Testimony of the Witnesses - It Was a Very Trying Day.
The line, “It was a very trying day” appears in the report written British Major General Sir Redvers Buller about the Battle of Colenso against the Boers on December 15, 1899, in which his 17,000 British troops with 44 guns had been badly beaten, with heavy casualties and the humiliating loss of ten cannon, by about 4,200 Boer militiamen.
Colenso was the last of three serious defeats suffered by Buller’s troops during “Black Week”, coming after the Battles of Stormberg on the 10th and that of Magersfontein on the 11th ; in the three fights British forces totaling about 33,750 had lost 2,776 men killed, wounded, or missing (8 percent) against Boer forces of about 15,300, who lost only about 300 in killed, wounded, or missing (2 percent).
The British defeat resulted from several factors. One was a lack of respect for the long-range repeating rifle. Despite their experience shooting down ill-armed “natives” in the thousands using the rifle during various colonial wars, British troops had not grasped the importance of cover, since their opponents were not shooting back with modern weapons. A second problem was a failure to realize that the Boers were so ignorant of “real soldiering” that their very lack of knowledge enabled them to come up with some very innovative tactics, such as using available cover, relying on aimed fire, and defending high ground from its base (rather than its military crest), which rendered British preparatory artillery fire ineffective.
Born in 1839, Redvers Buller (his given name was pronounced “Reevers”) had attended Eton and in 1858 was commissioned into the 60th Rifles (King's Royal Rifle Corps). He almost immediately saw active service in the Second Anglo-Chinese “Opium” War (1856-1860), then the Canadian Red River Expedition (1870), and served as an intelligence officer in the Third Anglo-Ashanti War (1873-1874), during which he was wounded. Service in South Africa followed, in the Ninth Kafir/Cape Frontier War (1878), the Great Anglo-Zulu War (1879), in which he earned a Victoria Cross, and the disastrous First Anglo-Boer War (1881). Buller then fought the Mahdi in the Sudan (1882-1885), earning a promotion to major-general. Over the next few years he had several administrative or special assignments. In 1898 Buller was assigned to command at Aldershot, on the Salisbury Plain, the British Army’s principal maneuvering grounds.
During the autumn maneuvers of 1898, Buller commanded an army corps acting as the spearhead for an invasion of Britain from its southern coast. The results were disappointing. As historian David M. Leeson put it “Buller was defeated in almost every battle on Salisbury Plain in the autumn of 1898, just as he was later, in the South African summer of 1899-1900.”
Despite his dismal performance at Aldershot, unlike the U.S. Army’s reaction to ineptitude during maneuvers on the eve of World War II, the British Army didn’t hold losing against him. So when war with the Boers broke out, just a few months later, Buller was dispatched to South Africa to command a corps. Leeson went on the noted it was “clear that General Buller had fallen victim to the Peter Principle, and risen to his level of incompetence”, a demonstration of institutional failure that earned the man the nickname “Reverse Buller”.