The siege of Ladysmith began on 2 November 1899. British resistance of the siege was celebrated at the time as a great victory over the Boer forces in the South African War.
Conflict in South Africa erupted in October 1899, a result of of long-standing tensions between British settlers and the Dutch-descended Boers. On 12 October, 21,000 Boer soldiers invaded the British colony of Natal, where they were opposed by 12,000 men commanded by Sir George Stuart White.
White was an experienced Imperial soldier who had fought in the India and Afghanistan, yet he made the error of not withdrawing his troops far enough into friendly territory. Instead, he stationed his forces around the garrison town of Ladysmith, where they were soon surrounded.
Following a disastrous and costly battle, British forces retreated into the city and began preparations for a siege. Although he was instructed by General Sir Redvers Buller to surrender, George Stuart White responded that he would “hold Ladysmith for the Queen.”
The start of the siege
The Boers cut the rail link serving the town, preventing resupply. In an interesting side note, the last train carriage to escape the city carried future First World War commanders, Douglas Haig and John French.
The siege continued, with the Boers unable to make a breakthrough. But after two months the lack of supplies was beginning to bite. There was a brief respite on Christmas Day 1899, when the Boers lobbed a shell into the city which contained a Christmas pudding, two Union flags and a message reading “compliments of the season.”
Despite this brief gesture of solidarity, as January wore on, the ferocity of the Boer attacks increased. They managed to capture the British water supply, leaving the source of drinking water the muddy and brackish river Klip.
Disease spread rapidly and, as supplies continued to dwindle, surviving draught horses became the staple diet of the city.
Buller and his relief force continued their attempts to break through. Repulsed again and again, the British commander began to develop new tactics based on artillery and infantry co-operation. Suddenly, on 27 February, Boer resistance broke and the way to the city was open.
The next evening, Buller’s men, including a young Winston Churchill, reached the gates of the city. White greeted them in a typically understated manner, calling out “thank God we kept the flag flying.”
News of the relief, after a string of embarrassing defeats, was celebrated wildly all across the British Empire. It also represented a turning point in the war, for by March the Boer capital of Pretoria had been taken.
Header image credit: John Henry Frederick Bacon / Commons.