Sunday, 3 May 2015

The Battle of Elandslaagte (1899)

There can't be many battlefields that can be viewed from within the confines of an African Game Park - however, the field at Elandslaagte is one such place. The Nambiti Private Game Reserve is situated to the North East of Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal and represents a great place for a bit of recreation & relaxation for anyone touring the numerous battlefields in the immediate area.
White Rhinos at Nambiti
Elandslaagte was a rare outright British victory during the 1st phase of the 2nd Boer War. For the student of 20th Century military history it is particularly interesting because John French commanded the British Forces and one of his subordinate officers was Ian Hamilton. The former was to command the BEF in 1914 and the latter went on to lead the British & Commonwealth forces during the ill fated Gallipoli campaign a year later.
View of Elandslaagte Station from the South
On the day of the Battle of Talana Hill, two trainloads of British military stores were intercepted by a Boer force looking to cut the railway between Ladysmith and Dundee. The train was unloaded, prisoners taken and something of a party took place in the station compound. The next day, anticipating the arrival of a formidable number of British reinforcements, a mixed nationality Boer force numbering about 1,000 men (some with their sons) established themselves in a series of sangars on a 300 ft hill about 1.5 miles from the station.
Boer positions on the Heights near Elandslaagte 
The British attack was executed as planned. The 1st Battalion, Devonshire Regiment would attack the hill with artillery support. The 1st Battalion, Manchester Regiment, 2nd battalion, Gordon Highlanders and dismounted cavalrymen of the Imperial Light Horse would turn the Boer left flank. Two squadrons of cavalry (5th Lancers and 5th Dragoons) would disrupt any Boer withdrawal.
1st Devons start point - Boer sangars to the front.
The attack went in at about 15:30 on the 21st October with confidence and the Boers returned fire with deadly effect. Their rifles were supplemented by two artillery pieces. The attacking Devonshires had to traverse open ground and negotiate a barbed wire fence. Nevertheless they made the hills and despite a counter-attack lead by General Kock, resplendent in his Sunday best and top hat,  the Boer defenders stated to withdraw. The attack on the left flank had been critical and the combined pressure on both flanks had tipped the balance.
The saddle of the hill at Elandslaagte
With the Boers streaming off the hill towards their camp at the rear, the cavalry were ordered forward. The spectacle of horsemen armed with lances riding through the fleeing Boers three times in succession was one that left a stark impression on the survivors. By this time rain had set in and by dusk the plain to the South of the station was littered with the Boer dead - including, according to Kenneth Griffith (author of 'Thank God We Kept the Flag Flying' London: Hutchinsons, 1974), family members who had travelled with their fathers or menfolk. 
Sunset at Nambiti
Although a tactical victory for the British, the battle achieved little. French's surviving force fell back to Ladysmith - soon to be under siege, and the Boers reoccupied Elandslaagte three days later. The Times History of the War in South Africa gives 55 killed and 205 wounded for the British, and a slightly lower figure for the Boers. It is possible though that non combatant casualties were not included in the latter tally.
For Winston Churchill and the Armoured Train (1899) click here.
For the full photo set from our 2014 Walking the Battlefield Tour of KwaZulu-Natal click here.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

The 46th Division at Gommecourt (1916)

Amongst the points raised by Sir Douglas Haig in his War Diary on the 1st July 1916 there is a highly critical reference to the 46th Division at Gommecourt. In recording the failure of this Division to break into the German third line and meet up with the 56th Division coming up from the South, Haig notes "the right Brigade of 46th Division did not press on". One can envisage the conversation with Plumer that left Haig with this impression and it was, of course, Major General Stuart-Wortley who was obliged to fall on his sword 'in penance'. Interestingly later editions of the diary toned down this passage to read "did not progress further" - a less critical form of words.
German Front Line on Left Flank of 46th Division Attack
Last weekend, armed with digitised trench maps and a GPS tracker a couple of us set out to explore this neglected part of the Somme battlefield. The Gommecourt attack was conceived as a diversionary effort. Two divisions converging from North and South would pinch out a German strongpoint called Gommecourt Park, take the village and meet up behind the German third line.

The 46th Division attack area was to the North of what is now the site of Gommecourt Wood Cemetery. Standing in the cemetery looking across the fields one can see Gommecourt Wood quite clearly. This was the second line. 100 yards to the front was the German front line. Because of a fold in the ground, the 46th Division would not have received enfilade fire from the Gommecourt Park machine gunners.
46th Division Memorial at Gommecourt Park Cemetery
Walking left from the Cemetery one can make out a rough hedge which marks the boundary between two fields. This hedge peters out and there is a 100 yard gap before one reaches a belt of trees in a zig zag pattern. The GPS showed that the frontline dog-legged forward to include this area which was termed the 'Little Z' and 'Big Z'. These were German strongpoints and the GPS enabled us to identify their exact location.
GPS showing Little and Big Z
The 7th (Robin Hood) Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters was on the right hand side of the attacking force and their flank would be vulnerable to machine gun fire in the event of the preliminary artillery barrage not neutralising the Zs. The trenches in the belt of trees marking the site of Little Z are remarkably well preserved. The main front line trench zig-zags through the trees and there are remains of dugouts and communication trenches.
Trenches at Little Z
It's only when you stand on the German positions in this area that you see how cleverly the German front line is positioned. The machine guns in the Little Z had a clear field of fire over the whole attack area. The guns in Big Z were positioned to cover the approaches to the strongpoint i.e. protecting the front line down to the area in front of the wood.
Ordnance at Gommecourt Wood
The Little Z from the German Line near Gommecourt Wood
 The 46th Division War Diary paints a picture of poorly constructed trenches and appalling conditions underfoot. We visited on a dry day but evidently at the time of attack the area was a sea of mud. Furthermore, in the War Diary, mention is made of lethal German artillery fire and ineffective smoke screens. In walking the ground I couldn't help thinking that the positions at Little Z and Big Z would have been very  difficult to crack. It's difficult to draw a conclusion on the events of the 1st July from walking this battlefield but it is evident that Gommecourt was a difficult objective - certainly as difficult as those which were targeted on the 1st July further south.