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The Refights
The Re-fight of Talana Hill, 23 October 1999

The Anglo Boer War’s first major battle occurred on the 20th October 1899, at a little coal-mining town called Dundee, just north of Ladysmith. To commemorate the battle, a group of wargamers from the Peninsula Wargames Group in Cape Town, decided to re-fight the battle, using a locally designed set of rules specifically drawn up for the Boer War, called ‘Gone To Earth’. The idea was to play-test the new rules and identify changes to it while re-fighting an actual battle. It led to an exciting game that lasted nearly six hours and nearly got the members in trouble with their spouses. If it weren’t for the Word Cup rugby game starting at 17h00, the re-fight would have probably been played to its conclusion. As it was, the final move was called at 15h45, with the Boers having the advantage because they took occupation of Dundee. 

The view towards Impati mountain looking north-west over the town of Dundee. The British camp is in the foreground to the left (or west) of the town.

The view from the same position towards the north-east, with Talana Hill in the center and Lennox Hill on the right. Smith’s farm is in front of Talana Hill. The stonewalls between the tree-line at Smith’s farm and Talana Hill played a significant role in the actual battle.

 The players were: Paul Gouws as General Penn Symons, Commander-In-Chief of the 4500 strong British force at Dundee, Craig Nevin as Generaal ‘Maroela’ Erasmus, the commander of the 4000 Boers approaching from the North, and Damian Enslin as Generaal Lucas Meyer, commanding some 3500 Boers approaching from the East.

 Johan Schoeman, who was also hosting the game at his house, was umpiring. After setting up the terrain the previous night, and the players having all arrived by 09h30 on Saturday morning of the 23rd October, the fight was set to begin.

 Orders and briefings to the individual commanders were issued and they actively set about organizing their forces. There was to be no direct communication between the two Boer commanders as their forces approached the terrain laid out on the table with map-based movement. Battle time was 04h00, 20 October 1899! 

The view from the west looking east towards Talana Hill from the base of Impati mountain. The building in the foreground is the church.

The players: From left to right: Paul Gouws (Genl Symons), Craig Nevin (Genl Erasmus), and Damian Enslin (Genl Meyer).

 

The Boer forces approaching from the East was first on the table, but was immediately heard by the British picket (a company of Dublin Fusiliers) posted on the top of Lennox Hill. They could not determine the size of the approaching force, but nonetheless dispatched a messenger back to the base camp a mile West of Dundee. Generaal Meyer’s force was split into two parts, with the Utrecht, Wakkerstroom, Krugersdorp and Ermelo commandos approaching Talana Hill with four guns, and the Vryheid, Middelburg, Piet Retief, and Bethal commandos approaching Lennox Hill with 2 guns.

 Unaware that they have been heard, the Boers continued their approach, with the first group occupying Talana Hill by 05h30. The second group, however, ran into trouble, when the British picket on Lennox Hill opened up with a salvo of rifle fire at about 05h00 while the Boers were dismounting at the foot of Lennox Hill. This salvo was, however, ineffective, and not a single Boer was hit. The Boers immediately spread out and started moving up the hill in a very extended formation, fully utilizing the available cover of the rocky hillside.

 In the meantime, the British camp was awoken by Reveille and like every morning, paraded at 05h00 on the parade ground for roll-call and a morning service by the Reverend. They remained utterly unaware of the drama playing itself out on Lennox Hill because of the distance involved (some three miles away). The Commander-In Chief, General Symons, was well informed about the Boer movement, but had the arrogant viewpoint that his brigade of infantry, supported by three field batteries (some 18 guns) as well as a regiment of Hussars and four companies of mounted infantry, would beat off any number of untrained Boer farmers.

 It wasn’t before 05h30, after the camp had been dismissed from parade, that the lone messenger from Lennox Hill arrived with the news that a force of Boers were approaching Talana and Lennox Hills. At this time, all the guns were unlimbered and the horses were being watered. The troops were about to enjoy their breakfast.

