On this day in 1900: The Battle of Wagon Hill

The Siege of Ladysmith commenced on the 2nd of November 1899. A week thereafter, on the 9th, the Boers made an effort to rush the town’s defences, but were repulsed with relative ease. Indeed, so chastened were they after the mauling they received that it would be almost two months before they tried again, though their second attempt would be launched with much more determination.[i]

The Imperial garrison was commanded by Lt-General Sir George White VC and the perimeter defences were divided into four sectors, named A, B, C and D. The weakness of the defences was an almost total lack of defensive depth: at no point in the perimeter was there space for a decent second line of defence, meaning the loss of any of the defended high ground would expose the rest of the positions to enfilade or reverse fire, and thus the almost inevitable loss of the town.
‘C’ sector (roughly indicated in the map below) covered around four miles of perimeter to the south of the town and was manned by units of the 7th Brigade under Colonel Sir Ian Hamilton[ii]. Hamilton’s sector stretched from Flagstone Spruit in the west and was anchored on the high ground of Bester’s Ridge, a feature about two-and-a-half miles long which linked the peaks of Wagon Point and Wagon Hill in the west and Caesar’s Camp[iii] in the east – the latter marking the boundary of the sector:

Caesar’s Camp was much larger than Wagon Hill, about two miles long and about 1000 yards (north to south) at its widest point. Wagon Hill was almost flat topped, and only about 900 yards from east to west, and 300 yards north to south. Wagon Point (not marked on the sketch above) was smaller still, just to the west of Wagon Hill and marking the extreme westerly edge of the ridge. To the south of Bester’s Ridge, the land sloped steeply down into Bester’s Valley, with this slope covered in scrub and boulders, and broken with salients and re-entrants.

The defences on Caesar’s Camp were well constructed and the sangers were held by the 1st Manchester Regiment, supported by the 42nd Battery Royal Artillery (under Major Goulburn) and a detachment from the Royal Navy and Natal Naval Volunteers manning a 12-pdr gun. The defences on Wagon Hill were not as well built, however, and the position was held by just three companies of the 1st KRRC[iv] and an under-strength squadron of the Imperial Light Horse (only 38 men). Another small squadron (just 41 men) of the ILH held positions on Wagon Point. Fortuitously however, on the night of the 5th of January 1900, another detachment of Natal Naval Volunteers had been sent to Wagon Hill and emplaced a 3-pdr Hotchkiss gun. Additionally, on the night of the 5th / 6th January, two naval guns – a 4.7” piece (the ‘Lady Anne’) and another 12-pdr – were being moved onto the feature, with working parties from the Royal Navy and Royal Engineers accompanying them, together with an escort from the Gordon Highlanders.

General Piet Joubert was (nominally, at least) in overall command of the republican forces, and his plan was to launch diversionary attacks all around the perimeter of the town so as to disguise the main effort against the defenses on Bester’s Ridge – a task which had been assigned to 4,000 Boers (2,000 from each republic). The Orange Free State men under General C.J. de Villiers would advance on the left, towards Wagon Hill, while the Transvaal contingent, led into battle by Schalk Burger[v], were on the right and advanced towards Caesar’s Camp. Conan-Doyle recorded that no less than 18 republican guns were tasked to fire in support of the assault on the ridge.

Joubert’s overall plan was poorly coordinated, however, with many Boers simply refusing to take part in the diversionary attacks against other points in the perimeter, or else doing so only very half-heartedly. One such diversionary attack on Observation Hill was quickly broken up, with the federals, including young Deneys Reitz, fleeing in confusion and leaving a score of dead in front of the Imperial trenches. The inability of the Boer Generals to properly command and control large forces is rarely acknowledged by those who have since re-invented them as undefeated geniuses; their failings were to prove costly that day as General White was quickly able to identify their main effort and deploy his reserves accordingly.

