The Siege of Ladysmith
War: The Boer War
Date: 2nd November 1899 to 27th February 1900.
Place: Ladysmith in northern Natal in South Africa.
Combatants: British against the Boers.
Generals: Lieutenant General Sir George White against
Generals Joubert and Botha.
Size of the armies: 5,500 British troops against a varying
number of Boers. From the end of the year 1899 the garrison
outnumbered the besieging 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.
Boer "Long Tom" on its way to bombard Ladysmith
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.
British troops in Ladysmith
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 under White held out until relieved by General
Buller, but without great distinction.
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 Gloucestershire 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:
View from a sandbagged position
The Boer War began on 11th October 1899 with the invasion of Natal
by General Joubert’s army of 35,000 Transvaalers and Orange Free
On his appointment as commander-in-chief, Lieutenant General Sir
Redvers Buller urged that no British troops should be positioned
further north than the Tugela River, until he arrived with the
British Army Corps. Buller knew South Africa and the Boers and that
the force commanded by White was insufficient to venture across the
Boers at Ladysmith
After the initial British successes of Talana and Elandslaagte,
Buller was proved correct. White lost the battle of Ladysmith and
quickly found himself enveloped by the advancing Boers. On 2nd
November 1899 the railway line was cut south of Ladysmith; on the
last train out were Major General French and his chief of staff,
Major Douglas Haig, lying on the carriage floor amidst a hail of
bullets, escaping to command the newly arriving cavalry division.
The Boers invested Ladysmith and White’s troops.
White was an elderly general whose career had been forged in a
different epoch. White had fought in the Indian Mutiny and won the
Victoria Cross in the Second Afghan War. Semi-retirement beckoned
with the Governorship of Gibraltar, when the South African crisis
diverted him to Durban and pushed him back into the front line.
Boer artillery firing into Ladysmith
The warfare in Natal was beyond White’s capability; requiring
knowledge of the country, which White did not have. Fighting the
well armed Boers required active and accurate reconnaissance and
intelligence. It required energy, hard work and resource, qualities
White no longer possessed, and above all insight, initiative and
White knew that he should not permit his force to be pinned into
a useless minor township. He should have retreated precipitously to
avoid being caught in Ladysmith. But he could not bring himself to
abandon the stockpile of army supplies and the town.
When Buller arrived in Cape Town with the British Army Corps, the
expectation of him was that he would invade the Orange Free State at
a point of his choosing. The strategic pendulum would have swung
firmly in Britain’s favour. White’s investment in Ladysmith, with
Cecil Rhodes self-immurement in Kimberley, changed all that. Buller
could not permit such a large force as White’s to fall into the
hands of the Boers. He was forced to abandon any notion of invading
the Free State for a slogging match across the Tugela to relieve
The British in Ladysmith, and in Kimberley and Mafeking, were
fortunate that the nature of the Boer commando made it an
inappropriate instrument to conduct a siege. Discipline was
voluntary and self-imposed. The Boer burgers had to be persuaded to
adopt a course of action: they could not be ordered. The Boer was an
ideal soldier for a defensive battle, which most of the main battles
were for the Boer side. He was not appropriately armed for an
assault, having no bayonet, which in the end was the only to capture
Ladysmith and the other towns.
On 9th November 1899 the Boers stormed King’s Post on the
northern perimeter and Caesar’s Camp on the southern perimeter.
After heavy fighting the Boers were driven back.
The siege quickly developed a monotonous routine with artillery
bombardments conducted by either side each day. Long Tom, the heavy
Creusot, was the main Boer armament while the Royal Navy gunners
replied with a 4.7 inch gun.
By agreement with General Cronje a camp was established at
Intombi on the outer south eastern edge of the perimeter for the
civilian inhabitants of the town. The camp lay on the railway and
throughout the siege trains took sickening civilians to its
hospital. A condition laid down by Cronje was that once there no one
could return to the main town.
On 15th December 1899 General Buller attempted to force the Boer
positions on the Tugela at Colenso, losing convincingly. The
Ladysmith garrison listened to the distant bombardment. At first it
was thought that Buller had forced the Boer positions. The next day
the correct news came through to the town by way of a dispatch from
Buller to White explaining that the Natal Field Force had been
As the extent of the defeat at Colenso sank in, the spirits of
the Ladysmith garrison fell. Several of the senior officers were
aware that with the withdrawal of many of the Boers to reinforce
Joubert’s lines on the Tugela the British garrison heavily
outnumbered the besiegers and yet almost nothing was done to
incommode the Boers.
The Boer bombardments were conducted at no particular time,
particularly by their two 6 inch guns. On 24th November 1899 Long
Tom caught a company of the King’s Liverpools massed in the open,
inflicting 9 casualties, 5 of them dead. On 22nd December 1899 Long
Tom surprised the Gloucesters inflicting 17 casualties. A repeated
target for the long range Boer guns was the main Ladysmith Hospital.
