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Second Boer War: Siege of Ladysmith

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Siege of Ladysmith - Conflict & Dates:

The Siege of Ladysmith occurred November 2, 1899 to February 28, 1900, during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Armies & Commanders:

British

  • Lieutenant General George S. White
  • General Sir Redvers Buller
  • 5,500 men

Boers

  • Commandant-General Petrus Jacobus Joubert
  • General Louis Botha
  • approx. 20,000 men (max)

Siege of Ladysmith - Background:

With the outbreak of the Second Boer War on October 11, 1899, Boer forces quickly advanced against British garrisons in northern Natal. Moving with speed and skill, Boer forces began shelling British positions at Dundee. As a result, Major General Penn Symons launched a bloody attack against the Boer artillery. While fighting near Dundee raged, Boer forces occupied Elandslaagte between Dundee and the large British garrison at Ladysmith. To re-open the line of communication to Dundee, Lieutenant General George Stuart White dispatched forces under Major General John French and Colonel Ian Hamilton.

Siege of Ladysmith - The Siege Begins:

On October 21, French and Hamilton engaged and defeated Boer troops near Elandslaagte. Despite this success, White, fearing an attack on Ladysmith, ordered Dundee and Elandslaagte abandoned. Re-concentrating his force at Ladysmith, he awaited the Boer's next move. As Boer forces began surrounding the town and emplacing guns, White decided to attack to disrupt their dispositions and capture their artillery. The latter task was assigned to Hamilton who received orders to attack Boer artillery emplacements on Pepworth Hill.

Siege of Ladysmith - Breakout Attempts:

Hamilton's effort would be supported to the right by a brigade attacking Long Hill, with French's mounted troops aiding the assaults. While these attacks were moving forward, a third column was to occupy the pass of Nicholson's Nek to the west with the goal of preventing the Boers being reinforced from the Orange Free State. As the British moved out, the force on Long Hill was attacked on their right flank by Boers under General Louis Botha. This forced Hamilton to abandon his assault to aid his comrades. With the situation deteriorating, White called off the attacks and ordered his men back to their lines.

The column sent to Nicholson's Nek was also forced back when they were outmaneuvered by Boers under Commandant Christiaan de Wet. As his tired troops assumed defensive positions, the Boers under Commandant-General Petrus Jacobus Joubert cut Ladysmith's rail line to Durban and completed their encirclement of the town. Among those who escaped before the siege commenced were French and his chief of staff Major Douglas Haig. While Joubert oversaw the siege, Botha moved south and established a line north of the Tugela River to block British relief attempts.

Siege of Ladysmith - Relief Efforts:

To the south, relief efforts commenced under the command of General Sir Redvers Buller. A recent arrival to South Africa, Buller was a much respected field commander and was tasked with leading the British war effort against the Boers. Personally commanding the Ladysmith relief column, he was badly defeated by Botha on December 15 at the Battle of Colenso. Able to communicate with Ladysmith via searchlight and heliograph, Buller informed White that he would either need to break out or surrender. Unable to attack and unwilling to surrender, White decided to continue holding out.

As the siege wore on, the Boer forces became weakened due to a lack of fodder for their horses and the slow desertion of men. With these problems becoming pressing, several officers approached Joubert requesting permission to storm Ladysmith. Joubert finally consented and plans were made to attack on the night of January 5/6, 1900. Moving forward they assaulted a ridge known as the Platrand and encountered a series of fortifications designed by Hamilton. After several hours of fighting, they were unable to break through and were forced to withdraw.

As Buller continued his efforts to get past Botha, conditions in Ladysmith worsened as food became scarce and disease began to spread. Consuming their horse and pack animals, White's men subsisted on meat paste and whatever other food could be found. The situation was made worse by the fact that the only water source available was the polluted Klip River.

Buller again attempted a crossing of the Tugela on January 24, but was defeated at the Battle of Spion Kop. Displeased with Buller's handling of the war, London dispatched Field Marshal Lord Roberts to serve as commander-in-chief. Though relieved of these duties, Buller was left in command on the Natal front. Pressing forward again on February 14, he advanced at a crawl. Finally on the 26th, he launched an all-out assault and succeeded in crossing the river and defeated Botha north of Colenso. Driving the retreating Boers before him, he broke through to Ladysmith the next day. On February 28, 1900, the first relief columns arrived in the town, ending the 118-day siege.

Siege of Ladysmith - Aftermath

The siege of Ladysmith cost White's command 227 killed and 249 wounded. In addition, nearly 400 died of disease (mostly typhoid). Total Boer casualties for the siege are not known with any accuracy. Despite a series of poor decisions by the commanders in the area, British forces were able to emerge victorious. The stubborn defense of Ladysmith derailed the Boer's plans in Natal which called for a rapid advance to the coast. As British reinforcements began arriving in Durban, the Boer threat in the region was greatly diminished. With Ladysmith and other garrisons, such as Mafeking, relieved, Roberts was able to carry the war to the Boers and achieve victory in May 1902.

Selected Sources

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  7. Siege of Ladysmith - Second Boer War Siege of Ladysmith

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