20 October 1899
Dundee lies in a hollow with hills all around it. To the east and south-east Talana and Lennox (also known as Little Talana), joined by a saddle known as Smith’s Nek; to the north Mpati Mountain’ was of strategic importance as it supplied the town’s water.
With the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War on 11 October 1899, the major concentration of British troops in Natal, was at Ladysmith. A detachment of artillery, infantry and cavalry (some 4000-45000 men) had been sent forward to Dundee under command of General Sir William Penn Symon’s.
The decision to hold and defend Dundee was a political one – the coal mine owners were a powerful and influential group and had pressurized the Natal government to defend the Dundee area because of the coal mines. Ships calling at Durban harbour with troops and supplies needed bunker coal to fire their engines.
From 11 October, Boer commandos, some 14 000 strong crossed into Natal over Lang’s Nek and passed Majuba. As they advanced they split into three columns. The right column, under command of General Kock advanced south past Fort Mistake to capture the railway line at Elandslaagte, thus preventing British reinforcements at Ladysmith from reaching Dundee. The left column, under General Lukas Meyer, made a wide sweeping movement into the Utrecht and Vryheid area to round up support. The central column under General “Maroela” Erasmus advanced towards Dundee.
British intelligence relied on the Natal Scouts and Basuto guides. The knowledge of the Boer movement into Natal was excellent and Penn Symon’s made arrangements for special trains to evacuate civilians and supplies from Dundee. Many did not leave as they were assured that there was no danger to the town from the Boer forces and Penn Symon’s declared that he “had no plans but would be guided by circumstances.”
On Thursday night 19 October, the Boer left column congregated at Doornberg, a large flat topped mountain 19 km north-east of Dundee near the Blood River battlefield. Here they were led in prayer before advancing in the pouring rain on Dundee – their aim, to control the high-lying ground around the town.
“Maroela” Erasmus and his 2000 burghers planned to hold Mpati.
Talana and Lennox were to be occupied by Lukas Meyer with his 4000 men.
At 2:30 am on Friday morning, in the inky wet darkness some 4km beyond Smith’s Nek (along the present road to Vryheid), Meyer’s advancing burghers came into contact with a British look out post. A message to Penn Symon’s did not cause any alarm. He believed this was a raiding party, despite a warning the previous morning that an attack was imminent. When Grimshaw sent a second message that, in order to prevent any further movement by the Boers, he had taken up a position in the bed of the Steenkoolspruit (which runs between the town and the foot of Talana), Penn Symon’s sent out two companies of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in support.
By first light on the morning of 20 October the Boer forces had taken up their positions.
On Talana the commandos from Utrecht (under Commandant Joshua Joubert), Wakkerstroom (under Commandant Hattingh) and Krugersdorp (under General Potgieter), and a portion of the Ermelo commando, together with 3 guns (two 75mm Krupp field guns and one 75mm Creusot, under Major Wolmarans of the Transvaal Staats Artillerie) were ready and waiting.
On Lennox the commandos from Vryheid (under Ferriera), Middelburg (under Trichardt), Piet Retief (under Engelbrecht) and a few men from Bethal (under Greyling) had taken up their positions. Three guns were kept behind Lennox and were not used during the battle.
Maroela Erasmus and his men were in position on Mpati.
At daybreak the tops of the hills were covered in swirling mist. In the British camp life started as usual with the troops standing to at 5:00am. At 5:20 they were dismissed to get breakfast, water the horses and start the usual camp duties. As the mist slowly cleared away from Talana, the troops in camp could clearly see the figures silhouetted on the skyline.
Were they the Town Guard, their own men sent out during the night, or the enemy?
The question was soon answered. Just after 5:25 am the first shells landed in the British camp. An anxious Lukas Meyer had waited for movement on Mpati, whose instructions were to support him in the attack. The position on Mpati was some 335 metres higher than Talana and was encased in mist for much of the early morning. Eventually at the urging of his men “to say good morning to the British”, Meyer gave permission to start firing. The Boer range was good, their second shell landed near the entrance to Penn Symon’s tent – where it buried itself in the wet ground. This prevented many of the Boer shells from exploding.
Penn Symon’s issued orders for a frontal assault on Talana hill. The Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers were to advance to the Steenkoolspruit, with the King’s Royal Rifles in support. The Leicestershires, 67 Battery, Natal Police and a company of the Natal Carbineers were left in the camp to defend it in case of an attack from the rear. Colonel Moller and the 18 Hussars (the cavalry) were sent out to behind Talana hill to cut off any retreat by the Boers.
