On December 15, 1899, Irish units of the Boer army face the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Connaught Rangers, and the 6th (Inniskillings) Dragoons in the battle of Colenso, the third and final battle fought during the Black Week of the Second Boer War. It is fought between British and Boer forces from the independent South African Republic and Orange Free State in and around Colenso, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Inadequate preparation and reconnaissance and uninspired leadership lead to a British defeat.
Early on the morning of December 15, Major General Arthur Henry Seton Hart-Synnot, commander of the 5th (Irish) Infantry Brigade, gives his men half an hour’s parade ground drill, then leads them in close column towards the Bridle Drift. However, his locally recruited guide, who speaks no English, leads the brigade towards the wrong ford, the Punt Drift at the end of a loop in the river. Louis Botha, commander of the Boers on this front, orders his men to hold their fire until the British attempt to cross the river. However Hart-Synnot’s brigade, jammed into the loop of the river, is too good a target to miss and the Boers open fire. Hart-Synnot’s brigade suffers over 500 casualties before they can be extricated. The battalions repeatedly try to extend to the left and locate the Bridle Drift. On each occasion, Hart-Synnot recalls them and sends them back into the loop.
Meanwhile, as Major-General Henry J. T. Hildyard moves his 2nd Infantry Brigade towards Colenso, the two batteries of field guns under Colonel Charles James Long forge ahead of him and deploy in the open well within rifle range of the nearest Boers. Once again, this is too tempting a target, and the Boers open fire. The British gunners fight on, even though suffering heavy casualties, but ammunition cannot be brought to them and they are eventually forced to take shelter in a dry stream bed behind the guns. The bullock-drawn naval guns have not been able to keep up with the field pieces, but are able to come into action 1,500 metres from the Boer trenches.
General Sir Redvers Buller, who has also heard that his light horse are pinned down at the foot of the hill known as Hlangwane south of the river and unable to advance, decides to call the battle off at this point, even though Hildyard’s men, advancing in open order, have just occupied Colenso. He goes forward, being slightly wounded himself, and calls for volunteers to recover Long’s guns. Two teams approach them, hook up and bring away two weapons. A second attempt to recover the rest of guns fails when horses and volunteers are shot down by Boer rifle fire.
During the afternoon, the British fall back to their camp, leaving ten guns, many wounded gunners and some of Hildyard’s men behind to be captured during the night. Although Buller had committed few of his reserves, he reasons that a full day under a boiling sun would have sapped their morale and strength. Major General Neville Lyttelton (4th Infantry Brigade) commits some of his troops to help Hart’s brigade withdraw, but the cautious Major General Geoffrey Barton (6th Infantry Brigade) refuses to support Lord Dundonald‘s or Hildyard’s hard-pressed troops.
Buller’s army loses 143 killed, 756 wounded and 220 captured. Boer casualties are eight killed and 30 wounded.
After the battle of Colenso, four soldiers are awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry that can be awarded to British forces. All crossed an exposed area of intense Boer fire and rescued two of the twelve guns of the 14th and 66th Batteries when their crews had become casualties or were driven from their weapons. They are Captain Walter Norris Congreve, Captain Harry Norton Schofield, Corporal George Edward Nurse and Lieutenant Frederick Hugh Sherston Roberts, son of Field Marshal Frederick Sleigh Roberts, who died of his wounds two days later.
(Pictured: Boers capturing the British guns at the Battle of Colenso on December 15, 1899 in the Boer War. Picture by Fritz Neumann.)