As students of the history of Royal Navy will appreciate, there were no major sea battles fought by the British in over a century between the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic era and the Battle of Jutland during the Great War. The burgeoning British empire was concerned with expanding its global influence and the task of the navy was principally to support the more generally employed land based forces in a multitude of smaller campaigns. However, it was quickly appreciated that the expertise of sailors and marines could be invaluable on the battlefield, particularly with regard to their expertise as gunners. So naval brigades had been in action from the 1820s in a dozen conflicts, including the Indian Mutiny, the Crimean War and the Zulu War, before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. This book describes the activities of the big guns ashore and in action on the veldt. Of particular note is the service of the sailors from HMS Powerful at Ladysmith—a feat of arms that is still commemorated in ‘the field gun run’ at the Royal Tournament. This is a well regarded overview of an unusual subject and an interesting addition to any library on colonial warfare or British naval history. Another Leonaur book, The Naval Brigade in Natal by C. R. N. Burne, a companion to this present volume, is an eyewitness account of the Royal Navy during the Boer War.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
December 15.—We were called at 2 a.m., made a hearty breakfast and, two hours later, moved down the slopes of Shooter’s Hill with two 4.7’s and four 12-pounders and marched towards Colenso. Day dawned, and the yells of the native drivers, and the rumbling and jolting of the gun and wagon wheels over the crisp veldt, alone broke the silence of that calm peaceful morning.<br>
As the light became stronger we could make out, away across the river, the dim outlines of what we thought must be Boer gun positions, and being in the open and making a large target, we were naturally very anxious lest they should open fire on us, for had they done so, there is no doubt that our oxen and natives would have stampeded, and we should have been badly mauled.<br>
However, they left us alone and the six naval guns were slowly drawn up a slight eminence, 800 yards to the left of the railway, facing Colenso and Fort Wyllie, and distant from the latter, the centre of the enemy’s position, about 4,500 yards. Unmolested they unlimbered, and the first shot—the first shot of the day—was fired at 5.20 a.m. from a 4.7. Everyone expected this to have the effect of a stick in a wasps’ nest, and bring a score of replies about our ears, but not a sign or a move did they make along their whole line.<br>
We kept at it, steadily plugging rifle-pits and trenches for half an hour, whilst Hart and Dundonald slowly worked their way to the left and right respectively, and Long’s batteries, with six naval 12-pounders in rear of them, marched slowly along the other side of the railway towards the centre to make their great artillery attack on Fort Wyllie and the neighbouring trenches and rifle-pits.<br>
They appeared to have almost gained the river banks, and were just coming into action, when the pent-up storm burst, and a tremendous rifle-fire was opened on them from rifle-pits among the trees, from the river banks, and the triple row of trenches beyond it; Fort Wyllie also opened with pom-poms.<br>
Firing now became general all along the line, nor could rifle-fire, more continuous and intense, be imagined. Pom-poms, cunningly concealed, added their horrid noise, and now, at last, the Boer big guns, very scattered and very well hidden, commenced to open fire, the smokeless powder they used making it most exceedingly difficult to locate them.<br>
In half an hour. Long’s guns were out of action in the centre, the naval guns with him could not keep down the fire and had to be withdrawn, Hildyard was barely maintaining himself in Colenso, and Hart was in difficulties on the left. The attack was a failure, and, to enable Hart to extricate himself, more batteries and Lyttelton’s brigade were hurried forward in support. These batteries, coming into the open, were vigorously shelled by three long-range guns at 7,000 yards, to which they could not reply and were badly hammered, till we turned on the three and eventually silenced them.<br>
Then a general retirement was ordered, and it was our job to cover it, and keep down the fire from the big guns. We discovered something like twenty of them, and our men sweated away in the terrible heat, silencing, temporarily, one after another, and making grand shooting; but our guns were all too few, and what with the mirage and the enemy using smokeless powder it was almost impossible to hit them.<br>
It was now nearly midday—the heat terrible—and the weary troops, tortured with thirst and burning with anger, came slowly back, repulsed indeed, but no one who saw them turning sullenly, as occasional shells from big gun or pom-pom fell amongst them, could call them beaten.
Then came our turn to retire, and one gun after another was slowly withdrawn, but it was not till 2 p.m. that all were back again at Shooter’s Hill.<br>
Not a man had been touched with the 4.7’s, though shells fell frequently all round the guns—fortunately they seldom exploded, but went bounding from rock to rock and finally burying themselves in the ground. Most amusing it was to see the bluejackets and the men of our escort chasing them.<br>
Some of us jolted back to camp on an ammunition wagon and were made a target of, one shell dropping just behind it. We kept our seats, but concluded on the next similar occasion to avail ourselves of a less conspicuous means of transport.<br>
Close to Shooter’s Hill the field hospitals had been established, and here the naval doctors lent a hand till a late hour, attending to the wounded, who were brought back the three miles and more from where they fell, by the volunteer stretcher-bearers—a very saddening sight.<br>
Thus ended a memorable and ill-fated day.