Battle of Ladysmith
On the 29th the Boers were visibly converging upon the town. From a high hill within rifle-shot of the houses, a watcher could see at least six Boer camps to the east and north. French, with his cavalry, pushed out feelers and saw that the Boers were amassing troops at an alarming rate and would soon encircle Ladysmith. They could be seen preparing to install a Long Tom on Pepworth Hill. His report warned Gen Sir George White that if he would strike before all the scattered bands were united, he must do so at once. The wounded were sent down to Pietermaritzburg, however, the non-combatants did not accompany them. On the evening of that same day Joubert in person was said to be only six miles off, and a party of his men cut the water supply of the town. The Klip, a fair-sized river, runs through Ladysmith, so that there was no danger of thirst. The British had inflated and sent up a balloon, to the amazement of the t Boers; its report confirmed the fact that the enemy was in force in front of and around them.
The Boer position, so far as it could be seen, was a formidable one. Their centre lay on one of the spurs of Signal Hill, about two km from the town. Here they had two forty-pounders and three other lighter guns, however, their artillery strength developed both in numbers and in weight of metal as the day wore on. Little could be seen of their dispositions . An observer looking westward might have noticed mounted riflemen galloping here and there over the downs, and possibly small groups where the gunners stood by their guns, or the leaders who gazed down at the town which they were destined to have in view for such a weary while. On the dun-coloured plains before the town, the long thin lines, with an occasional shifting sparkle of steel, showed where Hamilton’s and Grimwood’s infantry were advancing. In the clear cold air of an African morning every detail could be seen, down to the distant smoke of a train toiling up the heavy grades which lead from Frere over the Colenso Bridge to Ladysmith.
White decided to send a force to attack the Boers at their positions around Pepworth and Lombard’s Kop and to put them out of action before they could become established. A second force would, at the same time, be sent to Nicholson’s Nek to prevent the Boers from fleeing from the first force.
The plan was for Hamilton to take Pepworth Hill with Grimwood on the west and French would support with the Cavalry Brigade. Having beaten back the Boers, French would then swing around and head for Nicholson’s Nek where Colonel Carleton’s force was situated. Colonel Downing was placed at the centre, with six batteries of Royal Field Artillery and it was his task to prevent the Boers from interrupting the attack on Pepworth.
White sent the detachment headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Carleton to capture Nicholson’s Nek which lay about 5 km to the northwest of Pepworth Hill. The intention was that by seizing the pass, this would prevent the Boer force from the Orange Free State reinforcing the Transvaal Boers on Pepworth Hill. White, obviously confident of success, had now committed three-quarters of his total force to the battle, leaving only a small garrison to defend the town. The force moved out at 11.15 pm on the 29th October 1899. Due to this late start, they only reached as far as Tchrengula and not Nicholson’s Nek, the original objective.
The Battle of Ladysmith on 30th October 1899, normally referred to as Mournful Monday, commenced the previous night when Colonel Grimwood’s brigade deployed around Lombard’s Kop and Farquhar’s Farm. As dawn broke at about 4.30 in the morning, Grimwood found that half his brigade had straggled and General French’s cavalry had not reached their assigned position.
At this point a very significant thing happened which probably changed the course of the war for the Boers.
Lucas Meyer relinquished his command to Louis Botha. In little over a month Botha had progressed from civilian advisor to second in command to General Piet Joubert.
Grimwood, facing east, suddenly found the Boers attacking from the north and was becoming hard pressed to hold his position. This was not part of the plan and he continually had to call upon Hamilton for reinforcements. This depleted Hamilton’s forces to a point where he could no longer function as a Brigade. The British were in serious trouble.
As dawn broke the artillery began their bombardment of Long Hill only to find the Boers had moved their guns to Pepworth Hill and, were mercilessly bombarding the British. Hamilton had to abandon any thoughts of attacking the Boers at Nicholson’s Nek and instead use his force in support of Grimwood.
Back at Tchrengula the Mountain Battery had seen their mules stampede in the dark and, in doing so, had taken with them most of the spare ammunition, spares for the guns and the heliograph signalling apparatus. The Boers later found some of the mules plus 1000 Lee Metford rifles and twenty cases of cartridges. During the night about 100 men made their way back to Ladysmith in an attempt to recapture the mules. They were unsuccessful.
The Transvaal Commando proceeded to Nicholson’s Nek and the Freestaters to the west of the town. The British occupied Tchrengula but were attacked by the Heilbron Commando who then captured the northern area. Although the Boer force was about 4000 strong, only a fraction of this took part.
By the time the sun had come up at about 5 am, the Gloucestershire Regiment on the left and Dublin Fusiliers on the right had managed to build sangars or had taken cover in some native kraals. Carleton sent a message to White advising him of the situation, that they were not on Nicholsons Nek but Tchrengula, and that things were not going too well. It was also learnt that they had only eighteen mules left and no complete gun or heliograph.
