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Yes, We Have No Talanas

Talana Header

It was, of course, in the aftermath of the Baskerville affair that Holmes and I were approached by the colonial government in the Cape Colony.  It was no surprise that his notoriety had reached the southern hemisphere, however to be approached directly by the government there was somewhat unusual when it was widely considered that their own police service was more than adequate to deal with normal criminal matters.  Nevertheless the handwritten instructions were of sufficient interest to see us catch the night train for Dover and thence on to Hamburg where a liner of the German Africa Line embarked for Windhoek.  It seemed likely that Mycroft’s hand was at work behind the scenes in the Colonial Office and Holmes’ seemed keen to perfect his skills with the Dutch language on the journey, to the amusement of the family of the German representative to Portuguese Guinea who were, for the first part of our journey, our most charming companions.

The reader will, needless to say, be aware that whatever plans the Colonial Office had for Holmes they were to bear no fruit, for our arrival in Windhoek was met with the news that all attempts at peace had come to nothing, and that a course for war had been firmly set by President Kruger.  In view of the immediacy of the situation I felt it my duty to catch a fast clipper for the Cape in order to offer my services to the military authorities, whilst Holmes chose to remain for a few days in the German colony, although for what purpose I can only speculate.

My arrival in Cape Town was met with some confusion.  It seemed that most of the military establishment were awaiting the arrival of reinforcements from India and England before taking any steps.  However news from the Transvaal was that the Boer Commandoes were preparing to ride south.  With this in mind I set sail once again, this time with Durban my destination.

I had retired from the Army Medical Department due to wounds received at Maiwand, yet I retained my commission in the reserve and in the event I was welcomed upon my arrival at Ladysmith with some enthusiasm.  The provisions for medical aid and assistance to the forces in Natal were, at best, limited and my experiences of dealing with wounds on the battlefield was sufficient to ensure that I was a timely addition to the small team of Surgeons that had been assembled.

Talana 1

It is sad to say that I had not long to wait before what skills I possessed were called upon, for the Boer Republic was determined that war would be their sole recourse, and on the 12th of October their forces invaded northern Natal.  By that time I has taken up the post of Assistant Surgeon and, after an interview with Sir George White, had been despatched to join Sir William Penn Symmons’ force at Dundee.  It was purely by chance that the Boers were there to smite their first blow; attempting to isolate the outpost of some four thousand men encamped thereabouts.

Talala 3

War is no stranger to me, but the resolve that I saw in Penn-Symmons was both extra-ordinary and inspiring.  Reports from outlying posts were sufficient to make it clear that our encampment was surrounded on three sides, and the telegraph line to Ladysmith had been cut, confirming that the enemy had worked around to the west of our position and lay now between us and hope of salvation.  As the sun arose on the morning of the 20th of October our predicament was confirmed by a bombardment of Dundee instigated from Talana Hill.  It seemed that the Boer had man-handled his guns onto the summit of that prominent ground during the night, and was now intent upon wreaking havoc on the civilian population in order to precipitate our surrender.

Despite such inauspicious news the General was determined to strike a blow to cheer all England.  Before day-break he despatched two companies of the Dublin Fusiliers to cover that face of the town, and thus protected from any immediate threat from that quarter he assembled his force for the battle that was to come.

It was true, be of little doubt, that the security of our encampment was of the greatest import; and to that end the 1st Leicestershires were told off to provide security in that quarter.  Of the three other Regiments present, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the Dublin Fusiliers each had provided one mounted company in order to facilitate the reconnaissance capability so needed in this expansive colony, and these too, along with a contingent of the Natal Police and the 67th battery of the Royal Field Artillery, were held back also for this purpose.  As such, the fight now fell to three battalions of foot and two batteries of artillery, the 13th and 69th, and these sallied forth against the tormentor.