On the night of 27th December 1899 Long Tom dropped a shell onto the
officers’ mess of the Devons on Junction Hill, killing and wounding
a number of officers of various infantry regiments. On New Year’s
Day 1900 a British officer was killed by a shell landing in the
middle of a cricket match; the dead officer being in the act of
The counter battery fire was conducted by the two naval 4.7 inch
guns known as Lady Anne and Princess Victoria. For the garrison the
sound of British guns firing back maintained morale.
General White spent most of the siege in his headquarters
building in the middle of the town, surrounded by his largely
inactive staff. No proper continuous system of fortification or
strong points was built. Nothing was done to harass the Boer
besiegers. White attempted to maintain the myth that his command was
a field force, but did nothing to justify that claim.
The defence of Plevna, a town in Bulgaria, by the Turkish army
under Osman Pasha during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 attracted the
admiration of Western Europe, through the determination of the Turks
to withstand Russian attack. The fortifications built in Plevna
engaged the interest of western armies. An account of the siege and
capture of Plevna written by a young half English officer, Frederick
Von Herbert, who held a junior command in the Turkish Army during
the siege, was widely read in Britain and elsewhere. The Plevna
fortifications were held out as a fine example of what could be
achieved by a resourceful and determined force.
Colonel Knox, commanding the northern sector of the Ladysmith
perimeter worked hard to fortify his sector, using his study of the
Plevna fortifications. The other sectors were less well served.
On 8th December 1899 Colonel Rawlinson persuaded White to permit
a raid on the Boer lines. A party of Imperial Light Horse and Natal
Carabineers stormed Lombard’s Kop and destroyed two large Boer guns.
On 11th December 1899 the Rifle Brigade captured Surprise Hill
blowing up a Boer howitzer. This party had to fight its way out but
the successes exhilarated the garrison. Denys Reitz was a member of
the Boer corporalship that ambushed the retreating Rifles.
Colonel Ian Hamilton, the commander in chief in the Dardanelles
in 1916, performed less well with his southern sector, containing
the vital Wagon Hill and Caesar’s Camp. Hamilton seems to have had
little time for his responsibilities, preferring to stay with his
depressive and inactive commander in the headquarters in the centre
President Kruger constantly urged the Boer leaders around
Ladysmith to take the town by storm: a course of action they finally
agreed to attempt.
On 6th January 1900 the Boers launched an attack on Ladysmith
designed to overwhelm the garrison before the Boers transferred a
substantial part of the investing force to the Tugela to help resist
Attacks were launched around the Ladysmith perimeter. Knox beat
off his assault from his fortifications with little difficulty. The
main Boer attack fell on the crescent shaped hill on the southern
perimeter, known as Caesar’s Camp, the western pinnacle of which was
called Wagon Hill.
Due to the indolence of White and Hamilton, whose sector this
was, the area was largely bereft of entrenchments. The Boers
approached the brow of the hill in two columns. Finally challenged
the Boers rushed the British posts.
The troops on Wagon Hill were King’s Royal Rifles, Gordon
Highlanders and Imperial Light Horse with a Hotchkiss gun. A
confused fight took place in the dark.
Ian Hamilton brought up reinforcements of Gordon Highlanders,
Rifle Brigade and 21st and 53rd Field Batteries. Fierce fighting
took place along Wagon Hill and in support of the beleaguered
companies of Manchesters and Imperial Light Horse on Wagon Hill West
and Caesar’s Camp. The Boers were finally driven back by a renewed
attack reinforced by a dismounted squadron of 18th Hussars.
The final movement was conducted by some companies of the Devons
charging the crest of the hill to drive the Boers back, which they
succeeded in doing with some loss.
An old Boer was found lying on the hillside with a Martini Henry
rifle marked “58th Regiment” taken from the British during the First
Boer War at Laing’s Nek or Majuba Hill.
The garrison did nothing further to assist Buller’s advance to
relieve Ladysmith, other than listen anxiously to the sounds of the
fighting on Spion Kop.
During January 1900 supplies in Ladysmith became seriously short.
The remaining cavalry horses were shot for food.
Between 20th and 27th February 1900 Buller fought his final and
successful battle at Pieters, forcing the Tugela position. On 27th
February 1900 the British pickets on Wagon Hill saw the Boer
besiegers trek away across the veldt and Buller’s troops marched
into Ladysmith. The siege was over.
Lieutenant General Sir George White committed a
serious of disastrous mistakes culminating in being bottled up in
Ladysmith with his substantial force. He compounded this error by
his supine conduct of the defence of Ladysmith and his failure to
provide Buller with any worthwhile assistance in his attempts to
raise the siege.
The Ladysmith garrison did not know whether they were “rogues or
heroes” for spending the war in the town.
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: