The failure of the attacks at Colenso in December, Spion Kop in December and Vaalkrantz in early February 1900 had left the British public and Lord Roberts perplexed as to exactly what General Sir Redvers Buller was doing on the Tugela River, indeed parts of the Army in Natal were losing faith in his ability to break the stalemate and relieve Ladysmith. Buller himself seems to have believed that thus far his campaign had been plagued by bad luck, and despite periods where his belief in the ability of his force to achieve the task at hand failed him, for the most part he retained a determination to try and try again.
By February the Boer positions around Colenso were stronger than ever. A sizeable new position had been established south of the Tugela to the east of the town along the ridge which linked Hlangwhane mountain to Cingolo mountain, with these and Plat Kop and Green Hill in between occupied by Boer forces. Using native labour they had constructed significant positions which they were confident of defending against more of Bullers head on charges into their lines.
In fact Buller was now determined to take a more scientific approach. He undertook an extensive reconnaissance of the enemy positions identifying Cingolo as the extreme easterly Boer position with Monte Christo to the north as the key to opening up the flank and rear of the Boer defences before rolling them up and destroying all enemy forces to the south of the Tugela. Almost incredibly after his performances to date he was entirely correct, all he needed to do now was undertake a rapid action to achieve his stated aim.
On the 17th of February the 2nd Division under Lyttleton attached Cingolo and seized it with few casualties. Before them Monte Cristo and Green Hill lay exposed and with relatively few defenders, however in the early afternoon Buller called a halt to the operation, ordering Lyttleton’s men to consolidate their position on Cingolo and then make ready for an attack on the next day in the direction of Monte Christo in order to turn the Boer flank whilst other forces would pin the Boer positions from Plat Kop to Hlangwhane to stop them escaping. Admittedly the temperatures were high, 100 degrees in the shade at that time of day, however Lyttleton’s officers were less than pleased. The Boers would, they predicted, reinforce Monte Christo during the night, making the job the next day all the harder.
Such was the backdrop to our game this week, a game which was the largest we have yet undertaken with our Boer War rules. We used the Grand Tactical version to field three British Brigades, the 2nd, the 4th and the 6th as they attacked Monte Christo and Green Hill. The British player taking the role of Lyttleton was briefed according to the background given above, and was allowed to begin his operations any time from 06.00 onwards. To support his on-table forces he had a number of Naval and RGA guns firing from Hussar Hill off to the south which were capable of providing a preparatory bombardment if he so wished, indeed he could specify the start and finish time for this rather than rely on heliograph to try to control it. Additionally he had two batteries in the Gomba valley by the Pretorius farm as well as one battery on Cingolo itself with a further one still being hauled up there.
The Boers had three commandos defending their positions, they had indeed been reinforced during the night, however their player Vecht Commandant Fourie, had decided to place these largely on and around Green Hill from where he felt confident of enfilading any British advance towards Monte Christo. Only 600 men of the Krugersdoorp Commando defended the forward slopes of Monte Christo, whilst the Middleburg and Swaziland Commandos, 1000 and 300 men respectively, were on Green Hill with two 75mm Krupp guns. One Pom Pom was held on the reverse slope of the hill facing Mount Cingolo.
The British began their initial bombardment of Green Hill with the 4.7” Naval guns and the 5” Royal Garrison Artillery pieces on Hussar Hill. In this they were successful in suppressing the Middleburg Commando on the centre and eastern end of Green Hill, although the Swaziland Commando’s positions were not affected nor were the two 75mm Krupp guns on the western end of the ridge. As this went in their infantry brigades began their advance. Hildyard’s 2nd Brigade was to advance with one battalion from Mount Cingolo screening the eastern flank of Green Hill with the 2nd Battalion The Queen’s Regiment before sending their other three battalions directly against Monte Christo. To their left Norcott’s 4th Brigade began the morning on lower slopes of Cingolo amid the scrubby mimosa and thorn bushes which littered the valley. They were to advance against the eastern slopes of Green Hill with orders to assault the Boer positions there at 09.00 once the artillery barrage lifted. In the valley itself Barton’s 6th Brigade was deployed to demonstrate against the front of Green Hill with a view to attacking the positions there once Monte Christo had fallen.
