respective points assigned to them in the General Orders. Ogilvy's guns, closely following Colonel Long's batteries, crossed the railway on the right of the central battery just as dawn broke over the scene, and rapidly closed towards the Fort Wylie kopjes. The clear summer morn enabled the Boers from their lofty vantage ground to obtain a full panoramic view of the several British movements during the advance across the veldt towards them. Our line of front presented an arc from six to seven miles in extent, so that the enemy could easily infer from the nature of the dispositions exhibited, which section of their defence was principally threatened, and elaborate their plans accordingly.
It had been announced in orders that the Commander-in-Chief would be found near the 4'7 guns. The arrival there of Generals Buller and Clery with their staffs indicated that the respective brigades, whose advance the generals had supervised, had sufficiently progressed to warrant the preparative artillery sweeping to be commenced. The battle of Colenso begun at 5.30 a.m. with a salvo of shells from the naval guns. Up to this time no sign was elicited of the enemy's intention to resist the advance, save the sudden dashes here and there of a few horsemen evidently conveying messages ; the tactical silence prevailing giving rise to all sorts of fanciful conjectures. Lyddite and shrapnel shell again searched trenches, dongas, and the fringe of the river bank with a murderous examination. Common shell crashed into all visible positions and defensive works, producing volcanic results, scattering debris skywards, and rending huge openings with nearly every round ; the explosions reverberating among the encircling hills giving forth a weird continuity of roar. The firing, as such, was indeed a magnificent sight for an artillerist to witness, as, the ranges being known, the shells burst with fine precision. For upwards of forty-five minutes a vigorous bombardment proceeded, the field batteries adding their quota of destructiveness upon arriving at their allotted stations. But not a single reply was drawn until the attacking brigades had got well within the enemy's zone of rifle fire. Then—then the alluring calm of subtle silence suddenly gave place to an assailing storm of shell and rifle fire that swept with disastrous effect into the advancing brigades from the whole arc of defence. A lurking insuppressible resistance from at least ten thousand rifles and two score guns, ranging from a " Long Tom " to the dreaded pom-pom, had been aroused from a cunning slumber. Where least expected defiance was always found. Even on the south side of the river, where " Intelligence " could not have expected or foreseen them, were Boer rifle pits containing Boer riflemen, invisible themselves, though the effect of their fire was very much in evidence. The zone of shell fire even encircled the central naval battery's position, though luckily very few shells obtained the correct range, the majority pitching well clear of the battery before bursting. It was at this juncture that desperate fighting was taking place with Hildyard's and Hart's brigades. The fortunes—or misfortunes—of the central attack demand principal attention, as it was there that the most calamitous event of this fateful day occurred, and that Ogilvy's battery especially distinguished themselves. No better description of this memorable episode can be furnished than that given in Lieutenant Ogilvy's official report. He wrote :—
" Acting on 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 Tartar, to lead the battery behind the Royal Artillery field guns, and told him that we were to form up on the left of the Royal Artillery 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 with 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 before-mentioned one, but about 400 yards in the rear. When I arrived I found that all the native riders with the exception of those for Lieutenant James's gun teams had bolted. These guns had just crossed the drift, so I directed him to take up a position on the left and opened fire on Fort Wylie, from which the majority of the shell fire appeared to come. About this time my horse was shot through the shoulder by a rifle bullet. The two rear guns under Lieutenant Deas of H.M.S. Philomel, not having crossed the drift, I directed him to take ground on the left and open fire also on Fort Wylie. The two centre guns under Mr. Wright, gunner of H.M.S. Terrible, were unfortunately jammed with their ammunition waggons in the drift, the wheels of the waggons 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 while doing this. I could not manage to move the ammunition waggons, as the rifle and shell fire was too severe at the time, a i^-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 Wylie 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 up the hill to the rear. The waggons 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 advance of the Infantry on an open plain, with little or no cover against a most heavy rifle fire from entrenched positions was also a magnificent sight. 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 waggons out of the drift under heavy fire from shell and rifle was quite up to the standard expected of all seamen. I cannot conclude without mentioning the way Lieutenant James of the Tartar selected the best suitable position and opened fire with great effect. Lieutenant Deas, of the Philomel, unfortunately had a gun capsized as they were moving off to the left to come into action, but managed to mount it quickly and brought both guns into action. After the first few minutes these two officers took entire charge of their respective guns, and brought them safely out of action; Lieutenant James coming again into action on the left under the direction of Captain Jones. Mr. Wright, gunner, worked his guns well, and was of great assistance in withdrawing them. Surgeon Macmillan, R.N., Lieutenant Palmer, R.A.M.C., were conspicuous in their attendance to the wounded. Our loss was very small, three wounded, one of them very slightly, and I attribute this to (1st) the Fort Wylie guns and rifle fire being directed principally on the R.A. guns, which were some 300 yards nearer than we were: (2nd) to the enemy directing most of their fire on our ox teams and waggons, they being so much more conspicuous than the guns. Twenty-eight oxen were killed, wounded, or lost."