The attack on Wagon Hill began at 0230 hours on the 6th of January, with the assaulting Boers bumping into a piquet of the Imperial Light Horse in the blackness. There was a sudden exchange of fire, with other men of the ILH rushing forward to reinforce the piquet, and a party of RE sappers under Lt. Digby-Jones[vi] joining the fight. The 3-pdr manned by the Natal Naval Volunteers was quickly brought into action.
This exchange gave the Manchesters over on Caesar’s Camp a little more notice and they managed to reinforce their piquets before the attackers hit their position. The Boer attack swept over the forward positions nonetheless, but the Manchesters just about managed to cling on. More Transvaalers were massed on the slopes, working their way up in the darkness to press the attack.
The fighting was even fiercer on Wagon Hill, but with the diversionary attacks on the other sectors quickly driven off, Colonel Hamilton and General White communicated by field telephone and Sir George began to move reserves to ‘C’ Sector; as dawn was breaking, the balance of the Imperial Light Horse were rushed to Wagon Hill, quickly followed by 4 companies of the 1st KRRC and another 4 of the 2nd KRRC. The balance of the 2nd Gordons and the 2nd Rifle Brigade were ordered to reinforce Caesar’s Camp.
Hamilton quickly identified that Wagon Hill was under the greatest pressure, so moved himself there, taking Major Wallnut-Miller’s company of the 2nd Gordons with him[vii]. Recognising that Hamilton could not command both actions, Sir George White ordered that the defence of Caesar’s Camp be left in the hands of Lt. Colonel Curran of the 1st Manchesters. White also ordered Major Blewitt’s 21st Battery (15-pdrs), escorted by the 5th Dragoon Guards, to deploy to the west by Range Point and prevent republican reinforcements moving up to Wagon Hill. Another 15-pdr battery (the 53rd under Major Abdy) was moved on the Klip River flats to the east so as to bombard the Transvaalers who were concentrated on the south-east of Caesar’s Camp. They galloped out, unlimbered and quickly came into action:

‘…there, directly in front of them [Abdy’s guns], at 2,200 yards range, was the slope of Caesar’s Camp crowded with Boers dotted about in fancied security. In a moment, the wicked shrapnel was bursting over them at its deadliest range.’

Abdy’s battery came under long-range counter battery fire from a Long Tom and a howitzer, but—contrary to popular modern-day myth—the Major had made skilful use of the available cover and his casualties were ‘trifling’. One who no doubt considered his wounds to be rather more than trifling was Sergeant Boseley ‘whose left arm and leg were carried away by a shell and who was taken off the field waving his remaining arm and adjuring his section to ‘buck up’’. It was claimed that it was General Joubert’s wife who ordered the Long Tom to be turned on Abdy’s guns; whoever ordered it, the Long Tom was soon silenced by some well placed lyddite shells fired from another Royal Navy 4.7” gun (the ‘Princess Victoria’) firing from Cove Redoubt – about 4 miles away.
The bold deployment of the 53rd Battery in particular ‘produced immediate and valuable effect upon the situation on the summit’:

‘… when [the attacking Boers] felt Abdy’s shrapnel and saw their supports dispersing behind them from the same cause, they began to waver, and Carnegie [Captain the Hon R. T. Carnegie, commanding ‘G’ Company, 2nd Gordons], seizing the opportunity, instantly ordered his company to advance with fixed bayonets. The Boers did not await the charge. Chasing them from the crest, the Gordons reoccupied the advanced sangars.’

After three hours, with their mission completed and the attack against Caesar’s Camp contained, the 53rd Battery calmly withdrew into cover. The positions of Blewitt and Abdy’s batteries can be seen on the extreme top left and top right of this sketch map:

The situation on Wagon Hill was much more serious. The reinforcements from the Imperial Light Horse arrived just after 5 o’clock in the morning, and were immediately flung into the action. Hamilton and Wallnut-Miller’s company of Gordons arrived next, and the highlanders were ordered to try and work their way round to the south east of the feature to outflank the attacking republicans. They came under very heavy fire from Boers on Mounted Infantry Hill, however, and could make little progress. The 8 companies from the two battalions of the KRRC arrived about 7 o’clock and were sent to reinforce the Gordons, though again no progress could be made. The battle raged on with little movement from either side, with Blewitt’s 21st Battery, the 42nd Battery and the Naval 12-pdr on Caesar’s Camp bombarding the federals on Mounted Infantry Hill (this feature can be seen in the extreme bottom left of the map above).

