Tour Information

1. The duration of this tour is over a period of two days, covering a distance of approximately 500 km. It is recommended that overnight accommodation be booked in advance at one of the following hotels in Ladysmith Colenso or Estcourt. (They are listed in descending order of cost per night):

a. Royal Hotel, Ladysmith

b. Crown Hotel, Ladysmith

c. Andrew Motel, Ladysmith

d. Lucey's Plough Hotel, Estcourt

e. Battlefields Hotel, Colenso

f. Old Jail Lodge, Colenso

2. The tour includes visits to selected sites in the Estcourt and Ladysmith area, providing the interested visitor with the background and atmosphere of the battlefields and places of military interest in the area. It is designed with ease of access, comfort, security and maximum interest in mind. More dedicated historians and battlefield explorers may wish to extend the tour, in which case they should contact the Public Relations Section of the Estcourt Colenso and Ladysmith municipalities for the services of a local guide.

DAY ONE OF THE TOUR : FROM DURBAN (See paragraph 6 for the Reef as starting point).

3. After an early breakfast depart from Durban on the N3 which starts at the western end of Berea road. Most of Durban's main roads that lead west will take you towards the N3 to Pietermaritzburg and beyond. The road takes you through the Asian quarter of Durban, ascending rapidly away from the city and through suburbia. The humidity noticeably decreases as one leaves the coast and rolling hills dotted with dwellings of various types among stretches of woodland can be seen.

4. Our route takes us past the Natal Lion Park situated between Camperdown and Pietermaritzburg, and then skirts the latter city. Pietermaritzburg is the capital of Natal and was established in 1839 when 300 stands were made available for occupation. It takes its name from the Voortrekker leaders, Piet Retief and Gert Maritz. It has a population of 120 000. It has many scenic and historical attractions, among them the Voortrekker Museum (Church of the Vow) and the Voortrekker Volksraadsaal.

5. Leaving Pietermaritzburg behind us, we pass Hilton on our left. This little town is famous for Hilton College, one of the country's larger private schools, and for Queen Elizabeth Park. The next large town is Howick, where the Howick Falls are a famous tourist attraction. The Midmar Dam provides picnicking facilities. Our destination is further ahead, however. We are now in the Natal midlands, among rolling hills and farmland. We pass Mooiriver, a farming community, and shortly thereafter arrive via Estcourt, 185 km from Durban. Here we leave the N3 at Estcourt

via the Estcourt South off-ramp and drive past the hospital situated on either side of the road. Shortly after the hospital a turn-off to the right takes one toward Fort Durnford. The tour continues at paragraph 9.

DAY ONE OF THE TOUR : FROM THE WITWATERSRAND (Total distance covered : approximately 800 km)

6. Depart after an early breakfast and join the N3 from Johannesburg via Germiston and Heidelberg to Durban. The heavy traffic and industrial landscape soon give way to suburbia. Soon after we encounter Heidelberg, which has an excellent transport museum at the old station, situated in farmland area.

7. As one passes Villiers and Warden the farmland gives way to flat countryside, which stretches as far as the eye can see. At Harrismith there is an abrupt change as one enters the foothills of the Drakensberg and the landscape becomes wooded and moun-tainous. The N3 then descends dramatically through Van Reenen's pass and enters the Natal interior.

8. Continue past Ladysmith until you arrive at the Estcourt South off-ramp. Head towards Estcourt and drive past the hospital on either side of the road. Shortly after the hospital, take the turn-off to the right, towards Fort Durnford.


Historical Background

9. The strategic significance of Fort Durnford is that it is built virtually on the same site where Gert Maritz, the well- known Voortrekker leader, made his camp in 1838. While Maritz's camp was situated in a horseshoe bend on the Bushman's river on the slope of the hill, Fort Durnford was built on the crest of the hill, and affords a perfect view of the Great and Little Bushman's rivers, their confluence and Estcourt itself.

10. Some of the most decisive moments of early South African history were experienced in the vicinity of Escourt. Pioneering in this area began in 1838 after the Voortrekkers crossed the Drakensberg. Disregarding their leader, Piet Retief's, instruc-tion that they should remain together, the Voortrekkers soon scattered to the south of the Tugela and its tributaries where they became involved in a series of bloody clashes with the local Zulus.

