The Second Boer War began on the 11th of October 1899, when the Boer armies crossed the frontiers. By then, large amounts of British regulars were on boats headed to the Cape, but they wouldn’t arrive for a while yet. That meant, for a select period of time, the strategic balance in South Africa was decidedly in the Boers favour, at least in terms of the number of men. The British may have expected the Transvaal and Orange Free State Boers to stick behind their borders and adopt a defensive posture, but if so they were in for a rude surprise. Within 24 hours of the declaration of war, the Boers were streaming through Natal, seeking to make the most of their numerical advantage while they had it. The opening battles of the war came from this offensive, and Irish troops were in the middle of the violence.
Aside from their advantage in men, the Boers were also able to take advantage of a number of British blunders in terms of their strategic deployment. The limited British garrison in the Cape Colony and Natal had a large amount of territory to protect, and numerous avenues of invasion to guard against, but individual commanders exacerbated this problem by stationing troops in positions far too isolated to be effective. Primary among these was the small coal mining town of Dundee, located just a few miles south of the Orange Free State border in Natal, that the Boers were now invading in force. British General Sir George White belatedly decided he would be better off if he was to concentrate his troops at the town of Ladysmith, further south, but by the time his orders reached General Penn Symons, at Dundee, it was already too late.
With Symons at Dundee were two Battalions of Irish regiments, the Dublin and Royal Irish Fusiliers, already in South Africa on garrison duty. Boers seized the heights of Talana Hill to the east of Dundee on the 20th of October. Symons, under threat from Boer artillery, decided he wanted to clear them off the hill. Rudimentary infantry assault tactics were employed, preceded by a standard artillery bombardment, as lines of infantry advanced up the hill. The Boers, dug in and armed with up-to-date rifles, unleased a deadly torrent of fire at the attackers. The advance was spearheaded by the Dubliners, with the Royal Irish in the third line. At some cost in lives and injured, the British were able to force the Boers off the hill, but it was a largely empty victory: Symons was killed during the assault, and the British were obligated to withdraw from Dundee altogether anyway and head south to Ladysmith. The Battle of Talana Hill set the tone for much of the initial campaigning to follow, as British dependence on established tactics and effective use of the natural terrain by the Boers led to a serious of bloodbaths.
The retreat from Dundee was a disorderly one. The British kept the line to the town open with victory at Elandslaagte, where the 5th Royal Irish Lancers were engaged, providing one of the few instances in the war where mounted British troops were able to get among retreating Boers and cause the kind of carnage they were known for. A huge proportion of the Boer force at Elandslaagte were made casualties or captured, but the British conspired to throw away any advantage gained from it by the manner of the withdrawal to Ladysmith, where General White, having lost what little nerve had, decided to bunker up. The Boers surrounded Ladysmith, occupying a number of hills near the town that were perfect for their artillery to commence shelling. White decided to try and capture one of these heights, Pepworth Hill. The main assault would be undertaken by English regiments, but a supporting attack on the Boer left flank also took place, that included the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The cavalry that was available to the British was kept in reserve, including the 5th Lancers. Meanwhile, a force that included the Royal Irish Fusiliers was sent northwest to seize a pass called Nicholsons Nek, the aim being to cut off the possibility of Boer reinforcements and Boer retreat.
The plan, when the British attempted to enact it, turned into a disaster. The main assault never really took place, owing to the misplacing of troops, ignorance of the terrain and the effectiveness of Boer rifle and artillery fire on advancing British. White, in a tizzy, ordered a withdrawal under cover of his own artillery, taking copious amounts of casualties. The detachment advancing towards Nicholsons Nek fared worse, failing to reach their objective by the required time and taking cover on a long hill called Tchrengula. The Boers, made aware of this advance, seized higher ground nearby and poured a relentless fire on the British, whose tactics of concentrated volley fire were unsuitable for the terrain or the enemy they fought. After sustaining many casualties, the detachment was obligated to surrender, and 800 British troops went into captivity. White fell back to Ladysmith, and would remain there, under siege, for the next number of months.
The Dublin Fusiliers were involved in one of the more remarkable incidents of the early war, when an armoured train they were garrisoning was ambushed by Boers as it attempted to engage in reconnaissance around Estcourt. The train was a poor choice for such a a task, and was easily ambushed. The Dubliners kept the attacking Boers busy while the wounded from a derailed section of the train were loaded into the engine, which eventually made its escape. Numerous Dubliners were left behind and were eventually compelled to surrender. The incident might just have been a somewhat embarrassing footnote to the overall British experience of the war, but for the involvement of a 25-year-old war journalist named Winston Churchill, who stayed behind with the Dublin Fusiliers and surrendered with them. Churchill would eventually enact an escape from Boer captivity in Pretoria to continue his reporting – and eventual participation – in the war, and spoke praisingly of the Dubliners when recounting the fight.
These setbacks mirrored other events across the area, as Boer offensives caught other British garrisons, resulting in other sieges, most notably at the railway junction town of Mafeking, and at Kimberley, the centre of the diamond trade in Natal. In truth, the Boers were making a mistake in engaging in sieges, which did not suit their skills, sacrificing mobility for bottling up only a certain amount of the forces the British would be able to use in the campaign. They may perhaps have been better served advancing further and trying to stoke up rebellion among Afrikaners in Cape Colony and Natal, in an effort to exert control over all of South Africa before the first major batch of British reinforcements arrived, but this may simply have been a step too far for the Boer citizen-volunteers, who, as time would prove, were not completely reliable when on campaign miles from home.
But the sieges did have the notable advantage of seriously distorting the planned British strategy once the first load of soldiers arrived, that included among their number Sir Redvers Buller, the commander in chief of British forces. Buller wanted to directly march on the capitals of the Transvaal – Pretoria – and the Orange Free State – Bloemfontein – but strong political pressure meant that he had to divert from this aim in order to relieve the British garrisons at Ladysmith and Kimberly first, tasks that were to exact a terrible toll on the British forces.
Those forces included the 5th Infantry Brigade, otherwise known as the Irish Brigade. Commanded by General Arthur Fitzroy Hart, they included battalions from the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Connaught Rangers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers along with the England based Border Regiment. The 6th Brigade, under Geoffrey Barton, also included a battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers. It was these units and men who would be obligated to relieve Kimberley and Ladysmith, fighting through the teeth of entrenched Boer soldiers every step of the way.
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