Political pressures had forced the British commander in Natal, Lieutenant-general Sir George White, to split his army. 4,000 men had been sent north east to Dundee, closer to the Transvaal border, while the bulk of the army remained at Ladysmith.
On 20 October the force at Dundee had won a costly victory against the Boers threatening the town (Talana Hill), but substantial Boer forces still remained around Dundee. White decided to pull all of his men together at Ladysmith. He was aware that Boer forces threatened to block the line of retreat from Dundee to Ladysmith, and decided to risk battle.
The Boers who threatened the British retreat were from the most westerly of four Boer columns invading Natal. This was a contingent from the Orange Free State under Marthinus Prinsloo. On 24 October six of his commandos were lined up on hills to the north west of the railway west of Elandslaagte (The Harrismith, Kroonstad, Winburg, Bethlehem, Vrede and Heilbron commandos).
White led a large part of his available force against the Boers at Rietfontein (Cavalry from the 5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, the Imperial Light Horse, Natal Mounted Rifles, guns from the 42nd and 53rd Field Batteries, Royal Artillery, and infantry from the 1st Gloucestershire, 1st Devonshire and 1st King’s Liverpool regiments and 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps).
The Boers had taken up a position on a semi-circle of hills above the railway, with their only artillery gun at the western end of the line. The British had to approach from this end, and so were exposed to artillery fire as well as rifle fire from the hills. White spend most of the day attempting to get close to the Boer lines. From 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. the two sides kept up a constant rifle and artillery duel, but the British were unable to get close enough to the Boer lines to charge.
In fact White did not need to launch an assault on the Boer lines to achieve his objective, which was to allow the British force from Dundee, now under Brigadier General James Yule, to reach Ladysmith in safety. At around 3 p.m. White learnt that Yule’s men had made good progress, and were no longer in danger of being trapped. Accordingly, he called off the attack, and withdrew back into Ladysmith. Early the next day Yule’s force from Dundee also reached the town.
Both sides could claim a victory at Rietfontein. White had achieved his main aim, the protection of Yule’s retreating force from Dundee. The Boers were convinced they had defeated a major British attack, and in a way they had. White had certainly taken enough men with him to pose a serious threat to the Boers, but had been unable to get into a position where he could make his numbers tell. The centre of attention now switched to Ladysmith, where within a week White would have suffered two serious defeats (Lombard’s Kop and Nicholson’s Nek, both 30 October – Mournful Monday).
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