Chapter XII. The Battle of Colenso

By daybreak next morning the whole force was under arms. General Hildyard in the centre was to attack the iron bridge at Colenso. General Hart's Irish brigade was to march towards Bridle Drift, and after crossing to move along the left bank of the river towards the kopjes north of the iron bridge. General Barton was to move forward east of the railway towards Hlangwane Hill, and to support General Hildyard, or the Colonial troops moving against that hill as might appear necessary, while General Lyttleton's brigade, half-way between those of Hildyard and Hart, were to be prepared to render assistance to either as might be required. One division of the artillery was to follow Lyttleton's brigade. The six naval guns were to advance on his right. The sixth brigade were to aid General Hart, and three batteries of Royal Artillery to move east of the railway, under cover of the sixth brigade, to a point from which they could prepare the way for Hildyard's brigade to cross the bridge.

The action began before six o'clock, the naval guns opening with lyddite on the trenches on Grobler's Hill, and those between it and Fort Wylie. No reply whatever was made by the Boers, and the troopers standing by their horses' heads in readiness to mount should any party of Boers make a raid on the camp, began to wonder whether the enemy had not retreated. Hildyard's men advanced in open order close to the railway; the Queen's own, with the West York in support, on the right of the railway; and the Devons, with East Surrey behind them, on the left. They marched as steadily and in as perfect alignment as if on parade, eight paces apart. Hart's Irish brigade, far away to the left, were in close order. The cavalry could be seen proceeding at a trot towards Hlangwane, General Barton's brigade still bearing to the east; and Colonel Long and Colonel Hunt with their batteries, without waiting for their protection, galloped straight forward, and, taking up a position almost facing Fort Wylie, a few hundred yards beyond the river, opened a heavy fire; the six naval guns, which were drawn by bullocks, being still a considerable distance behind them.

Still the Boer guns remained silent. But at half past six their musketry opened suddenly upon the Queen's Own, the Devons, and the guns, in one continuous roar. It came not only from the entrenchments on the face of the hill, but from trenches close down by the river, and from the houses of Colenso, from some railway huts, and from the bushes that fringed the south bank of the river, which had been believed to be wholly unoccupied. Five minutes later their cannon joined in the roar, with machine-guns, one-pounder Maxims, and the great Creusots and Krupps. And yet through this storm of lead and iron our soldiers went on quietly and steadily. The very ground round them was torn up by bullet and ball. Many fell, but there was no flinching; while on their right, Long's batteries, though swept by a hail of missiles from unseen foes, maintained a continuous fire at Fort Wylie.

"It is awful!" Peters exclaimed as he lowered his glasses. "I thought it would be dreadful, but I never dreamt of anything like this. Look at the bodies dotting the ground our men are passing over, and yet the others go on as if it was a shower of rain through which they were passing. I can't look at it any longer." "It is as bad for the artillery," Chris said, with his glasses still riveted upon them. "I saw a lot of the horses go down before they were unlimbered, and I can see the men are falling fast. Surely they can never have been meant to go within five or six hundred yards of magazine rifles. I thought everyone had agreed that artillery could not live within range of breech-loaders. Why doesn't Barton's brigade move down towards them, and try and keep down the fire? How is Hart getting on?"

But it was not easy to see this even with glasses. They had not become engaged until a little later than the others, but as they approached the river an equally terrible fire opened upon them. Being in comparatively close order, they suffered more heavily than Hildyard had done. Presently they came upon a spruit which they took to be the main river, and under a tremendous fire from the Mausers and guns, dashed across it, and swinging round their left made for the drift, sweeping before them a number of Boers who had been hidden in the long grass. Trenches were there line after line, but over these the four regiments--the Connaught Rangers, the Border regiment, the Inniskilling and Dublin Fusiliers-- dashed forward with such fury that the Boers did not stop to meet their bayonets. By a quarter-past seven the enemy had been driven across the Tugela. Without hesitation the Irish dashed into the river. Many fell headlong, for along the bottom barbed wires had been stretched. Worse still, it was found that instead of being two feet deep, as was expected, it was eight feet; for the Boers had erected a dyke across the river a little lower down, and had dammed the water back.

Some swam across with their rifles and ammunition, but it was a feat beyond all except the strongest swimmers, and after maintaining themselves for some time they were forced to retire. The naval guns did their best to assist them, and silenced some of the Boer cannon that were pounding them, but they failed to draw the Boer fire upon themselves. It was only in the centre that even partial success was gained. Hildyard's men had reached but not captured Colenso bridge. In spite of the tremendous fire, some of the soldiers tried to make their way along it, but were recalled; for they were deprived of the support of the artillery that should have covered their passage, had no hope of Hart bringing his brigade round to clear the enemy out from the kloofs on the opposite side, and but little of aid from Lyttleton, who had been obliged to move farther to the left to lend assistance to Hart. Some of the Scottish Fusiliers had joined them from Barton's brigade, but the brigade itself was far away.

