The Siege of Ladysmith

Posted on Thursday 28th February 2013


The Siege of Ladysmith proved one of the epic events of South African War. Under investment were 12,500 officers and men alongside 5,400 civilians and 2,400 Blacks and Indians in a siege that lasted 118 days from 2 November 1899 to 28 February 1900. In January 1900, the British force crossed the Tugela River and launched an ill-fated attack on Spion Kop.
On 16 January General Buller’s force crossed the Tugela. Lieutenant General Sir Charles Warren’s camp at Springfield was left up, tents erected and bodies of troops wandering about, with normal bugle calls being sounded in the hope that the soldiers who had moved out in the night would escape the notice of Boer observers. The men had one day’s rations and 150 rounds, and were carrying waterproof sheets. No talking or smoking was allowed. Three miles out a change of direction told the men that Trichardt’s Drift, and not Potgieter’s Drift, was the objective. The first men over the river were 1st Rifle Brigade, 2nd Scottish Rifles and 61st howitzer battery.
The General’s brief was to break through west of Spion Kop or ‘Lookout Hill’, as Buller intended that he should cross over Ntabamnyama, believing that Botha would not be ready. Warren has been accused of dillying and dallying without properly preparing, and on the night of the 21st the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, the 2nd Devons, the 1st York and Lancs, the Border Regiment and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers occupied the crest of Ntabamnyama.

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The British view of Spion Kop, taken from the Winterton (née Springfield) to Potgieter’s Drift road, the R600.

After taking time to make up his mind, Warren deliberately assaulted Spion Kop itself, believing that its precipitous sides would cause the Boers to think it impregnable. If the attack was successful he thought he would dominate the road north and would have an ideal site for heavy artillery.
Early on 24 January, Major General E R P Woodgate was ordered to take the peak of Spion Kop. It appears that Warren attempted to impress on him that the British should only entrench and occupy the rear crest of the summit as they were doing on Ntabamnyama. They would be out of range of Boer artillery and the Boers would have been exposed on the top to British shrapnel as they pushed forward. This seems, however, to deny the possibility of mounting big guns safely on the summit.
The Diary of the 2nd Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers recorded events:
Jan 23rd. In the morning rejoined XIth Brigade. Paraded for night attack on Spion Kop at 7.30 pm. Attacking column consisted of 2nd Lancs Fusiliers, 4th Kings Own (six companies), two companies South Lancashire Regiment, Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry, half a company of R.E. and Volunteer ambulance. Marched all night.’
In a letter home to a Mr Peacock on 29 January, Corporal Walter Herbert of The King’s Own wrote,
‘At 8 pm Tuesday we were marched off into the dark (literally and metaphorically) to we knew-not-where. At about 12 midnight we reached the foot of a tremendous looking hill, but not looking half as tremendous as it really was – as after climbing one spur we found another awaiting for us and then another... an uncomfortable feeling took possession of me as I remembered it was the anniversary of Majuba.’
The Lancashire Fusiliers:
Jan 24th. Climbed Spion Kop and were fired on by piquet, which we rushed, and then occupied hill. Misty and dark; entrenched ourselves. Sniping soon began and as mist cleared shell-fire commenced. Under extremely heavy fire until 8 pm when it was decided that the position was untenable and the force retired.
Lieutenant Colonel Blomfield wrote in his own account,
‘On the 23rd the Battalion returned (with much thankfulness) to its own Brigade (the XI). At midday Major General Sir E Woodgate sent for me, and said that Spion Kop was to be taken that night, and that as he “must have tried troops” for such a hazardous operation, he had determined that the Lancashire Fusiliers should lead the way.
At dusk we moved off from the bivouac we had been on for the afternoon of the rendezvous, reaching it about 8.30 pm.
Here we met the rest of the column and two companies of the S. Lancashire Regiment sent to reinforce the six companies of the Royal Lancaster Regiment. There was some discussion as to who should lead the column, and finally Lieutenant Colonel Thorneycroft was selected for this most difficult and responsible undertaking of leading some 1,600 men up an unknown mountain on a dark night, against a determined enemy of unknown strength.’

