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Elandslaagte, News from the Front

Circumstance rather than design dictated, as is oft the way, that I should be present at Elandslaagte on the morning of the 20th of October 1899.  Within several hours of the conclusion of the action at Talana Hill, General Yule had set his mind to quit the environs of Dundee in order to restore his communications with Ladysmith and avoid the isolation of his force among the growing number of Boers whom, it seemed, now roamed freely across northern Natal.  Reports from the natives indicated that our foe was “as locusts on the fields” and in the face of such numbers withdrawal involved no dishonour.  As a consequence we of the medical corps faced the sad duty of abandoning a portion of our wounded, those men who were unable to walk, to the mercies of the Boer.  In an attempt to avoid such recourse it was decided that I should ride immediately to General White to see if a train could be brought to Glencoe Junction in order to facilitate the removal of the wounded.

Of course I had ridden as a fugitive in enemy lands previously in Afghanistan, yet never had I felt under such threat of discovery as here on the British soil of Natal.  I had assumed the attire of a Dutch farmer, yet not a single word of their language could I speak, and it was with some relief on the following morning that I met a patrol of the Dragoon Guards near the Modder Spruit river.  At Elandslaagte I had ridden through significant numbers of the enemy who, fortunately for my cause, were momentarily diverted, their attention held by the contents of a British train which had fallen into their hands.  Indeed it was due to my opportunity to observe the enemy here that saw me presented to General Sir John French who himself had advanced up from Ladysmith with the intention of discovering the extent of the Boer presence in the area.  I was able to assure him that they were there in numbers, and also appraise him of the presence of artillery pieces on the ridge that runs off to the south east from Elandslaagte station.  Armed with this information French lost no time in tapping in to the telegraphic line and reporting back to General White.  The reply was forthcoming that the enemy were to be assailed and the railway line restored to use.  Indeed reinforcements were to be sent by train to affect such an end.

The rest of the morning was spent testing out the Boer defences.  The colonials of the Natal artillery valiantly attempted to take their guns forward to challenge the enemy, however their antiquated muzzle loading pieces were no match for the modern guns which the enemy had acquired from Europe and, severely out-ranged, French recalled them to sit with the body of our force outside the fall of enemy shells.  Despite withdrawing to a distance of several miles we were still harassed by the Boer outposts who throughout the morning fought an on-going war in cameo with our cavalry patrols and the men of the Manchesters who made up our infantry escort.
Elands A

So it was that we were placed when the cry went up that a train was approaching from the south.  French himself flagged down the driver and soon seven companies of the 1st Devonshires and five of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders were disembarking along with two batteries of the Royal Field artillery.  Colonel Ian Hamilton drew up his infantry in readiness for the attack and addressed them in stirring terms.  By now it was after three in the afternoon, and the Colonel, tasked by General French with commanding the infantry attack, put much emphasis on the import of despatching the enemy before the fall of night, for it was clear that were he allowed the chance General Kock, the ageing Boer veteran General, would retire his force under cover of darkness and evade our blow.  Thus made aware of their task the infantry began their advance, intent on landing their punch on the chin of Johnny Boer.

French’s plan was a simple one.  To the enemy’s front the Devonshire Regiment would advance in open order supported by four squadrons of the Imperial Light Horse in a dismounted role.  The two batteries of the Royal Field Artillery would suppress the enemy guns to facilitate this frontal advance, whilst on the right, hidden from the enemy view, the Gordons and the four companies of the Manchesters would march to arrive on the Boer flank and deliver the telling blow.  Our cavalry contingent, three squadrons in total from the 5th Lancers and the 5th Dragoon Guards, were to be held back on the left, ready to move forward to cut off the enemy retreat once our infantry pushed home their attack.
Elands B

At first the advance in the face of the enemy met with but sporadic fire which was surprisingly ineffective.  I was close enough to Sir Ian to hear him state that these chaps were “nothing to those at Majuba”, for he had fought the Boer some years before to his own cost.  However, by the time the lines were within around 800 yards of the enemy they were suffering sufficiently to see them take advantage of the cover of a donga, a dry river bed, which ran parallel to the enemy positions along the ridge.  Scott-Chisholme of the Imperial Light Horse attempted to push on, however his men were not inclined to follow at that juncture, so they too joined the Devons in that small waterway and awaited events.

