The Battle of Elandslaagte, and the part played in it by the newly-formed Imperial Light Horse Regiment (ILH), was the subject chosen for the curtain raiser at the society's 14th October lecture meeting by Heinrich Janzen, who is himself a member of the regiment's successor, the Rand Light Horse.
On 21st October 1899 the tiny, dusty railway station and settlement of Elandslaagte, half way between the Natal towns of Dundee and Ladysmith, became the site of one of the first engagements of the Anglo-Boer War. It was notable in that it experienced the war's one and only authentic cavalry charge. The Boers had captured Elandslaagte two days previously, and had thus cut off any chance of retreat by rail for the British forces under attack at Dundee. Along with the station, the Boers had taken a supply train, the local hotel, and numerous British prisoners.
On the night of 20th October, the Boers joined their captives in feasting on the food and liquor blissfully unaware of what was to hit them at dawn the next day. The attack launched by General John French, who commanded the British cavalry under General George White, caught the Boers completely by surprise. They were, however, able to retreat to nearby high ground where their guns began shelling the British. French telegraphed White in Ladysmith, who immediately despatched infantry support under Colonel Ian Hamilton. The subsequent battle sent the Boers in full retreat, with the ILH destroying to a man a German unit which tried to prevent it. The battle ended when a conventional cavalry charge by the Lancers and Dragoons turned the retreat into a bloody rout.
The ILH was founded on 8th September 1899 with Queen Victoria's approval for the use of the title "Imperial", and the Royal Standard and Union Flag as its regimental badge. It was recruited from the 5 000 "Uitlanders" who volunteered, and when it rode off to war on 11th October it was 444 strong. Its commanding officer was Lt. Col. J J Scott-Chisholme, recently seconded from the 5th Lancers (Royal Irish). Elandslaagte was its first battle, and Scott-Chisholme was killed leading from the front. Two VCs were awarded, to Capt. C H Mullins and Lt. R Johnstone.
The origins of the regiment can be traced to the 64-strong "Reform Committee" of the Rand Club in Johannesburg, 10 of whom would be the first officers of the ILH. Among these dissidents were Dr Jamieson, who had led the abortive Jamieson Raid in 1896; Sir Percy Fitzpatrick; Charles Mullins; Walter Karri Davies (not his real name); James Donaldson; the Gilfillans and Aubrey Woolls-Sampson. These men were destined to become the founders of the ILH. The regiment was born in secret, under the noses of Transvaal President Paul Krugers' numerous spies, and the glory of its first battle and victory at Elandslaagte was marred by the fact that so many of those it fought against had been personal friends before the war. The lecture ended with the regimental piper of the ILH playing the regimental lament to all those who died in the battle.
A lancer fought on horseback armed with only a sword in addition to his lance, and was thus virtually defenceless against the Boer marksman with his long-range rifle, or indeed from the Boer rider firing from the hip. Only at the Battle of Elandslaagte was the lancer able to charge in his traditional fashion. In the overall history of the war the lancers are usually lumped together with other arms of the cavalry, the dragoons and the hussars, so little is know about the individual part they played. However, they were present in most of the major engagements, and performed an important role in reconnaissance and pursuit operations. After all, horses, and the soldiers who rode them, dominated the Anglo-Boer War on both sides.
The lance is derived from the spear carried by the early foot soldier, and although mounted forces were a prominent feature of most armies in history, the effective use of the spear by a soldier on horseback had to await the invention of the saddle and stirrup. The British Army formed its lancer regiments in 1816 following the rout of its heavy cavalry by Napoleon's Polish Lancers at the Battle of Waterloo. The characteristic headdress of these Polish Lancers was adopted by all British lancer regiments, despite its being fragile, uncomfortable and offering no protection to the wearer. The various regiments were distinguished by the colour of the plumes they wore in their helmets.The lance was between eight and nine feet long. It was originally made of ash, but bamboo, as used by the Indian Army, was found to be stronger and more flexible. A leather arm and hand sling was attached to the centre of the lance, and the metal "shoe" at the lower end fitted into a leather "bucket" attached to the right stirrup.
Although the cavalry as a whole played such a prominent part in the British victory in the Anglo-Boer War, the role of the lancers, the elite of the cavalry, who had the finest horses and were the finest riders, was not a great one. They might have been more useful had they been trained as mounted infantry. Nevertheless, they proved their worth under many difficult circumstances and the two VCs they won attest to their valour. Lancers are still used by many armies in a ceremonial capacity. But the Anglo-Boer War was to be their last using their traditional weapons of sword and lance.
Members are reminded that the list of talks for next year is now being compiled. All applications should be made to Kemsley Couldridge, the society's lecture organiser, on (011) 440-5686.
George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581
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