On December 15th was fought the battle of Colenso, on the morning of a brilliant summer’s day. At dawn the men had marched out eagerly and in keen spirits, and with a swing of the shoulders which told of a certain victory. Before sundown they were beaten back, more than a thousand dead and wounded were lying on the field, the hospital tents were crammed to overflowing, and the wagons, which were prepared to move forwards, were moving back.
The small hamlet of Colenso, battered, empty, and woe-begone, stands on the south bank of the river, and clings about the railway as a homely, unpretending little settlement made up of a few corrugated iron cottages on either side of a single street.
It looks almost like a toy village, and its prim formality is tempered by a friendly growth of cactus, aloes, and mimosa, by a few trees and by many gardens. Behind Colenso is the veldt, which here extends southwards as a vast undulating plain to Chieveley, Frere, and Estcourt. Between Chieveley and the river the veldt is smooth, and is broken only by ant-hills, by a few Kaffir kraals, and by the precise line of the railway. The plain is green, but it is not the luxuriant green of England, and in the early morning and about the time of the setting sun, tints of yellow and brown and pink spread over the wold and render the place strangely beautiful.
During the glare of noonday the veldt gives simply a blinding sense of scorched and faded green and its monotony and its boundlessness, and the utter lack of shade and variation, make the expanse dreary as a desert.
Beyond the village the brown torrent of the great Tugela tears seawards between high banks and under broken bridges, and among the débris of pitiless ruin. Across the river are the bare, stony, trench-lined kopjes and hills held for so many long weeks by the Boers. About the foot of these bastion-like ridges is the squalor of a neglected camp, and on all sides are rifle pits and trenches and stone shelters and hidden holes. Man seems on this river bank to have gone back to the savagery of the cave dweller, and to be once more crawling on the earth. Beyond these low hills are the grey heights of Umbulwana towering over Ladysmith.
It was to the right of Colenso that the battle raged fiercest on December 15th, 1899. It was here that Colonel Long’s batteries of field artillery were surprised by the enemy and were abandoned after a hideous sacrifice of horses and men. It was here that Lieutenant Roberts received his fatal wound, and it was here that Babtie won the Victoria Cross.
The batteries were moving towards the river with the usual British unconcern, and in the quiet of a summer’s morning. Suddenly there was poured upon them from the shelter of a mimosa wood such a torrent of lead that in a few moments there was scarcely a horse or a man standing. The men faced the wood as only the British soldier can face death. The gallant attempts made to save the guns led only to further loss of life. Colonel Long had been shot down, some fifty horses had been sacrificed, and the scanty ranks of the English were thinning rapidly. Still the cry went up, "Hold fast to the guns!" and when the last forlorn hope had been attempted and had failed, the green veldt was littered with the wounded, the dying, and the dead.
Near by the guns was a donga, and into this many of the wounded had crawled. The galloper who took up the news of the disaster reported the need of help for the injured. To this call Major Babtie, R.A.M.C., at once responded as a volunteer. His duty did not take him to the battlefield. He rode down to this Inferno. He might as well have ridden before a row of targets during the smartest moment of rifle practice. Three times was his horse shot under him before he reached the donga. Here, in the face of a galling fire, he dragged the wounded into shelter, and a little later he ventured out under a rain of lead to bring in Lieutenant Roberts, who was lying in the open desperately wounded.
For some seven hours Babtie kept by the wounded in the shallow donga, no one daring to lift a head above the edge of the dip. He alone had a water-bottle, and he doled out what water he had in a 60-minim measuring glass. He was also able to relieve pain by morphine, and when not otherwise occupied he sheltered poor Roberts’s face from the scorching sun by holding above it a letter he chanced to have in his pocket. It was not until darkness was setting in that it was possible to venture from the scant shelter the donga provided.
The scene of this heroic act was a level stretch of green veldt lying between the river and a brown road which led with many desultory turns to Hlangwani. To the left were the village and gardens of Colenso, and to the right the grove of mimosa trees in which the Boer force was hidden. Beyond the river rose the enemy’s entrenchments and the grim ridge of Grobler’s Kloof.
The last time I passed over this spot was on the day after our cavalry had reached Ladysmith. It was on a day of peace. The sky was cloudless and no breath of air stirred along the grass. The bodies of the horses belonging to the lost guns were lying in a long line across the veldt. Their bones were as white as are the bones of museum skeletons, for the vultures and the ants had done their work thoroughly. The hides were still drawn over the bleaching bones, and round the necks of these ill-fated beasts were still the collars and the harness by which they had dragged the guns into action. There was an absolute stillness over the whole scene. To the left a train was being shunted at Colenso station with leisurely persistence, for the day was hot and the sun dazzling. To the right were the mimosa groves, glorious with yellow blossom, in the shadows of which the Boers had hidden. It was strange that it was from these dainty woods that the hellish fire had poured forth which laid low so many gallant English lads, for on this quiet day the trees were busy with complaining doves.
By the banks of the donga, which had been for a whole summer’s day a valley of the shadow of death, a Kaffir was crooning over a concertina, from which came a lazy, dirge-like music.
The railway engine, the doves, and the rapt Kaffir were the sole moving objects in this garden of peace, and in the blue distance was the ridge of Grobler’s Kloof, no longer belching fire and shell, but standing out delicately against the tender sky.
No brave deed had ever a gentler setting.