Terrible as the fighting was at all points, it was the batteries down by the river that most engaged the attention of the anxious spectators. Desperate attempts were being made to get the guns back. Almost all the horses had been killed, but the drivers of the teams of the ammunition waggons, the few survivors of the officers, and several of the general's staff dashed recklessly forward under a hail of fire. Horse and man went over, but two of the guns were carried off. Fortunately, the naval battery and the third field battery had not been taken so far forward, and were withdrawn with comparatively little loss; and the ten guns stood alone and deserted by the last of the party as it seemed. Then, to the surprise of the watchers, one of them spoke out, for four of the men who worked it had stood to their charge to the last. Again and again it sent its shrapnel among the Boer trenches. One fell and then another, but two remained. They continued to fire until the last round of reserve ammunition was finished. Then those who were near enough to make out their figures saw them take their stand, one on each side of the gun, at attention, until both fell dead by the side of the piece they had served so well. Even on the right, where success might really have been hoped for, everything had gone badly. The dismounted Colonials had fought their way gallantly up the slopes of the Hlangwane, and nearly reached the crest. But they were not seconded by Lord Dundonald's cavalry; Barton's brigade, which was charged with aiding them, were kept at a distance, and the Colonials were at last forced to fall back.

Great as was the loss at other points, the failure to capture this hill was really the greatest misfortune of the day. From its position on the south of the river, and in a loop, batteries erected on its summit would have taken all the Boer defences on the lower slopes of the hills in flank, and it would have covered the crossing of the river at Colenso. Cut off by the river from the rest of the Boer position it could hardly have been retaken, and its fire would have searched the valley up which the roadway ran almost as far as Mount Bulwana.

Renewed attempts were made for some time to carry off the guns, but early in the afternoon the general saw that it was but a waste of life to persevere further, and orders were despatched for the troops to retire. It had been a day of misfortunes, and yet a day of glory, for never had the fighting power of British troops been more splendidly exhibited, never were greater deeds of individual daring performed; never had troops supported with heroic indifference so terrible a fire. Undoubtedly the English general had greatly underrated the fighting powers of the Boers and the amount of artillery to which he was exposed. Had he not done so, he would scarcely have distributed his force over so wide a face, or attacked at three points nearly four miles apart, but would have prepared for the grand assault by seizing Hlangwane and firmly establishing some of his batteries there, even at the cost of two or three days' labour, and only attempted to cross the river when the movement would have been covered by their fire.

The Boers were quick in discovering the importance of the hill, and speedily covered its face with such entrenchments, that not until after long weeks of effort and failure was an attack again attempted against it; and the success of that attack opened the way to Ladysmith. But had the general's orders been carried out at all points it would probably have been captured. Hart's brigade was to have begun the attack, but owing to the map with which he was furnished being defective, his troops losing their way in the spruit, and their being led in far too close a formation under the enemy's fire, its attempt failed; this being, however, largely due to the astuteness of the Boers in damming back the river and rendering the ford impracticable. The impetuosity of the officers commanding two of the batteries of artillery, in pushing their guns forward unattended by infantry as ordered, not only caused the loss of ten guns and of nearly all the men who worked them, but deprived Hildyard's column of the protection they would have had in crossing the bridge, and rendered the undertaking impossible; while the failure of Barton's brigade to give assistance either to Hildyard or to the assailants of Hlangwane, contributed to the one failure, and entirely brought about the other.

General Buller and General Clery had been wherever the shots were flying the thickest. Three of the former's staff, Captains Schofield and Congreve, and Lieutenant Roberts, son of Lord Roberts, had ridden forward as volunteers to try and get the guns off. Roberts was fatally wounded, Congreve was wounded and taken prisoner, and Schofield alone escaped unharmed with the two guns that were saved.

The day had been almost more terrible for the troops who remained unoccupied near the baggage than for those actually engaged in the terrible light. The latter, animated by excitement and anger at their inability to get at the foe, had scarce time to think of their danger, and even laughed and joked in the midst of the hail of bullets, but the watchers had nothing to distract them during the long hours. With their glasses they could plainly see that no advance had been made at any point. To them it seemed incredible that any could come back from that storm of fire. From time to time they learned from wounded men brought up by the bearers, who fearlessly went down into the thick of the fire to do their duty, news of how matters were going on in the front.

