Telephone +44 (0)1305 264066 - info@keepmilitarymuseum.org

The Siege of Ladysmith - November 1899

The Siege - November

By 1st November 1899 the Garrison was beleaguered. Units were massed in a horseshoe shape around town. The 1st Devons held the extreme south-east end. Their encampment lay on Cemetery and Helpmakaar Hills. Two companies were on picket duty, one at each end of hill. They made trenches reinforced by stone and sand bags. The Garrison worked hard at improving the town defences and mounted patrols to keep watch on the enemy. The Boers surrounded them at a distance of 2 to 4 miles. Commanding Officer Cecil Park reported that:

"the weather became like an English November…they've had a rough and chilling time, poor fellows ... but they keep as jolly as possible and are always singing and joking".

It was reported that Lafone led them in singing "Rock of Ages" whilst digging stones on a Sunday! By the middle of November, the Devon Defence Post was complete. It was between 4½ and 10 feet high, 8-10 feet thick at the top, widening to 18 feet at the base. Provisions still reached them until 5th November when the railway line between Durban and Martizburg, 100 miles to south was closed.

On 7th November the Boers made ineffective attacks and the advance post of the 1st Devons was shelled for 7 hours without incurring casualties. This raised morale but the original hope that "January will see us back in India" was starting to look unlikely, despite rumours that the siege would be lifted by November 14th. The 9th of November saw the Boer's first attempt on a general attack, staging an assault on Helpamkaar Post and Caesar's Camp - but this ended abruptly at noon when a 21 Gun Salute was fired by the Naval Battery to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Wales.

A balloon was sent up every day in the hope of spotting the relief column but on November 20th the Garrison learnt that the Relief Column was unable to advance as its artillery had not yet arrived. On 23rd November the Devons suffered their first casualty from shelling in a fortnight and their Indian Barber, Rajab Ali, was heard to comment "This is a bad war and there are a great many too many shells". Spirits were low. It was necessary to strike tents each daybreak giving the men no protection against the weather and making it difficult to eat the dwindling rations of tough beef and bread due to swarms of flies.

The Devons now settled into a dull waiting game amid sporadic shelling. They read the siege newspaper, The Ladysmith Lyre; they attended Church Parades, they took part in a cricket match. Lafone records that he was reading 'David Copperfield' when a shell exploding overhead covered him with dirt. The men suffered from lack of exercise so the battalion got into the habit of route-marching round the town twice after dark every night. Unfortunately this was the time that the battery horses were exercised and town was full of dust. Bandsman Alsford found the whole thing "very dismal". They also watched for morse code messages sent by the relief column using search lights. They were unable to reply in the same manner as they had no search lights themselves.