[Footnote 213: See maps Nos. 3, 4, 15, and freehand sketch.]

[Sidenote: Sir Redvers, 25th Nov./99, to 6th Dec./99, in Natal.]

[Sidenote: The force available for him at Frere.]

Sir Redvers Buller reached Durban on 25th November. He was greeted by the good news that the invaders were falling back from Mooi river, that Lord Methuen had driven the Boers from Belmont and Graspan, and that Generals French and Gatacre were holding their own at Naauwpoort and Queenstown. He spent a few days at Maritzburg in inspecting this advanced base of the Natal army, and in directing preparations for the reception of a large number of wounded. He then pushed on to Frere, reaching that place on 6th December. The enemy's raiding columns had now retired across the Tugela, and by the 9th a well-equipped British force of all three arms was concentrated at Frere. The mounted brigade, commanded by Colonel the Earl of Dundonald, consisted of the Royal Dragoons, 13th Hussars, Thorneycroft's and Bethune's newly-raised regiments of mounted infantry, the South African Light Horse, also only just enlisted and brought round from Cape Town, a squadron of the Imperial Light Horse, detachments of the Natal Carbineers and Natal Police, and one company of British mounted infantry. The Naval brigade, commanded by Capt. E. P. Jones, H.M.S. Forte, was composed of detachments (or landing parties) from H.M.S. Terrible, Forte, and Tartar; to it were attached the Natal Naval Volunteers; its armament consisted of two 4.7-in. and fourteen 12-pr. 12-cwt. guns. The Field artillery consisted of the 1st brigade division (7th, 14th, and 66th batteries) under Lt.-Col. H. V. Hunt, and the 2nd brigade division (64th and 73rd[214]) under Lt.-Col. L. W. Parsons. The infantry formed four brigades: the 2nd brigade, under Major-General H. J. T. Hildyard, consisting of the 2nd Royal West Surrey, 2nd Devonshire, 2nd West Yorkshire, and 2nd East Surrey; the 4th brigade, under Major-General the Hon. N. G. Lyttelton, comprising 2nd Scottish Rifles, 3rd King's Royal Rifle Corps, 1st Durham Light Infantry, and 1st Rifle Brigade; the 5th brigade, under Major-General A. FitzRoy Hart, composed of 1st Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 1st Border, 1st Connaught Rangers, and 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers; the 6th brigade, under Major-General G. Barton, formed of the 2nd Royal Fusiliers, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, 1st Royal Welsh Fusiliers, and 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers. The 17th company R.E. and A. Pontoon troop were with the command.

[Footnote 214: The 3rd battery of this brigade division had not yet arrived, having been shipwrecked on its voyage out.]

[Sidenote: Tabular statement of strength.]

The following table shows the approximate strength of the force:--

Arms. Officers. Other Ranks. Horses, Riding & Draught. Guns
Naval. 4·7-in. Naval. 12-pr. Field 15-pr. Machine.
Staff 34 137 123
Naval brigade 31 297 6 2 12
Mounted Troops 126 2,561 2,700 2
Royal Artillery 39 1,074 869 30
Royal Engineers 14 419 255
Infantry(4 brigades) 416 13,521 716 16
A.S. Corps 16 217 550
R.A.M. Corps 30 464 336
Total 706 18,672 5,555 2 12 30 18


[Sidenote: On line of communication.]

Two battalions of regular infantry (the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the 2nd Somerset Light Infantry), and three Colonial corps (the Natal Royal Rifles, the Durban Light Infantry and the Imperial Light Infantry), with four Naval 12-pounders, manned by detachments from H.M.S. Philomel and Forte, and the Natal Field battery, held the line of communication with Durban.

[Sidenote: Method of issuing orders.]

Although Sir Redvers Buller had assumed personal command, it was arranged that, in the absence of the Headquarter staff, his orders should be issued by the divisional staff of Lieutenant-General Sir C. F. Clery, who had hitherto been the senior officer south of the Tugela.

[Sidenote: Boers in the Natal region Dec. 6th-Dec. 14th.]

