Tourism, Accommodation and Historical Attractions in Natal, South Africa

The Natal Battlefields

Second Boer War - Talana and Elandslaagte.

The opening shots of the Great Boer (a.k.a. the Second Boer War, the Anglo/Boer War) are fired here.

The Second Boer War - Talana and Elandslaagte.

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The Outbreak - The Battles of Talana and Elandslaagte

In order to deny the British the use of the port of Durban before overseas reinforcements arrived, the Boers threw all they had at Natal. At the start of the war Boer numbers closely matched those of the British.

20th October 1899 - Talana Hill (Dundee)

The First Battle: The opening shots of the Anglo-Boer War were fired, when, on the morning of Oct. 20, 1899, the British camp in the field, awoke to see Boers on top of Talana Hill. The Boer guns fired on the camp below.

British General Penn-Symons ordered his men to "Take that hill boys." The closely bunched British soldiers as they attacked up the hill, on a broad front swept through the Smith Farm on the far right. A withering Boer Mauser fire cut them down by the score including Penn-Symons who was mortally wounded.

Penn-Symons' heroism energized his men, who charged the hill and swept the Boer off it.

A Glorious Victory: The troubles for the British were not over. When they reached the top of Talana Hill, many Tommies were killed by their own artillery fire (above), which could not distinguish between Briton and Boer at such long distances since everyone now wore khaki coloured clothing.

The British cavalry unit, sent to cut off the fleeing Boers, was itself captured and sent as prisoners of war to Pretoria. The following day, Penn-Symons' successor abandoned not only Talana Hill, but the town of Dundee, fleeing in panic back to Ladysmith, leaving the British camp, the wounded, and the dying Penn-Symons, to the mercy of the Boers. The Boers reoccupied Talana Hill and were to stay in Dundee for many months to come.

Boer General Piet Joubert, sent Penn-Symons' personal effects and his condolences, to the General's widow in England. The Last of the Gentleman's Wars had begun.

21st October 1899 - Elandslaagte

Boer forces capture a military supply train at the little crossroads of Elandslaagte. One train just managed to escape the Boers, much to their fury, when a following train steamed in and was promptly captured.

The Boer commander confiscated the station master`s rifle after issuing a receipt for it. Both the Boers and their British prisoners enjoy a roaring party in the local hotel with liquor from the train. The songs rendered included God Save the Queen by a Boer sergeant, with vocal accompaniament by both the British and the Boers.

Two days later, a British force (including as Chief of Staff, Major Douglas Haig later of WW1 fame) advanced from Ladysmith attempting to keep the railway line open to allow a retreat from Dundee to Ladysmith routed the Boers here in a raging thunderstorm in a set piece battle. The fighting was particularly vicious and the British were accused of violating the rules of war.

The Boer forces had been instructed not to venture as far south as Elandslaagte in the first place and the commander of their German Corps had argued with the Boer commander that their defensive position was untenable.

23rd to 27th October 1899

The Dundee garrison retreats to Ladysmith. The Boers surprisingly had been instructed by their commanders not to interfere.

30th October 1899 - Modderspruit/Nicholson's Nek

The British try to break the Boer lines and lose 1764 men of whom 1284 surrendered. With 80% of the Natal force locked up in Ladysmith, the road to Durban is open but the Boer commander is again too cautious. On the same day, a British force had been roundly defeated by the Boers with the loss of an entire column - 954 officers and men - at Nichloson's Nek north of Ladysmith. This action was referred to by the Boers as 'Klein (small) Majuba".

15th November 1899 - Frere

In order to demonstrate some activity, it was the practice to despatch an armoured train consisting of a locomotive sandwiched between three wagons fitted with loopholes and carrying a 7 pounder gun.

As the train could be heard for miles and was trapped on its length of track (10), it is difficult to see what could be achieved. On this day, a force of some 500 Boers under Louis Botha was seen as the train steamed up the line.

At around 8am, returning to Estcourt, the train was fired upon by the Boers and put on steam, only to crash headlong into stones placed on the track.

The three trucks were derailed and overturned. The Boers poured fire onto the wagons while the British either defended the train, ran away or tried to clear the line.

Eventually this was accomplished and the locomotive and 50 wounded survivors steamed back to Estcourt. The British lost 4 dead, 14 wounded and 58 taken prisoner, including Churchill, who had a burning desire to see a fight.

Within two months he had escaped from the Boys Gymnasium School by hiding in a mine shaft in Witbank, hiding amongst goods bound for Maputo and thence via a steamer to Durban. A reward of £25 was put on his head by the Boers. He thought that he was worth at least £50.

He was greeted as a hero and eventually joined Dundonald's cavalry and was the first soldier to arrive in Johannesburg - in civilian clothes and on a bicycle.

Botha split his forces and moved to Willowgrange, South of Estcourt, however, he was reluctant to attack because of the increasing number of British reinforcements that were now arriving.

Next: Buller's First Attempt to Relive Ladysmith at Colenso ends in Disaster

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