The Boers’ early advances had achieved some notable successes, but as November ticked on by the new British forces assembled under General Redvers Buller were ready, more or less, to begin what was expected by many to be the decisive countermove. But Buller was hamstrung in his strategy, unable to focus on the political targets of the Transvaal and Orange Free States’ capital cities. Instead, he was obligated to form his plans around the relief of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley, the three towns that had been left foolishly exposed in the early stages of the war, and were now cut off from British controlled territory.
His hand forced, Buller reluctantly split his army into three detachments. One, under General Paul Methuen was to advance on and relieve Kimberly and Mafeking. Another, under General William Gatacre was to secure the Cape Midlands. And Buller himself would take the third, with the aim of relieving Ladysmith.
The three-pronged offensive was ambitious, and ultimately, futile. Gatacre’s force made an ill-judged attack at Stormberg on the 10th December, hoping to seize back control of a vital railway junction: their number included a battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. The field of battle was not properly reconnoitred, and the force was unable to adequately attack Boer positions on the heights near Stormberg, briefly coming under fire from their own artillery, which had the sun in their eyes. They were forced to make a disorganised retreat. Meanwhile, Methuen’s force ground through a number of entrenched Boer positions before being turned back with a disastrous defeat at Magersfontain on the 11th of December.
It was with Buller’s portion of the army that the majority of the Irish units fought. The Boers on this eastern portion of the campaign had retired in the face of Buller’s numerical superiority, taking up strong defensive positions behind the Tugela River, at a place called Colenso. They provided an impressive roadblock for any initiative to re-take Ladysmith, barely a day’s march away.
Buller, recognising the strength of the Boer position and wary of the kind of fire their rifles and artillery could coordinate, originally settled on a long-distance flanking march to avoid the position entirely, but the defeats at Stormberg and Magersfontain changed things. Buller no longer had the element of time on his side, and realised that he needed to get to Ladysmith quickly, no longer having complete confidence in his supply of pack animals or the ability of his own troops to avoid encirclement. To that end, he determined to make a frontal assault on the Colenso position.
Buller had plenty of men, horses and artillery, not least those of the 5th Infantry Brigade, dubbed the “Irish Brigade” as it included battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Connacht Rangers, as well as a battalion of the Border Regiment. It was commanded by General Arthur Fitzroy Hart. Hart was himself an Irishman, brash, confident, but unimaginative, a big believer in standard set-piece tactics of massed firepower and the bayonet charge.
Buller ordered this brigade to proceed across the Bridle Drift fording point of the Tugela to the west of Colenso. The Brigade’s attack on the ford would be preceded by an artillery bombardment. Other brigades would attack Colenso directly, fording the river that way: it was Buller hope that successful execution of these actions would convince the Boers to abandon the position rather than offer a full-on fight, but he rightfully feared that the fording operation itself would result in large amounts of casualties being suffered. In reserve, Buller kept two more brigades, which included a battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers.
Hart moved his men out in the early morning light of the 15th December, relying on a local guide to steer his column to the correct fording point. Hart had the brigade engage in drill for a half-hour before they marched out for the attack, as if they were going out on parade and not a dangerous military operation. The regiments marched in close order, at Hart’s direct instruction, the General countermanding orders from the Royal Dublin’s CO who tried to create greater distance between them.
The artillery fired off as expected, about an hour before the Brigade was engaged, but had little effect on the well dug-in Boers. Locals warned Hart of the danger he was in, notably when he was informed that a small party of Boers had crossed the river and was dogging his left flank, but Hart was unconcerned, confident that the Royal Dragoons Buller had sent to guard his flank would suffice to ward off the trouble.
Unfortunately for Hart, and the rest of the 5th Brigade, the local guide turned out to be unreliable, leading the 5th Brigade not to the ford, but into a loop of the Tugela, at the end of which was an impassable section of the river.
When this occurred, Hart had a choice: he could disagree with the guide and stick to what he had been told, which was that the ford was more than a mile upriver still, or he could trust the guide, and march his men into a dangerously exposed stretch of ground. Hart choose the latter option, perhaps because he didn’t want to delay, and because he simply trusted in the words of the native guide. Hart was a direct sort of general, and a direct path was in front of him.
Almost immediately, Boer artillery began to rain down on the Brigade, followed soon after by rifle fire from the opposite bank of the river. When some of the Dublin Fusiliers attempted to lay down and return fire – though this was to little effect, as the Boers were too distance and too well-concealed – Hart ordered them up and forwards, intent on reaching the non-existent ford. Soon, the Brigade was in the depths of the loop, and were being fired upon from the front and both sides.
The Brigade was caught without the ability to manoeuvre and without sufficient cover. On the other side of the river, Louis Botha, the Boer General in command at Colenso, had ordered his troops to withhold their fire until the British were over the river, but Hart’s men were simply too tempting a target: Botha hadn’t banked on the British being so foolish as to march men into so exposed a position.
In the resulting confusion, any semblance of order broke down, as the too tightly packed regiments mixed and the forward impetus gradually broke down. Owing to the terrain that Hart should never have entered, no one was sure where exactly they were supposed to be going. Hart showed great personal bravery in exposing himself to fire in an attempt to get his men moving, but the volume of Boer fire was too much for the Brigade, who eventually stuck fast and refused to advance any further, taking whatever measly cover they could find. And whatever about Hart’s courage, his command decisions remained disastrous: when the Inniskilling’s CO, Colonel Thackery, moved them left and, unknown to Hart, closer to the ford they were supposed to be crossing, Hart ordered them back to their original position.
Buller, trying to keep a handle on the overall battle, saw Hart’s disastrous blunder from a distance, noting that the Irish were advancing too fast after the start of the artillery bombardment: indeed, some of the British guns were mistakenly firing into the loop, on top of their own troops, and not over the river. Facing setbacks elsewhere, Buller was in no position to send substantial help Hart’s way: after a torturous time dealing with the baking heat as well as the shells and bullets, the Irish Brigade began a ragged retreat, approved by Buller.
Not all of the Irish got away. Those who had made it furthest, to the banks of the river that was, of course, unfordable by so large a force under fire, were now pinned down and unable to retreat without suffering terrible casualties. The Boers eventually crossed the river themselves to cut off these men from all sides. A remarkable story is told of this event: that Thackery, the senior officer left, avoided surrender at this moment by accusing the Boers of sneaking around him behind a Red Cross flag: the Boers then gallantly allowed Thackery and the others to withdraw. True or not, Thackery did stumble back into the British camp later that night with some, but not all, of his men. 500 of the Brigade were dead, wounded or missing.
The battle didn’t go any better on other parts of the field. The British artillery inexplicably raced ahead of the main force attacking Colenso itself, exposing themselves to the Boer defences. The gunners took heavy casualties, and what remained of the fighting consisted of an effort to save as many of the guns as possible from being captured by the Boers, which was only partially successful. Buller took the blame for nearly everything that went wrong with the battle, even Hart’s reckless and incorrect advance on the wrong ground, and would pay for it shortly after with his removal from overall command in South Africa. His replacement was the Commander-in-Chief of British forces in Ireland, Lord Frederick Roberts: his son, Lt Fredrick Roberts, had died trying to save the British artillery at Colenso, winning a posthumous Victoria Cross in the process.
Buller, humiliated, pulled his forces back. While the overall amount of casualties he had sustained were hardly fatal, it was still a major shock to the system for the British Army, so used as they were to colonial walkovers. In combination with the previous defeats on the other parts of the South African battlefield, they painted a bleak picture about the capabilities of the British Army when confronted with an industrial level enemy. “Black Week”, as the period from the 10th to the 15th December became known in British circles, took a disproportionately heavy toll on Irish regiments, while others, like those in Kimberley, were left with the painful realisation that the sieges they were enduring were going to continue for some time yet.
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