In the chapter dealing with the constitution of the Boer army, it has been pointed out that any statement of the strength of a Boer force at a particular period is quite misleading, if regarded like a formal "daily state" of a European force in the field. Subject to this reservation, the aggregate strength of the original commandos, which invaded Natal on the outbreak of war, has already been assessed at 23,500, and it has been stated that Transvaal reinforcements, amounting to some 3,000 men, had subsequently been added; but this increase was reduced by the departure at the end of November of three Free State commandos to oppose Lord Methuen's advance on Kimberley. The commandos remaining in Natal were, moreover, much weakened by the practice of burghers returning to their farms to visit their families without leave, and, although some Natal Dutchmen had been commandeered to take up arms, the total Boer forces actually serving in Natal at this period did not probably much exceed 20,000 men. A detachment of 800 was at Helpmakaar,[215] watching the Tugela Ferry and the western frontier of Zululand, from which, throughout the middle of the month, the Boer Intelligence department expected an attack. Another detachment of 500 piqueted the river from the Tugela Ferry up to Colenso. To the west four commandos were stationed near Potgieters and Skiet's drifts, and detachments watched the intermediate crossings. The attacks of the Ladysmith garrison on Gun Hill and Surprise Hill and the destruction of the Waschbank bridge produced a considerable feeling of uneasiness at Boer Headquarters soon after Sir Redvers reached Frere. Their own official records show that there was a reluctance to detach any more burghers than were deemed absolutely necessary to the Tugela. Having regard to these facts, although no exact figures can be given, it is probable that an estimate made on 13th December by General Buller's Intelligence staff, that about 6,000 to 7,000 men had been concentrated under Louis Botha in the neighbourhood of Colenso, was not far from the mark. On the other hand, the Boer official telegrams of that date put the number as low as 5,000.

[Footnote 215: Map No. 3.]

[Sidenote: Close connection between Boer main army in Natal and Botha.]

Botha's detachment and the Boer main army were, however, within an hour's ride of each other, and thus could readily render mutual assistance, unless an attack from the south should be combined with an exactly-timed sortie by the Ladysmith garrison. Yet the Boers had reason to fear this combination against them. The troops under Sir George White were still mobile, and the enterprises against Gun Hill and Surprise Hill, in the second week of December, had shown that both officers and men were keen to be again let slip at the enemy.[216] Moreover, the large number of mounted men, who, though shut up in Ladysmith, were in fact astride of the Boers' lines of communication, both with the Transvaal and with the Free State, would be likely to prove a serious danger in the event of Botha's defeat by Sir Redvers.

[Footnote 216: See Volume II.]

[Sidenote: A formidable natural fortress.]

Nevertheless, the task which the British commander-in-chief had decided to undertake was not an easy one. From Potgieters Drift on the west to the junction of the Tugela with Sunday's river, about 30 miles east of Colenso, a ridge of hills, broken only by narrow kloofs and dongas, line like a continuous parapet the northern bank of the former river. Westward the ridge is connected by the Brakfontein Nek with that spur of the Drakensberg which is entitled the Tabanyama Range. This was destined, a month later, to bar the advance of the relieving army on that side. The eastern flank was guarded by the lower slopes of the Biggarsberg, which run parallel to Sunday's river and fill the area lying between that stream and the Buffalo. The approaches to the beleaguered town from the south were thus covered by an immense natural redoubt. Opposite to the very centre of the front face of this redoubt lay Colenso. Behind this centre, and at right angles to the parapet, a cluster of hills was flung back to the ridge of Cæsar's Camp, immediately to the south of Ladysmith. Through this confused mass of broken ground, so favourable to the methods of fighting of its defenders, ran the three roads which connect Colenso and Ladysmith. Of these roads the western passed over three very strong and presumably entrenched positions. The central had become by disuse impassable.[217] Much of the eastern was only fit for ox-wagons. Along the face of this strategic fort ran the Tugela, an admirable moat, as completely commanded by the heights on its left bank as is the ditch of a permanent work by its parapet. West of Colenso this moat was traversable by guns and wagons at only five places, i.e., Robinson's, Munger's, Skiet's, Maritz, and Potgieters drifts. Of these the four first named were difficult for loaded wagons. Eastward of Colenso the only practicable drift was that by which the Weenen road crosses the river. Other fords, through which single horsemen or men on foot, breast-high, could wade, existed both to the east and to the west, but with the exception of a bridle drift near Colenso they were not marked on the maps in possession of the troops, and could only be discovered by enquiry and reconnaissance.

[Footnote 217: This central road, or old track, is not shown on maps 3 and 4, but is shown on map 15.]

[Sidenote: Botha depends on mobility for holding his long line of defence.]