 Generaal Erasmus, who was approaching from the North, reached the table area at 04h30 and immediately dismounted on the north side of Impati mountain and ascended the mountain. When they reached the summit at about 05h00, the sun was just rising in the east, with the British assembling for parade. Unaware of the excellent opportunity presented by the parading British, they advanced across the summit of Impati, and was heard by two separate pickets (two companies, one from the King’s Royal Rifles, and the other from the Leicestershire Regiment, individually deployed on the summit of Impati on the eastern-most extension of the mountain). The Boers was approaching spread out over the entire summit, with the Pretoria, Heidelberg and Boksburg commandos next to each other from west to east. The Boksburg commando stumbled across the first picket, which immediately opened fire, not hitting a single Boer. Elements of the commando immediately proceeded with a token charge, which unnerved the company of Rifles enough due to the sheer number of Boers, to start retiring down the mountain. The Leicestershires stood their ground and started firing into the Boers who was moving into the dead ground between the easternmost spur and the rest of the mountain. The Boers reached the dead ground immediately below the crest of the spur where the Leicestershires were deployed without any casualties by about 06h00. This group was made up of the Heidelberg commando who was set to drive the picket from their position. The Pretoria commando proceeded their advance down the southern slope of Impati, their objective being the church in the valley below.

 The fighting on top of Impati was also not heard by the unsuspecting British in the camp below, as both pickets neglected to dispatch messengers to the camp to notify General Symons, who only became aware of the Boer presence on Impati when one of his staff officers noticed the mass of men moving across the mountain by 06h00.

 General Symons immediately set about to split his force in two to meet both Boer advances, with his Infantry Brigade Commander, General Yule, taking command of the remainder of the King’s Royal Rifles and the Leicestershire regiment to advance and meet the Boer advance from the north, and himself taking the Dublins and Irish Fusiliers to the east towards Talana Hill. Two companies of mounted infantry were dispatched to ride hard to the Northwest to occupy and hold the church in the valley below Impati. Two guns from the 13th Field Battery was ordered to follow them as soon as possible with a squadron of Hussars in support. The rest of the Hussars were to ride towards Lennox Hill to delay the Boer advance towards Dundee. Battle time was now 06h30, 20 October 1899.

 The Boers on Talana Hill had in the mean time spread out over the extend of the hill and was overlooking Smith’s farm and Dundee and could clearly see the British camp where all the troops were forming up in columns to march out. By this time, 06h30, the Boer guns on Talana was deployed and readying to fire, which they promptly did. As the first shells crashed into the British camp, consternation was caused amongst the British gun crews when the first shot claimed the life of the officer commanding of the 69th Battery, Maj Wing, and two of his men, severely wounding a third.

 The Dublin Fusiliers picket on Lennox Hill was suffering severely from the onslaught of the Boer commandos advancing up Lennox Hill. The effect of two thousand Mausers pouring a continuous fire into their position was taking its toll. By 07h00, the Dublins could take no more, having suffered 98 casualties (2 officers killed and 4 wounded, 30 men killed, and 62 wounded) out of the original picket of 120. Most died from head wounds as their helmeted heads were silhouetted against the sky when they tried to answer the fire. The few survivors panicked and broke when the Boers made a final charge, making a headlong rush towards the stream bed below the Hill (which was by now held by the dismounted Hussars who reached the stream only a few minutes before), while the Boers triumphantly occupied the hill, dragging their two guns up the reverse slope to deploy them menacingly pointing towards Dundee and the British camp beyond.

 The consternation in the British camp was added to when four Boer guns which by now was deployed on Impati mountain also opened up with deadly accurate fire on the batteries deploying just outside the camp, the 69th again taking the most casualties and a gun being disabled. While Boer shells rained on them, the brave gunners of the 69th deployed the remaining five guns just east of the camp facing the Boer guns on Talana Hill. The six guns of the 67th was deployed outside and to the north of the camp, facing Impati, in order to neutralize the Boer guns there. The remaining four guns of the 13th was deployed west of the 67th, also facing north, in order to bombard the advancing Boers coming down from Impati mountain, threatening the church.

