Vaal Krantz, a Boer War AAR with some Musings
We played an interesting refight last evening on Lard Island, stimulated by some of the recent debate on web fora such as PMT regarding game and simulation. One of the things that I felt interesting about those debates was to what degree we allow the gamer the freedom to make his own mistakes rather than shackle him to the historical errors of a real-life commander.
As part of our series of refights from the Ladysmith campaign I had decided not to game the famous action at Spion Kop. Quite frankly the best way to model that particular action would be to tie the British player to a chair in the corner of the room and let the Boer players throw rocks at him for several hours. It may replicate the action, but it won’t be much fun. As a result we moved on a couple of weeks, with our game, set in February 1900, being the British attempt to seize the Vaal Krantz ridge to the south east of Spion Kop in their third attempt to break through the Boer positions on the Tugela River in order to relieve Ladysmith.
This is a particularly interesting action for several reasons. Firstly Buller attempted to divert the Boer reserves to the Brakfontein heights by demonstrating in that area in the morning and subjecting the Boer positions there to a major bombardment. Whilst that was underway a Royal Engineer pontoon troop was to bridge to Tugela to the east to allow the British to cross there and strike at the extreme left flank of the Boer position. Once the bridge was complete he planned to rush his artillery to this sector and use it to support an attack by three Brigades to seize the ridge. Once that was done the Royal Engineers would bridge the river immediately behind this new position and the guns would move onto the heights to support a further advance.
All very clever, but in view of the slowness of the British staff system this plan called for a swift “One Two” in boxing terms from an army that at best lumbered its way across the veldt and was unlikely to be able to display the tactical nimbleness required for such an operation. What is more, it depended on a remarkable degree of inactivity on the part of the Boers, who conversely were extremely nimble.
Nevertheless, when reading accounts of the battle the numbers involved suggested that an a hefty shove against this section of the line would surely reap rewards for the British. This was particularly the case as, in reality, the attack had been undertaken with enthusiasm by the 4th (Light) Brigade under Lyttleton who had and would prove himself to be a commander with real ability. Indeed what is frustrating about the Boer War is how well the “middle management” of Brigade commanders did tend to perform, albeit with some notable and much quoted exceptions. Surely here, without Sir Redvers Buller to interfere and halt the attack as he did historically, the Boer lines could be breached?
One of the things we are doing with these rules is seeking to allow the gamer to distil the action down to the most pertinent of points, the size of the geography concerned is such that we need to be able to focus on specific parts of the battle in order to get it to fit on a sensible sized table, however we also need to allow external factors to influence the game. Vaal Krantz was a classic case in point. The 6’ by 5’ table that we used represented an area of two miles by slightly less. In reality the British were wrong in assuming that Vaal Krantz was the Boer left flank, in fact it was weakly held by just 100 men of the Johannesburg Commando, whereas a further 300 Jo’burgers were on Green Hill and then further south the Wakkerstroom Commando were on high ground overlooking Skief’s Drift. From that position they were able to fire down onto the pontoon bridge with not only their rifles but with a Maxim gun. To the north Boer guns on Spion Kop and the Brakfontein heights were also able to enfilade the British troops on Vaal Krantz. As a result we needed to allow these guns to influence what was happening on the tabletop.
As can be seen on the map below we have limited the areas that these off-table forces may influence. From the north the Boer guns may hit British troops on the ridge and on some areas of the plateau to its rear. To the south the Wakkerstroom commando can influence a stretch of table along the southern edge, but only up to about 12-14” on the southernmost section. Additionally the British artillery was off-table. They had placed their Naval guns, with their long range, facing northwards specifically to attempt to suppress the Boer guns firing off in that direction. The main artillery were to be used to support the attack, but as many batteries as the players wished could be used to tie up force off table in other directions. This system places the area of the battlefield into context, allowing us to consider the bigger picture. It also reflects the fact that what we are seeing here is the development of tactics, where guns are increasingly firing from ranges which mean that they are not on what could be described as the actual battlefield.
The British plan was based on precisely the information provided by Buller to his officers at the time. The British commander took the role of Lyttleton, but with an option to call on his senior officer, Clery, should he be required to go forward with the advance. They had no idea that the Wakkerstroom commando was to the south nor that Green Hill was occupied. They were aware of Boer guns to the north, but were assured that the naval guns would deal with them. Their plan centred around pushing forward the DLI to flank the ridge from the south, before the Rifle Brigade moved up the river bank to assault the ridge from the west. To their rear three more battalions were available to support this initial attack. Naturally all fresh units would need to cross the river at the pontoon bridge.
The British initially had two batteries and two 5” guns to provide a preparatory bombardment of the ridge, and when the game began at 11.15am these had been in action for two hours attempting to suppress the Boer positions there (and indeed had been entirely successful in that respect). Five other batteries were now in the process of withdrawing from the north where they had been bombarding Brakfontein in a demonstration designed to draw the Boer reserves to that area. Historically they withdrew from that sector at a rate of one every ten minutes, so we allowed one battery to arrive at the main British artillery position off-table every fifteen minute turn from 11.45 onwards.
