[Footnote 226: See maps Nos. 15 and 15(a), and freehand sketch.]
[Sidenote: The move begins. Power of the Naval guns.]
In the cool of the early morning of December 15th, 1899, while it was yet dark, the British troops were set in motion. The day was to prove intensely hot, a sign, at this period of the Natal summer, of the approaching rains. Captain E. P. Jones, R.N., commanding the Naval brigade, moved with two 4·7-in. and four 12-pounder guns to a site pointed out to him personally by Sir Redvers on the previous day, to the west of the railway and about 4,500 yards from Fort Wylie. From thence, at 5.20 a.m. he began to shell the kopjes on the far side of the river. For more than half an hour no reply was made and, even when the Boers opened fire, no guns appear to have been directed on Captain Jones' six pieces until about 7 a.m. These Naval guns with their escort, a company of the 2nd Scottish Rifles, remained on the same spot until the close of the action, suffering no loss. Their telescopes made it easy to see, their long range and powerful shells to silence, guns unseen by others.
[Footnote 227: Sunrise at Colenso on 15th December is at 5 a.m.]
[Sidenote: The march of the 14th and 66th batteries and six Naval 12-pounders.]
[Sidenote: and 6th brigade.]
[Sidenote: Dundonald and 7th battery.]
[Sidenote: 2nd and 4th brigades.]
Meanwhile the larger units had begun to carry out their orders. The 14th and 66th Field batteries of No. 1 brigade division, under command of Lieut.-Colonel Hunt, and six Naval 12-pounders, under the command of Lieutenant F. C. A. Ogilvy, R.N., moved across the railway line at 3.30 a.m., accompanied by the officer commanding the whole of the Royal Artillery then in Natal, Colonel C. J. Long, who had been directed by General Buller personally to supervise the movements of these batteries. East of the railway these guns joined the 6th brigade and advanced at 4 a.m. with that unit, northward. Lord Dundonald's brigade moved also at 4 a.m., accompanied by the 7th Field battery. The 2nd brigade, at the same hour, left camp and marched towards Colenso, followed at 4.30 a.m. by the 4th brigade.
[Sidenote: 5th brigade. 2nd brigade division.]
The 5th brigade moved off at the same time. Lieut.-Colonel Parsons, commanding No. 2 brigade division, although directed by the written operation orders to follow the 4th brigade (Lyttelton) in order to enfilade the kopjes north of the iron bridge, had received verbal instructions from Sir R. Buller through Colonel Long that at least one of his batteries was to cross the river with Hart's brigade. He accordingly marched with his guns on the right rear of the 5th brigade.
[Sidenote: Hart's instructions, guide, and map.]
Major-General Hart had been provided with a tracing of a map, a Kaffir guide, and a colonist as interpreter to assist him in finding "the Bridle Drift immediately west of the junction of the Doornkop Spruit and the Tugela," by which he was to cross the river. This map was a plane-table sketch, prepared by an engineer officer shortly before the action. It was an attempt to fill into a farm survey, made for land registration, as many of the topographical features as could be seen from a distance. Unfortunately it had not been verified by any close reconnaissance of the river, and thus both the sketch and the orders were misleading. A Bridle Drift, used by natives in the dry season of the winter but uncertain in the summer, did indeed exist, although on that particular day it was unfordable. But the sketch, on which the order relied, showed the Doornkop Spruit as running into the Tugela at the western bend of the remarkable loop which that river makes to the north-west, about one mile east of E. Robinson's farm; it showed, moreover, the Bridle Drift close to the junction of the spruit, and placed, also immediately to the west of the Drift, another loop of the river. On all three of these points the sketch was defective. Only a short but deep donga enters the river at this western end of the loop, near 2 on map No. 15. The Doornkop Spruit joins the river at the eastern, not the western bend of the loop. The Bridle Drift lies, not near to the western bend of the loop, but a mile to the westward. Finally, the Tugela makes no second loop for several miles to the westward. The effect of these topographical errors in the map, and in the written orders was further enhanced by another serious misapprehension. Major-General Hart had been informed on the previous evening that the Kaffir guide lived close to the drift where he was to cross, and could be relied on not to make any mistake about it. Unfortunately the native misunderstood his instructions, or had been given wrong instructions, for he conceived that he was intended to lead the column, not to the Bridle Drift, but to a point (marked 4 on map No. 15) close to his own kraal, at the head of and inside the loop, where, owing to the existence of rapids, the river was fordable, breast-high, by men on foot. The practicability of this drift had been personally verified by the native on the two previous nights, but no staff officer had accompanied him. Another similar foot-ford might have been found at point 6 immediately below the junction of the Doornkop Spruit with the Tugela, but the existence of neither of these fords was known to Major-General Hart or to the Headquarter staff.
[Footnote 228: General Buller's telegram to the War Office, dated 15th December, 1899, states: "There are two fordable places in the Tugela ... they are about two miles apart ... General Hart was to attack the left drift, General Hildyard the right."]
[Sidenote: The march of Hart's (5th) brigade.]
The 5th brigade marched from its parade ground in mass of quarter-columns, the battalions being arranged in the following order:--
2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, commanded by Col. C. D. Cooper. 1st Connaught Rangers, commanded by Col. L. G. Brooke. 1st Border regiment, commanded by Col. J. H. E. Hinde. 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, commanded by Lt.-Col. T. M. G. Thackeray.
Half of the 17th Company, R.E., under the command of Major H. H. Massy, followed in rear. A squadron of the Royal Dragoons acted as advance guard as far as Doornkop Spruit, where the cavalry moved off to the left.
[Sidenote: Hart's intention.]
The Brigadier had informed the commanding officers on the previous evening that he intended the leading battalion to line the right bank of the Tugela, while the remainder crossed. After passing, the brigade was to move eastward, and attempt to close the enemy into the Colenso loop of the river.
[Sidenote: Hart plunges into the loop.]
[Sidenote: The Boer artillery opens fire, shortly after 6 a.m.]
[Sidenote: Unseen riflemen enfilade the attack.]