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This was the view from Conical Hill as the Boer marksmen saw it. Boer riflemen held Twin Peaks until the afternoon. They were firing from Aloe Knoll all day. Spion Kop summit and the far side were held by the British. The near face and, from about midday, the near crest of Spion Kop was held by the Boers.
General Woodgate marched at the head of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Colonel Thorneycroft led the column, assisted by Captain Brunker, 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers.
It was an extremely dark night, though the stars gave a faint light when the drizzling rain permitted. The track on which we moved across the valley to the west of the spurs running down from Spion Kop to the Tugela was narrow and undefined, and single file was frequently necessary. Constant halts had to be made to let the column close up.
Once across the valley the upward climb began, and though a broader front could now be used, there was nothing but the vague loom of the mountain to the north to guide the stumbling footsteps of the column. Here the skill and resource of Colonel Thorneycroft became apparent. He would halt the column and go on alone for one or two hundred yards to feel for a way on, and then come back and lead us forward. About a third of the way up a Kaffir kraal was passed about 11 o’clock, and we knew that so far all was well, and that we had worked up to the end of the lowest of the three slopes that form the southern approach to Spion Kop. This kraal was one of the few landmarks there were.
‘The higher the column climbed, the thicker was the mist. What little wind there was blew in our faces, and well it was for us that it was so, for sound sleeper as the Boer is, the noise of nailed boots on rocks must have wakened some of them had we been up-wind of their posts.
'Slowly, but surely, we clambered up, and now we were on a plateau that surely must be the top. The Battalion was at this time in four successive lines, or double companies, with 100 yards or so between the companies, and men in single rank. [At times the climb was so steep that they had to use their hands] Suddenly a hoarse voice from the left front shouted, “Wi kom dar,” and immediately a heavy, but ill-directed fire was opened in our direction. Obedient to the orders previously issued, every man threw himself flat on the ground till the fire slackened, and then on the word “Charge,” the Battalion dashed forward, cheering, and Spion Kop was ours. Lieutenant Awdry bayoneted a burly Dutchman in a trench, and a few others were killed, as they fired at us from behind the rocks; but except these, all the garrison, from 80 to 100 strong, dropped down over the mountain side by paths and tracks they knew by heart and awaited developments.’
Herbert continues,
‘After 5 hours climbing we were nearing the top when without a moment’s warning we got a volley blanked fairly into us from a short distance it was pitch dark so you can understand that there was near being a panic but after a moment the boys recovered themselves and fixing bayonets made a dash and the hill was ours.’
Blomfield:
‘I ascertained afterwards that this little Boer garrison had been for three weeks on Spion Kop before we crossed the Tugela, so they had ample time to make themselves acquainted with every nook and cranny of the mountain top. The mist was so thick that it was impossible to signal down by lamp to the camp that the orders of the G.O.C. had been carried out, but resounding cheers bore the news to the anxious watchers down below.’
General Warren would thus know that the objective was theirs, allowing him to commence artillery fire on the nek between Green Hill and Spion Kop, as well as the reverse slope. No attempt was made to determine the extent and shape of the summit.
Sandbags had been forgotten, though the Royal Engineers had shared out between the men shovels, picks and some crowbars so at 4 o’clock Major Massey and his sappers began to tape out a curved, 200-yard trench line on what was believed to be the crest.
The trench made an arc, roughly facing Ladysmith, of course, with fifty yards behind it a rocky outcrop, but at its right-hand end two curved sangars only had to do. Many tools had been dropped on the hill, and the sandbags left at the bottom, so the trench was a poor shallow affair, scratched out with entrenching tools in rocky soil. The rocks were piled into a wall a foot or eighteen inches high, infilled with debris. At about 6.30 the men could have a rest. All being shrouded in cloud, no-one knew that the right-hand end would turn out to be in enfilade from Aloe Knoll, 250 yards to the right. On the right were the Lancashire Fusiliers, on the left the Royal Lancasters and South Lancashires, and in the middle Thorneycroft’s Mounted Infantry. Woodgate sent Colonel Repington à Court, Buller’s staff officer attached, back down the hill to Warren to ask for naval guns, and to inform him that he felt himself to be secure, but ‘fog is too thick to see.’
At 7.00 am the error of their position was understood and troops were sent forward to occupy new positions at the northern edge, and, briefly, between 7.30 and 7.45 the British had a view of ‘their hill.’
Meanwhile, General Schalk Burger’s men were beginning to retire, pack up and leave but Botha moved in to strengthen the Boers’ resolve and he brought up artillery at close range with two other guns three miles away; two of them were 6˝ Long Toms on the rear slope of Green Hill. The ninety-odd strong Carolina Commando under Henrik Prinsloo was assigned to storm the ridge and ascended to a line between Conical Hill and Aloe Knoll, Spion Kop’s outliers.
Corporal Herbert again;
About 6.00 am we were under the hottest fire from about 8,000 rifles that I ever hope to be under, but even that was not the worst. Shortly their Nordenfelt started barking... TA says it says “buck up! buck up” and really it is not unlike it, except that it makes one buck down pretty sharp when he hears it and for the next 16 hours our noses were buried in the ground except when we were firing.’
Whether his recollection of timing or his opinion of the numbers of enemy guns is correct or not, when the mist cleared he and his comrades were seen to be in a death-trap.
The mist cleared by 8.00 am and the Boers were revealed, clambering up the hill. As they neared the top the soldiers hit them hard, but the defenders were themselves under fire from Conical Hill and Aloe Knoll and the attackers got a foothold. The British retired to their main trench already knowing that it was wrongly placed and they had to hide behind their rocky breastwork while they and the Boers baked in the sun. Those on the forward crest were exposed to a cross-fire from Green Hill as well as from Aloe Knoll, and the Lancashire Fusiliers, on the right, aiming at the men in their front, were unprotected against the enemy on Aloe Knoll; in fact Botha claimed that seventy of the corpses in the trenches had bullet wounds through the right side of the head.

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The British morning, after the nightmare before.

Boer artillery was now firing from a number of points, and was controlled by heliograph and signallers.
Lieutenant Colonel Blomfield wrote,
‘About 8.30 am I noticed a large party of Boers coming along a path, and reported accordingly to General Woodgate. He came back with me to the spot from which I had been on the look-out, and as we were watching the path the General was shot through the head above the right eye.
‘I went to Colonel Crofton, commanding the Royal Lancaster Regiment, the senior officer present, and told him what had happened. As he was now in command, I asked him if there were any special orders for the Battalion, and he said, No, but that he should signal down to say that we were “hard pressed and needed reinforcements.” I have a very distinct recollection of the actual words used, and as this message became afterwards of considerable importance, it is as well to record the proposed wording of it.’ (sic)
Crofton quickly decided that the trenches were wrongly sited and too shallow and that the defensive perimeter was too small. Meanwhile, at 9.00 am Repington à Court reached Warren and was still upbeat about the situation as his news was from very early that morning, but even then he could report on the shortage of water, indicating what a problem it would be later in the day. At 9.10 am General Coke on Three Tree Hill was told to send another battalion to the summit and the Imperial Light Infantry were assigned to the job, but they initially went too far round the mountain and so wasted an hour.
Corporal Herbert’s letter continued,
‘Shells are a terrible thing to have whizzing over one but a confounded sight worse to have bursting close to ones head as dozens did that day. One man within a few feet behind me was blown to pieces by one and the trenches were soon filled with dead and wounded. The mystery is how any of us escaped.’
Lieutenant Colonel Blomfield unknowingly agreed as he wrote at more length,
‘In the centre of the hill top the Sergeant Major (Moss) was busy serving out ammunition boxes to the trenches. The fire was now very heavy, as 4 of the field guns taken from us at Colenso on Dec. 15th, and a Creuzot (sic) 94 pr., had got our range from a sheltered position on the N.W. Nearly every shot they fired took its toll in killed or wounded.
I well remember one shell that hit some men lying in a row behind some rocks that afforded protection to their front only. Two shells passed through the thighs of one man, and on through the legs of the man next to him, leaving only the trunk of the first and carrying away one leg of the second man. A sergeant of the R.E. was lying on the near side of the two men killed and I noticed that his canteen was glittering in the sun, and possibly drawing fire. I told him to turn it round out of sight. The sergeant looked at me, but never spoke or moved, merely turning his eyes towards me, and I learned afterwards that this unfortunate NCO had also been hit by this shell, which had touched his spine and completely paralyzed him.’
Crofton’s message that immediate reinforcements were called for was received by Sir C Warren at 9.50. Of him The Times History said,
‘That he could assist... with the 10,000 men at his disposal and in touch with the enemy along four miles of front, was a thing that, even now, he could not or would not see. The suggestion that something should be done on the left seems to have been pressed more than once in the course of the morning by junior Staff officers... beyond some vague discussion with Clery and Hildyard, neither of whom seems to have had the least inclination to do anything, nothing came of it.’
At 10.00 am Lyttelton sent the Scottish Rifles and two squadrons of Bethune’s MI against Twin Peaks. Eight naval 12 pounders and two howitzers on Maconochie Kopjes (lower hills above and on the Spion Kop side of Potgieter’s Drift) opened fire on the eastern slopes of Spion Kop where the Boers were now under the lip of the summit and on Aloe Knoll, along with the two naval 4.7s on Mount Alice. Warren sent to Buller and Lyttelton, ‘We occupy the whole summit and I fear you are shelling us seriously; cannot you turn your guns on the enemy’s guns?’
Lieutenant Colonel Blomfield:
‘About 10.30 am I was walking up to “C” Company’s trench, when I was hit by a Mauser bullet through the right shoulder and knocked over. Major Tidswell and Sergeant Lightfoot, of “C” Company, in their trench some 30 yards off, saw me fall, and at once ran out in the most gallant manner and dragged me under cover into their trench. There I remained for the rest of the day.’
Thorneycroft, who had driven off that first picket, was the hero of the piece and now he led a charge in impossible circumstances, only to fall with a twisted ankle under the lattice of fire. Crofton’s message to Warren that Woodgate was dead got the response from Sir Charles that help was on the way but it was essential to hold out. Buller could see all this in the distance from his HQ on Mount Alice but only learned after the event that Warren, instead of calling for help from Hart on his left, had received two infantry battalions and a body of mounted soldiers from Lyttelton. Buller is said not to have been consulted but at this distance in time it is impossible to get to the minute by minute truth. Buller was told by Repington à Court on his return that big guns were called for and the two naval guns were dispatched.
At 11.40 am Buller could see Thorneycroft’s valiant efforts from his own command post and he instructed Warren to tell Thorneycroft to take command, which instruction was received on the hillside at 11.50 am. In fact, Thorneycroft was not told until afternoon, by which time he was the only officer left in the front trench.
His report read,
‘The Boers closed in at the right and centre. Some men of mixed regiments at the right end of the trench got up and put up their hands; three or four Boers came out and signalled their comrades to advance. I was the only officer in the trench on the left, and I got up and shouted to the leader of the Boers that I was the commandant and that there was no surrender. [This is said to have been about 1.05 pm.] In order not to get mixed up in any discussion I called on all the men to follow me, and retired to some rocks further back. The Boers opened a heavy fire on us. On reaching the rocks I saw a company of the Middlesex Regiment advancing. I collected them up to the rocks, and ordered all to advance again. This the men did, and we reoccupied the trench and crestline in front. As the companies of the Middlesex arrived I pushed them on to reinforce, and was able to hold the whole line again. The men on the left of our defence, who were detached at some distance from the trench, had held their ground. The Imperial Light Infantry reinforced this part.’
About two o’clock a similar scene was enacted on the left of the British line where the South Lancashire men, behind their particularly pathetic defences, were swamped by a rush of Boers and some caused to surrender. Again, one man broke the spell and it was Colour Sergeant Nolan who cried out, ‘When I surrender, it will be my dead body,’ driving the invaders back behind their own rocks and recovering his comrades to their senses.
Men from the 2nd Middlesex Regiment had been on their way since 6.00 am. Immediately on reaching the top they ran into a hail of fire when their first casualties were taken including Corporal Clements.
Blomfield:
‘About 2 pm two companies of the Middlesex Regiment, and a little later two of the Scottish Rifles, came up to reinforce. They behaved with the greatest courage and energy, but their presence on the top of the mountain merely increased the density of the living target at which the Boers were firing, and their gallant exertions were in vain. They had to withdraw after suffering terribly heavy losses.
It was while the Middles (sic) were fighting that an odd incident occurred. Our men and the Boers apparently advanced simultaneously, both thinking the others were surrendering. After much shouting, and neither showing any signs of giving in, firing was again opened at pistol shot range, and the casualties over this incident must have been extremely heavy.’
The British control of the crest-line was now long gone and this position had become the Boer front-line with the Burghers tucked under the northern edge. They were, as one of their own said, near enough to have tossed a biscuit into their opponent’s line. Gradually the ground in front of the main trench became the point of the dispute and it was here where Thorneycroft threw the enemy back by the force of his personality and, as he retired, he met the Middlesex, the Imperial Light Infantry, some Bethune’s and the Cameronians, all of whom were ushered into the fight. Again, it is impossible, considering the postage-stamp-size of the field, to understand how anyone was left alive, Briton or Boer.
