British conceal extent of disaster—The Boer Identity Department —Its report of Boer casualties—Why British lost the battle— How the Tugela could have been crossed—Artillery lessons of the fight—Captain Pretorius—Superiority of the individual Boer—Buller's exaggeration of Botha's strength—Villebois-Mareuil's part in the battle—Heroism of Irish contingent
In his report of the victory of Colenso, General Botha complained of the misuse of ambulance wagons by the British during the engagement. In several instances while the fight was fiercest these wagons were driven right into the firing line, one wagon coming within 500 yards of the river, and offering cover to men who were actively engaged in the conflict. Worse than this, however, was the deliberate action of certain officers, who took the horses from one of these ambulance wagons to harness to the Armstrong batteries, round which the desperate struggle for repossession of Colonel Long's guns waged. It was, in fact, a matter of Boer belief that the two rescued guns were got away in this manner by means of English ambulance horses. This was a glaring and deliberate violation of the Bed Cross ensign. The action was seen by every Boer officer of Botha's center, as the whole proceeding took place within 700 yards of where they were witnesses to the act.
No battle was ever fought between armies of civilized nations which showed such an astounding disparity both in the number of combatants on each side, and of casualties. On the British side it was admitted that 1,147 men were killed and wounded, with close upon 200 taken prisoners. This was not, however, an accurate account of General Buller's losses. General Botha estimated these at 2,000, all told, and it was confidently asserted by Boer officers and press men who were present on the battle-field when the killed and wounded were being removed that the English had concealed the real extent of their casualties in their published reports of the fight. A similar charge has been made, it is true, against the Boers by English war correspondents. It is a fact, however, that on October 19, 1900. ten months after the battle of Colenso, a list of casualties was published by the British War Office, which included several names, followed by the statement, " Killed at Colenso, December 15, 1899." If it is allowed that the total casualties on the English side amounted to 1,500—including prisoners—this figure would represent a loss for General Buller's army, in this one battle, equal to nearly one-third of the total Boer fighting force which inflicted it.
The Boer losses at Colenso were so small that many friends of the Federal cause were incredulous as to the correctness of the returns. The British press loudly protested that the truth was being concealed, declaring that Botha's casualties would, at least, be equal to those of Buller's. Had not the Boer positions been bombarded with lyddite and other shells for two whole days previous to the actual battle? And were there not forty or fifty guns employed against the same positions for the six hours during which the fight continued on the 15th? How, therefore, could the Boers escape with so few killed and wounded?
I was told by General Botha, when discussing these and other facts relating to this battle, that he had ordered one of his officers to count the number of shells which were fired by Buller's batteries at the Boer positions during the two days preceding the main attack upon the Boer lines. " Nineteen hundred and sixty shells were so fired," said the general, " without a single man on our side being hit."
General Botha would be absolutely incapable of resorting to so paltry and unsoldierly a subterfuge as that of concealing the number of his killed. The attempt could not succeed, even if made. The Boer military system renders such deception practically impossible. Men in commandoes group themselves in tents, either as chums, as neighbors when at home, or otherwise; the commandoes being organized territorially, not indiscriminately. These men fight side by side, and return to their laagers and tents together, if not killed or wounded. The absence of a single man would, therefore, be known immediately after an engagement, and his fate as killed, wounded, or missing could not be concealed from his comrades or family.
Another word, however, remains to be said on this point. There was in Pretoria from the commencement of hostilities an Identity Department, whose duties consisted in ascertaining the names of the Boer dead on each battle-field, the number of the killed and wounded, and all other necessary information. Professor Molen-graaff was the head of this Department, which was a Transvaal Branch of the Red Cross Society of Geneva. He issued cards at the outbreak of hostilities to all burghers in the Federal armies. These cards were headed, " Identity Department of the Transvaal Branch of the Bed Cross Society, Pretoria," and contained specified space for the following information: " Name of bearer. Age. Residence. Commando." On the side of the card there was printed, in very plain type the following direction: " In ease of the bearer being killed or wounded, you are requested to send this card through the nearest commanding officer or responsible official to the Identity Department above mentioned." The card also contained the words: " The Identity Department of the Bed Cross Society will forward to English authorities information about wounded English soldiers who might be made prisoners. Telegraphic address— Molengraaff, Pretoria."
I had the advantage of meeting at Osspruit Camp, 0. F. S., the officer of the Pretoria Bed Cross Society who reported to Professor Molengraaff the number of killed and wounded on the Boer side at the battle of Colenso. He was present during the whole of the fighting. His credentials read as follows:
" H. S. Osterhagen, member of Professor Molengraaff's Identity Department, Bed Cross Society of Geneva, Transvaal Branch, Head Committee: We hereby certify that bearer, H. S. Osterhagen, is an active and enrolled member of the Identity Department of this Society, and is entitled to the mark of neutrality and the privilege of the Geneva Convention.
" Pretoria, 8th November, 1899.
" H. H. Sheppard,
" Acting Secretary.
" Dr. B. M. Molenguaaff,
" Chief of the Identity Department."
Mr. Osterhagen showed me his report book, containing the figures of the Boer killed and wounded at Colenso. The entry read as follows: " Battle of Colenso, December 15,1899. Number of Federal wounded, 27; number of killed, 6!"
There are four reasons why the British lost the battle of Colenso and with it so many men more than the Boers: The incredible incapacity of the enemy's generals; the astounding inefficiency of the English artillery; the absence of real fighting capacity in the "crack" regiments under Buller's command; and the play of the very opposite qualities on the side of the Boer forces. The bare facts of the battle conclusively establish these four propositions.
There was only one way in which the Tugela could have been crossed under Buller's plan where he attempted and disastrously failed in his effort to get over. That was by a reckless courage akin to that of Colonel Long's in his daring but unsustained effort to retrieve the fortunes of the day with his twelve guns. These batteries might have told a different story of the fight had they and the other thirty-four guns been effectively utilized in covering a really determined resolve on the part of Buller's army first to seize and hold Langwani, and then to cross the river at all cost at the bridle drift. It would probably have added a loss of 1,000 more men to the already heavy loss of the British, but this would have been a loss that would have won a battle, in place of a battle lost in humiliating defeat.
It has been demonstrated again and again in this war, and notably at Colenso, that a few quick-firing guns, admirably served by capable artillerists, were more effective in their work than an imposing array of batteries badly handled. The primary object of artillery in a war may be to demoralize, rather than to kill, the enemy; to unnerve his riflemen in their fire, and to cover with the shield of flying and bursting shells the application of the weapon which does most of the killing and wounding in battle. The Boer gunners, however, handled their few cannon with as keen an aim as that which enabled the burghers to make their Mauser fire the deadliest ever recorded of rifle work in war. In no single engagement from Talana to Dalmanutha, excepting Modderspruit, had the Boers more than one gun to six of their enemy's, and it has frequently happened that a solitary pom-pom or quick-firing Krupp has engaged and silenced a whole British battery. The explanation is not flattering to the British military system or to the individual worth of the English soldier, but the facts of this war will make it impossible to ignore the striking superiority of the Boer marksman over Tommy Atkins, whether in rifle or artillery practise, or in any other soldierly quality.
It was not by Mauser fire alone that Buller's guns were silenced and driven off the field at Colenso. The Mauser had to attend to the three attacking divisions, and dealt only with the British batteries when these came within the zone of rifle fire, as in the case of Colonel Long's guns. It was the single pom-pom and the four Creusots and Krupps, so magnificently worked by Pretorius and his men, which fought the British naval guns and the eight batteries of field artillery for five hours, and finally enabled 200 Boers to ride through the " impassable" Tugela, and bring ten of the British guns as a trophy for Pretorius' skill and daring in triumph across the same river, within less than 7,000 yards of the other five or six batteries of English artillery.
There will-be food for military critics to digest in the artillery records of this war. A book by Captain Pretorius on his labors and experience in the campaign from Talana to Dalmamitha would be an invaluable contribution to military studies. His general plan was simplicity itself, but it was common sense in action. His few guns were of the best, thanks to the wisdom of the Boer Government. He relied more upon two or three guns, with an abundance of ammunition in any emergency, than upon a larger number that would attract too much responsive fire by their play, and require also too large a supply of ammunition to ensure a safe and rapid service. Mobility, too, was an essential feature of his plans, and the practical immunity which he secured for his guns was due to a constant shifting of them from one to another position during the progress of the battle, thereby foiling the range of his adversary's fire. The vast superiority of the young Boer gunners in clearness of vision, extreme quickness in finding correct range, and in accuracy of aim over their English adversaries, was apparent in every engagement. All these conditions prevailed in favor of the Boer artillery, and when they were applied against the lumbering British system of numerous guns badly served, and the tempting targets of massed Tommies, often ordered to where there was neither cover nor a tenable position, it is no wonder that at Modderspruit, Willow Grange, Colenso, Stormberg, Spion Kop, Magersfontein, and Paardeberg the loss of the English in killed and wounded was so enormously disproportioned to the casualties on the Boer side.
