I depart for the front with a Q.-F. Battery from H.M.S. Terrible—Concentration of General Buller's army at Frere and Chieveley—Preliminary bombardment of the Boer lines at Colenso—The attack and defeat at Colenso—Christmas Day in camp.
On the 6th December there was much rejoicing in the fleet on account of an order from Headquarters that a battery of eight Naval guns was to go to the front to reinforce Sir Redvers Buller. Lieutenant Ogilvy, of the Terrible, was appointed to command, while Melville of the Forte, Deas of the Philomel, and myself, were the next fortunate three who were to accompany it. The battery, drilled and previously prepared by Captain Scott and Lieutenant Drummond, entrained the next day (7th) for its destination; but as I had to remain behind awaiting a wire from Headquarters, I was unable to start till the next morning, when I left for Frere, accompanied by my servant, Gilbert of the Marines. What a day of excitement we passed through, and how much we, who were off to the front, felt for those left behind! I gave over command of the Philomel to Lieutenant Hughes, the men gave me three cheers, and I left Durban amid many farewells and congratulations at my good luck.
Reaching Pietermaritzburg early on the 8th, we went onwards after breakfast to Estcourt. The railway is a succession of sharp curves and steep gradients and is a single line only. All the bridges on the line are carefully guarded, as far as Mooi River, by Natal Volunteers. I (p. 012) was much struck with the outlook all the way to Estcourt; a very fine country, beautifully green, with a succession of hills, valleys, and small isolated woods; in fact, if the country was more cultivated one might have thought it England, but it seems to be mostly grass land and mealy (Indian corn) fields. At Mooi River a farmer got into the train who had been driven from his farm near Estcourt when the Boers invaded Natal; he had lost all his cattle and clothes, while everything on his farm had been wantonly destroyed, and the poor fellow was now returning to the wreck with his small daughter.
On reaching Estcourt in the afternoon we found to our dismay that we could not get on any further for the moment; so I walked up to see Halsey of the Philomel, at his camp about half a mile from the station, and took him some newspapers. We had a bathe in the Tugela River, and I afterwards met Wyndham of the 60th Rifles who was A.D.C. to the Governor of Ceylon while I was Flag-Lieutenant to Admiral Douglas, and we were mutually pleased to meet again so unexpectedly. The Somersets marched in during the course of the morning from Nottingham Road; they all looked very fit, but seem to have the somewhat unpopular duty of holding the lines of communication.
Here I met also Lady Sykes and Miss Kennedy, doing nursing; they were staying at a Red Cross sort of convent close to the station. Lady Sykes gave me some books and wished me the best of luck, at which I was pleased. I believe she is writing a book of her experiences in the war and I shall be much interested to read it when I get home. It came on to pour with rain, with vivid lightning, about 8 p.m., so I was thankful to be under cover at the station; the poor soldiers outside were being washed out of their tents, and some unfortunate Natal Mounted (p. 013) Volunteers, who only arrived an hour beforehand, had no tents at all and had a very poor time of it.
Eventually I got off by train next morning (9th) for Frere, Captain Reeves, R.S.O., of the Buffs, who did me many kindnesses later on, having secured a compartment for me in a carriage which was shunted for the night, and in which I was very comfortable, although disturbed by continuous shuntings of various trains and carriages which made one realize how much work was falling on the railway officials and employés. In our train were fifty Natal Naval Volunteers under Lieutenants Anderton and Chiazzari. I was much struck with their good appearance and their silent work in stowing their gear in the train, and I realized their worth all the more when they joined up later on with our Brigade; all staid, oldish men, full of go and well dressed, while their officers were very capable, with a complete knowledge of the country.
We reached Frere Station on the morning of the 10th, passing the sad sight of the Frere railway bridge completely wrecked by the Boers. I walked out to the camp and had never seen such a fine sight before; rows and rows of tents stretching for miles, and an army of about 20,000 men. I found our electric search-light party at the station waiting to go on, and I was thankful to get a breakfast with them. Eventually our train moved on to the camp of the Naval batteries, about 2-½ miles due north of Frere, and I at once marched up with the Natal Naval Volunteers, reported myself to Captain Jones, and joined my guns, finding all the rest of the Naval officers here, viz.: Captain Jones, Commander Limpus, and Lieutenants Ogilvy, Melville, Richards, Deas, Hunt, and Wilde, with half a dozen "Mids" of the Terrible. In camp were two 4.7 guns on the new field mounting, one battery of eight 12-pounders, and another of four 12-pounder quick-firers.
