Friday 27th of December 2002 11:36 AM 
 
 
General C.R. De Wet's Three Years War - Chapter 3

CHAPTER III
Ladysmith Besieged

The Orange Free State and the South African Republic held a joint council of war on the first of November, and it was then decided to lay siege to Ladysmith.

We also agreed to send out a horse-commando in the direction of Estcourt. This commando, under Vice-General Louis Botha, had several skirmishes with the enemy. On the 15th of November he engaged an armoured train, capturing a hundred of the British troops. This was General Botha's chief exploit, and shortly afterwards he returned to camp. But I must not anticipate.

On the night of the council of war, General Piet Cronje was sent to occupy positions to the south and south-west of Ladysmith. He had with him the Heilbron burghers, a part of the commandos from Winburg and Harrismith, and two Krupp guns. On the following day a brush took place with the enemy, who, however, speedily fell back on Ladysmith. On the third, a few of their infantry regiments, with a thousand or fifteen hundred mounted troops, and two batteries of 15 and 12-pound Armstrong guns, marched out of the town in a south-westerly direction.

The English brought these two guns into position at such a distance from us that we could not reach them with the Mauser; nor would it have been safe for us to advance upon them, for between them and us lay an open plain, which would have afforded no cover. One of our guns, which was placed exactly in front of the enemy, did indeed begin to fire; but after a shot or two, it received so much attention from the English artillery that we were compelled—just as at Rietfontein—to desist.

The British infantry and cavalry did not show any excessive eagerness to tackle us; and we, on our side, were as disinclined to come to close quarters with them. Nevertheless, the enemy's infantry, backed up by the thunder of twelve guns, did make an attempt to reach us; but though they advanced repeatedly, they were for the most part careful to keep out of range of our rifles. When they neglected this precaution, they soon found themselves compelled to retire with loss.

Our second gun, which had been placed on a tafel-kop ( table-shaped mountain) to the east of the ground where the engagement was taking place, did excellent work. It effectually baulked the enemy's mounted troops in their repeated efforts to outflank us on that side, and also made it impossible for the English to bring their guns farther east, so as to command the tafel-kop. They did, indeed, make an attempt to place some guns between us and Platrand, which lay to the north of our eastern position, but it was unsuccessful, for our Krupp on the tafel-kop' brought such a heavy fire to bear on the troops and gunners, that they were forced to retire.

We, on our part, as I have already said, found it equally impossible to storm the English positions. To advance would have been to expose ourselves to the fire of their heavy guns, whereas an attack to the south would have involved exposure to a cross-fire from the guns on Platrand.

Altogether it was a most unsatisfactory engagement for us both. Nothing decisive was effected; and, as is always the case in such battles, little was done except by the big guns, which kept up a perpetual roar from ten in the morning until five in the afternoon. At that hour the British fell back on Ladysmith.

Our loss was one killed and six wounded, among the latter being Veldtcornet Marthinus Els, of Heilbron.

It was evident that the English did not escape without loss, but we were unable to ascertain its extent. My own opinion is that they did not lose very heavily.

From that day nothing of importance happened until I left Natal; though both the Transvaalers and Free State burghers had a few slight brushes with the enemy.

During the night of December the 7th, "Long Tom," the big Transvaal gun, which had been placed on Bulwana Hill, had been so seriously damaged by dynamite, that it had to remain out of action for some time. We all admitted that the English on that occasion acted with great skill and prudence, and that the courage of their leaders deserved every praise. Yet, if we had only been on our guard, we might have beaten off the storming party; but they had caught us unawares. Nevertheless, the mishap taught us a useful lesson: henceforth the Transvaal Commandants were more strict, and their increased severity had an excellent effect both on the burghers and gunners.

General Sir Redvers Buller had landed at Cape Town early in November. We were now expecting every day to hear that he had assumed the chief command over the English army encamped between Estcourt and Colenso. The number of troops there was continually increasing owing to the reinforcements which kept pouring in from over the ocean.

Great things were expected of Sir Redvers Buller, to whom the Boers, by a play of words, had given a somewhat disrespectful nick-name. He had not been long in Natal before his chance came. I must, however, be silent about his successes and his failures, for, as I left Natal on the 9th of December, I had no personal experience of his methods. But this I will say, that whatever his own people have to say to his discredit, Sir Redvers Buller had to operate against stronger positions than any other English general in South Africa.

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Further Reading

Howland, Frederick H. The Chase of De Wet. Providence; Preston & Rounds, 1901.

Intelligence Officer. On the Heels of De Wet. Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1902.

Murray, Colin. Black Mountain: Land, Class and Power in the Eastern Orange Free State, 1880s to 1980s. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
[See pp 53-4, p. 65, p. 247, pp. 53-4, 54-7, p. 265, Ch. 2.]

Reitz, Deneys. Commando: An Afrikaner Journal of the Boer War. NY: Sarpedon, 1993; orig pub 1929.