From the hill the enemy gunnery was noteworthy for its accuracy.  Two guns of the 42nd Field Artillery were put out of service, and despite the best efforts of our gunners the enemy maintained a methodical fire.  For a time it appeared that the battle had become an uneven contest between the Boers in their sangars on the hills and our men below in the donga, but then Colonel Hamilton could be seen calling up the reserves and as they moved forward and negotiated the waterway men of other companies rose up to join them in the advance forwards and the climb up the slope began.

Some firing had been heard from way off on the right and riding to join General French’s party I was soon to realise that the flanking force had encountered some small parties of Boers and been obliged to deploy into battle order in order to clear them out, thereby slowing their progress.  Indeed General French himself now went forward into the firing line with the reserves of the Devonshires in order to keep the attack moving forward despite hot fire from the enemy.
Elands C

On our left a party of German volunteers serving under the flag of the Transvaal had ridden in from positions near the station in order to reinforce the firing line, and it was here that their fire drove off an advance by a squadron of the Dragoon Guards which had been despatched in an unsuccessful attempt to cut them off as they retired.  Thus reinforced, fire from the Boer position again halted the advance of our front line, despite the heroic example set by Sir Ian Hamilton.  As the shadows lengthened it seemed that the enemy was slipping slowly but inexorably through our fingers.

Yet now, from off to the right, the skirl of the pipes could be heard; faintly at first, then more distinct.  On the right hand ridge we could see Boers abandoning their positions and their gunners tuning their pieces to face this new threat.  The retort of their cannon could be heard, echoing from the hills, but then into sight came the men of the Highlands.  None could stand their fury.

I was told after the event that Colonel Dick-Cunyngham, in an attempt to speed their advance, kept his men formed up in close order, and so, firmly in-hand, the Scots surged forward.  In response the Devonshires too recommenced their advance up the slope, as indeed did Scott-Chisholme’s colonials, now supported by the Natal battery that had been so badly served by the Boer gunners earlier in the day.  Under this pressure the enemy centre could be seen to withdraw, later reports from prisoners confirmed that this had been the town-dwellers of the Johannesburg commando who fell back in the face of the advance of the Uitlanders of the Imperial Light Horse (for there was no love lost between them), thereby leaving the German Corps isolated and also obliged to withdraw.
Elands D

Now, in a final surge, came on the Gordons.  Still in close formation they were an unstoppable force that flooded up onto the knoll where the sole enemy resistance remained in the shape of the Hollander Corps under Commandant Lombard.  On our left the Lancers were now riding forward, commanded directly by General French, but what Boers remained, chiefly the German Corps, was to make good their escape as, finally, night fell.  The Boer commander, General Kock, was made prisoner along with the Hollander Corps that had valiantly but possibly unwisely, held on to the last.  Our casualties were light, less than 100 men dead and 200 wounded, whilst the enemy had lost fifty dead and fifty wounded and around 400 men as prisoners along with two guns.  It seemed that after Talana Hill and now Elandslaagte we had the measure of Johnny Boer.  We can  but hope for a swift conclusion to this absurd war between two such mis-matched foes.

John H.Watson, MD.
Assistant Surgeon
Army Medicial Department
Natal

Well, another very interesting playtest.  What is really good is how much historical feel these games have, not in terms of who wins, but in the way that the troops perform.  The attack of the Gordons in close order was very interesting.  In order to pin across the front the Devonshires and the ILH (fighting dismounted) had uses open order (not as open as Hamilton used in reality) which was ideal for a pinning manoeuvre, but on the flank the time lost to Boer piquets that had been posted on the flanks meant that the Gordons had arrived with very little daylight left.  In order to maintain the momentum the commander, in this case Sid masquerading as Colonel Dick-Cunyngham (It’s the real name of the commander before anyone says “it’s the Lardies using silly names again”) did exactly what Hart would attempt at Colenso, keeping his men in close order in order to ensure he could keep them all moving.  as they are easier to command in that formation.  The difference between this attack and Hart at Colenso is this was made onto a weak flank (and succeeded) whereas Hart took his column into a peninsular of land with an enemy on three sides of him across a river (and, predictably, failed).    Which I guess leads me on to attempting to describe just what we are attempting to achieve with these rules; so here goes.

Column or Line?
I have attempted to game the Boer War several times over the years, each time previously with results that have seen me sell my figures on EBay and give up in disgust.  Looking back I can see why.  What I most want to achieve is a set of rules which models the way that troops really fought, a truly tactical rule set that allows us to examine the specific manner that war was conducted in Southern Africa between 1899 and 1900 (for now I am ignoring the guerrilla war stage which I see as more appropriate for a Sharp Practice sized game).  I do not want a generic colonial rule set as, frankly, I do not believe generic rule sets allow the realities of a conflict to be displayed and examined.  Of course they CAN produce fun games, but a rule set that is specific to a conflict can also be fun whilst giving us an insight into the conflict, and that is the goal that we have set for this project.

In previous attempts my feelings were that I have been hampered by an overly traditional view of the subject matter.  I think that like most wargamers I had a tendency to attempt to put the tactics of the period into those two most comfortable of catch-all’s, “Column” and “Line”.  Indeed when gaming anything from the seventeenth century up to the Great War we do seem to like to arrange our toy soldiers into one of these two formations, and to a degree the history books tell us that we are right.  Napoleon’s armies fought in column, Wellington’s in line.  The French in 1859 fight in fast moving columns, the Austrians in 1866 in slower moving but denser columns, the Prussians of 1870 advance in columns and fight in line, it all fits neatly into Column and Line.  However the truth is that it doesn’t.  The Napoleonic French column and the Austrian column of 1866, and again the Prussian column of 1870 are entirely different.  The thin red streak at Balaclava and the Prussian firing line at St Privat are both lines, but so different in their nature that to use the same terminology is not only wrong, it actually distorts our interpretation, our mental picture if you like, of what is really happening on that battlefield.

With the Boer War the terms Column and Line are nothing more, frankly, that an utterly dangerous misrepresentation which if we attempt to stick with them in anything other than the loosest sense, will ensure that our attempts to model this conflict are nothing more than a somewhat bland game using figures dressed for the Boer War, but with little to really link it to the war itself.

Let us look at one theoretical example from the British drill book at the time and then one very specific example from the real battle of Elandslaagte.  Firstly the drill book attack, below.  You’ll see in this picture that I have compressed the lines closer together in order to save space, but the smaller image to the right shows what the attack really looked like.  This is one battalion of eight companies.  In the first wave are two companies in open order.  This is the firing line that is initially expected to make contact with the enemy.  Once it has done so it fires by platoons and then advances in rushes of around forty yards.  Naturally it is expected that in some situations the first wave will be halted by enemy fire, in which case the second wave, initially formed up 400 yards to the rear, will shake out into open order, move up and pass the front line and continue the advance afresh.  The men in the first wave able to do so will join the second wave in the continued advance.  The third wave is the reserve of four companies which are there to advance rapidly once the first two waves have defeated the enemy and use their mobility to exploit the gap in the enemy front.
Elands 1

Naturally the drill book was not always applied precisely on the battlefield, and at Elandslaagte we see variations on a theme.  Sir Ian Hamilton, the commander of the infantry attack, formed the Devonshire Regiment up with three companies in its first wave.  These extended over a distance of 800 to 1000 yards (accounts vary but the gap between men suggests the latter rather than the former), and extremely open formation.  The four remaining companies were then drawn up in four subsequent waves, each with around 450 yards between each line.  So the whole formation formed a massive T shape, with its broad head up to 1000 yards wide and its upright tail a mile deep.

So, what are they, lines or columns?  In truth they are neither.  The firing line is indeed a line, and successive lines are normally sent into battle in waves of men again in lines, but there remains the fact that if one looks at a battalion as a whole it is actually deployed in a manner which, in the broadest terms of reference, is a column.

And the above paragraph is a perfect illustration of why sticking to the terms “line” and “column” is not helpful for this war.  By adherence to them we attempt to make the formations fit in with points of reference with which we are comfortable.  Our conclusion has been that if we are to produce a set of rules that actually models the tactics of the conflict in a realistic manner we need to think more in terms of groups of men and less in terms of what formation we want to call that.  Which is convenient as there are aspects there that are also true of Through the Mud & the Blood, our Great War rules, where commanders have the opportunity, albeit in a more skirmish type environment, to combine together groups of me as the situation demands.  So, having taken the quantum leap away from the comfort zone of “column and line” we have to face up to an even greater holy cow.  Unit integrity.

