In total, the relief force faced five Battles on their way to Ladysmith, Willow Grange, Colenso, Spioenkop, Vaalkrantz and the Breakthrough and covered the area from Colenso to Ladysmith. Prior to the first battle there was an attack on an armoured train in which Winston Churchill was involved and resulted in his capture.
General Buller arrived in Cape Town on the evening of the 30th October 1899. The following morning he split his force into three. Under his command the largest of the three was to relieve Ladysmith. The second was to contain the Free State invasion with the third responsible for the relief Kimberly and Mafeking. The Cape forces under the command of two Generals, French and his Chief of Staff, Haig, both of whom were later to become World War 1 commanders. Most of November was spent preparing the relieving armies, even to the extent of withdrawing from Colenso on November 3rd 1899.
At a Boer council of war meeting held on November 9th 1899 it was decided to ford the Tugela river and head south which was achieved on November 13th. General Joubert and his army reached Chieveley on the 14th and were on the following day responsible for the train disaster.
The first of the five battles faced by the Relief force took place at Willow Grange on the 23rd of November 1899 with a high casualty rate for the British and the Boers almost unscathed. After the battle Joubert was in a dilemma. On the one hand the Tugela was beginning to come down in flood, threatening to cut him off from Ladysmith. On the other hand Buller was just around the corner with a large relief force, complete with naval guns.
At another “council of war” it was suggested, by Generals Lucas Meyer or Louis Botha to General Joubert, that the Boers press on to Pietermaritzburg. This was overruled by Joubert who decided to withdraw across the Tugela, blowing up the rail bridge at Colenso.
Joubert was by now a very sick man. Suffering from internal injuries after being thrown from his horse he retires to Pretoria to recuperate leaving Louis Botha to command the Boer forces.
British camp Frere
By 11th December Buller is ready to attack Colenso and informs General White by means of a heliograph message. Buller sends a second message confirming the date of attack as the 17th December. Buller changes his mind and sets the date for the battle of Colenso as the 15th but fails to notify White. The result is a disaster and is accompanied by the news of failures at Magersfontein and Stormberg and became known as Black Week.
Buller cabled London asking to be relieved of his command but was informed him that Lord Roberts will be arriving to take the overall command from him but that he will be in charge of the natal forces.
On January 6th 1900 General Charles Warren arrived with the 5th Division enlarging Buller’s force to some 30 000 men. On the January 7th they set off for Springfield and the Battle of Spioenkop.
The battle begins well for the British and although Buller suffers great losses, the troops manage to push the Boers off. By the night of the 24th January 1900 both sides assume that the other is in control and retreat down their respective sides of the mountain. The following morning Botha summons his troops for one last attempt and on reaching the summit finds that the British have retreated leaving behind only their dead and dying. An armistice is called in order all casualties can be attended to and at this point Buller retreats back across the Tugela.
After the debacle at Spioenkop Buller undertakes a third attempt at reaching Ladysmith choosing a route through Ladysmith. By the 11th February 1900 having lost men at both Spioenkop and Vaalkranz, the military discipline of the Boers is very low. In spite of their heavy losses the British are still very optimistic and are coping well. Buller on the other hand is not. His worries are not eased by the possibility of General Warren replacing him especially since Buller had made it very clear to the War Office that he felt Warren was to blame for the debacle at Spioenkop.
On the 11th February 1900 Buller proceeds to Chieveley for what will be the Breakthrough to Ladysmith. This time he chooses a route to the east of Colenso, crossing the Tugela and continues on through Pieter’s arriving in Ladysmith on the 28th February.
Despite the arrival of the troops on this day, history records the main parade through town by Buller’s troops was on 3rd March 1900.
The order of the marching troops through Ladysmith is the following;
Natal regiments, Royal Scots Fusiliers, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Royal Irish Fusiliers, 1st Battalion Royal Dragoon Guards, Royal Horse Artillery, 8th Hussars, 13th Hussars, South African Light Horse, Howitzer Battery, 2nd Battalion Devonshires, West Yorks, East and West Surrey, Stretcher Bearers, 28th Battery RFA, 78th Battery RFA, Border detachment, Cameronians, KRR’s. Many other smaller contingents followed with the Royal Navy bringing up the rear.
Medical facilities were, by today’s standards, were quite primitive, however for the time, they were very up to date.
Crime was relatively minor but what did occur was dealt with harshly by the military, particularly spies and stealing of food.