Gladly, had they received orders to do so, would they have dashed down to try and carry off the guns. Many shed tears of rage as they heard how the Irish strove in vain to cross the deep river, and how many were drowned in their attempts to swim it. They expected, when in the afternoon the troops came in, that they would see an utterly dispirited body of men, and were surprised when the Irish, who were the first to return to camp, marched along smoking their pipes and joking as if they had returned from a day of triumph rather than of failure. They were animated by a knowledge that they had done all that men could do, had proved they were worthy successors of their countrymen who had won glory in so many hard-fought fields, and that no shadow of reproach could fall upon them for their share in the day's work. Although they had suffered far more heavily than the other brigade, they returned more cheerfully. And yet there was no depression anywhere evinced, although there was anger, fierce anger, that they had not been able to get at the enemy, and a grim determination that next time they met, things should go differently.

A good many prisoners had been lost. Parties had spread along among the bushes that lined the river, and maintained a steady fire against the Boer entrenchments facing them. Some of these had not heard the bugle sounding the retire. When they were aware what was being done some had left their shelter and rushed across the open ground to join the columns, the majority being shot down as they did so. Others had waited among the bushes, intending to try after nightfall; but as soon as we fell back the Boers had again crossed the river and spread along its banks, and had thus made prisoners those who were in hiding there or in the little dongas. Among those so captured were fourteen of the Devons and as many gunners, with Colonel Hunt, Colonel Bullock, Major MacWalter, and Captains Goodwin, Vigors, and Congreve; the total loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners amounted to about one thousand five hundred, of whom nearly half belonged to the Irish brigade. That evening the searchlight, which had been placed on a lofty hill visible from one end of the high kopjes held by the garrison of Ladysmith, flashed the news that the attack had failed, and that the garrison must be prepared to hold out for some time yet.

The news of the reverse created a tremendous sensation throughout Natal, where it had been confidently anticipated that the army would brush aside without difficulty the opposition of the Boers, relieve Ladysmith and, advancing sweep the invaders out of the colony. In England, too, the sensation was scarcely less pronounced, and for the first time the gravity of the war in which we were engaged was recognized. Hitherto it had been thought that fifty thousand men would suffice to bring it to a successful conclusion; now it was perceived that at least double that number would be required. The offers of the colonies to aid the mother country with troops had hitherto been coldly received, but these were now accepted thankfully, and although our military authorities would not as yet recognize that the volunteers could be relied upon as a real fighting force, there was a talk that some of the militia regiments might be embodied, and a large number of reservists were at once summoned back to the ranks.

At the front matters went on as before. It was now known how it was that the guns had advanced so far. Colonel Long had sent forward some of his mounted men with two officers. The Boers allowed them to approach the river bank without firing a shot. One of the scouts actually rode across the bridge to the other side, and returning to the battery they reported that there were no Boers about, and it was only after receiving this message that Colonel Long took the guns forward to within six hundred yards of the river, and twelve hundred of Fort Wylie.

The wounded were all taken to Frere or Estcourt, where hospitals had been prepared. Hart and Lyttleton's brigades were sent back to Frere, and the camp at Chieveley was moved nearer to the station, both for convenience of supply, and because the position now taken up was a more defensible one, and was less exposed to the fire of the big Boer guns; large numbers of transport animals and waggons were brought up country. It was known that a newly-landed division under General Sir Charles Warren was now coming up, one regiment, the Somersets, arrived in camp two or three days after the battle, and the loss of the cannon was to some extent retrieved by the arrival of a 50-lbs. howitzer battery.

It was but dull work in camp. The more impetuous spirits were longing to be employed in annoying the Boers by frequent surprises at night; but as these could have achieved no permanent advantage, and must have been attended with considerable loss of life, Sir Redvers Buller set his face against any such attacks, and went steadily on with his preparations. As troops came up anticipations of a certain success when the next forward movement was made were generally entertained. Chris and his companions passed the time pleasantly enough. Being old friends they had plenty to talk about, and occasional scouting expeditions to the east gave them a certain amount of employment. Not having been engaged in the attack on Hlangwane, they did not participate in the soreness felt by the rest of the colonials at their failure to capture the hill, owing to the want of support from Lord Dundonald's cavalry or Barton's brigade.

The chagrin felt at the mistake that had been made in not making this the prime object of attack was general, for the Boers could be seen working unceasingly at their entrenchments. They had not only made a ford by throwing great quantities of rock and stones into the channel, but had also built a bridge, so that the force on the hill could be speedily reinforced to any extent, and what could have been effected on the day of the attack by half a battalion of infantry would now be a very serious undertaking even by a whole division.

The lads were chatting one day over the chances of the next fight, most of them taking a very sanguine view.