Men on both sides were taken prisoner and some escaped again so that Putland said,
‘[Our] men that escaped told us that every Rifleman had two or more rifles and while they were firing one, Boys was reloading the others and they also said their killed and wounded must have been close to 3,000.’
The British were having a bad time, as we have seen, but what of the Boers? A youngster who had a famous future was Deneys Reitz, son of the Transvaal’s State Secretary and he found, as he climbed the hill behind the Boer counter-attack, that there were many dead on the hillside. Once they had gained the rim of the summit the British trench was, he says, twenty yards away, and the effects of the British rifle-fire was causing heavy casualties among them and demoralizing them. Little did they know of the charnel-house at the other side of the dry-stone wall. During the day the dreadful fire-storm and the noise of the artillery wore them down and they began to drift away back down the hill.
Blomfield:
‘The battle went on all day. Rifle fire now and then slackened a little, but the guns from N.W. and E. pounding steadily away with horrible effect. The Boers were so close that their voices could be heard from among some rocks near at hand, but they showed no inclination to come to close quarters with our men.
Reitz remained in his place until after 10.00 pm, listening to the cries of the wounded and to the talking of the British soldiers, before leaving with his Commandant, who had been there for sixteen hours. Again, Corporal Herbert’s words in his letter are confirmed, ‘for the next sixteen hours our noses were buried into the ground except when firing.’
They felt beaten, and it is ironic that Brother Boer and Tommy Atkins were of one mind. Reitz says that his comrades expected to see the line broken in the morning and the British streaming through. But that was not how it turned out, and this time it was not due to Botha, although he turned up in nick of time and rallied the Burghers as so often.
By 7.00 pm it was going dark and neither side could influence the other so the Boers left and went down the hill where the lone figure of Botha attempted to stiffen them up. Unfortunately for him General Burger had taken his Commandos and their two pieces of artillery and gone. At 9 o’clock the direction on Warren’s side again seemed to be poor for only then was a party put together to place the naval guns and improve the trenches. Coke was ordered back to HQ for a consultation but was never told that Thorneycroft was in charge. Indeed, he was never told of Warren’s plans. When midnight came artillery, water, fresh troops and medical supplies were still not up the hill.
At day-break the next day Reitz and his friends saw two men on the top waving their hats. They were Boers who had found the place empty, save for death and dread injury. The British a little later saw the same sight.
Let Lieutenant Colonel Blomfield summarize,
‘Much has been said about the enormous tactical advantage that would have been gained had Spion Kop been held. My own view is that the position was always absolutely untenable.
‘At the first glance, no doubt, it seemed a fine big mountain, from which the entire range north, north-west, and north-east of it could be commanded. From its summit you could see all the Boer positions away to the west towards Acton Homes, and to the eastward nearly to Vaal Krantz. But if the enemy on that long range of defences had guns (and we knew they had), the mountain slopes were obviously commanded themselves by a converging and enfolding fire from north-west and north-east, to say nothing of a direct fire from the north.
‘The top of the mountain was evidently small and very exposed to the north, to which it sloped downwards. Had our guns ever been got up they would not have remained in action ten minutes.
‘January 24th was not one of the days on which the Royal Artillery gained fresh laurels, and it was, indeed, fortunate for the gunners that they were unable to get guns to the top of Spion Kop.’
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Spion Kop, Natal.