The Boer force was initially tiny, just 100 men on the ridge, and 300 on Green Hill. The single Pom Pom was positioned on a knoll between the two. The Wakkerstroom commando were represented by a card in the game deck, as was the Maxim, and the Boer guns off to the north would have their cards added once the British were on the Vaal Krantz ridge.
The initial British advance saw the Durham Light Infantry cross the pontoon bridge to be immediately greeted by fire from the Wakkerstroom commando and their Maxim to the south and the Pom Pom to the north east. Whilst neither of these were particularly effective in killing men their fire caused some consternation and disorder among the British. This was compounded as thus far no fresh artillery had arrived and they were determined to maintain the bombardment on the ridge in order to keep any Boers there suppressed. As such the DLI suffered some serious disorder as they attempted to cross the pontoon under fire, and this in turn caused the Rifle Brigade to fall behind schedule for their attack. By midday the first of the fresh British batteries were coming into action, however far from being able to add their fire to the main bombardment they were obliged to focus on the enemy positions off to the south in order to take some pressure of the Durhams, however it took an hour or more of constant shelling before the Maxim gun was finally silenced. By this stage the DLI had been able to advance more companies across in rushes, and despite some groups of men suppressed along the river bank a firing line had pushed as far forward as Mungers Farm.
At this point the Johannesburgers on Green Hill opened fire to enfilade the advancing British line and this retarded any further forward movement greatly. By 14.00 British batteries had driven off the crew of the Pom Pom as well as keeping the Wakkerstroom force under constant fire, however their fire against Green Hill was having little effect. To make things worse for the British the Ermelo Commando had arrived to reinforce the Boers and these were on the reverse side of the ridge, taking up positions among the rocks there.
The Rifle Brigade had seen the problems encountered by the Durham Light Infantry and their commander sought to rush them forward across the bridge, now free from Maxim fire, and up the sheltered river bank and into the lee of the ridge. This he did with some deftness, forming his lead companies into extended order at base of the heights before advancing up towards the bombardment. For a period of time his lead companies were halted as the heliograph teams attempted to get the bombardment stopped on the southern end of the ridge, however once this was achieved there was some confusion among the lead companies, and once the charge was delivered it was met by Boers who had recovered sufficiently to put up a defence. Despite losses the Rifle Brigade pushed onto the ridge and drove off the Boer defenders who retired back to the east with their horses.
As the bombardment died out across the ridge the British pushed men up, now they were coming under fire from the Boer guns off to the north who, despite the efforts of the Naval gunners, were successful in maintaining a brisk harassing fire. The lead elements of the rifles came under fire from the Ermelo commando that halted the first wave, but the second wave were now up on the ridge and these swept through the first line, bayoneting the Boers who refused to give way, while the majority of their foe mounted up and retired back over half a mile before again dismounting, now reinforced by the Pretoria commando who had just arrived after 16.30 to reinforce this sector. Long range Boer fire, to which the British had no answer, dominated the plateau and halted further British advances in that sector. In the valley the Scottish Rifles had advanced across the bridge and were now moving through the static DLI in an attempt to force open the Ladysmith road, however the lengthening shadows dictated that for this day they could do no more.
The game was interesting in that whilst the British commander was prepared to push forward aggressively, his staff was not truly up to the job. They inflexibility of the British artillery meant that it was adequate to serve as a blunt instrument to suppress a number of enemy positions, however it was tied to those particular tasks (in particular the suppression of the Wakkerstroom and the Pom Pom positions) to the extent that it could not truly provide a flexible tactical weapon, especially once the enemy were off the most obvious position, the ridge. To my mind these restrictions are on step towards understanding the abilties of an army in a combat situation. Whilst the commander was allowed his head he was not allowed to simply do whatever he wanted at alll times, and this is what made the game a challenge for both sides in what is an entirely asymmetrical scenario. In total we saw 700 Boers (rising to 1,700) with five guns and one machine gun against nearly 4000 British with nearly 70 guns. Without introducing elements of friction I would suggest that the Boer War is entirely ungameable at anything other than skirmish level, with that friction introduced it is proving to present our group with some really challenging and enjoyable games.
The inclusion of the off-table fire played a major part in allowing a very small Boer force to hold off a much large British one. As night fell the Boer commander could be sure that Green Hill would be reinforced during the night, and new gun positions would be sited to contain further British advances.
Unfortunately for the British they discovered (historically) that Vaal Krantz was quite unsuitable for artillery, so we stuck to that decision. Yes, they had managed to get four battalions across the river and seize a significant position, however they had not managed to exploit that to the point where the Boers would be obliged to withdraw. In reality the 4th Brigade sat on Vaal Krantz for the next 24 hours before withdrawing back across the Tugela. I suspect that despite their advances the same strategic decisions would have been made here.
For those that are interested, I am taking all of the maps from the British Army topographical studies of the battlefields and scaling this down with either 36″ on the tabletop being one mile (as in this scenario) or 18″ to the mile with the Grand Tactical rules option. British losses in this action were about 200 men dead and a further 400 or so injured, the Boer losses would have been insignificant were it not for the Ermelo commando losing 50 men dead and 100 wounded/prisoners to the Rifle Brigade on the southern slopes of Vaal Krantz. The Jo’burg Commando who began and ended the battle on the table lost less than ten dead, same with Wakkerstroom and Pretoria who only arrived as the shadows lengthened.