The British artillery was a powerful force in the field, underused by commanders with little training in the use of modern guns in battle. Pakenham cites Pieters as being the battle at which a British commander, surprisingly Buller, developed a modern form of battlefield tactics: heavy artillery bombardments co-ordinated to permit the infantry to advance under their protection. It was the only occasion that Buller showed any real generalship and the short inspiration quickly died.
Boer artillery on the hills overlooking the Tugela River and the battlefield of Colenso
The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15 pounder guns; the Royal Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the Royal Garrison Artillery batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal Navy provided heavy field artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible.
Automatic weapons were used by the British usually mounted on special carriages accompanying the cavalry.
Winner: The Boers.
6th Dragoon Guards, the Carabineers: now the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
The Royal Dragoons: now the Blues and Royals.
13th Hussars: from 1922 the 13th/18th Royal Hussars and now the Light Dragoons.
Royal Field Artillery: 7th, 14th, 64th, 66th and 73rd Batteries.
Royal Navy with six 12 pounder guns.
The 5th Irish Brigade (Major General Hart)
2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers: disbanded in 1922.
1st Inniskilling Fusiliers: disbanded in 1922.
1st Connaught Rangers: disbanded in 1922.
1st Border Regiment: now the King’s Royal Border Regiment.
The 2nd Brigade (Major General Hildyard)
2nd Queen’s West Surrey Regiment: now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.
2nd West Yorkshire Regiment: now the Prince of Wales’s Own Regiment of Yorkshire.
2nd Devonshire Regiment: now the Devon and Dorset Regiment.
East Surrey Regiment: now the Prince of Wales’s Royal Regiment.
The 4th Brigade (Major General Littleton)
3rd King’s Royal Rifles: now the Royal Green Jackets.
2nd Scottish Rifles: disbanded in 1966.
1st Durham Light Infantry: now the Light Infantry.
2nd Somersetshire Light Infantry: now the Light Infantry.
The 6th Brigade (Major General Barton)
1st Royal Welch Fusiliers:
2nd Royal Fusiliers: now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers: now the Royal Highland Fusiliers.
1st Gordon Highlanders: now the Highlanders.
Durban Light Infantry:
The Mounted Brigade (the Earl of Dundonald)
Imperial Light Horse:
The Mounted Infantry:
British troops at the Battle of Colenso
As General Sir Redvers Buller arrived in the Cape Colony on 30th October 1889 to take up the appointment of Commander-in-Chief in South Africa, the Boers were marching into Natal in the North East and across the North West frontier to lay siege to Mafeking in the far North and the important diamond mining town of Kimberley some 20 miles beyond the Orange River on the border of the Free State. South Africa was in uproar. Sir Alfred Milner, the High Commissioner, feared that the Boer population in the colony would rebel in sympathy with their compatriots from the two independent Boer republics.
Buller split his newly arrived Army Corps, the largest army Britain had sent overseas since the Crimean War, leaving Lieutenant General Lord Methuen with a sizeable contingent to force his way up the northern railway line to Kimberley, while he took four brigades of the Army Corps to Natal to relieve Sir George White in the besieged town of Ladysmith, north of the Tugela River.
Buller understandably felt a sense of grievance. His strong urging had been that the British force in Natal should not stray beyond the Tugela. As an old hand from the Zulu War and other South African expeditions Buller considered he was entitled to be listened to. Nevertheless General Penn Symons, the first commander in chief in the war, had marched into the northern tip of Natal, after the initial successes of Talana and Elandslaagte, his successor General White had been caught and besieged in Ladysmith, a few miles beyond the Tugela. Buller’s obligation was to relieve White’s force and the town of Ladysmith, an absolute priority for the British government.
The problems Buller had warned against had come about: a substantial British force surrounded by the Boers and useless in Ladysmith, with the Boers dug in on the hills between Ladysmith and the Tugela River.
Buller’s problem was to cross the Tugela River, a line the Boers under General Botha had fortified. The point Buller was likely to choose was only too obvious as he would follow the railway line and advance at the point where White might assist with a sortie from Ladysmith.
Buller’s force marched north from its base at Frere to begin the attack on the Boer positions on the Tugela on 15th December 1889.
The mistake constantly repeated by the British in the war was to launch frontal attacks against Boer riflemen in prepared entrenchments armed with modern Mauser magazine rifles.
The British forces lacked the capability to reconnoitre the countryside around their line of advance. In several battle attacks were launched with little idea where they would lead or what obstacles would be encountered. Buller’s attempt to storm the Boer positions beyond the Tugela at the Battle of Colenso was no exception.
The left of the Boer position lay on the south side of the river, on the prominent hill of Hlangwane. From there entrenchments dotted the bank for some miles along the river, the town of Colenso lying in the centre of the position, on the south bank.
To the west of Colenso the river described a loop to the North West before continuing straight. A half mile west of the loop lay Bridle Drift, a river ford. Buller directed the Irish Brigade under Major General Hart to cross the drift and drive the Boers back from the river. On the right Lord Dundonald with the mounted brigade was to take the hill of Hlangwane. Hildyard’s brigade supported by a powerful force of artillery under Colonel Long was to take the town of Colenso in the centre.
The British advance to battle began in the early hours of Friday 15th December 1899. For two days the British guns had bombarded the line of hill crests beyond the river: although, as at Modder River and Magersfontein the Boers had dug in on the flat ground at the base of the hills, so little was achieved other than to warn Botha that a major attack was imminent.
Briefly the Boers abandoned Hlangwane, but Botha rushed his burghers back to their positions on this key feature.
On 15th December 1899 General Hart’s Irish Brigade moved forward to storm across Bridle Drift and begin the assault. As did Wauchope at Magersfontein, Hart insisted on moving his brigade forward in close order. Hart’s African guide indicated that the route was into the river loop. Hart’s staff remonstrated that Bridle Drift lay further west and that the loop was a death trap. Hart chose to follow the guide’s directions. It is clear that the guide was confused and indicating Punt Drift at the head of the loop, not Bridle Drift.
Colenso is a remarkable battle; the British middle ranking command showing an incompetence that is hard to comprehend. On the other hand these senior officers had spent decades fighting ill-armed native armies in battles for which the key qualities had been bravery and aggression with subtlety and caution at a discount. None had experience of fighting a European force entrenched and armed with modern magazine rifles and artillery. These officers did what they had done in their battles against natives.
Again the limited knowledge British
general officers managed to glean of the ground on which they were
required to fight took its toll.
Hart marched his four battalions: three Irish; Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Inniskilling Fusiliers and Connaught Rangers and one English; the Border Regiment; into a storm of fire directed from across the river on three sides of the loop.
Hart prevented any effort to take cover or move the attack out of the loop towards the correct crossing point at Bridle Drift, keeping his dwindling brigade in the loop for the rest of the day. He achieved nothing except heavy losses and a damaging blow to his men’s morale.
In the British centre Major General Hildyard’s brigade was to assault the small town of Colenso, supported by a powerful British artillery commanded by Colonel Charles Long: two batteries of Royal Field Artillery; 14th and 66th Batteries, with twelve 15 pounders; and six Royal Navy 12 pounders.
Colonel Long had in 1898 commanded the artillery at Omdurman, achieving acclaim for taking his guns to the front and bombarding the Mahdi’s dervishes to great effect. Long had already demonstrated his lack of judgment in South Africa by sending the armoured train forward from Chieveley unsupported and into country occupied by the Boers, causing the loss of part of the train, which was derailed by the Boers, and the capture of a party of Durham Light Infantry and the correspondent Winston Churchill.
Long now repeated his Omdurman tactic, taking the guns of his two Royal Field Artillery batteries forward of the infantry advance into the open ground leading to the Tugela, where they were ambushed by a storm of Boer rifle and gun fire from across the river. Long and many of his officers and gunners immediately became casualties; the guns in the open ground under heavy fire. The Royal Navy 12 pounders were further to the rear, largely out of danger.
The strategic aim of pushing across the Tugela and relieving Ladysmith now had to be abandoned for the immediate crisis of retrieving Long’s stranded guns.
The attempt to rescue the guns
As Corporal Nurse of the Royal Field Artillery prepared to take two teams of horses forward to recover some of the guns General Buller invited officers of the staff to assist the gunners in recovering the guns. Major Prince Christian Victor, Queen Victoria’s grandson, Captain Schofield, Captain Congreve and Captain Roberts, Lord Robert’s only son took up the invitation. The four officers with the two teams of horses and limbers galloped over the open ground to the guns under a storm of fire. Christian Victor, Congreve and Roberts were all wounded and brought to the ground. Schofield, Nurse and the gunners hooked up two guns and brought them out.
All further attempts to recover the remaining ten guns failed. The Queen’s and Devons of Hildyard’s brigade, moving forward in open order, reached Colenso itself and took cover, suffering few casualties and showing what might be achieved if suitable field formations were adopted. But the guns were too exposed to reach.
The Death of Lieutenant Freddie Roberts VC, killed trying to recover the guns
Towards the end of the day it became clear that Dundonald could make no headway against the Boer positions on Hlangwane and fell back, leaving the British centre exposed to a Boer flank attack. Buller, ever an officer with a shrewd finger on the pulse of his soldiers, concluded that his infantry were close to collapse. The raging heat of the day and endless exposure to heavy rifle fire and their battlefield inexperience was proving too much. Buller ordered a general withdrawal. Even then Buller and his staff had to root many soldiers out of the positions of safety in which they had gone to ground and make them fall back.
Lieutenant Colonel Bullock and a number of his Devon soldiers were captured in a forward position in Colenso.
Thanks to Hart and Long the battle had been a disaster.
Casualties: British casualties were 1,167 killed, wounded and captured. Boer losses were slight.
Colenso was one of the trio of disasters for the British in South Africa, with Magersfontein and Stormberg, to make up what was called “Black Week”. Following Colenso General Buller was relieved of his position as commander-in-chief in South Africa, replaced by Lord Roberts, and relegated to commanding in Natal. In his desperate attempt to relieve White in Ladysmith Buller moved forward to the next fiasco, Spion Kop.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
• Lieutenant Roberts died of his wounds. His father, Lord Roberts, was overcome by grief at the loss of his only child. On his arrival in South Africa he came near to collapse as he heard from Captain Schofield an account of the battle.
• Victoria Crosses were awarded to Captain Congreve, Lieutenant Roberts, Captain Reed of 7th Battery, Royal Field Artillery who made the second attempt to retrieve the guns and Corporal Nurse, the initiator of the first successful attempt. Thirteen Royal Field Artillery soldiers of the 66th and 7th Batteries were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be:
The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Goodbye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger
The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham
South Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly partisan volumes)
Books solely on the fighting in Natal:
Buller’s Campaign by Julian Symons
Ladysmith by Ruari Chisholm
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