Many military graves and memorials found in Dundee owe their existence to the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The battle of Talana Hill (20 October 1899), located just outside the town, was the first major battle of the war. The British force evacuated Dundee three days later, and were only to re-occupy it in May 1900. Thereafter until the termination of hostilities Dundee was occupied by Imperial and Colonial troops and served as a centre of operation into the south-eastern Transvaal.
The two Boer states, of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, declared war on Great Britain on 10 October 1899. The next day their forces invaded the British colonies of Natal and Cape of Good Hope. By mid-October Gen. Sir W.P .Symons had arrived in Dundee and taken command of four battalions of infantry, three companies of Mounted Infantry, three batteries of artillery (18 guns all told) and one cavalry regiment, in all 5 028 men. Despite the request to fall back to Ladysmith, Symons considered the evacuation of military stores and civilians by rail would not have been secure from possible Boer attacks, and decided to remain in Dundee.
In the early hours of 20 October 1899 a Boer force of 1 500 men under Gen. L. Meyer occupied both Talana and Lennox Hills overlooking Dundee. Thereupon they opened fire on the camp of the British, who after a redeployment of their units, began an advance by the infantry on Talana, supported in the rear by an artillery bombardment. After emerging from an eucalyptus plantation, heavy rifle fire prevented the attackers from achieving their objective. Symons, realising the inert situation of the infantry, galloped into the trees, stepped over a stone wall and emerging from the plantation was wounded in the abdomen . It was only after a concentrated artillery bombardment, coupled with the fact that the Boer rifle ammunition was nearing depletion that the British infantry gained the summit of Talana in the early afternoon.
During the battle some of the cavalry, later reinforced by some Mounted Infantry (all under the command of Lt. Col . B.D.Moller).. In an attempt to cut off the retreating Boers the British themselves found they were barred by Boers and took shelter at Adelaide farmstead. The Boer force under Lt. Col. S.P.E.Trichardt had descended Impati mountain. They directed a heavy fire upon their quarry and eventually captured the entire force except for two men killed.
According to the British histories their casualties amounted to 51 killed, 203 wounded and 246 were taken prisoner . Another source gives 41 killed, 185 wounded and 220 missing. The total Boer losses, according to L. Botha (later Gen. Botha) amounted to 127: 31 were killed, 66 wounded and about 30 missing. Gen. Meyer reported that the total Boer casualties were 126: 35 killed or died of wounds and 91 were wounded.
Early the next day the British decided to move their camp after bombardment from Mpati, a lofty mountain located to the north-west of Dundee. However the new campsite, within range of the Boer gunners, came under artillery bombardment. Gen. JH Yule, who now took over command, beset with anxiety for the safety of the camp, that night moved the camp once more to a spot under Indumeni mountain. Later in the day Yule resolved to attack the Boers on the hills near Glencoe, but after brief exchanges in artillery fire he returned to camp.
That evening, after receiving a message to withdraw from Dundee the whole British force, except for the wounded , abandoned the town. The following day (23 October) the Boers occupied the town and Gen. Symons died of the wound received three days before.
The British force headed swiftly away from Dundee descending the Biggarsberg via van Tonder's Pass. Eager to be out of sight of the Boers, the British afforded themselves little rest and eventually arrived in Ladysmith after three days marching.
Today some of the buildings of the original Smith farmstead (behind which some of the British force took cover before the assault on Talana) contain the Talana Museum. The main house, built by William C. Smith, son of Peter Smith who had established the farm, contains military displays of the Anglo-Boer and Anglo-Zulu wars. Nearby, the house of Peter Smith still stands, the verandah on which many of the dead British soldiers were placed, prior to burial.
Penn Symons cairn
On the boundary of the eucalyptus plantation, adjacent to the museum, stands a stone cairn to mark the spot where Maj. Gen. WP Symons received his mortal wound. Nearby, a stone wall over which the general stepped, is still to be seen. Apart from the increase in bush cover the slopes of Talana Hill up which the British advanced, little has changed. The stone wall forming the boundary of a terrace on the hill as well as a transverse wall are in a good state of repair.
The body of Capt. GA Weldon (of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers), who was the first officer to die in the war, was recovered from a donga and buried a day after the battle in the 'old' cemetery which overlooked the battlefield. His remains were transferred to the Smith family cemetery on 13 October 1960.
The headstone of Capt. Weldon stands amongst those of the other officers who were killed on Talana Hill. All have been buried in the Smith family cemetery. Here lie buried Lt. Col. J Sherston (of the Rifle Brigade), Lt. Col. RH Gunning. Capt. MHK Pechell, Lts. RC Barnett and AJ Taylor (all of the 1st Bn. King's Royal Rifles), and 2nd_Lt. AHM Hill (of the 2nd Bn. Royal Irish Fusiliers). All the headstones have been moved to near the entrance of the cemetery and now stand over three unmarked mass graves of the 28 soldiers of other ranks who were killed on Talana.