The commandos assigned to General Louis Botha for the defence of the line of the Tugela were obviously insufficient to man the whole of this immense position; yet he was able to rely on the mobility of his burghers; and on this, also, that he was so situated that his assailant would, in order to attack him anywhere, have to traverse distances greater than Botha need cover to reinforce from the centre either flank as soon as threatened. Moreover, not only did the heights he held afford a perfect view for miles over the country to the south, but the Tugela hills are precipitous and rocky as to their southern faces, while the approaches to them from the north present, as a rule, easy slopes and gentle gradients.

[Sidenote: Difficulty of finding out where the Boers were.]

In ascertaining the exact localities occupied by the enemy, Sir Redvers Buller was handicapped by many circumstances. A considerable space along the river could in the daytime only be approached by reconnoitrers under the close view and fire of the picked riflemen of the veld. The whole of the original Intelligence staff and the subordinate personnel of scouts and guides, organised for the Natal Field Force before the outbreak of the war, had been left locked up with the troops in Ladysmith. The nucleus of a fresh Intelligence staff had, however, been started by 2nd Lieut. A. N. Campbell, R.A., and was subsequently taken over by Mr. T. K. Murray, C.M.G., after the disbandment of his corps of scouts. The reports of Mr. Murray, who was subsequently created a K.C.M.G. for his services, as well as information sent out by runners, heliograph, and pigeon post from Ladysmith, agreed that the main body of Botha's force was concentrated immediately in front of Colenso. A reconnaissance, suggested by a Ladysmith message, dated 17th November, had been conducted by Captain H. De la P. Gough towards Potgieters drift on the 29th November, but had failed to get touch with the enemy. Intelligence scouts had, however, reported the Boer commandos at Potgieters and Skiet's drifts, and it was also known that Boer patrols were watching the intermediate crossings. It might therefore be assumed that the whole line of the river was kept under Boer observation.

It will be seen that the topographical conditions, though not at the time fully known, made it impossible to turn either flank of the great crescent of hills which barred an advance on Ladysmith. On the other hand, it seemed probable that a sudden march, eastward or westward, would find some passage of the river, and of the natural parapet beyond, unentrenched and but slightly guarded. An examination of the map, and a study of the country to the eastward, showed that a flank movement in that direction would be compelled to follow a circuitous route, and to traverse broken ground, covered with bush and exceedingly favourable to ambuscade and to surprise attacks. Sir Redvers judged that to commit troops, untrained to manoeuvre over terrain of this description and hampered by many ox-wagons, to a rather long flank march in presence of a mobile enemy, would be too dangerous an enterprise. Moreover, the ground to the east was unfavourable for any sortie from Ladysmith, and in a telegram dated the 30th November, Sir George White had definitely reported that he could give most help to the relieving force if it advanced viâ Onderbrook Spruit (i.e., by the western of the two possible Colenso-Ladysmith roads) or viâ Springfield and Potgieters drift.

[Sidenote: Sir Redvers' view of the choice open to him.]

Sir Redvers thought that he must either assault the strongly entrenched position of Colenso or make a flank march to Potgieters. If that drift and the Brakfontein Nek were seized, the way would be opened to the rolling plain which lies westward of Ladysmith, between that town and the Tabanyama range. This course, though it presented difficulties of its own, was tactically by far the easier method of attempting the task before him. On the other hand, this flank movement would, for some days, expose the British line of communication with the coast.

[Sidenote: He decides to march by Potgieters, 7th Dec./99.]

A review of all these considerations led General Buller to decide in favour of the route viâ Potgieters drift, and on the 7th December he so informed Sir George White. He told him that he hoped to start on the 12th, and would probably take five days in bringing the operation to a successful conclusion. Sir George, in reply, reported by heliograph that he proposed to sally out from Ladysmith the night before the relieving force attempted its crossing of the Tugela at Potgieters, and to "work towards you as far as I can." He added: "As time is an all-important factor in co-operation, you will, I am sure, inform me of any change." On the 11th December, Sir Redvers answered that he could not be certain of his dates till his transport arrived, so that Sir George had better not try to help him until the relieving force had reached Lancer's Hill,[218] a point about six or seven miles west of Ladysmith, "unless you feel certain where I am." This limit was imposed by General Buller, as he was unwilling that Sir G. White's troops should be committed to a serious action against the enemy until his own army was within supporting distance. On the 12th December Sir Redvers moved the 6th brigade, accompanied by two 4·7-in. and six 12-pr. 12-cwt. Naval guns, to a camp two miles north of Chieveley, so as to cover the flank march to the west. He sent that day a despatch to the Secretary of State reporting that, after a careful reconnaissance by telescope, he had come to the conclusion that "a direct assault upon the enemy's position at Colenso would be too costly," and that he had therefore decided to "force the passage of Potgieters drift."

