Since the beginning of November we had heard, as I have already said, that Sir Redvers Buller had landed at Cape Town, and that he was in supreme command of the troops in Natal. We also knew that he was busy preparing himself for a grand attack upon our forces around Ladysmith, in order thus to relieve Sir George White there.
Towards the end of November General Joubert received reports every day of how matters were proceeding south of the Tugela. It was reported to him that large numbers of troops were continually arriving from Durban, and were occupying immense camps at Chieveley. Now, as it was impossible to know exactly where General Buller would try to break through, it was necessary to place commandos up and down the Tugela, with Colenso as a centre. This was done. Various Transvaal commandos took possession of the ridges opposite Colenso, and others were sent to the east of the railway across the river to Klangwane, a wooded hill a few miles east of the village, while General A. P. Cronje with from 1500 to 2000 men trekked about twelve miles to the west.
I will here mention the names of the Transvaal commandos that occupied the ridges opposite Colenso, because it was by them that the attack of General Buller was repulsed. They consisted, to begin with the most easterly wing, of a portion of the Krugersdorp Commando; next to them were in succession westward the burghers of Heidelberg, Boksburg, Johannesburg, the Swazieland Police; the Ermelo burghers and the Zoutpansberg Commando on the wing farthest west.
These men worked night and day digging trenches and throwing up earthworks. They did not make these works on the top of the mountain range, where one would have expected them to, but on low ridges close to the river. The enemy would thus, in case they attacked, first bombard the wrong places, and the troops would approach to within a very short distance of the position, and be subjected to a severe rifle fire, before they knew from whence they were being fired on.
The first days of December passed by, and although there was no attack, there were, however, signs every day to show that the English were making preparations, and all held themselves in readiness.
Two or three days before the 15th of December one of the Transvaal gunners, an Englishman, deserted, and as there was reason to fear that he might acquaint the enemy with the preparations that had been made to repulse an attack, General Louis Botha changed the positions of the guns and also made the men dig other trenches and throw up new earthworks. These trenches were dug on the level ground between the ridges I have mentioned above and the river. If the former trenches were made where the enemy would not expect them, this was still the case with the new ones which were now made, as the result proved.
On the 14th of December Commandant de Villiers rode in the direction of Colenso to see if he could discover any new developments in the preparations of the enemy. He came to the top of the high hill between Colenso and the Boer laagers around Ladysmith, and saw from there that the British troops were approaching nearer and nearer to the village. He computed them at about 10,000. "To-morrow," he said, on his return to the laager, "there will certainly be a battle"; and he asked me if I wished to go to the hill on the following day, in order to see what might take place. I answered that I would like to go. Early on the following morning, December 15th, we heard the roar of the great naval guns. Commandant de Villiers had not been mistaken. The battle had commenced.
I had my horse saddled and rode to the hill with a few burghers. There lay the tiny hamlet of Colenso about five thousand yards from where we stood, and down below with great curves the majestic Tugela flowed onward, calmly and placidly. But there was no calm on its banks. The ground shook with the thunder and reverberation of the great naval guns. Everywhere, on both sides of the river, upon Boer and Briton, the shells burst and the shrapnels exploded. Far away on the horizon seven or eight miles from us, a little to the west of the railway, I saw the great camps, looking like plantations of black-wattle trees, from which the troops had marched that morning. About two miles on this side of the camps, the batteries of British field-guns stood in an irregular semicircle, and in front of these the whole plain, for about three miles to the west of the railway and a mile and a half to the east of it, was covered with troops; not in compact masses, but widely scattered.
I also saw ambulance waggons riding to and fro. When the cannons fired, no volumes of smoke rose in the air as was the case with our Krupps, so if one looked for smoke as a sign that a gun was fired, one would never know that a shell had been despatched. But even in the broad glare of the day you could constantly see a small flash, and presently a terrific crash somewhere on our positions would proclaim that a great naval gun had been fired. Our projectiles too were aimed at the troops and guns down in the plain. I could continually see our shrapnels exploding there. And the tiny shells of our Maxim-Nordenfeldts created havoc among the troops; while thousands of little clouds of dust, like those which rise when the first great raindrops of a thunderstorm fall on a dusty road, showed where the Mauser bullets fell.
The scene constantly changed.
What also struck me was, that the hundreds of small objects which I saw down there were continually appearing and disappearing. I could not at first understand what this meant; but I soon perceived that when the objects seemed to rise from nowhere it meant that the soldiers were making some dash or other to a certain spot, and when they disappeared it meant that they were forced to lie down because of a destructive hail of bullets which was poured upon them. This was the state of affairs when I reached the top of the hill.