Hart, following the directions of the Kaffir guide, led his brigade in a north-westerly direction to the first drift over the Doornkop Spruit, and thence northward, the formation of the leading battalion being now changed to an advance in fours from the right of companies at deploying interval, the three rear battalions continuing in mass of quarter-columns. A few cavalry scouts preceded the brigade: the main body of the Royal Dragoons, under Lieut.-Colonel J. F. Burn-Murdoch, watched the left flank, his officers' patrols moving down to the river's bank, without provoking any fire. Colonel Burn-Murdoch despatched three successive gallopers to inform General Hart that these patrols reported the enemy in force on his front and left. General Hart replied that he intended to cross by the drift in front of him, and would ignore the enemy on his left, unless they attacked in strength. The column, therefore, continued to move steadily on the point, near to the western bend of the loop, where the sketch had placed the Bridle Drift. But, as the brigade was crossing a newly-ploughed mealie-field, within 300 yards of the entrance of the loop, the Brigadier riding at its head perceived that the map was misleading, and on enquiry, the Kaffir guide pointed up the loop, and stated, through the interpreter, that it was in that direction that the ford lay. Almost simultaneously a Boer gun opened on the column from the underfeature below Grobelaar Mountain, and its shell, passing over the whole depth of the brigade, burst behind the rear battalion. A second shell, passing over the heads of the Dublin Fusiliers, fell in front of the Connaught Rangers. A third almost immediately followed and knocked over nine men of that battalion. These, the first shots from the Boer side, were fired by their artillery, in disobedience to the orders of Louis Botha, who had not given the signal, and hoped to entice the attack to closer range. The time was now a little after 6 a.m. The Dublin Fusiliers immediately front-formed and extended to the right; the battalions in rear were deployed to the left in single rank in quick time, and were subsequently opened out with from two to three paces interval, the enemy meanwhile continuing to shell them with shrapnel. The ground on the far side of the river presented a formidable appearance to these troops while deploying. It rose rapidly from the left bank to a line of hills, which, towards their crest, seemed steep, rugged, and inaccessible. After Hart had deployed, his brigade moved on the same point by rushes, the right half-battalions being directed on the gorge of the loop, while the left half-battalions overlapped this gorge, and were cramped by the bank on their western flank. As the brigade came near the river it was subjected to a very heavy fire from the long Boer trench to the north, occupied by the Standerton commando. The battalions were also enfiladed from trenches on the right and left. At the time it was only possible to guess from the course of the bullets where these shelter trenches were. The left half-battalions temporarily obtained a certain amount of cover from the bank of the river. The right half-battalions, when a little further on, gained for the moment some shelter from a long, narrow underfeature, towards the centre of the loop. With the exception of the 1st Border regiment, which was on the extreme left, the units rapidly intermingled. This mixture of commands was soon increased when the left half-battalions of the Dublin Fusiliers and Connaught Rangers, followed by two companies of the Border regiment, came up. They had been ordered to cross the donga, near 2 on map No. 15, and move eastward in succession in support of those in front. The passage to the flank in file of these half-battalions was carried out under a severe and accurate cross musketry fire, while the Boer guns continued to make excellent practice with shrapnel on the extended British lines.
[Footnote 229: It is noteworthy that Major-General Hart is emphatic in asserting that "he did not cross the Doornkop Spruit." It will be understood from the explanation given in the text that he did not cross what was marked for him on the map as the spruit. The map was wrong. He crossed the spruit shown as "Doornkop Spruit" on map 15.]
[Sidenote: The guide disappears.]
As the Kaffir guide had disappeared, the actual position of the ford was unknown. Major C. R. R. McGrigor, King's Royal Rifle Corps, General Hart's brigade-major, had ridden up the river in search of the Bridle Drift, and, finding a spot where there appeared to be a ford, entered the river on foot, but was soon out of his depth, and was compelled to swim back to the right bank.
[Sidenote: Hart's brigade struggles forward up the loop.]
Meanwhile parties of the Connaught Rangers, the Dublin, and Inniskilling, Fusiliers, had worked their way up the loop by a series of rushes in extended order at about three to four paces interval, suffering heavy loss. Each group followed the nearest officer, irrespective of his corps, of its own volition, and worked forward, as it were, automatically, the rushes, however, varying in length, sometimes carrying the men through the group in front, sometimes not reaching it. There was very little shooting, as nothing could be seen to aim at. The enemy's fire was too heavy to allow of any combined command of the movement. Nevertheless, there was little or no confusion, and the advance continued with the steady progress of an incoming tide. Eventually a detachment of the Dublin Fusiliers, under Lieut. T. B. Ely, and Major M. G. Moore's company of the Connaught, mingled with men of other regiments, reached the kraal, about two hundred yards from the head of the loop; others of the Inniskilling, and Dublin, Fusiliers and of the Connaught Rangers pushed on to the river bank; there these handfuls of men remained for several hours, little more than one hundred yards from the Boer trenches on the far bank, but in face of the storm of bullets it was impossible to cross the river, nor were either officers or men aware that they were near a ford. The rest of the brigade, except the left half-battalion of the Inniskilling Fusiliers and one or two companies of the Border regiment who lined the river bank west of the loop, were on, or in rear of, the knoll, the cohesion of units being now almost entirely lost. The artillery and rifle fire, concentrated on the British troops from the far bank, was too continuous and accurate to permit of any further advance being attempted for the moment. The shrapnel of the two field guns, posted in emplacements on the lower ridge to the north-west, was particularly effective, and the Boer riflemen did not disclose whence their deadly shots came. Volleys were fired from time to time by the British infantry, but comparatively little ammunition was expended. Yet, notwithstanding these trying conditions, the men clung on steadfastly, each group being well under the control of the officer nearest to them, whether of their own corps or of another. Meantime, Parsons' batteries, the 64th and 73rd, had come into action on the right bank of the Doornkop Spruit, and were busily engaged in shelling a kraal immediately in front of the loop, and in endeavouring to silence the Boer guns. These somewhat outranged the Field artillery, and an attempt to cross over the spruit so as to come into closer action on its left bank was for the moment frustrated by a Boer shell bursting on the team of the leading gun, killing two horses, upsetting the gun, and thereby blocking the ford of this stream. On this the two batteries re-opened fire from the right bank of the spruit.
[Footnote 230: In consequence of the heavy losses suffered by the commissioned ranks in previous actions all the +infantry+ officers had been ordered to discard their swords, and for the most part carried a rifle and men's equipment.]
