Platrand formed part of Section C within the perimeter defences of the town and came under the command of Colonel Ian Hamilton. The flat-topped hill is 4 kilometres in length, varying in width from 800 to 1200 metres. Lying about 120 metres above the town it comprises three areas, Caesars Camp, Wagon Hill and Wagon Point. The Boers originally planned to attack Wagon Hill on the 29/30th November 1899 but this attack was called off at the last minute because the majority of the Boer leaders did not believe they would succeed.
Large numbers of Boer troops were needed to maintain the siege and, once again, they doubted their chances of success. On New Year’s Day 1900, President Paul Kruger telephoned General Piet Joubert to discuss with him the need of seizing Ladysmith, pointing out in the large numbers of reinforcements which Buller was amassing. On 3rd January forty-three Boer officers met at Sandspruit and a decision was taken to attack Platrand, in an effort to force the town to surrender.
To put the battle of Platrand into perspective, it should be considered as two separate events, Caesar’s Camp and Wagon Hill, each being as important as the other in saving the town.
On Wagon Hill, there were 150 men in gun pits on the southern crest and also in the Kings Royal Rifles Fort called, The Crows Nest. These were supported by 38 officers and men of Imperial Light Horse in a small redoubt on the north-west corner of Wagon Hill. Wagon Point had a permanent Garrison 25 ILH with 2 officers.
The ILH had also set up six piquets on the Boer side of the hill, the southern crest, one overlooking Bester’s farm and others in the Nek adjoining Wagon Hill and the old howitzer positions.
On Caesars Camp, there were 560 Manchester’s, in 5 sandbagged and stone redoubts the largest, Manchester Fort, was capable of holding 400 men with underground magazines and gun redoubts ranged along the northern crest. The artillery consisted of the 42nd Battery Royal Field Artillery under Major Goldblom and a 12 pound naval gun. Supporting the Manchester’s was the Natal Naval Volunteers.
General Schalk Burger’s original plan was for some four thousand burghers to attack the southern slopes of Platrand, however in reality less than a thousand “made themselves available”. By ten o’clock Saturday evening 5th January 1900, the Boers, under the leadership of General de Villiers, moved out from Mounted Infantry Hill towards Wagon Hill.
At 2 am on the morning of 6th January 1900, 50 men from the Manchester’s returned to camp and at the same time a half company of Gordon Highlanders arrived carrying lanterns and making a deal of noise.
CAESARS CAMP: The Boer artillery opened fire on the eastern ridge to clear the area of the British but the shells landed among the Burghers. The Heidleberg Commando started with 125 men, one in five of whom was to die that day but by 5 am the Boers had control of the whole of the east and southeast slopes of Caesar’s Camp.
By 3.45 am, heavy firing occurred at the south east corner of Caesar’s Camp. The Transvaal Commando had moved up the gully, bypassing the Natal Volunteer sentries at the base. As they were approaching the crest line, they were challenged by the sentries. They replied, “Town Guard” and, before this could be verified, had killed most of the Manchester’s at no. 5 piquet, where out of 16 men, only privates J Pitts and R Scott survived and both were awarded the Victoria Cross for their efforts. The southern crest was held all day and the summit was never reached at all, however at the lower Southeast flank it was different. The whole operation took only thirty minutes.
On arriving at 7am, the Rifle brigade found that the Boers had got behind the Manchester piquets, at the extreme eastern end of the hill and were first sent to reinforce the Manchesters, having to advance across open ground to do so. They moved out in extended order to a point 240 metres from the crest, marked by a fringe of rocks and trees. Here they were met with a murderous crossfire and were forced to remain there for most of the day. A further two companies were sent under the north crest of the hill followed later by a third, a fourth company being kept in
reserve. One company of Gordon Highlanders was also in the firing line with four in reserve. The fighting was close quarters, sometimes just sixty to seventy yards apart.
At 6am the 53rd Battery Royal Field Artillery, under Major Abdy, situated 2200 yards away on the veldt below the northern crest, sent shrapnel shells to explode over the Boers who had taken the Manchester lines. The enemy was driven off the crest by a bayonet charge from the Gordons, but only to the edge of the slope where they remained, forcing the new arrivals to remain all day in the scorching sun. Four more companies of the Gordons were sent up at 11.30 am and were deployed amongst the five Manchester piquets but came under heavy rifle fire from the Utrecht commando.
At about 6.30am the 21st Battery Royal Field Artillery engaged the Boers on Mounted Infantry Hill at a distance of two kilometres causing them to seek shelter and prevented them from using their Pom Pom. General Ian Hamilton telephoned General White for more reinforcements and was sent the 5th Lancers and the dismounted 19th Hussars. Hamilton called up further support in the shape of Liverpool regiment, Border Mounted Rifles and Natal Carbineers which he moved to the Manchester Fort where, having reassured himself that the Manchester’s could hold, made his way across to Wagon Hill and the Point.
By 10 am the Gordons, Liverpools, Natal Volunteers, Rifle Brigade and Manchester’s had made the piquets safe.
At 2 pm more Gordon Highlanders were sent up and it was at this point their Colonel Dick Cunningham was mortally wounded, by a bullet, estimated to have travelled over three thousand metres. The irony of this incident is that, if the bullet has been fired at close range it would have gone straight through him and he would have in all probability lived, but because the bullet was almost spent when it reached him it lodged inside, causing major damage.
For the remainder of the day, the Boers who held their position on the edge of the plateau maintained static fire. Finally at 5 pm a terrific thunderstorm and hailstorm came on under cover of which the Boers advanced a short distance then, finding that Fourie Spruit, due to the thunderstorm in the afternoon had come down in flood, they rapidly retired A number of men were subsequently drowned whilst crossing here. All companies remained on Caesars Camp and by about 5.30 pm and the British had re-occupied their former positions.
WAGON HILL: 6.30am, a party of 33 NCO’s and men of the 23rd Company Royal Engineers, under Lieutenant Digby-Jones made their way to Wagon Point. On arrival they began to make a second emplacement for a Naval 12 pounder and to assist in mounting a 4.7? gun that would be brought up from Junction Hill that same night. The party was provided with 50 unarmed Infantry as a working party, leaving about 2.30am the following morning after completing the work. A further party of Royal Navy and Gordon Highlanders was detailed to move the 4.7? gun, Lady Anne.
At about 9am Captain Codrington with ILH and Kings Royal Rifles, attempted a charge from the Crows Nest and was shot. Major D. Mackworth was next and he too fell dead, along with most of his party either dead or wounded. Many others died in the attempt. This charge was supported by a section of Royal Engineers and Royal Navy, who fired volleys on a knoll about 1000 metres to their left front where the enemy were firing to protect their colleagues on the edge of Wagon Hill. Firing ceased almost entirely by about 10am giving the appearance that the attack had been called off, leaving a small party of Boers on the on the south west of Wagon Hill, well hidden from above whilst others had moved around to the west near the 4.7 inch gun. The Royal Engineers removed the wheels off the gun, thus making it immovable.
About 12.30 pm, 15 to 20 Freestate Boers, led by Field Cornets Japie de Villeirs, Zacharias de Jager and Gert Wessels, charged for the 4.7 gun emplacement causing the defenders to panic and retire in disorder down the rear slope. At this time Colonel Hamilton arrived from Caesars Camp and organised the British defence with Major Miller-Wallnutt, Captain Fitzgerald, Sergeant Lindsay, Trooper Albrecht ILH, Gunner Sims RN and the RE’s under Digby Jones. At the first sign of the attack, the RE’s grabbed their rifles, fixed bayonets and drove the Boers off of the crest. The infantry, who had initially panicked, were met by the 18th Hussars on the way up, then turned and rejoined the fight. Digby-Jones seeing that the Hussars did not have an officer, assumed command, going along the line encouraging the men and it was then that he was killed, shot in the throat.
At 2.30 pm the situation was critical with the Boers gaining in force near the ILH who were worn out and in no position to withstand another determined assault. The reinforcements of 5th Lancers and 19th Hussars were diverted from Caesar’s camp to the Crows nest where they supported the force there.
General White now ordered up three companies Devonshire regiment under Colonel Park, who arrived at 5pm at the same time as a heavy thunderstorm broke over the whole of Platrand, to be remembered as the worst in living memory. Colonel Hamilton called on Major Park to try and take Wagon Hill, the conversation being along the lines of, “can you clear the top of the hill” to which Colonel Park replied, “we will try”. The Devons formed up in a shallow depression on the reverse slope, fixed bayonets and after a call of “now Devons get ready”, they charged a hundred and twenty metres in an attempt to dislodge the Boers. They were met with a murderous fire but overall had surprisingly few casualties during the charge.
Because of a lack of reinforcements, the thunderstorm and, about a third of his men wounded, Commandant De Villiers ordered a withdrawal shortly after sunset and the Boers broke and ran. Interesting point of coincidence, during a service held at the Devonshire’s monument, to commemorate the centenary of the charge, a ferocious thunderstorm also drenched the gathering.
At nightfall, the Infantry on Wagon Hill and the Point, were relieved by dismounted cavalry of the 5th Dragoons and 18th Hussars, the former having been brought up in reserve at midday on the reverse slope. At 6.30pm the RE’s were retired, taking their dead and wounded, being replaced by a fresh detachment of 33 NCO’s and men.
Simultaneous demonstrations by the Boers at various other areas of the town’s perimeter were insignificant but, at Leicester Fort they were more successful. Here they crossed the railway line and started to assault the fort, when a heavy fusillade greeted them. Sustaining heavy casualties here and at Observation Hill, they withdrew.
British 15 officers and 164 men killed,
33 officers and 287 men wounded with 2 missing.
Boer: 73 killed and 132 wounded.
See Labuschagne’s details of the Boer Freestate casualties
See Captain Thwaites account