I must now relate something of what had taken place up to that moment. General Buller had ordered four brigades of troops early that morning to make an attack on us, supported by great naval and other cannon, with the purpose of breaking through our lines and forcing a way to Ladysmith. The troops had hardly commenced their advance before General Botha perceived it, and ordered that all the men's horses without exception should be taken away from the positions. He also issued a strict command that no one should fire a shot before he gave the signal by the firing of a cannon from one of the ridges behind the burghers. Our burghers lay behind their schanzes and awaited the enemy.
It was hardly daylight when they saw the English advance—covering a breadth of nearly eight miles—the one wing about four miles west of Colenso, and the other about three miles to the east. Presently the British cannon opened a tremendous fire on the ridges behind the burghers and the shrapnel burst everywhere with terrific sound. The noise was deafening, but our men did not answer. The English advanced, the flanks approaching nearer and nearer to the centre, and there were some of our officers who sent word to General Botha, beseeching him to give the order to fire. No. He let the English come nearer and nearer. Not a Boer could they see. Nearer and nearer the troops advanced. They became over confident. The Boers had certainly fled and left the road to Ladysmith open.
Suddenly General Botha gave the command. The cannon thundered forth the signal, and a fearful storm of lead fell upon the over-confident soldiers. They had not expected it, and the shock was terrible. Nevertheless they advanced, and continued pressing forward, only to be mown down by the withering fire of our Mausers.
In the meanwhile they had discovered where our burghers were, and a fierce cannonade was directed on them, which, however, wonderful to relate, did hardly any damage.
At last the troops ceased to advance on the west wing. It was then that I arrived on the hill. But in the centre attempts were still being made to break through, and in endeavouring to do this, they approached so near to the Boer positions, a little to the east of the railway line, that they could fire on the bodyguard of General Botha and on the Krugersdorp Commando from a distance of not more than eight hundred yards. Our men opened a terrible rifle fire on the gunners, and in a moment all was quiet. Not a single cannon there fired another shot.
The English perceived that they had brought twelve guns to a spot from whence they could not get them away again. Notwithstanding this they rushed in to save the guns. From the hill above I saw how the matter went, and I do not think that a more heroic deed was done in the whole war than the rush of the English to save those guns.
It was a magnificent sight!
Team after team of horses I saw galloping in the same direction. I saw how mercilessly they were mown down by the bullets of our Mausers and the shells of our Maxim-Nordenfeldts. I saw how they persevered in their efforts, till at last they ceased their attempts.
I could not, at the moment, understand what it all meant, and thought that the English were trying to take a position, whence they could rush across the bridge, and it was only in the evening that I heard that this splendid gallantry had been displayed in order to save the guns.
Two of the twelve guns were rescued, but the English could not get away the rest. General Botha made this impossible when he sent men through the river to fetch them. These men waded the stream breast high, and took positions so near the guns that it became absolutely impossible for the British to make any further attempts, and ten of the twelve guns fell into our hands together with a number of soldiers who were there.
General Botha had been the soul of everything in this great battle. He went from position to position encouraging his brave Transvaalers. Here he would direct their fire, and there he would send reinforcements. Everything was controlled by him.
Some days later I had a conversation with Colonel de Villebois, who had also been present at the battle. He said to me: "General Botha is a true General. I saw this during the battle of Colenso. If I discovered a weak point in the Boer positions, General Botha had perceived it before me, and was already busy strengthening it. He is a true General."
Shortly after midday all was over.
Sir Redvers Buller commanded that the troops should retire. His plan had been a great one, his troops had fought bravely, but they had failed, failed splendidly.
The Boers, on the other hand, had repulsed the terrible attack. But they did not ascribe it to their own efforts; no. General Botha telegraphed to his Government that evening: "The God of our fathers has given us a brilliant victory."
Our loss was, incredible as it may seem, seven killed, of whom one was drowned, and twenty wounded. There had not been more than 3000 men in the positions from whence the British had been repulsed!
On the following day Dingaan's Day was celebrated in all the laagers with excessive joy, as might be expected. The Africander nation perceived a new proof of God's protecting hand in what had happened on the previous day, and the future seemed bright.
On Monday, the 18th, I left for my home, in order to celebrate Christmas and New Year with my family. I remained at Harrismith till the 4th of January 1900.