[Footnote 218: See map No. 3.]

[Sidenote: News of Magersfontein and Stormberg changes his purpose, Dec. 13th.]

Only a few hours later telegrams, reporting the serious check suffered by Lord Methuen at Magersfontein, were placed in his hands. This disquieting intelligence, coupled with news of the reverse at Stormberg, in the opinion of Sir Redvers Buller, so entirely changed the situation that he no longer considered the movement by Potgieters advisable. "This operation," he told the Secretary of State, "involved the complete abandonment of my communications, and in the event of want of success, the risk that I might share the fate of Sir George White, and be cut off from Natal. I had considered that, with the enemy dispirited by the failure of their plans in the west, the risk was justifiable, but I cannot think that I ought now to take such a risk. From my point of view it will be better to lose Ladysmith altogether than to throw open Natal to the enemy."[219]

[Footnote 219: See despatch, Sir R. Buller to Secretary of State for War, dated 13th December, 1899.]

[Sidenote: Informs Sir George that Dec. 17th is probable date of attack on Colenso. Sir George prepares to sally out.]

Accordingly, on the 13th December he heliographed to Ladysmith: "Have been forced to change my plans; am coming through viâ Colenso and Onderbrook Spruit"; and later on the same day, in reply to an enquiry from Sir George White as to the probable date of his advance, he informed that officer: "Actual date of attack depends upon difficulties met with, probably 17th December." On receipt of these messages the commander of the Ladysmith garrison, after detailing some weak detachments to continue manning the defences, prepared the whole of the rest of his troops for fighting their way out southward under his personal command, at the moment of the attack on Colenso by the relieving army. No further notification of the date of that attack reached him until the 16th, when he was informed by the Commander-in-Chief that he had "tried Colenso yesterday and failed." The sound of very heavy artillery firing on the 15th was, it is true, heard in Ladysmith, but the Colenso position had been shelled by the Naval guns on the two previous days, and in face of Sir Redvers' message that the actual attack would probably be made on the 17th, there was doubt whether the firing heard on the 15th might not be merely a continuation of the preliminary bombardment. A premature sortie before the signal had been given might seriously hamper, or possibly entirely frustrate, concerted action between the two forces.

[Sidenote: Features of Colenso position.]

Map 15 and the hand sketch show that the hills facing Colenso from the north form a great amphitheatre, the western horn of which reaches down to the river near E. Robinson's farm about four miles due west of the village, the eastern horn being Hlangwhane. Immediately after completing the loop in front of the village, in which lie the road[220] and railway bridges, the Tugela turns sharply to the north for two miles, and then dashes north-eastward down a series of rapids through an abrupt gorge in the hills, ultimately resuming its course towards the east.

[Footnote 220: Shown on map No. 15 as the Bulwer bridge.]

[Sidenote: Hlangwhane.]

[Sidenote: The Colenso kopjes.]

[Sidenote: Fort Wylie.]

Hlangwhane, the eastern horn of that amphitheatre, which, with its included area, formed the Boer position, lies on the southern bank of the river; and, as soon as the occupation of Chieveley by Barton's brigade denied the use of the Colenso bridges to the enemy, was for the time only accessible to the Boers by two bridle drifts near the rapids. It was not until after the Colenso fight that a bridge was thrown across the river near its junction with the Langewacht Spruit. The northern portion of the hollow of the amphitheatre is crossed from west to east by the Onderbrook Spruit. To the south of this spruit stand the Colenso kopjes, described by Sir Redvers as "four lozenge-shaped, steep-sided, hog-backed hills, each, as it is further from the river, being higher and longer than the next inner one."[221] The southernmost of these kopjes, Fort Wylie, had been used as a bridge-head by the British troops prior to their retirement from the Tugela. The Onderbrook road to Ladysmith runs north-west from the bridge across the arena of the amphitheatre and then ascends through the steep gorge of Grobelaar's Kloof, a defile of forbidding appearance. The other road and railway run north, following at first the general trend of the great bend of the Tugela, then penetrating the mass of hills and making their way eventually into the Klip valley.

[Footnote 221: Sir R. Buller's despatch, dated 17th December, 1899.]

[Sidenote: The river as known, and unknown to the staff.]

