EVENTS OF 15TH DECEMBER
On the morning of the 15th December the troops moved into their appointed positions. My intention was that they should remain there, out of fire and at ease, while from Gun Hill I ascertained by practice the accurate range of all the points from which opposition could be offered to our advance. As the guns were getting into position I noticed that the 5th Brigade were advancing beyond the position that I had allotted to them, and sent at once to stop them. My messenger was delayed by bad ground, and the brigade, continuing to advance, came under fire.
Very shortly afterwards they received from me an order by a second messenger to withdraw at once out of range. This they complied with; but as they were doing so I saw a very considerable body of Boers moving to a position from whence I thought they intended to make a flank attack upon the now retreating 5th Brigade. I therefore directed General Lyttelton, who was in reserve, to move to his left, and cover the withdrawal of the 5th Brigade, supporting him by Colonel Parsons’s brigade division.
While this was passing I had observed that Colonel Long, with Hunt’s brigade division and the Naval 12-pounder gun, had also advanced beyond their allotted position. He had come into action, and was firing so rapidly as to satisfy me at once that he was too close to the enemy. I immediately dispatched an officer, whom I directed to ascertain if the batteries were suffering from the enemy’s fire, and if so, to order them to withdraw immediately. He went, returned, and told me that the batteries were all right. Very shortly afterwards they ceased firing. Surmising that something must be wrong, I at once galloped off to my right, meeting as I went two officers who had been with Colonel Long. Each of them informed me that the guns had been abandoned, having fired away all their ammunition — one of them said, “ Very nearly all are lost every officer and man of the detachments killed or wounded. Colonel Long himself was described as dangerously wounded.
I at once went to General Hildyard, and told him that the guns had got into trouble, and that I was going to try and extricate them, that I thought it would be impossible for me to attack at all that day, and that for the present I certainly could not. I directed him to advance two of his battalions, and open as much fire as he could from a position which I pointed out on the left of the guns, but charged him on no account to commit his men to an engagement. Proceeding to a point behind the guns, I made an endeavour to withdraw them, sending out four limbers for that purpose. Of these two were successful, and withdrew two guns; the horses and men of the other two limbers were shot down. I then moved to my right, and saw Colonel Lord Dundonald and General Barton. Dundonald’s men were engaged with the Boers, who were attacking from Hlangwane. General Barton had only two battalions left in hand, having at Colonel Long’s request supported him with one battalion and a half, while the remaining half battalion was in charge of the parked transport and baggage. Returning to my former place behind the guns, I withdrew all the wagons, and made another but unsuccessful attempt to withdraw some guns. I consulted on the spot with General Clery as to the possibility of devising some means to save the guns without a sacrifice of lives absolutely disproportionate to their value. As we neither of us could conceive of any means by which they could be extricated, I, with his concurrence, decided that they must be abandoned. I have only to add that, in my own belief, their withdrawal on that day or night was a physical impossibility, and that it was equally impossible to prevent their withdrawal by the enemy; and if required, I shall he glad to give my reasons in full detail. I then ordered the retirement of the whole force to their bivouac, which was effected without the least trouble.
CONSIDERATIONS AS TO FUTURE POLICY
On retiring to camp the following situation presented itself to me: —The Boers had displayed considerable strength on all the surrounding hills. I was evidently not strong enough to get into Ladysmith by the Colenso route unless I received help from General White. I was satisfied that another division added to Methuen’s force would accomplish the relief of Kimberley, and the same addition to my own force the relief of Ladysmith. But this meant a reinforcement in all of two divisions, and I had but one to hand. The question was whether I could make one division do the work of two, and in that case in which of the two services it should be first employed. I should have preferred to have relieved Kimberley first, assuming that Ladysmith could have held out until my return, had I not feared that my departure from Natal might encourage the Boers to make a more resolute attack upon Ladysmith than the garrison could resist. I knew that the Boers were afraid of me— I will not pause to discuss whether I deserved the compliment, but I knew it—and I should have failed in my duty if I had neglected to take the fact into account. This consideration determined me to give priority to Ladysmith. But, on the other hand, the Government had already ordered the 5th Division to Modder River. I could only assume that this order had been given in deference to the representations of the High Commissioner. He. not I, had been the adviser of the Government. I therefore embodied in the following telegram to the Secretary of State the opinions which I had already expressed on the 13th in my letter to him and in my telegram to General Forestier-Walker:—“No. 87, cipher-, 15th December. My failure to-day raises a serious question. I do not think I am now strong enough to relieve White. Colenso is a fortress which I think if not taken on a rush could only be taken by a siege. There is no water within eight miles of the point of attack, and in this weather that exhausts infantry. The place is fully entrenched. I do not think either a Boer or a gun was seen by us all day, yet the fire brought to bear was very heavy. Our infantry was quite ready to fight, but were absolutely exhausted by the intense heat. My view is that I ought to let Ladysmith go. and occupy good positions for the defence of South Natal, and let time help us. But that is a step on which I ought to consult you. I consider that we were in face of 20,000 men to-day. They had the advantage, both in arms and in position. They admit they suffered severely, but my men have not seen a dead Boer, and that dispirits them. My losses have not been very heavy. I could have made them much heavier, but the result would have been the same. The moment I failed to get in on the run I was beat. I now feel that I cannot say I can relieve Ladysmith with my available force, and the best thing I can suggest is that I should occupy defensive positions and fight it out in a country better suited to our tactics.—Buller.”
I hoped hereby to elicit from the Government a definite opinion as to the course which they judged it expedient for me to pursue. They had committed themselves to a preference for the relief of Kimberley; on what ground I could only conjecture. I therefore laid before them my opinion, from a military standpoint, as to the measures best fitted to meet the situation as it stood in consequence of their interposition. It was for them to decide how far military should be modified by political considerations, or the reverse.
On this same day (16th), I received information from Cape Colony, which pointed to the fact that the enemy were pressing their attack upon Gatacre.