11. On 16 December 1838 the "Wenkommando", under the command of the Boer General A.W.J. Pretorius, defeated the Zulus at Blood River. Even though the Zulus were crushed, the settlers were still plagued by raids by Bushmen, marauding Zulu dissidents and the memory of recent events. In 1847 a detachment of the British 45th Regiment was sent from Fort Napier in Pietermaritzburg to protect the settlers from Bushmen raids.

12. In reconnoitering the area they unwittingly chose virtually the same site where Gert Maritz had drawn his laager, called Saailaer. They chose a flat-topped hill across the Bushman River from Saailaer. From this vantage point the troops were able to survey the surrounding area and particularly two drifts that were frequently used by marauding parties. One drift is close to Saailaer and the other is situated slightly above the present-day bridge. This first stronghold was constructed of various rough walls, mainly for defence against the Bushmen and was initially called the "Ordnance Reserve." However, after the Langalibalele Rebellion of 1873, this stronghold was no longer regarded as being temporary and in 1875 a substantial stone fort was constructed on the same site. The municipality of Estcourt has restored the fort to an excellent condition and the fort was proclaimed a historical monument in 1970.

13. Fort Durnford is open daily from 09:00 - 12:00 and 13:00 - 16:00. Visitors who wish to visit the museum outside these hours should contact the Public Relations Section of Estcourt munici-pality. The curator will be only too willing to relate the co-lourful history of the fort and its architectural pecu-liarities. In his absence visitors should note the outline of a "moat" (actually a trench) around the main keep of the fort and the hinges for a drawbridge at the bottom of the front entrance. The stairs leading up to the first floor are also hinged for lifting and allowed defenders to fire down on any enemy who succeeded in gaining access to the building.

14. On leaving the fort turn right onto the main access road to Estcourt and head towards the centre of the town. The route, although not signposted, is obvious and easy to follow. One of

Estcourt's main sources of income is the food industry and the factories of various well-known household brands can be seen from the road.

15. The road leads past the station (on the left) with a period locomotive clearly visible and shortly thereafter makes a sharp right turn at the Nestlé factory. The municipal buildings (left) are particularly attractive and the trees in front of them are full of sparrows that are characteristically noisy at night. The Lucey's Plough Hotel is situated further down the road on the left.

16. You are now in Harding Street and must follow this road through the central business district until you reach the clearly-marked, and signposted, route R103 to Colenso. This is the old road to Colenso that leads out of town into rolling grasslands with scattered thorn trees.

17. While proceeding along the R103 to Colenso you will pass a sign on the left indicating the "Giants Castle" fossil park from whence some of the fossils in Fort Durnford originated.

Churchill Memorial

18. Your next objective is difficult to find unless you carefully follow these directions: Approximately two kilometres after passing Gregory College clearly marked on your left, the road crosses over river and rail bridges. Thereafter both road and railway bend gradually to the right and the road ends in a T-junction. At this junction of the R103 and R74, turn right towards Colenso. Drive very slowly and look carefully to the right. After approximately 100 meters a small monument surrounded by a silver painted fence will come into view. Make a U-turn and retrace your route painted back toward Estcourt keeping the monument in view on your left. Shortly after swinging left on the R103 towards Estcourt you will find a tarred slip-road on the left leading towards the monument and the scene of the armoured train incident. The diorama on the hill above the road has been vandalised and is not worth a visit.

Historical Background

19. With the railway in sight, the Boers commanded the high ground in the area with two guns and a pom-pom. They derailed an armoured train here on 15 November 1899 by placing stones between the rails. Thereafter they had the Dublin Fusiliers and the Durban Light Infantry, who were manning the guns of the train, at their mercy. The scene of the action was here at the junction of the old road to Estcourt with the main road at Frere. Winston Churchill, then a military correspondent of the "Morning Post", was captured (but not by Gen Louis Botha, as he was led to believe) at the site. A marker recording his capture and the scene of the action is placed at the curve of the railway at the foot of a hill.

Blouwkrantz Memorial

20. Leaving the monument by way of the slip-road, turn left and then proceed towards Estcourt until it is safe to make a U-turn back towards Colenso. (Note: You cannot turn right off the slip road - it is a one-way towards the left). At the T-junction take the R103 and R74 right towards Colenso and Ladysmith. A short distance along this road you will encounter a sign for the Blouwkrantz Memorial. Turn right and follow the sign to the memorial, the site of a Voortrekker massacre by the Zulus during the Great Trek. The monument, which was unveiled by Commandant-General Piet Joubert in 1895, lies about 12.8 kilometres along a good gravel road. There are toilets at the site, and souvenirs and brochures are available. Details of the massacre are recorded at the site.