In this section of the Tugela, the only crossings which seem to have been known to Sir Redvers Buller's staff, before the battle, were the two bridges, the drifts immediately above and below that over which the road passes, and the "Bridle Drift" four miles up stream to the south-east of E. Robinson's farm. There were other fords which will be mentioned later; but the river, in consequence of the difficulty of approaching it, had not been systematically reconnoitred, nor had the known drifts been tested, although, as elsewhere in South Africa, they are subject to sudden variations, here dependent on the rainfall in the Drakensberg. The Tugela is, as a rule, fordable at this season of the year at the regular passages, and has an average breadth of some 120 to 150 yards. The banks, fringed in places with low bushes, are near Colenso twenty feet above the summer level of water. Immediately to the south and to the south-west of the bridges the ground runs down to the bank in gentle glacis-like slopes, which, except where the Doornkop Spruit and a few dongas traverse them, afford no cover to troops advancing towards the river. East of the railway the terrain is more broken, and the fringe of bush country is soon reached. For this reason, but still more on account of its isolation on the south bank of the river, Hlangwhane Hill, which looked down on the Colenso kopjes, was tactically weak and has generally been regarded as the true key of the whole position. Nevertheless, even if Hlangwhane and the crossings close to Colenso had been captured, only one stage of the task would have been accomplished. Further severe fighting would have been necessary before the defiles and the very difficult country to the north-west or north could have been forced.

[Sidenote: The Boer defences.]

[Sidenote: Their occupation.]

[Sidenote: The story of the Boers on Hlangwhane. 1st stage.]

The whole of the mountain redoubt had been elaborately fortified under the personal direction of General Louis Botha. A special commission, consisting of Generals Erasmus and Prinsloo, had been nominated by a Krijgsraad, held on 2nd December, to supervise the defence arrangements on the Tugela, but the commission made but one inspection and Louis Botha was given practically a free hand. Three weeks of incessant labour had been spent on this task, the work being continued up to the very eve of the battle. The trenches had been constructed with remarkable ingenuity, so as to be almost invisible from the south bank. They ran for the most part along the lower slopes of the great hills on the west and across the flats round which circled the amphitheatre. The only part of these defences which caught the eye from the far side of the river were the tiers of entrenchments covering the Colenso kopjes, and especially Fort Wylie. Emplacements had been constructed in many more places than there were guns available to fill them, and, in order to ensure that the exact positions from which shells would be actually thrown should be unknown to the British commander, the guns were shifted from gun-pit to gun-pit the night before the battle. The artillery at the disposal of General Botha was far less numerous than that of his opponent. On the day of the fight a 120 m/m howitzer was mounted on the crest of Vertnek (or Red Hill) on the right, a field gun being posted lower down on its south-eastern slope. Two field guns were placed in pits in proximity to the western Ladysmith road. This group of four guns was intended to command the crossings in, and near, the western salient loop of the river, including the Bridle Drift, a mile to the west of that loop. Four or five 75 m/m field guns and one or two pom-poms, posted on the Colenso kopjes, swept the bridges and drifts in front. The whole of these guns were under the command of Captain Pretorius, Transvaal Staats Artillerie. General Botha had placed his riflemen as follows:--on his right, which extended to the west of H. Robinson's farm, was stationed the Winburg commando of Free Staters under van der Merwe, supported by detachments of Ben Viljoen's Johannesburgers, and of the Middelburg commando; east of these, men of the Zoutpansberg, Swaziland, and Ermelo commandos, under the orders of Christian Botha, continued the line to the head of the western loop of the Tugela, where a donga enters the river on its left bank. The eastern face of this loop was also manned by portions of the Ermelo, Standerton, and Middelburg corps. The ground intervening between the two re-entrants was considered to be sufficiently protected by the unfordable river in its front, save that a small detachment was posted in the building shown as "Barn" on map No. 15, thus acting as a connecting link. The centre, facing the Colenso crossings, was very strongly held. Here lay the Boksburg and Heidelberg commandos, the Johannesburg Police, and the burghers of Vryheid and Krugersdorp districts, the two last-named units being placed in the trenches along the flats immediately in front of Fort Wylie. Neither on the centre nor on the right were there any men posted to the south of the river. The story of the successive changes in the garrison of the eastern extremity of the crescent of hills, across the river on the left of the Boer position, is a curious one, and shows forcibly how much the element of chance at times influences the operations of war. From the 30th November to the 13th December, Hlangwhane, which was known to the Boers as "the Boschkop," had been occupied by part of the Wakkerstroom commando under a commandant named Dirksen. A Boer deserter informed Sir Redvers' Field Intelligence department on the 9th December that the strength of this detachment was then about 700; but the real numbers were not more than 400 to 500. The arrival of Barton's brigade at Chieveley intimidated the commando, and on the night of the 13th the burghers, against Dirksen's orders, withdrew across the river. Botha at first acquiesced in this abandonment, but Dirksen himself telegraphed to Kruger what had happened. "If we give this Kop over to the enemy," he added, "then will the battle expected at Colenso end in disaster."

