It is almost impossible to cover all the battles of the Boer War in detail. Hence, this page will concentrate on the main set piece battles that took place during the first phase of the war.

Talana   (20th October 1899)

Although the first shot of the war was not fired at Talana (Dundee), Natal, it is regarded as having been the first real battle of the war. General Lucas Meyer with about 3.500 men of the Utrecht, Wakkerstroom, Krugersdorp, Vryheid, Middelburg and Piet Retief commandos, and three 75mm guns, were attacking the 4.363 British men and 3 artillery batteries under the command of Major-General Sir William Penn Symons stationed at Dundee.

Even though the British fought off the Boer attack and General Lucas Meyer had to withdraw from the hills overlooking Dundee, the brave effort of the Burghers were costly for the Empire. The British commander Sir William Penn Symons was killed in action, the British suffered 52 killed, 203 wounded and 246 men captured by the Boers (most of them during the charge of Danie Theron´s Commando). This in comparison to the 31 killed, 66 wounded and 20 captured on the Boer side. Brigadier-General Yule, second in command to Penn Symons, had to withdraw his forces from Dundee to Ladysmith.

The town of Dundee was to be occupied by Boer forces until 15th May 1900 - after the relief of Ladysmith.

Elandslaagte   (21st October 1899)

Just one day after the battle of Talana, a british cavalry reconnaissance under the command of Major-General JPD French led to a battle with the Boer forces of General JHM Kock near the town of Elandslaagte.

Kock´s 850 men of the Johannesburg commando, the German and Hollander Corps and two 75 mm guns were soon to be overrun by French´s 3.500 men and 18 guns. In a running battle that pushed the Boer forces off the hills around the town and way back north, the British artillery demonstrated a fine display of disciplin in advancing several kilometres with stopping and firing at a very high rate.

After the battle a large number of Boers were forced to withdraw over a wide open field to the north-east of Elandslaagte, where they were attacked by the first squadron of the 5th Lancers and the Dragoon Guards. The British cavalry showed no mercy and charged three times over an area covering two kilometres. Many Boers died praying and on their knees, begging for mercy. There are many reports and instances of cruelty and bloodthirsty “pig sticking” on this charge of the British cavalry - which was the last cavalry charge by the British army in a set piece battle.

The casualties amounted to 45 killed, 110 wounded and 188 captured on the Boer side - amongst them the Count of Zeppelin of the German Corps. The British lost 50 killed and 213 wounded.

The battle of Elandslaagte, an early setback for the Boers

The British Black Week

Stormberg   (12th December 1899)

The British General Gatacre decided to attack Stormberg Junction, one of the most important railway junctions in the region of Molento. Rushing his forces of 2.700 men and 12 field guns in a night march in the direction of Stormberg junction, Gatacre exhausted his men and sent them directly into battle after their arrival. About 1.700 Burghers under the command of Chief Commandant JH Olivier were taken by surprise but managed to fight off the British charge. Due to the british scouts losing their way and many an Imperial soldier falling asleep on the battlefield due to exhaustion the battle soon came to an end.

After just 75 minutes Gatacre called off his attack and withdrew. The British casualties amounted to 25 killed, 102 wounded, 672 men taken prisoner and three field guns captured by the Boers. Republican casualties amount to 5 killed and 16 wounded.

Magersfontein   (11th and 12th December 1899)

At 4:00 am, 3.400 Highlanders sent by Lord Methuen under the command of General Wauchope, massed in quarter columns (which means that 3.400 men form a rectangle of 38 x 155 metres!) were on their way to attack Boer trenches which where expected to be on top of Magerfontein Hill. In a strategic masterpiece Boer General Koos de la Rey had his men dug trenches in front of the hill. The Highlanders were taken under a fierce and continuous fusillade from invisible positions 400 metres away. Within the first 15 minutes of the battle the advancing British troops lost most of their high ranking officers and were left in the field without orders. During the day the British started several attempts to withdraw their troops in order, which all failed. At about 4:00 pm the British retreat turned into a rout. All soldiers still in the field fled their positions. Around 6:00 pm the Boer forces left their trenches to help the British doctors in their efforts to help the wounded. Although being subjected to constant shelling of the British field guns, the Boer fighters shared their water with the wounded British soldiers.

On the second day of the battle the British agreed to a Boer offering of a cease fire, so that the last British dead and wounded can be removed. As the Burghers again left their trenches to assist the British doctors a British naval gun opened fire at Boers and British alike - but was soon silenced by Boer artillery. At around 2:00 pm the British forces retreated to their camp at Modder River.

General Koos de la Rey´s strategy of placing positions in front of hills did pay off nicely for the Boers, causing the second lost battle for the British in as many days.

Boer casualties amounted to 71 killed (amongst them the whole Scandinavian corps of 42) and 142 wounded. The British suffered 288 killed, 700 wounded and more than a hundred missing. In addition, several hundred of the surviving kilted Highlanders had to be treated for severe sunburn.

Boer trenches in front of the hills were the winning factor in the battle of Magersfontein

Colenso   (15th December 1899)

The British “Black Week” was rounded up by the first battle in General Sir Redvers Buller´s attempt to relieve Ladysmith from Boer siege.

The British army at Buller´s disposal was 15.000 soldiers and 44 guns strong (6 infantry brigades with 16 regiments, 1 cavalry brigade with 6 regiments, the Naval artillery with 14 guns and 5 batteries of the Royal Field Artillery). They were opposing approx 4.500 Burghers and their 5 guns. Amongst them the Johannesburg, Middleburg, Boksburg, Soutspansberg, Heidelberg, Krugersdorp and Wakkersstroom commandos and the Swaziland and Johannesburg Police. The Boer forces were led by General Louis Botha - at age 37 the youngest of the Boer generals and successor of Piet Joubert as Commandant-General.

Botha´s strategy was to hold up the advancing British forces through an enormous system of trenches along the Thukela River. The British, in turn, were bringing their troops in from Port Durban via Frere to the Thukela line, in their effort to relieve the rounded up British garrison of approx 13.000 troops and 7.900 civilians in Ladysmith. Buller had to cross the river and to storm the natural barrier of the Thukela Heights (hills) in order to advance passed the Boer lines.

On 15th December 1899 the first attept was made at Colenso.

At 5:20 am the British Naval guns opened fire at the Boer positions across the river, whereas British field artillery advanced towards the river in an attempt to cross it. Due to the misjudgement of a Colonel CJ Long, the advancing British artillery was in front of the infantry supposed to support them. Long´s orders were precisely followed, which led to them being unlimbered and put up within rifle range of the Boer forces across the river. About 600 metres from the river the British gunners suffered heavy casualties, amongst them colonel Long himself. Under heavy fire the gun crews fled the area, leaving behind 12 field guns within reach of the Boer forces.

Meanwhile, on the western flank, General AF Hart marched his Irish Brigade in massed quarter columns (see Magersfontein!) in broad daylight towards the enemy positions. He missed the spot where he was supposed to cross the river and the whole brigade was pinned down by Boer rifle fire for the rest of the battle. At around 9:00 am the whole battle was static. General Buller, in an attempt to get a better picture of the battle, was lightly wounded by a Boer shrapnel.

The British army´s codex of never to abandon guns took another terrible toll. The first charge for the relieve of the guns was led by a Captain HN Schofield and Lord Robert´s only son, Lieutenant Freddy Roberts. This and the following attempt to safe the guns failed in the rifle fire of the Boer forces from across the river. Freddy Roberts and more than half of the men sent to safe the guns were killed.

At 11:00 am all british troops were in full retreat. At approx 5:00 pm some Burghers crossed the Thukela and captured 10 of the British field guns, with nine ammunition wagons, in full sight of the retreating British troops.

The British lost 143 killed in action, 756 wounded, 240 missing and 38 taken prisoners by the Boers. The Republican forces suffered 7 killed, 30 wounded and one drowned.

The battles of Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso marked the socalled “Black Week” with British casualties amounting to 456 killed in action, 1.558 wounded, 710 taken prisoner and 340 missing.