At 10 o’clock, White moved the 5th Lancers to Caesar’s Camp and the 18th Hussars to Wagon Hill, the cavalrymen dismounting to serve as infantrymen for the day. The intensity of the fighting flared up again at about 1 o’clock, when a very determined Boer assault drove the defenders back from the south-west of Wagon Hill. Lt Digby-Jones (RE) was again in the thick of the fighting, helping rally the troops and drive the republicans back again. The fighting was so close and intense that a most extraordinary exchange of fire took place:

‘In a gun-emplacement a strange encounter took place at point-blank range between a group of Boers and of Britons. De Villiers of the Free State shot Miller-Wallnut dead; Ian Hamilton fired at de Villiers with his revolver and missed him. Young Albrecht of the Light Horse shot de Villiers. A Boer named de Jaeger shot Albrecht. Digby-Jones of the Sappers shot de Jaeger’.

Both Digby-Jones and Albrecht would be killed in battle and would both be awarded posthumous VCs[viii].

A severe storm broke over the battlefield at about 3.30 pm, and continued for the next three hours. Under cover of this, the 5th Lancers, 5th Dragoon Guards and 1½ squadrons of the 19th Hussars (all dismounted) were moved to reinforce Wagon Hill. At 4.45 pm, when the storm was at its worst, the troops holding positions in the extreme south-west of the hill were again driven back, but quickly rallied and drove the assaulting Boers out again.

Sir George White ordered that the Boers be cleared from the hill by nightfall at all hazards. Such was the intensity of the fighting that the dismounted cavalrymen had all been absorbed into the firing line and the only fresh, uncommitted troops on Wagon Hill were three companies of the Devons who Lt. Colonel Park had just brought up. When Colonel Hamilton asked Park if they would be able to turn the remaining Boers out with the bayonet, he answered simply: ‘We will try’.

A rather poorly written letter from Drummer Boulden to his father gives a little insight into the action:

‘You must have herd that my Regiment the 1st Devons wone a great name that any man could be proud of for the Boers made an attack on ladysmith town and we had a fight for 17 hours without stopping and we were nearly all worne out and Sir George White sent for the Devon regiment to come and reinforce Waggon Hill … and Colonel Iron Ameralton [Ian Hamilton] said nothing will shift the devels only a bayonet charge and he said you are good at charging, Devons, and I want you to charge these devels out, and if you do I will never forget you.’

Sure enough, the Devons, with magazines charged and fixed bayonets, formed up in column behind their Colonel and advanced in quick time to the top of the ridge, then:

 ‘Colonel Park gave the order to charge. Lieutenant Field, who commanded the leading company, rushed forward up the slope, shouting, ‘Company, double charge!’ He was immediately followed at a distance of about ten yards by Masterson’s Company[ix], which was immediately followed by Lafone’s[x] … on they went to reach their goal, 130 yards away, over perfectly flat ground, fired into at short range from right, left and front… the enemy held on, firing most heavily, until the charging lines were within 15 yards of them, and then ran down the slope and disappeared.’

Our friend, Drummer Bouldon, described the action:

‘… with dear old Captain Lafone leading on in front we charged up over the hill and the Boers were only 15 yards away from us and I sounded the charge with another drummer and then we joined the charge, I was nearly mad, in fact all of us was.’

The Charge of the Devons signaled the end of the battle—the Boers were routed, suffering terribly as the whole British line opened up on them. Drummer Bouldon described how the Devons were cheered back into Ladysmith after the action:

“all the civilians came out and meet us and gave us a nice hot cup of tea and patted us on the back and said my dear, brave men”

Five VCs were awarded for the Battle of Wagon Hill: as well as the two posthumously awarded to Lt Digby-Jones of the Royal Engineers and Trooper Albrecht of the Imperial Light Horse, two were won by the Manchesters, and one by the Devons. Extraordinarily, Albrecht’s was the uitlander regiment’s third VC of the war.

