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The Refights
The Re-fight of Elandslaagte, 6 November 1999

The second battle of the Anglo-Boer War was fought at a station called Elandslaagte, between Dundee and Ladysmith, on 21 October 1899. Just over a hundred years later, this historic battle was re-fought by a group of wargamers from the Peninsula Wargames group, Cape Town. On the morning of Saturday, 6 November 1999, Craig Nevin, Damian Enslin, and Johan Schoeman gathered at the historic old farmhouse behind Simons Town, built in 1811, where Johan set up the terrain for Elandslaagte in his private bar on the pool table. The rules were, as in the previous re-fight, 'Gone to Earth', a set of 6mm Boer War rules drawn up over the past two years in preparation for the centenary of the Boer War.

Craig Nevin, aka 'General French', to the left with Damian Enslin (Generaal Kock).

The battlefield.

Craig was to be General French, the commander of the British Forces despatched by Sir G. White from Ladysmith to restore the lines of communication between Ladysmith and Dundee, which was cut by Boer forces the previous day. The Boer forces, under Damian, as Generaal Kock, had an entire day to prepare their positions around Elandslaagte. Although few in number, only about 850 men comprising of 300 men of the German Korps, 250 men of the Hollander Korps, 200 men of the Johannesburg Kommando, 100 men of the Vrede Kommando, two 75mm guns and one Pom-Pom, they were to put up a formidable resistance. Johan, as always, was the umpire.

The view from the south-west corner of the table, looking towards Woodcote Farm to the left and the station on the horizon to the right.

The view from the south-west towards the north-east. The koppies south-east of the station is clearly visible in the distance.

To explain how it came to being that such a small element of the Boer force found themselves between the 4000 strong British force at Dundee, under General Yule, and the 8000 strong garrison of Ladysmith, it is necessary to examine events prior to this. An advance to Elandslaagte was by no means comprised within Generaal Joubert's cautious plan of operations. The positions assigned to Generaal Kock by that plan was the mouth of the Mkupe Pass, by which the old Ladysmith-Newcastle road crosses the Biggarsberg, from where his burghers could carry out raids on the railway, harass the flank of any force moving from Ladysmith to Dundee or vice versa, and prevent any British attempt to send a mounted force round the Boer right to cut the railway communications between Newcastle and Dannhauser. Leaving Newcastle on the 18th of October, 1899, Genraal Kock with his main force reached the Biggarsberg Pass the next afternoon, Two patrols of about a hundred men each, under Colonel Schiel and Veldkornet Pienaar of the Fordsburg Kommando, had, however, ridden some distance ahead to reconnoiter as far as the Sunday's River. Finding no enemy they had pushed on and held up a supply train at Elandslaagte station. Instead of retiring after this success, as Colonel Schiel wished to do, Pienaar at once sent back a despatch rider Generaal Kock to say that he was in an excellent position and to ask for reinforcements. Reluctantly, without orders from Generaal Joubert, Genraal Kock ordered the greater part of his force to saddle up and ride to Elandslaagte. The next day, he selected a strong position for his guns and a laager on some heights over a mile southeast of Elandslaagte station, where his men slept for the most of the day. In the evening they held a smoking concert in the little hotel, to which even the English prisoners captured with the supply train, were invited. "God Save the Queen" and the Transvaal "Volkslied" were sung with equal impartiality.

A closer view of the koppies to the south-east of the station.

A closer view of Elandslaagte station.

Back in the game, 'General French' was issued his orders, and while studying it, 'Generaal Kock' was marking all his prepared positions and the position of all the burghers and the laager on the map. In order to deploy skirmishers on the ridges in from of the koppies, the umpire gave permission to have three of the 6-figure Boer bases cut in half to be deployed as smaller 60-men skirmishing groups. The Boer player only had eight six-figure bases each representing 120 men to begin with, so this helped cover a bigger area

By 10:55 am, real time, the first bound of the game was started, as the first British units arrived from the south-west. Battle time was 8.30 am. General French, after leaving Ladysmith at 4 am, led 5 squadrons of Imperial Light Horse under Col. Scott-Chisholme, 1 squadron of 5th Lancers under Captain Parker, and the Natal Field artillery (six 7-pounders) onto the batllefield to the west of the railway line.

The arrival of the British. The limbers of a section the Natal Field Artillery can be seen crossing the railway line, with a squadron of ILH supporting the others.

Three squadrons of ILH advancing towards the ridges between the railway line and the hills, as the first Boer position is revealed on a ridge directly in front of them.

Three squadrons of the Imperial Light Horse were ordered to cross the railway line to the east and reconnoitre the ridges between the railway and the koppies south-east of Elandslaagte, while the remaining two squadrons were to remain in support of the guns. Two sections of two guns each were unlimbering to the west of the road leading towards the station, covering the advance towards it. The remaining two guns were ordered to cross the railway line and support the actions of the ILH. The squadron of Lancers were to 'scout around the right flank of the Elandslaagte hills and to avoid combat'.