Historical Background

21. In 1837 the first of the Voortrekkers of the Great Trek reached Natal. In the course of negotiations in obtaining land for his followers, Piet Retief first had to recover some cattle that had been stolen from Dingane. With 69 of his companions and 30 servants Piet Retief managed to do so and returned with the stolen cattle on 3 February 1837 to Mgungundhlovu, Dingane's military kraal. After a few days in the kraal a treaty was drawn up whereby Dingane granted the land between the Tugela and the Umzimvubu rivers and from the sea to the north as far as the land may be useful to Piet Retief and his followers. This document was signed on 6 February 1837.

22. After signing the treaty he and his party were overpowered and dragged to KwaMatiwane where they were clubbed to death. The only white man to witness this treachery was the missionary, Owen. The Voortrekkers, still awaiting the arrival of Piet Retief and his companions, were totally unaware of this massacre. Immediately after the murder, Dingane, still perturbed by the strange white immigrants, sent a thousand of his warriors to kill the Voortrekker settlers at the Bloukrans and Bushman rivers.

23. During the night of 16 February a vanguard of Dingane's warriors reached the laagers scattered around Bloukrans River. These follow-up attacks resulted in the deaths of 41 men, 56 women, 185 children and 200 servants. Twenty-five thousand head of cattle were captured. This attack became known as the "Great Murder".

24. Throughout the day the Zulu attack on various laagers continued. In the aftermath of these attacks the full extent of the brutal and indiscriminate murder of the people at particularly Bloukrans, became apparent and had such a resounding emotional effect upon the Voortrekkers that the memory of these events have lived on in succeeding generations.

25. On the initiative of Gen Piet Joubert the remains of the victims of this massacre were exhumed from their graves and re-interred in this communal grave on 16 December 1895. The re-burial was attended by a large crowd, many of them the original Voortrekkers who had witnessed the events 47 years earlier.

Chievely Hospital

26. Return to the R103 and turn right towards Colenso. A few kilometres further on a sign indicates Chieveley station and the war cemetery. Cross the railway line by following the signs and proceed to Chieveley cemetery. There is a farm gate across the road that will be opened by children who will expect a reward of silver or sweets. The cemetery is the site of the former 4 Stationary Hospital and houses the graves of those who died there of illness or wounds. One of the graves is that of the son of Lord Roberts, the British Commander-in-Chief. Lt Roberts earned

the Victoria Cross during the Battle of Colenso and later died of the wounds he received in action.

Historical Background

27. No 4 Stationary Hospital was always near the fiercest fighting. This hospital was first pitched at Frere on 1 December 1899. It moved to Chieveley where it stood for only two days before it was moved back to Colenso again for the Colenso Battle. It was then moved back to Frere again for four weeks. Thereafter is was moved to Springfield (now Winterton). From here it was moved to the Spearman's farm for the duration of the Spioenkop Battle. Finally it was moved once more to Chieveley - its present-day position - close to Chieveley railway station. During the battle of Colenso, Lord Roberts' son, Lt Freddy Roberts, was mortally wounded whilst attempting to retrieve some of the twelve British guns that the Boer forces had captured. He was taken to Chieveley Hospital where Sir Frederick Treves, a famous Victorian surgeon, ministered to the wounded. Lt Roberts was buried at Chieveley. The hospital has been immortalised in Treves book "The Tale of a Field Hospital".

Buller's Headquarters

28. Upon leaving Chieveley (and not forgetting to pay the gate toll once again), return to the R103 and turn right towards Colenso and Ladysmith. Very shortly you will encounter the Clouston Koppie of Remembrance on your left. This was Sir Redvers Buller's headquarters during the Battle of Colenso and is now a Garden of Remembrance and a picnic site. Toilet facilities are available. Because of the growth of Colenso from a small hamlet at the time of the battle, to the town it is today, the original battlefield of Colenso has been built upon and its monuments and graves moved to this site at Clouston.

29. Upon leaving Clouston, approach and enter the town of Colenso, and head towards Sir George Street. Colenso is not a particularly attractive town and owes its modern-day existence mainly to it's large power station, now defunct. An attractive picnic site and swimming pool can be found at the caravan park which is clearly signposted at the entrance to the town. Toilets are available at the caravan park.

