The Battle of Ladysmith
War: The Boer War
Date: 29th October 1899.
Place: Northern Natal in South Africa.
British against the Boers.
Generals: Lieutenant General Sir
George White against General Joubert.
Size of the armies: 5,500 British against 4,000 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
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
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.
German volunteers fighting for the Boers at Ladysmith
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.
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 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.
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.
18th Hussars: from 1922 the 13th/18th Royal Hussars and now the
19th Hussars: from 1922 the 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars and now
the Light Dragoons.
5th Lancers: from 1922 the 16th/5th Lancers.
Royal Field Artillery: 13th, 18th, 21st, 42nd, 53rd and 69th
Batteries. No 10 Mountain Battery
1st King’s Liverpool Regiment: now the King’s Regiment.
1st Devonshire Regiment: now the Devon and Dorset Regiment.
1st Leicestershire Regiment: now the Royal Anglian Regiment.
1st Gloucesterhire Regiment: now the Royal Gloucestershire,
Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment.
1st and 2nd King’s Royal Rifles: now the Royal Green Jackets.
1st Manchester Regiment: now the King’s Regiment.
2nd Gordon Highlanders: now the Highlanders.
1st Royal Irish Fusiliers: disbanded in 1922.
2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers: disbanded in 1922.
Natal Volunteer Artillery:
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Denys Reitz makes the point that the siege of Ladysmith
was a major distraction for the Boers from the main task of invading
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
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
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.