The Battle of Ladysmith

War: The Boer War

Date: 29th October 1899.

Place: Northern Natal in South Africa.

Combatants: 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 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.

German volunteers fighting for the Boers at Ladysmith
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.

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 Boers.

British Regiments:
18th Hussars: from 1922 the 13th/18th Royal Hussars and now the Light Dragoons.
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 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.

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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