(p. 014) On Sunday afternoon (10th December) an impressive Church service was held in the open, with ourselves forming the right face of the square along with Hart's Irish Brigade. In the course of next day (11th) I rode up to see James' battery on the kopje to our front defending the camp, and got my first glimpse of Colenso and the country around, some ten miles off. I found that James's guns had very mobile limbers which he had built at Maritzburg, very different to our cumbersome wagons with guns tied up astern. In the afternoon Melville and I had tea with General Hart who was very agreeable and kind, and said he knew my father, and my aunt, Lady Brind, very well.
In the evening orders suddenly came for Limpus' battery of 4.7's, my two 12-pounders, and Richards' four 12-pounders to advance the next morning (12th) at 4 a.m. to Chieveley, some seven miles from the Boer lines; and here again I was in luck's way as being one of the fortunates ordered to the front. All was now bustle and hurry to get away, and eventually the line of Naval guns, some two miles long with ammunition and baggage wagons, moved out in the gray of morning over the hills, with an escort of Irish Fusiliers, who looked very smart, "wearin' of the green" in their helmets.
We reached Chieveley at 8 p.m. (12th), after a long, dusty march, and got into position next morning on a small kopje about two miles to its front, called afterwards "Gun Hill." Guns were unlimbered and shell pits dug, while the wagons were all placed under cover; we received orders on arrival for immediate action, and at 9.30 a.m. we commenced shelling the enemy at a range of 9,500 yards. The 4.7 guns on the right fired the first shot, my two 12-pounders followed quickly, and a desultory shell fire went on for some hours. At my position we dug pits (p. 015) for the gun trails in order to get a greater elevation, and we plumped one or two shots on the trenches near the Colenso Bridge. The shooting of the 4.7's, with their telescopic sights and easy ranging, was beautiful; shell after shell, many of them lyddite, burst in the Boer trenches, and we soon saw streams of Boer wagons trekking up the valley beyond, while at the same time one of the Boer camps, 10,000 yards off, was completely demolished.
All this time our Biograph friends from home were gaily taking views of us, and they took two of myself and my guns while firing. Of course, the anxious officers of batteries had to lay the guns personally at this early stage, and every shot was a difficult matter, as at the extreme range we were firing, with the lengthening pieces on, the sighting was rather guesswork, and we had to judge mainly by the explosion at a distance of five and a half miles. We were all done up after our exertions under a broiling sun, and hence were not used any more that day (12th). Behind us we saw miles of troops and transport on the march onwards, which gave us the idea, and also probably the Boers, that Buller was planning a forward attack; and indeed, late at night on the 13th, the 4.7 Battery was told to move on to a kopje two miles in advance; my own guns, with the Irish Fusiliers being left to protect the ground on which we were then camped.
Orders came shortly afterwards for a general advance to the Tugela, and Captain Jones told me that I had been given the rear and left to defend from all flank attacks, and that I was to move on at daybreak of the 15th to an advanced kopje and place myself under Colonel Reeves of the Irish Fusiliers. All was now excitement; the first great fight was at length to come off and our fellows were full of confidence.
At 2 a.m., pitch dark, after a lot of hard work to get (p. 016) our guns ready, we struck camp; up rode Colonel Reeves with his regiment and threw out an advanced guard, and out we tramped and crossed the railway. Here we found all the field guns and Infantry on the move, and had great difficulty in getting on; but at last, at 5 a.m., we reached the desired kopje where I had been sent on to select gun positions. Before us stretched the battlefield for four miles to Colenso and the river; the Boers across the Tugela occupied an enormously strong position flanked by hills, all their trenches were absolutely hidden, and gun positions seemed to be everywhere. The iron bridge of Colenso was plainly visible through my telescope and was intact, and to all intents and purposes there was not a soul anywhere in sight to oppose our advance.