[Sidenote: Sir Redvers recalls Hart.]
Sir Redvers Buller had watched from Naval Gun Hill the original advance of the 5th brigade. As soon as he observed the movement into the loop, he despatched a galloper to order General Hart to halt; the messenger was caught in a bog and failed to reach his destination. A second officer was sent, but was unable to find the Brigadier. Finally, when the brigade had become heavily engaged, Colonel Stopford was instructed by Sir Redvers to direct Major-General Hart to retreat, and to inform him that his retirement would be covered by artillery fire. Major Cooper, A.D.C. to General Clery, conveyed orders to Lieut.-Colonel Parsons to move his guns across the spruit and divert the fire from Hart's brigade during the withdrawal. Subsequently, fearing a flank counter-attack on the left, General Buller directed Major-General Lyttelton to support the 5th brigade with two battalions of the 4th.
[Sidenote: Barton's (6th) brigade marches.]
[Sidenote: Col. Long's guns move off with Barton, then diverge.]
Major-General Barton at 4 a.m. had moved off with the 6th brigade on the east side of the railway in the following order: the 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers, with six companies in line, each company having a sub-section in its front, and two companies in support; the half-battalion of the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers in echelon of companies on the left flank, the 2nd Royal Fusiliers in echelon of companies on the right flank, and the half-battalion 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers in rear, at a distance of 1,500 yards from the leading battalion. The direction of the brigade's advance was to the north-east, towards Hlangwhane Hill, in conformity with the operation orders of the previous evening.
[Footnote 231: The other half-battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, under command of Lieut.-Col. J. Reeves, was on baggage guard. Headquarters and four companies of the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers were at Frere.]
Colonel Long's guns accompanied the brigade for some distance, the field batteries leading, with the Naval guns, dragged by spans of oxen, in rear. After a time, however, the respective directions assigned by Sir R. Buller to the guns and the infantry brigade were found to diverge, and General Barton accordingly detailed two companies of the Royal Scots Fusiliers to continue with the guns as escort. At 5.30 a.m. the Brigadier halted his command, his leading battalion being then about two miles from the river.
[Sidenote: Col. Long's mission.]
The specific task assigned to No. 1 brigade division by the operation orders was, "to proceed to a point from which it can prepare the crossing for the 2nd brigade." Sir Redvers Buller, at the conference of the previous afternoon, had thought it desirable to supplement and anticipate this written order with verbal instructions as to the exact point at which the batteries should come into action. He had intended to convey to Colonel Long by these verbal instructions that the purposed preparation should be carried out at long range. But the impression left on the subordinate officer's mind, when he left the conference, was that medium range was meant. As he rode therefore with Lieut.-Colonel Hunt and Lieut. Ogilvy, R.N., at the head of the field artillery, now marching in battery column, Long was on the look out for a suitable position at a distance of not less than 2,000 yards and not more than 2,500 yards from Fort Wylie, the southernmost of the kopjes which had been pointed out as the brigade division's targets. Had a site between those limits been selected, the batteries would not have been seriously molested by the Boer riflemen entrenched on the far bank of the river, and could, by superior strength, have crushed the enemy's gunners posted among the Colenso kopjes.
[Sidenote: Long brings his guns into action, after Boer guns open on Hart, i.e., about 6.15 a.m.]
It was not until after 6 a.m. that Long arrived at the distance from the river at which he had intended to come into action. The batteries were still at a walk, with the Naval guns in rear, when suddenly heavy firing was heard on the left flank. It was evident that part of the British force was closely engaged. Anxious to afford immediate effective support, and deceived by the light as to his actual distance from Fort Wylie, Long ordered Hunt's brigade division to push on, and come into action at a point about eighty yards to the north of a broad and shallow donga, which runs at right angles to the railway and was just in front of his guns. Ogilvy's Naval guns were to follow with the infantry escort and to unlimber on the left of the field batteries. The ground scouts of the brigade division had by this time reached the bush, lining the south bank of the river, and had ascertained that this bank was clear of the enemy. A section of the infantry escort had also been sent forward to reconnoitre Colenso. Not a sign had been given by the Boer guns and riflemen concentrated in front of Hunt, on the far side, for the defence of the Colenso crossings. As soon as the batteries approached the spot selected by the artillery commander, it proved to be within 1,250 yards of Fort Wylie, and not much more than 1,000 yards from the Boer infantry entrenchments between that work and the river. Then Louis Botha, fearing that their further advance would intimidate his inexperienced burghers, gave the order to fire. Immediately a storm of bullets and shells burst on the British guns, both field and Naval. The Boers knew the exact range from whitewash marks on the railway fence and adjacent stones; their fire was therefore from the outset accurate. The field batteries, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Hunt, continued to go forward at a steady trot and came into action at the chosen place in an excellent line. The limbers were taken to the rear and wagons were brought up in the ordinary manner.
[Footnote 232: In addition to the field guns on the Colenso kopjes, a heavy gun, north of them, was observed by the Naval officers of Capt. Jones', R.N., battery.]
[Sidenote: The Naval guns also come into action.]
The two leading Naval guns, under Lieutenant James, R.N., had at this moment just crossed the drift of a deep donga, about 400 yards behind Hunt. The central section of the battery was still in the drift, and the rear section on the south side. The leading section, by direction of the battery commander, Lieutenant Ogilvy, moved a little to the left and opened fire against Fort Wylie. The native drivers of the ox-spans of the other four guns had bolted, and the central guns were, for the moment, jammed with their ammunition wagons in the drift, but eventually the oxen were cut loose, and the guns, together with those of the rear section, brought into action on the south side of the donga, whence they also fired on Fort Wylie. During all this delay the enemy's artillery, and in particular a pom-pom, had maintained a well-directed fire on the drift.
[Sidenote: The batteries suffer severely.]
[Sidenote: The arrival of fresh ammunition being delayed, the gun teams are withdrawn to the donga.]
