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THE BATTLE OF GLENCOE (TALANA)


On the night of  the 19th, Sir W. Penn Symons discovered that he was surrounded by the enemy. Three of their columns were converging on his position-one from the north-west under General Erasmus by the Dannhauser-Hattingspruit road; one from  Utrecht and Vryheid by Landsman's Drift from the east, under Commandant Lucas Meyer; and a third under General Viljoen from Waschbank on the south, this latter being the force which cut through the Ladysmith-Dundee railway.

The  Boer plan was to deliver simultaneously different attacks from all sides of the Glencoe camp. The column under Erasmus was to open the attack from the north-west, and falling back, was to draw Symons in pursuit away from his camp.  Then Viljoen and Meyer were to close on the pursuers from either flank and annihilate them.

Fortunately this skilfully-devised programme was not fulfilled. For this reason: The force under Lucas Meyer was the first to arrive, and  its leader, impatient to secure the glories of war, decided on an independent course of action. Before the other columns could put in an appearance he opened the attack. . On the hills round Glencoe the Boers had posted cannon, and  from thence at daybreak on the 20th of October Meyer's gunners began to fire plugged shells into the camp. A flash-a puff of smoke-a whizz and a crash! Hostilities had begun! By 5 A.M. all General Symons's troops were under arms.  It was evident that the enemy were in force, and that their guns were some half-a-dozen in number. Their range was 5000 yards, but, fortunately, their shots, though well directed, flew screaming. overhead and buried themselves in  the soft earth, doing no damage whatever. A few tents fell, a few marquees were torn up. That was' all. Our artillery soon came into action, at first at too long a range, but afterwards-from a position south of Dundee-with greater  success. 'They then replied to the enemy's challenge with considerable warmth and excellent effect; and, since our batteries numbered some three to one, by I 1.30 o'clock the enemy's Krupps were silenced. In the meantime the  infantry, the 1st King's Royal Rifles and the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, formed for attack opposite the enemy's position, which was situated some two miles off at the top of an almost impregnable hill. Huge boulders margined the sides  of it, and half-way up an encircling wall added to the impassability of the position. But the word impossible is not to be found in the dictionary of a soldier, and General Symons gave an order. The hill was to be taken. The bugles  rang out ; the infantry fixed bayonets. Then was enacted another, only a grander, Majuba but now with the position of the contending forces inverted. Doubtless the memory of that historic defeat inspired our men, for they evidently  decided that what the Boer had done, the Briton also could do, and, spurred by their officers, who showed an absolute disregard of the possibilities of danger, went ahead and carried the crest in magnificent style. No such  brilliant achievement of British infantry has been recorded since Albuera. But this, as we shall see, was not accomplished in a moment. It involved tremendous exposure in crossing an open plain intersected with nullahs under a  terrific fire, followed by a long spell of dogged climbing, finally on hand and knees, over more than a mile of broken, sometimes almost perpendicular, ground, and in the midst of an incessant and furious fusilade.

At 7.30 A.M.  the head of the Hattingspruit column appeared;. appeared but to vanish-for it was at once saluted by the 67th Field Battery and being unprepared for this somewhat boisterous attention, made haste to beat a retreat. At 8.50 the  infantry brigade was ordered to advance. Soon the Dublin Fusiliers and the Rifles, who had been reinforced by the Royal Irish Fusiliers, were" steadily moving on, firing by sections; and using what cover the ground afforded.  Overhead, from the hill described, and from another south of the road, the ever-active shells continued their grim music, while all around was the dense curtain of fine rain that drizzled down like wet needles from an opaque sky,  making a screen between the opposing forces. But on and on, led by their gallant officers, our infantry continued to toil, their advance ever covered by the 13th and 67th Field Batteries-under the command respectivly of Major  Dawkins and Major Wing-while the enemy from above poured upon them volley after volley as hard as rifles would let them. When half-way up, where the kopje was girded by a flat terrace and a stone wall, the troops, scattered by the  terrific fire, hot, drenched, and panting with their climb, made a halt. There, under the lea of the hill, it was necessary to get "a breather," and to gather themselves together for the supreme effort. The scene was not  exhilarating. The grey mist falling-the scattered earth arid mud rising and spluttering, the shrieking shells rending the air, already vibrant with the whirr of bullets-the closer sounds and sights of death and destruction - all  these things were sufficient to stem the courage of stoutest hearts. Still the British hand remained undaunted, still they prepared boldly for the final rush. Presently, with renewed energy the three gallant regiments, steadily and  determinedly as ever, started off; scaled the wall, clambered up the steep acclivity, and finally, with a rush and a roar as of released pandemonium, charged the crest.