Commandant-General Louis Botha

mastermind behind the strategy at the Thukela.

Boer trenches at the Thukela

Spionkop   (23rd - 24th January 1900)

For a short time, prior to his failure in the Thukela campaigne and the arrival of Lord Roberts, General Sir Redvers Buller was the highest ranking British officer in South Africa, Commander-in-Chief. Born in 1840, Sir Redvers was very popular with his troops and was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in the Zulu War (1879). His main objective was to relieve Ladysmith and to break through the Boer lines at the Thukela, which were stretched over some 25 kilometres from Ntabamnyana to the south of Vaalkrans. Like at the battle of Colenso, his counterpart on the Boer side was Louis Botha and his handful of men.

After the battle of Colenso, Buller´s 15.000 men strong army was reinforced by the arrival of the 5th Infantry Division under Lieutenant - General Sir Charles Warren, the hunter of Jack the Ripper in London. Buller decided to put up his headquarter on Mount Alice and stay with 9.000 men on the south side of the Thukela, whilst sending Warren with 15.000 men and 36 guns to cross the Thukela five kilometres upstream at Trichardt´s Drift. The plan was to outflank the Boer positions on the hills and swing around the high ground west of Spionkop.

Late on 16th January 1900, 2.000 British troops crossed the Thukela virtually unopposed, but Warren failed to order an immediate attack on Ntabamnyana which would have given him certain victory. Instead he decided to wait for most of his troops to cross the river, which took them until 19th January. When, on the following day, he eventually ordered his troops to attack the Boer positions, their forces had grown from a mere 400 men on 16th January to now 1.800 men supported by three guns and one pom-pom. Warren ordered an attack over open field, which gave the Boers free rifle range between 600 to 1.000 metres. The attack was fought off by the Boers, with British losses amounting to 477 men killed or wounded. The Boers suffered 72 casualties.

After this setback, Warren and Buller decided that their way to Ladysmith will have to lead them via the near hill of Spionkop. The reason for this decision was never disclosed. The British were unfamiliar with the terrain and had no idea of what would be awaiting them on the summit. Reconnaissance work was not carried out.

Warren and his senior officers decided to capture Spionkop under the cover of darkness with a force of 1.700 men of the 1st South Lancaster Regiment, 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, 1st South Lancashire Regiment, Thorneycroft´s Mounted Infantry and half a company of 17th Royal Engineers. On the night of 23rd January, the British troops led by Major-General ERP Woodgate and Lieutenant-Colonel Thorneycroft set off to climb the hill. They reached the summit at approx. 2:00 am on 24th January, which, at that time, was held by 195 Burghers of the Vryheid commando and the German corps. The british charged the Boers off the summit, leaving them in sole control of Spionkop.

After the successful capture of Spionkop, the British started to dig trenches, approximately 300 metres long. As the ground on the summit was rock hard, and most of the more effective trenching tools have been left behind (a tribute to the steep 400 metre climb of Spionkop), the trenches were very shallow and did not offer adequate cover.

In the meantime word has spread amongst the Boers that the British successfully captured the summit of Spionkop. General Schalk Burger was very pessimistic about the situation and perhaps would not have been able to re-capture the hill without precise orders from General Botha. He ordered a Hendrik Prinsloo to an immediate counter attack with 80 men of the Carolina commando. Further he brought one 75 mm Krupp and a pom-pom on Twin Peaks, a small hill some 1,8 kilometres east of Spionkop, into action. Fifty Boer fighters were ordered onto Aloe Knoll in the east, a small summit attached to Spionkop some 300 metres away - and with significant strategic value to the Boer sharpshooters. Four guns on Ntabamnyama, one 75 mm Krupp, two 75 mm Creusot and one pom-pom were swung around to face Spion Kop. One more 75 mm Krupp near Botha´s laager was also brought into action.

Botha ordered more men to Spionkop. Eventually there were approximately 400 Burghers from the Pretoria, Krugersdorp, Johannesburg, Standerton and Carolina commandos, with some help from the volunteers of the German corps. Due to the cover of darkness and mist all these preparations for the counter attack remained undetected by the British.

