Battle of Colenso, 15 December 1899

The battle of Colenso was one of three British defeats that made up Black Week (Boer War). It came during the first attempt to relieve the siege of Ladysmith, ensured that the siege would go on into 1900 and saw Sir Redvers Buller replaced as commander in chief in South Africa.

General Buller had been appointed to the South African command before the war had even begun. It was to be his first independent command after nearly forty years in the army, during which time he had earned an impressive reputation, but had never had to produce his own plans. He had not been overly confident in his suitability for the command even before accepting it. His journey from Britain to South Africa took two weeks, during which time he was out of touch with events on the ground.


Colenso, 15 December 1899
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Colenso, 15 December 1899

When he left Britain, Buller’s plan had been to assemble his army at Cape Town, and march directly along the railway that led to Bloemfontein and Pretoria. However, when he reached Cape Town, on 31 October, events had moved beyond that. On 15 October Kimberley had been besieged. This alone would not have mattered, for Buller’s route into the Boer republics would have taken him past Kimberley. However, the day before Buller reached Cape Town was “Mournful Monday”. Sir George White, the British commander in Natal, had attempted a two pronged attack on the Boer army approaching the town. Both had resulted in defeats (Lombard’s Kop and Nicholson’s Nek). Within a few days Ladysmith was besieged. Buller was forced to divide the army corps that was assembling at Cape Town.

After spending most of November at Cape Town, Buller moved on to Natal. The situation there looked to be most dangerous. Boer forces had moved south of Ladysmith, and briefly threatened the port of Durban. That danger was already past when Buller reached Pietermaritzburg, on 25 November. A large army was forming around Estcourt, ready to move north. Buller did not officially take command of that army, which remained under the nominal command of General Cornelius Francis Clery, with Buller visiting.

At first Buller remained at Pietermartizburg, concentrating on the logistical side of the army. This was Buller’s real strength as a general and the campaign that followed might have gone rather better if he had kept away from the front, but when the time came for the army to move, Buller took charge, if not command – orders were still issued in Clery’s name. Buller joined the army on 5 December. On 8 December a key bridge at Frere was repaired, and Buller began to move.

The route to Ladysmith was defended by a Boer force under Louisa Botha, stretched out along the Tugela River. Twelve miles south of Ladysmith, the Tugela ran along the southern flank of a series of kopjes, although there was one important hill (Hlangwane) on the southern side of the river. Botha had around 7,000 men to defend a line nearly fifty miles long. His approach was to concentrate at the most obvious crossing place on the river, at Colenso, where the railway to Ladysmith crossed the Tugela. There he had around 4,500 men, with the rest spread out in case Buller attempted a flank attack.

Botha’s biggest problem was the Hlangwane. This vulnerable position was crucial to the entire defensive line – if the British could seize that hill, they would be able to bombard the left flank of Botha’s line. Botha had a great deal of trouble convincing any of his men to occupy this position, with no easy line of retreat. It took all of his persuasive powers, backed up by the distant support of President Kruger, to convince his commanders that they had to occupy the position. On 14 December lots were drawn, and the Wakkerstroom and Standerton commandos occupied the hill.

Botha’s plan was in some ways similar to that adopted by Koos de la Rey at the Modder River. His men would remain in hiding while the British advanced towards the river. His artillery was hidden in the hills north of the river. Unlike de la Rey, Botha hoped that the British could be tempted to cross the railway bridge across the Tugela river. Once they were on the northern side of the river the hidden guns would open fire, as would the Boer riflemen. The British would be trapped with no line of retreat. Botha hoped to destroy Buller’s army.

Buller does not appear to have had a well worked out plan. At first he had planned to outflank the Colenso position. He then decided to attack on 17 December, before finally attacking two days earlier. The Boer positions around Colenso were unknown. An artillery bombardment on 14 December had produced no apparent results, leading some of Buller’s officers to wonder if the position was even defended, a tribute to the skill of the Boers.

Buller decided on a three pronged assault. On the left Hart’s brigade was sent to find a drift (ford across the river) that was believed to cross the river west of Colenso. On the right Lord Dundonald’s mounted brigade would attack Hlangwane. In the centre Hildyard’s Brigade would attack straight down the railway line, just as Botha hoped. Finally Lyttelton’s and Barton’s brigades were held in reserve. Details were vague, the maps used inaccurate and misleading and reconnaissance limited at best. Even so, Botha’s 4,500 men would face a direct assault by Buller’s 18,000.

The British plan quickly fell apart. On the left Hart was following a clear track towards the river, when his guide told him to turn to the right. This led his brigade into a loop in the river, lined by Boer trenches. Worse, Hart believed in keeping his men “in hand”, so when they came under fire across the river he refused to let then open up. The attack on the left stalled under devastating fire. In under two hours Hart’s men suffered 532 casualties, nearly half of the British losses for the battle. Buller was forced to send in Lyttleton’s brigade to rescue Hart.