It seems that some description of the lie of the land may assist the reader in his aspiration to discern precisely how the action progressed.  The town of Dundee is typical of its type; it is a coal town providing much needed fuel for the steam powered locomotives that in recent years have transformed the African veldt into a new Europe; a hotbed of industry where the commerce and culture of the European have replaced the pastoral peace of the native.  The town itself is comprised of European bungalows of the type familiar to those who have seen India, with the natives being billeted in the compounds attached to the mines or continuing their traditional lifestyle in the outlying kraals that dot the landscape with an unplanned irregularity.

Dundee is, in truth, a military position of considerable imperfection.  To the north and east lie the prominent heights of the Impati Mountain and the Talana and Lennox Hills.  To the south the Biggarsberg range makes withdrawal difficult, if not impossible, in the face of pressing opposition.  To the west the foot hills of the Drakensberg mountains provide the border between Natal and the Orange Free State.  At all points of the compass Penn-Symonns could find reports of his foe.  The telegraph line to Ladysmith, running as it did through Glencoe Junction, had been cut, confirming that fears for our line of retreat were well founded.   Bicycle patrols to the north returned having suffered casualties, and then, on the morning of the 20th, Dundee came under bombardment.

Talana 4

I can only speculate, but it must have been under the cover of darkness that the Boers had hauled their artillery pieces onto Talana Hill.  What we know for certain was that in terms of accuracy their gunners were clearly well trained men, and they must have been sorely saddened to see the best part of their shells fail to detonate on impact.  It was reported by several residents of Dundee that the Transvaal government, wary of import duties payable on good brought through British or Portuguese lands, had seized upon the plan to manufacture their own ammunition in railway sheds in the area of Pretoria.  Now their parsimony was coming back to haunt them, for the standard of labour to be found thereabouts was clearly not of sufficient proficiency to match the standards set by the European manufactories.  In the event this bombardment was sufficient to scare one elderly resident  of Dundee, but achieved nothing else material other than to announce the presence of the enemy on Talana Hill.  It was now that I was placed well to see the resolve of General Penn-Symmons.

“What thinks you Doctor Watson?  I have the enemy on all sides and, I suspect to my rear.  What would your friend Mr Sherlock Holmes deduce to be the correct course of action?”

I fear that I was unable to make any practical suggestion, other than to repeat Holmes’ axiom that to do the unexpected will oft time succeed when in a tight corner.

“Indeed.  And that is precisely what I shall do, sir.  If you would care to remain with me you will see us take the fight to the impudent Boer and see how he likes cold steel.  I would wager that he will discover that the warlike passions that have been aroused in his breast by ‘Uncle’ Paul Kruger will be somewhat dissipated once he has received a good English thrashing.  Eh, what?”

I could do little but murmur my accord and watch spell-bound as I observed the Army at its work.  It would seem that the General was resolved to attain Talana Hill and to that end he despatched three battalions and two batteries.  On our left were the Royal Irish Fusiliers, whilst to their right the Kings Royal Rifle Corps advanced in the centre.  On the right the Royal Dublin Fusiliers headed directly for the eucalyptus woods that formed part of Mr Smith’s farm.  Two batteries drew up by the road that ran from Dundee and then ran across Smith’s Nek between the two heights from whence they were free to provide fire against either hill.  In the first instance they focussed their energies on silencing the Boer guns, two were firing from Talana Hill, two more from Lennox Hill.  Indeed this course of action was almost instantly efficacious, although whether the guns had been dismounted or the crew had simply chosen to withdraw we could not with any certainty know.

Talana 5

All three battalions began their advance in quarter column, but as they approached the Sand Spruit stream the lead two companies shook out into extended order.  The battalion commanders could be seen most valiantly encouraging their men forward in the most immaculate order.  It seemed that no body of farmers could halt the advance, but we were soon to find otherwise.

My own experiences in Afghanistan were, it seemed, quite unlike this warfare against an opponent skilled with the rifle.  The fire from the Boer positions was not particularly heavy, indeed they fired with no particular system or order, each man choosing his target as took his fancy, however their accuracy was quite unnerving.  Several men could be seen dropping when the range was still in excess of a mile, and as the line of khaki clad men closed the distance the numbers of men who fell increased significantly.  At points one could see the officers waving their men on, but such brave actions merely served to attract the attention of the foe, and casualties amongst these men were most telling.  In a short time the leading companies were taking what cover they could find on the veldt.

