The Platrand is a two and a half mile long ridge that dominated the south side of Ladysmith. It had been occupied by the British from the start of the siege in November 1899 and was seen by many the key to the defences of Ladysmith. Its lose would certainly have made Lieutenant-General Sir George White’s task much harder.
The British recognised the importance of the Platrand and had fortified the hills at each end. At Caesar’s Camp, on the eastern end of the ridge, they had built walls seven feet high. There they had 400 men from the Manchester Regiment, HMS Powerful and the Natal Naval Volunteers, and one 12 pounder gun. Wagon Hill, at the west end of the ridge, was not so strongly fortified, but work was in hand on two gun emplacements. The garrison of Wagon Hill was 600 strong (three companies of the 1st King’s Royal Rifle Corp and the Imperial Light Horse, as well as a detachment from the Royal Engineers). The Natal Naval Volunteers moved a 3 pounder gun onto Wagon Hill the day before the Boer attack, and two naval guns were being moved onto the hill when the attack began. The British commander on the Platrand, Colonel Ian Hamilton, had around 1,000 men to defend the two and a half mile long position.
The Boers intended to attack him with twice that number. 1,000 Transvaal men under Schalk Burger were to attack Caesar’s Camp. De Villiers with 400 Free Staters were to attack Wagon Point. Finally 600 men from Vryheid and Winburg and a unit of Germans were to attack the middle of the ridge, between the two hills. However, not everyone in the Boer camp was convinced that the attack was worthwhile. Many men who were meant to have taken part in the third attack decided not to take part.
The attack went in at 2.30am on 6 January. Under cover of darkness the fighting was chaotic. Hamilton was woken by the noise. Finding a strong Boer attack underway, he used a newly installed telephone to call for reinforcements. Amongst other troops, White sent field artillery that played a crucial part in the daylight fighting.
At daybreak the Boer attack had failed to reach the summit of the ridge, but the Boers held a line along the entire southern side of the hill, and threatened to outflank the British position. Boer guns on neighbouring hills now joined in, and the British position looked vulnerable. However, the field guns sent by White now arrived, and helped stabilize the position.
The fighting went on from early morning till noon without a break. After a short break the Boer attack was resumed. By now British reinforcements had arrived on the hill. The Boers failed to make supporting attacks elsewhere around Ladysmith, allowing White to move troops to the Platrand. The Devonshire Regiment made a particularly significant contribution, clearing a pocket of Boers from the southern side of the ridge with a bayonet charge, in the process loosing a third of their strength. Finally, as darkness fell at the end of the day the remaining Boers retreated down the hill.
British losses were high. 168 men were killed, out of a total of 417 casualties. Five Victoria Crosses were won (two posthumous). Boer losses were probably just has high. Officially they were reported at 64 dead and 119 wounded, but the Rifle Brigade counted 99 Boer dead on their part of the hill. Amongst the Boer dead was De Villiers, shot dead in a close encounter with Hamilton. The failure of the attack on the Platrand demoralised the Boers. It was their last attempt to capture Ladysmith.