The rout of the enemy was complete. At the glint of the  steel they turned and ran - ran like panic-stricken sheep, helter-skelter over the hill, in the direction of Landmann's and Vant's Drifts. Their retreat was harried by cavalry and mounted infantry, and, so far as it was possible,  in view of the inaccessible position, by the field artillery At this juncture the enemy displayed a white flag-without any intention of surrender, it appears-but our firing was stopped by order of the artillery commander. Two guns  and several prisoners were captured, together with horses and various boxes of shells for Maxim, Nordenfeldt, and Krupp quick-firing guns. Our wounded were many, and some companies looked woefully attenuated as the remnant, when  all was over, whistled themselves back to camp. Their gallant leader, General Penn Symons, who had taken no precautions to keep under cover, but, on the contrary, had made himself conspicuous in being accompanied by a lancer with a  red flag, fell early in the fight, mortally wounded. His Vace was taken by Brigadier-General Yule, whose position at that time was far from enviable. A message had been brought in by scouts, stating that some 9000 Boers were  marching with the intention of attacking the British in the rear, and that at the very moment the advancing multitude might be cloaked in a dark mist that was gfrthering round the hills. Fortunately the hovering hordes failed to  appear, and the first big engagement of the war terminated in a glorious victory for British arms.

From all accounts the two hostile columns numbered respectively 4000 and 9000 men, and against these forces Sir Penn Symons had at  his command in all about 4000. Among these were the 13th, 67th, and 69th Field Batteries, the 18th Hussars, the Natal Mounted volunteers, the 8th Battalion Leicester Regiment, the 1st King's Royal Rifles, the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers,  and several companies of mounted infantry. But on the Dublin Fusiliers, the King's Royal Rifles, and the Royal lrish Fusliers fell the brunt of the work the task of capturing the Boer positions, and the magnificent dash and courage  with which the almost impossible feat was accomplished brought a thrill to the heart of all who had the good fortune to witness it.

Though the fight was a successful one, a grievous incident occurred. The 18th Hussars had  received orders at 5.40 A.M. to get round the enemy's right flank and be ready to cut off his retreat. They were accompanied by a portion of the mounted infantry and a machine-gun. Making a wide turning movement, they gained the  eastern side of Talana Hill and there halted, while two squadrons were sent in pursuit of the enemy. From that time, though firing was heard at intervals throughout the day, Colonel Moeller, with a squadron of the 18th Hussars and  four sections of mounted infantry, was lost to sight. The rain had increased and the mist covered the hills, and it was believed that in course of time this missing party would return. But the belief was vain. In a few days it was  discovered that they were made prisoners and had been removed to Pretoria. The following is a list of the gallant officers who were so unluckily captured :- Colonel Moeller, 18th Mussars ; Major Greville, 18th Hussars ; Captain Pollok, 18th Hussars ; Captain Lonsdale, 2nd Battalion Dublin Fusiliers Lieutenant Le Mesurier, 2nd Battalion Dublin Fusiliers; Lieutenant Garvice, 2nd  Battalion Dublin Fusiliers; Lieutenant Grimshaw, 2nd Battalion Dublin Fusiliers ; Lieutenant Majendie, 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps Lieutenant Shore, Army Veterinary Department, attached to 18th Hussars.

An official account of the circumstances which led to the capture was supplied by Captain Hardy, R.A.M.C., who said "After the battle, three squadrons of the 18th Hussars, with one  maxim, a company of the Dublin Fusiliers, a section of the 60th Rifles and Mounted Infantry, Colonel Moeller commanding, kept under cover of the ridge to the north of the camp, and at 6.30 moved down the Sand Spruit. On reaching  the open the force was shelled by the enemy, but there were no casualties.

Colonel Moeller took his men round Talana Hill in a south-easterly direction,  crossed the Vant's Drift road, captured several Boers, and saw the Boer ambulances retiring. Colonel Moeller, with the B Squadron of the Hussars, a maxirn, and mounted infantry, crossed the Dundee-Vryheid railway, and got near a  big force of the enemy, who opened a hot fire, and Lieutenant Mc'Lachlan was hit.

The cavalry retired across Vant's Drift, 1500 Boers following. Colonel Moeller held the ridge for some time, hut the enemy enveloping his right, he  ordered the force to fall back across the Spruit. The Maxim got fixed in a donga (water-hole). Lieutenant Cape was wounded, three of his detachment were killed, and the horses of Major Greville and Captain Pollok were shot.