Almost immediately the British plan began to come apart. Hildyard’s troops came under fire from the Pom Pom on the reverse slope of Green Hill and this halted the advance of the Queens, especially when the Krugersdoorp commando on Monte Cristo added their fire. Hildyard was keen to reinforce this front line and at 07.45 sent in the 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment and whilst these made some ground the intense fire from the Boer trenches succeeded in stopping and then throwing back this attack. The only good news in the initial exchanges on this flank was that the 64th Field Artillery battery on Cingolo was successful in knocking out the Pom Pom at around 08.00.
In the centre Norcott was having trouble controlling the Rifle Brigade who stormed up Green Hill with enthusiasm only to take casualties from the bombardment coming in from Hussar Hill. This saw them pinned down on the hillside whilst in the valley the 1st Btn Durham Light Infantry struggled through the thorn bushes in order to provide support. Lyttleton chose to keep to the appointed hour of 9 o’clock to end the bombardment in order to keep the Boer positions there suppressed until all of his forces were in a position to launch their attack.
On the left Barton had little to do at this hour but to demonstrate in order to pin any Boers on the ridge. He did take some casualties from Boer guns which kept up an annoying fire from hidden positions, and this prompted him to thrown his men out into open order to avoid the worst effects of this.
By 09.00, with his initial advance halted by enemy fire, Hildyard was looking to outflank the enemy on Monte Christo and his frustration was showing. The 2nd Btn West Yorkshires and the 2nd Btn East Surreys were thrown in before they had the opportunity to shake out into proper attack formation, addvancing in quarter colum with just the lead company in open order. An attempt was made to assault the Boer positions directly from a coloum approach, but this was shot down before it gained any ground. Such tactics may have worked against a shaken opponent, but the Krugersdoorp men were clearly intent on holding their ground. It was now that Hildyard began deploying out the West Yorkshires into a firing line, reinforcing that to a strength of around four companies while several other companies and the East Surreys advanced to outflank the enemy entrenchments.
The end of the bombardment on Green Hill was the signal for the Rifle Brigade to launch their attack up the final slope. The responded with enthusiasm and surged up the slope once again, however this was the strongest point in the Boer line with a thousand men from the Middleburg Commando holding this ground. Despite their disorder from the bombardment they were successful in repulsing the initial assault and bringing the British advance to a halt at about 300 yards from their trenches. Colonel Norcott was obliged to deploy more men from both the Rifle Brigade and the Durham Light Infantry to strengthen the firing line and Major General Lyttleton focussed the attention of the batteries on Cingolo and in the Gomba valley on this critical fight. In the hope of relieving the pressure on Nocott’s men Major General Barton sent forward elements of his Fusilier Brigade to engage the enemy, at which point they came under fire from the Swaziland Commando who had, until that point, been hidden in their entrenchments.
By 09.30 on Monte Cristo the Krugersdoorp Commando was still more than holding its own against Hildyard’s Brigade. The Queens and the Devonshires had retired onto Cingolo to re-organise themselves and lick their wounds, whilst the West Yorkshires were halted at around 300 yards from the Boer trenches. Their big concern now was that the West Yorkshires were feeding men in to overlap their right flank and the East Surreys were by-passing their position entirely. That said, with the enemy to their front engaging them in a close range firefight there was little they could do but stand their ground.
The breaking point came soon after 10.00 when the Middleburgers could stand the pressure no more and abandoned their trenches on Green Hill. Within minutes the Krugersdoorp Commando were also pulling back but in much worse order. The flanking manoeuvre had at last paid dividends as the Yorkshiremen enfiladed thier trenches and formed up for a charge into their rear. This was too much for the farmers from the Transvaal who decided that enough was enough and headed back for the single bridge across the Tugela.
This was a major victory for the British, as indeed it was in reality. In 1900 General Buller stopped the advance early in the afternoon due to the heat, allowing the British to consolidate on the ground that they had captured but also ensuring the the Boers south of the Tugela, some 5000 men, were able to withdraw across one very unstable pontoon bridge unhindered. Had the game reached midday I had provided an option for Buller interfering and halting this action, however the Boers did not hold out that long. Largely that was due to the different troops dispositions that the Boer commander chose. He prefered to concentrate on holding Green Hill, a perfectly legitimate choice as he was not aware that the British objective should have been to pin on Green Hill until Monte Cristo had fallen, however in fairness the British commander on the ground failed to take that into consideration, despite his orders. As a consequence the result of our game would be that with their line broken before Monte Christo was secured the Boers would have withdrawn to the north of the Tugela without any interference whatever Buller did.
This raises an interesting point in the recent debate about how much should historical reality influence wargamers. I provided the British players with a written briefing which stated:
“You must be aware that this is a turning action as with Monte Christo in our hands we will be able to dominate the entire plateau which is in the enemy’s rear. It is vital that not only do we achieve this turning action but we also pin the enemy in position along the front ridge in order to stop him slipping away to fight another day”
It could not have been more clear. So should I have stopped the British doing what they did? Most certainly not. However the victory conditions should be such that failing to comply with the overall strategic objective results in our version of the fight for Monte Christo being not a great victory, despite both the objectives being seized, but a strategic failure because the Boers live to fight again another day.
A potentially more interesting question is whether Buller should interfere in our game. Imagine if the British had stuck to the game plan and simply pinned Green Hill from the start rather than assaulted it. We can conclude that Lyttleton’s Brigade on the right would have done exactly what it did in driving off the Krugersdorp men by 10.30. However they would then have needed another hour to consolidate on their objective, to bring up their rallied battalions and to begin thinking about how they get their guns up onto Monte Christo to fire into the Boer rear. It is more than believable that we’d have reached that point in the early afternoon when Buller, concerned by the effect of the heat on his men, pulled the plug on the operation. We can presume that Green Hill would by then have fallen as well, so would it have been legitimate with the players thinking they were on the edge of a huge victory to stop the game and allow the Boers to escape? In our game, a single scenario in a succession of historical scenarios this is one thing, but in a campaign it is quite another. I leave you to dwell on the answer; I have yet to reach a conclusion.
Thoughts from the game? Well, it was the biggest game so far, we used the Grand Tactical rules and had three British Brigades on the table in full. In reality Dundonald’s 2nd Cavalry Brigade was involved in the fight for Monte Christo, but I needed all of my dismounted cavalry figures to serve as infantry for a game of this size, so I placed the gallant Lord off further east, thereby providing a secure flank for a British (quite a luxury after the past few weeks where off-table interference has proved so painful). So, I need to buy another couple of hundred infantry to bulk up my forces, fortunately not too painful in 6mm.
I should also get some kind of entrenchments made up for the Boers. At present we just place the figures on the table and accept that they are dug in, which isn’t unfair in view of the amount of earth shifted along the Tugela defensive line, but it would be prettier to get some proper trench markers.
What was pleasing was that such a big game played through speedily, we completed it in almost exactly two hours. No doubt the tosser who posted that two hours was an hour too long for a wargame will disagree with me, but I think that was a lot of game in a pretty short time. It really was a tough ask for the Boers, sometimes historical scenarios are unbalanced, however doesn’t mean that playing them cannot be enjoyable and interesting. Maybe I should have obliged them to deploy precisely as they did historically, as I did with the British, but I felt that would be a little unfair and wanted to let them feel free to construct their own defences. As it was they certainly gave the British a run for their money, especially where their attacks were not constructed properly before they were launched.
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