This month in history - Battle of Elandslaagte

The Battle of Elandslaagte was an early battle of the Second Boer War between 2,000 British soldiers and 1,000 Boers of the Johannesburg Commando. It was a victory for the British, but the position proved vulnerable to attack, and the British were forced to retreat just a few days later.

On 18 October 1899, Boer forces from the Transvaal and Orange Free State invaded the British colony of Natal, along the north-western border. By the next day, Boer forward patrols had seized the Elandslaagte railway station and had severed telegraph communications between the towns of Dundee and Ladysmith.

Major General Sir John French immediately ordered a reconnaissance party to check the area. When news reached him that the position was occupied, it was decided that it had to be cleared to re-establish communications with Dundee.

Early in the morning of 21 October, French ordered the railway station to be shelled, but the Boers returned fire with frightening accuracy, and French’s small force of Natal Mounted Rifles, Natal Field Artillery and Imperial Light Horse were forced to retreat. Reinforcements were called for, and the 1st Manchesters, 1st Devonshires and 2nd Gordon Highlanders were swiftly brought forward.

By 3pm, the British army, consisting of about 2,000 men, advanced in the blistering heat. The Boers numbered around 1,000, and with only 3 heavy guns, were heavily outgunned by the 18 operated by the British.

French decided on a 3-pronged assault. The Devonshires were sent against the Boer right flank in a frontal assault. To the right of the Devonshires, the Manchester Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders were sent to sweep around the Boer’s southern flank. Between them, the artillery would keep up a bombardment of the Boer positions. The Imperial Light Horse rushed forward to join the flank attack.

The Boer line was totally broken. Those who did not surrender fled back towards their camp and attempted to escape, only to be caught and cut down by the Imperial Light Horse.

During the battle, Victoria Crosses were awarded to Captain Matthew Meiklejohn and Sergeant Major William Robertson, both of the Gordon Highlanders (Gazette issue 27212). Captains Mullins and Johnstone of the Imperial Light Horse were also awarded Victoria Crosses (Gazette issue 27283).

Elandslaagte was one of the few battles in the Second Boer War where the Boers suffered the heavier casualties. British losses were 55 dead and 205 wounded. Boer losses were approximately 46 dead, 105 wounded and 181 missing or taken prisoner. However, the informal nature of much of the Boer military structure means that casualty figures can only ever be a best guess.

When, 2 days later, Sir George White received incorrect information to the effect that a vastly superior force of Boers under General Joubert were fast approaching Elandslaagte, an order was given to fall back on Ladysmith, thereby nullifying the British victory. You can read about the battle and the withdrawal in Gazette issue 27282.