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Attack on the Rangeworthy Heights – A Report from the Front

In the absence of other correspondents it falls upon me to relay, in some small measure, details of the action fought this day, the 19th of January 1900, on the Rangeworthy Heights to the south west of Ladysmith in the colony of Natal.

I had for some weeks the opportunity to observe the activities of the army headed by General Buller in its preparations for the crossing of the Tugela River.  The action fought at Colenso was hidden from my eyes by the positioning of our field hospital some miles to the rear, although it was impossible not to be aware to some degree of events thanks to the noise of the guns.  Little were we to know what fate would befall those brave bombardiers, nor indeed the suffering amongst so many battalions as that river proved to be the Boers most helpful ally.  Indeed it was to be all of three weeks before the requisite supplies had been gathered, along with sufficient beasts of burden with which they could be hauled, in order that the great flank march could commence.

In truth it was impossible for any present not to realise that the movement to the west was slower than one would expect in the face of the enemy.  Four days were taken to cover but fifteen miles, with the heat of the African sun and the lack of available water serving to slow the advance to a snail’s pace.  For the Boers on the hills across the river there could be little doubt to whence we were headed; Potgieters and Trickhardt’s Drifts were here set somewhat away from the hills which at Colenso had proved the undoing of our plans.  Here the Boer had to watch inert as we crossed the Tugela and made camp in its northern banks.  Nothing could he do but observe as slowly General Warren brought his forces across at Trickhardt’s Drift and then assembled them for an attack on the Rangeworthy Heights to the west of that great lookout point Spion Kop.

So it was that we came to view the Boer as a man awaiting his own fate, certain in the knowledge that having pulled at the tail of the British lion he would now be unable to avoid being swallowed whole.  To what degree we were wrong would soon become clear.

Range 1Scouts from among the native population were at this time our only source of information, little was done by our cavalry in the way of reconnaissance due to the persistent heat and lack of water.  It appeared that at the commencement of our march the hills to the west of Spion Kop had been barely defended by a parties that numbered a mere few hundred souls.  Now it seemed they time that had been taken on the march had been sufficient for the Boers to move their forces to face out advance.  Native labour was being used to construct positions along the hills, for here again these farmers were intent upon denying England her victory.

General Warren had received orders from Buller to attack the hills to the west of Spion Kop.  It was decided that despite the warning given to the Boers by our tawdry advance it was still hopeful that they would have insufficient numbers to deter a resolute attack. It fell to Warren to make the attack, yet he was inclined to defer to his subordinate, General Clery, to whom he handed command.  Major General Woodgate’s Brigade, the 11th, and Major General Hart’s Irish Brigade, the 5th, were to make the attack on the morning of the 19th, pushing across the ridge from Fairview to Rosalie, whilst remaining sufficiently to the west to avoid fire from Spion Kop.

The plan was a simple one; Two battalions of Woodgate’s Brigade was to advance first to seize Three Tree Hill, and once this position was secure a battery of artillery was to be installed there to support Major General Hart’s advance up to the Rangeworthy Heights, flanked as they would be by Bastion Hill and Three Tree Hill in a natural amphitheatre.  Woodgate would hold the residue of his Brigade in reserve to support Hart’s attack should such assistance be required.

The attack began at 05.00, with Woodgate’s force advancing in quarter column against Three Tree Hill.  This position was held by Boer outposts, but our artillery made life sufficiently warm for them that within the hour the advance of the lead companies of the 2nd Royal Lancaster Regiment and the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers obliged them to give way and retire up the slope.  All the while Boer artillery was sending shells in the direction of the main body of the Royal Lancasters who despite casualties retained the best of order, ready to advance when called upon to do so.

Range 2Now came Hart’s turn.  Badly treated at Colenso the Irish Brigade were determined to take their revenge upon the Boers.  Hart had lost one battalion the Connaught Rangers, who were deployed to the east in an attempt to divert the attention of the enemy on Spion Kop.  Now with his remaining three battalions he advanced across the veldt towards the slope that ran down from the Rangeworthy Heights.  In the lead the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers advanced across the enemy’s front before executing a smart left wheel to bring their entire body into one single line, whilst behind this the 1st Royal Inniskillin Fusiliers and the 1st Scottish Borderers retained their quarter columns for the advance, keeping around half a mile between them and the “Old Toughs” of the Dublin Fusiliers in order to best avoid enemy fire.

Range 3As the Irish Brigade advanced the artillery of the Royal Field artillery was constantly attempting to seek out the Boer positions on the heights.  One by one the Boer guns fell silent, and the infantry advance continued apparently with no opposition.  A Boer position on Bastion Hill began some desultory fire as the Dublin Fusiliers swept by, and then again onto the supporting columns, but it seemed as though the crest would be reached with little of no losses.