With regard to this unforeseen disaster, General Buller, after concisely dealing with Hart's fiasco on the left, wrote :—
"At the same time General Hildyard was advancing on the bridge, and as I was proceeding in that direction to superintend the attack, and also to ascertain what Colonel Long's Brigade Division, which was very heavily engaged on the right, was doing, I received a message that he had been driven from his guns by superior Infantry fire.
" I believed at the moment that the six Naval guns had shared the same fate, and I at once decided that without guns it would be impossible for me to force the passage.
" Fortunately the Naval guns had not reached the position taken up by the 14th and 66th Batteries when fire was opened; their drivers however bolted, and their oxen were stampeded, or killed; but by dint of hard work all the guns and the ammunition waggons were hauled out of range. All worked well, and Lieutenant Ogilvy and Gunner Wright, Her Majesty's ship Terrible, particularly rendered excellent service. These guns, however, had been rendered immobile for the day.
" Colonel Long, Royal Artillery, has been dangerously wounded, and I am unable to obtain his explanations. His orders were to come into action covered by the 6th Brigade, which Brigade was not, as he knew, intended to advance on Colenso. I had personally explained to him where I wished him to come into action, and with the Naval guns only, as the position was not within effective range for his field guns. Instead of this he advanced with his batteries so fast that he left both his Infantry escort and his oxen-drawn Naval guns behind, and came into action under Fort Wylie, a commanding trebly entrenched hill, at a range of 1200 yards, and I believe within 300 yards of the enemy's rifle pits."
From the foregoing official accounts the cause of the central attack being rendered abortive may be easily deduced.
In the mean time, Hildyard's Brigade slowly advanced towards Colenso village and the river; the success of his movement vitally depending on the support he expected to receive from Long's now disabled batteries. Further progress beyond the village was found impossible against the terrible fusilade which then assailed them, though this position was maintained until the withdrawal.
The description of a few interesting incidents concerning Long's batteries, and the attached naval guns, may very properly follow the official versions.
After crossing to the east side of the railway, the field batteries moved forward direct towards Fort Wylie, while the naval guns, limbered up behind the heavy ammunition waggons, were compelled to advance by devious routes owing to the broken ground frequently encountered. Hence the reason of Long's batteries having outpaced the naval guns. On coming into action, the range distance for Ogilvy's guns was 1550 yards from Fort Wylie, and about 650 yards from the nearest Boer rifle pits, or shelters, dug on the near side of the river. These ranges may somewhat serve to illustrate the toughness of the position ; the field batteries being about 400 yards nearer.
With the exception of the Tartar s unit, Lieutenant Ogilvy omits to mention in his report that the guns again came into action after retiring from the untenable position first occupied, though twice afterwards the other two units ventured their luck against that of the enemy. The second position was some 500 yards in rear of the one vacated, each gun coming into action, independently, as it arrived back, in order to cover the withdrawal of the two ammunition waggons isolated at the donga ; the other battery waggons having been already withdrawn with the surviving oxen. The enemy's gunners quickly responded to this second invitation to a duel, and again forced the guns to retire, though, until the said waggons were well under weigh towards the rear, they continued in action. They were then withdrawn well beyond rifle range to comparative safety, taking part in the covering of the general retirement which followed the loss of the field batteries.
