The Boer War: How Britain Lifted the Siege at Ladysmith (and Moved Toward Victory)

February 10, 2021 Topic: History Region: Africa Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Boer WarBoersBritish EmpireMilitary HistorySouth Africa

The Boer War: How Britain Lifted the Siege at Ladysmith (and Moved Toward Victory)

For 119 days, the British garrison at Ladysmith held out as Boer gunners hammered them from the hills beyond.

Here's What You Need to Know: In the early hours of October 12, 1899, Commandant-General Piet Joubert and 15,000 Boers crossed the border between Transvaal and Natal near Laing’s Nek in southern Africa. Joubert’s main force, led by General Daniel Erasmus’s 2,000-man commando, followed the railway line south through Newcastle toward the township of Dundee. Paralleling him on his left was General Lucas Meyer’s 3,000-man commando. General Johannes Kock, with his Johannesburg commando and German and Dutch volunteers, came in from the corner of the Orange Free State south of Majuba and advanced on Dundee. London Times reporter Leo Amery vividly described the Boers’ departure as “an endless procession of silent misty figures, horsemen, artillery, and wagons, filing past in the dark, cold night along the winding road that led to where the black shoulder of Majuba stood up against the greyer sky.”

The Brits and Boers go to War

The Boers were setting out to punish the British for taking the side of their emigrant countrymen, the so-called Uitlanders, who had flocked into the gold-rich Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State throughout the past two decades. After an abortive raid on Johannesburg by English guerrillas in 1896, relations between the Boers and Great Britain continued to worsen. Transvaal President Paul Kruger gave the British an ultimatum—stop building up British forces in the colonies of Cape Colony and Natal, or face the consequences. Kruger’s ultimatum had expired—unanswered—at midnight on October 11.

Major General Sir Penn Symons, a headstrong fire-eater, was commander in chief of British forces in Natal. For defense against a Boer attack, he had some 10,000 troops in Ladysmith and had positioned Brig. Gen. James Yule’s 8th Brigade at Dundee, 70 miles northeast of Ladysmith. The brigade comprised four battalions—the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, the 60th Rifles, and the 1st Leicesters. There was also one cavalry regiment, the 18th Hussars, and three batteries of field artillery armed with six 15-pounder guns.

By separating his forces, Symons had left himself in a dangerous position. It was completely against the advice of General Sir Redvers Buller, who was on his way from England with a 47,000-man army corps and had strongly warned Symons that British forces in Natal should not be pushed too far northward, but instead should be concentrated on the defensive along a line behind the Tugela River. Symons did not take the warning.

Battle of Talana Hill: a ‘Comical’ Beginning

Meyer’s commando reached Talana Hill, a steep ridge two miles east of Dundee, at dawn on October 20. In the valley below, Symons had his four battalions on parade in full battle gear. They were facing north toward Mount Impati, a few miles north of Dundee, from which point they knew Joubert’s main army was advancing. Suddenly, some of the troops noticed movements in the mists on Talana Hill and were able to make out Meyer’s commandos hauling three field guns into position. Some of the British troops broke into laughter; the idea of a couple of thousand Boers attacking an entire British brigade was comical. A few minutes later, a barrage of 75mm shells wiped the smiles from their faces.

All three of Symons’s artillery batteries went into action, and for 10 minutes there was a brisk exchange of shells, but no one, at least on the British side, was injured. Even before the exchange ended, Symons had issued orders. Meyer’s commando coming from the east must not be allowed to link up with Joubert’s main army coming from the north. That link could come in just a few hours. Meyer’s commando must be defeated immediately.

Taking the Hill

Talana Hill was in fact twin hills, 600-foot Talana to the north and 550-foot Lennox Hill to the south. At the base of Talana was a eucalyptus wood and Smit’s Farm, consisting of a number of farm buildings and fields ringed with stone walls. This was the place, Symons decided, from which to launch a concentrated infantry attack. He would use the tactics of the time, the tactics all regular armies were trained to follow—first, an artillery barrage; second, an infantry attack; and third, a cavalry charge to cut off the enemy’s retreat.