Battle of Colenso

30. Moving down St George Street towards Ladysmith through Colenso, turn right into West Street. This street is situated immediately after the Escom offices and is signposted as "to Escom Club". Advance slowly down this street and follow the directions carefully. West Street comes to an end at a T-junction. Looking right one will see a bridge curving over the railway line. Follow the road towards, and onto, this bridge. Immediately after the crown of the bridge, is a road that turns off sharply to the right and that is signposted : "Boer War Gun Positions." From the vantage positions of the bridge a line of yellow markers can clearly be seen, each one indicating the position of a British gun at Colenso. Each marker is numbered with its gun and battery number and there is a monument marking the spot where Lt Roberts earned his VC. The entire battlefield has been built upon, and the gun lines are all that remain to be seen.

Historical Background

31. The Battle of Colenso is possibly one of the most famous battles of the Anglo Boer War'. It is known as the battle where the British force suffered an ignominious defeat, leaving 143 British soldiers dead and 1139 wounded. The boer forces, who were vastly outnumbered, suffered six dead and 22 wounded. This battle is also renowned for the gallant efforts of the British soldiers and officers and no less than seven Victoria Crosses were awarded. It was the largest conventional Battle in the Southern hemisphere until the Falklands War.

32. Retrace your steps to Sir George Street and turn right towards Ladysmith. Further down Sir George street are the municipal offices where detailed brochures on the battles in and around Colenso are available. Next door to the municipal offices is a collection of period locomotives. Follow the road slowly towards Ladysmith. On the curve is the police station. Enquire there for the key of the museum.

33. The Stevenson Museum is immediately next door (to the left) of the police station and houses an invaluable collection of maps detailing the battles and campaigns in the area. Outside the museum and between it and the police station is Lt Robert's original headstone. Return the key to the police station and cross the famous Tugela River by way of the Bulwer steel bridge.


34. Shortly after crossing the steel bridge, the road meets the R103. Turn left here and take the R74 to Winterton. At the top of the exit ramp turn right. Just after the tarred road becomes gravel you will encounter a sign to Ambleside cemetery. This is the site where the 5th Irish Brigade was caught by Boer cross-fire in a loop of the Tugela. The men are buried where they fell on the farm named "Ambleside". At that time there were no trees to obscure the view from across the river and during the Battle of Colenso the Irish were mown down in the open.

35. The small cemetery commemorates the officers and men of the 5th Irish Brigade of Gen Hart's column who died dring the Battle of Colenso. There are also four graves of men of the S.A. Light Horse Brigade. It commemorates what can be described as one of the bloodiest incidents of the Anglo-Boer War.

36. After visiting Ambleside, retrace your steps towards Colenso along the R74. This becomes the R103 to Ladysmith, which you now follow. On just the other side of Colenso you will meet a signpost : "e'Zhankeni-Newcastle". Turn right here.

Tugela Heights

37. Once on the eZhakeni-Newcastle road, the entire area to your right, and all along the ranges of hills on both sides of the road, is the scene of the Battle for the Tugela Heights. Unfortunately the road and rail system has been modernised and repositioned and most of the monuments and sites are no longer readily accessible without a knowledgeable guide, and on foot. However, as you drive along, careful observation will reveal lines of stone sangars on the hill crests. Immediately after the road crosses a small bridge over the Onderbroekspruit, there is a large monument to the right erected to the Somerset Light Infantry. Across the road from it, concealed from sight in the ditch next to the roadside is another monument. Continue on to Pieters station which marks the right flank of the British advance, and then turn around and retraced your steps to the R103 to Ladysmith.

Historical Background

38. The Battle of the Tugela Heights was Sir Redvers Buller's last attempt to relieve Ladysmith. This attempt followed three other frontal attacks on the Boer forces. During this battle, even though from the outset Sir Redvers Buller had a far superior force consisting of 30 000 troops and 46 field and naval guns, as opposed to Gen Botha's 5 000 men and a few field guns, he was repeatedly repulsed at Colenso (15-12-1899), Spioenkop (24-1-1900) and Vaalkrans (5-2-1900).

