During the 19th October, while Symons was awaiting in his camp near Dundee the approach of the Boer forces from north, east, and west, Sir George White was occupied in a close inspection of the line of defence selected for Ladysmith. It was a long line, about fourteen miles in extent, and required very careful examination in order that every weak point might be detected and rectified before it came to be tried by the enemy's fire. White rode round the defences, looking into everything personally, and came to the conclusion that whatever was possible had been done to make the place secure. He had no more intention now than before of remaining in Ladysmith if he could find or make an opportunity of striking out at any part of the enemy's forces; but it was most important that if the enemy proved to be too strong for him in the field, he should have a thoroughly prepared position upon which he could fall back.
In the meantime, as explained in Chapter VII., the right column of the Transvaal advance, or a portion of it, had pushed down over the Biggarsberg, and in the course of the day captured the station of Elandslaagte. At daybreak on the 20th October, General Kock, the commander of the column, was himself in Elandslaagte with the whole of his force; and, though perhaps too far off to join in the combined attack upon Symons, was well placed for harassing his retreat, if he should be defeated, and for opposing any attempt at an advance from Ladysmith to support him.
White's file of telegrams does not show exactly when he received news of the fall of Elandslaagte, but it was some time during the 19th October; and on the morning of the 20th, information of the attack on Talana having meanwhile come in, a force moved out of Ladysmith to ascertain the situation, and if possible to reopen direct communication with Dundee. Major-General French (Now Field-Marshal Sir John French, commanding the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders.) had arrived from the south at daybreak, arid he was selected to command the force, which consisted of some mounted troops and a battery of artillery. An infantry brigade under Colonel Ian Hamilton followed in support. French got far enough to come in sight of a portion of the enemy, but in the meantime the Free State Boers to the west assumed an attitude so threatening that White, fearing an attack on Ladysmith, thought it necessary to recall French and Hamilton, who returned the same evening.
But White had now received news of the victory at Talana, which, as at first reported, seemed to have been more decisive than it really was; and, his mind relieved about Dundee, he determined to strike swiftly at the Boer force on the railway line, hoping perhaps to catch them between two fires. Early on the morning of the 21st October, therefore, French once more moved out of Ladysmith, and by 7 a.m. he was in touch with the enemy at Elandslaagte.
He had with him five squadrons of that fine corps the Imperial Light Horse, under Colonel Scott Chisholme, and the Natal Volunteer Field Battery, while half a battalion of the Manchester Regiment, and Railway and Telegraph Companies of Royal Engineers, came on by train.
Some sharp skirmishing followed, in the course of which it was found that the enemy's guns outranged ours by fully five hundred yards; and towards , noon French came to the conclusion that he had before him about a thousand men in a prepared position. To turn them out and beat them decisively a respectable force of infantry and artillery was indispensable. French therefore asked for three battalions and two batteries, with some more cavalry. White answered at once that the enemy must be beaten and driven off, and that reinforcements would be sent. He also determined to ride out to Elandslaagte himself and supervise the operations, leaving his Chief of the Staff, Sir Archibald Hunter, in charge of Ladysmith. The force sent out—part of which had already started—consisted of a squadron of the 5th Lancers, one of the 5th Dragoon Guards, the 21st and 42nd batteries of Field Artillery, seven companies of the 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment, Under Major Park, and five companies of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders, under Colonel Dick-Cunyngham. Including French's original force the whole amounted to about 3500 men.
The Boers had selected for- their position some rugged heights to the south-west of Elandslaagte, nearly at right angles to the railway line, and rising to about 300 feet above the plain. It was a well-chosen position, offering excellent cover for the defenders, and necessitating the advance of an attacking force over open and difficult ground.
The reinforcements were all up by three o'clock, and as few hours of daylight remained, French determined to assault the position at once. Indeed he had begun, before the reinforcements arrived, to push his men forward, in order to hold the enemy and clear the ground for the infantry attack. From behind the Boer position a heavy thunderstorm was coming up, and before the infantry was ready for the final assault the light was beginning to fail.
The arrangements for the infantry attack were as follows: the Devons under Major Park were to advance across the open in extended order straight upon the Boer front, while the half-battalion of Manchesters, with the Gordons in support, were to turn the enemy's left flank. Arrived within effective rifle range the Devons were to content themselves with holding the enemy while the flanking movement developed. The artillery was to support the infantry, moving in to closer range as the action progressed.
Of the mounted men some moved on the right of the flanking attack, while Major St J. C. Gore of the 5th Dragoon Guards, with a squadron of his regiment, afterwards reinforced by a squadron of the 5th Lancers, moved round the enemy's right, and concealing his men in a position upon their right rear, awaited the development of the infantry attack, ready to fall upon the Boers directly they broke.
Shortly before four o'clock, just as the final arrangements for the attack had been carried out, Sir George White arrived on the ground, having ridden out from Ladysmith. Satisfied that the dispositions made were thoroughly good, he left the control of the fight entirely in French's hands, and remained only to watch the result. It was an unselfish thing to do. A jealous or fussy man would have taken command. He had the great pleasure of seeing an admirably planned attack carried out with entire success, and the enemy driven away to the northward in headlong rout with the loss of nearly half their numbers.
There was hard fighting, and considerable loss on the British side, before the Boer position was finally stormed, for some of the enemy stood well, and subjected the advancing troops to a severe fire. But before six o'clock, in a storm of rain, and when it was nearly dark, Devons and Gordons and Manchester, with the dismounted troopers of the Imperial Light Horse, had swept the last remnants of the Boers from the crest of the hills they had held; their two guns were in the hands of our men, and the Boer General himself was a captive. Best of all, the cavalry had seized their opportunity, and falling upon the beaten enemy in the gathering darkness, had ridden through them twice, using lance and sabre with deadly effect, and taking many prisoners.
Elandslaagte, though not an action on a large scale, was a real victory, marred by no such untoward incidents as had deprived of its results the previous day's fighting at Talana Hill. Instead of retiring, discomfited but not crushed, from a battlefield where they had inflicted greater loss than they had sustained, the fugitives this time had galloped headlong to the Boer headquarters many miles away, spreading dreadful tales of the slaughter inflicted by the British Lancers, and reporting the complete destruction of their " commandos." There is no doubt that the effect of the fight on the spirit of the hitherto confident Boers was very great. It is true that as compared with Talana Hill the task set to our people at Elandslaagte had been less arduous. They were superior in numbers to their enemy, and the Boer position was perhaps less strong. Yet the storming of the r< kopjes" at Elandslaagte was no light thing. In the course of it we lost thirty-five officers killed and wounded, and over two hundred men.
Much has been written about these two actions, and naturally, because they came at the beginning of the war and attracted much attention. There is one critic of the operations of the Natal force at this time who cannot be accused of partiality, the famous American writer, Admiral Mahan. Discussing the course of the war in 1901, while it was still in progress, and without any personal knowledge of the actors in it, he wrote as follows :—
Duly to appreciate the merits and the results of these two successive days of fighting, at Talana and at Elandslaagte, it must be remembered that the British in a general sense, and at Dundee locally as well, were upon the defensive, and that the Boer movements were each a part of one general plan directed, and most properly, to overwhelm and destroy the detachments, Dundee and Ladysmith, in detail; they together being rightly considered one fraction of the enemy's whole force, present or hurrying over sea. So regarded, the vigour with which the British took the initiative, assumed the offensive, themselves in turn attacking in detail, and severely punishing, the separate factors of the enemy's combination, is worthy of great praise. Sir Penn Symons is perhaps entitled to the greater meed, because to him fell, with the greater burden, the greater opportunity, to which he proved not unequal.
And Mahan speaks also of these two actions as " the brilliant antecedent campaign, the offensive right and left strokes." ('The Story of the War in South Africa.')