The slow, irksome process of getting the heavy ammunition waggons out of danger was a perilous duty. With great difficulty they were reversed by manual labour; General Buller and the whole staff dismounting, and personally assisting to turn them. The near waggon was easily removed by one artillery team, the other, being on the offside of the donga, required skilful pilotage. A second team of eight horses was obtained, and with the aid of a plucky artillery driver, young Frank Hayles, ordinary seaman, transported it safely to the rear amid a hail of bullets. The first horse which Hayles mounted was killed, and the second one he bestrode was severely wounded. While in the middle of the donga, Hayles stopped the waggon to recover some rifles which had been jerked off, whereupon the general shouted, " Push on, Jack, or you'll lose the waggon and the whole lot for the sake of a few rifles," an order that was promptly obeyed. Hayles appeared much more perturbed concerning the insignificant loss of a couple of rifles, than satisfied with his lucky enterprise, and cogitated as to what would be the official verdict—whether "lost by accident," or, "pay the estimated value." His unobtrusive courage was warmly appreciated by his battery comrades, as was also the nonchalant adventure of Seaman Campling. This youngster, when the guns were retired, remained on the field to succour his chum, Seaman White, who was lying dangerously wounded in the back from a piece of shell, and bleeding profusely. When the ambulance removed White to the rear, Campling, instead of also returning, advanced into the firing line with the Queens, and stayed with that battalion until the battle was over, being reported as missing. Though guilty of an infraction of discipline, for which he received an official rebuke, he acted under the influence of the stimulus of battle; the impetus being derived from the traditional examples set by the officers and captains of guns, who never forgot the obligations due from rank and rating. Conspicuous always was the person of Lieutenant Ogilvy, who while hazardously exposing himself in his search for the hiding places of the omnipresent Boer guns, sent the guns' crews into the ^donga for shelter. As he located a gun position the crews would instantly respond to his call, and continue firing until the gun was either silenced or removed. On one of these occasions was witnessed a contest of skill between Petty Officers Venness and Taylor, who, amidst these infernal surroundings, mutually challenged each other to try which could first silence a Boer gun just brought into action at Fort Wylie. Taylor—a noted heavy gun shot—won, having the double satisfaction of seeing his target topple over, and of raising a British cheer from the excited infantry supports, who, even in battle, admired sportive skill. The next minute, however, the Boers retaliated by sending a shell into the battery, the one which wounded Seaman White dangerously, and Seamen Newstead and Webster severely. Although the guns, limbers, and waggons, were fairly splintered with shell, and riddled with bullets, besides nearly three dozen oxen being killed or disabled, the guns' crews miraculously escaped with only the three aforementioned casualties. The proverbial " sweet little cherub which sits up aloft" had indeed guarded the life of Jack, but sadly neglected to perform the same office for his military comrades.
Respecting Colonel Long's two abandoned batteries, General Buller laconically remarked in his despatch:—
" The men fought their guns like heroes and silenced Fort Wylie; but the issue could never have been in doubt, and gradually they were all shot down. . . ."
The heroically brilliant attempts to recover the guns were numerous; two only being successful. The enemy concentrated a murderous fire on the exposed and isolated cannon, which were now apparently regarded by them as legitimate spoils of battle, an opinion which found no favour on our side, for although the personnel and horses of both batteries were nearly all hors de combat, volunteer men and impressed horses took their places.
Generals Buller and Clery, with their staffs and mounted escorts, arrived on the scene, encountering the legion of common risks and perils the storm of bullets and shells exposed them to. Three of the Headquarter Staff (Captains Congreve, Schofield, and Lieutenant Roberts—son of Field-Marshal Lord Roberts) rode forth with volunteer rescue teams. Roberts was mortally wounded, and Congreve severely hit during their rides. Surgeon-Captain Hughes, also of the staff, was mortally wounded close to the side of General Buller, who was himself sharply grazed by a bullet; the whole staff having numerous hair-breadth escapes. As fast as horses could be procured officers and men were eager to mount them, and rode without hesitation across that 500 yards of veldt which a withering hail of death-dealing bullets was sweeping without intermission. One feat of spontaneous pluck, and the final attempt permitted by the general, was that performed by Captain Reed and men of the 7th Field Battery, who rode over with three teams from Dundonald's command to render help. They started, rode swiftly on, but before the teams had got halfway to the guns, the officer and five men were severely wounded, and one man was killed out of the dozen who formed the ride, besides thirteen out of twenty-two horses being lost. So great was the severity of the fire which had burst upon each successive attempt, that nearly half of the men and horses were removals from the active muster roll. It is the performance of such brilliant deeds as these, the heritage of the Anglo-Saxon race, that has created the British Empire of to-day—an empire without parallel.
