Following the hasty British retreat from Elanslaagte to Ladysmith, Sir George White’s force settled into its base town, confident that the Boers would not attempt to advance so far south so quickly.
But on Sunday 29th October 1899 the Boers could be seen setting up one of their long range French Creusot guns, known as “Long Tom” to the East of the town.
White had no artillery powerful enough to counter Long Tom, until the Royal Navy 4.7 inchers were brought up from the coast after being unloaded from HMS Powerful in Durban.
White felt compelled to order an attack on the Boer positions, after
conducting a reconnaissance by balloon tethered over the town.
The Boers seemed to hold a line of hills incorporating Pepworth Hill, on which Long Tom was being installed, and Long Hill to the South East of Pepworth.
Colonel Ian Hamilton led one column, while
on his right Colonel Grimwood advanced with the two battalions of
the King’s Royal Rifles. The British right flank was covered by
General French leading a mounted force.
In expectation of a successful action, Sir George White ordered a force of infantry, commanded by Colonel Carleton, comprising 1,000 men of the Royal Irish Fusiliers and the Gloucesters with No. 10 Mountain Gun Battery to march off to the left of the axis of advance and plug the valley by occupying the pass at the northern end at Nicholson’s Nek.
The British guns opened an extensive bombardment on Long Hill, already abandoned by the Boers who had moved along the range out of the line of fire. Colonel Grimwood’s force waited for the bombardment to finish before beginning their assault.
As Grimwood’s men moved forward the Boers opened a heavy fire into their right flank causing considerable casualties as the attack struggled on supported by French’s mounted troops.
Long Tom opened fire on Ladysmith, causing considerable panic; British counter battery fire unable to track down the long ranged French artillery piece, firing modern smokeless rounds.
Hamilton launched his
frontal infantry assault on Pepworth Hill but was unable to make
headway against the heavy Boer rifle and artillery fire.
Waiting in Ladysmith amidst the increasing civilian panic at the Boer artillery barrage, White received a trickle of indicators from stray mule drivers and British gunners that Carleton’s force, away on the left flank holding the gap at Nicholson’s Nek, was in trouble. White sent a patrol of officers to find out what was happening, but they were unable to get through.
Thoroughly unnerved by the failure of Hamilton and Grimwood to take the hills and the steady fire of Long Tom, together with his anxiety about Carleton at Nicholson’s Nek, White ordered the force to disengage and retire into Ladysmith.
The retreating British infantry, pressed by the Boers, were soon in disorder,. It took a steady fighting withdrawal by the Royal Field Artillery batteries to hold the Boers back and secure a quarter of an hour’s respite for the exhausted and demoralised infantry.
As the force streamed back into Ladysmith naval guns from HMS Terrible arrived by train and were brought into action, covering the army.
At Nicholson’s Nek disaster overwhelmed Colonel Carleton. Coming under fire from the Boers the column’s mules stampeded with the guns of the mountain battery and the reserve of small arms ammunition. Taking up positions on Tchenrengula Hill, overlooking the Nek, Carleton’s troops came under sustained attack from the Boers. Denys Reitz describes in his memoir of the war, “Commando,” the British troops outshot by the Pretoria Commando, even though fighting from stone sangar positions, suffering hundreds of casualties to the Boer dozen or so, finally forced to surrender, their ammunition exhausted.
Within days the Boers cut the railway line south of Ladysmith and the siege of the town began.
Casualties: British losses in killed, wounded and captured were 1,200. The Boers lost 200.
Follow-up: Due to a combination of strategic rashness, in permitting his outnumbered force to be too far north when the Boers invaded Natal, and timidity in conducting operations, White allowed his troops to be encircled and besieged in Ladysmith.
White permitted a substantial British force to be locked up in Ladysmith where it could do nothing. Attempting to preserve the illusion that he still commanded a field force, White refused to allow his cavalry regiments to escape the siege and join Buller to the South of the Tugela River, where they would have been invaluable. Instead they languished inactive in Ladysmith for the months of the formal war. Finally the garrison ate the horses.
Buller’s strategy was hamstrung by the necessity to relieve Ladysmith; it being inconceivable that such a large force be permitted to fall into Boer hands. At every turn the Boers knew that Buller’s strategic imperative was to relieve Ladysmith. White did little to assist Buller; nearly losing Ladysmith to a vigorous Boer attack through his failure to ensure that the town was properly defended.
Denys Reitz makes the point that the siege of Ladysmith was a major distraction for the Boers from the main task of invading Natal.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
Joubert, the Boer commander, came under heavy criticism from his men for permitting the British troops under Hamilton and Grimwood to withdraw into Ladysmith without a more vigorous pursuit. When urged to order a general assault on the retreating British Joubert is reputed to have said “When God holds out a finger don’t take the whole hand.”
The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be:
The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Goodbye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger
The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham
South Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly partisan volumes)
Books solely on the fighting in Natal:
Buller’s Campaign by Julian Symons
Ladysmith by Ruari Chisholm
For a view of the fighting in Natal from the Boer perspective:
Commando by Denys Reitz.
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