To orientate the visitor to Dundee, the main British camp was on the opposite corner to the KZN vehicle test grounds as one enters the town on the Ladysmith/Glencoe road. Penn-Symons house, the main British camp, can be seen on the right in the trees after you turn the corner to the town The main military cemetery is at the base of Talana mountain with a second in the town.
Lieutenant General Sir William Penn Symons was the British commander at Dundee with some 4000 troops at his disposal. These comprised the 18th Hussars, 2nd Battalion Dublin Fusiliers, 1st Battalion Kings Royal Rifles, Army Medical Corps, 1st Battalion Leicester, 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, Natal Carbineers (Dundee Troop), Border Mounted Rifles, Natal Mounted Rifles, Natal Police and the 13th, 67th, 69th Batteries of Royal Field Artillery, Dundee Town Guard and Rifle Association.
The Boer forces of approximately 2900 men, were under the overall command of General Joubert. During the night of the 19th October 1899 General Lucas Meyer, together with Louis Botha as his Adjutant, installed two Creusot 75mm field guns and a Pom Pom on the top of Talana Hill with about 900 men with a further 600 men halfway down the on the Dundee side. This group comprised men from the Utrecht, Wakkerstroom, Middleburg, Vryheid, Piet Retief, Krugersdorp and Bethal Commandos. General “Maroola” Erasmus together with the Pretoria, Heidleburg and Boksburg Commandos occupied Impati Hill to the north of the town and had in support three Maxims and a field piece which were placed behind Talana. The Johannesburg, Holland and German Corps, commanded by Generals Kock and Viljoen had headed towards Elandslaagte.
Joubert’s plan was to isolate Penn-Symons from Ladysmith. At dawn the following morning he set about achieving this by shelling the town, in particular the army garrison. General Penn Symons retaliated with the 13th and 69th Royal Field Artillery Batteries but the range was too great. They were moved forward toward Talana and tried again at 2000 metres.
Fortunately for the British, the Boers were arguing amongst themselves as to who should attack where and at what. Erasmus refused to move off Impati thereby leaving Penn-Symons to concentrate on Talana. Leaving the 67th Battery Royal Field Artillery, Natal Police, the Natal Carbineers, Dundee Rifle Asociation, Dundee Town Guard and the Leicester Regiment to guard the camp. The remainder of his forces under the command of Brigadier General Yule, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Kings Royal Rifles, 18th Husssars, and two batteries of Royal Field Artillery made their way along the Main road. At what is now the first set of traffic lights they turned left and made their way to the field at the bottom of the road and to the left of the Talana mountain. The attack to the front of Talana was made by the Irish Fusiliers, the Dublin Fusiliers and the Kings Royal Rifles. After much hard fighting the infantry reached the top but not without incurring many casualties due mainly to the bad judgement of their own artillery and to the accuracy of the Boers. It was at this time that a Boer bullet hit General Penn-Symons in the stomache, mortally wounding him. The command passed to General Yule
The Boers were positioned on and at the base of Impati, Lennox and Talana mountains on which they had a Long Tom and three pieces of artillery respectively. Also positioned here were the Wakkerstroom and Utrecht Commandos under command of Commandants Hattingh and Joubert. On Lennox Hill were the Middleburg, Piet Retief and Vryheid Commandos under the command of Piet Joubert. The British picket in the neck between Lennox and Talana, of about 100 men under Lieutenant Grimshaw, were surprised by the Boers at about 3 am and moved back. General Penn-Symons was warned but took no notice. Eventually the British got themselves organised and made their way to the bottom of Talana, moving up until they came to a stone wall, put there by the farmer Smith to keep his animals in. The Irish Fusiliers on the left, Kings Royal Rifles in the centre and Dublin Fusilierss the right. The cavalry under Colonel Moller and Colonel Knox were sent around Talana to cut off the Boers. Moller saw the Boer horses tethered at the bottom but ignored them instead he sent Knox to see what was happening next door on Lennox Hill. Knox never came returned, having got lost and ended up back at the British Camp. Moller started back to town but was headed off by the Boers who pushed him towards the farm Adelaide where he was captured.