By around 7:30 am the mist lifted just enough for the British to realize, that their judgement of the area has been poor. They dug the trenches not on the crest of the summit, but around one hundred metres in front of it, allowing the Boers to also establish their forces on top of Spionkop. At some places the positions were only a few metres apart.

The British main trench on Spionkop, today a mass grave and memorial.

When the mist cleared the British, for the first time, became fully aware of the death trap they were in. The accurate fire of the Boer gunners and rifle marksmen from all the surrounding hills took its heavy toll amongst the British troops. Several attacks with bayonets were made by the British, but all were fought off under heavy casualties by the Boer fighters on the summit. For many hours the battle was static, with the superior British forces being pinned down in their shallow trenches. At about 10:00 am General Woodgate was mortally wounded and for a few hours the British officers Thorneycroft, Crofton and Coke all assumed being in charge of the troops on top of Spionkop. Thus adding to the overall confusion. Around 1:00 pm some of the Lancaster Fusiliers surrendered with white handkerchiefs. Boer forces left their trenches to capture the British soldiers, only to be sent back by the charging Thorneycroft shouting at the Boers: “I am the commander here, take your men back to hell, sir. There is no surrender!”

With heavy Gun fire of about seven to ten shells per minute from behind the near Twin Peaks hill, the British suffered an increasing number of casualties as the battle commenced. This was observed by General Buller in his headquarters from across the Thukela. He ordered Major-General Lyttleton to a cavalry attack on Twin Peaks, which was carried out by Major Bewicke-Copley. Twin Peaks was held by only a few Burghers and the British cavalry and artillery attack was a full success. Unfortunately for the British, their own artillery mistook the fleeing Boers for their own troops and stopped their shelling. This signal was mistaken by the British headquarter which called off the successful attack. The Boers returned to their previous positions and continued with their shelling of the British troops on Spionkop.

During the battle, British reinforcements were sent up the hill in a steady flow - bringing the number of troops on the summit to more than 2.000 - in a place that barely offers cover for half that number.

The confusion on the British side was enormous. Warren did not receive updates in chronological order, Thorneycroft, and Coke did not receive any guidance from their superior officer. Concerns grew that the hill cannot be held during the night. At 7:30 pm Thorneycroft decided: “better six battalions safely off the hill than a mop up in the morning”. At 8:15 pm he gave the order to withdraw.

Little did the British know about the casualties suffered by the Boer forces and their growing concerns that the battle was lost. At nightfall the Boers retreated to their laagers and many of them thought that they would have to give up their positions the next day. It was more or less by accident that Boers under the commando of field-cornet JCG Kemp scouted the summit before dawn the next morning, to find that the British troops have left Spionkop. To their surprise they found only dead, wounded and seven lost British soldiers on the summit. As soon as the news was brought to the Burghers waiting in the laagers around Spionkop, they rushed back on to the summit to claim their biggest victory in the war.

The casualties were high.

The main British trench was subject to right flank fire from Aloe Knoll. After the battle 70 dead British soldiers were found in the trench - all being shot into the right side of their skulls.

Boer casualties amounted to 58 killed and 140 wounded - the Carolina commando suffering the most with 55 killed or wounded out of their total number of 85.

The British lost a total of 1.185 men - with 322 confirmed dead, 563 wounded and 300 missing, most of them presumed to have been victims of gun shells.

The aftermath:

General Buller was never to recover from this career-blow and was relieved of his position as Commander-in-Chief and succeeded by Lord Roberts. British reinforcements were sent to the Thukela and thrown into the battles of Vaalkrans (5-7th February) and the Thukela Heights (12-28th February 1900). Sir Redvers Buller, now commanding the Natal Field Forces, finally relieved Ladysmith on 28th February.

General Botha proved that, despite his young age, he was a brave and able Commandant-General. He went on to lead his fine Burgher troops to many a victory in the guerilla stage of the war.

The Acre of Massacre, the summit of Spionkop after the battle.

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