Nov. 2, 2022

The Siege of Ladysmith

The Siege of Ladysmith

November 2, 1899: The Boers begin a 118-day siege of British-held Ladysmith during the Second Boer War.


Cold Open

It’s November 2nd, 1899 in the British colony of Natal in southern Africa.

Major General John French, a British officer, tries to get comfortable in his seat in a train carriage he boarded earlier this morning. He nods to his friend and chief of staff, Major Douglas Haig, before closing his eyes. Though he doubts it'll happen, he hopes the gentle rocking of the train will send him off to sleep for a much-needed rest after weeks of fighting.

Three weeks ago, General French and his British soldiers stationed here in Natal were attacked by soldiers from the nearby Boer republics - a series of self-governing states formed by former Dutch colonists. The Boer invaders overwhelmed the scattered British Army and forced it to retreat to the town of Ladysmith. The Boers then surrounded the town and tried to cut it off. Now, General French is on this train headed out of Ladysmith to travel South and take command of reinforcements there. But it's not likely to be an easy or even safe journey.

General French’s eyes snap open at the piercing sound of the train’s whistle. He is pressed back into his seat as the train surges forward gaining speed. French climbs to his feet and steadies himself in the rocking train carriage before walking to the window. He presses his face against the glass, trying to see why the train’s conductor is blowing the whistle so insistently.

Then he sees it. Several men crouched behind a machine gun positioned at the side of the track. French shouts a warning to the others in the carriage and throws himself to the floor.

Windows shatter and splinters of wood fly as the machine gun rakes the carriage.

Seconds later, the train is safely past the machine gun nest, but General French can still hear rattling of rounds. He stands and dusts off his uniform. He looks around and sees Major Haig and the other officers doing the same. Thankfully, no one is hurt.

French peers out of the now-broken window. He and his fellow officers are fortunate to be alive. But the soldiers they’ve left behind might not be so lucky. All they can do is hang on until French returns with reinforcements to break the siege—but the trapped soldiers might be in for a long wait.

In October 1899, the Boer republics were fed up with their powerful neighbor to the south. The British Empire was slowly creeping into their independent lands. And their incursions worsened after gold was discovered in the Boer’s territory. Boer soldiers launched an invasion of the British colonies in an attempt to push the British back, sparking what’s known as the Second Boer War. After General French escaped on the last train out of Ladysmith, the Boers ripped up the track, laid siege to the town, and waited for the British to surrender.

The siege of Ladysmith will prove to be a major turning point in the war. The Boer offensive will stall as determined British troops hunker down and wait for General French’s reinforcements to arrive. But the unlucky soldiers trapped in Ladysmith must overcome long periods of monotony, flurries of danger, and ravenous hunger as the Boers dig in for a 118-day siege, beginning on November 2nd, 1899.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is November 2nd, 1889: The Siege of Ladysmith.

Act One

It’s the morning of December 15th, 1899, 33 days after the Siege of Ladysmith began.

A soldier in the Royal Field Artillery hears a deep boom and ducks behind a sandbag rampart. He waits for a few seconds before an explosion reverberates some distance away. The artilleryman stands and cuts his eyes up to a hill on the horizon about six kilometers away. There, he sees a puff of white smoke coming from the Boer weapon that just fired; the British call it “Long Tom.”

The artilleryman bustles around his gun, one of the many the British have hauled up the hills surrounding the town of Ladysmith. He gets ready to return fire; even though he knows it’s an exercise in futility.

Each day brings the same dreary monotony. A few days ago, both sides lobbed shells at each other but the successful shots are the result of luck rather than judgment or skill. A few days ago, five unlucky Englishmen were killed when a shell caught them in the open. But mostly, the British and the Boers exchange shots without inflicting any real damage. The conflict is a stalemate, with both sides taking potshots, and gaining little ground. But orders are orders. And this artilleryman has been instructed to keep firing.

So he and his team load a shell and then shoot it off to explode near the Boer positions. The force of the shot makes the gun roll back several meters on its large wheels. They do their best to aim at the faraway puff of white smoke that gives off the position of Long Tom. But at this distance, they might as well not fire at all.

The artilleryman grabs his binoculars and tries to spot where his shot landed. But as he squints toward the hillside, he hears another explosion in the distance. A few seconds later, another. Then another. Then a smattering of gunfire.

This sound is something different. It isn’t the normal, monotonous exchange of pointless fire. It’s the sound of a battle taking place somewhere in the distance. The artilleryman turns to his fellow soldiers and sees them smile. One happily announces it must be British reinforcements scattering the Boers. And if they’re successful, the siege will be over.

The exhausted soldiers continue the hard work of loading and firing their guns, but now they have a new spring in their step. They crack jokes and break into song. The distant sound of battle has reassured them that help is on the way. The artilleryman and his team continue firing for hours until dusk when they’re relieved for the night.

When the artilleryman gets back to camp, he heads straight for the mess hall and gets in line for dinner. The cook ladles a meager serving of stew into his bowl. The artilleryman waits for more, but the cook gruffly tells him to move on. Orders have come in. The meat ration has to be reduced. The artilleryman sighs. He hopes these British reinforcements make quick work of the Boers. Otherwise, he might not have a proper meal for some time.

The next day, the commander of the British forces in Ladysmith—Lieutenant General Sir George White—paces his officer’s quarters, nervous. Like everyone else, he heard the sounds of the distant battle yesterday. Now, he and his aides are waiting for news of what happened and whether the siege is broken. 

Soon, a soldier arrives carrying a message. General White impatiently snatches it from his hand. Quickly the general reads it and summarizes the contents for his aides. He tells them that the British reinforcements disembarked at Cape Town and immediately raced to Natal. The battle they heard yesterday was indeed British reinforcements engaging the Boers at Colenso, a town about 30 kilometers away.

One of the aides cheers. But General White fixes him with an icy stare. He tells the room that the British suffered a defeat and were beaten back.

White throws the message onto the table in disgust before revealing even worse news. The general commanding the relief force recommends that White offer his surrender and allow Ladysmith to fall into the hands of the Boers.

General White’s aides shout over each other, expressing their anger. They insist that surrender would be a humiliation. White calms them, saying he has no intention of giving up. One or two officers suggest that the British go on the offensive and take the fight to the Boers, attacking their artillery emplacements to put their guns out of action. But White shakes his head, telling his aides that the only option as he sees it is to hunker down and wait for another relief force to arrive.

General White’s stubborn determination will ensure that Ladysmith remains in British hands. But his refusal to go on the offensive will do little to improve morale. And it will also give the Boers an opportunity to launch their own daring raid against Ladysmith’s stubborn defenders.

Act Two

It’s just after 2 o’clock in the morning on January 6th, 1900, 65 days after the Siege of Ladysmith began.

Captain GM Mathias of the British Army picks his way down the rocky, scrub-covered slopes of Wagon Hill. He holds his lantern low, treading carefully in the darkness of this strategically important high ground.

Wagon Hill is one of several surrounding the town of Ladysmith. At the moment, British soldiers hold it, but so far they haven’t done much to protect it beyond scattering a few sandbags to hide behind. But Captain Mathias suspects a Boer attack is imminent. If the Boers manage to take control of Wagon Hill, they’ll have the perfect vantage point to stage and launch an attack on Ladysmith. Right now, Mathias is using the cover of darkness to descend the hill without being shot at. He’s looking for a suitable site to dig new fortifications to repel the Boers if they do decide to attack.

Captain Mathias creeps silently down the hill, but as he does, he hears voices talking quietly. The voices draw nearer, and Mathias realizes the conversation is in Dutch. The captain quickly and quietly drops to his knees. He extinguishes his lantern and pulls out his pistol. He crouches to make himself as small as possible and waits for his eyes to adjust to the black night. He stops breathing as he hears the Boers clamber past him.

Captain Mathias stays where he is, his mind racing, working out what to do. Then he has an idea. He carefully rises from his hiding place and silently follows the Boers back up the hill toward the British lines. He moves to their side, keeping far enough away that they can’t see him in the darkness.

Then he tries to scramble ahead, desperate to alert the British that the Boers are about to attack. But then, a rifle fires at him from behind. One of the Boers have spotted him. Mathias breaks into a sprint, running uphill toward the British lines, shouting a warning.

He leaps over a sandbag rampart and almost lands on another British soldier. The sentry’s dazed expression suggests he’s still half asleep. But the sound of the Boer soldiers opening fire jolts him awake. Soon, other British soldiers come running to repel the enemy.

For the next few hours, Captain Mathias and his men hold off the Boer advance. But the Boers are relentless. And eventually, Mathias and his men are forced to abandon the hill and fall back toward Ladysmith. They retreat a few hundred meters, finding whatever cover they can. They plan to hide and wait for backup from the town. But as dawn arrives and a rainstorm begins, it's clear the Boers are in full control of Wagon Hill.

Still, the battle is not yet over. As the sun rises, Captain Mathias lies in a puddle on a ridge close to the top of Wagon Hill. He is drenched and cold, but he can’t lift himself out of his damp hiding place because it might expose him to enemy fire. Mathias peers through a hole between two boulders to try and get a glimpse of the enemy. But they are sensibly dug in behind the sandbag ramparts that only hours ago were held by the British.

Mathias slips his rifle through the hole in the boulders and pulls the trigger, but his bullet sails harmlessly over the heads of the dug-in Boers—just as all his other shots have. He continues to shoot occasionally though, making sure the Boers don’t try to advance further. But the longer the standoff lasts, the wetter and colder he becomes.

When reinforcements finally arrive, an officer from the newly arrived Devonshire Regiment crawls toward Mathias and asks him to describe the enemy’s position. Mathias tells him the Boers have overrun the British fortifications on top of the hill. But as they’re talking, the rain turns to hail. Mathias senses a sudden urgency in the officer. The officer shouts that the hail will blow in the faces of the Boers, making it difficult for them to aim. The officer orders his men to fix bayonets and charge toward the enemy’s position.

Mathias stays sheltered behind the rocks but lifts his head to watch the brave men charge. As soon as they move into open ground, they come under heavy fire. Several British soldiers fall, but most stay on their feet.

Emboldened by their heroism, Mathias jumps up and follows the soldiers from the Devonshire Regiment. But when he reaches the sandbag ramparts where the Boers hunkered down, he finds them empty. He looks down Wagon Hill and sees the Boers retreating, ducking, and weaving as British bullets hit the ground around them.

This Battle of Wagon Hill is a morale-boosting success for the British. General White will celebrate with his senior officers and many men will be commended for bravery. But Mathias knows the British have not ended the siege. They’ve only retaken a hill they previously held 12 hours ago. The conflict remains a stalemate. Still, the longer it lasts, the more likely it is that British reinforcements will arrive to break through the Boer lines and relieve their besieged countrymen.

Act Three

It’s the evening of February 28th, 1900, 118 days after the Siege of Ladysmith began.

25-year-old Lieutenant Winston Churchill lets his horse run fast across the loose rock and shrub on the ridges near Ladysmith. His regiment is part of the British relief force sent to rescue their countrymen. But in addition to being an officer in the British Army, Churchill is also a journalist who frequently sends reports on the war to the Morning Post newspaper in London. And today, he is right at the center of the biggest story of the war so far.

A few days earlier, the British Army finally defeated the Boers in the Battle of the Tugela Heights. The Boer besiegers were outflanked and swiftly retreated north, lifting the Siege of Ladysmith. This opened up a route for a relief force to reach Ladysmith. Now, Winston Churchill is racing to be among the first British soldiers to enter the rescued town.

Churchill pulls up his horse when a sentry shouts: “Halt! Who goes there?” One of the officers riding with Churchill answers, “The Ladysmith relief column.” And suddenly, a dozen bedraggled men climb out from rifle pits and behind sandbags. Churchill looks at their tattered uniforms hanging loosely from their emaciated bodies. Their faces are pale but bear joyful expressions. At last, salvation has arrived.

The British forces form up in a neat column for their final approach into Ladysmith. Churchill inches as close to the front as he can get, determined to secure a good view of what will follow.

The residents of Ladysmith rush from their houses and cheer as the soldiers ride through the town’s streets. But Churchill sees that they too are weakened and thin. He passes dozens of fresh graves marking the last resting place of soldiers and civilians who did not survive the siege.

When Churchill reaches Sir George White’s headquarters, the old general is waiting on horseback. He shakes hands with the arriving British officers as their troops lift their helmets and heartily cheer. Churchill takes in every detail. He hears White loudly proclaim, “Thank God we kept the flag flying.” Churchill has no doubt that the relief of Ladysmith will be championed as a great example of Great British pluck and determination. But he also knows that the defense of the town came at a price.

The Siege of Ladysmith marks a decisive moment in the Second Boer War. The determined British holdout sucked the momentum from the Boer invasion. And after the Boers lift their siege and retreat north, the British are no longer on the defensive. For the next two years, fighting continues but it will mostly take place in the Boer Republics as the British launch a counter-invasion.

There will still be plenty of setbacks and tragedies before the long, bloody war comes to an end, but the tide was turned when the British broke the Boer siege of Ladysmith which began on November 2nd, 1899.


Next onHistory Daily. November 3rd, 1957: In the midst of the Space Race, a stray Russian mutt named Laika is rocketed into the great beyond.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.