South African Battle: 21 October 1899

The first cavalry charge of the South African War (1899-1902)

Elandslaagte Colliery was of prime importance to both sides in 1899. The village was a link in the communication between the British forces in Ladysmith and Dundee. 

On 19 October Boer forces under the command of General Kock took control of the Elandslaagte railway station and mine village. They occupied the village and cut rail and telegraph communication between Dundee and Ladysmith and then proceeded to fortify their position. 

When the news of the Battle of Talana reached Ladysmith a reconnaissance party under the command of Major-General French was sent out to check Elandslaagte. On establishing that the Boers occupied the mine village and railway station, plans were put in place to drive them out.

Early on the 21 October, French accompanied by an armoured train, advanced on the village and shelled the station. The Boers took up their positions in the nearby hills and returned artillery fire. French called for reinforcements which started arriving at midday. At round 3 pm he had over 3 000 men under his command and the attack commenced.

The Devonshire Regiment, in wide open formation, moved into a frontal assault on the Boer position, with the Manchester Regiment, the Gordon Highlanders and the Imperial Light Infantry, all under the command of Lieutenant-General Ian Hamilton, mounting an attack on the Boers left flank.

A thunderstorm was threatening in the late afternoon, and when the British captured the Boer guns at around 4.30 pm, a number of Boers raised the white flag. However, General Kock had other ideas and with a small detachment of Boers, continued fighting.

General Kock was severely wounded and the Boers began to retreat. In this retreat the Boers were chased by the British mounted Lancers in what was to become the first cavalry charge of the war.

The victory was short-lived as within a week Elandslaagte was again in the hands of the Boers and the mine was closed. The Siege of Ladysmith had begun. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded for acts of gallantry in the battle.

British casualties were 55 killed and 186 wounded.

As a side-line I met with Richard Johnston whose great Uncle, Robert Johnston, was one of the recipients of the Victoria Crosses awarded at the above battle. Robert Johnston played for the British Lions rugby team when they toured South Africa in 1896.  He then stayed on in South Africa where he joined the Imperial Light Horse regiment at the outbreak of the South African War. He was besieged in Ladysmith, where he was seriously injured. He was also a member of the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg where he played rugby. During Richard’s visit I took him to the War Museum in Johannesburg and to the Imperial Light Horse museum. He has the VC safely locked away.

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