 As to the lot of the pickets on Impati mountain, the Rifles took heavy casualties while retiring down the eastern slope of the mountain, with the Boers promptly occupying commanding positions on the crest and firing down on the retreating company. The Rifles lost their company commander and seventeen men killed and 27 more wounded (out of the original 120), but made it to the cover of the river banks of the Sand river south-east of the mountain, thoroughly disoriented, but relieved where they were eventually joined by the two battalions led by General Yule. The Leicestershires out on the spur of the mountain were relatively protected by the crest of the narrow spur that prevented them from firing effectively at the Boers of the Heidelberg commando. But they were rapidly surrounded and outnumbered when the Boksburg commando whom just drove the Rifles off the mountain, occupied the Rifles’ positions and threatened the flanks of the Leicestershires. As heavy fire was poured into their positions, combined with a determined attack from the Heidelbergers, the Leicestershires were forced to give up their position, withdrawing in good order down the south-eastern slope of the mountain, but leaving 5 killed (including the company commander) and 20 wounded to the tender mercies of the Boers. The Boers had occupied Impati mountain and both Talana and Lennox Hills, thereby commanding all the high ground of the terrain. Two more guns were deployed on the spur of the mountain, bring the total number of guns there to six. It was now 07h15.

 The two companies of mounted infantry had reached the church below Impati unscathed, dismounted, and while one company occupied the church building, the other extended their line to the east of the building and tried to take advantage of the scant cover they could find. By now the Boers of the Pretoria commando was pouring down the slope of the mountain towards the church, while maintaining a heavy fire on the position. Soon the two new Boer guns added their noise to the din when they rained their destruction on the church building. Seven mounted infantrymen were killed and seven more were wounded in this hail of steel. The Boers of the Pretoria commando was now within rifle range of the church building south of Impati. A salvo from the Hussars crashed out which killed two Boers, the first Boer casualties of the battle! It was 07h30.

 As the British guns finally swung into action, returning concentrated fire on the identified Boer guns, the Irish Fusiliers and the Dublins under General Symons had just advanced through the town and was leaving the protection of the tree line to the east of Dundee, when the Boer guns once again found its mark. But then disaster struck! Shells from the two guns on the eastern slope of Impati slammed into the tightly packed column of the Irish Fusiliers leading the advance, killing seven men and wounding four others. One officer was fatally wounded: General Symons himself. As he dropped from his horse, the officers of the two battalions under his command was gripped in indecisiveness and a valuable half an hour was lost while the officers conferred amongst each other as to what they should do. Symons never communicated his plan of attack to any of them! Finally, only by 08h00, while shells were still raining on them, the order was given to extend into positions lining the riverbed of the Sandspruit stream running north-south to the east of the town. The Irish took more casualties: three men killed and six wounded, but fortunately no more officers. 

The Dublins and Irish Fusiliers taking hits from the Boer guns as they approach Dundee. Notice the British guns still limbered in the camp on the left and the two battalions under Genl. Yule approaching the donga on the top left.

The Pretoria commando driven back from the church by a charge from the Hussars. The mounted infantry is deployed in and to the right of the building.

 While this tragedy was playing itself out, an ironic event happened that nearly brought the Boers disaster. Generaal ‘Maroela’ Erasmus, in his infinite wisdom, decided to mislead the British by dispatching a young, slow-thinking Boer with a message for Generaal Meyer, which indicated that four commandos were resting at Dr Schult’s farm Northeast of the battlefield. Erasmus sent the messenger over the clearing between Impati mountain and Talana Hill, hoping that the young man would be captured and mislead the British into splitting up their force even more, thereby weakening their flanks where the real threat existed. Unfortunately for him, the messenger actually made it through without being captured and dutifully delivered the message to General Meyer, who was greatly relieved to know that more reinforcements were available. Upon discovering that the information was incorrect, and realizing that the message was in English, he promptly had the messenger shot as a spy.