Meanwhile, the personnel of the field batteries in the open, 400 yards in front of Ogilvy's guns, was beginning to suffer from the accurate shrapnel and rifle fire concentrated on them. The escort of "A." and "B." companies of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, under command of Captain D. H. A. Dick, extended on the immediate left of Long's guns up to the railway line; four companies of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, under Major C. R. Rogers, were sent in extended order by General Barton, two companies in advance and two in support, to aid this escort. Of these, one company halted in rear of the Royal Scots Fusiliers companies; one company remained in the donga near Ogilvy's guns, and the other two lay down about 300 yards to the right rear of the field guns. The Royal Scots Fusiliers companies endeavoured to subdue the enemy's riflemen, but unsuccessfully. After a few minutes Colonel Long was very severely wounded. A little later Lieut.-Colonel Hunt was also wounded, and the command devolved on Major A. C. Bailward. Casualties amongst the men, especially in the centre gun detachments, were frequent. Nevertheless, the batteries continued to be served with great efficiency, the guns being worked steadily by sections with accurate elevation and fuse. Notwithstanding the heavy fire of the enemy, the second line ammunition wagons were brought up to the guns, and the empty wagons removed in strict conformity with regulations. The requisition, however, for further supplies for the batteries from the ammunition column three miles in rear was delayed by the death of Captain A. H. Goldie, 14th battery, and by the wounding of Captain F. A. Elton, 66th Battery. Officers and men the while, soldiers and sailors alike, fought their guns with the utmost determination, and with great effect. Fort Wylie became a mass of bursting shell and red dust, and for a time the Boer guns on the kopjes some 500 yards in rear of that work were silenced. The infantry fire of the enemy had been also greatly reduced, but after being in action for an hour the ammunition of the British batteries began to run short, each gun having now fired from 80 to 100 rounds. Major Bailward therefore, after first obtaining Colonel Long's approval, decided to withdraw the gun detachments temporarily into the donga, and keep them under cover, pending the arrival of reinforcements of men and ammunition.
[Footnote 233: The two companies of the Royal Scots Fusiliers subsequently ran short of ammunition, but a further supply was brought up to them under a heavy fire by Sergeant-Major J. Shannon, 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers.]
[Footnote 234: Three burghers of the Krugersdorp commando, who were manning the trenches near the river, stated subsequently that it would have been impossible for them to have maintained "any sort of fire" on the infantry, if these had advanced while the guns were in action.]
[Sidenote: Two messengers sent to Sir Redvers.]
The effective strength of the detachments was by this time reduced to an average of about four men per gun. The remaining men were accordingly formed up and marched quietly to the donga at about 7.15 a.m. All the wounded were placed under cover in small dongas, close to the outer flanks of the batteries, but no attempt was made to disable the guns, as the officer in command only awaited fresh supplies of men and ammunition to open fire again. Captain G. F. Herbert, R.A., Colonel Long's staff officer, and an Australian officer attached to his staff, were instructed to ride at once to Sir Redvers Buller and report the situation and the needs of the batteries.
[Footnote 235: Exclusive of prisoners, the 66th battery's losses throughout the day were 1 officer and 10 men killed, and 2 officers and 30 men wounded; these casualties include those incurred in the attempts to carry away the guns.]
[Sidenote: Sir Redvers receives various reports and leaves Naval Gun Hill.]
Sir Redvers had already felt some anxiety as to Long's guns, as Colonel Stopford had already pointed out to him that they were not in the intended position. An aide-de-camp had been despatched to ascertain their exact situation, and, having observed the guns in action from a distance through field-glasses, that officer had reported that they were "all right and comfortable," but under a certain amount of fire. Sir Redvers' anxiety as to the guns was not relieved, and a little later he left Naval Gun Hill with the intention of seeing himself what was going on. On his way he met the Australian officer, who stated that the batteries, including the Naval guns, were all out of action, their ammunition exhausted, and every officer and man of the gun detachments killed or wounded. Shortly afterwards Captain Herbert rode up, and was understood by General Buller to confirm the previous report, with the exception that he estimated that six rounds per gun were still left. It was not until the following day that the General Commanding knew that men had been all along available to fight the guns. He had already ordered the retirement of Hart's brigade, but, until hearing of this fresh mishap, had still hoped to succeed with his main attack. The operation orders had contemplated that the fire of the whole of the Naval guns and of both brigade divisions of Royal artillery (amounting in all to 44 guns) should be concentrated on the Colenso kopjes, so as to pave the way for an attack upon them. The 2nd brigade division had been diverted to assist Hart's brigade and, conceiving from the reports now made that the 1st brigade division and six of the Naval guns were permanently out of action for the day, Sir Redvers immediately decided that the artillery left to him was insufficient and that "without guns it would be impossible to force the passage of the river." He determined, before falling back, to make an effort to save Long's guns from what seemed to him their desperate position.
[Footnote 236: See despatch to Secretary of State, dated 17th December, 1899.]
[Sidenote: He decides to withdraw from the attack. 8 a.m.]
[Sidenote: The distribution of the troops at 8 a.m.]
He came to this decision, which marks the crucial point of the action, a little before 8 a.m. Hart's brigade was at that moment slowly beginning to carry out the order to retire from the western loop of the river. Barton's brigade, save the two companies Royal Scots Fusiliers and the half-battalion Irish Fusiliers, which had been pushed forward to support Long's guns, had not been engaged, although, to meet any advance of the enemy from the bush near the river on the right front, the Brigadier had moved the Royal Welsh Fusiliers some 1,000 yards beyond the point where they had first halted. Neither the 2nd nor the 4th brigade had yet fired a shot. The former had been halted by Major-General Hildyard a little in front of Naval Gun Hill, with its right on the railway and its left near some kraals, awaiting the completion of the artillery preparation. Two battalions of the 4th brigade, the 2nd Scottish Rifles and the 3rd King's Royal Rifles, were lying close beside Hildyard's brigade, in rear of Captain Jones' Naval artillery. Two other battalions, 1st Rifle Brigade and 1st Durham Light Infantry, were moving in accordance with Sir R. Buller's orders to the left flank to cover the withdrawal of the 5th brigade; one company, however, of the latter battalion had been left with the Naval guns. The mounted brigade, whose proceedings will be narrated later, was advancing against Hlangwhane Hill, but no report of their progress had yet reached Sir Redvers Buller.
[Footnote 237: The positions of the troops at this period of the action are given in detail on map No. 15.]
[Sidenote: Hildyard moves 2nd brigade forward.]
[Sidenote: He occupies Colenso, and joins hands with Barton.]
He himself now considered it advisable to go in person to the critical point, and ascertain by his own inspection the true facts about the guns. On his way to the front, he informed Major-General Hildyard that the attack, as originally planned, was to be given up, and instructed him to advance two of his battalions to cover the extrication of the guns, taking care not to get involved in any engagement with the enemy that could be avoided. The G.O.C., 2nd brigade, had already extended his two leading battalions, the 2nd Queen's and 2nd Devon, for the attack on the bridge, as first ordered. Both these battalions being to the west of the railway, Hildyard directed the 2nd Devon to pass through the Queen's and cross over to the east side of the line. The two battalions then advanced, the 2nd Queen's on Colenso and the Devon on Long's guns, the formation adopted being columns of half companies at from fifty to eighty paces distance, the half companies being deployed in single rank, with six to eight paces interval. The 2nd East Surrey formed a second line in rear; the 2nd West Yorkshire was in third line. In this formation, the 2nd brigade moved forward across the open plain under a heavy fire, experiencing but slight loss. By 9.30 a.m. five companies of the Queen's, under the command of Major W. S. Burrell, had occupied the village of Colenso. About two sections of "C." and "G." companies of the Devon, accompanied by their battalion commander, Lieut.-Colonel G. M. Bullock, had reached the donga immediately in rear of Long's guns, the rest of that battalion being echeloned in the open, further back as a support. A little later "E." and "F." companies crossed the railway, and seized some farm buildings, close to the road near the village. Part of these were already occupied by the 2nd Queen's. Between Bullock's two foremost Devon sections and Burrell's five companies lay the companies of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, which formed the original escort to the guns, and behind them, in support, were those two other companies of R. S. Fusiliers which had been despatched by General Barton, when he observed that an attempt was being made to withdraw the field guns. To the right, and on the left rear of Bullock, four companies of Irish Fusiliers were still extended. At this time, therefore, nearly ten companies of infantry were in the firing line. Three companies of the Queen's, about seven of the Devon, two of the Irish, and two of the Scotch Fusiliers were in immediate support, and the remainder of the 2nd and 6th brigades and a battalion of the 4th brigade (the King's Royal Rifles) were near at hand in rear. During this period of the fight, Lieutenant R. E. Meyricke, Royal Engineers, of his own initiative, worked down the spruit above the Bulwer bridge to the river, and thence along its bank to the bridge, which he tested under heavy fire, and found not to be mined.
[Sidenote: Sir Redvers, in zone of fire, orders Naval guns to retire.]
After giving his orders to General Hildyard's brigade, Sir Redvers rode forward with Lieut.-General Clery and his staff into the zone of fire, Captain M. E. Hughes, R.A.M.C., being killed, and Sir Redvers himself hit by a shrapnel bullet. On reaching that donga, where Lieutenant Ogilvy's Naval guns were still in action, General Buller ordered their retirement. Two of these guns, whose oxen had been kept at hand, went off to join the main Naval battery under Captain Jones. The remaining four were withdrawn out of range one by one with the help of artillery horses, and were eventually brought back to camp by fresh spans of oxen. This withdrawal was covered by "C." squadron of the 13th Hussars. The casualties among Ogilvy's party during the day only amounted to three men wounded, and twenty-eight oxen killed, wounded or lost.
[Sidenote: He stops despatch of ammunition to Long's guns.]
The field guns were still in the open, beyond the further donga, under cover of which the surviving officers and men of the brigade division were lying, hoping for ammunition to enable them to resume the action. Major W. Babtie, R.A.M.C., who had volunteered to go forward to the gun line, was attending to the wounded. Captain Herbert, on his return, after his interview with the General Commanding-in-Chief, had again been despatched to the rear by Colonel Long to seek for ammunition. At his request Major W. Apsley Smith, commanding No. 1 ammunition column, ordered forward nine wagons, and to cover their advance Captain Jones, R.N., concentrated the fire of his Naval guns on Fort Wylie, but the wagons were stopped on their way by General Buller.
[Sidenote: Gallant attempts to rescue guns.]
Sir Redvers, by the time he arrived at the Naval donga, had decided that it was impracticable to re-man the guns of the field batteries. Since the batteries ceased fire, Fort Wylie had been re-occupied by the enemy, and the fire therefrom, and from the neighbouring trenches, was so heavy that he considered that it was impossible that troops could live in the open by the guns. He sanctioned a series of gallant attempts being made by volunteers to withdraw them. Limber teams were collected for this purpose, in the rear donga. The first of these attempts was made by Captains Schofield and Congreve, both serving on Sir Redvers' staff, Lieut. the Hon. F. H. S. Roberts (who was acting as an extra A.D.C. to General Clery, until he could join Sir George White's staff), Corporal Nurse and others, gathered from the drivers of the 66th battery. Two guns were limbered up and brought back to the rear donga under a very severe fire, but Lieutenant Roberts fell mortally wounded, and was carried into some shelter on the left flank by Major Babtie, R.A.M.C., Major W. G. Forster, R.F.A., and Captain Congreve. One of the limbers which had been brought for the guns had been reduced to a standstill by the enemy's fire. Lieutenants C. B. Schreiber and J. B. Grylls, both of the 66th battery, accompanied by Bombardier Knight and two gunners, thereupon made a valiant endeavour to assist the endangered drivers. Schreiber was shot dead, and Grylls severely wounded, but the bombardier and gunners succeeded in bringing back two wounded men.
[Sidenote: The last effort.]
Later in the morning a final effort was made by Captain H. L. Reed, of the 7th Field battery, who, with three wagon-teams, came across from the eastern flank, but before the teams could reach the guns, Captain Reed was wounded and his horse killed. Of his thirteen men, one was killed and five wounded, while twelve of their horses were shot. After this failure Sir Redvers refused to allow any more volunteering to withdraw the guns. Captain Reed, by General Buller's direction, and with the assistance of Major F. C. Cooper, A.D.C., withdrew from the rear donga the unwounded drivers and horses of No. 1 brigade division, and took them back to the wagons of the 7th Field battery. No order to retire appears to have been sent to the artillery officers and men in the front donga. A written message--"I am ordered to retire; fear that you cannot get away"--was sent by Lieut.-Col. E. O. F. Hamilton, commanding 2nd Queen's, to the donga, addressed to "O.C.R.A., or any other officer," but it did not reach an officer's hands.
