The Second Anglo Boer War started on the 11th October 1899 after an Ultimatum given by President Kruger to Chamberlain had gone unanswered. General Joubert moved to Newcastle on 12th October and with that the war had reached Natal
The battles of Dundee (Talana) and Elandslaagte were considered victories by the British but thinly veiled ones as the Boers simply withdrew and the British failed to follow up the initiative, with the Boers favouring to continue the fight when more suitable terms were presented to them. They did not have to wait long as General White was faced with the dilemma of whether to stay and defend the town or to opt for comparative safety and retreat. He decided on the latter, ordering General Yule to leave the wounded behind and make haste for Ladysmith. The Boers returned to Dundee.
The Siege of Ladysmith began when the Boers cut the railway and telegraph lines, on 2nd November 1899 and lasted for 118 days. The Population, civilian and military, numbered 21 156 and they were to suffer the ravages of disease and starvation on an unprecedented scale. In addition to the human contingent, there were over 4580 horses, oxen and mules. Fortuitously someone prior to the war had had the presence of mind to stockpile an enormous amount of supplies, both food and armaments in the town that undoubtedly saved it from an early surrender. General Sir George White, with his Chief of Staff Sir Archibald Hunter, commanded the forces in Ladysmith. The perimeter defences were divided into four zones, each with a telephone link to White’s Headquarters. The British armoury comprised 55 pieces of artillery and 18 machine guns to defend the town. Included in this were the guns from the Royal Navy ship HMS Powerful along with men who had arrived in Ladysmith on 30th October.
General Piet Joubert, content to starve the town into surrender, distributed his forces to ensure that his opponent would be unable to move out. He waited for what he thought would be an inevitable surrender. At the start of the siege the Boer armoury consisted of 17 pieces which later increased to 22 and included 3 Long Tom’s. The Battle of Ladysmith on 30th October 1899 was almost a disaster for the British and could have resulted in the demise of the town but Joubert chose not to press home the advantage. Having managed to return most of his troops to the relative safety of the town, General White contented himself with waiting for General Buller to relieve them; little did he know then that this would take four months.
The Boers were enthusiastic soldiers and for six days of the week shells rained down on the town and at one stage 300 were counted in one day. Apart from the rare occasion, the Boer respected Sunday as the Lord’s day and preferred not to fight.
Several sorties took place during the siege, the two of note being the night attack on Gun Hill and a similar attack a few days later on Surprise Hill. The attack on Gun Hill, carried out by a composite force from the Colonial regiments done severe damage to the Boer guns. The night attack on Surprise Hill was carried out by the regular army with much the same effect but with a higher casualty rate. Both gave a much needed boost to the town’s morale. Christmas in Ladysmith provided a little relief from the siege with both sides celebrating the holy day in their respective ways. The British Tommy indulged in Recreations such as Tug 0′ War and football and enjoyed the rare bottle of beer. The Boers sent over a shell which “failed” to explode and when opened by the Engineers, was found to contain a Christmas pudding and a note wishing everyone “compliments of the season”.
Immediately after the festivities Colonel Ward, the man responsible for the issuing of supplies, started his Chevril project in order to eke out the ever-dwindling stocks.
On the 6th January the Boers attacked Platrand at the southern defences at Caesar’s Camp and Wagon Hill causing General White to bring into action the majority of his reserve forces. The battle continued throughout the day and into the early evening until a thunderstorm intervened. This thunderstorm turned the tide in the British favour who chased the Boers off the Hill and back across the now swollen stream. Casualties were high on both sides. British discipline, the thunderstorm and the lack of numbers on the Boer side gave the defenders the winning edge.
From this point on things were relatively quiet. White’s main concern were the shortage of food, the polluted drinking water and the low morale amongst his men.
Buller, having at last managed to break through from Colenso, arrived in Ladysmith on 1st March, preceded by a small force of Colonial cavalry on 28th February 1899.
On 6th March 1900 a Letter from the town council was handed to General White by the Mayor of Ladysmith expressing “gratitude for the very able manner in which you have organised the defence”.
Two Newspapers were published during the siege, the “Lyre and Bombshell”. Both contained news and comic accounts of the war. The Boers, albeit unsuccessfully, tried to flood the town in the hope that the British would surrender. Music was composed, various forms of recreation were attempted to pass the time and spies were found and tried.
Over 60% of the Casualties during the siege were “disease” related and not as the result of enemy fire.
Medical facilities were, by today’s standards, quite primative, however for the time, they were very up to date.
Crime was relatively minor but what did occurr was dealt with harshly by the military, particularly spies and stealing of food.
British regiments and Boer Commandos for details of those that took part.