'Never shame to hear what you have nobly done.'—Coriolanus.
On December 12th, the 6th and Naval Brigades marched from Frere to Chieveley, and the rest of the army followed the next day. The battalion happened to be finding the outposts, and could not march with the 5th Brigade. Some delay in collecting the companies was experienced, so it was not until 1 p.m. that a start was made, and darkness came on before Chieveley was reached. It was, however, a glorious moonlight night, and marching across the veld had a charm which even the dust could not quite destroy. But romance soon gave way to more worldly feelings when, on arriving at Chieveley about 8 p.m., it became necessary to find the brigade camp among the hundreds of tents already pitched.
On the evening of the 14th, it was known that the army was to advance next day, and attempt the passage of the Tugela. Colonel Cooper assembled his officers in order to explain the Divisional and Brigade orders. He stated that the 5th Brigade would cross the river at a drift two miles west of Colenso, then move down the left bank so as to take in rear the Boers defending Colenso bridge, which would be attacked by the 2nd Brigade. The Brigade orders detailed the Dublin Fusiliers to lead the advance to the river, and afterwards to cover the rear of the brigade when it moved down the left bank. General Hart urged in addition the necessity of keeping the men well in hand. They were to cheer in the event of a charge, but were not to be allowed to make a wild rush.
Every one was early astir on December 15th. Breakfasts were at 3 a.m., but before that hour tents had been struck and (p. 035) packed in the waggons, on which great-coats, blankets, and mess-tins were also placed, so that the men only carried their haversacks, water-bottles, rifles, and 150 rounds. The brigade fell in at 3.30 a.m. It was still quite dark, and the Brigadier spent the ensuing half-hour in drilling his command. The advance was commenced just as the eastern horizon grew grey with the dawn.
The battalion, which led the brigade, deployed into line to the right, and then advanced by fours from the right of companies. In front rode the General with his staff and a Kaffir guide; behind came the other three battalions of the brigade in mass. The deployment of the battalion had brought 'A' on the left, and 'H' and the three companies of the 1st Battalion on the right.
In this order the brigade moved across the broad expanse of veld, leading to the banks of the Tugela. In front, beyond the river, rose tier on tier of ridges and kopjes, backed by the towering mass of Grobelaar's Kloof. In the morning light they looked strangely quiet and deserted. Only on a spur to the left front could be seen a few black specks, the figures of watching Boers.
Soon the naval guns in front of Chieveley opened fire, dropping their shells on the horseshoe ridge to the north of Colenso, and into a kraal further to the west. But no answer came. The brigade moved on, tramping through the long grass, wet with the dew. There was a momentary halt in order to cross a spruit running diagonally across the line of march. The ridges in front grew nearer and plainer. They still seemed deserted, although the eyes of many foes might be watching the advancing khaki-clad troops. Behind came the thunder of the big guns, and the shells screamed in the air overhead. It was past 6 a.m. Suddenly the hiss of a shell sounded marvellously close, there was a metallic clang, and a cloud of dust arose some hundred yards in front. It was a Boer shrapnel, and the battle had begun.
Each company of the battalion, without waiting for orders, 'front-formed,' and doubled forward. The mounted officers at once dismounted, Major Hicks' horse being shot under him as he was in the very act of getting off its back. Somehow it did not seem a bit strange to him at the time that his horse should be down, and it never occurred to him then that it had been shot. Another shrapnel burst over the line and then the enemy's musketry blazed forth, finding an excellent target in the massed brigade, which was deploying as best it could.
The battalion was dangerously crowded together, for it had been advancing as if drilling on the barrack square, although Colonel Cooper had tried to open out to double company interval, a proceeding which the General had promptly counter-ordered. But all did their best. The men rushed forward after their officers, and at their signal lay down in the long grass, whence fire was opened at the invisible foe.
It was very difficult to discover the Boer positions. There was one long trench near the kraal which the naval guns (p. 037) had been shelling, and further to the west could be seen another parapet from which came an occasional puff of smoke betraying a Martini rifle and black powder. But if the Boers could not be seen, they could be both heard and felt. There was one ceaseless rattle of mausers, and a constant hum of bullets only drowned by the scream of the shells.
Short rushes were made as a rule, and the flank companies edged away in order to give room for a more reasonable extension. But no sooner had the battalion opened out than it was reinforced by companies of the Connaught Rangers, and, later, of the Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Border Regiment. In a comparatively short time, after the first Boer shell, the 5th Brigade had been practically crowded into one line. Officers led men of all the four regiments, and encouraged them with the cry, 'Come on, the Irish Brigade!'
There was no control, no cohesion, no arrangement in the attack. No attempt was made to support, by the careful fire of one part of the line, the advance of the remainder; nor did any order from the higher ranks reach the firing line. Small groups of men, led by an officer, jumped up, dashed forward a few scores of yards, and then lay down. Nobody knew where the drift was, nobody had a clear idea of what was happening. All pushed forward blindly, animated by the sole idea of reaching the river-bank.
On the left, part of the battalion was almost on the river when the Boers first opened fire, and quickly reached the bank. After a short halt they turned to their right and moved in single file along the river, being exposed all the time to a heavy fire. They passed through a kraal, and eventually, not being able to find the drift, assembled in a hollow, where they stayed until orders to retire reached them. The centre and right advanced through low scrub into a loop of the river. Some sections of the 1st Battalion, on the extreme right, came upon a spruit, and, under shelter of its banks, pushed ahead of the line.