39. Encouraged by Lord Roberts who, in the meantime had been appointed the new supreme commander for South Africa, Buller decided to return to the scene of his first attempt to relieve Ladysmith. He realised that Bosrand was the key to the Boer emplacements. On 11 February he launched his new attack and, after several days of fighting, was able to claim that the whole of the south bank of the Tugela river to the east of Colenso, including the dominating heights of Hlangwane, Monte Christo and Cingola, were in his hands.

40. At this stage Gen Botha's forces comprised approximately 5 000 men as opposed to Gen Buller's 40 000 troops. Gen Botha was forced to fall back and occupy new positions on high ground. Gen Buller was determined to succeed in this attempt as the garrison at Ladysmith was already half starved and in a precarious state. On 21 February a pontoon was thrown across the river near Fort Wylie. The Somerset Light Infantry crossed and occupied the Colenso koppies and Fort Wylie. Advancing further towards Grobbelaarskloof the troops were met with heavy and deadly fire. In this skirmish 90 men of the Somerset Light Infantry were killed. They were all buried in a mass grave which is marked by a single granite stone between the hillocks. The regimental monument lies at the rail-over-road crossing a hundred yards north of the Onderbroekspruit.

41. With their left flank now protected by the Somerset Light Infantry, Buller's army proceeded to cross the river with a pontoon on 21 and 22 February, whilst the King's Own Lancasters, the King's Rifles and the East Surreys captured the crests of the Wynne Hills. Any advance on top of the plateau was in full view of the Boer forces who were entrenched on higher ground. Advancing further thus resulted in heavy fighting and several unsuccessful bayonet charges. Even with the assistance of later reinforcements, viz the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and other regiments, the British situation in protecting the west flank remained precarious. It was clear that advancing any further could occur only after Hart's Hill had been taken.

42. On 23 February with this stronghold as their objective, the Irish Brigade (Dublins, Inniskillings and Connaughts) began to advance along the railway line until Harts' Hill came into view. There they positioned themselves the along river bank for cover. They made their way to Langverwacht Spruit which was full and impassable. Impeded by this obstacle they were forced into the open and proceeded to run over what they called the "Pom-Pom bridge". Once across, they again found cover along the river bank. However, this approach meant that only half of Gen Hart's allotted force managed to cross the bridge. Since it was getting late, Gen Hart ordered the Irish Brigade to attack. The Irish advance was relentless and they managed to gain the crest of the hill. With the Boer sangars only about a hundred yards further, the Irish twice charged this last stronghold - only to be annihilated. Gen Buller realised that this was an impasse, which called for a change of tactics. He then withdrew his forces, regrouped his men, and concentrated the bulk of his force on a new position close to the Colenso rapids.

43. In an unprecedented bombardment with 72 guns, Buller attacked Pietershoogte on 27 February. No less than 40 000 troops were employed in this final attack. Under heavy bombardment on Pietershoogte, the Fusilier Brigade, led by the Scots Fusiliers, were first over the river. With crossfire from the York and Lancashire troops on Kitchener's Hill which was the centre of the Boer stronghold, the Boers were unable to assist their left flank and were forced to withdraw.

44. Late in the afternoon Gen Buller succeeded in gaining this position. On 28 February the vanguard of Gen Buller's army entered Ladysmith, and the siege ended. In the British thrusts to end the siege nearly 4 000 British soldiers died. For the Boers the recapture of Ladysmith was an enormous blow to their morale.

45. The R103 leads directly to Ladysmith and your hotel. The Andrew Motel is on the right-hand side of the N11 where the R103 joins it at the entrance to Ladysmith. The Royal and Crown hotels are in the central business district, and are clearly signposted.


Siege Museum

46. Today's tour begins at the Ladysmith Siege Museum which opens at 09:00. The museum is situated on Murchison Street (which is the main street of Ladysmith) between the town hall and the post office. Ladysmith today is a thriving industrial and commercial centre and bears little resemblance to the Ladysmith of the siege. A visit to the museum is essential for orientation purposes. Be sure to purchase a Spioenkop guidebook.

Historical Background.

47. Ladysmith's Siege Museum originally was the market house, and was built in 1884. During the Anglo-Boer War it served as a ration post. It was used as a market until 1965 and thereafter it housed the local library. It was redesigned and officially opened as the Siege Museum by the Hon Mr. R.M. Cadman, Administrator of Natal, on 2 January 1985. The museum tells the story of the 118-day siege of Ladysmith and numerous photographs and diagrams about the siege are exhibited. An illuminated diorama describes the battles in detail.

Town Hall

48. Outside the museum are replicas of the guns that played a significent role in the siege. On leaving the museum, turn to the right and stop in front of the town hall, also situated on Murchison Street. The clock tower of the town hall was severely damaged by shell fire during the siege and this is commemorated by a black six-inch shell, the base of which can be seen embedded in the tower. A similar shell struck the town clerk's office and is likewise commemorated by a shell in the masonry under the window on the bottom left-hand side of the building.

Royal Hotel

49. On leaving the town hall, stroll up the right-hand side of Murchison Street. Half a block up the road and on the opposite side you will find the Royal Hotel. Its architectural style and the British royal coat of arms on the façade make its appearance very attractive. Cross the road and investigate the pavement in front of the hotel. A shell embedded in the paving and a brass plaque commemorates a victim of the siege who was killed at that spot.

All Saints Church

50. Continue up the left-hand side of Murchison Street until you see the Anglican All Saints Church across the road. The church is normally open every morning, but if closed, the key can be obtained from the rectory next door. The porch of this church was struck by shellfire and the shell-base can be seen embedded in the left-hand wall of the porch. On entering the church, note the two stained glass windows on the wall immediately to your left. They denote war and peace. The portion around the altar was added after the siege and contains the name of every British soldier who died on active service with the British Army of Natal, as well as the civilians who died during the siege of Ladysmith.

The Toll House and Klip River

51. On leaving the church turn right into Princess Street. At the next corner (Princess Street and Settlers Drive) you will encounter the original old toll house and the Klip River. The Klip River is subject to periodic flooding and shifting river banks and consequently there is no sign of the original drift across the river today - although there is a possible drift slightly downstream from the house.

52. Return to your car for the rest of the trip. Upon returning to Murchison Street, turn left past the church back towards the museum, and continue up Murchison Street. The historic station is situated on the right and the Railway Institute of 1903 can also be seen at the top end of Murchison Street. The high bluff overlooking the town on the left-hand side of the road is the site of the convent (now a hospital) and also features in accounts of the siege.

Caesar's Camp (Platrand)

53. Return down the full length of Murchison Street, past the motor salesrooms and garages. At the T-junction look left to see the beautiful mosque. Turn right and follow the sign towards Durban/Bergville/Harrismith. Along this road you will see a sign-post to the grave of Lt Col Dick Cunyngham, VC, who was killed by a stray bullet whilst mustering his men for an attack on Wagon Hill. From the edge of the road, traffic permitting, it is possible to see a single, isolated British grave on the right.

54. Take the turn-off left to Platrand and the airport. Follow the signs to Platrand. This is a good gravel road which becomes tar further on. At the entrance to the Platrand site there is a gate where a donation is requested. Turn left and follow the sign towards Platrand. Here one finds an impressive monument to the Boer soldiers who lost their lives during the Natal campaign. The Boers called spot this "Platrand" and the British, "Caesar's Camp" after the hill near Aldershot.

Manchester's Fort

55. After viewing the Burger Gedenkteken, pass through the turnstile at the Ladysmith side of the monument and walk along the fence towards the stile. The jumble of stones in front of you will take shape as a fort (the outline can be clearly seen from the top of the stile), which is marked by a monument. This is Manchester's Fort. Face towards Ladysmith and you will see a narrow path leading through the grass towards a clump of thorn trees. Approximately 100 meters down this path you will encounter the camp-site of the Natal Naval Volunteers. The site is marked by several rock carvings, including the site of the galley (kitchen).

Wagon Hill

56. Return to your car and retrace the route back to the entrance gate and up the gravel road directly in front of you by following the sign-post to Wagon Hill. The road is generally good gravel with one or two rough spots. On arriving at the crest of Wagon hill drive past the monuments on your right towards the furthest monument, ie the monument to Ds Kestell, which is the most interesting. Wagon Hill was the scene of a particularly bloody encounter.

Historical Background to Caesar's Camp and Wagon Hill

57. South-west of Ladysmith there is a long, low hill about five kilometres long and 200 metres high, which was known to the Boers as "Platrand" and to the British as "Wagon Hill". Shortly after the declaration of war on 2 October 1899, Boer commandos from the Transvaal and the Free State invaded Natal. Various skirmishes followed and, on 2 November 1899, Ladysmith, with its British garrison, was besieged. This siege lasted for 118 days. For the British it was of the utmost importance to hold Ladysmith. The Boers took up strategic positions on Bulwana, a flat hillock east of Ladysmith. The forward defensive lines of the British dug themselves in on Wagon Hill. The eastern part of the hill was known as "Caesar's Camp" and was well within the range of the Boer's Long Toms, which were hastily sent from Pretoria's forts to Natal. The west side of the hill was the actual " Wagon Hill", and a small plateau west of it was named "Wagon Point" by the British and "Bospunt" by the Boers.

58. The ridge was strongly held by the British infantry and artillery which were equipped with two batteries and a naval gun on Wagon Hill. In order to take Ladysmith, the Boers would first have to capture Platrand. On 9 November 1899 the Boers launched a half-hearted attack which was easily repulsed. On the insis-tence of President Paul Kruger, the Boers launched another full- scale attack on 6 January 1900 on both the eastern and western ridges simultaneously.

59. Under the command of Cmdt Cornelis de Villiers, the action began at 02:45 and was maintained through a heavy thunderstorm until 16:00 the same day. The commandos of the Transvaal concen-trated on the eastern side. The Orange Free State commandos from Harrismith, Heilbron, Vredefort and Kroonstad launched their attack on Wagon Hill and Bospunt from the west. Attack after attack followed and the defenders were repeatedly driven back as Gen Sir Ian Hamilton succceeded each time in regaining the lost ground. Cmdt De Villiers was killed as he was about to penetrate the British stronghold, but the men of the Orange Free State commando fought grimly on until sunset and then retired down the hill. A great loss of men was experienced on both sides in what was one of the harshest of battles. A large part of Wagon Hill was proclaimed a historical monument in 1938. Four monuments have been erected on it. Two of them commemorate the Devonshire and Imperial Light Horse who, with men of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders, the Sappers, the Rifle Brigade and Manchester Regiment, experienced the heaviest casualties. A third monument was erected in honour of the Duke of Ava who died in the battle, and a fourth is in honour of Cmdt Cornelis de Villiers.


60. Return to the gate and out past the airfield. At the junction of the N11 turn left to Bergville. Follow the N11 towards Bergville for approximately 30 km until you see the sign indicating Spioenkop. Turn left and follow the road towards the unmistakable kopje (hillock) in front of you. The road, 11 km of good gravel, later becomes brick. Your arrival at the summit brings you to one of South Africa's most interesting battle-fields. A ranger will collect your entrance fee (R3 per person) and, if you have not purchased a guide at Ladysmith, he will sell you one. With the aid of the guide follow the steel cable along the ground to the alphabetically designated points of interest. The tour takes approximately 30 minutes and is a gentle walk. Toilets are available.

Historical Background

61. The Battle of Spioenkop was Sir Redvers Buller's second attempt to relieve the seige at Ladysmith. After the disastrous first attack at Colenso, Gen Buller needed a victory very badly and this time concentrated on the far right flank of the Boer strongholds at Spioenkop.

62. On 10 January 1900 Gen Buller, with an army of 24 000 men and 58 guns, set out to the west to take the Spioenkop area and, in so doing, to clear the road to Ladysmith. He positioned himself at Mount Alice, whilst the Boers, determined to stop the British advance, dug themselves in north of the Tugela River.

63. After reconnoitring the area Gen Buller ordered Lt Gen Charles Warren to move down to Trichard's Drift with 15 000 soldiers and 36 guns. At Trichard's Drift Lt Gen Warrenswas to cross the Tugela and outflank the Boer forces. Lt Gen Warrens' crossing of the river took the Boers by surprise as they had expected such a crossing to take place further downstream at either Potgieter's Drifts or Mungers Drift. All that lay between Lt Gen Warren and success was Ntabamnyama (Black Mountain) where 500 burghers of the Boer forces had taken up position. Having wasted three days in preparing for the attack, Lt Gen Warren missed a golden opportunity for success. The Boer forces hastily summoned reinforcements and dug extensive trenches on Ntabamnyama and with Lt Gen Warrens' attack on 20 January he was easily repulsed. The next day he attacked again. Again he was repulsed. He and General Buller decided on 23 January that the only way whereby Ntabamnyama could be taken was by capturing Spioenkop. By placing guns on it they could strafe the Boer trenches and open the road to Ladysmith. This attack was planned for that night. With a force of 1 700 men Major General E.R.P. Woodgate started out at 21:00 to-wards the summit.