A letter from one of Albrecht’s comrades vividly illustrates the ILH’s part in the action:

‘Our squadron and another were picketing Wagon Hill … when the naval guns were being changed from their old place to this hill—when the Boers made a most determined attack about 2am—The Hill is almost vertical and consists of big rocks and it is about 150ft high. They got right up to the top—our 2 sqdrns being only 65 strong (reduced by sickness etc.) and were shooting at 6–7ft interval[s], we being severely handicapped by not being armed with magazine rifles[xi]—Our chaps stuck to their place like men despite losing half their men … the Boers holding the crest of the hill all day. Gradually reinforcements came to us and we had an easier time—but the Boers (all Free-Staters) were splendid brave fellows;—again and again charging up only to be shot down—it was a beastly time … They kept up the attack till dark and finished with another charge in the midst of a tremendous thunderstorm—they were met by the Devons with bayonet, who shoved them back over the Hill … The Boers were splendid brave fellows and several of them were old grey-bearded chaps—they told us afterwards that their orders were to take the hill and stay there—There was a general attack all round by the Transvaal Boers—but only half-hearted—the Free Staters expressed great disgust at their behaviour.’

Though it is, as usual, difficult to determine the accurate casualty figures suffered by the Boers during the action, the KRRC claimed to have counted 99 bodies in front of their positions alone while the Standard and Diggers News later devoted six full length columns to listing the federal killed and wounded. Sir George White later wrote that his ‘native spies’ reported total republican losses of around 700 – which seems high though not implausibly so: it only averages out to about 40 casualties an hour, which is hardly an unrealistic number in a day-long pitched battle involving several thousands of men on each side and which ended in their routing from a bayonet charge. After the battle, the Tommies assisted the Boers to recover their dead who had been left behind, ‘as each succeeding hero was brought down—they were heroes—the Boers wrung their hands and owned that we had killed their best.’.”
Whatever the exact number, there can be little doubt the republicans suffered dreadfully at Wagon Hill. The Free Staters had gone toe-to-toe with the Tommies, fought with great determination and valour, but lost. With the cream of the besiegers wiped out, never again did the Boers dare attempt storming Ladysmith.

As can be expected after a close-quarter battle which raged for about 16 hours, Imperial losses were also high, with 175 men were killed, and around 250 injured. The Manchesters suffered severely, with 33 men killed, and 4 officers and 37 men wounded. As well as the gallant Major Wallnut-Miller and 17 men killed, the 2nd Gordons also lost their CO, Lt. Colonel Dick-Cunyngham VC[xii]: he had just recovered from injuries sustained at Elandslaagte, only to be mortally wounded by a stray bullet while leading the highlanders forward to Caesar’s Camp. The Imperial Light Horse, who were in the thick of the fighting from beginning to end, lost three officers and 23 men killed, with another 6 officers and 27 men wounded – indeed, the ILH took so many officer causalities that a junior captain was in command of the regiment by the end of the battle.

Those who are quick to mock the British for their supposedly outmoded ways should remember that the Battle of Wagon Hill was ultimately won by a good old fashioned, close-order bayonet charge. In the right circumstances, it was still an almost irresistible tactic: the sight of a couple of hundred fearsome, courageous, and well-led men, roaring and cheering as they stormed forwards with bayonets flashing, was a terrifying spectacle and something the federals simply had no answer to. It was also a tactic which, lacking bayonets, discipline, and, most importantly, the almost carefree bravery of the Tommies, they could not employ themselves. It was a costly business though: the three companies of Devons who charged comprised of five officers and 184 other ranks – three officers and 14 men were killed in the charge, with another 35 wounded.

Lt. Col Park wrote of the loss of Captain Lafone:

“I cannot at all get over Lafone’s death. He was a bright, clever, witty fellow, the most popular man possible with everyone. A success bought for the price of his life is a very dearly bought one for us”

True to the stiff-upper-lipped standards of the times, however, these losses had to be taken stoically: the following day Sir George White addressed Park:

‘I congratulate and thank you for the splendid work you and your men did yesterday. It was magnificently done. I am afraid you suffered very heavily, but you must remember that such work as that cannot be done for the Empire without loss.’

