Relief of Ladysmith

Relief of Ladysmith

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Relief of Ladysmith

partof=Second Boer War
date=February 14-February 27, 1900
place=Colenso, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
result=British victory
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
combatant2=flagicon|Transvaal Transvaal
flagicon|Orange Free State Orange Free State
commander1=Redvers Buller
commander2=Louis Botha
strength1=c. 20,000, 50 guns
strength2=c. 5,000, 8 guns
casualties1=Unknown, over 500
The Relief of Ladysmith consisted of a series of military actions lasting from February 14 through February 27, 1900 in which General Sir Redvers Buller's British army forced Louis Botha's Boer army to lift the Siege of Ladysmith during the Second Boer War.


Buller's army made three earlier attempts to raise the Boer siege of Ladysmith. The battles of Colenso, Spion Kop and Vaal Krantz each resulted in embarrassing British defeats at the hands of Botha's army of Boer irregulars. In three months, British casualties rose to 3,400 men while Boer losses were much lower. On February 12, Buller ordered a fourth attempt to relieve Ladysmith. He hoped to exploit his ten-to-one superiority in artillery and four-to-one advantage in manpower. [Pakenham, p 374. This is the major source.]


The direct route to Ladysmith lay along the railroad, which ran mostly north and south. The railroad crossed the Tugela River at Colenso, ran along the north bank of the river, snaked between Railway and Pieters Hills and went on to Ladysmith. While their main defense was north of the river, the Boers also held a number of ridges south of the river and east of Colenso. The Tugela runs generally east to Colenso, but near the railroad bridge the river turns north, then northeast. Along the northeasterly stretch, the river and railroad are commanded by a series of hills which represented the Boer main line of defense.

The 500-foot high ridge of Hlangwane rose northeast of Colenso on the south bank and overlooked the railroad. During the Battle of Colenso, a British attack on Hlangwane was repulsed. Since that time, the Boers had greatly strengthened the ridge. With Hlangwane in his possession, Buller could safely cross at Colenso. To capture Hlangwane, Buller realized that he would first have to rout the Boers from all their positions south of the river. But even with the south bank in his possession, Buller would still have to fight through the Boer-held hills to the north on the river.

Battle on the south bank

On February 12, Lieutenant-Colonel Julian Byng led a reconnaisance in force to Hussar Hill, a position southeast of Colenso. The position fell on February 14 to Colonel the Earl of Dundonald's mounted brigade and 34 artillery pieces soon crowned Hussar Hill. With the support of the guns, Major-General Neville Lyttelton's 4th Infantry Division struck to the northeast on February 15. Cingolo Hill, to the northeast of Hussar Hill, fell next. On February 18 (Bloody Sunday), Major-General Henry J. T. Hildyard's 2nd Brigade captured the 1000-foot height of Monte Cristo, while Major-General Geoffrey Barton's 6th Brigade cleared Green Hill. The outflanked Boers abandoned Hlangwane and the south bank entirely on February 19. Immediately, the British installed heavy artillery on Hlangwane's summit. [Pakenham, p 364-366]

Battle on the north bank

Buller preferred to avoid the obvious route north along the railroad, but his intelligence officer informed him that an advance north across the river from Monte Cristo was impracticable. Therefore, the British were forced to find a way to overcome the main Boer positions. British infantry occupied Colenso on February 19 and the railhead was advanced to Colenso station. On February 21, the pontoon bridge was positioned under the western brow of Hlangwane and the army began to cross. Major-General Arthur S. Wynne's 11th Brigade captured Boer positions at Horse-shoe Hill and Wynne's Hill three miles north of Colenso on the evening of February 22. Major-General Fitzroy Hart's Irish Brigade attacked the next high ground to the northeast, Hart's Hill on February 23. Not waiting for all his battalions to arrive, Hart sent his troops up piecemeal and they were repulsed with almost 500 casualties. Two battalions of reinforcements arrived in time to prevent a rout. Two colonels were among the dead and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers lost 72% of their officers and 27% of their rank and file. [Pakenham, p 377]

On February 25 a six-hour armistice was arranged to recover the British wounded on the upper slopes of Wynne's and Hart's Hills. On one section of hillside, 80 dead and only three survivors were recovered. [Pakenham, p 379]

Buller began to look for another way to flank the Boers. It turned out that in front of the Boer positions, the Tugela entered a gorge. The pontoon bridge was moved north to the mouth of the gorge so British soldiers could cross and move to the northeast along the riverbank, unseen by the Boers. Meanwhile, a trail was located by which the British artillery was moved into supporting distance on the south bank. Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Warren's 5th Infantry Division was directed to attack the Boer left flank. The brigades would strike from east to west, first at Pieters Hill, then Railway Hill and finally Hart's Hill. Meanwhile, Lyttelton's division would threaten the Boer center and right flank. For once, Botha failed to anticipate Buller's moves. [Pakenham, p 377]

Barton's brigade attacked Pieters Hill shortly after noon on February 27. Behind an early use of the creeping barrage by artillery pieces as heavy as 4.7-inch naval guns, the 6th Brigade's advance was rapid at first. Then, about 2:00 pm, as the British infantry moved out of artillery observation and Botha reinforced his threatened flank, the attack stalled. The reserve was put in at 2:30 pm and repulsed due to tough Boer resistance and enfilading fire from Railway Hill to the west. [Pakenham, p 380]

At 3:00 pm Colonel Walter Kitchener's 5th Brigade attacked Railway Hill. After working their way slowly uphill, the soldiers carried the "nek" (saddle) between Hart's and Railway Hills in a brilliant bayonet charge, capturing 48 Boer prisoners. The last to move forward, Major-General Norcott's 4th Brigade began its assault on Hart's Hill. The close artillery support proved decisive, as trench after trench was overwhelmed by direct fire. A final infantry charge cleared the crest, compelling a Boer retreat. As Botha's men fell back from the heights, the long-frustrated British infantry gave out a cheer. [Pakenham, p 381-382]


On February 28 the besieged defenders of Ladysmith observed a great column of Boer horsemen and wagons moving rapidly north, just outside artillery range. Some time after 5:00 pm, two squadrons of British mounted infantry commanded by Major Hubert Gough from Buller's army rode into Ladysmith and ended the siege. Botha retreated to a new defensive line 60 miles to the north.

See also

* Siege of Ladysmith


* Dupuy, R. E. & Dupuy, T. N. "The Encyclopedia of Military History." New York: Harper & Row, 1977. ISBN 0-06-011139-9
* Pakenham, Thomas. "The Boer War." New York: Avon Books, 1979. ISBN 0-380-72001-9


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