The Battle of Thukela Heights was General Buller's fourth and final attempt at relieving the siege at Ladysmith. This attack followed three previous frontal attacks on the Boer forces. In spite of having a far superior army to the Boers, General Buller's force consisting of thirty thousand troops and 46 naval and field guns, was driven back at Colenso, Spioenkop, and Vaalkrans by General Botha's smaller force of only five thousand men and a few field guns.
With the encouragement of the newly appointed supreme commander of British forces inSouth Africa, Lord Roberts, General Buller decided to return to the scene of his first attempt at the relief of Ladysmith. Buller realised that Bosrand was the key to the Boer emplacements. On 21 February 1900 Buller launched his new assault, and after a few days of fighting, gained control of the entire south bank of theTugelaRiverto the east of Colenso, including the dominating heights of Hlangwane, Monte Christo and Cingola.
The greatly outnumbered forces under the command of Boer General Louis Botha were forced to fall back and occupy new positions on the high ground overlooking the river. Gen Buller was determined to make his fourth attempt a success, as the garrison at Ladysmith was already low on supplies, and in a state of decline. On 21 February a pontoon crossing was established at the river nearFortWylie. The Somerset Light Infantry crossed the Tugela, and occupied both the Colenso Koppies and FortWylie.
Advancing further towards Grobbelaarskloof the troops were met with a storm of heavy and deadly Boer fire. In this encounter ninety men of the Somerset Light Infantry were killed, and were all buried in a mass grave marked by a single granite stone between the hills. The regimental monument lies at the railroad crossing just less than a hundred meters north of the Onderbroekspruit. On 21 and 22 February with the left flank of General Buller's force protected by the Somerset light infantry, they proceeded to cross the river with a pontoon while the King's Own Lancasters, the King's Rifles and the East Surreys captured the crests of the Wynne Hills. Any intended advance up the plateau was in full view of the Boers, who had dug themselves in on higher ground. Further advancement of the British resulted in heavy fighting, and several unsuccessful bayonet charges. British attempts in protecting the west flank were some what strained, even after reinforcement was provided by the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and other regiments.
It was clear that any further British advance could occur only after Hart's Hill had been taken. On 23 February the Irish Brigade consisting of the Dublins, Inniskillings and Connaughts began to advance along the railway line until Hart's Hill came into view. Buller's troops took up position along the river bank for cover. They made their way to Langverwacht Spruit which was swollen, and impassable, forcing them into the open, to run over what they called the "Pom-Pom Bridge". Once having crossed the river they again took cover along the river bank. However, this approach meant that only half of the force allotted to Gen Hart managed to cross the bridge. The Irish Brigade was ordered by Gen Hart to attack since it was getting late. The Irish advance was persistent, and they managed to gain the summit of the hill. With the Boer fortifications less than a hundred meters further, the Irish twice charged this the Boer stronghold, only to be forced back. General Buller realised that a flaw in his plan, which called for a change of tactics. Buller withdrew his forces, regrouped his men, and concentrated the bulk of his force on a new position close to the Colenso rapids.
In a previously unplanned bombardment with seventy two guns, Buller's forces attacked Pieter's Hill on 27 February. No less than forty thousand British troops were deployed in this final attack. The Fusilier Brigade led by the Scots Fusiliers were the first over the river, crossing under heavy bombardment. The Boers were unable to assist their left flank and were forced to withdraw, with crossfire from the York and Lancashire troops on Kitchener's Hill and by late in the afternoon the British succeeded in gaining this position.
On 28 February the first portion of General Buller's army entered Ladysmith and the siege was lifted.
In the British efforts to end the siege almost four thousand British soldiers died. For the Boers the recapture of Ladysmith dealt a massive blow to their morale. Up until the Falklands War the Battle of Thukela Heights was possibly the biggest battle fought in the southern hemisphere. Boer fortifications and military cemeteries remain on several of the hills.
Very few battlefield sites have any form of interpretative information, some are on private property and therefore require permission to visit and some are very difficult to find. Therefore the use of a Guide is highly recommended.
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