[Footnote 238: For conspicuous gallantry displayed in the attempt to carry away the guns, the following were awarded the Victoria Cross: Captain W. N. Congreve, Rifle Brigade; Captain H. L. Reed, 7th battery R.F.A.; Captain H. N. Schofield, R.F.A.; Lieutenant the Hon. F. H. S. Roberts, King's Royal Rifle Corps (posthumous); Corporal G. E. Nurse, 66th battery R.F.A.; and Private C. Ravenhill, Royal Scots Fusiliers. For devotion to the wounded under very heavy fire, Major W. Babtie, C.M.G., Royal Army Medical Corps, also received the Victoria Cross.]
[Sidenote: The mounted brigade.]
Whilst the fortunes of the day had thus been proving unfavourable to the main attack, the mounted brigade had been endeavouring to carry out its part in the programme. The 7th battery R.F.A., according to orders, reported before daylight to Lord Dundonald. Lord Dundonald detached the Royal Dragoons to watch the left flank of the general advance, detailed Bethune's M.I. to act as baggage guard, and moved off from his rendezvous on the west side of the railway at 4 a.m. Crossing the line at the platelayer's cottage about 4.30 a.m., he advanced on Hlangwhane, employing the Composite regiment to reconnoitre to the front and flanks.
[Footnote 239: This regiment was made up of one squadron Natal Carbineers, a detachment of Natal Police, one squadron Imperial Light Horse, and one mounted company formed from 2nd King's Royal Rifles and Dublin Fusiliers; Major R. L. Walter, 7th Hussars, was on that day in command.]
[Sidenote: The mission of the mounted brigade.]
The Commanding Officers were informed by the Brigadier that their mission was "to prevent the enemy working round on the right, to occupy Hlangwhane Mountain if possible, and to assist the main attack on Colenso by a flank fire." A little before 7 a.m., when the main body of the brigade was still about two miles from Hlangwhane, the scouts reported that the hill was held by the enemy. The 7th battery, commanded by Major C. G. Henshaw, had already come into action, at about 6 a.m., close to the right battalion of the 6th brigade, the Royal Fusiliers, on an underfeature to the north of Advance Hill, about 3,000 yards from Hlangwhane. The targets selected for the battery were at first Fort Wylie and the other Colenso kopjes, the range of the former being about 3,100 yards; but when Hlangwhane was found to be occupied by the enemy, the fire of the right section, and later on of another section, was directed on its south-western slopes at a range of from 2,400 to 2,600 yards.
[Sidenote: It tries to capture Hlangwhane but finds Boers in full possession.]
Meanwhile, the Brigadier had despatched the South African Light Horse, under Lt.-Colonel the Hon. Julian Byng, to demonstrate against the southern slope of the hill, and had directed Thorneycroft's and the Composite regiment to work round by the Gomba Spruit, and to endeavour to push through the dense thorn-bush up the eastern face. The 13th Hussars were held in reserve close to Advance Hill. Deducting the horse-holders, the force thus launched for the attack of Hlangwhane was somewhat less in strength than the commando defending it; the Boers were holding entrenched and well-concealed positions on the lower southern slopes of the hill, with their left flank prolonged for a considerable distance to the eastward. Lieut.-Colonel Thorneycroft's men gained ground to the north-east for about a mile, under cover of the spruit, and then moved through the bush northwards until they came in contact with the enemy at a distance of about 300 yards from the base of the hill. The two leading companies of Thorneycroft's corps still tried to push on, but they were stopped by finding that they were outflanked by Boers occupying the ridge to the eastward. The advance of the South African Light Horse against the southern spur of the hill was also checked. It was now about 7.40 a.m.
[Sidenote: Dundonald asks for infantry support, but does not get it.]
On receiving Lieut.-Colonel Thorneycroft's report that he could make no further progress, and that the enemy was outflanking him, Lord Dundonald sent "A." squadron of the 13th Hussars towards Green Hill to strengthen his right flank, and asked Major-General Barton to support his attack on Hlangwhane with some infantry. General Barton was unable to comply with this request. The Royal Fusiliers were at this moment his last reserve, and having regard to his instructions, the G.O.C., 6th brigade, did not feel justified, without the specific sanction of General Buller, in committing this battalion to what appeared to him a doubtful enterprise on intricate ground.
[Sidenote: Sir Redvers decides that Hlangwhane would be useless without Colenso.]
[Sidenote: The decision 11 a.m. to abandon the guns and return to camp.]
On receipt of this reply, Lord Dundonald directed his troops to hold on to the positions they were occupying, and reported the situation to the General Commanding-in-Chief, who now (about 10 a.m.) had left the donga and ridden over to the mission station at the cross roads between Advance Hill and Hussar Hill. There he received Lord Dundonald's and General Barton's reports; the former was of the opinion that, with the help of one or two battalions, he could carry Hlangwhane, while the latter considered that his whole brigade, including the eight companies now in the firing line by Long's guns, would be needed if the hill was to be taken. Sir Redvers decided that the occupation of Hlangwhane would be useless unless he had first forced the passage of the Tugela at Colenso, and of this he had already relinquished all hope. He therefore ordered the Commander of the mounted brigade to keep his men well in hand, and not to allow them to become too closely engaged in the bush. As regards the 6th brigade, General Buller considered the Royal Fusiliers already too far forward on the right flank, and ordered that the battalion should be drawn in. Five companies of the battalion were accordingly moved to the south; the other three companies remained with the commanding officer, Lt.-Colonel C. G. Donald, in support of Thorneycroft, and were advanced to a point half a mile in front of the position of the 7th battery. General Buller now went back to the donga, and thence watched Captain Reed's effort to save Long's guns. After its failure, Sir Redvers, sending away his staff and escort, rode personally through part of the extended battalions of the 2nd brigade, and formed the opinion that the men were too exhausted with the extreme heat to be kept out all day, with the probability at nightfall of a severe fight at close quarters for the guns. He therefore decided to abandon the guns, and to withdraw the whole of his force forthwith to camp. The decision was given about 11 a.m.
[Sidenote: Parsons and Lyttelton successfully cover the retreat of Hart's brigade.]
The retirement of the 5th brigade, which had been ordered more than three hours earlier, was now approaching completion. Lieut.-Colonel Parsons had succeeded in moving the 64th and 73rd Field batteries across the Doornkop Spruit, somewhat higher up than the place of his first attempt; to afford the infantry better support, he advanced to a low ridge near a kraal, as close in rear of the left of the brigade as would permit of sufficient command to fire over them. Thence, at a range of 2,800 yards, the batteries searched with shell the kopjes on the north bank of the Tugela, and, assisted by the fire of Captain Jones' Naval guns, silenced the two Boer guns near the Ladysmith road, using for this purpose shrapnel with percussion fuse. Parsons' batteries were at this time only 1,200 yards from the river, and came under the rifle fire of the enemy. Their casualties were but slight. The 1st Rifle Brigade and the 1st Durham Light Infantry, which, under the personal command of Major-General Lyttelton, had gone to assist in covering Hart's retreat, had reached the Doornkop Spruit. The 1st Rifle Brigade and four companies of the Durham Light Infantry crossed it and opened out to six or eight paces interval on the far side, four companies of the Rifle Brigade and two of the Durham forming a firing line at a distance of about 500 yards from the river. The three remaining companies of the Durham Light Infantry lined the spruit.
[Footnote 240: See p. 357.]
[Sidenote: The retreat down the loop.]
The order to retire appears to have reached some of the units of the 5th brigade as early as 7.30 a.m., but under the heavy fire which still continued, the transmission of orders up the long salient of the loop was difficult, and the foremost detachments of the intermingled battalions did not begin to fall back until nearly 10.30 a.m. One or two small bodies of officers and men, who had reached the bank at the farthest end, never received the order, and were so absorbed in their duel across the Tugela that, failing to observe the withdrawal of their comrades until too late, they were eventually cut off and taken prisoners. The rest of the brigade retired slowly in small groups, the 1st Border regiment covering the movement. Thanks to the artillery fire of No. 2 brigade division and the presence of the two battalions of the 4th brigade, the Boers made no attempt at direct pursuit, and many of the British rank and file thought that they were engaged in a counter-march to bring them to another crossing, which their comrades had already found. Others, especially the Irish soldiers, were with difficulty induced to turn their backs on the enemy. Gradually the whole brigade, except the unlucky parties already mentioned, passed through the files of the Riflemen and Durham Light Infantry, and formed up out of range. The battalions were then marched back to camp. The men were in the best of spirits and eager for battle.
[Sidenote: Botha orders right wing to cross river and attack Hart's brigade. They do not obey.]
Louis Botha had directed that the Middelburg and Winburg commandos, who had been posted to the west of the salient loop, and had hardly fired a shot all day, should cross higher up and attack the flank of the Irish brigade as it fell back. The Free Staters, who at this period of the war were inclined to resent the control of a Transvaal Commandant, declined to take part in the enterprise. But as, irrespective of the Irish brigade, a cavalry regiment, two batteries, and two fresh battalions were available to repel any counter-attack, it was perhaps fortunate for the Boer Commandant-General that his orders were disregarded. A few Boers did actually pass the river, and were seen working round Parsons' left flank, just as Hart's rear companies came level with the guns. The work of the artillery as a covering force was then finished, and Colonel Parsons recrossed the spruit, moved somewhat to the eastward, and then again came into action for a short time. Colonel Parsons subsequently moved his brigade division further to the eastward, near Captain Jones' Naval guns and remained with them to the end of the day, till ordered by Sir Redvers Buller to return to camp. The gun of the 73rd battery, upset in Doornkop Spruit at the commencement of the attack, was retrieved by Captain H. S. White, of that battery, during the afternoon and brought back in safety.
[Sidenote: Burrell asks leave to hold Colenso and recover the guns, but the order to retire is general.]
The G.O.C. the 2nd brigade at 10 a.m. had sent written orders to his two leading battalions that they were to retreat on the Naval guns, as soon as the Field artillery had been withdrawn. Sir Redvers' order that the guns were to be abandoned, and that the force was to return to the camp of the previous night, was received by Major-General Hildyard at 11.10 a.m., and was immediately sent by him to Lieut.-Colonel Hamilton, commanding the 2nd Queen's, with instructions to pass it to Colonel Bullock, commanding the 2nd Devon on his right. Major Burrell had previously asked to be allowed to hold Colenso until nightfall, in the hope of bringing away the guns; but in face of this definite order to retire, the O.C. the 2nd Queen's felt unable to sanction his request. The same difficulty in sending such messages under modern quick-fire, which had made itself felt on the left flank, again arose. Colonel Hamilton passed the order to the officer commanding the rear half-battalion of the Devon, who received it about 12.30 p.m. and sent it on to the front companies, but it failed to reach Colonel Bullock, who, with two sections of his battalion, the remnant of the Royal Scots Fusilier companies, and the survivors of No. 1 brigade division, was still in the donga, behind the ten guns remaining in the open.
[Sidenote: The fate of those in the donga.]
[Sidenote: Hildyard's (2nd) brigade, 3.30 p.m., reaches camp except Major Pearse's half-battalion which arrives 4 p.m.]
The remainder of the Devon conformed to the movement on their left. Of the infantry scattered in the donga, the curves of which hid one small party in it from another, some saw what was going on and also fell back. The retirement was carried out with coolness and precision under cover of the 2nd East Surrey, who were holding a shelter trench on the west and a donga on the east of the railway. The officers and men of the Queen's and Devon doubled back in small groups through their files. By 2.30 p.m. the 2nd brigade, except a half-battalion of the East Surrey, was beyond the range of the enemy's guns, and by 3.30 p.m. had reached camp. This half-battalion of the East Surrey, under command of Major H. W. Pearse, remained for more than an hour in position near the platelayer's hut, hoping to cover the withdrawal of the detachments near the guns. Finally, finding that no more men fell back, and that his command was becoming isolated, Major Pearse also marched back to camp.
[Sidenote: Gen. Lyttelton's (4th) brigade falls back, covering the rear.]
Of General Lyttelton's battalions, the 1st Rifle Brigade and the Durham Light Infantry had already been drawn in from the left flank after the completion of the duty of covering Hart's brigade. The foremost of the two remaining battalions was the 3rd King's Royal Rifles. This unit, about 8.30 a.m., had advanced and extended some 800 yards in rear of Long's guns. When the general retreat was ordered, the senior officer with the battalion, Major R. C. A. B. Bewicke-Copley, was told to furnish the outposts. He therefore held his ground. Each half company occupied a suitable knoll, with its supporting half company in rear; the left of the battalion rested on the railway. At 2 p.m. he was directed to fall further back. On this Major Bewicke-Copley twice submitted a request to Lieut.-Colonel R. G. Buchanan-Riddell that he might be allowed to stay where he was, with a view to saving the guns, when dusk came. He was informed that Sir Francis Clery had issued definite instructions that the battalion must place all of the outposts further back and more to the west. The battalion accordingly retired by companies to a line in the immediate front of the camp. The Scottish Rifles on the left had covered the retirement of the 2nd brigade, and as soon as the last battalion had passed through its extended files, it also withdrew to camp.
[Footnote 241: Lieut.-Colonel Buchanan-Riddell was the commanding officer of the 3rd K.R.R., but on the movement of General Lyttelton to the western flank he had assumed command of the battalions left in the centre (Scottish Rifles and King's Royal Rifles).]
[Sidenote: Captain Jones' guns withdraw from Naval Gun Hill, 2.30 p.m.]
The Naval guns under Captain Jones received the order to retire at 12.40 p.m., but as they had to send back to Shooter's Hill for their oxen, it was not until nearly 2.30 p.m. that the last gun limbered up and moved off. The central Naval battery had during the day fired 160 rounds of 4·7-in. and 600 rounds of 12-pounder ammunition. Lieutenant Ogilvy's six guns expended about 50 rounds per gun.
[Sidenote: Mounted brigade retreats, fighting.]
The order to retreat reached the officer commanding the mounted troops about noon. The brigade was still hotly engaged with the enemy, and its gradual disentanglement took nearly three hours. Colonel Thorneycroft was told by Lord Dundonald to fall back slowly along the Gomba Spruit, protecting the flank of the South African Light Horse. His retreat, which was covered by the 13th Hussars and three companies of the Royal Fusiliers, was a good deal harassed by the enemy, who crept up through the bush on the east and on the north. The well-directed fire of the 7th battery checked this attempt at pursuit. Eventually, Lord Dundonald succeeded in extricating his whole force safely, except a small section of two officers and sixteen men of the South African Light Horse, who were taken prisoners. The Royal Dragoons had been recalled from the left flank by Sir Redvers Buller at noon, and were employed in conjunction with Bethune's mounted infantry in screening the retreat of the centre.
[Sidenote: Barton's brigade reaches camp, 3.30 p.m.]
Major-General Barton began to draw back his brigade about noon, and arrived with it in camp about 3.30 p.m. His order failed to reach the detachment of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the survivors of which, some 38 men in all, had about noon been placed under cover in the donga behind Long's guns. After five and a half hours fighting in the open, their ammunition, except the rounds in their magazines had been expended.
[Sidenote: Boers hesitate to take guns till Naval guns are withdrawn.]
[Sidenote: Mounted brigade sees capture, but cannot fire because of ambulances.]
[Sidenote: Mounted brigade reaches camp 4.30 p.m.]
But though the guns now stood unprotected on the open veld, save for the handful of gunners, Devon, and Scots Fusiliers left in the donga in rear, the Boers feared a trap, and could not at first realise their good fortune. A telegram despatched at 12.40 p.m., by Botha to Pretoria had reported that "we cannot go and fetch the guns, as the enemy command the bridge with their artillery." When the Naval battery had been withdrawn the burghers ventured across the river and made prisoners of the party in the donga, Colonel Bullock making a sturdy resistance to the last. Then the guns, with their ammunition wagons, were limbered up and taken leisurely over the river as the prizes of the fight. Lord Dundonald's brigade on its way back to camp had made a detour northward to help in stragglers, and, approaching to within 2,600 yards of Long's guns, had observed the Boers swarming round them. The 7th battery unlimbered and was about to open, when British ambulances approached the donga, and men in khaki were seen intermingled with the Boers. Under these circumstances it was judged impossible to fire, and the mounted brigade withdrew to camp, arriving there about 4.30 p.m. The 7th, Henshaw's, battery had expended 532 rounds in all.
The total casualties on the British side throughout were 74 officers and 1,065 men; of these seven officers and 136 men were killed; 47 officers and 709 men were wounded, and 20 officers and 220 men returned as prisoners or missing. The Boer losses were six killed, one drowned, and 22 wounded, the relative smallness of these figures being largely due to their admirable system of entrenchment and to the invisibility of smokeless powder.
[Footnote 242: For detailed casualties, see Appendix 6.]
[Sidenote: Two views of the course of the day.]
The British Commander's plan for the passage of the Tugela was undoubtedly so hazardous that only the most exact sequence of the phases of its execution, as conceived by Sir R. Buller, could have brought it to a successful issue. Imperfect knowledge of the topographical conditions of the problem, and of the dispositions of the enemy, combined with misapprehension of orders, sufficed to wreck it at the outset.
[Footnote 243: This is Sir Redvers' own view. On the other hand Botha, after the war, said that the loss of the guns and the mistakes as to Hart's brigade deprived him of the opportunity of inflicting a ruinous defeat upon the British army. He had hoped to induce his assailants to cross the river without a shot being fired.]
[Sidenote: Good points in a day of misfortune.]
The gallant conduct and bearing of the regimental officers and men were conspicuous through this day of ill-fortune. The reservists, who formed from 40 to 50 per cent. of the men of the infantry battalions, displayed a battle-discipline which supported that of their younger comrades, while the newly-raised colonial corps gave a foretaste of the valuable services which such units were destined to render throughout the war.
[Sidenote: The heavy Naval guns and telescopes.]
The influence of the telescopes and long-ranging heavy guns of the navy has been noticed in the course of the narrative; but the subject is an important one and it was not only at Colenso that this influence was felt. It will be more convenient to deal with the general question when other instances of the same kind have been recorded.