"What do you say, Chris?" one of them said after the discussion had gone on for some time. "You have not given us your opinion."

"My opinion does not agree with yours," Chris replied. "After what I saw the other day, I think the difficulties of fighting our way over those mountains are so enormous that I doubt whether we shall ever do it."

There was a chorus of dissent.

"Well, we shall see," he said. "I hope that we shall do it just as much as you do, but it is tremendous business. I have no doubt Sir Redvers will go on trying, but I should not be surprised if at heart he has doubts that it can be done. The Boers have more guns that we have, and any number of those Maxims and Hotchkiss that keep up a stream of balls. The Boers' trenches enable them to fire at us without showing anything but a head, except when they stand up or have to move across the open. If we drive them out of one position they have others to fall back upon. It is not one natural fortress that we have to take, but a dozen of them. They know every foot of the country they occupy, while we know nothing but just what we can see at a distance."

"Well, if Sir Redvers thought as you do, why should he go on hammering at it?"

"For several reasons, Peters. In the first place, if Ladysmith saw that there was no chance of rescue it would at last give in; and in the second place, if there was an end of all attempts to relieve the place England would go wild with indignation; and in the third place, and by far the most important, Sir Redvers knows that he is keeping from twenty-five thousand to thirty thousand of the Boers inactive here, and so relieving the pressure on our troops on the other side. We know regiments are arriving from England at the Cape every day. When they get strong enough to invade the Orange Free State and take Bloemfontein, and march north, the Boers here will be hurrying away to defend their homes. Of course the Free Staters will go first, but the Transvaalers will have to follow. We hear that Methuen has been beaten at Magersfontein, and that he has been brought to a stand-still within the sound of the guns round Kimberley, just as we are here, and that the Boers have a very strong position there also. So at present the advance is as much checked there as it is here. Gatacre has had a misfortune too, so that we are all in the same boat. I saw a Pietermaritzburg paper in the naval camp just now; there are about twenty thousand men on the sea at the present moment, besides those in the colony, and two more divisions are being formed. So it is safe to come right in the long run. But at present, if those twenty-five thousand Boers opposite to us were not there now, they would be riding all over Cape Colony, and if Buller were not to keep on hammering away here a good many of them would be off at once. They say Ladysmith can hold out for another three months. By that time there ought to be such a big force in the Orange State that the Boers won't dare to stop here any longer, and no end of loss of life will be avoided.

"I never thought that you were a croaker before," Field said, "except just before the last fight; but certainly things have gone very badly lately. Three disasters in seven or eight days are a facer; but I cannot think that we shall not succeed next time. When Warren's division is up Buller will have over thirty thousand men with him, in spite of our losses the other day, and we ought to be able to do it with that."

"Well, we shall see, Field. I hope you are right."

The news of Methuen's repulse and the terrible losses in the Highland brigade, and of Gatacre's disaster, cast a greater gloom over Buller's army than their own failure had done. The one topic of conversation among the officers was, what would be the feeling in England, and whether there would be any inclination to patch up another dishonourable peace like that after Majuba. But the feeling wore off as day after day the news came that the misfortunes had but raised the spirit and determination of the people of Great Britain to carry the war through to the bitter end; that recruiting was going on with extraordinary rapidity; that fresh regiments had been ordered out; that Lord Roberts had been appointed to the supreme command in South Africa, and that Lord Kitchener was coming out as chief of his staff. The fact, too, that the volunteers had been asked to send companies to the regiments to which they were attached, that the City had undertaken to raise a strong battalion at its own expense, that the Yeomanry were to furnish ten thousand men, and that public, spirit had risen to fever heat, soon showed that these apprehensions were without foundation, and that Britain was still true to herself, and was showing the same indomitable spirit that had carried her through many periods of national depression, and brought her out triumphant at the end.

Christmas passed cheerily; no gun was fired on either side, although the Boers worked diligently at their trenches; and our men feasted as they had not done since they landed at Durban. Bacon, milk, fresh bread, beef, and a quart of beer were served out for each man, and on these men and officers made a memorable meal; the latter producing the last bottles of wine and spirits that had been specially sent up to them from Maritzburg. And on that and the following day there were sports--lemon- cutting, tent pegging, races for the cavalry; athletic sports, tugs-of- war, mule and donkey races for the infantry. The drums and fifes played national airs, and the sailors bore their full share in the fun. As time went on the preparations for the next move advanced. None were more pleased at the prospect of active work again than the Colonial Volunteers, who had several times entreated to be allowed to get out and drive back the bands of plundering Boers, who were still wasting the farms and destroying the farmhouses and furniture of the loyalists.

On the 27th a small party of Captain Brookfield's scouts had been sent out to reconnoitre the windings and turnings of the Tugela to the east, to ascertain as far as possible what the Boer positions were on that side, and whether they had placed bodies of skirmishers on the south side of the river as they did opposite Fort Wylie. Included in the party, which was a hundred strong, was the Johannesburg section. When well away from the camp they were broken up into small parties, the better to escape the observation of the Boers on the Hlangwane and other heights. The instructions given by their commander were that they should take every advantage of ground to conceal their movements from the enemy, but where the ground near the river was level and fit for galloping they should dash across it, and, if not fired at, should skirt along the banks, mark if there were any tracks by which horses or cattle had at some time come down to the water, and observe if similar tracks were to be seen on the opposite bank, as this would show that, though possibly only in dry weather, the river was fordable there. Where the ground was too broken and rock-covered to permit of horses passing rapidly across it, they were to dismount and crawl down the river to make their observations.

Only a small portion of the troop had been engaged on this work, the main body were to keep along on the hills, maintaining a vigilant watch over the country to the south and east as well as that around them, as many parties of marauding Boers were known to be still across the river. Knowing the sharpness of the lads, Captain Brookfield had told off their section to explore the river bank, a choice which excited no jealousy among the rest, as these were hoping for a brush with some wandering party of Boers, and the satisfaction of rescuing cattle and goods they might be carrying off. His instructions to Chris were that he was to detach two of his party at each mile, choosing points where they could best make their way to the river unobserved. As he himself with the main body would go up considerably farther, each pair, when they had searched their section, were to ride a mile or so back from the river and fall in with the main body on its return.

Riding rapidly along, Chris carried out his instructions, until, when some twelve miles from the camp, he remained with only Sankey with him. The country they had passed was rolling, and from time to time he had caught sight of small parties of Captain Brookfield's scouts. Arriving at a spot where there was a slight depression running down towards the river, he said, "We may as well follow it, Sankey. It will deepen into a donga presently, no doubt, and we can leave our horses there and go on on foot. It looks to me as if this had been used as a path. Of course it may only have been made by cattle going down to the water, but it may lead to a drift. If it is, we must be all the more careful, for it is just at these points that the Boers are very likely to be on the look- out."

They rode for some distance and then dismounted, knee-haltered their horses and moved forward cautiously. Chris still believed they were on a track, but the heavy rains of the week before had sent the water rushing down it in a torrent, which would have destroyed any marks there might have been. When they could see the opening to the river in front of them they climbed the side of the donga. All seemed quiet, and stopping and taking advantage of the bushes, they crept forward to the edge of the water. There was no sign of a break in the opposite bank.

"There is no drift here," Chris said. "If there had been there would be a pass cut or worn down on the other side. Now let us push on, but don't show yourself more than you can help, any Boer lurking on the other side could hardly miss us. A hundred and fifty yards, I should say, is about the width."

After walking some little distance along they suddenly came upon another break in the bank.

"There is a break opposite, Sankey. Ten to one this is a drift. The question is, how deep is it? You can see the river is not as high as it was by four feet, and I dare say that it will be lower yet if we get another week of fine weather. It's very important to find out. I will try to ford it; it's hardly likely there are any Boers so far down, but have your rifle ready, and keep a sharp look-out on the opposite side."

A minute later they went down the slope. "Keep back under the shelter of these bushes as soon as I go in, Sankey." Then he stepped into the water and waded out. In a few yards it was up to his waist; then it deepened slowly. He was a third of the distance across when two rifles cracked out from some bushes on the opposite bank. Chris felt a sudden smart pain in his ear. He instantly threw himself down in the water, and diving, made for the shore, allowing the stream to take him down. Swimming as hard and as long as he could, he came for a moment to the surface, turning on his back before he did so, and only raising his mouth and nose above water. He took a long breath and then sank again, swimming this time towards the shore. His breath lasted until he was in water too shallow to swim farther, and, leaping to his feet, he dashed up the bank and threw himself down. He heard two bullets hum close to him, but the Boers had not been looking in his direction, and only caught sight of him in time to take a snap shot. He crawled along through the high, coarse grass, feeling very anxious as to what had become of Sankey. He had heard the report of the Boer rifles, but there came no reply from his friend, who would assuredly have been lying in shelter in readiness to shoot as soon as he saw a flash on the opposite bank. Could he have forgotten to take cover the instant he himself entered the water, could he possibly have remained standing there watching him? Two shots had been fired: one had certainly hit his ear; had the other been aimed at Sankey? He crawled along until he came to the point where he could see down on to the road. To his horror Sankey was lying there on his back.