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Chapter 11

BATTLE OF COLENSO


Two serious defeats had within the week been inflicted upon the
British forces in South Africa. Cronje, lurking behind his trenches
and his barbed wire entanglements barred Methuen's road to Kimberley,
while in the northern part of Cape Colony Gatacre's wearied troops had
been defeated and driven by a force which consisted largely of British
subjects. But the public at home steeled their hearts and fixed their
eyes steadily upon Natal. There was their senior General and there
the main body of their troops. As brigade after brigade and battery
after battery touched at Cape Town, and were sent on instantly to
Durban, it was evident that it was in this quarter that the supreme
effort was to be made, and that there the light might at last break.
In club, and dining room, and railway car -- wherever men met and
talked -- the same words might be heard: 'Wait until Buller moves.'
The hopes of a great empire lay in the phrase.

It was upon October 30th that Sir George White had been thrust back
into Ladysmith. On November 2nd telegraphic communication with the
town was interrupted. On November 3rd the railway line was cut. On
November 10th the Boers held Colenso and the line of the Tugela. On
the 14th was the affair of the armoured train. On the 18th the enemy
were near Estcourt. On the 21st they had reached the Mooi River. On
the 23rd Hildyard attacked them at Willow Grange. All these actions
will be treated elsewhere. This last one marks the turn of the tide.
>From then onwards Sir Redvers Ruller was massing his troops at
Chieveley in preparation for a great effort to cross the river and to
relieve Ladysmith, the guns of which, calling from behind the line of
northern hills, told their constant tale of restless attack and
stubborn defence.

But the task was as severe a one as the most fighting General Could
ask for. On the southern side the banks formed a long slope which
could be shaved as with a razor by the rifle fire of the enemy. How
to advance across that broad open zone was indeed a problem. It was
one of many occasions in this war in which one wondered why, if a
bullet-proof shield capable of sheltering a lying man could be
constructed, a trial should not be given to it. Alternate rushes of
companies with a safe rest after each rush would save the troops from
the continued tension of that deadly never ending fire. However, it is
idle to discuss what might have been done to mitigate their trials.
The open ground had to be passed, and then they came to -- not the
enemy, but a broad and deep river, with a single bridge, probably
undermined, and a single ford, which was found not to exist in
practice. Beyond the river was tier after tier of hills, crowned with
stone walls and seamed with trenches, defended by thousands of the
best marksmen in the world, supported by an admirable artillery. If,
in spite of the advance over the open and in spite of the passage of
the river, a ridge could still be carried, it was only to be commanded
by the next; and so, one behind the other, like the billows of the
ocean, a series of hills and hollows rolled northwards to Ladysmith.
All attacks must be in the open. All defence was from under cover.
Add to this, that the young and energetic Louis Botha was in command
of the Boers. It was a desperate task, and yet honour forbade that
the garrison should be left to its fate. The venture must be made.

The most obvious criticism upon the operation is that if the attack
must be made it should not be made under the enemy's conditions. We
seem almost to have gone out of our way to make every obstacle -- the
glacislike approach, the river, the trenches -- as difficult as
possible. Future operations were to prove that it was not so difficult
to deceive Boer vigilance and by rapid movements to cross the
Tugela. A military authority has stated, I know not with what truth,
that there is no instance in history of a determined army being
stopped by the line of a river, and from Wellington at the Douro to
the Russians on the Danube many examples of the ease with which they
may be passed will occur to the reader. But Buller had some
exceptional difficulties with which to contend. He was weak in mounted
troops, and was opposed to an enemy of exceptional mobility who might
attack his flank and rear if he exposed them. He had not that great
preponderance of numbers which came to him later, and which enabled
him to attempt a wide turning movement. One advantage he had, the
possession of a more powerful artillery, but his heaviest guns were
naturally his least mobile, and the more direct his advance the more
effective would his guns be. For these or other reasons he determined
upon a frontal attack on the formidable Boer position, and he moved
out of Chieveley Camp for that purpose at daybreak on Friday, December
15th.