What Regiment is That?
Indeed you may well ask, and many Boer War commanders did the same.  As we have seen described above in the 1896 Infantry Drill book, the second wave interpenetrating the first would pick up men from those companies whose advance had stalled, and, thus reinforced, they would continue on forwards.  This is not just an accidental muddling up of men from various companies, but a completely intentional attempt to maximise the fighting power of a force.  For the anally retentive in the wargaming world this is a potential nightmare.  Believe you me, it gets worse.   When Penn-Symons went forward to the stone wall above the Smith Farm at Talana Hill the men he found sheltered there not just men from different companies, but were in fact from several Regiments, all mixed in together.  In the face of enemy fire no attempt was made to dress ranks, nor to sort out a Leicestershire man from a Dubliner, the officers on the spot simply rallied those men around them and led the whole lot forward as one body.  And this was no novelty.  One sees the same thing happen in every battle of the war, as units in extended order trip over each other and become muddled up.  Hardly surprising when we look at the 1000 yards by one mile that the seven companies of the Devonshires deployed over, and indeed a testament to the trust that the men had in the British officer per se, not just the ones they knew from their company or Regiment, but still a potential nightmare for the rule designer.

Once again we are obliged to make a leap of faith away from the comfort of strictly defined units.  If there are 12 bases along that wall, does it matter that they are men of three Regiments that have been swept along by the tide of events and just happened to end up there?  If we know from historical precedent that they will follow the leaders that happen to be there with them, whomsoever they may be, then it is surely much of a muchness whether it is the Leicestershires, the Dubliners, the KRRC or the Dagenham Girl Pipers?   It’s possibly heretical for a wargame designer to say that, but one has to examine the historical evidence and if that says it works then it should work in the rules as well.

Now, naturally I am not saying that unit integrity counts for nothing.  I am a firm believer that Regimental systems generally, and the British Regimental system in this particular case, counts for much.  However it is quite possible to reflect that by enhancing the command and control within a discrete and intact unit, rather than penalising those groups that form the ad hoc units that quite literally litter every battlefield of the Boer War.    In our game of Elandslaagte we saw several platoons on the left of the Devonshires get swept along when the Imperial Light Horse went forward against the bank clerks and shop keepers from Johannesburg, at Talana Hill last week the right hand companies of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps got intermixed with the Dublin Fusiliers, whilst on their left their companies were tied up with the Royal Irish Fusilers, to the extent that their Colonel just pitched in where he was most needed, irrespective of which troops they were.  In reality it was actions of exactly that nature that in reality saw Ian Hamilton recommended for a Victoria Cross at Elandslaagte for his bravery in the front line keeping his men going.

So, that is where we stand thus far.  More reports in the next few weeks from the African veldt as the battles get bigger and, we hope, better.

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3 Responses

  1. Max says:

    Rich

    Fascinating report and a well thought out analysis to finish. This is a really interesting anbd transitional period and it looks like the rules are capturing the feel and challenges for both commanders. It’s difficult for the British as they tend to be attacking and so irt’s good to see that historical tactics make the difference. I’m really looking forward to these rules.

  2. rgregory says:

    Surprised there aren’t more comments for such a fantastic post. I for one have really enjoyed reading that, and I don’t usually stick around for wordy posts.

    I like that you are showing the thinking behind the rules and watching the rules develop is amazing. I’m waiting with baited breath to fight on mars with these rules, so keep it up.

    How about some more commentary on how the Boers are working? We haven’t heard much about them? Typical Anglicized battle report! 😉

  3. Big Rich says:

    Actually I did think about Watson being captured by the Boers and reporting from their side of the fence, but the truth is that at this stage I am really working on how British tactics (official and real) pan out. But fear ye not, I am doing a lot of reading on the other side.

    You’re right, it was a bit verbose, but I did feel it necessary to really explain where we were and where I was coming from with the rules.

    To be frank I am sure that these rules will be about as popular as the clap. I should really produce a spiffy set of generic “Colonial Rules”, however I am a slave to my love of history.

    More fool me. ;^D

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