Forgotten Voices of Empire: Battle of Nicholson’s Nek, 30 October 1899

The Battle of Nicholson’s Nek was a British defeat outside Ladysmith which,  added to the defeat at Lombard’s Kop on the same day became known as “Mournful Monday.

After his failure to defend a line at Dundee, British Commander Lieutenant-general Sir George White had retreated to Ladysmith and concentrated his army there.

At the same time, several Boer columns were converging on Ladysmith and White decided to strike against the forces already grouped around the town and also sent a force to Nicholson’s Nek in an attempt to prevent another Boer Column from joining the forces already at Ladysmith.

Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Frank Carleton, the British force consisted of six companies from the Royal Irish Fusiliers , five and a half from the Gloucestershire Regiment and No. 10 Mountain Battery, roughly 1000 men in total and 100 mules which carried most of the supplies and ammunition.

Commander1jpg

Lieutenant Colonel Frank Carleton [1]

Carleton’s force didn’t leave for the Nek until the 29th October and by 2am on the 30th the British set up camp on Tchrengula Hill, a steep hill to the side of the trail, after Major Adye of the Field intelligence decided that  it was too late to continue on to Nicholson’s Nek.

As the British climbed the hill, something spooked the mules, the ‘Special correspondent’ of the Times described what happened next:

Two hours before daybreak, while the column was in enclosed country, either a shot was fired or a boulder rolled into the battery in column of route. The Mules stampeded and easily broke away from their half-asleep drivers. 

They came back upon the Gloucestershire Regiment, the advance party of whom fired into the mass. believing in the darkness that it was an attack. This added to the chaos, the ranks were broken by the frenzied animals, and they dashed through the ranks of the rear guard carrying the 1st and 2nd reserve ammunition animals with them. 

It became a hopeless panic; the animals wild with the shouting and the turmoil, tore down the nullah into the darkness; and the last that was heard of them was the sound of the ammunition boxes and panniers as they were splintered against the boulders. The hubbub of those few minutes was sufficient to have alarmed the enemy. [2]

10th mule

Men of the ill fated 10th Mule Battery. Captured by the Boers[3]

About 500 Boers took up position on the north end of the Tchrengula Hill and opened fire on the British position. As J Rickard says in his article[4]

“This was the empty battlefield that the British were so bad at dealing with at this stage. The Boer riflemen were scattered amongst the rocks on the top of the hill, almost invisible, and refusing to present a target for disciplined British musketry.”

The battle was a confusing affair for the British as isolated groups of soldiers, mainly from the Gloucestershire Regiment struggled to get to grips with the enemy and even abandoned positions in confusion, which the Boers gratefully took advantage of.

Captain Stuart Duncan of the Gloucestershire Regiment, was in command of his isolated company, which was taking heavy loses and he became convinced that he was fighting alone so ordered the white flag to be raised. When Lieutenant Colonel Carleton saw the Boers rise to accept the surrender he felt compelled to order the cease fire and surrender of the entire force.

Father I Matthews, Chaplain to the Royal Irish Fusiliers described the surrender:

After 12 O’clock there was a general cry of “Cease fire” from the direction of the top of the hill. Our fellows would not stop firing, Major Adye came up and confirmed the order to cease fire. Then the bugfle sounded “Cease Fire”

In our vicinity there was a rumour that this white flag was raised by a young officer who thought his batch of men were the sole survivors. 

Our men and officers were furious at surrendering, the Boers did not seem to be in great numbers but the men had to give up their arms. We were all taken to Pretoria and we have all been treated well.  

I think the surrender was a great blunder and was caused by a misunderstanding. Major Adye was much put out. The White Flag was NOT hoisted by the Irish Fusiliers. [5]

Hill

Second Lieutenant A.H.M Hill Royal Irish Fusiliers fought at Nicholson’s Nek [6]

Over 900 officers and men were captured at Nicholson’s Nek and with the defeat at Lombard’s Kop allowed the Boers to encircle Ladysmith and begin the siege.

 

  1. The West Somerset News 7th November 1899
  2. The Evening Telegraph December 11th 1899
  3. The Illustrated London News November 11th 1899
  4. Rickard, J (5 February 2007), Battle of Nicholson’s Nek, 30 October 1899, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_nicholsons_nek.html
  5. Cardiff Times and South Wales Weekly November 18th 1899
  6. The London Illustrated News November 30th 1899
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