Boers and Brits battle it out : The Battle of Elandslaagte

The Battle of Elandslaagte and the Siege of Ladysmith were 2 memorable military encounters during the South African War of 1899-1902. Their defeat at Elandslaagte is still remembered bitterly by the Boers because of the actions of the British cavalry. Ladysmith is honoured by the British for its gallant resistance.

The Battle of Elandslaagte and Siege of Ladysmith took place during the second South African War (formerly the Anglo-Boer War), which began on October 11 1899 after President Kruger, President of the Boer Republic, sent an ultimatum to the British Prime Minister, Joseph Chamberlain, which remained unanswered. Thus the hostilities between Boer and Brit resumed.

One of the first battles was the 1899 Battle of Elandslaagte near the tiny railway village of the same name between Ladysmith and Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal.

Initially a Boer patrol captured the railway station and partied all night on a stock of whiskey from a captured supply train.

But Major General French, who had taken command of the cavalry in Ladysmith, was sent to beat off the Boers. A bitter battle ensued with the British cavalry routing the enemy and cutting down men who had raised the white flag. Today, 2 poignant memorials on opposite hills pay tribute to the gallant soldiers who died on both sides.

By the beginning of November, 1899, however, the Boers had regrouped and the Siege of Ladysmith began.

There were 21 156 men, women and children besieged in the little town and over 4 500 horses, mules and oxen – many of the latter ending up as food for the starving population.

L.H. Gray of the Border Mounted Rifles wrote in his diary on December 31 that he had the ‘first taste of horsemeat – very good-big fat carthorse killed by Sappers’.

But although many soldiers on both sides were killed and grievously wounded, it was disease and starvation that killed over 60% of the people in Ladysmith.

Both sides had mutual respect for the other: a Captain Thwaites wrote that the Boers ‘fought decidedly well’; and on Christmas Day the Boers fired a shell over Ladysmith, which, when burst, was found to have a Christmas pudding in it.

Sundays were always quiet, because as one British tommy put it, ‘Johnny Boer does not fight on the Lord’s Day’.

The siege lasted for 118 days until General Buller relieved the town and the Boers retreated.