The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 3 No 3 - June 1975

Battle of Elandslaagte —
breakthrough to Ladysmith via Hart’s Hill and Pietershoogte —
various aspects of the siege and defence of Ladysmith

A brief account of the Society's battlefield lecture tour during the long weekend 10th - 13th October 1974.

For members of the Military History Society, happiness is a battlefield lecture tour organised by George Duxbury and his staff of the S.A. National Museum of Military History, and once again members and friends were privileged to enjoy what by common consent was one of the best four-day tours yet held. Like Gaul, the area visited was divided in to three parts, each being dealt with most effectively by distinguished speakers. The battle of Elandslaagte required a panel of four to do justice to its various facets: Commandant Cass Bakkes, Major Darrell Hall, Colonel Dick Peddle and Commandant S. de B. - ("SB") Bourquin. These speakers are all authorities on their respective subjects. Commandant Dr Cass Bakkes then spent a full day detailing the events leading up to the battle and the ensuing break through to Ladysmith. He is uniquely qualified to have done this, this having been his topic for his doctoral dissertation. Finally on the last morning Mr B. Christopher, the leading Ladysmith authority on these matters, presented some little-known aspects of the Siege and Defence of Ladysmith. The Society was singularly fortunate in the choice of speakers, not only for their knowledge but also for their ability to 'put-it-across', and expresses its appreciation to them for sharing the fruits of their researches in such interesting ways.

A total of 104 participated in the tour; 78 from Johannesburg, the Free State and Klerksdorp travelled by SAR bus, Kombi and private cars, while 21 came up from Durban in private cars, together with a group from Hilton College. Ladysmith swelled the count by a further 4 and Dr Frank Mitchell represented Cape Town.

The Johannesburg contingent left the Museum sharp at l0h00 on Thursday 10 October, thanks to the usual firm marshalling of the Deputy Tour Director, Captain Tony Speir. The fantastic organizational detail was revealed when participants were presented with the Royal Hotel Register for completion before entering the bus in Johanneshurg! About the only casualty during the four days occurred when the Senior Medical Officer on the bus cut his finger slicing biltong as the bus travelled across the highveld. The bus was a little tired, and all were glad to alight at Andrews Motel, Volksrust where Mr and Mrs Kruger had prepared a first class buffet luncheon which ended at 15h15.

The Tour Director, Colonel George Duxbury, gave a graphic description of the battle of Laing’s Nek as we wound our way into Natal. It was of more than academic interest to some of us that General Colley led that attack with his Staff! It was during this period that one wag on the bus (not Commandant Bertie Simpkins) stated categorically that the bus was mentioned in the Bible (Genesis I:25 'And God made .... everything that creepeth upon the earth’).

Tour H.Q. was established in the Royal Hotel Ladysmith, where the manager and staff did everything possible to ensure that all were happy and well looked after, while the Andrews Motel Ladysmith equally efficiently accommodated the remainder of the party. Our informal evening at the hotel witnessed many happy re-unions, and new friends were made.

Sharp at 08h3O on Friday 11 October the convoy set out for the first stand (Colonel Schiel’s position) where the Tour Director suitably welcomed everyone and then the Panel of speakers described the opening stages of the battle of Elandslaagte, which took place almost exactly 75 years before (21 October 1899).

One can perforce give only brief comments about each battle to enable the reader to appreciate the research and preparation which went into the battlefield lectures. In this case, Commandant Bourquin was the narrator, linking together the contributions of his colleagues, Colonel Peddle dealt with the attacking infantry, Major Hall concentrated mainly on the artillery while Commandant Bakkes told the story for the Boer defenders.

The battle took place fundamentally because General White decided early on 21 October 1899 to open the line to Dundee, and ordered General French to do so. The Boers had taken up positions on prominent high ground dominating the line of advance of the attacking British, with Colonel Schiel initially in a tactically well chosen position harassing the British left flank. The second stand gave an excellent idea of the plan which was to roll up the Boers’ left flank under cover of well handled artillery support.

General French himself took part in the final assault and Colonel Ian Hamilton (7 Inf Bde) found himself during the closing stages in the firing lines, rallying men who were touched by a degree of cowardice and needed just one act to turn them into heroes. In the early evening the Boers retreated, and were badly routed in the ensuing cavalry charges of the 5th Dragoon Guards and 5th Lancers. On an anti-climactic note, orders were received at 03h00 on 22 October to evacuate the features, and the battle-weary troops began returning to their trains forward of Modder Spruit.

The Panel, by their research, rehearsal, presentation and timing, generated a tremendous atmosphere, accentuated in one case by the use of the present tense. One felt considerable tension at the third stand when viewing the battlefield from the Boer positions and imagining the left flank being rolled up by cavalry and infantry (ILH , 5th Lancers, Gordons and Manchesters) while awaiting the inevitable final frontal assault by the Devons. Lessons learned were also well presented by the Panel.

The Ladysmith Historical Society kindly agreed to open the Ladysmith Museum from 17h15 to 17h50, and all members of the tour took advantage of this opportunity to spend an interesting time studying the well displayed and documented exhibits and to renew friendships with Mrs Gill Tatham, curator of the Museum, and her husband Mr George Tatham, Chairman of the Ladysmith Historical Society. From 18h00 to 19h30 we were the guests of the Mayor and Town Councillors of Ladysmith at a civic reception. Mayor Maree welcomed the guests in a happy speech and pointed out that it was 75 years to the day since the expiry of the Boer Ultimatum on October 11th, 1899. Brigadier Jack Bester replied suitably. Members of the tour very much appreciated the generous hospitality of the Ladysmith Town Council, the function having proved to be the social highlight of the tour.

