The Hon Lieutenant Frederick Hugh Sherston Roberts, (1872-1899), the son of Field Marshal Lord Roberts, and Corporal George Nurse were both awarded the VC for their attempt to save the guns of the 14th and 66th Batteries, Royal Field Artillery, at the Battle of Colenso on 15 December 1899. Roberts was mortally wounded and died 24 hours after winning the VC.
Having surrounded and laying siege to Ladysmith, the Boer forces bypassed the town and commenced their push south towards Estcourt via Colenso. On the 15th of November 1899 they captured an armoured train which had been sent to reconnoitre the railway line as far as Chievelly. During this incident the then- correspondent with the Morning Post in Britain, Winston Churchill, was captured and sent to Pretoria. He later escaped and made his way back to Durban via present-day Maputo.
On the 23rd of November 1899, the Boers, under command of General Piet Joubert, were attacked by the Estcourt garrison at Willow Grange. Some of the younger Boer officers favoured a direct assault on Pietermaritzburg and then Durban, but Joubert knew that British General Sir Redvers Buller was soon to depart north from Durban with a considerable army, and he chose rather to occupy the high ground north of the uThukela River and await the British. During these manoeuvres however, Joubert injured himself badly falling from his horse, and withdrew from the conflict. The brilliant young strategist, General Louis Botha, took control of the Boer forces.
Realising that Buller would advance along the railway, Botha commenced preparing trenches and even dummy gun positions along the north bank of the river. Buller duly arrived at Chievelly and commenced shelling the north bank on the 13th of December. On the 14th preparations were made for a three-pronged attack on the Boer positions.
The Battle of Colenso
On the 15th Buller launched a direct frontal attack using three brigades with artillery support from both the Royal Artillery and the guns of the Royal Navy. Two brigades were held in reserve. General Hart's brigade was to cross the river and link up with General Hildyard's brigade, which was first to take the town of Colenso. The third prong comprised the mounted troops commanded by Colonel Lord Dundonald, who were to provide enfilading fire support from Hlangwane Hill, once it had first been taken.
At 4:40am Hart's 5th Irish Brigade moved out, first – to the astonishment of the Boers -having been subjected to 20 minutes of parade-ground drill, and then proceeding to march directly into a large loop in the river. Buller had intended that they cross the river at a drift immediately upstream, but in the event the British maps were so inaccurate that the brigade soon found itself in a trap without a river crossing and under fire from three sides. Within an hour and a half it was all over, the brigade having to be withdrawn from the battle leaving over 400 dead and wounded.
General Hildyard's largely successful movement now became irrelevant. By 9:30 am, however, he was in control of Colenso with five companies of infantry and artillery support from the 14th and 66th batteries of the Royal Field Artillery, but which had began to run low on ammunition.
Buller himself had meanwhile decided to ride down to the wagon lines where his personal physician was fatally wounded at his side.
Dundonald's mounted attack advanced on Hlangwane, which should properly have been an infantry objective. Around 800 Boers provided a spirited resistance and it took Dundonald three hours to extricate himself from a difficult situation.
Realising his hopeless situation, Buller decided at 11am to abandon his plans, which also necessitated the withdrawal of Colonel Long's guns, for which volunteers were called to assist. During the first attempt, Lieutenant Freddie Roberts, only son of British Field Marshall Lord Roberts, was killed.
However, only two guns could eventually be saved, the remaining 10 guns being captured by the Boers after they crossed the river at 4:30pm and forced the remaining British troops guarding the guns to surrender, together with several ammunition wagons.
Total British losses during the engagement amounted to 145 killed, 762 wounded and 220 missing or taken prisoner. Boer losses were only 7 killed, one drowned and 30 wounded.
There are several sites around Colenso commemorating aspects of the battle. These include the Ambleside Military Cemetery which is open daily and where many men – especially of the Irish regiment – are buried. The Armoured Train Cemetery is worth visiting, as is the site where the Boers captured the 10 British guns. It also has a marker where Freddy Roberts fell.