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The Battle of Elandslaagte

Battle: Elandslaagte.

War: The Boer War.

Date: 21st October 1899

Place: Northern Natal in South Africa.

Combatants: British against the Boers.

Generals: Major General French and Brigadier Ian Hamilton against Commandant Kock

Size of the armies: 2,500 British with 18 guns against 1,000 Boers of the Johannesburg Commando with 3 guns..

Uniforms, arms and equipment: The Boer War was a serious jolt for the British Army. At the outbreak of the war British tactics were appropriate for the use of single shot firearms, fired in volleys controlled by company and battalion officers; the troops fighting in close order. The need for tight formations had been emphasised time and again in colonial fighting. In the Zulu and Sudan Wars overwhelming enemy numbers armed principally with stabbing weapons were easily kept at a distance by such tactics; but, as at Isandlwana, would overrun a loosely formed force. These tactics had to be entirely rethought in battle against the Boers armed with modern weapons.

In the months before hostilities the Boer commandant general, General Joubert, bought 30,000 Mauser magazine rifles and a number of modern field guns and automatic weapons from the German armaments manufacturer Krupp and the French firm Creusot. The commandoes, without formal discipline, welded into a fighting force through a strong sense of community and dislike for the British. Field Cornets led burghers by personal influence not through any military code. The Boers did not adopt military formation in battle, instinctively fighting from whatever cover there might be. The preponderance were countrymen, running their farms from the back of a pony with a rifle in one hand. These rural Boers brought a life time of marksmanship to the war, an important edge, further exploited by Joubert’s consignment of magazine rifles. Viljoen is said to have coined the aphorism “Through God and the Mauser”. With strong fieldcraft skills and high mobility the Boers were natural mounted infantry. The urban burghers and foreign volunteers readily adopted the fighting methods of the rest of the army.

Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police units, the Boers wore their every day civilian clothes on campaign.

After the first month the Boers lost their numerical superiority, spending the rest of the formal war on the defensive against British forces that regularly outnumbered them.

British tactics, little changed from the Crimea, used at Modder River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop were incapable of winning battles against entrenched troops armed with modern magazine rifles. Every British commander made the same mistake; Buller; Methuen, Roberts and Kitchener. When General Kelly-Kenny attempted to winkle Cronje’s commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments at Paardeburg using his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted on a battle of infantry assaults; with the same disastrous consequences as Colenso, Modder River, Magersfontein and Spion Kop.

Some of the most successful British troops were the non-regular regiments; the City Imperial Volunteers, the South Africans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who more easily broke from the habit of traditional European warfare, using their horses for transport rather than the charge, advancing by fire and manoeuvre in loose formations and making use of cover, rather than the formal advance into a storm of Mauser bullets.

Uniform: The British regiments made an uncertain change into khaki uniforms in the years preceding the Boer War, with the topee helmet as tropical headgear. Highland regiments in Natal devised aprons to conceal coloured kilts and sporrans. By the end of the war the uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab tunic and trousers; the danger of shiny buttons and too ostentatious emblems of rank emphasised in several engagements with disproportionately high officer casualties.

The British infantry were armed with the Lee Metford magazine rifle firing 10 rounds. But no training regime had been established to take advantage of the accuracy and speed of fire of the weapon. Personal skills such as scouting and field craft were little taught. The idea of fire and movement was unknown, many regiments still going into action in close order. Notoriously General Hart insisted that his Irish Brigade fight shoulder to shoulder as if on parade in Aldershot. Short of regular troops, Britain engaged volunteer forces from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who brought new ideas and more imaginative formations to the battlefield.

The British regular troops lacked imagination and resource. Routine procedures such as effective scouting and camp protection were often neglected. The war was littered with incidents in which British contingents became lost or were ambushed often unnecessarily and forced to surrender. The war was followed by a complete re-organisation of the British Army.

The British artillery was a powerful force in the field, underused by commanders with little training in the use of modern guns in battle. Pakenham cites Pieters as being the battle at which a British commander, surprisingly Buller, developed a modern form of battlefield tactics: heavy artillery bombardments co-ordinated to permit the infantry to advance under their protection. It was the only occasion that Buller showed any real generalship and the short inspiration quickly died.

The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15 pounder guns; the Royal Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the Royal Garrison Artillery batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal Navy provided heavy field artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible.

Automatic weapons were used by the British usually mounted on special carriages accompanying the cavalry.

Winner: The British.

British Regiments:
5th Dragoon Guards (1 squadron): from 1922 the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards and now the Royal Dragoon Guards.
5th Lancers (1 squadron): from 1922 the 16th/5th Lancers and now the Queen’s Royal Lancers.
Royal Field Artillery: 21st and 42nd Field Batteries,
1st Devonshire Regiment: now the Devon and Dorset Regiment.
1st Manchester Regiment: now the King’s Regiment.
2nd Gordon Highlanders: now the Highlanders.
Imperial Light Horse.
Natal Volunteer Artillery.

On 18th October 1899, with the expiry of President Kruger’s ultimatum to the British, the Boer forces from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State invaded the British colony of Natal along its north western border. In breach of General Buller’s advice from England, the outnumbered British contingent was deployed to the North of the Tugela River.

The temporary British commander in chief, Major General Penn Symons, won the Pyrrhic victory of Talana on 20th October 1899 against an exposed Boer commando, the general being mortally wounded.

The Gordon Highlanders storm the hill
Battle of Elandslaagte: The Gordon Highlanders storm the hill

The British force at Ladysmith further south expected little trouble from the Boers for a time, but Major General French reconnoitering with his cavalry north of the town, encountered a further stray Boer commando, the Johannesburg Commando under Commandant Kock, far in advance of the main Boer advance, in breach of General Joubert’s overall strategy.
A British infantry contingent; 1st Devons, 1st Manchesters and 2nd Gordons with the Natal Mounted Rifles and Natal artillery, rushed forward by train to join French’s squadrons of 5th Dragoon Guards, 5th Lancers and the Imperial Light Horse and 42nd Battery, Royal Artillery to attack the exposed Boer Commando. The troops detrained some miles short of the station at Elandslaagte.

General Kock and a group of Boer burghers
The Battle of Elandslaagte: General Kock and a group of Boer burghers

The Boers lay encamped behind a horse shoe shaped line of hills to the north of the British position.

Commanded by General French, but under the general supervision of General Ian Hamilton, the British infantry moved forward to the attack, the Devons in a frontal assault, with the Gordons and the Imperial Light Horse making a right flanking advance on the Boer’s hill top entrenchments. Using his experience of the North West Frontier of India Hamilton directed the infantry to adopt an open formation, in contrast to the close order used by Symons at Talana.

The battle began with a bombardment from three of the Boer’s modern and highly effective Creusot French made guns, carefully positioned on the peak of the ridge.

Under heavy fire the British infantrymen made their way up the hillsides until the summit was within striking distance, making the final assault in a rush. Many of the Boers did not wait for the charge but withdrew precipitately onto the far hillside. A white flag was shown causing the British to sound the cease fire, but the Boers immediately resumed firing and counter attacked the summit. A further assault by the Gordons drove the Boers back off the crest.

The Boer commando reached the lower slopes of the hill range and mounting the ponies waiting at the bottom of the hillside, rode off across the valley. The squadron of 5th Lancers emerging into the same valley launched a charge. Not expecting British troops to appear from that point the Boers assumed the charging cavalry to be a friendly force until it was too late to escape. The British cavalry made three charges through the Boer Commando from side to side killing numbers of Boer riflemen, who had no defence to swords and lances.

The surviving Boers escaped to the main Boer line.

Battle of Elandslaagte
The Battle of Elandslaagte: The charge of the 5th Lancers against the retreating Boers
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Casualties: The British suffered casualties of 35 officers and 202 men. Boer casualties are thought to have been around 350. Commandant Kock was captured.

Follow-up: Following the battle Sir George White received unreliable intelligence that General Joubert was advancing on him with overwhelming numbers. White ordered a withdrawal to the British base at Ladysmith, that quickly degenerated into a panic stricken retreat in which prisoners and equipment were abandoned.

The 5th Lancers charging the Boers
The 5th Lancers charging the Boers at the Battle of Elandslaagte

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
The battle entered British military folklore with the title of “’Ell and Slaughter”, a reference to the devastating cavalry attack.

Elandslaagte showed that the British were capable of dealing with Boer riflemen if led by general officers of the capability and intelligence of Hamilton and French, particularly if the troops were experienced India hands, as the Gordons in particular were (see Dargai).


Books solely on the fighting in Natal: