The Battle of Belmont – On Our Way to Kimberley
We returned to our play-testing for our Boer War lest evening with the battle of Belmont. Historically this battle was the first real action in the attempt to relieve Kimberly, and saw a British night attack go astray due to lack of maps and misjudgement of distances, and resulted in a frontal attack on two hills, Table Mountain and Gun Hill, before the British were obliged to re-organise themselves for a second costly attack onto Mont Blanc, Razor Back and Sugar Loaf Hill.
In our game I stuck to the historical orbats for both sides and the Boer commander chose to stick to the historical deployment, I allowed the British commander much more flexibility in his plan. Lord Methuen, commanding the 1st Division, had begun his march to relieve Kimberley only two days before, sticking to the railway line to allow the movement of supplies and still-arriving reinforcements. He had arrived at Thomas’ Farm to the south west of Belmont the day previously and from the high ground there had been able to plan his attack. As a result it seemed fair that the British player could do exactly the same and do precisely as he wanted. Indeed I gave him the option of testing the new flank rules and, fortunately for my play-test he grabbed it with both hands. Well, both flanks actually.
The 9th Infantry Brigade under Major General Featherstonhaugh was to move into position so that at first light it was on the railway embankment around Belmont. From here it was to probe against Table Mountain and Gun Hill, but with the purpose of driving in outposts rather than committing itself to a full attack. The main attack was to happen via a flank march which was planned to arrive directly on the flank of Sugar Loaf Hill, bringing the entire Guards Brigade onto the Boer flank from where they would roll up the enemy positions. To complete the plan a small force of cavalry under Colonel Bloomfield Gough was to ride north of Vrede to attempt to interdict the enemy’s most likely line of retreat.
The day began at 04.00 as the sky began to lighten immediately before sunrise. Lord Methuen was anxiously awaiting news of his flank march as by now he had anticipated hearing sounds of first contact with the enemy. In fact a lack of maps and problems with agricultural fencing had delayed the Guards somewhat. Methuen issues orders to his two batteries of Royal Field Artillery, barraging Table Mountain and Gun Hill, whilst four 12 pounder Naval Guns put in a harassing fire against the summit of Mont Blanc. No movement could be discerned in the Boer lines and the British troops on the railway embankment awaited news from the flank.
At 05.00 messengers arrived with news that the cavalry to the north were engaging Boer outposts off table, however there was no indication of the likelihood of success. Methuen was very short of cavalry, and he could not risk losing any strength in that area so he had been wary of over-committing this force. Within minutes news came from the south that the Guards Brigade had encountered a small outpost of Boers and were driving them in. This was the news that Methuen had been waiting for. Deploying four companies of the Northumberland Fusiliers to the north of Belmont and four of the Northamptonshire Regiment to the south, he advanced both forward with their lines in extended order whilst forming up their remaining companies to serve as supports. The Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and two companies of the Royal Munster Fusiliers remained in reserve to the west of the railway.
Now the Boer outpost on the knoll on the western slope of Table Mountain opened fire, causing some casualties, but not sufficient to halt the British. A Boer gun on the northern slopes opened fire, causing some shock, but few casualties due to faulty shells. As the range lessened the Northumberlands’ first line was reinforced by their supports and a sharp action occurred when they drove in the Boer outpost and secured the knoll. As they consolidated their position, attempting to reform the battalion into some order, the Northamptonshires advanced against the Wimburg Commando on Gun Hill. Whilst the main part of this Boer force was suppressed by the artillery bombardment their outpost line put up some tough resistance. Casualties mounted and gradually the line went to ground.
On the right the lead elements of the Guards Brigade were arriving on the battlefield, however not quite directly on the Boer flank as they had wanted. A lack of maps saw the lead companies of the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards advancing somewhat too far west, and they now were obliged to climb up into the fire of the Bloemfontein Commando on Sugar Loaf Hill and the Pom Pom on Razor Back. Time and again men went down, the Pom Pom attempting to drive them to ground, but the second line advanced through the stalled troops, taking a fair number with them. Once again it was the initiative of the junior officers that drove the Guards on through the hot fire.