[Sidenote: 2nd stage.]

The acting commandant-general, Schalk Burger, supported Dirksen's appeal,[222] and, as a result, a Krijgsraad was held the same evening, at which, with the concurrence of General Botha, it was unanimously resolved that Hlangwhane should be re-occupied. A fresh garrison about 800 strong, chosen by lot from the Middelburg, Ermelo, Standerton, Wakkerstroom and Zoutpansberg commandos, was therefore placed under the orders of Commandant J. J. Joubert, and moved to the hill during the night of the 14th. The burghers, on whom this duty fell, accepted it with much reluctance as they feared that they would be cut off from their main body. In a Boer official telegram dispatched during the battle of the 15th, Hlangwhane was referred to as "the dangerous position."

[Footnote 222: A telegram despatched by Schalk Burger to Botha on 14th December directed that "Under no circumstances must Dirksen's position be abandoned.... If this position be abandoned, all others are endangered." President Kruger telegraphed the same day to Botha, through Burger: "The Kop on the other side of the river must not be given up, for then all hope is over.... Fear not the enemy, but trust in God."]

[Sidenote: The Boers hide themselves and reserve their fire.]

The details of the Boers' line of battle would have been difficult to discover even by the fullest reconnaissance and by the best trained Intelligence department. General Louis Botha was so sanguine of success that he had even proposed at a Krijgsraad, on 9th December, that a detachment of burghers should be sent again across the river to entice the British troops to advance against the prepared positions; but the Council held that this device was unnecessary, as the British commander was "bound to attack, and it was thought better to await the attack." The Boer commander so fully realised the advantage of reserved fire, that, giving effect to a telegram from General Piet Joubert,[223] he had issued stringent orders to ensure that his men indulged in no casual shots. He made no reply whatever to a heavy bombardment maintained by the British Naval guns during the 13th and 14th December, intended to compel him to disclose his dispositions. The same system of silence was to be adopted when the real attack was delivered. Not a shot was to be fired against the British advance until he himself had given the signal by firing the great howitzer. He even hoped to be able to allow portions of the attacking columns to cross the river, and there to overwhelm them utterly by well-sustained fire at close range. The use of the Naval guns on the 13th and 14th and the accumulation at Chieveley, had convinced General Botha that a frontal attack was about to be made. Although his burghers were anxious, and even inclined to be despondent, Botha himself hoped not only to repulse the British troops, but also to envelop them with counter-attacks, from Hlangwhane on the east and the Wagon Drift on the west.

[Footnote 223: 7.12.99. Telegram despatched by Commandant-General P. Joubert to Assistant-General Botha:--

"I cannot neglect to reiterate pointing out to you and begging you to insist sternly with the officers and men against wild firing at long and almost impossible distances. Our greatest good fortune in the Freedom war was the immediate nearness (of positions), so that the smoke from the two forces made one cloud through which our men were better enabled to defeat the enemy. It was always my endeavour as long as the enemy blustered with his guns to conceal my men as much as possible and to strengthen them in their positions till the enemy's guns were tired and they then advanced and attacked us; then and not before, when they were between their own guns and our men, the burghers sprang forwards and shot them away by batches. Now our burghers with their rapid-fire rifles begin to shoot at so great a distance, and it is much to be feared that in a fierce fight lasting a whole day, they fire away all their ammunition to no purpose without hurting the enemy, and the enemy is then able to make use of lance and sword after exhausting their ammunition. Warn your men thus and work against this error. You must also take good thought for your reserve ammunition, and its position and the way it can be brought up to firing line. You know yourself how often we have already captured the English ammunition mules; do not let the same take place with ours. Now secondly, I am certain Buller will not operate against you with his whole force at once; he will place supports in his rear and again and again bring up fresh men. His cavalry will wait as far as possible, to make their attack from the rear, or to try to move round to our rear. So be on your guard. Place your supports so that at such times new forces can advance; let some one be just on some high and visible place so as to send support in time to the spot where it is required. It is bitter to lie here on my back and think and advise from such a distance, but God's Will be done, just in Heaven as on Earth. Best wishes."]