In the centre things didn’t go much better. Hildyard’s brigade had been slow to start moving. His guns, under the command of Colonel Charles Long, had not been. Long believed in the efficiency of close range artillery fire and so advanced quickly to within 700 yards of the river. By this point he was nearly a mile ahead of the infantry, and closer to the river than even he had intended. Long formed his guns up into a parade ground formation, and prepared to open fire.

Buller now had a moment of luck, although possibly only Louisa Botha would have seen it as such at the time. As Long opened fire, one of Botha’s men fired back, and very quickly the rest of the thousand Boers in that part of the line joined in. Long’s artillery came under concentrated long range rifle fire soon after 6 a.m. Much of the rest of the battle would be distorted by repeated attempts to rescue these guns. However, Botha reported that Long’s actions had saved the British army, by preventing them from advancing into his trap.

Long’s men managed to hold onto their guns for an hour, but at 7 a.m. they were forced to retreat, having used up most of their ammunition. The gunners retreated into some nearby shelter, and waited for fresh ammunition to arrive. Two entire infantry brigades – Hildyard’s and Barton’s – were close enough to have rushed support forward to the guns, but with Buller focusing his attention on the battle on the left nothing was done.

Soon after Long’s guns were abandoned the attack on the right began. At 7.15 Dundonald’s men advanced on foot towards Hlangwane, and made some progress up the hill, but they were outnumbered by the Boer commandos on the hill. Buller had not realised how important Hlangwane was to the Boer position. Now Dundonald had got into a position where he could achieve a great success on the right, but only if he was reinforced.

The same happened in the centre. Hildyard’s brigade began its advance into Colenso at 8.00 a.m. Hildyard had a much better grasp of modern warfare than Hart or Buller. His brigade advanced in open order, taking advantage of any available cover, and reached the village. From there they were able to concentrate their own musketry on the Boer trenches on the far side of the Tugela. The Boers were forced to pull back to a second line of trenches. For a moment they were exposed to the British artillery, but the retreated Boers were incorrectly identified as British troops, and they escaped. Hildyard was now in a good position, but needed reinforcements.

Thus at around 9.30 Buller was in a relatively good position. Despite the disaster on the left, and the temporary loss of Long’s guns, the attacks on the right and in the centre were poised for success. All they needed was reinforcements, and Buller had eight infantry battalions in reserve. Unfortunately, at this point Buller was distracted by the fate of Long’s guns. At 9.30 he joined the gunners in their shelter, and took personal command of the efforts to retrieve the guns.

The first attempt was led by Buller’s aide-de-camp, Captain Harry Schofield. With a band of volunteers Schofield managed to retrieve two of the guns, but not without cost. One of the volunteers was Lieutenant the Honourable Frederick S. Roberts, the son of Field Marshal Lord Roberts of Kandahar. Young Roberts was fatally wounded during the attempt, dying the next day. A second attempt failed to rescue a single gun.

Buller now made his great mistake. He was not in the best state of mind to command a battle. His staff surgeon had been killed beside him; he himself had been hit by a spent shell and badly bruised. This was the first time he had been in command of a battle where he had devised the plan, and from his viewpoint everything was going wrong. At 10.30 he had ordered Hildyard to retreat from Colenso. Finally, at 11.00 he ordered a general retreat. The guns were to be abandoned.

Even the retreat was not well handled. Several parties of men never received the order to pull back, and remained in place well into the afternoon. On the right it proved to be very difficult to pull Lord Dundonald’s men out of their hillside position. Their retreat was not complete until after 2 p.m., and cost more men than the original attack – it would probably have been less costly to reinforce Dundonald and take the isolated hill top. It was this pointless retreat that most damaged Buller’s reputation. Even if he had decided to abandon the attack, he could have pulled back out of rifle range and waited for the cover of night to recapture his guns.

The disproportionate casualties on the two sides demonstrate the ineptness of Buller’s attack. Boer losses were reported at 8 dead and 30 wounded. British losses were 145 dead, 762 wounded and 220 missing or prisoners, a total of 1137. Buller was distraught. He sent a message to General White, the commander in Ladysmith, suggesting that he should destroy his guns and surrender. At first White refused to believe the message was genuine, and when it was confirmed refused to even consider surrender. Buller also spread his gloom in messages to Britain. It was clear from his telegraphs that he did not think he could win. Official opinion in Britain agreed, and on 17 December he was superseded by Field Marshal Lord Roberts. Ironically Black Week had very little impact on the state of the war. Neither Kimberley or Ladysmith fell as a result of the defeat of the relief columns at Colenso or Magersfontein, nor did Cape Colony rise against the British as a result of Stormberg.

Friends and Enemies: The Natal Campaign in the South African War 1899-1902, Hugh Rethman. Looks at the Boer invasion of Natal, the siege of Ladysmith and the efforts to raise the siege, with an emphasis on the role of troops raised in Natal and on the fate of the civilian population of the area. Perhaps a bit too hostile to the Boers and critical of British officers, but excellent on its core subject - the contribution of the people of Natal to their own defence in the face of hostile invasion (Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (20 February 2007), Battle of Colenso, 15 December 1899, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_colenso.html

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