Sir George later wrote of the action:

‘At 5 pm Lieutenant Colonel C W Park arrived at Waggon Hill with three companies 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment, which I had ordered up as a reinforcement, and was at once directed by Colonel Hamilton to turn the enemy off the ridge with the bayonet.  The Devons dashed forward and gained a position under cover within 50 yards of the enemy. Here a fire-fight ensued; but the Devons were not to be denied, and eventually, cheering as they pushed from point to point, they drove the enemy not only off the plateau, but cleared every Boer out of the lower slopes and the dongas surrounding the position.  Lieutenant Colonel Park went into action with four officers, but he alone remained untouched at the close.  The total loss of the Devons was nearly 28 per cent of those engaged, and the men fired only 12 rounds per rifle.’

Though sadly endless cuts and amalgamations mean the Devonshire Regiment is no more, ‘Wagon Hill Day’ became a red letter day in their calendar. In 1981, for example, when the regiment (which had already amalgamated to become the Devon and Dorsets by then) was based in Colchester, it was noted that:

‘Wagon Hill Day was celebrated in the traditional way with the Warrant Officers and Sergeants thrashing the Officers at rugby, followed by drinks for all in the Officers’ Mess and the Warrant Officers staying for a Dinner Night’.

 

NOTES:

[i] In comparison to the likes of Colenso and Magersfontein, neither of these battles at Ladysmith are terribly well known. This is probably because the Boers lost them both and such realities do not fit well with the modern-day myths which have re-invented the war as an un-ending series of British defeats

[ii] Later General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton, GCB, GCMG, DSO, TD (1853 – 1947). Hamilton had served with distinction on the NW Frontier and had already seen action against the Boers at Majuba in 1881 and more recently at Elandslaagte, where he had led the 7th Brigade to victory. He would go on to command the Expeditionary Force landed in the Dardanelles in 1915

[iii] These nick-names of Wagon Hill and Caesar’s Camp had been given to the hills by the Tommies who had been reminded of similar features near Aldershot. The British named the action ‘The Battle of Wagon Hill’, though this is often spelt ‘Waggon Hill’ in contemporary accounts. The Boers referred to the action as ‘The Battle of the Platrand’

[iv] King’s Royal Rifle Corps, also often referred to by their old name of ‘the 60th Rifles’. Unusually for the time, the KRRC had four regular battalions, rather than the normal two. After various amalgamations, the KRRC now exist as a battalion of The Rifles

[v] Schalk Willem Burger (1852-1918).  Burger served in several of the Transvaal’s wars of expansion and also the First Boer War. He was elected the Commandant of the Lydenburg Commando in 1885, and fought at Spion Kop as well as Wagon Hill. In March 1900, with Kruger fleeing South Africa, Burger served as the acting President of the South African Republic

[vi] Robert James Thomas Digby-Jones (1876 – 1900). Born in Edinburgh, Digby-Jones was educated at Sedbergh and Woolwich before being commissioned into the Royal Engineers. His VC is displayed at the Royal Engineers Museum in Chatham

[vii] Conan-Doyle described Major Wallnut-Miller of being ‘a man cast in the mould of a berserk Viking’

[viii] The medal was not awarded posthumously at the time, but the two VCs were granted when the rule was changed in 1902

[ix] Lieutenant Masterton was awarded the VC for his extreme gallantry during the charge, having volunteered to cross some open ground to deliver a message to the ILH who were firing in support of the Devons. Sprinting about a hundred yards under heavy fire, Masterton was shot 10 times, including through both thighs, but he crawled into the trenches of the Lighthorsemen and delivered the message

[x] Both Lt. Field and Capt. Lafone were killed in the charge, and were buried in the cemetery in Ladysmith

[xi] Hurriedly raised in the days immediately prior to the Boer invasions, there were no modern rifles available to equip the Imperial Light Horse, and they had to make do with single-shot ‘Martini-Metfords’

[xii] Lt. Colonel William Henry Dick-Cunyngham VC (1851 – 1900). Born in Edinburgh, Dick-Cunyngham won his VC in Afghanistan in 1879. His VC is on display at the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen

1 Comment

  • Damian O’Connor Posted January 6, 2018 2:25 pm

    Excellent account

Add Comment

Leave a Reply to Damian O'Connor Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *