21st October 1899
Elandslaagte Colliery was of prime importance in 1899. The railway line was a link in the communications between the British forces in Ladysmith and Dundee.
On October 19th, Boer forward patrols seized the Elandslaagte railway station and mine village and cut rail and telegraph communication between Dundee and Ladysmith. On October 20th, General Kock’s army occupied the position. He ordered Colonel Schiel and the German Corps to patrol the plain to the West. East of the railway line the Staats Artillerie under Major Erasmus placed three 75mm Creusot guns on the crest of a low, rocky hogsback ridge, facing Ladysmith, with the camp in the lee of the ridge.
A train passing through the station was captured by the Boers and all rail links between Ladysmith and Dundee cut.
In Ladysmith news of the battle of Talana had been received. A reconnaissance party under command of Major-General Sir John French was sent to check the Elandslaagte area on 20 October. When it was realised that the station and area were held by Boer forces, it was decided that they would have to be cleared to open the route from Dundee to Ladysmith.
French was commanded to clear the Boer positions and re-establish communications with Dundee. Early on the 21st October, General French made a reconnaissance, accompanied by an armoured train. From a tiny ridge that overlooked the mine from the main road, he shelled the station. The prompt and startling Boer return fire forced him to withdraw with his small force of Natal Mounted Rifles, Natal Field Artillery and Imperial Light Horse.
French called for considerable reinforcements. These were swiftly mustered – the 1st Manchesters, the 1st Devons and the 2nd Gordon Highlanders.
General Kock, Commandant Ben Viljoen of the Johannesburg Commando, Major Erasmus of the Staats Artillerie and Colonel Schiel of the German Corps, just over 1000 strong with 3 guns, had a grandstand view, as the British army advanced.
By 3pm on Saturday afternoon the reinforcements had arrived and detrained some 5km from the Boer positions.
In blistering heat, and muddy roads, came 2 batteries of Royal Field Artillery, 12 gun teams; over the plain steamed the armoured train, followed by 3 more trains, bristling with troops- the Devons, Gordon Highlanders, Manchesters and Imperial Light Horse.
Escorting the trains trotted the 5th Lancers and the 5th Dragoon Guards…An intimidating enemy force of 1630 infantry, 1314 cavalry, 552 gunners and 18 guns.
French’s plan was an Aldershot set piece executed by his staff-officer, Major Douglas Haig, with clockwork precision. The infantry brigade was commanded by Coll Sir Ian Hamilton. As at Talana, the day before, officers led with conspicuous gallantry.
The British attack began at 3:30 p.m. with a brisk and accurate artillery barrage. The Devons, in wide open formation, moved into a frontal assault on the Boer position. The Boers, hidden away behind the huge rocks or in the rough schantzes replied with withering rifle fire, yet the Devons “Advanced like a stone wall” to take cover eventually behind anthills, rocks and in a shallow donga to await the flank attack.
On the Devons’ right flank, over the rocky terraces of the rising hogsback, the Manchesters with dogged pluck forced their way upwards through “ a perfect storm of Mauser fire”. They pressed on three lines deep, volley firing, then dashing forward as the Boers slowly retired. To their right again, the Gordons, camouflaged in khaki and cow dung, stumbled in zig-zag formation over the rough ground, “ meeting a monsoon rain of rifle fire”. Their dark kilts, big sporrans and shining claymores made prime targets for the skilful Boer marksmen. As the Gordons tangled and wrestled with a barbed wire fence in their path, casualties mounted. Their O. C. Col. Dick Cunyngham went down, his are shattered, crying: “ On men, I’m coming!” The battered troops went to ground in the shelter of a stony hollow below the hogsback. The line faltered.
At 4:30 p.m. a thunderstorm broke overhead. To the roar of battle was added the pounding of hail, the crack of thunder and to the flash of cordite shell, the stabbing streak of lightning. In the gloom of the storm across the face of the battle, galloped Ian Hamilton, with a young trumpeter as escort. Dashing up through the maelstrom of the storm and hectic gunfire, he rallied the men. Bagpipes sounded the “charge”, the Devon’s bugles rang out and the men flung themselves into the final assault. Away on the far right amongst the dismounted men of the I.L.H. appeared a “Little Red Rage going on and on”, “Jabber” Chisholm’s lancer’s scarf tied to his walking stick. Waving it with a yell of “My men are first!” he led until struck in the leg, lung and head.
There was a wild race for the Boer guns. Captain Newbigging, Adjutant of the Manchesters beat a drummer-Sergeant of the Gordons to it and sat on the barrel to await his men. Suddenly he was blasted off his perch and lay, a great gash in his back, yards away.
General Kock had led an heroic and desperate counter-attack. Though some of his men had shown the white flag and others were streaming in retreat across the plain towards the Biggarsberg, the Majuba veteran made a last throw. The British line reeled, but again and once more the troops responded, pouring in among the Boer guns “like hounds through a gap”, shouting “Majuba! Majuba!” General Kock, in top hat and frock coat, lay mortally wounded.
In the twilight, from the mine building across the plain, the British cavalry were unleashed upon the fleeing Boers, in a triple charge. “Shouting, stamping them, spearing them into the ground”, the dread horsemen thundered down out of the gathering darkness upon the withdrawing Boers.
That night, friend and foe sat round coal fires at the station, keeping out the chill of a drizzle and sharing what food they could find. Away on the hillside, lanterns could be seen moving about as Indian sepoys loaded their dhoolies (stretchers) with the many dead and wounded. The casualties had been heavy on both sides.
The next day, the casualties jolted their way back to Ladysmith and Boer prisoners trudged in, shocked and dispirited. The Devons, the Manchesters and the Gordons, muddy and weary, swung in, proud of their victory.
The victory counted for little. Within a week Elandslaagte was again in the hands of the Boers, the mine was closed and Commandant-General Joubert’s headquarters were at Moddersprruit, where French had met his reinforcements. Whilst the British victory at Elandslaagte delayed, it did not prevent the investment Ladysmith.
Victoria Crosses were awarded to:
- Captain MFM Miekeljohn – 2nd Gordon Highlanders
- Sgt Major W Robertson – 2nd Gordon Highlanders
- Capt C H Mullins – Imperial Light Horse
- Capt R Johnstone – Imperial Light Horse
How to get there
From Dundee take the R602 towards Ladysmith. Shortly after passing the police station at Elandslaagte a sign indicates a left turn. Follow the signs to the base of the hills. You will be able to see the memorials on the hills as you approach.
After visiting the memorials continue between the hills and you will come to the military cemetery on your right.
Recommended further reading
The battle of Elandslaagte – Pam McFadden
Ladysmith – Ruari Chisholm
The Boer War – Thomas Pakenham
Goodbye Dolly Gray – Rayne Kruger
Elandslaagte – David J Biggins