In London the news of the Boer “defeat” at Dundee and Elandslaagte was regarded as a victory for the British forces and something verging on a state of euphoria spread throughout the city of London, However nothing could have been further from the truth. All the Boer had in fact done was to withdraw and regroup to return at a later stage when circumstances were more to their advantage.
General Penn-Symons was mortally wounded and the command passed to Major General James Yule who was not the best of decision-makers. He had two options, on the one hand he could stay where he was and take the fight to the enemy or he could retreat to the relative safety of Ladysmith.
There were a number of reasons why the first option caused him problems. He was surrounded by some 10 000 of the enemy, his guns were outdistanced, he was running low on ammunition and as far as anyone could remember, the British army had never retreated. On the positive side however, General White could send reinforcements and more ammunition.
Whilst all this was going through Yule’s mind a cable arrived from White which said “I cannot reinforce you without sacrificing Ladysmith and the colony behind, you must try and fall back on Ladysmith and I will do what I may to help you when nearer”. Yule, with failing health and with the strains of the past few days resting heavily on him, would have been somewhat relieved to find that White had accepted that there was only one way out of the situation and that was to retreat. Yule summoned his top officers and outlined his plan to get as many men as possible out of the camp without the knowledge of the enemy.
It was estimated that the march would take three days and could only go via the Biggarsberg mountain range because the Boers could easily catch them if they used either the railway or the north/south road. Three days forced march would require plenty of rations, ammunition and clothing so Yule detailed Major Wickham of the Indian Commissariat to organise these requirements which he did, undetected by the enemy and protected by two companies of the Leicester regiment. In total he managed to get 33 wagons of supplies out of the camp, which was some feat when one considers the time allotted and the darkness. He even managed to leave lighted candles in the tents to help fool the enemy.
Meanwhile Yule, with Colonel Dartnell commanding the Natal Police leading, had gathered together 4500 infantrymen, the cavalry and three field batteries, all within 30 minutes, meeting with Wickham on the outskirts of town. At 10 pm the retreat began under the strictest silence. The KRR’s headed the column followed by Irish Fusiliers, half 18th Hussars, two batteries Artillery, Transport, Supply Column. The Leicesters, Dublins and 18th Hussars brought up the rear. The 18th Hussars and mounted infantry under the command of Major Knox and Captain Hon. H.S.Davey covered the front, flanks and rear of the column. The column was four miles in length, including the artillery wagons pulled by spans of mules and oxen. In the early hours of Monday morning 23rd October 1899, the column had travelled fourteen miles with no sign of the enemy.
There was a certain amount of confusion amongst the Boers as can be judged from telegrams from General Joubert in which he castigates Assistant General Lucas Meyer for not chasing after Yule. Meyer’s reply was that he was ready to attack Dundee, which at that time was already occupied by Trichardt and Erasmus. Even at this late stage Yule’s force could be caught. As far as Erasmus was concerned he was having his own problems trying to maintain discipline among his Commandos who were running riot in the town, looting drinking and wrecking. Even the hospital did not escape them.
By Tuesday morning 24th October 1899 the column had arrived at the Waschbank River. As they prepared to settle down until dusk, the sound of artillery was heard at Rietfontein, some fifteen miles to the west.
The following morning Yule set off again and covered twelve of those miles before calling a halt for the day. It was at this point that Yule received orders from White to get to Ladysmith as soon as possible, as he had information that Erasmus’ troops had finished their looting and were on their way to intercept him. White also told Yule that he was sending a column under Colonel Royston to guide and assist him.
By dawn of the 26th October 1899 Ladysmith could be seen in the distance, across an open plain. As they drew closer they could see that the whole garrison had turned out to meet them.
Yule had covered the sixty miles from Dundee to Ladysmith with 4500 men, wagons, horses, oxen, artillery and had not lost one of them, an achievement not seen before and rarely seen since. Yule’s acceptance of his responsibility in rescuing these troops and of leaving behind the wounded, including his commander Penn-Symons, is to be commended.
See Corporal Padwick account of the retreat