[Sidenote: The army, in full view of the Boers, gathers for the fray.]

The advance of Barton's brigade on the 12th had been unopposed, and during the two following days the remainder of the Natal army was moved up to the north-west of Chieveley, and collected in a large camp on the western side of the railway, near Doornkop Spruit. It was, of course, impossible to conceal this movement from the Boer commander on the heights north of the river.

[Sidenote: Sir Redvers, Dec. 14th, issues his orders for attack.]

On the afternoon of the 14th Sir Redvers Buller, who had spent the earlier part of that day in examining the enemy's positions through a telescope, assembled his subordinate commanders and their staffs, to communicate, and personally explain to them his instructions for the operations of the following day. His plan was to try to force the passage of the river by direct attack. The written orders signed by the Assistant Adjutant-General of the 2nd division were not issued until late in the evening, and did not reach the Brigadiers until about midnight. They will be found at the end of this chapter. The first paragraph of these orders appears to imply that the enemy's entrenchments were limited to the Colenso kopjes; at any rate, it is clear that the extent and strength of the Boer entrenchments westward were not then known. These kopjes were selected as the object of the main attack, and this duty was assigned to the 2nd brigade (Hildyard's). The crossing of this brigade "by the iron bridge," that is, the Bulwer bridge, was to be prepared by the fire of No. 1 brigade division Royal Field artillery, less one field battery which was replaced by six Naval guns. This artillery preparation was to be assisted by the fire of the remaining Naval guns, two 4·7-in. and four 12-pounders,[224] and by that of the 2nd brigade division, which was instructed to "take up a position whence it can enfilade the kopjes north of the iron bridge." This latter artillery unit was also to "act on any orders it receives from Major-General Hart."

[Footnote 224: Two Naval 12-prs. had been left at Frere; the remaining two 12-prs. were placed on Shooter's Hill, at a distance of about 6,000 yards from the bridge.]

[Sidenote: Orders for Hart.]

To Major-General Hart's brigade (the 5th) had been assigned a special rôle; it was ordered to cross the river at the "Bridle Drift, immediately west of the junction of Doornkop Spruit and the Tugela," and subsequently to move down the left bank of the river towards the Colenso kopjes. The Commander-in-Chief hoped that this supplementary crossing would be accomplished before the central attack was delivered, and that the 5th brigade would thus be able to render substantial assistance in the assault on the bridge; even if General Hart did not succeed in passing his battalions across the river, Sir Redvers anticipated that he would, in any case, be able at least to cover the left flank of the main attack by engaging the enemy on the western side.[225]

[Footnote 225: See despatch to the War Office, dated 17th December, 1899.]

[Sidenote: Orders for right flank.]

[Sidenote: and for watching left flank.]

The right flank of the main attack was to be guarded by the 6th brigade (Barton's), less half a battalion on baggage guard duty, and the mounted brigade. Lord Dundonald, who was in command of the latter unit (the total effective strength of which was about 1,800), was instructed to detail 500 men to watch the right flank of the enemy, and 300 to cover Buller's right flank and protect the baggage. With the remainder of his brigade, and a battery detached from No. 1 brigade division, "he will," said the order, "cover the right flank of the general movement and will endeavour to take up a position on Hlangwhane Hill, whence he will enfilade the kopjes north of the iron bridge."

[Sidenote: for 6th brigade.]

The 6th brigade was further charged with covering the advance of No. 1 brigade division.

[Sidenote: for 4th brigade.]

The 4th brigade was directed to remain in reserve midway between the left and main attacks, ready to support either if required.

[Sidenote: for ammunition columns, pontoons, hospitals, engineers, bearer companies.]

The ammunition columns and Pontoon troop were to be parked in the first line of the baggage in rear of Shooter's Hill, behind which the four Field Hospitals were also pitched. Two sections of the 17th company R.E. were attached to General Hart's brigade, the remainder of the company being allotted to General Hildyard's. The Bearer companies marched with their brigades.

Verbal instructions were given to general officers at the conference that if the Colenso kopjes were carried the force would bivouac among them on the night of the 15th.


Chieveley, 14th December, 1899. 10 p.m.

