Battle of Laing's Nek
War: First Boer War
Date: 28th January 1881.
In the northern tip of Natal near to the Transvaal Border, in South
Combatants: British against the Boers.
Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley and Commandant General P. J. Joubert.
Size of the armies: 1,200 British troops against 3,000 Boers.
Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British infantry in South Africa at that date wore red jackets, blue
trousers with red piping to the side, white pith helmets and pipe clayed
equipment. The standard infantry weapon was the Martini Henry single shot
breech loading rifle with a long sword bayonet. Gunners of the Royal
Artillery wore blue jackets.
The Boers, being essentially a citizen
militia, wore what they wished, jacket, trousers and slouch hat with a
bandolier, and carried hunting rifles. The Boers were mainly mounted
infantry, riding the ponies they used to tend their stock, many with a life
times experience of marksmanship. They carried no bayonet leaving them at a
substantial disadvantage in close combat, which they avoided so far as
Winner: The Boers.
58th Regiment: later 2nd Battalion, the Northamptonshire Regiment and now
the Royal Anglian Regiment.
3rd Battalion, 60th Rifles: now the Royal Green Jackets.
Laing’s Nek is not a British Battle Honour.
The British annexation of the Transvaal Republic in April 1877 brought
about the First Boer War, although it took some years to break out. On
20th December 1880, Lieutenant Colonel Anstruther and elements of his
regiment, the 94th, marched from Lydenburg to Pretoria, the regiment’s
band leading the column playing the popular song “kiss me mother
darling". At Bronkhorst Spruit the force was stopped by Boers who
courteously required the “Red Soldiers" to turn back. Armstrong equally
courteously refused at which the column was devastated by rifle fire
from the surrounding Boer ambush. Of the 259 in the column, 155 officers
and men became casualties as did some of the women accompanying the
The British High Commissioner for South East Africa, Major General
Sir George Pomeroy Colley, instead of waiting for the reinforcements
that were on the outbreak of the war sent to Southern Africa, assembled
what troops he could and rushed forward, claiming to be moving to
relieve the British garrisons in the Transvaal.
Colley gathered his force at Newcastle in Natal, dispatched an
ultimatum to the Boers and, on its rejection, advanced towards the
Transvaal border. The first British camp on the march lay some 4 miles
short of Laing’s Nek, a ridge that blocked the road, occupied by a Boer
On the morning of 28th January 1881 Colley moved out with his troops:
5 companies of the 58th Regiment, 5 companies of the 3rd Battalion, the
60th Rifles, a company of mounted infantry, a party of Royal Navy
sailors and 4 guns of the Royal Artillery.
Where the road climbed up to Laing’s Nek, hills occupied by Boer
riflemen overlooked it from each side. Colley led his force forward and
wheeled to face the Boer positions on his right flank, causing the
British rear to be exposed to the Boers holding the hills on the left
side of the road.
The battle began with a bombardment of the Boer’s left wing,
inflicting slight casualties, and a charge by the British mounted troops
up the hill, repelled with some loss. This failed assault was followed
by an attack further to the left, delivered by the companies of the 58th
Regiment led by Colonel Deane. The Boers, moving forward to shoot into
the regiment’s flanks, opened a devastating fire on the red coated
infantry as they climbed the open hillside. The 58th suffered
considerable casualties, including Colonel Deane and most of the
regiment’s officers, before finally abandoning the attack and retiring
to the bottom of the hill.
British Officers at tiffin
The “Cease Fire" sounded, ending the battle. A truce was negotiated
whereby the Boers permitted the British surgeons to attend the wounded
on the hillside.
Casualties: British casualties were 198 of which 173 were from the 58th
Regiment, including many of the battalion’s officers. Boer casualties
Laing's Nek : The end of the battle
Follow-up: General Colley mustered his forces before moving
forward for the disastrous battle at Majuba Hill.
Private Doogan of the Queen's Dragoon Guards winning the VC at
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
- Laing’s Nek is memorable as the last occasion that a British
regiment took its colours into action. The 58th were led up the hillside
by Lieutenant Baillie carrying the Regimental Colour and Lieutenant Hill
carrying the Queen’s Colour. Baillie was mortally wounded while Hill won
the Victoria Cross bringing casualties down from the hillside. Hill
passed the two colours to Sergeant Budstock for safe keeping; a
necessary concession to the realities of late 19th Century combat.
- The 58th became the 2nd Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment.
The colours remained in service, carefully repaired, until the
disbanding of the battalion after the Second World War and can be seen
in the Regimental Museum in Abington Park, Northampton.
- The 60th, being a rifle regiment, did not possess colours.
- Laing’s Nek was the first occasion that Britain suffered from the
effectiveness of Boer riflemen in the field. The British had been
contemptuous of the Boers as soldiers during the Zulu War, without
realising they possessed qualities well suited to fighting fewer and
less ruthless troops like the British Regular forces, rather than the
massed and highly mobile Zulu warriors.