The men had then been under fire for six hours, and with their losses mounting and their cartridges dwindling, all hope had faded from their minds. But still for another hour, and yet another, and yet another, they held on. Nine and a half hours they clung to that pile of stones. The Fusiliers were still exhausted from the effect of their march from Glencoe and their incessant work since. Many fell asleep behind the boulders. Some sat doggedly with their useless rifles and empty pouches beside them. Some picked cartridges off their dead comrades.
Heavy fighting continued until 11 am when a white flag appeared within the British lines and at about the same time a message was received from Ladysmith to withdraw as the
opportunity presented itself. In a very short time white flags were fluttering everywhere and the battle was all but over. At 12.45 Carleton heard the command to cease-fire and
assumed it was an enemy ruse. The next thing he saw was an officer and a soldier with a white flag. After consulting with Major Adye, Carleton agreed to the cease-fire finding out later that some companies had no ammunition left. Carleton’s on the spot enquiry established that it was Captain Fyffe who had ordered the white flag to be hoisted but it was later established that Captain Duncan of the Gloucestershire Regiment raised the white flag solely for his own party. By surrendering, instead of eight hundred prisoners there would have been a far higher number of dead and wounded.
The Boers although exultant, showed the prisoners respect, were not insulting and, it is recorded, that when the prisoners were marched passed President Kruger’s residence in Pretoria the old gentleman bared his head.
Suddenly White is confronted with the news that Carleton’s mules had stampeded, the Boers had vacated Long Hill and Grimwood was under attack. Not a very good start to anyone’s day! Whether the enemy had had prior warning of the British intentions, or whether the Boers had deduced for themselves what they were up to, will never be known, although some spies in Ladysmith had been discovered. Ladysmith was in near panic. Long Tom was lobbing shells into the town with abandon; remnants of Carleton’s Brigade were straggling in, accompanied by mules still attached to their limbers. The whole scene was one of chaos. The man that White left in charge, Colonel Knox, was convinced that an attack on the town was imminent and sent a message to White who himself was in the field, to this effect.
The signal for the forces to withdraw was executed with more speed than care. The 13th Battery Royal Field Artillery under Major Dawkins gave supporting fire from the open veldt
until Major Abdy arrived with the 53rd Battery Royal Field Artillery. The ensuing few hours were not as orderly as the Colonels would have liked but, under the circumstances, fairly well carried out. Of course in order that the infantry could retire the artillery had to cover their rear which they did with great courage, blazing away in the centre of the veldt at the Boers, whilst their numbers diminished quite rapidly. The cavalry on the other hand, once given the order, simply made for home as fast as their horses could go.
In true Boys Own tradition, a train pulled into the station siding from which erupted “a crowd of merry bearded fellows, with ready hands and strange sea cries, pulling and hauling, with rope and purchase to get out the long slim guns which they had lashed on the trucks.” The Royal Navy arrived at the station with guns that had been taken off of HMS Powerful and mounted onto carriages specially invented by Captain Percy Scott. These were speedily unloaded and made directly for the action. Not one to miss an opportunity such as this, Long Tom transferred his attention to the Navy, successfully hitting the front gun and putting it and the team out of action. The remaining Navy guns unlimbered in the veldt returned the fire. The dispirited British troops heard a crash and saw far away upon the distant hill a great spurt of smoke and flame indicating that the navy men had struck.
Returning to Ladysmith the Naval team were treated as heroes. Typical of Tomy Atkins the naval guns were given nicknames, one was called Bloody Mary and the other Lady Anne.
A message from Gen Joubert to collect their wounded, led to them being collected the following morning.
Regiments taking part:
Colonel Grimwood: Liverpool (Kings), Leicesters, Dublin Fusiliers and Kings Royal Rifles
Colonel Hamilton: Devonshires, Manchesters, Gordon Highlanders and Royal Field Artillery
Colonel Carleton: 450 Gloucesters, 520 Royal Irish Fusilie,; 150 of 10thMountain Battery RGA.
In total 1100 men with Major Adye as Staff Officer. They had 300 rounds of ammunition per rifle, half of which was carried by the mules that also carried some of the guns and signalling equipment.
General French: 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars and Natal Volunteers
Captain Rice, of the Fusiliers, was carried wounded down the hill on the back of one
giant, and he has narrated how the man refused the gold piece which was offered him.
Some asked the soldiers for their embroidered waist-belts as souvenirs of the day. They will for generations remain as the most precious ornaments of some colonial farmhouse.
Then the victors gathered together and sang psalms, not jubilant but sad and quavering.
During the battle of Ladysmith the British suffered a total of 1228 casualties which included those on Trenchgula. Of these, recorded by a member of the Natal Police, 63 were killed, 240 wounded and 925 taken prisoner. Never the less it was a sad occasion for the troops who had set out some 12 hours earlier to inflict a similar defeat on the enemy.
The Boer casualty figures are a little vague but 16 killed and 50 wounded would appear to be quite an accurate figure.