The force which General Buller led into action was the finest which
any British general had handled since the battle of the Alma. Of
infantry he had four strong brigades: the 2nd (Hildyard's) consisting
of the 2nd Devons, the 2nd Queen's or West Surrey, the 2nd West
Yorkshire, and the 2nd East Surrey; the 4th Brigade (Lyttelton's)
comprising the 2nd Cameronians, the 3rd Rifles, the 1st Durhams, and
the 1st Rifle Brigade; the 5th Brigade (Hart's) with the 1st
Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 1st Connaught Rangers, 2nd Dublin
Fusiliers, and the Border Regiment, this last taking the place of the
2nd Irish Rifles, who were with Gatacre. There remained the 6th
Brigade (Barton's), which included the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, the 2nd
Scots Fusiliers, the 1st Welsh Fusiliers, and the 2nd Irish Fusiliers
-- in all about 16,000 infantry. The mounted men, who were commanded
by Lord Dundonald, included the 13th Hussars, the 1st Royals,
Bethune's Mounted Infantry, Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, three
squadrons of South African Horse, with a composite regiment formed
from the mounted infantry of the Rifles and of the Dublin Fusiliers
with squadrons of the Natal Carabineers and the Imperial Light Horse.
These irregular troops of horse might be criticised by martinets and
pedants, but they contained some of the finest fighting material in
the army, some urged on by personal hatred of the Boers and some by
mere lust of adventure. As an example of the latter one squadron of
the South African Horse was composed almost entirely of Texan
muleteers, who, having come over with their animals, had been drawn by
their own gallant spirit into the fighting line of their kinsmen.

Cavalry was General Buller's weakest arm, but his artillery was strong
both in its quality and its number of guns. There were five batteries
(30 guns) of the Field Artillery, the 7th, 14th, 63rd, 64th, and
66th. Besides these there were no fewer than sixteen naval guns from
H.M.S.'Terrible ' -- fourteen of which were 12-pounders, and the other
two of the 4-7 type which had done such good service both at Ladysmith
and with Methuen. The whole force which moved out from Chieveley Camp
numbered about 21,000 men.

The work which was allotted to the army was simple in conception,
however terrible it might prove in execution. There were two points
at which the river might be crossed, one three miles off on the left,
named Bridle Drift, the other straight ahead at the Bridge of
Colenso. The 5th or Irish Brigade was to endeavour to cross at Bridle
Drift, and then to work down the river bank on the far side so as to
support the 2nd or English Brigade, -- which was to cross at Colenso.
The 4th Brigade was to advance between these, so as to help either
which should be in difficulties. Meanwhile on the extreme right the
mounted troops under Dundonald were to cover the flank and to attack
Hlangwane Hill, a formidable position held strongly by the enemy upon
the south bank of the Tugela. The remaining Fusilier brigade of
infantry was to support this movement on the right. The guns were to
cover the various attacks, and if possible gain a position from which
the trenches might be enfiladed. This, simply stated, was the work
which lay before the British army. In the bright clear morning
sunshine, under a cloudless blue sky, they advanced with high hopes to
the assault. Before them lay the long level plain, then the curve of
the river, and beyond, silent and serene, like some peaceful dream
landscape, stretched the lines and lines of gently curving hills. It
was just five o'clock in the morning when the naval guns began to bay,
and huge red dustclouds from the distant foothills showed where the
lyddite was bursting. No answer came back, nor was there any movement
upon the sunlit hills. It was almost brutal, this furious violence to
so gentle and unresponsive a countryside. In no place could the
keenest eye detect a sign of guns or men, and yet death lurked in
every hollow and crouched by every rock.

It is so difficult to make a modern battle intelligible when fought,
as this was, over a front of seven or eight miles, that it is best
perhaps to take the doings of each column in turn, beginning with the
left flank, where Hart's Irish Brigade had advanced to the assault of
Bridle Drift.

Under an unanswered and therefore an unaimed fire from the heavy guns
the Irish infantry moved forward upon the points which they had been
ordered to attack. The Dublins led, then the Connaughts, the
Inniskillings, and the Borderers. Incredible as it may appear after
the recent experiences of Magersfontein and of Stormberg, the men in
the two rear regiments appear to have been advanced in quarter column,
and not to have deployed until after the enemy's fire had opened. Had
shrapnel struck this close formation, as it was within an ace of
doing, the loss of life must have been as severe as it was
unnecessary.

On approaching the Drift -- the position or even the existence of
which does not seem to have been very clearly defined -- it was found
that the troops had to advance into a loop formed by the river, so
that they were exposed to a very heavy cross-fire upon their right
flank, while they were rained on by shrapnel from in front. No sign
of the enemy could be seen, though the men were dropping fast. It is
a weird and soul-shaking experience to advance over a sunlit and
apparently a lonely countryside, with no slightest movement upon its
broad face, while the path which you take is marked behind you by
sobbing, gasping, writhing men, who can only guess by the position of
their wounds whence the shots came which struck them down. All round,
like the hissing of fat in the pan, is the monotonous crackle and
rattle of the Mausers; but the air is full of it, and no one can
define exactly whence it comes. Far away on some hill upon the skyline
there hangs the least gauzy veil of thin smoke to indicate whence the
six men who have just all fallen together, as if it were some grim
drill, met their death. Into such a hell-storm as this it was that
the soldiers have again and again advanced in the course of this war,
but it may be questioned whether they will not prove to be among the
last of mortals to be asked to endure such an ordeal. Other methods
of attack must be found or attacks must be abandoned, for smokeless
powder, quick-firing guns, and modern rifles make it all odds on the
defence!

The gallant Irishmen pushed on, flushed with battle and careless for
their losses, the four regiments clubbed into one, with all military
organisation rapidly disappearing, and nothing left but their gallant
spirit and their furious desire to come to hand-grips with the enemy.
Rolling on in a broad wave of shouting angry men, they never winced
from the fire until they had swept up to the bank of the river.
Northern Inniskilling and Southern man of Connaught, orange and
green, Protestant and Catholic, Celt and Saxon, their only rivalry
now was who could shed his blood most freely for the common cause.
How hateful seem those provincial politics and narrow sectarian creeds
which can hold such men apart!

The bank of the river had been gained, but where was the ford? The
water swept broad and unruffled in front of them, with no indication
of shallows. A few dashing fellows sprang in, but their cartridges and
rifles dragged them to the bottom. One or two may even have struggled
through to the further side, but on this there is a conflict of
evidence. It may be, though it seems incredible, that the river had
been partly dammed to deepen the Drift, or, as is more probable, that
in the rapid advance and attack the position of the Drift was lost.
However this may be, the troops could find no ford, and they lay down,
as had been done in so many previous actions, unwilling to retreat and
unable to advance, with the same merciless pelting from front and
flank. In every fold and behind every anthill the Irishmen lay thick
and waited for better times. There are many instances of their cheery
and uncomplaining humour. Colonel Brooke, of the Connaughts, fell at
the head of his men. Private Livingstone helped to carry him into
safety, and then, his task done, he confessed to having 'a bit of a
rap meself,' and sank fainting with a bullet through his throat.
Another sat with a bullet through both legs. 'Bring me a tin whistle
and I'll blow ye any tune ye like,' he cried, mindful of the Dargai
piper. Another with his arm hanging by a tendon puffed morosely at his
short black pipe. Every now and then, in face of the impossible, the
fiery Celtic valour flamed furiously upwards. 'Fix bayonets, men, and
let us make a name for ourselves,' cried a colour sergeant, and he
never spoke again. For five hours, under the tropical sun, the grimy
parched men held on to the ground they had occupied. British shells
pitched short and fell among them. A regiment in support fired at
them, not knowing that any of the line were so far advanced. Shot at
from the front, the flank, and the rear, the 5th Brigade held grimly
on.

But fortunately their orders to retire were at hand, and it is certain
that had they not reached them the regiments would have been uselessly
destroyed where they lay. It seems to have been Buller himself, who
showed extraordinary and ubiquitous personal energy during the day,
that ordered them to fall back. As they retreated there was an entire
absence of haste and panic, but officers and men were hopelessly
jumbled up, and General Hart -- whose judgment may occasionally be
questioned, but whose cool courage was beyond praise -- had hard work
to reform the splendid brigade which six hours before had tramped out
of Chieveley Camp. Between five and six hundred of them had fallen --
a loss which approximates to that of the Highland Brigade at
Magersfontein. The Dublins and the Connaughts were the heaviest
sufferers.

So much for the mishap of the 5th Brigade. It is superfluous to point
out that the same old omissions were responsible for the same old
results. Why were the men in quarter column when advancing against an
unseen foe? Why had no scouts gone forward to be certain of the
position of the ford? Where were the clouds of skirmishers which
should precede such an advance? The recent examples in the field and
the teachings of the text-books were equally set at naught, as they
had been, and were to be, so often in this campaign. There may be a
science of war in the lecture-rooms at Camberley, but very little of
it found its way to the veldt. The slogging valour of the private,
the careless dash of the regimental officer -- these were our military
assets -- but seldom the care and foresight of our commanders. It is
a thankless task to make such comments, but the one great lesson of
the war has been that the army is too vital a thing to fall into the
hands of a caste, and that it is a national duty for every man to
speak fearlessly and freely what he believes to be the truth.

Passing from the misadventure of the 5th Brigade we come as we move
from left to right upon the 4th, or Lyttelton's Brigade, which was
instructed not to attack itself but to support the attack on either
side of it. With the help of the naval guns it did what it could to
extricate and cover the retreat of the Irishmen, but it could play no
very important part in the action, and its losses were
insignificant. On its right in turn Hildyard's English Brigade had
developed its attack upon Colenso and the bridge. The regiments under
Hildyard's lead were the 2nd West Surrey, the 2nd Devons (whose first
battalion was doing so well with the Ladysmith force), the East
Surreys, and the West Yorkshires. The enemy had evidently anticipated
the main attack on this position, and not only were the trenches upon
the other side exceptionally strong, but their artillery converged
upon the bridge, at least a dozen heavy pieces, besides a number of
quick-firers, bearing upon it. The Devons and the Queens, in open
order (an extended line of khaki dots, blending so admirably with the
plain that they were hardly visible when they halted), led the attack,
being supported by the East Surrey and the West Yorkshires. Advancing
under a very heavy fire the brigade experienced much the same ordeal
as their comrades of Hart's brigade, which was mitigated by the fact
that from the first they preserved their open order in columns of
half-companies extended to six paces, and that the river in front of
them did not permit that right flank fire which was so fatal to the
Irishmen. With a loss of some two hundred men the leading regiments
succeeded in reaching Colenso, and the West Surrey, advancing by
rushes of fifty yards at a time, had established itself in the
station, but a catastrophe had occurred at an earlier hour to the
artillery which was supporting it which rendered all. further advance
impossible. For the reason of this we must follow the fortunes of the
next unit upon their right.

This consisted of the important body of artillery who had been told
off to support the main attack. It comprised two field batteries, the
14th and the 66th, under the command of Colonel Long, and six naval
guns (two of 4.7, and four 12-pounders) under Lieutenant Ogilvy of the
'Terrible.' Long has the record of being a most zealous and dashing
officer, whose handling of the Egyptian artillery at the battle of the
Atbara had much to do with the success of the action. Unfortunately,
these barbarian campaigns, in which liberties may be taken with
impunity, leave an evil tradition, as the French have found with their
Algerians. Our own close formations, our adherence to volley firing,
and in this instance the use of our artillery all seem to be legacies
of our savage wars. Be the cause what it may, at an early stage of
the action Long's guns whirled forwards, outstripped the infantry
brigades upon their flanks, left the slow-moving naval guns with their
ox-teams behind them, and unlimbered within a thousand yards of the
enemy's trenches. From this position he opened fire upon Fort Wylie,
which was the centre of that portion of the Boer position which faced
him.

But his two unhappy batteries were destined not to turn the tide of
battle, as he had hoped, but rather to furnish the classic example of
the helplessness of artillery against modern rifle fire. Not even
Mercer's famous description of the effect of a flank fire upon his
troop of horse artillery at Waterloo could do justice to the blizzard
of lead which broke over the two doomed batteries. The teams fell in
heaps, some dead, some mutilated, and mutilating others in their
frantic struggles. One driver, crazed with horror, sprang on a leader,
cut the traces and tore madly off the field. But a perfect discipline
reigned among the vast majority of the gunners, and the words of
command and the laying and working of the guns were all as methodical
as at Okehampton. Not only was there a most deadly rifle fire, partly
from the lines in front and partly from the village of Colenso upon
their left flank, but the Boer automatic quick-firers found the range
to a nicety, and the little shells were crackling and banging
continually over the batteries. Already every gun had its litter of
dead around it, but each was still fringed by its own group of furious
officers and sweating desperate gunners. Poor Long was down, with a
bullet through his arm and another through his liver. 'Abandon be
damned! We don't abandon guns!' was his last cry as they dragged him
into the shelter of a little donga hard by. Captain Goldie dropped
dead. So did Lieutenant Schreiber. Colonel Hunt fell, shot in two
places. Officers and men were falling fast. The guns could not be
worked, and yet they could not be removed, for every effort to bring
up teams from the shelter where the limbers lay ended in the death of
the horses. The survivors took refuge from the murderous fire in that
small hollow to which Long had been carried, a hundred yards or so
from the line of bullet-splashed cannon. One gun on the right was
still served by four men who refused to leave it. They seemed to bear
charmed lives, these four, as they strained and wrestled with their
beloved 15-pounder, amid the spurting sand and the blue wreaths of the
bursting shells. Then one gasped and fell against the trail, and his
comrade sank beside the wheel with his chin upon his breast. The
third threw up his hands and pitched forward upon his face; while the
survivor, a grim powder-stained figure, stood at attention looking
death in the eyes until he too was struck down. A useless sacrifice,
you may say; but while the men who saw them die can tell such a story
round the camp fire the example of such deaths as these does more than
clang of bugle or roll of drum to stir the warrior spirit of our race.

For two hours the little knot of heart-sick humiliated officers and
men lay in the precarious shelter of the donga and looked out at the
bullet-swept plain and the line of silent guns. Many of them were
wounded. Their chief lay among them, still calling out in his delirium
for his guns. They had been joined by the gallant Baptie, a brave
surgeon, who rode across to the donga amid a murderous fire, and did
what he could for the injured men. Now and then a rush was made into
the open, sometimes in the hope of firing another round, sometimes to
bring a wounded comrade in from the pitiless pelt of the bullets. How
fearful was that lead-storm may be gathered from the fact that one
gunner was found with sixty-four wounds in his body. Several men
dropped in these sorties, and the disheartened survivors settled down
once more in the donga.

The hope to which they clung was that their guns were not really lost,
but that the arrival of infantry would enable them to work them once
more. Infantry did at last arrive, but in such small numbers that it
made the situation more difficult instead of easing it. Colonel
Bullock had brought up two companies of the Devons to join the two
companies (A and B) of Scots Fusiliers who had been the original
escort of the guns, but such a handful could not turn the tide. They
also took refuge in the donga, and waited for better times.

