Elandslaagte is a small village on the railway line between Ladysmith and Dundee (Natal). At the outbreak of the Boer war, local political pressure convinced Lieutenant General George White to defend both places, although he would have preferred to concentrate on Ladysmith.
The Boers were able to threaten both places, and the railway line between them. Four separate Boer forces had entered Natal. Two were to meet at Dundee. A third made directly for Ladysmith. Finally, a force from Johannesburg under General Johannes Kock, had been sent to block the road between Ladysmith and Dundee, to prevent the British sending reinforcements to Dundee. Kock had 1,200 men and two modern Krupp guns. His force contained townsmen from Johannesburg, a contingent from the Orange Free State, and a large number of foreign volunteers.
On 18 October Kock sent a patrol into Elandslaagte. There they captured a supply train, and found a stock of whisky. The next day Kock brought the rest of his force into the town. There they rested for the day, before holding a impromptu concert in the town inn!
On the same day, 19 October, Major General John French arrived in Ladysmith to take command of the cavalry. On 20 October he went out on patrol, and discovered the presence of the Boers on the railway. The same day also saw the British at Dundee defeat part of the Boer force facing them (Battle of Talana Hill). White decided to send French to clear the line.
Kock took up position on a small range of hills to the south east of the town. There he placed his two Krupp guns where they could cover the town and the western approaches.
On 21 October French advanced with five companies from the Imperial Light Horse and the Natal Volunteer Field Battery. The field battery was equipped with muzzle-loading 7-pounder guns, obsolete compared to Kock’s Krupps. French was outnumbered by the Boers, but still ordered an artillery bombardment. The Boer guns returned fire, and quickly forced the British to retreat out of range. French called for reinforcements, and White responded.
The British still controlled the railroad west of the village. White was able to send a sizable force of infantry to French (Seven companies from the 1st Devonshire Regiment, the 1st Manchester Regiment and five companies from the 2nd Gordon Highlanders) along the railway, while the cavalry (5th Lancers, 5th Dragoon Guards and the Natal Mounted Rifles) came by road, along with two batteries from the Royal Field Artillery. French now had 3,500 men and 18 guns. The reinforcements were commanded by Colonel Ian Hamilton.
French and Hamilton decided on three pronged assault. The Devonshire Regiment was sent against the Boer right in a frontal assault. To the right the Manchester Regiment and the Gordon Highlanders were sent around the Boer’s southern flank. Between them the artillery would keep up a bombardment of the Boer positions. The Imperial Light Horse dismounted and joined the flank attack.
The infantry attack was slowed by Boer rifle fire and by barbed wire (on farm fences, not deliberately placed by the Boers), but the British attack had too much momentum to be stopped. A nasty moment came just after the British reached the ridge line. Part of the Boer force decided to surrender, and raised the white flag. Hamilton, leading the attack, ordered a cease fire. However, the white flag had not been raised by Kock. He now led fifty Boers in a desperate counterattack. With the advantage of surprise this attack came very close to driving the British back off the ridge, before Hamilton, amongst others, was able to restore order.
The use of the white flag would cause endless trouble during the Boer War. Most of the Boer soldiers had no experience of the use of the white flag and the rules that governed it. In theory, only the army commander could raise the white flag, and that would indicate that his entire army surrendered. However, the independently minded Boers were prone to surrender in small units. One white flag on a Boer line did not mean that the entire army or even that entire unit had surrendered.
The Boer line was now totally broken. Those that did not surrender, fled back towards their camp and attempted to escape. The battle of Elandslaagte ended with a second controversy. Once the Boers were fleeing from their positions it was the duty of the British cavalry to break up that retreat and turn it into a rout. In contrast many of the Boers felt that it was wrong to attack a fleeing enemy. The British cavalry carried out a textbook pursuit, and were never forgiven for it by the Boers. The Lancers were the target of a particularly bitter hostility. The Boers did not see the lance as a suitable weapon for Europeans.
Elandslaagte was one of the few battles in the Boer War where the Boers suffered the heavier casualties. British losses were 55 dead and 205 wounded, for a total of 260. Boer losses were approximately 46 dead, 105 wounded and 181 missing or taken prisoner, for a total of 332. The informal nature of much of the Boer military structure means that all casualty figures can only ever be a best guess.
The British victories at Talana Hill and Elandslaagte had no long term impact on the war. It was clear that the two positions were far too vulnerable to attack by the large Boer forces moving into Natal. Dundee and Elandslaagte were quickly abandoned, and White concentrated his forces in Ladysmith. The retreat from Elandslaagte was particularly rapid, and also badly handled. Around 40 Boer prisoners were simply released, and large numbers of supplies destroyed. By 29 October the British field army in Natal had concentrated in Ladysmith, and the siege was about to begin.