Some of Symons’s officers were alarmed by his belief in the virtues of close-order, concentrated attack. To them, an open-order formation was the only tactic to use against magazine rifles. But Symons had made up his mind. His artillery would deal with the southern part of the ridge, Lennox Hill, and his infantry would concentrate in the few hundred yards covered by the stone walls and the eucalyptus wood directly below Talana, before storming the hill in overwhelming strength. There was no time for maneuvering—it was to be a knockout blow before Meyer could link up with Joubert. Symons told his cavalry commander, Lt. Col. B.D. Moller, not to wait for the infantry but to act on his own if he saw a chance. At about 7 am, Moller rode off to the back of Talana Hill to cut off Meyer’s line of retreat.

The infantry assault began at 7:30. In the lead was the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, followed by the 60th Rifles and the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, who would charge straight through to take the final objective, the summit. The battalions gradually worked their way up the hill in the face of intensive fire from the Boers’ German-made Mauser rifles, but as they reached the top, shrapnel from their own artillery caused severe casualties and halted them. The Boers retreated down the other side of the hill, mounted their horses, and rode away. The artillery did not fire on them, thinking the riders were the 18th Hussars. The Hussars had, in fact, ridden round the back of Mount Impati, where two days later they were surrounded and forced to surrender. The attack had cost the British 51 dead, including the CO of the 60th, and 203 wounded, including Symons, who died a few days later.

The Boers Close in on Ladysmith

The British garrison at Ladysmith celebrated Talana Hill as a victory, but General Sir George White was more concerned with Joubert’s main force, some of whom were reported to have occupied Elandslaagte, 15 miles up the railway line from Ladysmith. The Boer troops were Kock’s commando, which had diverged from Joubert’s force. White sent the 7th Brigade, comprising 1,630 infantry, 1,314 cavalry, and 552 gunners with 18 guns and commanded by Colonel Ian Hamilton, by train to Elandslaagte. They found the 1,000-man commando with three 75mm guns occupying a small ridge south of the railway station. Hamilton ordered an immediate attack.

It was afternoon and a storm was approaching when the British attack went in against volleys of rifle fire. The battalions involved were abruptly brought to a halt. The storm broke over them, giving the battalions an opportunity to renew the attack and clear the crest of the ridge. The cavalry charged as the Boers withdrew, killing some 60 of them, including Kock. British casualties in the action were 50 killed and 213 wounded.

A new threat to Ladysmith was now developing from the west, with Boer Commandant Henrik Prinsloo coming along the railway from Harrismith. On October 24, White tried to prevent a junction of Prinsloo’s commando and Joubert’s forces by personally leading three battalions of infantry and the 5th Lancers and 5th Dragoon Guards to occupy some hills northwest of Ladysmith. The attempt failed—the Boers had gotten there first.

“This has not been a successful day”

Meanwhile, at Dundee, Yule’s brigade was coming under increasing artillery bombardment, including a much-dreaded “Long Tom,” a Creusot 155mm gun throwing a 94-pound shell. Yule sought White’s permission to withdraw to Ladysmith by the one route still open to him. White agreed, and the brigade began a forced march that brought them into Ladysmith on October 26. This increased White’s numbers to 13,745 soldiers and 5,400 civilians, including 2,400 African servants and Indian camp followers. The next day, Joubert’s forces were reported closing in from the north. One commando had occupied Pepworth Hill, four miles northeast of Ladysmith, where it was hastily building a platform for a Long Tom. White decided to attack Pepworth Hill.

He would use two brigades. The 8th Brigade would make a night march around to the eastern flank of the hill and attack from that direction at dawn on October 30, while the 7th Brigade created a diversion by advancing directly toward the hill. Artillery support would be by 15-pounders and a recently arrived naval gun detachment of four 12-pounders and two 4.7-inch guns. The cavalry would then sweep around the eastern flank and drive the fleeing Boers up against two battalions of infantry that had night-marched around the western flank of the hill.

The ensuing operation was a disaster. The Boers, whose scouts had warned about a coming attack, had moved their positions to three nearby hills. The British brigades launched their attacks against empty defenses and immediately came under Boer rifle and artillery fire from the three hills. They panicked and retreated, along with the cavalry. The two battalions that had marched around the western flank of Pepworth Hill were isolated and forced to surrender. Lt. Col. Sir Henry Rawlinson described the debacle somewhat mildly in his diary: “This has not been a successful day. Now we shall have to sit down in Ladysmith and stand investment and bombardment, which is very unpleasant. Ladysmith is one of the most indefensible localities I ever came across. It is like the bottom of a tea cup with one side broken out and a large basin outside the tea cup.”