Range 4On the right Woodgate’s Brigade were attempting to push forward their advance with all alacrity, however their lead elements had strayed too far to the east and in crossing Piquet Hill they were exposed to fire from strong Boer positions and obliged to withdraw.  A second wave continued to advance but this met with resistance from Boer outposts on the edge of the plateau near the base of Long Kopje, and in turn these men fell back in order to secure life and limb.  Indeed it seemed unlikely that Woodgate’s fresh battalions at the foot of Three Tree Hill would have sufficient space to manoeuvre against the enemy without extending out westwards to support Hart’s Irish.

Range 5It was when within 800 yards of the flatter high ground that tops the Rangeworthy Heights that the lead elements of the Dublin Fusiliers came under rifle fire.  The Dubliners returned fire and advanced by rushes until they were but 400 yards from the Boer positions, but in the face of a determined enemy defence they could make no further progress.  Hart was determined to carry the heights and brought forward both the Inniskillins and the Borderers, keeping them in a formed column to ensure that this was undertaken as rapidly as possible, and despite heavy casualties the Inniskillins were able to seize the line of outposts, the Boers retiring in the face of British cold steel.

Now it seemed that the defences were breached; now a road could be opened to relieve Ladysmith.  Yet as the two battalions sent forward their skirmishers they became aware that the enemy had not flown, but merely occupied their main defensive position further up the slope, and from there all movement on the plateau could be seen and halted by accurate fire from sturdy entrenchments.

Range 6It was at this point that the first casualties began arriving at my station and my attention was necessarily diverted elsewhere.  However I have since heard that a stalemate developed along the heights, and that whilst we hold the ground taken from the Boers we can progress no further.  It seems that another route across the hills must be found before Ladysmith can be relieved.

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

Post-Game Thoughts

Well, what an interesting game.  I had somewhat misled the players as I had suggested to them last week that we would be refighting Spion Kop, but in truth I wanted to do this action that served as a precursor to that famous action, where the British attempted to break their way through the Boer positions to the west.

The background was precisely as mentioned, the British had taken a week or more to shift their forces, by which time the Boers had moved their forces to respond to the new threat.  When the attack on Rangeworthy Heights was sent in the British found not an unprepared opponent, but one very well prepared.  Facing two British Brigades and six batteries of artillery were over four thousand Boers in well constructed entrenchments with a main line of resistance, and significant outposts on major terrain features such as Bastion Hill and Three Tree Hill.

Our game was remarkable for the similarity of the British plans.  In reality Woodgate commanded only two of his battalions, the other two were attached to Hart’s Brigade for this action.  Woodgate was to seize Three Tree Hill and place his guns on there to provide close support.  In our game two battalions did the same, but only one battery went with them, the rest were happy to support from long range – the experience at Collenso was clearly too painful to bring their guns in close.  Hart undertook the same role, albeit with slightly fewer men.  Here the player taking that role was rather Napoleonic in his approach (unsurprisingly, he is primarily a Napoleonics player), and kept two of his battalions in column.  This allowed for good command and control, a rapid advance, but they then had real problems deploying into a more open fighting formation in the face of the enemy.  We finished at that point for our development debrief, but another half an hour could have given us a decisive answer either way.  Historically Warren called off the attack, so I was happy to do the same.

Interestingly in this game the British achievements mirrored exactly those of their historical counterparts.  The high-water-mark of the British advance was the edge of the plateau where the main Boer outposts were.  Behind that there was still 600 to 800 yards of plateau to reach the Boer trenches of their main defensive line, and with three battalions somewhat muddled up that looked unlikely.  What we are seeing each week is the players learning a bit more about the real tactics of the Boer War and applying them.  This is very reminiscent of Charlie Don’t Surf, when the newcomers to the period really struggled to get to grips with the enemy, whereas the old hands knew the drill.  After last week, when the British made all of the errors that their historical counter-parts made, this was a much more polished performance, and as a result a much more enjoyable experience for the players.  Tactically the British need to get used to dominating the Boer positions with their artillery, and forming up their forces for the attack before going forward.  They need to keep their support line around 400 yards behind the first line in order to provide prompt support, but also keep the reserve ready fr a swift advance if a gap emerges.  Naturally this is not easy when a battalion can be spread over a square mile of ground and you have no means of communication other than a whistle, but that’s the challenge.  One player stated that it was an exceptionally insightful tactical game, and what was more it was fun to play.  Good.  That’s what I set out to write.

Fun and history, working together?  Surely not…

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3 Responses

  1. simon says:

    Interesting a very good read as ever

  2. Sean says:

    Richard
    I know it might be a pain but any chance of a post on how you lay out your terrain? It looks fantastic in the pictures and I expect its the old jumpers under a cloth routine but you get a very natural look with the sand and grit laid on top and very realisitc hills/slopes.
    Sean

  3. Big Rich says:

    Sean (and Steve who asked a few weeks ago) if you see the latest blog entry I have done that very thing.

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