64. The strategy was a surprise attack on the Boer forces under the cover of darkness. At the time there were only approximately 100 men of the Boer forces on Spioenkop. The attack was successful: It was only at the very last moment that a Boer picket, who was asleep, heard the approach of the British force. His challenge of, "Who goes there?" was unanswered. When the picket opened fire, the shots passed harmlessly over the heads of the British men. As they fled the other pickets woke their sleeping compatriots on the summit and were joined by them in the retreat down the north-eastern slope. Once at the foot of the kopje they immediately raised the alarm in the various Boer encampments.

65. Meanwhile Maj Gen Woodgate cursorily reconnoitred the area and ordered his troops to fortify their position and to dig trenches. These trenches were mainly north-facing and were positioned on the highest part of the summit. In the hard and stony soil it was virtually impossible to dig proper trenches and the result was shallow ditches a little more than 30cm deep. In the events that followed the lack of proper entrenchment proved to be one of the major factors in the high death toll of the British troops.

66. Whilst the British troops were digging their trenches, Gen Botha (who in the meantime had been informed of the latest developments) immediately ordered his men to recapture Spioenkop. He ordered his men on Ntabamnyama, who were operating four guns there and the men on Twin Peaks, who were operating two guns, as well as the one gun at his headquarters, to target Spioenkop and fire as soon as the morning mist had lifted. A detachment of 400 men were ordered to gather at the north-eastern foot of Spioen-kop, climb the hill and attack the British forces. Groups of 50 men were ordered to occupy Aloe Knoll, Conical Hill and Green Hill simultaneously. All these preparations for the counterattack were under the cover of darkness and early morning mist. At 7:00 the mist lifted and only then did Maj Gen Woodgate realise that his right flank was in a very vulnerable position against an attack from the Boers. He ordered some of his men to take up new positions at the crest. No sooner had they arrived there, when they made contact with some of the burghers scrambling up the slope in the mist. With the advantage of high ground they gradually gained control and began to drive the burghers back. At about 08:00 the mist began to clear. This dramatically changed events. From the surrounding hillocks the position of the British troops was clear to the Boer riflemen and gunners. In the heavy shell bombardment that followed, the British casualties mounted rapidly. Maj Gen Woodgate was mortally wounded and by 12:00 all the British troops on the crest were dead, wounded or had retreated to their trenches. Once in control of the crest line, the Boers were able to advance closer on the British position. A signaller on the crest directed the Boer shell fire with devastating accuracy.

67. In the face of this deadly bombardment the British position became hopeless and on two occasions they vacated sections of the trenches. On the extreme right the British surrendered and in the centre they retreated. Only the steady stream of reinforcements that arrived that afternoon enabled the British to hold onto their position. The casualties on both sides were high. Mahatma Ghandi was a stretcher bearer during the siege and played a significant role during the battle of Spioenkop.

68. During the afternoon the Boers tried to outflank the British troops along the southern slope. Aware that this movement would endanger their rear, the British troops immediately opened fire. This sharp retaliation, made possible by the arrival of reinforcements, enabled them to drive the Boers back to Aloe Knoll. The encounter lasted for about two hours.

69. By early evening the then commanding officer, Lt Col Thorneycroft, found the situation to be hopeless. He was convinced that remaining on the summit until the next morning would result in a rout and ordered his troops to retreat back to the camp. Ironically, unaware of this decision, the Boers decided to withdraw also. On hearing of this Gen Botha was enraged and immediately ordered his troops to climb the hill that very night. This decision was met with much resistance, but some of the burghers returned up the slope and, at daybreak on 25 January, found that the British had retreated and left their dead and wounded behind. The victorious Boer forces then occupied the hill. On the day after the battle a cease-fire was called so that the wounded could be attended to and the dead buried. A total of 340 British troops died, 1 000 were wounded and 189 were taken Prisoner of War. The Boer casualty list was 75 dead and 155 wounded.

70. When you have completed the tour return to the foot of the hill and to the N11. You have a choice of extending your tour to the Berg resorts by turning left and proceeding to Bergville and Winterton, or of returning direct to Durban, or to the Reef by turning right towards Ladysmith, and then joining the N3 for the drive home.

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