 When the Irish Fusiliers and the Dublins disappeared into the relative protection of the stream-bed east of the town, four Boer guns on Impati as well as four guns on Talana hill shifted their fire back to the 69th Battery, which left a second British gun disabled, two more officers wounded, five more men killed, and thirty-three wounded.

 The picket of the Irish Fusiliers stationed in the trees at Smith’s farm remained undetected, even as the Boers on Talana hill started moving down the forward slope of Talana. Two more Boer guns had by now been deployed on Lennox Hill and added their destruction, while the Boers started advancing down Lennox hill as well, threatening the group of Hussars in the stream-bed below the hill.

 Simultaneously the Boers of the Boksburg and Heidelberg commandos moved down the southern slope of the Impati mountain, but despite their extended formation, made good targets for the guns of the 67th and 13th battery, which was firing alternatively at the Boer guns to try and silence them, and the exposed Boers moving down the mountain. By now the Rifles and Leicesterhires under General Yule took up positions in the river-bed of the Sand River running east-west with the two retreating pickets from Impati joining them. They readied themselves to meet the advance of some 2000 Boers stealthily moving down the slope of the mountain towards them. The guns of the 13th and the 67th were finding their mark as the ten guns blasted away at the slopes. A veldkornet and nine burghers of the Boksburg commando were wounded, and seven burghers were killed during this firestorm. A Boer gun on Impati was also silenced when it took a direct hit, killing its commander and wounding nine others. The Heidelberg commando took its first casualties when two veldkornets and twenty-seven burghers were wounded. The time was 08h30.

The British guns blasting away from the outside of the camp.

The effect of the British guns: the Boksburg commando taking casualties as they advance down the slope.

 

The two guns of the 13th battery sent to support the dismounted mounted infantry at the church was already unlimbered just south of the building and opened up on the Pretoria commando threatening to outflank the position. The squadron of Hussars charged at the oncoming Boers on the western side of the church, which scattered the Boers, forcing them to retire a few hundred yards. This attack, combined with supporting rifle fire from the mounted infantry in the church as well as the two guns, left three more burghers killed and twelve wounded, but not without taking its toll from the Hussars, as well. Three men were killed and nine wounded, but they managed to stop the Pretoria commando in its tracks.

 As playing time was fast running out (it being 15h30 in the real time), a last bound was called so that the players could all retire to watch the rugby. Battle time was 09h00. Generaal Meyer had not lost a single burgher killed or wounded as he started advancing on the British in the river beds below Talana and Lennox hills. The road to Dundee was wide open, and he ordered the Piet Retief commando under Kommandant Engelbrecht, which remained in reserve and mounted behind the hills, to ride hard towards Dundee and occupy the town. The British infantry pinned in the river bed on either side of the road leading into Dundee was powerless to stop the four-hundred Boers as they rode through the gap into Dundee, ready to dismount and threaten the rear of the British infantry. Only the guns of the 69th Battery was between them and the camp, but the Boers would not easily risk a frontal charge into firing guns.

 The occupation of Dundee was a definite but temporary advantage for the Boers, as the British would have found it difficult to hold their positions in the riverbeds to the north and east of the town against the massing Boers approaching them with the little group pouring fire in their rear. This would have forced the British to fall back on the town in strength, which would have been disastrous for the little group of burghers occupying Dundee (they would simply have been forced to retire before the superior force into the field of fire of the British Guns). As it was, with the battle far from decided, the umpire declared an advantage for the Boers because of their occupation of Dundee during the last move. All the players agreed that the fight could still go either way, depending on the time allowed for play, as it was still very early in the day (09h00).

 The British lost 6 officers and 85 men killed, with 10 officers and 175 men wounded. The Boer losses were slight compared to the British, with 1 officer and 12 burghers killed, and 4 officers and 57 burghers wounded.







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