Battle of Colenso

Battle of Colenso

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Colenso
partof=Second Boer War

caption=Battlefield of Colenso, from the Rooiberg, on the Boer right
1 General Louis Botha’s Commando
2 Boksburg Commando
3 Village of Colenso
4 Krugersdorp Commando
5 Wakkerstrom Commando
6 Ermelo Commando
7 Swaziland Police
8 Ermelo Commando
9 British Camp, Chievely
10 Tugela River
date=December 15, 1899
place= Colenso, South Africa
result=Boer victory
combatant1=Great Britain
commander1=General Sir Redvers Henry Buller
commander2=General Louis Botha
strength1=16000 [] ]
10 guns

The Battle of Colenso is the third and final of the battles fought during the Black Week of the Boer War. It was fought between British and Boer forces at , South Africa on 15 December 1899 as part of the Second Boer War.

Inadequate preparation and reconnaissance and uninspired leadership led to a heavy, and in some respects humiliating, British defeat.


Shortly before the outbreak of the war, General Redvers Buller was dispatched to South Africa at the head of an Army Corps, and appointed Commander in Chief of the all the British forces in South Africa. On arrival, he found British garrisons besieged on widely separated fronts, with limited communications between them. Having detached forces under Generals Lord Methuen and Gatacre to the western and central fronts, Buller assumed command of his largest detachment and proposed to lead it to the relief of a besieged British force in Ladysmith, in Natal.

On this front, the Boers had made some raids and reconnaissances into the southern part of the province, but in the face of a large British army, they had retired north of the Tugela River at Colenso and dug in there, blocking the road and railway line to Ladysmith.

Louis Botha, commanding the Boers, deployed nine commandos and the Johannesburg Police with his chief strength north of the river covering the drifts (fords). Boer units present included the Boksburg, Krugersdorp, Wakkerstroom and Ermelo commandos, as well as the Swaziland Police. Botha's plan was to open fire when the British were about to cross, or were crossing, the river, and enfilade their right flank and rear with a tenth commando deployed on a hill known as Hlangwane, south of the river.

British plans

Buller was unable to make any outflanking moves due to a shortage of wagons and draught animals, and he therefore prepared a frontal attack close to the railway line, which was his line of communication.

Buller intended the 5th Brigade, an Irish unit commanded by Major-General Fitzroy Hart, to cross a drift (ford) two miles (3 km) upstream of the village of Colenso. Another brigade (the 2nd Brigade) under Major-General Henry J. T. Hildyard would occupy the village itself (where there was another ford and two bridges across the Tugela, although one bridge had been demolished). On their right, a brigade of colonial light horse and mounted infantry under Lord Dundonald would capture Hlangwane. Two more infantry brigades were in reserve. Five batteries of field artillery and two of long-range naval guns were to support the various attacks.

The battle

Early on the morning of 15 December 1899, Hart gave his men half an hour's parade ground drill, then led them in close column towards the ford. His locally recruited guide, who spoke no English, led the brigade to the wrong ford, at the end of a loop in the river at coord|28|43|57|S|29|47|16|E|type:landmark. (The loop can be clearly seen to the right of the photograph at the head of the article.) Botha had ordered his men to hold their fire until the British tried to cross the river, but Hart's brigade jammed into the loop of the river was too good a target to miss. The Boers opened fire and Hart's brigade was to suffer over 500 casualties before they could be extricated.

Meanwhile, as Hildyard moved towards Colenso, two batteries of field guns under Colonel Charles James Long forged ahead of him, and deployed in the open well within rifle range of the nearest Boers. Once again, this was too tempting a target, and the Boers opened fire. The British gunners fought on even though suffering heavy casualties, but were eventually forced to take shelter in a donga (dry stream bed) behind the guns.

Buller, who had also heard that his light horse were pinned down at the foot of Hlangwane and unable to advance, decided to call the battle off at this point, even though Hildyard's men, advancing in open order, had just occupied Colenso. He went forward (being slightly wounded himself) and called for volunteers to recover Long's guns. Two teams galloped up, and hooked up and brought away two guns. Another attempt failed when horses and volunteers were shot down by Boer rifle fire. One of those mortally wounded was Lieutenant the Hon. Freddy Roberts, the only son of Field Marshal Lord Roberts who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, several other Victoria Crosses were also awarded.

During the afternoon, the British fell 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 reasoned that a full day under a boiling sun would have sapped their morale and strength. Buller's army lost 143 killed, 756 wounded and 220 captured. Boer casualties were estimated at 50. [Dupuy, p 854]


Although replaced as Commander in Chief in South Africa by Lord Roberts, Buller remained in command in Natal despite the death of the Hon. Freddy Roberts.

Over the next month he made his original intended flank march, but this ended with the disastrous Battle of Spion Kop. Eventually he returned to Colenso, and forced his way over the Tugela in the Relief of Ladysmith by laboriously outflanking and capturing Hlangwane, which dominated the Boer left flank. Even so, another ten days' fighting were necessary, but eventually Botha's forces were broken and forced to retreat, temporarily demoralised. Ladysmith was relieved on 28 February 1900.

As a result of actions undertaken in the Battle of Colenso four soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest decoration for gallantry awarded to Commonwealth forces. All crossed an exposed area of intense Boer fire and rescued two guns of the 16th and 44th Batteries when their crews had become casualties or been driven from their weapons, thus preventing their capture by the enemy. They were Captain Walter Congreve, Captain Harry Scofield, Corporal George Nurse and Lieutenant Fredrick Roberts who was mortally wounded in this action.

ee also

* Colenso
* Relief of Ladysmith
*Military history of South Africa



* Barthorp, Michael. "The Anglo-Boer Wars." Blandford, 1987. ISBN 0-7137-1658-4
* Dupuy, R. E. & Dupuy, T. N. "The Encyclopedia of Military History." New York: Harper & Row, 1977. ISBN 0-06-011139-9
* Knight, Ian. "Colenso 1899: The Boer War in Natal." Osprey Campaign #38, Osprey Publishing, 1995. ISBN 1-85532-466-0
* Kruger, Rayne. "Goodbye Dolly Gray: Story of the Boer War." New English Library Ltd. 1964. ISBN 0-7126-6285-5
* Pakenham, Thomas. "The Boer War." Cardinal, 1979. ISBN 0-7474-0976-5

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