CHAPTER 11. BATTLE OF COLENSO.
But his two unhappy batteries were destined not to turn the tide of battle, as he had hoped, but rather to furnish the classic example of the helplessness of artillery against modern rifle fire. Not even Mercer's famous description of the effect of a flank fire upon his troop of horse artillery at Waterloo could do justice to the blizzard of lead which broke over the two doomed batteries. The teams fell in heaps, some dead, some mutilated, and mutilating others in their frantic struggles. One driver, crazed with horror, sprang on a leader, cut the traces and tore madly off the field. But a perfect discipline reigned among the vast majority of the gunners, and the words of command and the laying and working of the guns were all as methodical as at Okehampton. Not only was there a most deadly rifle fire, partly from the lines in front and partly from the village of Colenso upon their left flank, but the Boer automatic quick-firers found the range to a nicety, and the little shells were crackling and banging continually over the batteries. Already every gun had its litter of dead around it, but each was still fringed by its own group of furious officers and sweating desperate gunners. Poor Long was down, with a bullet through his arm and another through his liver. 'Abandon be damned! We don't abandon guns!' was his last cry as they dragged him into the shelter of a little donga hard by. Captain Goldie dropped dead. So did Lieutenant Schreiber. Colonel Hunt fell, shot in two places. Officers and men were falling fast. The guns could not be worked, and yet they could not be removed, for every effort to bring up teams from the shelter where the limbers lay ended in the death of the horses. The survivors took refuge from the murderous fire in that small hollow to which Long had been carried, a hundred yards or so from the line of bullet-splashed cannon. One gun on the right was still served by four men who refused to leave it. They seemed to bear charmed lives, these four, as they strained and wrestled with their beloved 15-pounder, amid the spurting sand and the blue wreaths of the bursting shells. Then one gasped and fell against the trail, and his comrade sank beside the wheel with his chin upon his breast. The third threw up his hands and pitched forward upon his face; while the survivor, a grim powder-stained figure, stood at attention looking death in the eyes until he too was struck down. A useless sacrifice, you may say; but while the men who saw them die can tell such a story round the camp fire the example of such deaths as these does more than clang of bugle or roll of drum to stir the warrior spirit of our race.
For two hours the little knot of heart-sick humiliated officers and men lay in the precarious shelter of the donga and looked out at the bullet-swept plain and the line of silent guns. Many of them were wounded. Their chief lay among them, still calling out in his delirium for his guns. They had been joined by the gallant Baptie, a brave surgeon, who rode across to the donga amid a murderous fire, and did what he could for the injured men. Now and then a rush was made into the open, sometimes in the hope of firing another round, sometimes to bring a wounded comrade in from the pitiless pelt of the bullets. How fearful was that lead-storm may be gathered from the fact that one gunner was found with sixty-four wounds in his body. Several men dropped in these sorties, and the disheartened survivors settled down once more in the donga.
The hope to which they clung was that their guns were not really lost, but that the arrival of infantry would enable them to work them once more. Infantry did at last arrive, but in such small numbers that it made the situation more difficult instead of easing it. Colonel Bullock had brought up two companies of the Devons to join the two companies (A and B) of Scots Fusiliers who had been the original escort of the guns, but such a handful could not turn the tide. They also took refuge in the donga, and waited for better times.
In the meanwhile the attention of Generals Buller and Clery had been called to the desperate position of the guns, and they had made their way to that further nullah in the rear where the remaining limber horses and drivers were. This was some distance behind that other donga in which Long, Bullock, and their Devons and gunners were crouching. 'Will any of you volunteer to save the guns?' cried Buller. Corporal Nurse, Gunner Young, and a few others responded. The desperate venture was led by three aides-de-camp of the Generals, Congreve, Schofield, and Roberts, the only son of the famous soldier. Two gun teams were taken down; the horses galloping frantically through an infernal fire, and each team succeeded in getting back with a gun. But the loss was fearful. Roberts was mortally wounded. Congreve has left an account which shows what a modern rifle fire at a thousand yards is like. 'My first bullet went through my left sleeve and made the joint of my elbow bleed, next a clod of earth caught me smack on the right arm, then my horse got one, then my right leg one, then my horse another, and that settled us.' The gallant fellow managed to crawl to the group of castaways in the donga. Roberts insisted on being left where he fell, for fear he should hamper the others.