Although confusion reigned briefly in the British camp, discipline and training soon prevailed. The 67 Artillery Battery started to fire on Talana hill, but was slightly out of range. Within 15 minutes the 69 and 13 Batteries had limbered up, moved to the 3450 metre range, and commenced firing on the hill.
In his diary Gunner Netley recorded his impression of their rapid movement through the town where the civilians were “supplying the men with coffee and cocoa, also some bread and butter, which comes very acceptable indeed.”
The British shelling of the hilltop was accurate and heavy. Major Wolmarans withdrew his guns to safety from the forward slopes of the hill, and they took no further part in the battle.
Members of the Town Guard joined the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as they moved through the town. On Talana the Boer guns were no longer returning the British fire, Meyer was waiting for Erasmus on Mpati to make a move and so force the British to change the direction of their attack.
Penn Symon’s came down to the Steenkoolspruit to give the orders for the advance. The Dublin Fusiliers and the King’s Royal Rifles would lead the attack with the Irish Fusiliers in support. At 7:20 am a company of the Dublin Fusiliers emerged in open order from the spruit and started running to Smith’s farm some 700 –900 metres away. They were closely followed by the King’s Royal Rifles. Meanwhile, the Boers had moved down from the crest of the hill to the plateau. As the British advanced they were cut down by a deadly hail of rifle fire from the Boer marksmen. They sought cover in the gum trees around Smith’s farm.
In a letter to his father Sergeant Harrington wrote: “Never shall I forget the dreadful storm of bullets that smote us those awful moments. Exposed to a crossfire from thousands of rifles, men commenced to fall rapidly, whilst the air and ground around us were torn by the fearful hail. For my part I never hoped to reach the wood… to my joy, however, the edge of the wood was at length reached, and by great good luck I struck it just where there was a little bit of wall, behind which I dropped, and had barely done so when tow bullets struck the uppermost stones.” One of the distinctive memories of the battle was the smell of eucalyptus as the gum tress were stripped bare by the Boer rifle fire and the trees wept.
By 8:00 am the artillery had moved up to a position along the Steenkoolspruit and were concentrating their fire on the slopes of Talana hill. A group of King’ Royal Rifles on the right wing, who tried to leave the plantation, came under heavy fire from Lennox and were forced to take cover among the farm buildings.
Brigadier-General Yule, in command of the infantry, realized the futility of a frontal attack and allowed the men to seek what cover they could. There was no further movement in the battle for some time.
By 9:00 am Penn Symon’s had become impatient because the attack was not going forward. He rode onto the battlefield to encourage the troops and order them up the hill. Despite requests from his officers to take cover, retire from the field, or dismiss the trooper he was riding alongside him carrying his pennant, he moved forward. Inevitably, he was shot: at the first stone wall just at the edge of the trees, he was fatally wounded in the stomach. He handed over command to Yule and rode back to camp to a hospital.
Yule now gave the order to storm up the hill and take their objective – the stone wall on the edge of the plateau. The dash up the boulder –strewn hillside was fraught with accurate and heavy Boer rifle fire. The stone wall proved to be a severe obstacle, despite providing cover. The King’s Royal Rifles managed to make it up to the wall. An attempt by the Irish Fusiliers to move up the donga on the south-west face of the hill, met with disaster as it did not provide the shelter and cover that they expected.
Indian stretcher bearers moved to and fro across the battlefield with their green doolies, picking up the British wounded. The stretcher bearer corps were raised in India, but volunteers were also recruited from the local Indian population to serve as non-combatant medical personnel. The front verandahs of the two Smith homesteads were used as field dressing stations, prior to moving the wounded on doolies to the church and other large halls and warehouses which served as temporary hospitals, in the town.
On top of Talana, Meyer continually tried to heliograph Erasmus, without response. His supply of ammunition was running low and he decided that if there were no sign of support from Erasmus by 11:30 am he would start withdrawing his men from the hill. A few men would remain to protect the withdrawal. Slowly the fire dwindled and Colonel Gunning of the King’s Royal Rifles gave the order to storm the hill.
After a lull in the firing, the men rushed across the plateau in an effort to reach the top of the hill. They were met by a furious hail of rifle fire from the Boers, who had retired to the crest of the hill. The artillery, not aware of the movement of the British troops, decided to bombard the hillside and hilltop, in an effort to dislodge the Boers. This bombardment cleared the hillside of their own men as well. They were forced to take cover from the shrapnel of their guns. It was imperative that the artillery be warned of the position.
Signaller Private Flynn of the Dublin Fusiliers jumped up and exposed himself in an effort to “call up” the guns. After repeated unsuccessful attempts he ran down the hillside to deliver the message personally.
Immediately the bombardment ceased, the British troops stormed up the hill, clambering up the last rocky vertical section to reach the top.
Meyer had started moving his troops off the hill. They were to regroup at the Doornberg Mountain.
The resistance had thus diminished as the British troops made the final dash up the hill. By 2:00 pm the entire position was in British hands. The artillery had been brought up into Smith’s Nek – but did not fire on the retreating Boers. Probably no one will ever know why – it is said that Colonel Pickwoad saw a white flag and sent to Yule for instructions before opening fire. It is also suggested that he believed some of the mounted men in greatcoats to be the 18 Hussars and was afraid to open fire on his own men once again. The men on the hill also stopped firing as they heard the “all clear” sound across the field. When some of the men believed this to be a mistake and started firing the “all clear” sounded again.
Thus the Boers rode off northwards under the eyes of the British. The hungry, wet and weary British troops made no attempt to stop them. Late that afternoon. leaving the Dundee Town Guard to man the hill, the
British troops returned to their camp, along streets lined with cheering townsfolk.
Earlier in the day, Colonel Moller and his 18 Hussars had taken up position behind Talana. He had sent a detachment of men under Major Knox to scout behind Lennox hill. They surprised a small group of Boers and dispersed them, taking some prisoner, whom they sent back to Moller. The prisoners were released later that day when Moller was captured.
With the Boer forces withdrawing off Talana, Moller found that his small group of men were directly in the path of the Boer commandos. He realised that his force was too small to prevent the Boer withdrawal; he was not dealing with a defeated army, but one well able to deal with his small group of cavalry. He therefore retreated in a northerly direction, intending to return to camp by the long route around the north of Mpati – but he was seen by the Boer forces on Mpati.
Erasmus did not assist Meyer at any stage in the battle. His only action, later in the day, was to send men out to rout Colonel Moller and the 18 Hussars. Denys Reitz in Commando: “When it grew light the rain ceased, but a mist enshrouded the mountain top through which everything looked ghostly and uncertain… and when Maroela was asked for orders he merely stood glowering into the fog without reply…towards midday the weather cleared somewhat, and while it still continued misty, patches of sunshine began to splash the plain and then, far down, into one of the sunlit spaces rode a troop of British horsemen, about 300 strong. This was our first sight of the enemy and we followed their course with close attention.”
A force of some 100 burghers cut them off. Moller and his men took up a defensive position on Adelaide farm. Trichardt brought up a Maxim gun (the notorious pom-pom) and eventually the British cavalry, their ammunition exhausted, realised they were trapped. They surrendered, having lost 8 killed, 18 wounded and 209 taken prisoner of war.
Major Knox and the rest of the Hussars worked their way back to camp arriving at about 7:00 pm.
The British had successfully driven Meyer and his men off both Lennox and Talana hills – but the Boers were by no means a defeated army. Tactically it appeared as though the British had won the battle: but had they? Within 30 hours the Boer shelling from Mpati forced the British retreat from Dundee. The decision was taken to abandon the town. The retreating British column left behind a handful of medical staff with their unburied dead and their wounded.
The dying General Penn Symon’s was buried three days later in the St James Anglican churchyard. Civilians, led by the Town Clerk, Francis Birkett, also left the town in the middle of the night to join the British forces on their forced retreat march to Ladysmith. Their abandoned stores and ammunition were looted by the Boers, who occupied the town for the next seven months – renaming it Meyersdorp in honour of Lukas Meyer.
News of the tactical victory spread throughout South Africa and Britain, and had a tremendous effect on British morale. The two opponents had tested each other’s mettle and both formed an opinion – they were braver and more determined than they had been led to believe.
To see and do on the site
Talana Museum is situated on a portion of the battlefield. The Museum has numerous buildings with different themes – military displays on the battles of Talana, Elandslaagte, Helpmekaar, Rorkes Drift, Isandlwana, Prince Imperial, Blood River/Ncome; coal mining, glass, settler history of the region, the founders of Dundee, agriculture.
- Historical hiking trail up Talana hill
- Restaurant, curio and souvenir shop, information centre. Picnic and braai facilities
- Research archives
- Battlefield tours by registered guides
Open Weekdays 8:00- 16:30
Weekends and pubic holidays 9:00 – 16:30
To get to the site
The museum and battlefield are situated 3km from the centre of Dundee on the R33 to Vryheid. Well signposted.
Suggested further reading:
The Battle of Talana – Pam McFadden
Ladysmith – Ruari Chisholm
The Boer War – Thomas Pakenham
Goodbye Dolly Gray – Rayne Kruger