Leaving the centre, Hart's Brigade on the left comes next in order for special notice. Here also a sad misfortune had befallen the advance. The brigade had failed to strike the Drift, and had marched into veritable "jaws of death" instead. The river's course here diverged northwards for some distance, then, curving back, formed a salient loop, projecting towards the foot of the hills beyond. Into this natural death-trap the brigade had well advanced when a storm of shot and shell burst with cyclonic force upon their close marching formation. From their front came a hail of bullets from invisible trenches ; into their flanks was poured a withering cross-fire ; while from guns concealed among the inaccessible hills beyond the river shells thundered destruction into their ranks. A tactical movement into open formation was quickly executed, whereupon the brave Irishmen were led by their dauntless brigadier to the attack. The bewildered brigade, in spite of the havoc being wrought among them, fearlessly pushed forward towards the place where the Drift was expected to be found. But it never was found, because, the Boers having dammed the Tugela lower down, it did not then exist! Into such an inferno had the hapless brigade plunged, that General Buller personally went to the scene ; but the orders he at once issued for retirement could not be complied with unless support was afforded. Consequently two battalions from Lyttleton's Brigade and Parson's Field Batteries were diverted to assist in extricating Hart from an extremely perilous position. Meanwhile, the enemy also strengthened their position, not only to frustrate all attempts at crossing, which had now become impossible, but to pinion there, if possible, the hard-pressed Irish Brigade. They brought several hitherto silent guns into action which outranged and severely castigated Parson's batteries, obliging them to retire beyond range, and leave the infantry to work out their own salvation. The Boer guns, from the summit of the Grobclar Range, were making effective shooting at 7000 yards to which the batteries could not retaliate, though they had previously exacted an involuntary respite from the Boer trenches and works which commanded the tongue of land containing Hart's force.
"... During all this time, and throughout the day, the two 4'7-inch and four T2-pounder naval guns of the Naval Brigade, and Durban Naval Volunteers, under Captain E. P. Jones, Royal Navy, were being admirably served, and succeeded in silencing every one of the enemy's guns they could locate. . . ."
Such are the words culled from General Buller's Colenso despatch, when referring to Hart's operations. It was indeed during the most critical periods of the various attacks that the services of the naval guns—the 4'7's especially—were in demand all over the field. " Direct your fire on Hlangwani Hill"—"on Fort Wylie"—"on the kopjes beyond "—" at ' Long Tom ' on Grobelar "—"on the hills to your left"—" the fringe of the river banks"—were but a few of the urgent messages received by Captain Jones in rapid succession. Each one must be attended to ; each brigadier naturally thought of his own brigade ; each brigade believed it was opposed to the enemy's strongest defence; so each order was responded to—in the spirit, if not the letter. The demand and supply problem was here very perplexing. Lyddite especially was in greatest demand, not by the enemy, but by those who requisitioned gun support. Whatever damaging effect to the enemy it may have been responsible for—morally, physically, materially, or otherwise— lyddite certainly produced a desirable moral effect on our own troops. They felt assured as they saw the huge red clouds of de'bris caused by each shell explosion, that their semi-invisible foe were being no less severely handled than themselves. Principally, the central naval battery fire was governed by the orders which kept it busy from the Headquarter Staff. It was in compliance with General Buller's directions that the 4'7's took in hand the silencing of the Boer guns located on the hills dominating the British left, which had been mainly responsible for much damage to Hart's Brigade, and the bane of Parson's batteries. At a range of 11,400 yards, and cleverly concealed except when actually in a firing position, the Boer guns were vigorously assailed with alternate rounds of lyddite and common shell. For upwards of an hour intermittent attention was given them, the 4'7's having occasionally to divert their direction, and hunt " Long Tom" on the northern end of Grobelars, whose belch of black-powder smoke always disclosed his whereabouts, but whose defective shells caused far more anxiety than real harm. The precision of fire of Chief Petty Officers Stephens and Bate of the 4'7's, who vied with each other in their efforts to silence the guns, was, as General Buller described it—admirable! Between them the Boer guns on the left were completely silenced, and not heard from in that direction for the rest of the day. Hart's attack, however, had been a disastrous failure; irretrievably so. The brigade had been the victims of extreme ill-luck. It is morally certain that had the irrepressible Irish Brigade got across the river, a different story—a story of success, so far as was provided for in the General Orders—would have had to be chronicled. Hart here, like Hildyard in the centre, had found execution of instructions impossible, owing to extraneous circumstances over which neither general possessed control, viz. an unfordable river, and premature loss of essential artillery support respectively.
The four 12-pounders referred to in the despatch extract were also particularly active in suppressing the enemy's fire ; the general's commendation was no mere expression of courteous phraseology. Numerous instances might be cited, if space permitted, where apparent demoralization seized the enemy whenever a gun or trench position was disclosed or located. Violent storms of firing would suddenly be lulled as soon as location and range were obtained, enabling our troops, who were perhaps cornered somewhere, to extricate themselves, after they had made up their minds that their future course was already shaped for Paradise or Pretoria.
