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War Memorials

COLENSO - 15 DECEMBER 1899 - 1. THE BEGINNING

 

The 2nd Boer War has always been of great interest to the people of Devon to whom General Buller was, and to a large extent still is, an extremely heroic figure. Local men volunteered in their thousands to follow him to South Africa and felt that they knew him and he knew them. It is only in recent years that his actions, and those of other commanders have begun to be questioned.

 

With the valuable gift of hindsight it is possible to see this war as the first of modern times. The British Army, with its rigid hierarchical system of command. its unshakeable belief in the role of the cavalry and its blinkered view of the set-piece battle, experienced a terrible shock. It wasn't a complete awakening - that took another war to bring home the pressing need for changing attitudes - but the high command was certainly shaken out of its complacency.  When battalions of  young men from the county set out in the autumn of 1899, local Devon newspapers insisted that the war would be over by Christmas, echoing the general feeling among the public. Unaware of the true facts about what was happening on the other side of the world, in January 1900, many of the ad hoc appeals for comforts for the troops were being wound up because, as newspaper after newspaper reported, the lads would be back before any parcels could reach them. 

 

Then the War Office began issuing casualty figures for publication in the press. A trickle at first, then a flood. As wounded men were hospitalised and returned to England from the Front and the uncensored letters of those who remained to continue the fight were published in those same newspapers, a grim mood swept over the whole county as the wider public faced  what the men on the ground already knew, namely that so far. the British Army was not the winning side in this conflict.

 

Many letters were written home from the camp set up at Chieveley where men waited to go into action. The following extract is taken from In South Africa with Buller by George Musgrave whose book was written and published in 1900 when the events of the war and the pain of the staggering losses suffered by the British Army was still fresh in everyone's minds.

 

Map of battlefield positions at Colenso 15 December 1899
Map showing the battlefield positions taken up by the British Army on 15 December 1899. 

 

Taken from "In South Africa with Buller"

by George Musgrave, written and published in 1900

"The ground leading to Colenso from Chieveley is very opened and traversed by dongas (gullies). The veldt slopes gently down to the immediate river bank, which is steep and covered with long coarse grass and scrub. You will thus see that a force advancing from Chieveley toward Ladysmith must cross the open in face of a terrific rifle and artillery fire from well - screened positions.  Still exposed, the advance across the river would be retarded by barbed wire and the artificial flood of the drifts, and if a command could live to force a passage, row after row of kopjes (a small hill) must be stormed in succession on the opposite bank; the direct opposition supported by the heavy guns and reserve riflemen on the eminences in the rear.

 

In these days of modern warfare (i.e. 1900) the impregnable position certainly seems to exist, and with resolution a handful of men at Colenso could stay the advance of an army corps. Imagine two miles of successive positions like San Juan in Cuba, but seven times longer, covered with rocks, steeper and a hundred-fold more difficult to assail. Throw in front of them a broad, unfordable river, with an open, unprotected advance in place of the El Paso woods that covered the advance to within 600 yards of the Spanish blockhouses. Place in the position a foe a hundred times more resolute and thirty time more numerous than Toral's advanced forces in Cuba. Advance your column, but one brigade larger than Shafter's army, across the open, force a passage over the river under the belching of 15,000 rifles, tear your way through the entanglements on the banks, carry these twenty San Juans in succession while the commanding eminences in the rear sustain a terrific fire on your advancing forces, storm those final heights, capture the enemy's guns, and you have won the Battle of Colenso.

 

The wonder is not so much that the British failed but that they accomplished so much without a greater loss. Before you attempt to criticise Buller, study a map of Natal and read Bloch.*"

 

The Colenso battlefield

Colenso - The battlefield beyond Fort Wylie

Photographed in December 1899

 

*Jean de Bloch - author of The Future of War as Anti-revolutionary Pacifism ( pub 1898).

 

 
 
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