As the two guns of the Natal Field Artillery were crossing the railway line through the gap in the wire made by the earlier passage of the ILH, the southernmost squadron encountered the first opposition. Prepared positions on the ridge 500 yards ahead of them were identified as they rode in column towards the ridge. Before they could deploy into line a salvo of Mausers exploded in front of them, killing four men, and wounding five, including the squadron commander.

The Boer skirmishers firing on the column of ILH approaching their position.

The guns of the Natal Field Artillery opening up in support of the ILH.

The squadron immediately responded by dismounting and finding cover in the dead ground behind them. The two guns, having just crossed the railway line, immediately unlimbered and, having acquired the target, opened fire on the ridge, greatly relieving the pressure on the pinned squadron. It was 9.15 am, battle time, as the first shells exploded on the ridges.

Shells bursting on the positions of the Boer skirmishers while the dismounted ILH takes cover in the dead ground below the ridge.

The 5th Lancers carefully approaching a prepared position where the Boers did not reveal themselves as yet.

In the meantime, the squadron of 5th Lancers has been advancing eastwards even further south of the ILH, when they saw prepared positions on a ridge in front of them. Having heard the shots to the north-west, they were better prepared and changed formation to open order line as they carefully approached the positions. When the first shots rang out, nevertheless, eight men fell wounded, and they quickly retired to the dead ground below a ridge behind them, where they, without dismounting, returned sporadic fire.

The Boers in the first position had, before the first shells slammed home on their position, melted away, and despite the continuous bombardment, not suffered a single casualty. When the barrage lifted, and two squadrons of ILH, supported by two machine guns, stormed the positions, it was found empty and devoid of any enemy. They had simply disappeared! The ridge now belonged to the British, but they had not tasted real victory.

As the horsemen swarmed over the position, the northernmost of the three squadrons encountered another position on the ridge to the north which promptly cost them the lives of their squadron commander and five others, with five wounded. As they fell back to the ridge just cleared, four guns of the Natal Field Artillery plastered the position.

One of the squadrons on the cleared ridge mounted again and moved on towards the east, towards another as yet non-revealed position. There was no dead ground through which to approach this next ridge, and the British did so carefully, in open order. They were nonetheless surprised when a strong contingent of Boers, reinforced by the skirmishers that had fallen back from the first ridge, suddenly revealed themselves with a withering volume of fire down the slope. As the horsemen dismounted and tried to find cover, they took some casualties, four men killed and four wounded. It was 9.45 am, battle time. For the next 2 hours, they would be pinned here, while another group of Boers opened fire from their right flank, while they were powerless to return any effective fire.

The second Boer positions being bombarded by the Natal Field Artillery. Here the Boers were not so lucky to melt away.

The unlucky third squadron of ILH being pinned in the open by a reinforced contingent of Boers firing down into them.

The British guns were finding the mark as an officer of the German Korps was wounded and another man killed in the rain of steel on the Boer position, the first Boer casualties. This effectively pinned the sixty-odd Boers in the position while two squadrons of ILH, having dismounted and left their horses behind the previous ridge, moved in under cover of the dead ground, with their machine guns pouring fire into the position from their positions on the ridge behind.

Two sections of the Natal Field Artillery combining their fire on the Boer position.

The Boer position under fire, taking casualties, and being outflanked by two squadrons of dismounted ILH.

The Boers could not take any more. As soon as the bombardment lifted, at 10.30 am, the Boers fled down the reverse slope of the ridge, leaving the positions for the advancing light horsemen, who captured the position as an armoured train arrived on the battlefield from Ladysmith. With it, arrived British reinforcements in the form of four companies of the Manchester regiment under Colonel Curran, and the Railway and Telegraph Companies of Royal Engineers.

The armoured train arrives with reinforcements and a company of Railway engineers in a flatcar in front.

Victorious light horsemen occupying the vacated Boer positions on the ridge.

The train should have arrived at 8.30 am, but found the progress slow as the engineers had to first clear every section of rail in case of breaks in the line, before allowing the train to proceed. French let the train steam on ahead towards Elandslaagte until the station was in sight, accompanied by a squadron of ILH which was kept in reserve to support the guns. As the station came into view, the train stopped and the four companies of infantry dismounted on the left side of the train, away from the enemy. Immediately French had the Telegraph Engineers check the telegraph line towards Ladysmith, and upon finding it operational, had the following message telegraphed to Sir G. White in Ladysmith:

'Time now 11am STOP Elandslaagte in sight STOP 500 Boers driven off prepared positions STOP Casualties low STOP Will occupy EL by early afternoon STOP'

Amazingly, no request for reinforcements was made! French must have been confident indeed, considering the small number of casualties he inflicted on the enemy. He could not have been aware of the casualties the pinned squadron of Imperial Light Horse was suffering, as by the time they could successfully withdraw, at about 12 PM, they had already suffered an additional nine men killed and twelve wounded.

