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The Battle of Talana Hill

Battle: Talana Hill (also known as the Battle of Dundee).

War: The Boer War.

Date: 20th October 1899.

Place: Northern Natal in South Africa.

Combatants: British against the Boers.

Generals: Major General Sir Penn Symons against Commandant Lucas Meyer.

Size of the armies: 4,000 British against 3,000 Boers.

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 manouevre 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:
18th Hussars: later the 13th/18th Royal Hussars and now the Light Dragoons.
Royal Field Artillery: 13th, 67th and 69th Batteries.
1st Battalion, the Leicestershire Regiment: now the Royal Anglian Regiment.
1st Battalion, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (60th): now the Royal Green Jackets.
1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Fusiliers: disbanded in 1922.
2nd Battalion, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers: disbanded in 1922.
Mounted Infantry: drawn from various infantry regiments.

Account:
On the outbreak of the War in South Africa the British authorities feared the Boers from the Transvaal and the Orange Free State would invade the British coastal colony of Natal, a triangular shaped area sharing a long common border with the two Boer republics, its northern apex remote and exposed to attack, situated on the Indian Ocean.

In early autumn 1899 British reinforcements rushed to South Africa from India under the command of Major General Penn Symons.

Voices of South African experience at the British War Office in London urged Symons to keep his outnumbered troops well back from the frontier, behind the Tugela River. Symons thought otherwise and advanced his lead brigade to Dundee north of the Tugela, where it would be outflanked by a Boer invasion along the length of the frontier.

On 20th October 1899 the Boer commando of General Meyer appeared on Talana Hill to the North East of Dundee, following a night approach march.
General Symons was not impressed by the readiness of the British troops in Natal and worked them hard. His battalions were falling in for a day’s training when the first artillery rounds came in from Meyer’s artillery on Talana Hill.

During the tense months leading to open war the Transvaal Republic had bought substantial quantities of weapons, including modern artillery pieces from the French manufacturer Creusot. The first of these, three 75 millimetre guns, came into action at Talana, firing on the British camp.

There was a delay before fire could be returned, the British artillery horses being at water. The batteries harnessed up and hurried through Dundee, coming into action in the open ground beyond the town, quickly silencing the outnumbered Boer guns.

As his artillery bombarded the Boers, Symons prepared to attack their positions on Talana Hill with his infantry, forming with the Dublin Fusiliers massed in the front rank, the Rifles in the second rank and the Royal Irish Fusiliers in the third rank. Penn Symons insisted his regiments attack in conventional close order, an unrealistic tactic against an enemy armed with modern magazine rifles.

The assault went in, the first lines reaching a wood at the base of Talana Hill where in the face of heavy fire the attack stalled. Symons arrived at the wood, dismounted and led the advance himself, until he was mortally injured.

The British infantry attack regained its momentum and continued up Talana Hill in the face of heavy fire, gathering below the peak for the final attack. As the troops stormed the top of the hill the Boers fell back. One of the British batteries firing from the open ground outside Dundee failed to identify the troops on the top of Talana as British and continued to fire on the crest, inflicting unnecessary casualties and hindering the assault.

The Boers could be seen mounting their ponies and streaming away across the valley on the far side of the hill. Penn Symons had sent the 18th Hussars and Mounted Infantry around Talana Hill to take advantage of just such a situation, but there was no sign of them. The country was not familiar to the officers and they had become lost; straying away towards the main Boer force where later that day they were surprised by a larger contingent of Boers and captured.

The British batteries came forward but due to a misunderstanding of their orders or a failure to identify the Boers, did not open fire on the retreating commando.

Casualties: British casualties were 250. Boer casualties were 500. The 3 Creusot guns were left on Talana Hill, but recovered by the Boers with the British withdrawal from Dundee.

Follow-up: The British marked the battle as a victory, but it was only a temporary reprieve from the inexorable Boer invasion of Northern Natal and the British retreat into Ladysmith.

References:

The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be:

Books solely on the fighting in Natal:

For a gripping description of the fighting and a Boer perspective: