The battle of Belmont saw the first fighting during Lord Methuen’s failed attempt to raise the siege of Kimberley. He had left his base on the Orange River on 21 November, with a force of around 8,000 men. His plan was to follow the railway straight to Kimberley. This predictability would allow the Boers to take advantage of the few natural obstructions on the route.
The first of those obstructions was at Belmont, twenty miles from the Orange River. There the railway ran past a cluster of low hills east of the track. Near to the railway were two peaks (given the names Gun Hill for the southern and Table Mountain for the northern peak by the British soldiers). Behind them to the east, separated by a narrow pass or nek was a taller hill, given the name Mont Blanc.
The main Boer force at Belmont was composed of around 2,000 men from the Free State under Jacobus Prinsloo (Kroonstad, Fauresmith, Bloemfontein, Brandfort and Jacobsdaler commandos). Another 800 men from the Transvaal, under De la Rey, arrived in time to cover the Boer retreat at the end of the battle.
Methuen based his plan of attack on a faulty understanding of the nature of the hills. He was unaware of the gap between Table Mountain and Mont Blanc. Instead he believed there to be more high ground between the two hills. His plan was for the 9th Brigade to attack Table Mountain and the Guard’s Brigade to attack Gun Hill. The Coldstream Guards would then seize the non-existent high ground, while the 9th Brigade would use it to attack the northern flank of the Boer positions on Mont Blanc. They would do this after a night march that would place them at the base of the hills under cover of darkness.
The plan went wrong almost from the start. At first light on 23 November it was realised that the march had stopped 1,000 yards short of the base of the hills, probably because the British were not yet experienced in judging distances in the clear air of the veldt. This meant that the assault would have to be made in daylight, and after a dash across open ground. Despite this, the British soldiers proved that they could make successful attacks up hill against the Boer’s rifle fire. The attack began soon after 3.30 a.m, and by 4.20 the British had reached the top of both Table Mountain and Gun Hill, although not without losses. It would take longer to clear the top of Table Mountain, but the big problem now was posed by Mont Blanc.
The 9th Brigade, whose role it had been to attack this second position, now found itself in the wrong place to do so. The western face of Mont Blanc, facing Table Mountain, was the steepest, and well defended by the Boers, who had had time to prepare their positions. Fortunately for Methuen, the Coldstream Guards solved his problem. Their original role had been to capture the non-existent high ground north east of Gun Hill. When it became clear that there was no such ground, they drifted right, eventually capturing the southern end of Mont Blanc (with help from the Northamptons and the Grenadiers).
With three of the four areas of high ground lost, the Boers decided to withdraw. At around 7.30 a.m. they abandoned their positions on Mont Blanc, returned to their horses, and escaped north. This was when Methuen’s lack of cavalry became significant. He simply could not mount a pursuit of the Boers. An attempt was made to do so by Rimington’s Guides and a squadron of the 9th Lancers, but they were outnumbered by fresh Boer horsemen under De la Rey and were lucky to escape intact.
British losses were 74 dead and 220 wound. Boer losses were officially reported at 12 dead and 40 wounded, but the British buried 30 Boers found after the battle. Forty prisoners were taken, and Boer losses may have been around 100. Prinsloo was badly shaken by the fighting at Belmont, especially by the determination of the British advance. The high kopjes may have looked like ideal defensive positions, but the steep slopes actually gave the advancing troops some protect. In many battle of the war, the most severe fighting would happen on the flat tops of the hills, not on the steep slopes. Methuen meanwhile was confirmed in his belief in the frontal assault. He would repeat the same tactic at Rooilaagte, the Modder River and Magersfontein, with decreasing success. Belmont is normally described as a “soldier’s battle” as it was won by the determination of the infantry, and not through any great skill on Methuen’s part.