But the real determining factor in the great fight at Colenso was the marked superiority of the Boer, as a man, over the individual English soldier. Physically, mentally, and morally the veldt Dutchman, reared on the farms of the country for which he was fighting as head of a family, was, for a South African campaign, as much more capable than the uniformed anemic product of British city and slum life, trained under 'a brainless military system which teaches a soldier to do nothing except as he is ordered by " his superiors," as a finished athlete is in strength and muscle above a factory operative disguised in Tommy Atkins's toggery. In health and strength, in powers of endurance, in clearness of vision and consequent accuracy of aim, in .nerves free from the shaky effects of dissipation, in the capacity of individual initiative, and, above all,' in the consciousness of moral manhood sustained by religious conviction, the average Boer of Botha's little army on the Tugela was a match for any five of the kind of men whom Buller had, tho these were accounted the crack regiments of the British army. •
General Buller, following the example of Lord Methuen, grossly exaggerates the strength of his antagonist at Colenso in his report of the battle. He says: " I think the force opposed to us must altogether have equaled our own! " The British force engaged in the fight has been estimated at 23,000; and this is an English estimate. Other accounts put down Buller's total strength at 21,000 men, with 30 field pieces (the 7th, 14th, 63rd, 64th, and 66th batteries of artillery) and 16 naval guns, including fourteen twelve-pounders and two 4.7 pieces throwing a 50-lb. lyddite shell.
As a matter of absolute fact, Botha had no more than half the commandoes which fought against White at Modderspruit on the 30th of October, the other moiety being engaged in the siege of Ladysmith. His men would not at the utmost exceed 5,000; and of these the Middelburg and Free State burghers—numbering close on 2,000 men—were not in the engagement; their position on the Ladysmith road not having been attacked in any way by the enemy, and not a single shot, consequently, being fired by them in the battle.
General Botha has declared in an interview that he had only five guns. " My artillery consisted of four guns and one Maxim (pompom), under Captain Pretorius, and while I am talking I would like to give the highest praise to that officer. He is the son of Henning Pretorius, formerly lieutenant-colonel of the Transvaal Artillery. The courage he displayed is almost past belief. He rode in the most fearless fashion up and down our lines, from one gun to another, exposed every minute to death, and the inspiriting effect he had on his men was something to remember. Such courage I have never seen excelled." Generous praise, indeed, but no more than what was deserved by the man who with a single battery fought and beat thirty English field pieces and sixteen naval— lyddite-throwing—guns. Pretorius is aged about thirty-five years, is as dark as an Italian, with deep, flashing eyes; stands five feet ten inches in height, straight as a lance, and looks the very figure of an ideal soldier. He speaks no English. His father was one of the founders of the Transvaal Artillery.
In each English account of this battle it is affirmed that the Boers occupied rifle-pits on the south side of the river. This is untrue. Except at Langwani, there was not a single burgher on that side of the Tugela until the Krugersdorp men and Johannesburg Police went over for the British guns. Pits had been dug south of the river by the English when in occupation of Colenso in November, and on these being seen by British correspondents after the battle on the 15th December, it was assumed that they had been occupied by Boer riflemen.
There were no guns on Fort Wylie; no barbed wire in the Tugela; no damming of the river at the bridle drift, and no guns nearer where Hart's brigade attempted to cross the stream than the two Creusot fifteen-pounders on each side of the Ladysmith road, and a Krupp howitzer midway between the drift and the wagon bridge, it was this latter gun which sent the shells into the Dublin Fusiliers when nearing the drift in the morning. The Krupp quick-firer and solitary pom-pom were on the small kopje, next to Fort Wylie, serving at Botha's center.
Another English fiction gives to Colonel Villebois-Mareuil the credit of planning the Boer lines of defense at Colenso, and with being the active military assessor of Louis Botha during the battle. It flattered British military vanity to think that Buller's army was beaten by French tactics and not by Boer generalship. Colonel Villebois only arrived on the Tugela on the evening of the 13th of December, and did not see or meet General Botha until the following morning, the eve of the battle. He says in his diary that it was he who advised Botha to occupy Langwani. This hill, however, had already been prepared for occupation, as the existence of its deep trenches and strong sangars on the 15th amply demonstrated. No. Colenso was a Boer victory in every sense, and its hero was Louis Botha.
When the English guns were caught within the circle of Mauser fire from the Krugersdorp men, Botha sent for reenforccments for this position, and men galloped in from the right, where Hart's brigade had been made to bite the dust by the Swaziland burghers. Twenty men of Blake's corps were with Colonel Trichardt in the rear, near the position held by the Middclburg Boers, and theIrishmen were among the first to ride over the space swept by the other English batteries to the aid of the Krugersdorp commando. Some of them also formed part of the mixed body of Krugersdorp men, Johannesburg Police, and other burghers who crossed the Tugela and brought the Armstrong guns in triumph through the " impassable " river. The two men who had the honor of reaching the guns first, and who were wounded by Bullock's Devons, were Adjutants Grey and Ackernian, of Ward 2, Krugersdorp commando. It was Cherrie Emmet who commanded the contingent sent by Botha to bring in the guns, and who saved Colonel Bullock from the consequences of his action in firing on the contingent after the English had complied with Emmet's " Hands up! " Eobert Emmet, brother of Cherrie, was with difficulty restrained from shooting Bullock for his conduct. The Emmets are brothers-in-law of General Botha, and claim a blood relationship with the family of Robert Emmet, the Irish hero-martyr.