A Collection of Medals for The Battle of Elandslaagte, 21 October 1899
On the same day that General Lukas Meyer occupied Talana Hill, General J. H. M. Kock occupied the heights and station at Elandslaagte, north-east of Ladysmith. His part of the Natal invasion force was 1000 men which included the Fordsburg, Johannesburg and Vrede Commandos, as well as 140 of the German Commando and 70 of the Hollander Commando. Despite General Joubert's orders, General Kock had exposed his forces without any support being available and they, at least those at the station, were soon discovered by a reconnaissance patrol from Ladysmith led by Major-General John French on 20 October 1900. Lieutenant-General Sir George White ordered French to take a force out to Elandslaagte on 21 October 1900 and clear the Boers away from it. This was imperative because the Boer occupation of the station and railway line effectively cut White's communication with General Penn-Symon's force at Dundee.
Taking five Squadrons of the newly-raised Imperial Light Horse, a Battery of Natal Field Artillery, half of the 1st Battalion, Manchester Regiment and a Rai I way and Telegraph Company of Royal Engineers, French reached Elandslaagte station early on the morning of 21 October. On sighting Boers at the station the Natal Field Artillery swung into action and engaged the burgers in the open. To the surprise of the Natal Field Artillery fire was promptly returned, not from the station but by Boer guns at the foot of the heights to the south-east. The Boer 3.75mm guns outclassed the 7-pounders of the Natal Field Artillery and forced them to withdraw out of range. At the same time Boers were sighted on the heights and French realised that the number of Boers in the area was larger than previously thought.
His message for reinforcements prompted White to send him all the troops that could be spared from Ladysmith. As quickly as possible seven Companies of the 1st Battalion, Devonshire Regiment and five Companies of the 2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders were embarked in open cattle trucks and driven towards Elandslaagte. An Armoured Train preceded the cattle train and one Squadron each of the 5th Lancers, 5th Dragoon Guards and Natal Mounted Rifles rode alongside, as did 21st and 42nd Batteries Royal Field Artillery. Two more Squadrons of the Lancers followed. On the arrival of the train, General French and Colonel Hamilton executed a swift assault on the ridge held by the Boers.
While the two Batteries of the Artillery pounded the ridge, the Devons arranged themselves in open order on the flat ground immediately to the front of the Boer positions. They were to advance and then halt while the Manchesters and Cordons executed a right flanking assault on the ridge. When this was underway they were to make a frontal assault up the heights. In the event, they halted as planned within 800 metres of the summit but found themselves pinned down by Mauser fire. Stuck on the open veldt, they lay there as a tremendous thunderstorm broke overhead and watched the Manchesters being met by the combined firepower of several hundred Boer rifles. The Cordons and the Imperial Light Horse, by now dismounted, moved through both storms into the Manchester's positions but they too were held up by the concentrated mass of lead. The Cordons had the added hazard of trying to take cover on the ground because the backs of their green kilts stood out against the brown veldt The flanking attack faltered as the advance became small groups of men, then individuals, scrambling over the rock towards the Boer positions. Half of the Officers of the Gordon Highlanders were killed or wounded. At this critical stage Hamilton appeared at the front of the flanking attack and gave the order "Fix Bayonets! Charge!" Drum-Major Lawrence of the Cordons played the call and it was echoed by the Buglers of the Devons on the open veldt. With Officers ferociously rallying the men, the Cordons, Manchesters and Imperial Light Horse fought their way up the side of the hill. Concurrently, the Devons launched their frontal assault and stormed the Boer positions. Some Boers withdrew but the Gunners fought for their artillery pieces until they were killed. Unlike Talana, however, no sooner had the British taken the summit than the Boers, who had withdrawn, counter-attacked and regained it but, after the desperate hand to hand fighting that followed, the British were eventually left in possession of the hill. Fighting was especially ferocious between the Imperial Light Horse, the Johannesburg displaced, and the Johannesburg Commando. Nevinson, the was correspondent, witnessed the final moment of victory by the British Infantry: 'Then wildly cheering, raising their helmets on their bayonets, while line after line of khaki figures, like hounds through a gap, came pouring into position, shouting fiercely: "Majuba, Majuba." '
Those Boers who survived the assault mounted their ponies and headed north away from Elandslaagte. Waiting for them were one Squadron of the 5th Lancers and 5th Dragoon Guards. With lances poised they charged the retreating Boers and in the dusky twilight three ferocious charges were made and no quarter given. It was an onslaught that shocked even the Cavalry themselves. The effect on the retreating Boers was devastating to the extent that '(it) created the greatest terror and resentment among the Boers, who vowed at the time they would destroy all Lancers they captured' (Times History refers).
The Boers losses were 60 killed, 120 to 150 wounded and 200 taken prisoner. The British losses were five Officers and 56 men killed or died of wounds, 30 Officers and 160 men wounded and four men taken prisoner. Four Victoria Crosses were won at Elandslaagte and all were awarded for great gallantry in rallying men at the critical point of the flanking attack when the assault had been checked and seemed doomed to failure.
Elandslaagte was to be the only victory for General White's forces. After Reitfontein and the Battle of Ladysmith, he retreated to Ladysmith and on 2 November 1899 and accepted that the siege was inevitable.