In the meanwhile the attention of Generals Buller and Clery had been
called to the desperate position of the guns, and they had made their
way to that further nullah in the rear where the remaining limber
horses and drivers were. This was some distance behind that other
donga in which Long, Bullock, and their Devons and gunners were
crouching. 'Will any of you volunteer to save the guns?' cried
Buller. Corporal Nurse, Gunner Young, and a few others responded.
The desperate venture was led by three aides-de-camp of the Generals,
Congreve, Schofield, and Roberts, the only son of the famous soldier.
Two gun teams were taken down; the horses galloping frantically
through an infernal fire, and each team succeeded in getting back with
a gun. But the loss was fearful. Roberts was mortally wounded.
Congreve has left an account which shows what a modern rifle fire at a
thousand yards is like. 'My first bullet went through my left sleeve
and made the joint of my elbow bleed, next a clod of earth caught me
smack on the right arm, then my horse got one, then my right leg one,
then my horse another, and that settled us.' The gallant fellow
managed to crawl to the group of castaways in the donga. Roberts
insisted on being left where he fell, for fear he should hamper the
others.

In the meanwhile Captain Reed, of the 7th Battery, had arrived with
two spare teams of horses, and another determined effort was made
under his leadership to save some of the guns. But the fire was too
murderous. Two-thirds of his horses and half his men, including
himself, were struck down, and General Buller commanded that all
further attempts to reach the abandoned batteries should be given
up. Both he and General Clery had been slightly wounded, and there
were many operations over the whole field of action to engage their
attention. But making every allowance for the pressure of many duties
and for the confusion and turmoil of a great action, it does seem one
of the most inexplicable incidents in British military history that
the guns should ever have been permitted to fall into the hands of the
enemy. It is evident that if our gunners could not live under the fire
of the enemy it would be equally impossible for the enemy to remove
the guns under a fire from a couple of battalions of our infantry.
There were many regiments which had hardly been engaged, and which
could have been advanced for such a purpose. The men of the Mounted
Infantry actually volunteered for this work, and none could have been
more capable of carrying it out. There was plenty of time also, for
the guns were abandoned about eleven and the Boers did not venture to
seize them until four. Not only could the guns have been saved, but
they might, one would think, have been transformed into an excellent
bait for a trap to tempt the Boers out of their trenches. It must have
been with fear and trembling that Cherry Emmett and his men first
approached them, for how could they believe that such incredible good
fortune had come to them? However, the fact, humiliating and
inexplicable, is that the guns were so left, that the whole force was
withdrawn, and that not only the ten cannon, but also the handful of
Devons, with their Colonel, and the Fusiliers were taken prisoners in
the donga which had sheltered them all day.

We have now, working from left to right, considered the operations of
Hart's Brigade at Bridle Drift, of Lyttelton's Brigade in support, of
Hildyard's which attacked Colenso, and of the luckless batteries which
were to have helped him. There remain two bodies of troops upon the
right, the further consisting of Dundonald's mounted men who were to
attack Hlangwane Hill, a fortified Boer position upon the south of the
river, while Barton's Brigade was to support it and to connect this
attack with the central operations.

Dundonald's force was entirely too weak for such an operation as the
capture of the formidable entrenched hill, and it is probable that the
movement was meant rather as a reconnaissance than as an assault. He
had not more than a thousand men in all, mostly irregulars, and the
position which faced him was precipitous and entrenched, with
barbed-wire entanglements and automatic guns. But the gallant
colonials were out on their first action, and their fiery courage
pushed the attack home. Leaving their horses, they advanced a mile
and a half on foot before they came within easy range of the hidden
riflemen, and learned the lesson which had been taught to their
comrades all along the line, that given approximately equal numbers
the attack in the open has no possible chance against the concealed
defence, and that the more bravely it is pushed the more heavy is the
repulse. The irregulars carried themselves like old soldiers, they
did all that mortal man could do, and they retired coolly and slowly
with the loss of 130 of the brave troopers. The 7th Field Battery did
all that was possible to support the advance and cover the
retirement. In no single place, on this day of disaster, did one least
gleam of success come to warm the hearts and reward the exertions of
our much-enduring men.