The train moving towards Elandslaagte before stopping and offloading the infantry.

The infantry (bareley seen in the distance) moving out towards Jonono's Kop , supported by the squadron of Imperial Light Horse.

Colonel Curran led the four companies disgorged by the train in an open order line formation toward Jonono's Kop in the north-west and Woodcote farm without encountering any opposition, with the two squadrons of ILH in support. As the Railway Engineers were clearing the railway line in front of the train moving slowly towards Elandslaagte, disaster struck. A 75mm Boer gun from the hills south-east of the station opened up and scored a direct hit on the locomotive.

A company of Manchesters clearing the slopes of the koppie leading to Woodcote's farm. No Boers were encountered.

A company of Manchesters clearing a Boer position supported by the ILH. The detachment of Boers in this position had retired orderly towards the station. Smoke is bellowing from the stricken locomative on the right while engineers struggle to repair the damage.

This clearly shook French, despite the success his infantry had in clearing off another detachment of Boers holding a ridge to the north-west of the railway line and occupying Woodcote's farm unopposed.

He telegraphed White:

'Time 12 PM STOP Train hit by Boer Artillery STOP Badly damaged STOP Boer Artillery hindering advance STOP Bring up Artillery STOP'

Another direct hit on the locomotive, while the engineers were repairing the damage from the previous hit, resulted in more damage, killing 8 engineers, wounding another as well as the officer in command of the engineers. But they were relentless. While another gun from the hills opened up on them, they managed to repair the locomotive so that it could proceed with its precarious journey to the station by 1 PM. However, this cost the engineers another officer and engineer wounded with three more killed.

The locomotive taking another hit as the engineers struggle to repair the damage.

Smoke bellowing from the stricken locomotive while near misses slam into the ground around it. A section of Natal Field Artillery is moving up behind the train.

By this time the two sections of Natal Field Artillery have limbered up and was deploying on the ridge only just cleared of Boers on the north-west side of the railway line. The remaining section was having trouble moving across difficult terrain to the right of the railway line.

Two squadrons of Imperial Light Horse ran into trouble while demonstrating against Boer positions between the station and the hills, losing a total of eight men killed and eighteen wounded. Almost simultaneously with this, the Boers hit a machine gun crew covering the advance of the ILH from the cleared ridges, with withering fire from the flank, killing eight of the ten crew. The remainder of the crew managed to limber up the gun and withdraw towards dead ground. The ILH withdrew out of range of the Boer rifles as well, which led French to decide to change tactics.

The ILH demonstrating against Boer positions between the station and the hills. Notice the barbed wire fences on this side of the road.

Boer positions identified at the edge of a donga in front of the hills.

As it became apparent that all the Boer skirmishers were rapidly falling back towards the hills south-east of the station, all the mounted troops were recalled to regroup in the dead ground between the two ridges to the right of the railway line. It was clear that the Boers were well entrenched on the hills and the area between the hills and the station. Barbed wire fences lined the sides of the road leading to the hills. French decided to outflank the position by sending the infantry around the Boer's right flank through the station itself, while the bulk of the mounted troops ride hard around the left flank of the Boer positions on the hills. All of this was to be supported by the guns, of which four were deployed on the outcrop to the west of the station and the railway line, and the remaining two next to the train on the plain between the line and the ridges.

Prepared Boer positions on the hills. The British decided to outflank rather that face these positions in a front attack.

The mounted troops of the ILH and Lancers moving out from the dead ground between the ridges.

By 1pm the troops moved out once again. The locomotive was repaired and ready to proceed. As the four guns of the Natal Field Artillery on the western ridge prepared to bombard the Boer positions on the hills, the two Boer guns found the range first as two shells slammed into the position of the gunners, wounding eight men. But the Boer guns had given away their position and as soon as they could, the 7-pounders replied with deadly effect, hitting a Boer gun, killing one man and wounding another. The guns was not silenced, however, as the guns shifted aim to the train that was slowly moving ahead to the station again. A well aimed shot slammed into the flat car containing the engineers in from of the locomotive, killing another six engineers and wounding three.

French sent another telegram to White:

‘Time 1 PM STOP Reinforcements required STOP Enemy entrenched behind barbed wire STOP'

It is curious that he only considered calling for reinforcements this late, as he should have been aware that reinforcements would have taken between three to four hours to arrive. Any planned assault would be too late to execute with dusk approaching, resulting in him not achieving his objective to restore communication by nightfall.

The Natal Field Artillery being hit by the Boer guns.

The Manchesters advancing on the station with a squadron of ILH leading with a machine gun in support.