Two instances, one from each 12-pounder unit, seem worth relating. A strong reinforcement of Boers was observed by-Lieutenant Wilde emerging from behind Fort Wylie, apparently intent on crossing the bridge. A strong impulse seized this officer and urged him to execute quickly the spirit of his orders—not the words, which forbade firing into mounted troops beyond the river without express orders from some one high in authority. But as there was no mistaking the identity of the motley-dressed cavalcade pressing towards the bridge, he sent a few well-directed shells among them, causing those who were bodily fit to return rapidly whence they came. "Authority" rebuked this diversion from orders, but too late, the damage—to the enemy—was done. The marine gun's crew of Lieutenant Richards' unit actually fired 317 rounds from their 12-pounder during the day. One round was responsible for the complete disablement of one Boer gun, which had, for several hours, been hurling good shrapnel and very bad segment shells at Lyttleton's reserve brigade close by. Careful observation at last discovered the gun in the firing position, masked among the undergrowth of a clump of trees. Its position was pointed out to Sergeant Roper, who sent a range-finding shell at 4500 yards in splendid direction, short, however, by some 250 yards; but, rapidly loading, and raising his sights to rectify the error, he sent his second shot smash into the gun, giving it its coup de grace. The telescope disclosed the muzzle of the gun pointing skywards as if unshipped from its carriage, the gun's crew having disappeared—somewhither.
There now remains the attack on Hlangwani Hill to complete the account of events. Lord Dundonald's force had been very heavily engaged, but had likewise met with non-success. They had, however, effectively prevented certain flank movements of the enemy from being developed. During their gallant but futile attempt to capture the hill, they had also entered well within the cyclonic battle storm, and had been driven to seek shelter. Hlangwani Hill was an isolated position on the south side of the river, and it had been apparently assumed that it could not, without considerable risk, be held in very strong force by the Boers, and certainly not with guns. But it was—the unexpected had occurred. The Boers had constructed a military bridge over the river beyond all hostile observation and damage, and consequently were enabled to occupy strongly this all-important and strategic position, the key of Colenso. From its summit, which is fairly accessible for guns to ascend, the Fort Wylie group of kopjes could easily be enfiladed "and rendered untenable. We knew this—so did the enemy, who were prepared to defend its possession. To effect its capture, a rigorous artillery sweep of its crests and slopes in preparation for an infantry assault would be necessary. It was now too late; the issue had already been decided by the misfortunes already related.
Before the abandonment of Long's batteries, artillery was none too plentiful for the task before it. Now the situation was infinitely worse. The naval guns had proved themselves sufficiently mobile for the duty assigned them as long-range guns, and had performed prominent and invaluable service throughout the day, but the general also required guns possessing tactical mobility to support infantry attacks, and closely follow up successes. No successful frontal attack was now either practicable or conceivable. The troops had suffered heavily in casualties, one-fifth of the guns were lost; the terrible heat and aggravated thirst had severely exhausted the whole force, considerably affecting their physical endurance ; moreover, the superior mobility of the fresh and vigorous enemy placed our exposed flanks in danger, and threatened the severance of our communications. Therefore, to remain in possession of the ground won, was to court further disaster. Ill-fortune throughout had attended every movement; no superiority had been achieved anywhere, and the day was irretrievably lost. The third of the series of repulses to British arms previously referred to had now befallen General Buller at Colenso.
Vehement protests against the abandonment of the guns have been numerous, but such protestations can only emanate from critics who could not have been at Colenso, and knew little of the actual situation. They forget that delay in retiring seriously imperilled the whole force—and Natal.
It was ten guns weighed in the balance against the relief force. The guns were sacrificed ; the force was saved. The loss was an infinitesimal one in comparison with the incalculable advantages secured by the retirement.
Dealing with the general retirement, Sir Redvers Buller's own words will best suffice.
"After this" (referring to the loss of the guns) "I directed a withdrawal to our camps. It was accomplished in good order. There was no pursuit, and the shell fire was negligible and controlled by our naval guns. The day was fearfully hot, the sky cloudless, the .atmosphere sultry and airless, and the country waterless in most parts. . . .
" We were engaged for eight hours with an enemy occupying commanding, selected, and carefully prepared positions—positions so carefully prepared that it was almost impossible for infantry to see what to aim at, and I think the force opposed to us must altogether have equalled our own. We had closed on the enemy's works, our troops were in favourable position for an assault, and had I, at the critical moment, had at my disposition the Artillery I had, as I believed, arranged for, I think we should have got in. But without the immediate support of guns, I considered that it would be a reckless waste of gallant lives to attempt the assault.
" Considering the intense heat, the conduct and bearing of the troops was excellent."
The day's casualty list was a heavy one, the total losses being: 147 killed, 762 wounded, and 197 missing and prisoners. The Irish Brigade had suffered by far the heaviest; Hildyard's Brigade and the Royal Artillery very severely.
The Battle of Colenso was a tactical repulse of the first attempt to relieve Ladysmith.