With Ladysmith under siege British forces travelled from Durban with the objective of relieving the town. The Boers under command of General Louis Botha, after General Piet Joubert was injured, had meanwhile taken up positions along the northern bank of the Thukela River.
Buller mounted a three-prong attack on 15 December 1899 but it was unsuccessful. Maps used by the British were inaccurate and as a result the 5th Irish Brigade, who were to cross the river on the eastern flank of the attack got trapped in a loop of the river looking for a drift that was not there. In less than two hours, 400 British lay dead as they came under Boer fire from three sides.
The second and third prongs of the attack had faltered and by 11h00 the British began to retreat.
The first attempt to relieve Ladysmith had failed. Many of the men who died at the Battle of Colenso are buried at this cemetery including Lt. Freddie Roberts, the only son of Field Marshal Lord Roberts, who died trying to recover the guns which had been left behind during the British retreat.
By the end of the day, only two guns had been recovered, leaving ten for the Boers to capture.
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