All three regiments which fought at Talana are now commemorated by monuments in the cemetery. To the memory of the King's Royal Rifles appear 22 names of non-officers; 16 names (including those of 2 officers) represent the Royal Irish Fusiliers, while mention is made of 12 men (including 2 officers) of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
Other military cemeteries in Dundee
Those British soldiers who subsequently died of wounds sustained at Talana are buried at various cemeteries in Dundee.
In the Swedish Betania Mission churchyard McKenzie Str., 15 British soldiers and 4 Boers, all of whom died of wounds in a building near the church then used as a hospital, were laid to rest. Amongst them are two British Officers: Capt. FHB Connor (of the Royal Irish Fusiliers) and 2nd Lt. CJ Genge (of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers). Also buried there is Tpr. RA Cunningham (of Bethune's Mounted Infantry) who died in May 1900 during the British advance through northern Natal.
There are six military graves in St. James' churchyard, Boundary Road. The most noteworthy is that of Maj. Gen Sir W Symons. He was mortally wounded whilst directing the attack near Talana and died on 23 October 1899. He was buried after the British force evacuated Dundee. There are also graves of two soldiers, one of whom was Lt. WHJ Hannah (of the 1st Bn. Leicestershire Regt.) who was killed on 21 October 1899 when the British camp, after having been moved the first time, came under enemy bombardment. Maj RB Blunt (of the Lancashire Fusiliers) died of wounds received in February 1902 in the Vryheid district and also lies buried here.
Inside the church, on the west wall, is a brass plaque on which are inscribed the names of 231 soldiers of the Imperial and Colonial forces who died in Dundee and the surrounding district during the war. On a longitudinal wall is a marble panel which displays the names of the Natal Volunteer Composite Regiment who lost their lives during the war.
On the farm Adelaide there existed a cemetery which contained the graves of four troopers of the 18th Hussars. These men fell in action at the farm Adelaide after Col. Moller and his men sought refuge when the Boers, led by Lt. Col. Trichardt, cut off their escape back to camp. The graves were located some 70m west of the old horse stable, the walls of which still bear marks of Boer shell-fire. Their remains were exhumed and re-interred in the Dundee cemetery.
At the foot of the eastern slope of Talana stand the buildings of the farmstead Thornley. The main building was commandeered by the Boers and used as a hospital during the battle of Talana. Some 80 wounded, including 5 British, has sought refuge there and received medical attention. The stable nearby was used as a mortuary. The remains of some 8-10 Boers, originally buried in the garden, were exhumed in the 1930's and transferred to the Dutch Reformed Church in Beaconsfield Street.
At the Dutch Reformed Church there is a granite slab in which are inscribed the names of 49 Boers who fell at Talana, and another two who fell in subsequent encounters. Also there are the names of 21 men, who came from elsewhere in Natal, and were killed in the district of Dundee. According to the National Monuments Council there lie the remains of up to 42 men beneath the slab, above which is a 3-dimensional display, by Anton von Wouw, depicting the battle of Talana Hill.
Amongst the graves of the 76 men of the Imperial and Colonial forces known to be buried in the Dundee Cemetery are the remains of the troopers of the 18th Hussars formerly buried at Adelaide farm, and possbily another two who were killed in an ambush of a British patrol on 23 October 1899. In addition, the remains of a British infantryman who died of wounds received at Talana and buried near the Dundee-Glencoe railway have been added to the British precinct. By far the greatest number of burials (47 in number) occurred in the Dundee cemetery when the No. 40 Stationary Hospital pitched its tents on the outskirts of the town. The first burial was in May 1900 and the last in August 1902. Most of these soldiers died from the disease.
From Glencoe the remains of 10 soldiers, all of whom died in June 1900, have been added, while from Nqutu the remains of another 8, most of whom were killed in action near Nondweni on 28 July 1901, have been transferred to the cemetery. Finally, the remains of two soldiers, both of whom died in May 1900 and originally buried in the "old" cemetery, now lie at rest here.
How many British soldiers were killed or died of wounds received during the period 20-23 October 1899?
Careful checking of names on various monuments, headstones and grave's registers indicates that the total is not less than 68: Staff 2: 1st King's Royal Rifles, 27 (including 2 officers): 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 13 (including 2 officers): 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, 17 (including 2 officers): 18th Hussars, 6: 69th Battery Royal Field Artillery, 2: 1 (an officer) of the 1st Leicestershire Regt.
SIR WILLIAM PENN SYMONS (1843 – 1899)
William Penn Symons, eldest son of William Symons and Caroline Anne Southwell, was born at Hatt, Cornwall, England on 17 July 1843.
Symons was educated at Crediton School and at Sandhurst and was commissioned as ensign in the 24th Regiment of Foot (later renamed the South Wales Borderers) in 1863. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1866 and Captain in 1878. As a member of the 2nd Battalion Symons fought against Sandile in the Ninth Frontier War (1878). He served in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. On 22 January 1879 Symons accompanied Lord Chelmsford's contingent and thereby escaped the Zulu attack and destruction of the British camp at Isandlwana. Before the conclusion of hostilities he was sent to the Cape Colony to purchase horses for the British Government. In 1880 Symons served in India and was appointed Assistant Adjutant-General for musketry in Madras in 1892. He served on the staff in the expedition to Burma in 1885, and 4 years later commanded the Burma Column. He was frequently mentioned in dispatches and was given rank of brevet Lieutenant-Colonel (1886), appointed C.B. (1890), promoted to regimental Lieutenant -Colonel (1891), and commanded the 2nd Battalion South Wales Borderers until 1893 when he became Assistant Adjutant-General for musketry in Bengal, India. An excellent shot and skilful swordsman himself, he did his best to raise the standard of shooting in the Army. Between 1894 and 1898 he commanded a brigade in Waziriston expedition, the Tochi field force, and afterwards a division in the Tirah expedition to North-Western India. He was made KCB in 1898.
In May 1899 Symons came to Natal to take precautionary measures in the northern border in the likelihood of hostilities with the Transvaal Republic. Given a temporary rank of Brigadier-General he undertook extensive reconnaissance along the Natal frontier and recognised the need for a larger force than the British had in fact deployed to protect the Natal northern districts. To meet the wish of the Natal Government he divided his troops between Ladysmith and Dundee. On 3 October 1899 Sir G White arrived in Natal and took command of all British troops in the Colony. On the outbreak of the second Anglo-Boer War (11 October 1899). Symons remained in command of the advance British position in Dundee. With him were four battalions of infantry, three batteries of artillery and one of cavalry regiment.
On 19 October 1899 the Boers captured Elandslaagte station and several rail, telegraph and road communications between Dundee and Ladysmith; the force at Dundee was therefore in danger of being completely cut off and surrounded. After occupying Talana and Lennox Hills east of Dundee, a Boer force of 2500 under General L. Meyer attacked the British camp on 20 October 1899. In the attempt to drive the Boers off Talana Hill, Symons, after riding out from camp and passing through a plantation of eucalyptus tree, climbed over a low stone wall where he was shot in the abdomen. He returned to his horse, and galloped off until he was out of sight of his men, then dismounted and was taken by stretcher to hospital. The Boer position on Talana was taken by assault, and while tactically it had been a British victory, the battle had resulted in many more British than Boer casualties. Although cleared from Talana the Boers on Impati Mountain to the north of Dundee were still in a commanding position, and after moving camp the British force was withdrawn to Ladysmith. The British wounded, including Symons, remained in Dundee. The Boers occupied the town on 23 October 1899 and Symons dies of his wounds the same day. He was buried the next day in St. James's churchyard, Dundee, where a large marble cross now marks his grave. There is a stone cairn at the foot of Talana Hill marking the spot where Symons received his mortal wound.
In 1877 Symons married Caroline Hawkins. It is not known if any children were born of this marriage.
There are several photographs of Symons appearing in publications relating to the Second Anglo-Boer War. In the United Kingdom there is a memorial window to him found in Botus Fleming Church near Saltash, Cornwall.
Lieut. Richard Charles Barnett of the 1st. Batt. King's Royal Rifles was killed in action on Talana Hill. He was born on 3 December 1875 joined the KRR in April 1896 and was promoted to Lieutenant in December 1898. He lies buried in the military precinct of the cemetery at Talana where a marble cross stands near his grave.
Capt. Frederick Henry Connor of the 1st Batt. Royal Irish Fusiliers died of wounds received in action at Talana Hill. He lies buried in the Betania Mission churchyard in Dundee, where a marble cross has been placed to his memorial. He was born in May 1862, joined his regiment in October 1884 and was promoted to Captain in August 1891. He received his mortal wound after crossing the wall which bounds the terrace on Talana.
2nd-Lt. Charles Jarvis Genge of the 2nd Batt. Royal Dublin Fusiliers was born on the 22 September 1877. He entered his battalion in January 1899 and was in Natal at the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War.
He fell in his first battle at Talana. He is buried in the Betania Mission churchyard, where a marble cross marks his grave.