The Naval Battery of 4.7 and the 12-pounders under Captain Jones quickly got into position in front of us, and on all sides we saw our troops being thrown forward in extended order, forming a front of about four miles, with Cavalry thrown out on the flanks and field batteries galloping up the valley to get into range at 4,000 yards. All was dead silence till about 5.30 a.m., when the Naval guns commenced a heavy shell fire on the Boer positions. It was a fine sight; shell after shell poured in for an hour on the Boer trenches at a range of 5,000 yards, and all was soon one mass of smoke and flame. Not a sound came in reply till our troops reached the river bank, when the most terrific rifle fire I have ever heard of, or thought of, in my life, was opened from the Boer rifle pits and trenches on the river bank which had completely entrapped our men. Colonel Long, in command of the Artillery on the right of the line, unwittingly or by order, led his batteries in close intervals to within easy rifle range of those pits, when suddenly came this hail of bullets, which in a few minutes completely wrecked two (p. 017) field batteries (the 14th and 66th Batteries), killed their horses and a large number of the men, and threw four of the Naval 12-pounders under Ogilvy into confusion, although he was fortunately able to bring the guns safely out of action in a most gallant manner, with the loss of a few men wounded and thirty-seven oxen.
Many brave deeds were done here. Schofield, Congreve, Roberts, Reed, and others of the R.A. specially distinguished themselves by galloping-in fresh teams or using the only horses left in the two batteries, and bringing two guns out of action. With others at this spot poor Roberts met a heroic death and Colonel Long was badly wounded.
The firing all along the river bank was now frightful; shells from well-concealed Boer batteries played continuously upon our troops; the sun was also fearfully hot without a breath of air; and about 9 a.m. we noticed a sort of retiring movement on the left and centre of our position, and saw men straggling away to the rear by ones and twos completely done up, and many of them wounded. A field battery on the left had a hot time of it just at this moment and drew out of action for a breather quite close to our guns. I myself saw a dozen shells from the Boers go clean through their ranks, although, happily, they did not burst and did but little injury. Our troops were admirably steady throughout this hot shell fire.
Our Naval guns on Gun Hill, at about 5,000 yards range, were hard at it all this time trying to silence the Boer guns, and the lyddite shells appeared to do great damage; but the enemy never really got their range in return, and many of their shells pitched just in front of my own guns with a whiz and a dust which did us no harm. A little 1-pounder Maxim annoyed us greatly (p. 018) with its cross fire, like a buzzing wasp; it was fired from some trees in Colenso village, and enfiladed our Infantry in the supporting line, which was in extended order; but it did not do much damage so far as I could see, although it was cleverly shifted about and seemed to be impossible to silence.
By 11 a.m. (15th) we saw that our left attack was a failure; exhausted men of the Connaughts and Borderers poured in saying that their regiments had been cut up; and, indeed, many of their officers and men were shot and many drowned, in gallant attempts to cross the Tugela. Soon the ground was a mass of ambulance wagons, and stretcher parties bringing in the wounded; and a mournful sight, indeed, it was! The centre attack also failed, our men retiring quite slowly and in good order.
On the right, where the object of the advance was to carry a hill called Hlangwane, which was afterwards recognised to be the key of the whole position, our men, owing to want of numbers, could make but a feeble attack and were unable, unsupported, to pass the rifle pits which had been dug all along the valley in front of the hill. The Cavalry were, of course, of no use behind a failing Infantry attack with a river in front of them, and although extended to either flank it never got a chance to strike.
At 1 p.m. all firing ceased, except an intermittent fusillade by the Boers on our ambulance tents till they saw the red cross, when this ceased; the troops were all retired in mass to their original positions, and I myself had to clear out my guns as best I could to our old camping ground in the rear. To crown all, it came on to rain heavily about 5 p.m. by which we all got a good wetting. On our march back I had a few minutes of interesting talk with General Barton.
(p. 019) For many days all sorts of rumours flew about as to our losses at Colenso, which we afterwards found to be ten guns captured, fifty officers and 852 rank and file killed and wounded, and twenty-one officers and 207 N.C.O.'s and men missing and prisoners, a sad and unexpected end to our day's operations. An armistice to bury the dead was asked for by our people, and agreed to, but I do not believe that the Boer losses were at all heavy; and I am persuaded that if instead of the insufficient heavy batteries at Colenso, we could have had at the front, say two more batteries of 4.7 guns and two batteries of six 6" Q.-F., the Colenso disaster might never have happened. Against the fire of such guns, for say a week, moved up properly to within effective range, with reconnaissances carefully made and with an Infantry attack well pushed home in the end, I do not think that the Boers could or would have stayed in their positions; and I am confirmed in this opinion by a good many after experiences.
Saturday, 16th December.—Had a peaceful night and slept well, all being very much exhausted by the previous day's fighting and hot sun; we were kept very busy marking out ground for the Naval batteries which were all massed once more on our old camping ground.
Sunday, 17th December.—Commenced shelling Colenso Bridge at noon with a view to destroy it; but after a few rounds the order was cancelled and we again returned to camp.
Monday, 18th December.—Stood to arms at 4 a.m., then went to general quarters for action, when the 4.7 guns opened fire at daylight on Colenso Bridge for about two hours with lyddite, at a range of 7,300 yards. Lieutenant Hunt, on the left, struck one of the piers with a shell and took the roof off a small house close by; otherwise not (p. 020) much harm was done. It was a frightfully hot and depressing day with a wind like air from a furnace; and, bad luck to it, directly the sun was down at 5 p.m. a heavy dust storm came on which covered everything in a moment with black filthy dust, followed by vivid lightning and drenching rain which was quite a treat to us dried-up beings. I myself succeeded in catching a tubful of water which ensured me a good wash and a refreshing sleep for the night.
Tuesday, 19th December.—A cool nice morning and all the men in good spirits. At 8 a.m. the 4.7 guns opened fire again on Colenso Bridge. Lieutenant England's gun—the right 4.7 gun—knocked the bridge away; a very lucky and good shot, at which, needless to say, Sir F. Clery was very pleased.
Wednesday, 20th December.—Again a nice and cool day. In the evening I fired my 12-pounders at trees and villages to the left of Fort Wylie; the 4.7 gun, manned by the Natal Naval Volunteers, also did good work. We are now living like fighting-cocks, as the field canteen is open, with many delicacies, about half-a-mile to our rear. We also received unexpectedly to-day, with acclamation, lots of letters and English papers.
Thursday, 21st December.—Stood to arms at 4 a.m. and commenced firing about 6 a.m., in a very good light; my own guns were directed on the rifle pits 8,500 to 9,000 yards away, on the other side of the Tugela River. At this range the ammunition carries badly and the guns shoot indifferently. I put some common shells, however, into the enemy's rifle pits, but we are all getting tired of this sort of desultory firing and existence.
Saturday, 23d December.—About 8.30 a.m. the Commander-in-Chief and Sir F. Clery and Staff, accompanied by the foreign attachés, rode up to our guns and stayed (p. 021) for an hour sketching the hills on the right of Colenso, which I presume is now our objective. Mr. Escombe, late Premier of Natal, was also up with us all day watching our firing. Captain Jones also came to ask me to represent the Naval Brigade on the Sports Committee for Christmas Day; so I went down to General Barton's tent, met Colonel Bethune, Captain Nicholson, and others, and we arranged a good programme between us.
Sunday, 24th December.—No firing to-day. Church Parade at 8 a.m., when we brigaded with the Irish Brigade. A very large stock of beer, cakes, pine-apples, and other good things arrived in camp for the Natal Naval Volunteers; they gave a good share to our fellows who were very pleased, having none, and all are now busy preparing their plum-puddings for Christmas Day.
Christmas Day, 25th December.—We stood to arms at 4 a.m., but orders came for the guns not to fire. I was up at 5.30 a.m. to take my Sports party down to camp for the Brigade events. Our men won the Brigade Tug-of-war right out, and got great fun out of the wrestling on horseback on huge Artillery steeds, so that we came back to camp very elated. At 3 p.m. we marched down again for the finals in Sports; our fellows rigged up an Oom Paul and a Naval gent on a gun limber; this we dragged all round the camps and created quite a furore. The heat and dust were awful in the sports, but we pulled them off on the whole successfully, and all came back to camp tired out. I had my Christmas dinner with the Irish Fusiliers, who had drawn out an amusing menu of Whisky Powerful, Champagne Terrible, Cutlets à l'Oom Paul, and so on. I thought much of my people and friends at home, and was glad enough to get to bed without the prospect of any night alarm or attack, after such a big dinner.