Three companies of Manchesters formed up and advanced in open order line towards the station, with the Imperial Light Horse leading. A machine gun was sent in support. By 1.30 PM they reached the station having lost only one officer and seven men killed, and fifteen wounded. The Boers have fallen back on their prepared positions between the station and the hill.

The engineers in the flat car taking a direct hit from the Boer Artillery.

The final approach to the station.

Three squadrons of ILH and the Lancers had moved out eastward, supported by two machine guns. They rode hard through the dead ground and found all the previous positions occupied by the Boers deserted except for a few skirmishers to the south of their passage. These they evaded and broke through to the east of the battlefield, approaching the hills from the south.

The formidable Boer position between the station and the hills with the barbed wire fences in front.

The mounted troops pouring through a gap in the Boer skirmish line toward the east.

It was approaching 2 PM, battle time. The Boers were clearly in trouble, as the train steamed into the now secured station, and the infantry of the Manchesters advanced on the now exposed right flank of the Boers. Their trenches were facing the wrong way, and with a strong enemy to their flank, the Boers fell back to the hills, which was by now taking a pounding from the combined onslaught of the Natal Field Artillery. Their guns were ineffective due to the bombardment and they were rapidly being outmanoeuvred on both flanks.

The British infantry threatening the exposed flank of the Boer positions.

The Boer gun on the hill being suppresed.

It was impossible to move any of the guns to a better position due to the bombardment and the wild terrain. A vain attempt was made to move the Pom-Pom to the eastern side of the hill to support the burghers against the rapidly approaching mounted troops and their machine guns, but is was very apparent that it was too late.

The British mounted troops riding hard to outflank the Boer left.

A closer view of the mounted troops with the machine gun at the right.

Things were happening too fast for the Boers as the mounted troops swept past the easternmost position of the Boers with the Boers only putting up a token resistance resulting in very few casualties on the British side. The Boer Laager at the farm behind the hills were now directly threatened by the advancing British with no Boers in between to oppose them.

The British infantry reach the donga at the foot of the hills from the west with no prepared positions facing them.

The Boers being kept under pressure by the British Artillery.

Generaal Kock realised that the battle was lost and that he was powerless to prevent both his Laager being captured and his burghers being cut off. He succumbed to defeat and surrendered with all his men, having lost a mere 2 men killed and three wounded.

The Mounted Troops riding past the Boer left, virtually unopposed, with a single base of Boers pouring sporadic fire into them.

The view from the hillside where the Boers had fallen back to with the British Infantry advancing in open order and with machine gun support. This was the final position of the British before the Boers surrendered.

This saved the bulk of the burghers from the lot that befell their historic counterparts in the real battle. On 21 October, 1899, at Elandslaagte, the Boers suffered a decisive defeat, losing 45 killed and 110 wounded with 188 taken prisoner. It was during this battle, as the Boers were withdrawing, that the British Lancers and Dragoons caught them in the flank with their lances and sabres. The charge lasted for over a mile, before they rallied and galloped back through the Boers again, resulting in many instances and reports of cruelty and bloodthirsty 'pig-sticking' as the cavalry squadrons wheeled about and charged again. This caused the greatest terror and resentment among the Boers, who vowed that they would kill any and all Lancers whom they captured.

The British losses in the re-fight were not as slight as the Boer losses, with 2 officers killed and 4 wounded, 46 men killed and 86 wounded.

General French achieved a decisive victory with very few resources available to him, considering that Colonel Ian Hamilton was standing by in Ladysmith with two more squadrons of Cavalry, 2 batteries of Field Artillery, and 12 companies of Infantry. All French had to do was call for reinforcements and these forces would have arrived within three to four hours.

As it was, the Boers obviously never had a chance, with 850 men to cover such a vast area while the British could concentrate their forces on any point. In the beginning of the game, the Boers very effectively covered every access the British tried. But for some reason that effectiveness faltered as the game dragged on, resulting in huge gaps in the skirmish line as the Boer skirmishers started falling back, thereby allowing the British a gap to outmanoeuvre them. A few bases of Boers were cut off from their main lines and could therefore not contribute to the main line of defence. As it was, some 360 Boers of the original 850 were deployed as skirmishers of which less than half made it back to the main lines. If it was possible for the Boer skirmishers to prevent a break-through and gradually fall back to more concentrated main positions after delaying the British as much as possible, they might have prevented the British from occupying Elandslaagte before nightfall. If, however, the British reinforcements would have had arrived in time, nothing would have prevented them from achieving their objective! Well played, Damian! Let anyone try to do better against such odds!

Using only 1400 men out of a possible 3500, French, however, managed to economically achieve an impressive victory, an outstanding feat indeed, worthy of the future commander of the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War! Congratulations, Craig! Well done!

The players were all exhausted by the time the game ended after seven hours, at about 6 PM. But all left looking forward to the next battle!

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