Friday night the 5th of January 1900 was moonless, and at about midnight, some British outposts on Wagon Hill heard the sound of hymns floating up from the bush below and found it very strange. At 2:40 on Saturday the 5th of January 1900 a night manoeuvre was taking place. A party of 13 naval gunners was lowering Lady Anne’s wooden gun platform onto the stone emplacement at Wagon Point, the extreme south west point of Wagon Hill. They were assisted by 25 sappers and escorted by 70 Gordon Highlanders. Lady Anne herself was at that time still asleep in the wagon at the bottom of the hill.
Suddenly bullets spattered on the stones around them and they dashed for their rifles. Some panicked as they couldn’t find their rifles and began to run. Young Digby Jones jumped on to a rock, drew his revolver and said to the stampeding sappers: “The first man that passes me I’ll shoot dead.”
Wagon Hill was then a confused mass of shouting men, criss-crossed by rifle bullets, striking sparks as they ricocheted off rocks. There were less than 100 men of the Imperial Light Horse picketed to protect this vital crest line. They wore the same slouch hats as the Boers, which added to the confusion. Against the glare of a Boer searchlight, somehow brought into action, several hundred Free Staters poured onto the ridge, beating down the pickets. Fortunately for the garrison, the Imperial Light Horse had built a small ‘fort’, which was a loop-holed ring of stones, about 9m around. This was the sangar into which Lt Digby-Jones and some of the sappers rushed. Others took refuge in the gun emplacement prepared for one of the 12-pounders.
Meanwhile about 4km away, at the extreme eastern edge of the same double ridge, other wild scenes were taking place. Here, at Caesar’s camp, the picket lines had 15 minutes warning before the force of Transvaalers stormed oyer the ridge. There were no trenches or forts on the eastern face of the hill and the scrub that gave perfect cover to the attackers had also not been removed. Hence, the Transvaalers not only established a foothold on the crest but they also took the picket line of the Manchesters in the rear, and cut them down in swathes.
First use of a Field Telephone
For the first time ever in civilised (modern) warfare field telephones were used. The HQ was connected by field telephone to every section of the defences and before long astonishing messages reached it. The Boers were storming all sides of the perimeter under cover of fire from every gun they had.
Just after 6:00 field guns were sent to attack from below and the slopes were cleared of the enemy, except for the dead and wounded. The guns could however not reach the southern crest or the slopes beyond and Infantry was thus needed to drive the enemy from their positions. At about 8:00, six companies of the Rifle Brigade reached the scene, more than doubling the strength of the garrison there that comprised of the Manchester and Gordon Brigades.
The situation at Wagon Hill was crittcal, as the ‘forts’ could not be helped by the field guns. Soon after dawn, the first reinforcements reached the hilltop. Invisible between rocks on the South West edge of the hill, 250 Free Staters crept closer. Eight times that number of British infantry defended the hill. In places the combatants were only a few metres apart. Three times a small party of men, led by an officer, charged across towards the hidden enemy, and each time they were annihilated. At last Colonel Ian Hamilton ordered these suicidal-attacks to be stopped. The firing died away as the Boers vanished. By 11 :00 Hamilton felt confident enough to order some men down the hill.
It was fiercely hot and time for lunch, Lt Digby-Jones and Major Miller-Wallnut were sitting under an awning close to Lady Anne’s gun emplacement at Wagon Point where Ian Hamilton had just joined them. At about 13:00 the Boers broke all the rules of Boer tactics as a party of them (led by Free State field cornets, De Villiers and De Jager) stormed over the crest, sending the British line streaming back in panic. The first that Hamilton knew of this was when one of the sappers in the gun emplacement fell dead beside him, shot from a rifle thrust over the sandbags. Digby-Jones sprang up and shot De Villiers with his revolver and someone else shot De Jager. The panic subsided and the handful of Boers were shot down or driven off. Both Digby-Jones and Miller-Walnut had been killed.
All this time, the news of the fighting had been continuously reported to the HQ by telephone. They were nerve-racking hours for everyone. Sgt George White sent a telegram to General Buller, requesting him to create a diversion at Colenso, as virtually all their reserves had been committed.
By 16:00, it was obvious to Hamilton that both Boer attacks had failed. He believed that the Boers were clinging by their toeholds on the crest line and were only waiting for darkness to make their getaway. Hamilton was absolutely correct. It was at this moment that Sir George White intervened. He had decided that the Boers had to be driven off the crest before darkness fell and that the final reserves of the infantry, three companies of Devonshire soldiers, had to drive them off at bayonet point.
It was a gruelling hot day and typical of Natal summers, the sky turned indigo and a furious thunderstorm burst over the area. The battle started with the rattle of three lines of bayonets and a wild cheer. The British had go across a 60m strip of grass that was wet and slippery even before the rain. An answering crash of Mauser fire came from the crest, three of the officers went down but the Devons hardly faltered. They reached the crest but had no
chance to use bayonets as the Boers had taken a new position among some rocks and fired from below the skyline. The fight went on till dark, as confused and bloody as it had began.
In the morning there was an armistice to collect the dead and wounded. The search proved unusually macabre as some of the Boer dead on the South east of Caesar’s Camp was so mangled by shrapnel that many had to be buried on the spot. On the flat top of the hill, captain Bough counted 52 dead Boers but the total number killed was believed to be a good deal higher.
On the British side the losses were 424. Colonel Rawlinson, who went up to have a look at the hillside the next day, came back aghast. Captain Stevenson looked at the horror and wrote in his diary, ‘Civilised war is awful’.
During 1979 a monument was erected at Platrand (Caesar’s Camp, on the left side of the hill) in honour of 781 Boers and members of the allied forces who were killed in Natal during the Anglo-Boer War from 1899 to 1902. Re-interred in a giant grave, are the remains of 31 O of these brave fighters. Two architects from Pretoria, Samuel Pauw and Peter Semra’d, designed the monument. The monument consists of seven stylised “hands” reaching out from underground and pointing to the different battles that took place around Ladysmith, viz. Spioenkop, Vaalkrans, Pieters Hill and Platrand/Wagon Hill. The hands symbolise fear, grief, courage, strength, undauntedness and suffering. The names of the casualties are listed on the wrist or palm of each of the hands pointing to the relevant battle site. Some original gravestones have been set in the wall that is partially surrounding the monument. The message of the monument is one of reconciliation. An acclaimed South African Poet, Ernst van Heerden, wrote a poem, which was inscribed in the memorial plaque. Roughly translated it means that the blood spilled on the ground made the earth fertile to bring forth freedom from oppression (from British rule). It is today just as relevant in the new South Africa as a monument to freedom from all oppression. Ibis surreal monument on the quiet hill with the blue sky and white clouds above and the historic panorama of battle sites, is a stark reminder of the hollowness of war.
Other monuments/sites on the hill include the British Military cemetery, the Devonshire Monument, a monument to Lord Ava, the Imperial Light Horse Monument, the Manchester monument and Fort, some gun placements and many other gravesites, fortifications and memorials.