Anyone bothering to read about the Battle of Elandslaagte will see that it is an almost perfect case-study which rebuts many of the lingering Apartheid-era myths which still surround the Boer War – and which are still much-loved by certain knuckle-draggers, extremists and various other nut-cases in South Africa and beyond.
Taking place just 10 days after Kruger made the inexplicably stupid decision to attack the British Empire, the Battle of Elandslaagte was fought deep in the British colony of Natal… which totally shatters the (comforting for some) myths of Britain being the aggressor in the war.
Fought by elements of the Ladysmith garrison to ensure the 8th Brigade could retreat back to Ladysmith from Dundee before it was cut off, Elandslaagte is circled on the map below:
Though the myths tell us that the British forces were hidebound by tradition and stuck in the past, the reality is that they were able to react to the Boer threat at Elandslaagte by embracing the distinctly modern inventions of the telegraph and the railway. General French had been sent out of Ladysmith on the morning of 21 October with small force to investigate reports of republican units near Elandslaagte – which threatened the line of the retreat of the 8th Brigade.
Upon encountering much more substantial Boer forces than anticipated, French had his signalers tap into the telegraph line, messaging back to Ladysmith to alert General White to the situation. He, in turn, rushed reinforcements out by train, meaning the battle would be fought that afternoon / evening.
Coming, as it did, hot on the heels of British victory at Talana Hill, and while the Boers still enjoyed a significant numerical advantage in theatre, the even more clear-cut Imperial success at Elandslaagte is also rather inconvenient for those who like to pretend that the British ‘lost every battle’. And also for those who sleep better at night by claiming that ‘the Boers won all the battles until Britain sent, like, you know, half a million men… err… or something’.
Equally, as it was fought so early in the war, only a bone fide lunatic (though most True Believers are) could pretend that the British ‘only won the battle because the Boers taught them how to fight’. The reality is that the much-maligned Tommies were tough, disciplined, courageous and indefatigable troops from the very outset, and proved more than a match for the Boers.
Shattering yet another of the much-treasured myths / excuses, the British victory at Elandslaagte was achieved without any sort of ‘overwhelming numbers’ – which is, of course, the go-to excuse for Defenders of the Myths whenever they seek to explain away a Boer defeat.
As is his wont, Pakenham does his best to perpetuate this nonsense, claiming that, ‘French vastly outnumbered Kock’,[i] before going on to cite figures which show that French only had a three-to-one advantage: ie. the accepted minimum for a successful infantry attack. Indeed, as large numbers of his force were gunners and cavalrymen (the latter held in reserve and only unleashed when the battle was won), French actually enjoyed odds of only slightly above one-and-a-half to one in terms of his infantry – ie. the men who would have had to storm the positions occupied by Kock’s defenders.
It is unclear if Pakenham simply did not understand this military reality, or chose to ignore it to suit his purpose – with him, either option is likely; his primary aim appears to have been to write as anti a British book as possible. He really should have stuck to writing travelogues of Ethiopia, and books about trees.
Not only that, but French’s victory was brilliantly delivered. The plan was simple (as all good plans are), with the Devons advancing frontally and the Gordons and Manchesters turning the Boer left flank. Contrary to the myths still frantically peddled today, the British infantry did not advance shoulder-to-shoulder to their deaths… instead, the invading Boers found themselves facing units which had just been urgently shipped in from the NW Frontier to defend Natal, and to whom they simply had no answer.
Typically, when facing Pathan crack-shots on the Frontier, British troops had adopted open order, and flank attacks had been combined with a feigned frontal assaults which would then be converted to real assaults.[ii] And it worked just as well in Natal as it had on the Frontier: for all the much-vaunted Boer marksmanship (we have all heard the endless bullshit spouted at braais of British officers being ‘picked off at two miles by my grandfather’), the frontal advance by the Devons was achieved without a single fatality – a perfect example of fire-and-manoeuvre, and close artillery support.
The flank attack of the Gordons, Manchesters and Imperial Light Horse was also delivered with great dash, driving the Boers from their positions at bayonet point. The routing Boers were then cut down by a brilliantly delivered cavalry charge. A perfectly coordinated, all-arms battle… just 10 days into the war.
The pluck, determination, discipline, and fighting spirit of the Imperial troops had been too much for the federals, and their hyperbolic nonsense about driving the British into the sea had been exposed for the hot air it was. Ben Viljoen—who, unlike certain myth-defending History Professors—fought at Elandslaagte with the Johannesburg Commando, described the action as a ‘splendid success’ for the British.[iii] Viljoen also described the ‘disastrous moral effect’ the defeat had on the shattered Johannesburg Commando: 30 of the survivors simply refused to fight any more and were sent back home,[iv] and one prisoner expressed his surprise at the fact that the British had not walked forward in close-order wearing red-coats[v]:
‘The terrible accuracy of the artillery fire, the inconspicuous khaki, and above all the storming of their positions by the despised British infantry were tremendous surprises. They spoke with bated breath of the Gordons, their fury in the charge and their contempt of death.’[vi]
Piet Joubert, the Commandant-General of the Transvaal, described it: ‘a total defeat as great as has ever yet befallen the Afrikaner volk’.[vii]
To anyone with a military background (ie. not Pakenham or certain History Professors), a visit to the battlefield shows just want a remarkable victory it was. Though there would have been a little more grass cover in the second half of October than when these pictures were taken (late August), there were also virtually no trees back in 1899. Other than small rocks, the ground is very open and barren, with no real cover for the assaulting Tommies. As even Pakenham grudgingly admits, the republicans occupied a ‘natural strongpoint’ and the khakis would be advancing across very open land:
‘…there was no wood, there were no walls; in fact, there was no cover except the stones and ant-hills strewn across the rolling veld.’
