The Battle of Elandslaagte and the Siege of Ladysmith were two memorable military encounters during the South African War of 1899-1902. Their defeat at Elandslaagte is still remembered bitterly by the Boers because of the actions of the British cavalry. Ladysmith is honoured by the British for its gallant resistance.

Did you know?

Cor, Vincent van Gogh’s brother, served with the Boers in the volunteer International Legion.

The Battle of Elandslaagte and Siege of Ladysmith took place during the second South African War (formerly the Anglo-Boer War), which began on October 11 1899 after President Kruger, President of the Boer Republic, sent an ultimatum to the British Prime Minister, Joseph Chamberlain, which remained unanswered. Thus the hostilities between Boer and Brit resumed.

One of the first battles was the 1899 Battle of Elandslaagte near the tiny railway village of the same name between Ladysmith and Dundee in KwaZulu-Natal.

Initially a Boer patrol captured the railway station and partied all night on a stock of whiskey from a captured supply train.

But Major General French, who had taken command of the cavalry in Ladysmith, was sent to beat off the Boers. A bitter battle ensued with the British cavalry routing the enemy and cutting down men who had raised the white flag. Today, 2 poignant memorials on opposite hills pay tribute to the gallant soldiers who died on both sides.

By the beginning of November, 1899, however, the Boers had regrouped and the Siege of Ladysmith began.

There were 21 156 men, women and children besieged in the little town and over 4 500 horses, mules and oxen – many of the latter ending up as food for the starving population.

L.H. Gray of the Border Mounted Rifles wrote in his diary on December 31 that he had the 'first taste of horsemeat – very good-big fat carthorse killed by Sappers'.

But although many soldiers on both sides were killed and grievously wounded, it was disease and starvation that killed over 60% of the people in Ladysmith.

Both sides had mutual respect for the other: a Captain Thwaites wrote that the Boers 'fought decidedly well'; and on Christmas Day the Boers fired a shell over Ladysmith, which, when burst, was found to have a Christmas pudding in it.

Sundays were always quiet, because as one British tommy put it, 'Johnny Boer does not fight on the Lord's Day'.

The siege lasted for 118 days until General Buller relieved the town and the Boers retreated.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

KwaZulu-Natal Tourism
Tel: +27 (0)31 366 7500

How to get here

Take the N4 south from Johannesburg or north from Durban to Ladysmith. From Ladysmith take the N11 to Newcastle. Follow the N11 through Newcastle and continue 20.1km to the Glencoe/Dundee turnoff. Continue to the Elandslaagte sign and turn right. Right again at the Elandslaagte Memorial sign.

Around the area

There are numerous South African War and Anglo-Zulu War battlefields in the area. Spioenkop Nature Reserve, Nambiti Private Game Reserve, Ladysmith Siege Museum, Talana Museum.

Tours to do

An excellent guide is available from the information office at the Town Hall, or from the siege museum. Tour options cover more than 80 historically significant sites in and around Ladysmith.

What to pack

Books on the South African War (Thomas Pakenham’s The Boer War is still the definitive history). Binoculars, sunscreen, hat and comfortable walking shoes. Warm clothes in winter.

Where to stay

There are a number of quality guesthouses and B&Bs in the area. One of the oldest hotels in the region is The Royal Hotel, which has been around for over a century.