Battle of Colenso, South Africa.

Friday, 15 December, 1899
Colenso Ladysmith Tugela
Map of Colenso

This battle, which took place on 15 December 1899, was the third main British defeat by the Boers in five days and the culmination of a period known as 'Black Week'. Both the 1st Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, in 5 (Irish) Brigade* and the 2nd Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers were present at the Battle of Colenso, although the latter's role, as part of the reserve 6 (Fusilier) Brigade, was to detach four companies to escort artillery. A major factor was the exceptionally high December temperatures during the hot South African summer.

The British were anxious to relieve Ladysmith which the Boers were besieging. The Army Corps commander, General Sir Redvers Buller, decided to lead an advance with four brigades on Ladysmith via the town of Colenso on the Tugela River. The town and river line were dominated from heights both north and south of the river where Boers were entrenched in well camouflaged positions. The agile Boer commandos were effectively blocking the road and rail routes running north to Ladysmith.

Buller's plan was to launch a frontal attack on Colenso with 2 Brigade moving to occupy the town and 5 (Irish) Brigade crossing the Tugela at Bridle Drift. In the early hours of 15 December, 2 Brigade, 5 (Irish Brigade), and batteries of field guns moved forward in the dark. Unfortunately none reached their correct destinations and, worse still, they found themselves at day-break within effective range of the Boers' modern Mauser rifles. Confused orders resulted in the Inniskillings advancing through the forward battalions in a loop of the River Tugela, where the Irish Brigade could not cross.

The Inniskillings had been caught in the perfect killing ground in the loop of the river where the Brigade's guide had been leading them to the wrong ford, Punt Drift. Overall, at Corps level, poor reconnaissance, inaccurate maps, a lack of competent Corps staff officers, and poor judgement at the command level contributed to the disaster. Command judgement was tainted by experiences in campaigns such as the Zulu Wars and the Omdurman; all of these were inappropriate to operations against the Boer enemy in Northern Natal.

The Inniskillings lost 2 officers killed and 9 wounded; 21 other ranks killed and 81 wounded. The Faughs suffered one officer wounded, 3 men killed and 21 wounded. Buller's total losses were 1,167 killed, wounded and captured.

5 (Irish) Brigade commanded by Major General A F Hart included:

1st Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
1st Battalion The Connaught Rangers
2nd Battalion The Royal Dublin Fusiliers
2nd Battalion The Border Regiment