Lt. Col Robert Henry Gunning, who commanded the 1st Batt. Kings Royal Rifle Corps, was killed in action on Talana Hill on 20 October 1899. He was born in 1852. He was transferred to the 60th Foot (later renamed the King's Royal Rifles) and finally reached the rank of Lieutenant –Colonel in 1898.
He served in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, saw action at Gingindlovu and was in a column which relieved the siege of Eshowe.
Afterwards he served as adjutant of the battalion throughout the operations with Lt.- Col . Clarkes column in the pacification of Zululand.
Lt-Col. Gunning was killed as he reached the crest at Talana in the final charge. He lies buried in the military precinct of the civilian cemetery at the foot of Talana. A marble cross now stands near his grave.
2nd Lieut. Norman Joachim Hambro of the 1st Batt. King's Royal Rifles was born on 26 February 1878 and entered the KRR in February 1899. Lieut. Hambro, though wounded twice, had ascended Talana to the top where he was killed by the British artillery fire. He lies buried in the cemetery at the foot of Talana and a marble cross stands near his grave.
Lieut. William Maitland Julius Hannah of the 1st Batt. Leicestershire Regt. was killed by a shell fired from Impati on 21 October1899. Lieut. Hannah was sheltering in a house during a storm at the time. He was born in 1876, entered the Leicestershire Regiment in March 1896 and was promoted to Lieutenant in August 1898. He lies buried in the churchyard of St. James's and a marble cross marks his grave.
2nd Lieut. Arthur Hugh Montgomery Hill of 1st Batt . Royal Irish Fusiliers was born in September 1877. He entered the Irish Regiment in May 1899 and came to Natal in September of that same year. He was at the battle of Talana where he was killed in action close to Capt. Connor in the final assault on the hill. A marble slab commemorates him in the military precinct of the cemetery at Talana.
Capt. Mark Horace Kerr Pechell of the 1st. Batt. King's Royal Rifle Corps was killed in action at the battle of Talana Hill. He was born on 22 September 1867 and entered the KRR in July 1888 finally reaching the rank of Captain in March 1896. He came to Natal in September 1899. At the battle of Talana, while extending his company behind the wall bounding the terrace he fell while trying to return the Boer rifle fire. A marble cross denotes that he is buried in the cemetery at Talana. Capt. Pechell was the elder brother of Capt. C A K Pechell, who was killed at Cannon Koppie, Mafeking on 31 October 1899.
Lieut Col. John Sherston DSO was born on 12 July 1857 and entered the Rifle Brigade in February 1877, finally attaining the rank of Lieut-Col in February 1899. He was a nephew of Field Marshall FS Roberts, who became Commander-in Chief of the British forces in South Africa 1899-1900. Whilst at Talana he was serving on the staff of Maj-Gen. Symons and fell close to him at the edge of the eucalyptus plantation. He lies buried in the cemetery at Talana where a marble cross stands near his grave.
Lieut. John Taylor of the 1st Batt. King's Royal Rifles lies buried in the cemetery at Talana where a marble cross stands near his grave. He met his death on Talana Hill at the wall bounding the terrace close to where Capt. Pechell was killed. He was born in April 1873, entered the KRR in March 1895 and was promoted to Lieutenant in May 1898.
Capt George Anthony Weldon of the 2nd Batt Royal Dublin Fusiliers was killed in action at Talana while trying to carry a wounded soldier to a place of safety. He was the first officer to be killed in the Anglo-Boer War. Capt. Weldon was born on 1 February 1866 and entered the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in December 1886 and promoted to Captain in January 1896. When the war broke out he was serving in Pietermaritzburg with his battalion and was immediately ordered to Dundee. At Talana he advanced with his Company into a donga on the British left flank where it came under heavy Boer rifle-fire. He was killed shortly afterwards. The next day his body could not be found until his dog howling attracted a search party to the spot. He was buried in the "old" cemetery overlooking the battlefield. His mortal remains were exhumed and was re-interred in the cemetery at Talana on 13 October 1960 where a marble cross to his memory now stands. Memorials to Capt. Weldon have been erected in St. James Church (on which appear an additional 230 names of soldiers who died in Northern Natal during the war), and at St. George's Church, Napierville, Pietermaritzburg.
Military Cemeteries and Memorials in Dundee
Town Cemetery – Bulwer St
St James Anglican Church – cnr Boundry Rd and Gladstone St
Ebenezer Church – MacKenzie Street
Dutch Reformed Church – cnr Beaconsfield and Wilson St
Recommended further reading
The battle of Talana - Pam McFadden
Ladysmith - Ruari Chisholm
The Boer War - Thomas Pakenham
Goodbye Dolly Gray - Rayne Kruger
Talana - David Biggins