Talana Hill (or Dundee) was an early battle in Natal during the Second Boer War. Part of the Boer plan at the start of the war was for the army under Commandant-General Piet Joubert to invade Natal, defeat the only British field army in South Africa, probably near Dundee or Ladysmith, and then march to the coast at Durban. That British army was under the command of Lieutenant General George White, who had taken up his new post just six days before the start of the war. He had decided to make a stand at Ladysmith, but under political pressure had been persuaded to leave a 4,000 strong brigade at Dundee, forty miles further along the railway to the Transvaal.
That detachment was commanded by Major General Sir William Penn Symons, White’s immediate predecessor in command in Natal. He was supremely confident in the ability of the British regular soldier to deal with the Boers, who he saw as a band of farmers. His position at Dundee was not strong. The town was surrounded by flat topped hills, the most important of which was Impati, to the north of the town, the source of Dundee’s fresh water. Two more hills, Talana and Lennox, overlooked the town from the east. Astonishingly, Penn Symons left these crucial locations unguarded. It was not to be his only mistake.
On 19 October a force of 4,000 Boers, from five commandos, was approaching Dundee. Early the next day they discovered the British pickets, and forced them back. Penn Symons received news of this clash, but dismissed it as a simple Boer raid. No preparations were made to meet any possible attack.
Accordingly, the first most of Penn Symons’s men knew of the Boer presence was when they were spotted on top of Talana and Lennox hills, just moments before the Boer artillery opened fire on Dundee. The Boer force had split into two. Two commandos, with 1,500 men, were on Talana Hill, three more occupied Lennox Hill while another 4,000 men occupied Impati Hill. Their plan was simple – they would use their artillery to wake up the British, and then wait for them to attack their strong hilltop positions.
Penn Symons was perfectly happy to cooperate with that plan and decided to attack Talana Hill. Unlike many later British commanders, he committed the majority of his command to the attack. The British artillery was very soon returning the Boer fire, with some effect. The Boer artillery was quickly silenced, while a number of the Boers, coming under artillery fire for the first time, fled. However, the real battle would begin when the British infantry attempted to climb up the hills in the face of accurate Boer rifle fire.
First, the British had to reach the base of the hill. Here they were aided by the presence of a small forest of blue gum trees at the base of the hill. Despite a brief expose to accurate Boer rifle fire the British infantry were soon in place at the base of the hill. However, while the shelter of the trees had encouraged the British advance so far, now it brought it to a halt, as the troops were understandably unwilling to leave the relative safety of the trees. Penn Symons rode to the front line in an attempt to speed up the attack, and at the edge of the trees was mortally wounded.
His second in command, Brigadier General James Yule, took over, and got the attack moving. The advance was generally successful, although the British troops did then come under fire from their own artillery, apparently unaware that any of the distant figures near the top of Talana Hill were actually British. The artillery fire did serve to push the Boers off the top of hill, and once it stopped the British were able to occupy Talana Hill in relative safety.
With the Boer army retreating slowly east, the artillery had a chance to make up for their earlier mistakes. Yule sent them to Smith’s Nek, the pass between Talana Hill and Lennox Hill. Once there, the artillery commander, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin Pickwoad, found himself in an ideal position to bombard the Boers, potentially turning their orderly retreat into a rout. Instead, he sent a message to Yule asking for orders. In a war that would be plagued by missed chances, the first battle provided the first missed chance.
It also provided the first example of gallant stupidity. A small cavalry detachment, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Bernhard Drysdale Möller, had been sent out on a sweep around the north of Talana Hill. This force now found itself in the path of the entire Boer army. Möller decided to make a stand. Not surprisingly his tiny force was swept aside. Möller now led the survivors in the wrong direction, ending up behind Impati Hill, where he was quickly captured.
Talana Hill was in many ways a British victory. Penn Symons’s force drove off a Boer force at least twice its size, and one that had taken up just the sort of strong defensive position that would cause the British so many problems later in the war. However, it came at a high cost. Ten officers (including Penn Symons) and 31 other ranks were killed, 185 men were wounded and 220 men captured or missing (many from Möller’s cavalry). Boer losses were reported at on 23 dead, 66 wounded and 20 missing. The Boers would need to inflict casualties at a much higher rate than two-to-one if they were succeed. However, Penn Symons had been the most vocal supporter of maintaining the position at Dundee. Soon after the battle, General White called all of his detachments back into Ladysmith, where he would soon be besieged. The battle of Talana hill may well have been a British victory, but it had little or no impact on the course of the war in Natal.