The Charge at Wagon Hill
"You must have herd that my Regiment the 1st Devons wone a great name that any man could be proud of for the Boers made an attack on ladysmith town and we had a fight for 17 hours without stopping and we were nearly all worne out and Sir George White sent for the Devon regiment to come and reinforce Waggon Hill ... and Colonel Iron Ameralton (Ian Hamilton) said nothing will shift the devels only a bayonet charge and he said you are good at charging, Devons, and I want you to charge these devels out, and if you do I will never forget you" (Letter written to his father by Drummer Boulden, spelling and grammar as original)
January 6th was to become a famous day in the Battalion's history. On that day the Boers launched a determined attack on the two tactical vantage points at Caesar's Camp and Wagon Hill, a flat topped hill running east and west on the south side of the township.
The Boers had crept up at first light, reaching the edge of the crest. Heavy fighting ensued with losses on both sides. At 4pm Lieutenant Colonel Park, commanding the 1st Devons, received orders to take his 3 remaining companies to the assistance of Colonel Ian Hamilton who was struggling to hold his position on Wagon Hill. The Devons were on the move within 10 minutes and reached Wagon Hill in a thunder storm at around 5pm.
Here they learnt that around 50 Boers were holding a small ridge about 100 yards directly in front of the British Line. They were expert shots and were forcing Hamilton's men to remain under cover. Hamilton and Park agreed that the only way to dislodge them was by bayonet. "Can you do it?" Hamilton reputedly asked Park. "We will try" was the reply.
The men of the 1st Battalion fixed their bayonets and charged, cheering and shouting. Drummer Bouldon wrote:
"... with dear old Captain Lafone leading on in front we charged up over the hill and the Boers were only 15 yards away from us and I sounded the charge with another drummer and then we joined the charge, I was nearly mad, in fact all of us was."
The terrain was flat grassland with no cover. The Boers fired again and again, many Devons were hit but they were not deterred. When they reached within 15 yards of the Boers, the Boers turned and ran. However the battle was not over as the Battalion was exposed to cross fire on both sides. Colonel Lafone said he wished someone would tell the Imperial Light Horse, holding a ridge behind the Devons, to fire at the Boers on their left front. Lieutenant Masterson heard him and without further ado ran back across the open ground, dodging a hail of bullets, to pass the message on to the Imperial Light Horse. He was hit 10 times, with some bullets going through both legs, but delivered the message before collapsing. His gallantry earned him the Victoria Cross. Colour Sergeant Palmer was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the same battle although he claimed to be only doing his "simple duty".
By 5.40pm the battle was still under way. Colonel Lafone was dead, "he got a bullet right through his brains" (Boulden) along with fellow Officers Walker and Field. 52 other ranks were killed or wounded. Lafone's death affected the Battalion greatly. Park wrote:
"I cannot at all get over Lafone's death. He was a bright, clever, witty fellow, the most popular man possible with everyone. A success bought for the price of his life is a very dearly bought one for us"
Despite this and despite the torrential rain and hail the Devons hung on. Finally when darkness fell the Boers retreated. The Devons were victorious. When they returned to Ladysmith, Boulden reported that "all the civilians came out and meet us and gave us a nice hot cup of tea and patted us on the back and said my dear, brave men." A telegram came from General Buller reading "Congratulations to your whole force on your brilliant defence, especially to the Devon Regiment"; another from Queen Victoria said "Greatly admire conduct of Devonshire Regiment".