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Battle of Laing's Nek

The Battle of Laing's Nek was a major battle between the British Empire and the Boer dominated South African Republic fought at Laing's Nek during the First Boer War on 28 January 1881. After the Boer declaration of independence for the Transvaal in 1880 the British suffered a series of disastrous defeats in attempting to regain the territory. On 20 December 1880, Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Robert Anstruther and elements of his regiment, the 94th, marched from Lydenburg to Pretoria, the regiment’s band leading the column playing the popular song “Kiss Me, Mother Darling”. At Bronkhorstspruit the force was stopped by Boers who courteously required the “Red Soldiers” to turn back. Armstrong equally courteously refused at which the column was devastated by rifle fire from the surrounding Boer ambush. Of the 259 in the column, 155 officers and men became casualties as did some of the women accompanying the regiment. Instead of waiting for the reinforcements, the British High Commissioner for South East Africa, Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, assembled what troops he could and rushed forward, claiming to be moving to relieve the British garrisons in the Transvaal. Colley gathered his force at Newcastle in Natal, dispatched an ultimatum to the Boers and, on its rejection, advanced towards the Transvaal border. The first British camp on the march lay some 4 miles short of Laing’s Nek, a ridge in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains that blocked the road between Newcastle and Standerton in Natal, South Africa. The British Natal Field Force, commanded by General Colley, numbered around 1,216 officers and men, including 5 companies of the 58th Regiment, 5 companies of the 3rd Battalion, the 60th Rifles, about 150 cavalry of the Mounted Squadron, a party of Royal Navy sailors and 4 guns of the Royal Artillery. The Boers, under the command of Commandant-General Joubert had about 2,000 men in the area, with at least 400 fortifying the heights around Laing's Nek. They had little difficulty in repulsing General Colley's inadequate force. On the morning of 28 January, Colley tried to force a way through the pass. The battle began at around half past nine with a heavy bombardment with four 9-pound guns and two 7-pound guns of the British Naval Brigade pounding the Boer positions on Table Hill. Ten minutes later, the main British force, made up of the 58th Regiment, went forward and had difficulty advancing over the broken ground towards the summit. Further down the line, the Mounted Squadron made a charge against the Boer positions on nearby Brownlow's Kop. But, on reaching the summit, the British cavalry were fired upon by a line of entrenched Boers on the reverse slope and suffered many casualties, forcing them to withdraw. By 10:30, with their threat to their flank removed, the Boers moved to attack the 58th Regiment still advancing on Table Hill where at 11:00, at reaching the top of the summit, the British were fired upon by concealed Boers in trenches just 160 yards (150 m) away and suffered even more casualties, including both commanding officers, Major Hingeston and Colonel Deane being killed. While this was happening, a small party of Boers actually advanced from their positions on the lower slopes of nearby Majuba Hill and engaged the Naval Brigade near the British camp at Mount Prospect. Return rifle fire from the British kept the Boers back. By 11:10, two companies of the 3/60th Rifles moves up Table Hill to cover the retreat of the 58th Regiment and by noon, the battle was over. The British lost 84 killed, 113 wounded, and 2 captured during what was perceived as a fiasco. Most of the casualties were in the 58th Regiment with 74 killed and 101 wounded, around 35% of their total strength. Among those killed in the battle were many of General Colley's staff including Major Poole and Lieutenants Dolphin, Elwes and Inman. The Boers reported their losses at 14 killed and 27 wounded. One month later, General Colley was killed at the Battle of Majuba which ended the war, after which Transvaal was recognised as an independent state.

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