South African Battle: 26 September 1901
An interesting mix of tragedies and heavy fire …
During the month of August 1901, Boer General Louis Botha, assembled a force of commandos, mainly from the Eastern and South-Eastern Transvaal and moved into Northern Natal. Botha was joined by his brother Chris Botha and had a force of about 2 000 Burghers. On 17 September his force engaged the British at Blood River Poort and this clash woke the British up to the fact that the Boers were planning more attacks on British positions in the area. The British moved reinforcements up to the Buffalo River. Botha moved south and established his headquarters in the Babanango District, between the towns of Melmoth and Nqutu.
The book ‘General Louis Botha’s Second Expedition to Natal’ by Dermot Michael Moore records (page 46) – “Having established himself at Babanango, Botha’s thoughts once more turned to the opportunity of offensive action…….with the opportunity to replenish his supplies.” Moore continues – “The consideration of a quick, telling strike against the British and a safe return to the Eastern Transvaal, were uppermost. Since his success at Blood River Poort Botha’s time was limited. It was necessary now to strike and then to escape the encircling net before it was too late.”
Botha could see the British positions at Itala and Fort Prospect from his camp at Babanango. His scouts reported that the two outposts were weak and undermanned, and that they should fall to him without difficulty, so he made ready to attack. The distance between the two British posts was about 15 miles.
The summit of Itala sloped gently down to its base in the east along a ridge over a mile in length. This ridge terminated in a narrow, steep spur at the bottom which concealed the outpost site below, from the summit. Possession of this spur was the key to the British position. Major Chapman of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers had a garrison of 220 men, but being warned of an impending attack from the Boers, requested 80 reinforcements from Fort Prospect.
On the morning of 25 September 1901 Chapman ordered his men to dig trenches having been warned of an attack that night. On the northern side of the camp a natural rock wall put the defenders on a platform overlooking all approaching ground. A machine-gun post was set up to fire upwards to Itala. Two 15-pounder field guns were also positioned below the spur. At dusk Chapman despatched Lieutenants Lefroy and Kane to the summit with 80 men.
At the same time Botha dispatched 1 400 of his men, keeping back only about 200. He divided them into two groups – 600 under his brother Commandant Chris Botha were ordered to attack the summit, and the remainder under Commandants Opperman, Potgieter and Scholtz were ordered to encircle and attack the base camp.
The first attack came from the Boers on the summit at just after midnight. In the moonlight the British spotted the advancing Boers and at about 100 metres they opened fire on the Boers. Heavy fighting resulted but soon the weight of numbers began to tell. Lieutenant Kane was killed and Lieutenant Leroy wounded. Within half an hour the summit was in Boer hands. The British who survived the attack made their way down to the main camp. Of the 80 men who were on the summit only 14 reached the camp.
At the same time the main camp had been surrounded and the Boers poured very heavy rifle fire in from all sides. They charged the trenches but were driven back at bayonet point. The attack lasted for five hours, with each Boer advance on the trenches being driven back by heavy British rifle fire.
At around 6 am in the morning (26 September) all firing had ceased and the attack seemed to be over. Doctor Fielding, the British Medical Officer, decided to go to the summit to attend to the wounded but nearing the summit was met by the Boers who were preparing to mount a renewed attack on the camp.
This attack was resumed more violently than before. The gunners, who had gallantly manned the two 15-pounders during the night, were exposed and the Boer fire rendered them ineffective. It was now daylight and the Boers were faced with the task of covering open ground in any attempt to advance on the British, who were protected by stone sangers. Rifle fire continued for most of the day.
Meanwhile ammunition was getting very scarce in some of the British positions and Major Chapman called for volunteers to replenish supplies. Several surviving artillery men came forward. The first two away were both shot down on the fire-swept slope. Driver F.G. Bradley of the 69th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, who went out, returned eventually with both wounded men and then retrieved the ammunition box. For this act of extreme bravery he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
By late afternoon, after 17 hours of heavy, unrelenting attack by both sides, the Boers were forced to retire.
British losses were 22 killed and 59 wounded. In addition six native servants died and four were wounded. Chapman had also been wounded.
Boer casualties were 15 killed and 40 wounded.
The tragedy of the horses at Itala cannot go unmentioned. With their only protection being a small stone building into which a few were crammed, out of 300, 153 died, 40 were wounded and 30 disappeared. In addition 82 draft mules were killed and four wounded.
Another interesting fact was that at Itala the British artillery fired 63 shells and the troops 70 040 rounds of rifle ammunition. The true fury of this defence can be gauged by comparison with the Battle of Kambula which was the most expensive and a key battle of the Zulu war in 1879, where the 2 000 British troops fired 66 400 rounds.