Talana 6

Colonel Carleton of the Irish Fusiliers was most concerned by fire from his left flank, and his leading companies scurried forward to seek the cover of a small copse which lay beside the road that ran to De Jager’s Drift, however in the very act of seeking sanctuary his men were shot down, the wounded littering the open slope.

On the right Major Bird of the Dublin Fusiliers had sent forward his first line, but harassing fire from Lennox Hill had retarded the movement of his other companies and he was obliged to return to the stream in person to move his men forward.  In his absence the lead companies had gone to ground under accurate fire from a party of around three hundred Boers manning the stone wall which skirted the upper part of Talana Hill.

 

In the centre the men of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps could be made out with their black leather belts.  In the open they too suffered under the enemy’s rifles, to which was added the fire of a pom-pom that had remained hidden on Talana Hill, only commencing its deadly fire once our men were in the most favourable range.

In truth I could not but think how people in England would react were they to see what suffering our valiant soldiers had to endure in the name of their Queen and Empire, however I fear that they are too familiar with news of victories to take well to the alternative.  And here, on the African veldt, I was anxious that defeat was a possibility not unlikely.  It seemed that I was not alone in that view, as Brigadier General Sir James Yule, tasked with commanding the attack of our infantry, could now be seen with his staff moving forward with the second line, intent on breathing fresh energy into the advance.

Talana 7

By now the guns were sending their shells against the Boers on the stone wall and from that position  men dressed in the rustic manner of the colonial farmer could be seen falling back up the slopes, at first in ones and twos and then in larger numbers.  With their enemy thus indisposed the Dublin Fusiliers pressed on, with the second line joining their first and then their reserves pushing through to move into the woods.  Here a sharp exchange saw their foe, already punch-drunk from the lyddite shells that had been bursting among them, fall back as one body, all fight driven from them.

In the centre and on the left the men of the Rifle Corps and the Irish Fusiliers were mixed in together in one firing line, inert under the duress of constant and accurate fire.  Now they were joined by Sir William Penn-Symmons who ascertained that only personal leadership could rescue the day.  Several officers of his staff were laid low in so doing, but finally, and with a surge, fresh troops were able to be brought forward, rushing through their prostrate comrades, some of whom, here and there, leapt to their feet and joined the rush, irrespective of company or even Regiment.

Talana 8

First up the slope was Colonel Carleton of the Royal Irish, the war cry of “Faugh A Ballagh” springing forth from his lips, leading the first assault on the heights, however bravery alone could not defeat the magazine rifle, and the men fell back, gradually, this was not rout for these sons of Erin do not know defeat, yet the fire of British artillery, unaware that our troops had advanced so far forward, added to their losses and added urgency to their withdrawal.

Yet again, the gallant Carelton was seen.  Exposing himself with no heed to enemy bullets, he first made to signal to the artillery to cease its fire, and then to bring forward fresh troops to make good his attack once again.

This time no Boer could stand against the wrath of our infantry who scrambled up the rock strewn slopes, the flashes of light showing that their bayonets were firmly fixed and ready for grim work.  Yet it was not needed.  The Boers had fled, abandoning two guns and one pom-pom.  From the heights the foe could be seen retreating down to mount up and retire back towards the Transvaal.  On Lennox Hill the same could be seen.  The day was ours.  However at what price?  Among the rocks some fifty Boer dead and wounded could be found, whereas our losses were in excess of one hundred dead and six hundred wounded.  What will they say in the back streets of London and Dublin when the lists of dead are read in church?  A cold chill came upon me, and I wished for the warmth and comfort of Holmes’ Baker Street apartments.