"The force re-formed on a ridge north of the Sand Spruit, and held it for a short time. While Captain Hardy was attending to Lieutenant Crum, who was wounded, Colonel Moeller retired his force into a defile, apparently with  the intention of returning to camp round the Impati Mountain, and was not seen afterwards."

The following list of casualties shows how hardly the glory of victories may be earned

Divisional Staff-General Sir William Penn Symons, mortally wounded in stomach; Colonel C. P. Beckett, A.A.G., seriously wounded, right shoulder; Major Frederick Hammersley, D.A.A.G.,  seriously wounded, leg. Brigade Staff. - Colonel John Sherston,D.S.O., Brigade Major, killed; Captain Frederick Lock Adam, Aide-de-Camp, seriously wounded, right shoulder. 1st Battalion Leicestershire  Regiment.-Lieutenant B. de W. Weldon, wounded slightly, hand. 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers.-Second Lieutenant A. H. M. Hill, killed; Major W. P. Davison, wounded; Captain and Adjutant F. H. B.. Connor, wounded (since dead);  Captain M. J. W. Pike, wounded Lieutenant C. C. Southey, wounded; Second Lieutenant M. B. C. Carbery, wounded dangerously, face and shoulder; Second Lieutenant H. C. W. Wortham, wounded severely, both thighs. Royal Dublin  Fusiliers.-Captain George Anthony Weldon, killed; Captain Maurice Lowndes, wounded dangerously, left leg; Captain Atherstone Dibley, wounded dangerously, head; Lieutenant Charles Noel Perreau, wounded ; Lieutenant Charles Jervis  Genge, wounded (since dead). 1st Battalion King's Royal Rifles.-Killed: Lieutenant-Colonel R. H. Gunning,Captain M. H. K. Pechell, Lieutenant J. Taylor, Lieutenant R. C. Barnett, Second Lieutenant N. J. Hambro.-Wounded:  Major C. A. T. Boultbee, upper thigh, dangerously; Captain 0.S. W. Nugent, Captain A. R. M. Stuart-Wortley, Lieutenant F. M. Cruni, Lieutenant R. Jolinstone, both thighs, severely; Second Lieutenant C. H. Martin, thigh and arm,  severely. 18th Hussars.-Wounded: Second Lieutenant H. A. Cape, Second Lieutenant Albert C. M'Lachlan, Second Lieutenant E. H. Bayford.

The Boer force engaged in this action  was computed at 4000 men, of whom about 500 were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners. Three of their guns were left dismounted on Talana Hill, but there was no opportunity of bringing them away. Our own losses were severe,  amounting to 10 officers and 3 non-commissioned officers and men killed, 20 officers and 165 non commissioned officers and men wounded, and 9 officers and 211 non-commissioned officers and men missing.

Though General Symons was known to be at the point of death, his promotion was speedily gazetted, and it was some consolation to feel that the gallant and popular officer lasted long  enough to read of the recognition of his worth by an appreciative country. The following is an extract from the Gazette

"The Queen has been pleased to approve of the promotion of Colonel (local Lieutenant-General) Sir W. P.  Symons, K.C.B. commanding 4th Division Natal Field Force, to be Major-General, supernumerary to the establishment, for distinguished service in the field.

An officer who was taken prisoner by the enemy, writing home soon after  this engagement, made touching reference to some of the killed and wounded: "Poor Jack Sherston! Several of the officers here saw him lying dead on the hill at Dundee. When he left with the message entrusted to him he said to  me, ' I shall never return.' Poor Captain Pechell! He had a bullet through the neck. General Symons was wounded and thrown from his horse, but he remounted and was conducted to the hospital, where he learnt that the height had been  taken by our troops. His health improved a little, but he died on the following Tuesday. What a list of losses already! It is terrible to think that our own cannon were fired by mistake on our men, killing a large number I saw  M'Lachlan when he was wounded with a bullet in his leg. He went about on horseback saying that it did not hurt him, but at last he had to go to the hospital. My bugler, such a pleasant fellow, was hit in the head, the body, and the  throat, and killed on the spot. . . . From a wounded officer, who is a prisoner, I hear that poor Cape had a bullet in the throat and another in the leg. He emptied his revolver twice ere falling. He is progressing towards  recovery. . . . He had the command of our Maxim gun which fell into the hands of the enemy. The entire detachment which worked the gun was killed or wounded. At that moment bullets were whistling all round us. Cape, I think, has  been exchanged for one of the enemy's wounded. I suppose that he will be sent home invalided. I wonder what the future has in store for us? It is really heart-breaking to think that we are penned in here without being able to do  anything but wait."