(p. 038) Thus, by short and constant rushes, the assailants worked their way forward. A brigade of field artillery was supporting the attack from behind, but they found it as difficult as the infantry did to locate the Boers, and most of their shells were quite harmless to the enemy, while a few dropped close to the attacking infantry. They aided the latter indirectly, however, since the Boer guns turned their attention to them.
General Sir Redvers Buller had early recognised the difficulties of the 5th Brigade, and sent orders for it to retire. But it is easier to send a force into a battle than to draw it back. The great difficulty at Colenso was to communicate with the company officers, who had to be left entirely to their own 'initiative.' Finally an officer of the Connaught Rangers volunteered to take to the firing line General Hart's written order to retire. He succeeded in reaching the front, but then, thinking he had struck the right of the line, turned to his left. In reality he had gone to the centre of the attack, and, consequently, the retirement was carried out partially and by fractions. The left fell back about 10 a.m. in good order, though the Boers, as usual, redoubled their fire when they saw their foes begin to retreat. The centre and right, having received no order nor warning, clung to their ground, and in some cases even made a further advance. Section after section, however, gradually realised that their left flank was uncovered and a general retreat of the brigade in progress. A score of men, under the command of an officer, would rise up and double back, causing, as they did so, an instant quickening of the enemy's fire. All around the running figures the bullets splashed, raising little jets of dust. Occasionally a man would stumble forward, or sink down as if tired, but it seemed wonderful that the rain of bullets did not claim more victims. They claimed enough, however, of the unfortunate three companies of the 1st Battalion, whom the order to retire never reached. Till (p. 039) 1 p.m., and the arrival of the Boers, they lay where they were, suffering a loss of some 60 per cent. When at last Major Hicks realised the situation, he touched with his stick the man on his right, to tell him to pass the word to retire, but he touched a dead man; he turned to the left, only to touch another corpse. One company was brought out of action by a lance-corporal. Then the Boers arrived, and began making prisoners. One shouted to Major Hicks for his revolver; he replied that he had not got one—it was in his holsters on his dead horse—and stalked indignantly off the battlefield, without another question being put to him.
Major Gordon, who was commanding one of the three companies of the 1st Battalion, had been shot through the knee early in the day by a rifle bullet. He lay for two hours or so momentarily expecting to be hit again. After a time he noticed that as long as he lay still no bullets came in his direction, but that the moment he attempted to move there would be a vicious hiss and spurt of sand and dust close beside him. In spite of this he managed to crawl through a pool of blood to a neighbouring ant-heap, which offered some sort of protection, and into which a bullet plunged just as he reached it. Here he remained till the retirement, when, assisted by two sergeants of the regiment, Keenan and Dillon, he managed to hobble away. Even then he noticed that as long as they kept away from the troops who were still actively engaged few bullets came their way, as though the Boers were purposely not firing at the wounded.
The Boer heavy artillery pursued the retiring troops with shells, which made a prodigious noise, and raised clouds of dust, but seldom did any damage. Gradually a region of comparative peace was reached, where the ground was not being continually struck by bullets, and only an occasional shell fell. The extended lines of the 4th Brigade, ordered to cover the retirement, came into view, and behind them the men of the Irish Brigade collected again in companies and (p. 040) battalions. Then, although the artillery was still roaring fiercely, and the mausers rattled with tireless persistence, the brigade trudged back to its former camping-ground, pitched tents, and began to cook dinners. A prosaic but practical ending to an impossible attack.
But there was still one task to accomplish—the preparation of the casualty list: The regiment had suffered heavily. Two officers, Captain Bacon (1st Battalion) and Lieutenant Henry, had been killed, and three, Major Gordon (1st Battalion), Captain Shewan, and Lieutenant Macleod (1st Battalion), wounded. The total casualties were 219, of whom 52 were killed. Among the latter were Colour-Sergeant Gage (mortally wounded) and Sergeant Hayes.
Captain Bacon (1st Battalion) was killed by a bullet, and must have died immediately. He had previously served for a short time with the 2nd Battalion, in which he had many friends, and his loss was bitterly deplored by Officers, N.C.O.'s, and Privates alike.
Lieutenant Henry had scarcely two years' service, but had in that short space of time endeared himself to every one in the regiment, and was as smart and efficient a young officer as ever joined it. His death must also have been mercifully instantaneous, as he was hit by a shell.
Second Lieutenant Macleod had only joined the 1st Battalion a few days before it left the Curragh on November 10th. He was very severely wounded, his thigh being broken, and although his leg was saved, it was left two inches shorter than it had been, and in the end he had to leave the service on this account.
Major Gordon (1st Battalion), who received a Brevet Lieutenant-Colonelcy for his services, was invalided home, but came out again later on; while Captain Shewan, who had been shot through the leg by a bullet, was back at work again in twelve days, a sterling proof of that devotion (p. 041) to duty which was later on rewarded by the well-merited distinction of the D.S.O.
The three companies of the 1st Battalion had been the greatest sufferers. Being on the right, they were the last to retire; in fact, some of the men did not get in till 5 p.m., while a few were taken prisoners on the banks of the river.
Amongst a host of others who showed their worth under the trying circumstances of this unfortunate day, was Bugler Dunne, a small boy who did his duty well, and had the good fortune to be received by Her Majesty the Queen on his return home. His father was also in South Africa, a Colour-Sergeant in the 5th Battalion. Isolated cases must always receive undue prominence—it is the way of the world—but the spirit of the men was quite remarkable throughout, and made officers and N.C.O.'s proud to command and lead them. Instead of depressing them, the reverse seemed to have a contrary effect, and merely hardened their determination to succeed.