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Lieutenant General Sir Charles Warren, KCMG, arrived in time for the move upstream to the Potgieter’s Drift area. His artillery, shown above, moving up from Frere Camp.
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Six companies of the 2nd Battalion The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment marching in column, and at ease, towards Spion Kop.

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The view from Spion Kop looking towards Conical Hill and the Boer positions below the summit.

'The trench made an arc, roughly facing Ladysmith, of course, with 50 yards behind it a rocky outcrop, but at its right-hand end two curved sangars only had to do. Many tools had been dropped on the hill, and the sandbags left at the bottom, so the trench was a poor shallow affair, scratched out with entrenching tools in rocky soil. The rocks were piled into a wall a foot or 18 inches high, infilled with debris. At about 6.30 the men could have a rest. All being shrouded in cloud, no-one knew that the right-hand end would turn out to be in enfilade from Aloe Knoll, 250 yards to the right. On the right were the Lancashire Fusiliers, on the left the Royal Lancasters and South Lancashires, and in the middle Thorneycroft's Mounted INfantry. Woodgate sent Colonel Repington a Court, Buller's staff officer attached, back down the hill to Warren to ask for naval guns, and to inform him that he felt himself to be secure, but "fog is too thick to see."'

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The wounded come down from the hill. Somewhere in this procession of pain was Mr Ghandi, leader of Indian stretcher bearers and future leader of Indian millions.

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Lee-Metford .303 magazine rifle introduced into the British Army in 1888. Each round of ammunition had to be loaded into the box magazine individually – the magazine held ten rounds.

'The Boers closed in at the right and centre. Some men of mixed regiments at the right end of the trench got up and put up their hands; three or four Boers came out and signalled their comrades to advance... The Boers opened heavy fire on us... The men on the left of our defence, who were detached at some distance from the trench, had held their ground. The Imperial Light Infantry reinforced this part.'

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The M1893 pattern Mauser rifle used to such good effect by the Boer farmers against the British Regular Army.

Private Putland's diary
Private Putland’s account is in the diary he kept, now in the possession of the National Army Museum, (Reference 8107-18). He too described the maxims as “Buck-up” and he wrote graphically if not grammatically.
‘The Boers know the exact distance and consequently the shells fall all around us. Here was where the Lancashire Fusiliers were retiring but after being reinforced by us they come back again to the firing line, they have lost all their officers and had no one in charge of them that caused there (sic) retirement, a tremendous fire met us now and dead, wounded and dying was awful and the groaning was sickening. I was lying on the ground firing with the remainder on the extreme right of the firing line when Captain Muriel told us to go about 60 yards to our right front and about thirty of us went, two or three of us getting hit there, and directly we got in position Colour Sergeant Morris was... telling me where to fire, he was hit through the nose. He was my right hand man, and directly after this a young fellow was shot on my left. Soon after this I was ordered to go to the main body with a message, as it was not safe to lift your head up off the ground I did not like the job, but I had to do it and there was little time for thinking, so I said a prayer to myself and off I went. The bullets was like rain around me, it was a terrible time for me, and there was any amount of dead here by this time, and the shouts was fearful.’

'The battle went on all day. Rifle fire now and then slackened a little, but the guns from N.W. and E. pounding steadily away with horrible effect. The Boers were so close that their voices could be heard from among some rocks near at hand, but they showed no inclination to come to close quarters with our men.'
(Blomfield)



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Some of the victors of Spion Kop.

Further Reading


Ladysmith
(Paperback)
ISBN: 9780850526110

by Lewis Childs
Only £9.95

In 1899 the Boers, armed with the latest European rifles and artillery, drove through Natal to help themselves to a seaport - Durban - only to spend their energies in laying siege to the market and railway town of Ladysmith.
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...