T.P. Grayson (Jr) letter

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Letter from Thomas Porter Grayson, Imperial Light Horse regiment, to his brother William from Ladysmith South Africa.

Corporal Grayson no 539 E Squadron ILH - January 13th 1900 - Ladysmith

My Dear Brother

You will be surprised to hear I am still alive & as well as can be expected on our present rations, llb bread & 1/2 meat, 10z tea, 1/20z sugar. We came here on Oct 17th 1899 & have been shut up since Nov 3rd with big guns letting us have it every day since, you can guess what it is like, with a big gun on Westerham Hill, putting them into the town at the rate of 1 every 2 minutes but they get tired first, as we take cover in the river bank.

We had three battles before the siege commenced, 1st at Elandeslaagte where we charged with the Gordons, & when they got the order to retire, we went right through with it, & slaughtered every one of the sods, about 200 got out of the kopje on our left, some had two on one pony, but the Lancers got behind them, then you should have seen the curs falloff & scream for mercy, but they got none. I saw one lancer put his lance through two on one pony.

The bugler, a boy of 15 shot 3 with his revolver, that was the Johannesburg lot. We lost a lot of men, especially Gordons, as the Boers pick off the officers first, we lost our Colonel & 2 Lieutenants killed & 4 wounded, about 18 privates killed & wounded, which is a lot out of 41 0 engaged.

Our next fight was 10 days after at Tintinyana but we lost none, we [our squadron] galloped in sections for 700 yards, at 800 yards range, & not one man hit, but three horses dropped & another shot through the nose. There was one more fight about three days after that, but we could not get into the fighting line, as we had to support the artillery, so we pass that over. The next day we went out to Colenso road, & had a bit of a scrap, but being on the left flank scouting to locate the enemy, did not come into the centre, we lost our captain that day and 6 men & a few wounded.

I sat on the top of a big hill to the left, popping away at 1400 yards, just to keep the Boers from flanking our main body, but before night we had to retire into town as we could not take the position we had tried for. Then for a few weeks we did nothing but pickets & patrols, held concerts, sport, cricket & such things just to pass the time.

One night after the concert was over, our Major Davis sent round for 39 men from each squadron, to volunteer to take the biggest gun the Boers had playing into town, we were out in a quarter of an hour from the call, in our India rubber shoes, 130 strong including officers, we had to walk about 3 miles over rocks, through bush & dongas. On our right the Natal Carbineers, on our left the Natal Mounted Rifles, to protect our flanks, the Border Mounted Rifles in the rear, supported by 1 battery of artillery.

About 12.30 midnight we got to the foot of the hill & rested for an hour or so before our climb, then they whispered the advance, it was a climb, first went General Hunter then our Colonel Edwards, then 6 wire cutters [ including your humble brother] then our men & officers, well we got within 30 yards of the top [ that is the firing line did] we were within 5 yards of the gun sangar or breastwork, when our left flank men down below the hill, woke the Boer picket who was asleep, he shouted out the call of alarm, when up jumped two gunners above the rocks & challenged us, our Colonel pipped one & Captain Fowler the other, all the line did a cheer, & up we went right over to the gun, the others lined the ridge & fired volleys into the hollow to keep them from returning. We got the breech & carried it back to camp, it weighed 185lbs so you can guess the size of the gun, we had all retired before daybreak so that was a feather in the cap of the Imperial Light Horse.

We had been quiet until Saturday last, Jan 6th taking in turns 2 squads at once, 3 days guarding an outpost it was our turn with F squad to go & relieve D & C squadrons. We had just fallen in dismounted when in came an orderly with a message, we had heard firing in that direction but little thought our men were being attacked in earnest.

The Bugler blew 'Boot & Saddle' & we were out in 10 minutes, & galloped put there just in time, the Boers had crept up to our pickets within 10 yards, when they were challenged, they answered friend & asked who we were, the pickets said I.L.H. When they were shot down, the support got into their sangar & held them until relief came, when we laid down at 80 yards & fought all day, of course the cover on top of the hill was scanty, as the stones were not above 8" out of the ground in some places, you only had to shift your head when the bullets simply hailed on your cover, most of our men that were killed were shot in the head.

The fighting continued from 3.30am until9.30pm out in the sun all day, about 6pm down came hail stones as big as bullets, the poor fellows that were wounded must of suffered during that, some of them were shot through the horse where they had lifted it up just to ease themselves we lost 39 killed & 40 wounded, out of220 a big loss, but if it had not been for our regiment, the position would have been lost. Afterwards we heard there had been a general attack all round but they were driven back with heavy loss. When the battle was over we carried all the dead Boers down to their side of the hill laid them in line, 39 of them less their valuables of course, wounded they took in wagon loads. Since then we have found 130 more of their dead unburied so they got stink knocked out of them, round the town we can reckon on about 1100 killed of theirs. The men we fought were an O.F.S. Commando, amongst them were 2 Commandants & 3 field Comets killed. They have had enough attacking for a bit.

You will think by the tone of my letter I have turned into a bloodthirsty devil but when you are at it all you think of is killing. Some of our chaps are demons when they are roused. We are expecting another fight round here before our relief comes, so long until then, if I go under goodbye, your affectionate brother,


p.s. Send this to Mother as paper is scarce & the tent shakes with the wind. Give my love to everybody & kiss them all for me.

[Written on the back of the enveloppe] February 28th 1900. Just relieved all’s well, will write soon as possible. March 5th. This will most likely leave today,

ELANDESLAAGTE 21 October 1899 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 bet ween 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 an 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 loses were 55 dead and 205 wounded, for a total of 260. Boer loses 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.