1. The enemy is entrenched in the kopjes north of Colenso bridge. One large camp is reported to be near the Ladysmith road, about five miles north-west of Colenso. Another large camp is reported in the hills which lie north of the Tugela in a northerly direction from Hlangwhane Hill.

2. It is the intention of the General Officer Commanding to force the passage of the Tugela to-morrow.

3. The 5th brigade will move from its present camping ground at 4.30 a.m., and march towards the Bridle Drift, immediately west of the junction of Doornkop Spruit and the Tugela. The brigade will cross at this point, and after crossing move along the left bank of the river towards the kopjes north of the iron bridge.

4. The 2nd brigade will move from its present camping ground at 4 a.m., and passing south of the present camping ground of No. 1 and No. 2 Divisional troops, will march in the direction of the iron bridge at Colenso. The brigade will cross at this point and gain possession of the kopjes north of the iron bridge.

5. The 4th brigade will advance at 4.30 a.m., to a point between Bridle Drift and the railway, so that it can support either the 5th or the 2nd brigade.

6. The 6th brigade (less a half-battalion escort to baggage) will move at 4 a.m., east of the railway in the direction of Hlangwhane Hill to a position where it can protect the right flank of the 2nd brigade, and, if necessary, support it or the mounted troops referred to later as moving towards Hlangwhane Hill.

7. The Officer Commanding mounted brigade will move at 4 a.m., with a force of 1,000 men and one battery of No. 1 brigade division in the direction of Hlangwhane Hill; he will cover the right flank of the general movement, and will endeavour to take up a position on Hlangwhane Hill, whence he will enfilade the kopjes north of the iron bridge.

The Officer Commanding mounted troops will also detail two forces of 300 and 500 men to cover the right and left flanks respectively and protect the baggage.

8. The 2nd brigade division, Royal Field artillery, will move at 4.30 a.m., following the 4th brigade, and will take up a position whence it can enfilade the kopjes north of the iron bridge. This brigade division will act on any orders it receives from Major-General Hart.

The six Naval guns (two 4·7-in. and four 12-pr.) now in position north of the 4th brigade, will advance on the right of the 2nd brigade division, Royal Field artillery.

No. 1 brigade division, Royal Field artillery (less one battery detached with mounted brigade), will move at 3.30 a.m., east of the railway and proceed under cover of the 6th brigade to a point from which it can prepare the crossing for the 2nd brigade.

The six Naval guns now encamped with No. 2 Divisional troops will accompany and act with this brigade division.

9. As soon as the troops mentioned in preceding paragraphs have moved to their positions, the remaining units and the baggage will be parked in deep formation, facing north, in five separate lines, in rear of to-day's artillery position, the right of each line resting on the railway, but leaving a space of 100 yards between the railway and the right flank of the line.

In first line (counting from the right):—

  • Ammunition column, No. 1 Divisional troops.
  • 6th brigade Field Hospital.
  • 4th brigade Field Hospital.
  • Pontoon troop, Royal Engineers.
  • 5th brigade Field Hospital.
  • 2nd brigade Field Hospital.
  • Ammunition column, No. 2 Divisional troops.

In second line (counting from the right):—

  • Baggage of 6th brigade.
  • Baggage of 4th brigade.
  • Baggage of 5th brigade.
  • Baggage of 2nd brigade.

In third line (counting from the right):—

  • Baggage of mounted brigade.
  • Baggage of No. 1 Divisional troops.
  • Baggage of No. 2 Divisional troops.

In the fourth and fifth lines (counting from the right):--

  • Supply columns, in the same order as the Baggage columns in second and third lines.

Lieut.-Colonel J. Reeves, Royal Irish Fusiliers, will command the whole of the above details.

10. The position of the General Officer Commanding will be near the 4·7-in. guns.

The Commander Royal Engineers will send two sections 17th company, Royal Engineers, with the 5th brigade, and one section and Headquarters with the 2nd brigade.

11. Each infantry soldier will carry 150 rounds on his person, the ammunition now carried in the ox wagons of regimental transport being distributed. Infantry greatcoats will be carried in two ox wagons of regimental transport, if Brigadiers so wish; other stores will not be placed in these wagons.

12. The General Officer Commanding 6th brigade will detail a half-battalion as Baggage Guard. The two Naval guns now in position immediately south of Divisional Headquarter camp will move at 5 a.m., to the position now occupied by the 4·7-in. guns.


B. HAMILTON, Colonel, Assistant Adjutant-General, South Natal Field Force.