Now more of the Guards battalions were appearing, advancing in extended order to minimise casualties, and up the steep slopes they went. Now the Jacobsdal Commando on Razor Back added their fire, halting the British just 100 yards from their lines.
On the left the Boer Artillery was causing the Northumberlands some frustration and several companies sent to screen that area were working their way up the slope in an attempt to drive off the Boer gunners. Unbeknown to the British the Boers were suffering as well, but from command problems rather than enemy fire. On Mont Blanc Commandant Prinsloo was attempting to persuade the men of the Fauresmith Commando to abandon their position and advance on the north slopes of Table Mountain in an attempt to drive back the British. They were, however, not convinced by his initial arguments. Only an hour later did the Fauresmith men begin a tentative move to the north west when they saw that their guns were threatened.
To the south the Guards attack had stalled 100 yards from the Boer positions. Major General Sir Henry Colville advanced forward in an attempt to rally his men, but close range fire from the Boers was in danger of sweeping them back down the hill. At this moment it was the battalion officers who, seeing Sir Henry’s intentions, stood up and in one last gasp attempt managed to urge their men onwards. The Boers could see the flash of cold steel as the powerful Grenadier and Coldstream Guards, all semblance of order gone, swept forward as one man. Unsurprisingly the Orange Free State Men ran back to their sturdy ponies and rode for the north east.
On Gun Hill the Wimburgers were also retreating onto the slopes of Mont Blanc and they too decided that the time had come when discretion was the better part of valour. The Fauresmith commando had little choice but to join them. From the summit of Sugar Loaf Hill the Guards could see the Boers breaking up their laagers on the rear slopes of Mont Blanc and a flood of mounted men leaving the battle. It was victory, hard won, but the supply line was now secure and the advance on Kimberley could now continue. Unfortunately for the British the cavalry that they had sent north under Colonel Gough had been held by a small Boer outpost and suffered around 100 casualties. Lord Methuen had been obliged to call off their foray, so the Boers were free to escape without interference. In all British casualties were around 400 men, whilst the Boers had lost around half that.
We were very pleased with the flanking rules. I really want the games to be multi-dimensional in that you should not be able to simply focus on what is happening on the table, you need to be considering your lines or supply and possible retreat as well as your flanks in this big country. The system under development is a simple abstraction which worked very well, both with the large British Guards force to the south which was delayed for about forty minutes while it drove in a small Boer outpost, whereas to the north a Boer position of around 130 men held off a larger British force of five squadrons of mounted troops. In truth the British cavalry (actually three squadrons of the 9th Lancers and two companies of mounted infantry) could have won through eventually, but Methuen was VERY short of cavalry and he decided after the initial clashes cost him 100 casualties to recall them, probably wisely.
What is very noticeable is how the British players are mastering the tactics of the war. In our first game we saw a pretty similar attack, albeit on a smaller scale, at Talana Hill. The British won there but with terrible casualties due to keeping their units in too tight formations. Here the formations in use, a four company frontage in extended order with a four company support line was much more what the British had settled on as the best option as the war progressed. As a result the casualties were relatively light. That said, the Boers were not assisted here by the fact that their command is disjointed with lots of small detachments from various commandos rather than single large bodies which can really hurt. They were also unfortunate that the British Guards were on their flank as the Guard Initiative card really allowed the more junior officers to keep the attack moving and, finally, make a supreme effort that JUST tipped the balance. After three failed attempts the British only just summoned up the impetus to move a grand total of 1” to get in with the bayonet and drive off the Boers.
A very tense, close game that was very enjoyable using the Grand Tactical version of the rules. We haven’t run a Boer War game for a couple of months as I have been run off my feet with getting various publications ready and the break has been good as a couple of issues that I was stuck on have fallen into place naturally in the interim. Once I get back from Historicon next month these rules should be pretty close to publication.