If the myths were even half-way true, they would surely have been picked off like flies… but, of course and has been proven time and time again, the myths are total rubbish.
The following three photos were taken from the southern heights of the Boer position (roughly from spot height 1184), as per this map:
As indicated, Photo 1 was taken looking north-west, across the land where the Devons and the close support batteries advanced:
The hills in the background are in the top left of the map.
Photo 2 was taken from pretty much the same spot, this time looking north-north-west, towards Elandslaagte station – which, today, is hidden by the second belt of trees (ie. the ones in the middle distance – there were no trees there back in 1899):
And Photo 3 is again taken from roughly the same spot, this time looking north along the Boer positions (ie. from Spot Height 1184 to Spot Height 1170). Thus, we are essentially looking along the line where, in the final stages of the battle, the flank attack of the Gordons, ILH and Manchester rolled up the Boer defences and routed them:
Though not terribly visible in the shot above, the ILH monument and monument for their Colonel, Scott Chisholme[viii], is on the ridgeline in the middle-distance, as per this close-up:
The ILH obelisk is on the right-hand side of the red circle, with Scott Chisholme’s being the rather less distinct white one in the left. These monuments are on the high ground, about 200 yards to the west of the modern-day Memorial Gate to Nambiti game park, and the small military cemetery next to it (neither of these being visible from this angle).
This is more detail of Scott Chisholme’s monument:
As the infantry assault had reached its climax, and with the Gordons and Manchesters surging forwards through the rain with fixed bayonets, cheering and roaring as they went, Scott Chisholme had been eager for his newly-raised unit of gifted-amateurs to play their part, and had requested that his Imperial Light Horse be allowed to join the attack. French acceded and the ILH troopers dismounted and charged up the hillside alongside the regular troops. With Major Woolls-Sampson on the left, and Major ‘Karri’ Davies on the right, Scott Chisholme placed himself front and centre, holding aloft a walking stick with a red scarf tied to it to inspire his light horsemen – men who had been civilians just a month earlier.
Colonel Ian Hamilton remembered the extreme valour displayed by Scott Chisholme as he pushed forwards with the ILH that day:
‘To see that little red flag going on and on and on without a falter was the bravest sight I have ever seen in my life.’[ix]
Perhaps inevitably, the dauntless Scott Chisholme was bowled over by bullets to his lung and leg, but still urged his men forward before taking a third hit in the head. His splendid last words were: ‘My fellows are doing well!’[x]
Colonel Dick-Cunyngham of the Gordons was also cut down, hit by two bullets and badly wounded[xi]. When two of his Highlanders ignored the hail of bullets to run and attend to him, the gallant Colonel shouted, ‘Keep on boys! Never mind me!’[xii]
It is fashionable in these enlightened times to mock the courage of men like Scott Chisholme and Dick-Cunyngham (and Penn Symons, who was killed at Talana Hill), but this is churlish in the extreme. These men fully appreciated the risks they were taking and yet still took them, determined to inspire and lead their men forward. Few on the republican side would ever show such selflessness or make such sacrifices as men like Scott Chisholme did.
And a final, modern-day map to help any potential visitors orientate themselves:
The N11 (Ladysmith to Newcastle) is in the top left, with the R602 road marked too. The green circle marks the small hospital cemetery just over the railway line. The light blue circle is the Memorial Gate entrance to Nambiti Game Reserve, right next to the British cemetery for the battle. The purple circle marks the ILH and Scott Chisholme obelisks, and the orange circle is roughly where the first three photos were taken from. The farm of Brakfontein (between the orange and purple circles) is there where ILH / Gordons were unsuccessfully counter-attacked by the German detachment under Colonel Schiel.
Of course, for the True Believers, nothing as inconvenient as ‘historical reality’ will ever cut through the dense fog of their comforting Boer War myths. But hopefully those with rather more open-minds, and a genuine interest in history, will enjoy seeing roughly how open and barren the battlefield might have looked all those years ago. And perhaps even feel a new-found respect for the Tommies who stormed to victory that evening.
[i] Pakenham, The Boer War, p. 135
[ii] Grierson, Scarlet into Khaki, p. 170
[iii] Viljoen, My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War, p. 18
[iv] Ibid, p. 25
[v] This reality still seems to surprise particularly ignorant Defenders of the Myth even today
[vi] Hamilton, The Happy Warrior, p. 134
[vii] Pakenham, p. 169
[viii] Colonel John James Scott Chisholme (1851 – 1899), was born in the Scottish borders and served in the 9th Lancers in Afghanistan before transferring to the 5th Lancers. He came out of retirement in 1899 to be the CO of the newly-formed Imperial Light Horse
[ix] Rethman, Friends and Enemies, p. 93
[x] Kruger, Goodbye Dolly Gray, p. 84–85
[xi] Dick-Cunyngham would recover in time to fight at Wagon Hill a couple of months later, but was killed in that action
[xii] Danes, Cassell’s History of the Boer War, 1899–1902, Volume 1, p. 39