Of Barton's Brigade there is nothing to be recorded, for they appear
neither to have supported the attack upon Hlangwane Hill on the one
side nor to have helped to cover the ill-fated guns on the other.
Barton was applied to for help by Dundonald, but refused to detach any
of his troops. If General Buller's real idea was a reconnaissance in
force in order to determine the position and strength of the Boer
lines, then of course his brigadiers must have felt a. reluctance to
entangle their brigades in a battle which was really the result of a
misunderstanding. On the other hand, if, as the orders of the day
seem to show, a serious engagement was always intended, it is strange
that two brigades out of four should have played so insignificant a
part. To Barton's Brigade was given the responsibility of seeing that
no right flank attack was carried out by the Boers, and this held it
back until it was clear that no such attack was contemplated. After
that one would have thought that, had the situation been appreciated,
at least two battalions might have been spared to cover the abandoned
guns with their rifle fire. Two companies of the Scots Fusiliers did
share the fortunes of the guns. Two others, and one of the Irish
Fusiliers, acted in support, but the brigade as a whole, together with
the 1st Royals and the 13th Hussars, might as well have been at
Aldershot for any bearing which their work had upon the fortunes of
the day.

And so the first attempt at the relief of Ladysmith came to an end.
At twelve o'clock all the troops upon the ground were retreating for
the camp. There was nothing in the shape of rout or panic, and the
withdrawal was as orderly as the advance; but the fact remained that
we had just 1,200 men in killed, wounded, and missing, and had gained
absolutely nothing. We had not even the satisfaction of knowing that
we had inflicted as well as endured punishment, for the enemy remained
throughout the day so cleverly concealed that it is doubtful whether
more than a hundred casualties occurred in their ranks. Once more it
was shown how weak an arm is artillery against an enemy who lies in
shelter.

Our wounded fortunately bore a high proportion to our killed, as they
always will do when it is rifle fire rather than shell fire which is
effective. Roughly we had 150 killed and about 720 wounded. A more
humiliating item is the 250 or so who were missing. These men were the
gunners, the Devons, and the Scots Fusiliers, who were taken in the
donga together with small bodies from the Connaughts, the Dublins, and
other regiments who, having found some shelter, were unable to leave
it, and clung on until the retirement of their regiments left them in
a hopeless position. Some of these small knots of men were allowed to
retire in the evening by the Boers, who seemed by no means anxious to
increase the number of their prisoners. Colonel Thackeray, of the
Inniskilling Fusiliers, found himself with a handful of his men
surrounded by the enemy, but owing to their good humour and his own
tact he succeeded in withdrawing them in safety. The losses fell
chiefly on Hart's Brigade, Hildyard's Brigade, and the colonial
irregulars, who bore off the honours of the fight.

In his official report General Buller states that were it not for the
action of Colonel Long and the subsequent disaster to the artillery he
thought that the battle might have been a successful one. This is a
hard saying, and throws perhaps too much responsibility upon the
gallant but unfortunate gunner. There have been occasions in the war
when greater dash upon the part of our artillery might have changed
the fate of the day, and it is bad policy to be too severe upon the
man who has taken a risk and failed. The whole operation, with its
advance over the open against a concealed enemy with a river in his
front, was so absolutely desperate that Long may have seen that only
desperate measures could save the situation. To bring guns into action
in front of the infantry without having clearly defined the position
of the opposing infantry must always remain one of the most hazardous
ventures of war. 'It would certainly be mere folly,' says Prince
Kraft, 'to advance artillery to within 600 or 800 yards of a position
held by infantry unless the latter were under the fire of infantry
from an even shorter range.' This 'mere folly' is exactly what
Colonel Long did, but it must be remembered in extenuation that he
shared with others the idea that the Boers were up on the hills, and
had no inkling that their front trenches were down at the river. With
the imperfect means at his disposal he did such scouting as he could,
and if his fiery and impetuous spirit led him into a position which
cost him so dearly it is certainly more easy for the critic to
extenuate his fault than that subsequent one which allowed the
abandoned guns to fall into the hands of the enemy. Nor is there any
evidence that the loss of these guns did seriously affect the fate of
the action, for at those other parts of the field where the infantry
had the full and unceasing support of the artillery the result was not
more favourable than at the centre.

So much for Colenso. A more unsatisfactory and in some ways
inexplicable action is not to be found in the range of British
military history. And the fuller the light which has been poured upon
it, the more extraordinary does the battle appear. There are a
preface and a sequel to the action which have put a severe strain upon
the charity which the British public has always shown that it is
prepared to extend to a defeated General. The preface is that General
Buller sent word to General White that he proposed to attack upon the
17th, while the actual attack was delivered upon the 15th, so that the
garrison was not prepared to make that demonstration which might have
prevented the besiegers from sending important reinforcements to
Botha, had he needed them. The sequel is more serious. Losing all
heart at his defeat, General Buller, although he had been officially
informed that White had provisions for seventy days, sent a heliogram
advising the surrender of the garrison. White's first reply, which
deserves to live with the anecdote of Nelson's telescope at his blind
eye, was to the effect that he believed the enemy had been tampering
with Buller's messages. To this Buller despatched an amended message,
which with Sir George White's reply, is here appended:

Message of December 16th, as altered by that of
December 17th, 1899.

'I tried Colenso yesterday, but failed; the enemy is too strong for my
force except with siege operations, and these will take one full month
to prepare. Can you last so long?

'How many days can you hold out? I suggest you firing away as much
ammunition as you can, and making best terms you can. I can remain
here if you have alternative suggestion, but unaided I cannot break
in. I find my infantry cannot fight more than ten miles from camp, and
then only if water can be got, and it is scarce here. Whatever
happens, recollect to burn your cipher, decipher, and code books, and
all deciphered messages.'

>From Sir G. White to Sir R. Buller.
December 16th, 1899.

'Yours of today received and understood. My suggestion is that you
take up strongest available position that will enable you to keep
touch of the enemy and harass him constantly with artillery fire, and
in other ways as much as possible. I can make food last for much
longer than a month, and will not think of making terms till I am
forced to. You may have hit enemy harder than you think. All our
native spies report that your artillery fire made considerable
impression on enemy. Have your losses been very heavy? If you lose
touch of enemy, it will immensely increase his opportunities of
crushing me, and have worst effect elsewhere. While you are in touch
with him and in communication with me, he has both of our forces to
reckon with. Make every effort to get reinforcements as early as
possible, including India, and enlist every man in both colonies who
will serve and can ride. Things may look brighter. The loss of 12,000
men here would be a heavy blow to England. We must not yet think of
it. I fear I could not cut my way to you. Enteric fever is increasing
alarmingly here. There are now 180 cases, all within last month.
Answer fully. I am keeping everything secret for the present till I
know your plans.'

Much allowance is to be made for a man who is staggering under the
mental shock of defeat and the physical exertions which Buller had
endured. That the Government made such allowance is clear from the
fact that he was not instantly recalled. And yet the cold facts are
that we have a British General, at the head of 25,000 men,
recommending another General, at the head of 12,000 men only twelve
miles off, to lay down his arms to an army which was certainly very
inferior in numbers to the total British force; and this because he
had once been defeated, although he knew that there was still time for
the whole resources of the Empire to be poured into Natal in order to
prevent so shocking a disaster. Such is a plain statement of the
advice which Buller gave and which White rejected. For the instant the
fate not only of South Africa but even, as I believe, of the Empire
hung upon the decision of the old soldier in Ladysmith, who had to
resist the proposals of his own General as sternly as the attacks of
the enemy. He who sorely needed help and encouragement became, as his
message shows, the helper and the encourager. It was a tremendous
test, and Sir George White came through it with a staunchness and a
loyalty which saved us not only from overwhelming present disaster,
but from a hideous memory which must have haunted British military
annals for centuries to come.

Arthur Conan Doyle