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

Talana 9

So ended the first playtest of our Boer War rules since Christmas and it has to be said it was a great success.  Over the holidays I had got hold of the Official history of the war which, whilst strongly biased in some areas does contain some excellent maps and sketches of the battlefield.  This has been superb for modelling the correct terrain with the right ground scale and allowed us to progress from simply crunching the mechanisms to the stage where we refight real battles on real terrain with real orbats, giving us a bench mark to measure the rules against.

I was particularly pleased when Noddy, commanding the Royal Irish Fusiliers, said it was the most painful gaming experience he had ever had, which at first glance doesn’t sound too good, but he was particularly referring to precisely what a British commander should be feeling as his men lie under the Boer guns in the blazing heat (actually, the battlefield at Talana Hill was historically more than a bit soggy due to rain) .    So, in this instance, bad is good.

The game was interesting in several key aspects when compared to the history.  The British chose, as they did historically, to focus on Talana Hill and ignore Lennox Hill.  They did, however, choose to attack in a slightly different direction, with the main throust being a left wheel around the northern flank of Talana Hill, whereas historically the main attack had been directly up the slope and around Smith’s Farm.  Where the similarities emerged it was in the fact that as in real life the British front line and then the supporting line bogged down under fire.  The three battalions merged unintentionally with men from all Regiments getting mixed up together.  The British were obliged to send forward their Generals to sort things out (indeed Penn  Symmons was mortally wounded doing just that) and we saw the same.  In our game Penn Symmons staff did endure losses, so it may well have been that the man himself copped it in this version as well (I didn’t bother to check that as this was just a playtest and that bit isn’t written yet!).  We also had friendly fire hitting the final assault up the hill, just as happened in reality.  So, all in all very close to the real battle.   A tactical victory, a strategic defeat.

The rules worked very well, especially when one considers that at this point they are literally one sheet of amendments to Through the Mud & the Blood, (yes, a skirmish set of rules being converted for brigade, divisional and corps sized battles) and a few scribbled notes.  Next week we will be handling a larger battle so watch this space for a report.

Two comments.  Naval & Military press produce the British Official history, Battery Press produce the German Official history of the Boer war.  It is very interesting to read both in tandem, quite different stories emerge.  Secondly. 6mm figures.  This was the BEST decision I made with this period.  The feel of size that one gets is very important for these African battlefields, and with these 6mm Baccus figures one gets that perfectly.  I cannot reccomend Baccus too highly to anyone daft enough to play the Boer War, they are superb figures.  Peter, if you are reading this please make some Boer War artillery, especially the Long Toms and Naval guns.

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3 Responses

  1. Zirk Buys says:

    HI
    Thanks for the photographical walk through of your wargame! We are making a documentary of the Anglo Boer War, finished with Talana. You can get nice pictures on our page at http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667968184#!/pages/Anglo-Boer-War-Documentary-in-HD/155485657829120

    Send me an email, I can assist a lot in future gamings at zirk@dignity.co.za especially from the Boer Side!

    PS There was no Guns on Lennox Hill, they stayed in reserve at the back of the Hill, also it was the Utrecth and Wakkerstroom commandos that came down the Hill to the Stone Wall

  2. Big Rich says:

    Hi Zirk

    Thanks for your comments.

    In the game we played I stuck to the accurate orders of battle, but I allowed both sides the options of deploying where they liked within reason, so the Boer player chose to put two guns on Lennox Hill and placed some of his commandos in non-historically accurate places. In our game the Wakkerstroom commando under Joubert was on Lennox Hill, Utrech under Hatting on the main part of Talana Hill and the wall and the Vryhid commando under van Staaten was brought up during the game to defend the northern slopes of Talana Hill when it looked like the British were attempting to go around the flank. The Boer player also held some troops off the table to the north in position to enfilade any British advance in that area.

    As such it is not a precise refight of the battle with all troops exactly as they were historically, we allowed the players leeway to make their own choices in this game.

    I shall certainly drop you an email.

    Cheers

    Richard

  3. Stephen Hood says:

    Great battle report. The terrain , while simple, is beautiful in the pics. What are you using under the groundsheet for hills? I’m not seeing any tell-tale corner edges.
    Thanks, Steve

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