The Siege of Ladysmith was the almost inevitable result of the British decision to defend northern Natal at the start of the Boer War.
Ladysmith was the main British garrison town and supply depot in northern Natal. It was well situated in peace time, where the railroad and main road from Durban to Johannesburg met. However, in wartime it was very vulnerable. The town itself was built on a plain surrounded by hills that were just too far away to be used by the defenders. To the south the Tegula River and a series of ridge lines would block any relief effort. The border with the Orange Free State was close to the north west, and a second railway ran from Ladysmith to Harrismith, just over the border.
Natal was the main Boer target. One force, of around 14,000 men under Commandant-General Joubert, crossed the Transvaal border, heading for Dundee and then Ladysmith, while another force of 6,000 men from the Orange Free State, under Marthinus Prinsloo, crossed the Drakensberg heading directly for Ladysmith. This combined force would outnumber the 12,000 British troops in Natal.
The British position was made worse by indecision over where to make a stand. The British commander in Natal, Lieutenant-General Sir George White, preferred to concentrate at Ladysmith. The political authorities in Natal wanted the army to hold a line closer to the Transvaal. White was persuaded to put a force of 4,000 men at Dundee, to the north east of Ladysmith.
The Boer advance threatened to cut this force off. On 18 October a Boer patrol had reached the railway at Elandslaagte, between Ladysmith and Dundee. Another force took up position on the hills around Dundee. Finally, the force from the Orange Free State was known to be approaching Ladysmith. The situation was somewhat relieved when the garrison at Dundee defeated the Boers on Talana Hill (20 October), and a force sent out from Ladysmith cleared ththe railway at Elandslaagte (21 October), but it was clear that White would have to concentrate his forces at Ladysmith.
That was achieved on 24-25 October. While the men from Dundee were moving south west, White sent out another force from Ladysmith to prevent a Boer force at Rietfontein from interfering with the retreat (battle of Rietfontein, 24 October 1899). On 25 October the British army in Natal was concentrated in Ladysmith.
Over the next few days the Boers approached Ladysmith. White decided to make one more attempt to prevent a siege, by attacking the Boer line before it was complete. However, this attempt backfired. On 30 October nearly 1,000 British soldiers were captured at the battle of Nicholson’s Nek, while the main attack failed to achieve any of its aims, and ended in a chaotic retreat (battle of Lombard’s Kop). The only redeeming feature of “Mournful Monday” was the arrival of a battery of naval guns by rail from Durban. A siege was now inevitable.
The Boers did not rush to impose that siege. The last train ran on 2 November, three days after “Mournful Monday”. Amongst those who left was Lieutenant-General Sir John French, who was ordered away to command the cavalry involved in the relief of Kimberley. When the blockade was finally put in place, Ladysmith still contained around 8,000 civilians (5,500 white and 2,500 African or Indian), and 13,500 British soldiers.
The Boers did not have that many more men besieging Ladysmith. Joubert had to detach part of his army to block the British relief efforts. During the second half of November he was absent on a raid into southern Natal that had little or no impact. Even after his return, the siege was not carried out vigorously. At first the Boers had hoped to win the siege using their modern artillery. Once that plan had failed, Joubert decided to wait for starvation or disease to do his job.
The Boer bombardment quickly became predictable. It stopped at night, on Sundays and for regular coffee breaks! Only sixty four people were killed by the tens of thousands of shells fired into Ladysmith. White appears to have been paralysed by the defeats on 30 October. Once the siege began he only mounted two minor attacks on the Boer lines, on 7 December and 11 December, destroying three of their heavy guns. After that he lapsed into inaction.
The only serious Boer attack on Ladysmith came on 6 January 1900. Despite the misgivings of many of his men, Joubert decided to launch an attack on the Platrand, a long high hill that dominated the south of Ladysmith. It had been held by the British since the start of the siege. An earlier attack, planned for 30 November, had been abandoned under pressure from the Boer junior officers. Even now, many refused to take part in what they saw as too risky a plan. The attack on 6 January saw some severe fighting, and heavy losses on both sides, but was eventually repulsed.
The battle of the Platrand caused 168 British deaths. In addition, 59 people were killed by the Boer shelling. The biggest killer during the siege was disease. Nearly 400 people died of enteric fever (better know as typhoid). Boer losses in the attack were reported at 64 dead and 119 wounded, but were certainly higher – 99 Boer bodies were found on the hill after the battle. As ever, the informal nature of the Boer army is probably responsible for the discrepancy.
The battle of Platrand was the last action of the siege. The Boers were discouraged by the failure of the attack, and made no more attempts to assault the defences. White remained just as passive as he had been before the battle. The Boer’s main effort continued to go towards resisting Buller’s relief efforts. At Colenso (15 December 1899) and Spion Kop (23-24 January 1900) they inflicted severe defeats on Buller’s force, but finally, at the end of February the Boer line was broken (Battle of the Tugela Heights, 21-27 February 1900). The next day, after 118 days, the siege of Ladysmith came to an end.
The siege of Ladysmith had fatally derailed the Boer plan in Natal. The rapid advance to the coast that had been planned was instead replaced by a long siege and a gallant but eventually futile defence of the Tugela line. Once British reinforcements began to reach Durban in numbers the real danger in Natal was gone. Buller’s plans were also disrupted by the siege. He had originally planned to lead an attack from Cape Colony into the heart of the Boer republics, just as General Roberts would do. Instead he had been dragged into the war in Natal, where his weaknesses as a general had been exposed.