The Battle of Talana – 20th October 1899

At 5:30 a.m. on Friday, 20th October 1899, the first Boer artillery shell exploded in the British camp in the coal mining town of Dundee, fired from a gun on the summit of nearby Talana Hill. Although surprised, the British troops reacted quickly enough and shrapnel fired from the Royal Field Artillery was soon bursting over the Boer positions. The infantry began the counter attack by storming the hill.

By noon, it was all over. The hill was taken and the retreating Boers cantered away to the North East, disappearing into the mist and rain. But was it a splendid British victory? Consider the following:

  • The British forces sustained 500 casualties, a number caused by “friendly fire” from the Royal Field Artillery;
  • General Penn Symons was mortally wounded after needlessly exposing himself to Boer rifle fire;
  • Lt.-Col. Möller and the British cavalry became lost in the mist and eventually surrendered to the Boers;
  • No sooner was the hill taken than it was abandoned. Two days later the British force abandoned the town of Dundee and slipped away to Ladysmith.

For their part the Boers too, had blundered. Fully half the Boer force never took any part in the battle. Two days later, when the British began their retreat to Ladysmith, no attempt was made by either of the Boer generals to attack and inflict further damage on the bedraggled and demoralised force.

The Battle of Talana passed into history and the Boer advance into Natal continued.

Copyright © 2014 Ron Gold