The convoy set off promptly on time on Saturday morning, October 12 for Colenso. The whole day was in the capable hands of Commandant Dr Cass Bakkes, who dealt with the events heading up to and the break-through to Ladysmith in February 1900 and made the events of the longest battle of the war (13 days from February 15th to 28th 1900) very clear to us all. The first stand was at the foot of Hlangwane Mountain, which was a good position from which to appreciate all the preliminary moves made by both sides, and to study the waterless plain which created so much discomfort for the British troops during the early stages. Many members of the tour then took the optional but strenuous hike round to the west of the Mountain to View the Boer positions across the Tugela River, particularly on Wynne’s Hill. Needless to say, cold beers were much appreciated at the Colenso Hotel, where an al fresco buffet luncheon was set out under the trees, and greatly enjoyed by all.

After lunch we drove across the Tugela to the top of Harts Hill, and were led to a shady spot to hear Commandant Bakkes detail the events of the final break-through. We shared in imagination the cramped conditions on Wynne’s Hill (11th and 2nd Bde) on February 22nd and noted General Buller’s insistence on continuing the attack with Hart’s force (5th Bde and half of 4th Bde). The British moved the pontoon bridge over the Tugela on February 26th without detection and the final attack went in on February 27th under Buller and Warren, with brigade groupings under Barton, Kitchener and Norcott.

Commandant Dr Bakkes showed an unerring sense of timing as he switched his narrative from attack to defence and back again to attack. He skilfully unravelled the intricacies of this long battle and made it intelligible to the layman. He introduced and evaluated new material e.g., the ‘draad gesprek’ at 02h00 on February 28th between Joubert (who was still in the Ladysmith area) and Botha. All in all a full and active day.

Saturday evening was enjoyed at the Ladysmith Country Club, by courtesy of its Chairman and Members and the Ladysmith Historical Society. The weather was perfect for a braai, and the meat and salads tasty. A mimed cabaret had been arranged, and the evening was further enlivened with some popular Scottish airs, played on the bagpipes by kilted Colonel Dick Peddle. Quite a number of us nearly missed the bus back to the hotel - a long walk!

On Sunday morning October 13th the tour was treated to descriptions of some of the less well-known aspects of the siege and defence of Ladysmith by that doyen of Ladysmith historians, Mr B. Christopher. After a short visit in town, he took us to the summit of Red Hill on the northern outskirts of Ladysmith. Here, after a short Sunday prayer by Mr Teddy Winder, Mr Christopher detailed for us the only two sorties made into enemy territory during the 120 days of siege. Some of the incidents are mentioned by Deneys Reitz in "Commando". We heard about Surprise Hill and Belt’s Koppie and of the abortive attack on the Leicestershires on Red Fort (on Red Hill). The hour passed all too quickly and Mr Christopher’s wide-ranging talk gave us a new and deeper appreciation of the siege and its military activities.

After thanks had been recorded to the respective speakers and the large number of voluntary workers who had done so much to make the tour a success, the tour director, Colonel George Duxbury, closed the tour and we dispersed to our various destinations. The returning bus trip to Johannesburg was eventful right up to the last hour, when near Alberton we happened upon a Cessna aircraft which had just made an unscheduled and unrehearsed up-ended landing in a ploughed field. The medical officers on board rendered first aid to the shocked but otherwise unhurt passengers. Total distance covered from Johannesburg was approximately 950 kilometres.

During four carefree days there were obviously little incidents which remain in one’s memory, perhaps to be recalled with a smile when meeting fellow tour members on future get-togethers. A few such incidents follow:
— the highest ranking hygiene squad in military history dismantling the portable latrine at the second stand at Elandslaagte (a brigadier, full colonel, squadron leader, several commandants and a staff Major!)

— Bertie Simpkins (with his usual assortment of whistles) answering the train whistle while the bus waited at the Elandslaagte Naval cemetery level crossing.

— Freda Fleischman’s impersonations at the Ladysmith Country Club.

— receiving our Royal Hotel lunches in boxes labelled ‘One gross cuckoo eggs’ which turned out to have contained children’s sweets.

— Deedee Wotring puffing away at her pipe in the Royal Hotel dining room just before it closed after dinner, with a throng of black waiters exclaiming, "hau!"

— Darrell Hall on an impish impulse, while waiting for the bus after lunch in Colenso, leading his convoy up the street and round the circle and back to his starting point.

— a frantic search by Pamela Solarsh both inside and outside the bus for her bracelet, only to exclaim on finding it, ‘I must have dropped it into my bag!’

— taking two days to find out how the airconditioning worked on the bus.

On behalf of all who were fortunate enough to make this battlefields lecture tour, your scribe expresses sincere thanks to the Director of the SA National Museum of Military History and his staff for all the organizational arrangements. The Military History Society remains as indebted as ever for all that was done for them in connection with this tour. Verbal thanks were expressed in Ladysmith to the many members who also did so much for us, having paid their money like the rest of us. While none of this band of workers thrives on public thanks, none will mind if a few representative names are mentioned. Dora du Preez smilingly relieved us of our money, and as Treasurer had to keep chasing us to meet our obligations; Captain Tony Speir, that martinet among Deputy Tour Directors rightly kept us up to time, which was always of the essence; beer and cokes were timeously dispensed; our medical officers were ready to deal with emergencies ranging from a snake scare at Elandslaagte to aircrash victims; Ron Hardy was able to keep the Kombi’s revs up to gain time on the SAR bus to enable essential admin work to be done; and so on. And above all the Society’s favourite Tour Director with ‘the Duxbury Touch’ very much in evidence. Thanks a million folks - we’ll be back for more.


Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /