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.
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
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.
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 gripping description of the fighting and a Boer perspective:
Commando by Deneys Reitz
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