Monday, 21 May 2012

Battle of Brandswaterberg

The General is, I think, more sinned against than sinning. No sooner does he draw up a lovely plan for the execution of the war than the “boorish Boers” upset it with the exercise of their free will. He is quite overwrought by their constant nuisance-making and finds his only solace in constant variations on the aforementioned pun.”
The indelicate pen of Colonel Frost on his Commanding Officer, General Brassick.

Major General Sir John Brassick has assured me that uncontested passage over the Brandswater is vital for the relief of Ladysmith and the British citizens therein. In pursuance of this goal he today led his division against the Boer positions at Brandswaterberg and the surrounding hills.
Being a devoted follower of Sir Redvers “Reverse” Buller, Major General Brassick's orders to his subordinates were simple if potentially difficult to carry out. Under artillery cover, Brigadiers Mordaunt and O'Cleigh were to force their brigades forwards, disrupting the Boer lines and seizing the kraal on Brandswater as well as the hill beyond. Brevet Brigadier Frost's cavalry, consisting of squadrons of the Queen's Northern Lancers, the Royal Norfolk Dragoons and the Canadian Mounted Rifles, were to support the flanks, and not to dismount – Major General Brassick wanted them available to rout the Boers once the infantry had achieved a breakthrough.

The British Order of Battle
- Major General Sir John Brassick (Status 2) – Off table artillery support, 4 stands of 3 guns activateable only under automatic orders.
- Brigadier Sir Patrick O'Cleigh (Status 3) – 16 stands each of the Queen's Irish Fusiliers, Ulster Light Infantry and South Ireland Regiment, 2 artillery stands (3 pieces).
- Brigadier Sir James Mordaunt (Status 3) – 12 stands each of the King's Own Royal Borderers and Royal Sherwood Rangers, 8 stands of the South Essex and 1 artillery stand (3 pieces).
- Colonel (Brevet Brigadier) Gideon Frost (Status 2) – 3 stands each of the Queen's Northern Lancers and Royal Norfolk Dragoons, 5 stands of the Canadian Mounted Rifles.

Arranging their lines in the open land to the west, Mordaunt and O'Cleigh took the north and south of Plat Kop respectively, assembling their artillery in the centre. Determined to move quickly across the veldt, O'Cleigh formed his Irishmen into swift columns with minimal skirmishers. Tasked with seizing Koek Kop and its bridges, Mordaunt formed his battered brigade into skirmish order, with the bloodied South Essex as a flying column at the rear. Frost's cavalry kept in close order to the rear of the Irish Brigade, ready to move out as the situation dictated.

More importantly than usual, click on the photos for bigger versions.
Starting positions, 0800 hours.
To the Seizure of Koek Kop
The battle began at 0800. After an unnerving lack of action from the Boers, Mordaunt waved the Royal Sherwood Rangers forward to seize the bank of the Brandwater, opening up their lines as they did so. The front line of the King's Own moved in support as the hills came to life to the sound of Mausers. The Boers on Koek Kop revealed themselves, putting down the RSR's left flank with deadly fire. From Pisang Kop they killed men of the KORB, and from Doos Kruin they shot down the Queen's Irish Regiment. Over a hundred khaki Tommies fell from the line in a matter of seconds, and both sides dug in for a hard fight.

Now aware of the Boer positions, O'Cleigh rushed forward the Ulster Light Infantry's skirmish line. The rest of their battalion followed them, opening up their lines as they broke into a run. Simultaneously, the QIR leapfrogged past their stunned skirmishers, using Plat Kop as cover from the western Boers as they moved toward Doos Kruin. The South Ireland Regiment charged up the British right flank, hoping to quickly enfilade that great hill.
The might of Empire moves forward
The horse artillery opened up on Koek Kop, but with the Boers dug in as they were, it was impossible to tell what effect it had. The RSR hugging the bank of the Brandswater opened up at the Boers cowering among the explosions, covering their fellows as they moved up. The KORB advanced simultaneously, their colonel eyeing Koek Kop and Pisang Kop uncertainly; unwilling to enfilade himself, unsure of where to attack, his lines vacillated as the Boers opened up again. The QIR and the RSR took the brunt of the blow, and with a roar the Royal Sherwood leapt forwards. Were it not for the unnerving effect of Boer fire, they doubtless would have stormed the hill, but they stopped short of the enemy.
Two points of shock leave the British an inch short of charging.
The horse artillery laid down fire on Pisang Kop as O'Cleigh moved his Irish onwards. The QIR made it to the foot of Doos Kruin, while the Ulsters followed only slightly more cautiously.

Unwilling to needlessly waste ammunition, Brassick had made no prior plans for the deployment of artillery. Now he sent a rider to tell the heavy artillery to open up on Pisang Kop, and vaguely waved at his adjacent horse artillery to continue their good work.

With a roar, the heavies opened up, firing lyddite shells in their dozens onto Pisang Kop. This cheered the RSR immensely, and encouraged Frost to deploy his cavalry. The last of the horse artillery opened fire on Droos Kruin, hoping to suppress the enemy long enough for a British charge to succeed, but received a nasty surprise as the Boers targeted them back with hidden cannon!

With a huzzah! the Royal Sherwood Rangers fixed bayonets and mounted Koek Kop, eager to avenge their fallen friends.
The Royal Sherwood charge home!

The Boers retreat.
Mordaunt moves his brigade forward on the left.
To the Seizure of Droos Kruin
The battle had now raged for an hour, and finally the western-most hill was in British hands. All along the rest of the line however, Boer barrels grew hot. Throughout the Queen's Irish, men hit the dirt, for safety and in death's repose. The worst of it came for the South Ireland Regiment. Mostly still in column from their mad dash forward, they lost a hundred and fifty men to a sudden storm of fire from Grys Kop – from then on known as Assassin's Hill – as previously hidden Boers opened up on them. 

Suddenly the Irish Brigade was stalled. The Queen's Irish slowed to a crawl, the South Irish dealt with their sudden losses and confusion, and the Ulstermen realised that to storm either hill meant a great deal of enfilading fire, not least from the Boer artillery that now targeted them. The morale of the Queen's Irish fell even further as their left flank companies took casualties from the British artillery aiming at Pisang Kop.
The South Irish die to British shells, as their colonel rallies them in vain.
Horrified by what he had just witnessed through his filigreed eyeglass, Brassick ordered the artillery to stop firing on Pisang Kop, and to redirect their fire onto the Brandwaterberg. If the enemy were so cunning as to hide on Assassin's Hill, he reflected, they would surely have seized a secondary position behind those his men were taking. The horse artillery began moving forward onto Plat Kop, hoping from there to support both brigades.

Trusting his all to the brave Queen's Irish, so close to their objective, O'Cleigh appealed to their honour, their courage, and with a cry of “Faugh a Ballagh!” and a muttered “alea jacta est”, tried to drive them forward to their objective.
This is why we can't charge nice things.
Strategic shock (those red dice) stall the British advance.
Thoroughly disappointed in his men, Colonel Dougherty of the QIR strode among his men, haranguing them into some semblance of order. He was lucky not to be shot for his trouble as Doos Kruin proved itself again the great bastion of the Boer defence.

Taking personal leadership of the situation, Brigadier Sir Patrick O'Cleigh drove his Ulstermen forward into the teeth of the Boer guns. The Boers barely stood for the charge. Their courage was not well repaid in the slaughter that followed.
Ulstermen flood Droos Kruin

All along the line men cheered to see the hill taken, but in the midst of their celebrations the King's Own Royal Borderers were reminded they were in the battle as deadly accurate fire came from the Brandwater kraal, previously thought abandoned.

To the Seizure of the Kraal
Here came a feat of sudden madness as the Canadian Mounted Rifles, inspired by the storming of Doos Kruin, charged down the valley between it and Assassin's Hill, clearly hoping to emulate the Ulstermen with only a third of their numbers.
Toward the valley of death rode the two hundred and fifty...
Seeing the KORB's plight, Brassick sent word to divide the artillery's firepower between Brandwatersberg and the kraal, an order swiftly implemented by his staff. Under the cover of a lyddite bombardment, three companies of the RSR seized enfilading positions on the west bank of the Brandwater. The King's Own and Queen's Irish pressed forward, taking up positions to the west and east of Pisang Kop. The Queen's Irish split into two skirmish lines under fire from the kraal.

Secure in its position on the reverse of Plat Kop, the second battery of horse artillery opened fire on Assassin's Hill. Advancing under an umbrella of fire, O'Cleigh led his victorious Ulstermen toward the same position, leaving three companies behind to support an assault on the kraal. Colonel Dynemar attempted to follow his commander's example, but the South Irish stumbled among their sullen and disillusioned skirmish line and came to a halt among the dead.
The block formed by the collision of Southern Irish lines.
High explosive continued to rain down on Assassin's Hill, but with nowhere near as much effect as the Boers firing into the depression between Pisang Kop and Droos Kruin. The bodies were piling up there now, so much so that the front line of the QIR actually retreated into the second. For the first time in this battle, the British had been driven back.

Seeing the advancement of his lines, Brassick moved to the northern spur of Plat Kop to egg the QIR onward. An ominous quiet fell across Assassin's Hill as on the other side of the battlefield the RSR opened fire on the Brandswater kraal. The stormers of Koek Kop, now well rested, stormed towards the northern bridge under the cover of heavy fire from their comrades and the KORB.

The kraal's defenders fled, only to be steadied on the slopes of the Brandswaterberg by the sight of Assassin's Hill's defenders reappearing behind Pannekop. They repaid them by filling the Pisang-Kruin defile with yet more dead. Bidding them au revoir, O'Cleigh sent his Ulstermen forward in two waves round the northern flank of Droos Kruin to continue the British line now forming. Bombardment of the kraal now stopped to allow an advance. Seizing the initiative, the right two companies of the King's Own moved up to the orchards.
British lines just prior to seizing the kraal.
The Vecht-Commandant Shows His Hand
Now Koch showed the full extent of his reserves. From the Brandswaterberg and Pannekop came the fire of nigh on a thousand rifles. The King's Own and Ulster Lights took some of the fire, but it was the Royal Sherwood Rangers who bore the brunt. Whole ranks melted away as they reached the Brandswater Bridge, and two hundred men of the British Army turned and ran in a shameful but understandable display. Unaware of this bloodsoaked tragedy, the Ulster front line opened fire on Pannekop, exacting a heavy toll as their support moved through them, carrying with them all the most fiery-eyed sons of Eire on the crest of the wave.
From five by five to eight by two.
As the clock struck twelve, the men on the Brandswaterberg were still firing. The Pannekoppers were trapped between the avenging angels of Ulster and the river, but Koch was more concerned about the Borderers who threatened the crossing and spared only his cannon to support them. With thunder and great noise he drove the King's Own back, slaying half and sending the rest running for their lives. Lyddite shells answered him, but he strode among his men like a preacher, inspiring them as well as any Glaswegian doomsayer. It was not enough for the Pannekoppers. The Ulster Light Infantry opened up all along the line and under that terrible weight of shells, those Boers who did not die simply ran, abandoning country and rifle alike in a desperate need to escape.

Amazingly, Brassick managed to steady the tattered remnants of the Borderers' left flank on Pisang Kop, but Mordaunt & Frost were too busy rallying the fleeing Rangers to thank him. The rest of the Royal Sherwood and the King's Own now formed a firing line along the Brandswater, separated only by the Koek Kop tributary. Behind them, the Queen's Northern Lancers and the South Essex advanced in open formations as the artillery kept up its terrible pounding.

Brassick ordered the remnants of the Queen's Irish forward, and suddenly there was one great line of Queen's Irish, of Ulstermen and of Borderers, all buoyed by each other's company and resolute in the service of the crown, ready to hand it to Uncle Kruger.
Suddenly two points of shock doesn't seem so bad.
At this point the main body of Ulstermen rushed forwards, seizing the riverbank and the kraal under heavy fire from Brandswaterberg. It was this fire that undid the Boer Staatsartillerie, for the British zeroed in on their muzzle flares and destroyed them before ceasing fire at Brassick's order. He wanted no more deaths from friendly fire, and was willing to lay his men's lives down to the enemy to ensure it.

While the Ulstermen kept Koch busy on the summit, the Rangers laid down a terrible enfilading fire on the kraalsmen who sheltered on the Brandswaterberg's front slope, slaying scores and routing the rest.

Frost and Mordaunt now were whooping and waving their hats as the routed Royal Sherwood and as yet unused South Essex charged forward gallantly, both moving right back into the fray. Inspired, the Rangers at the river forced the bridge and went up the berg with a bayoneted celerity to make even the most grizzled sergeant proud.
Khakis and greys clash.
Their bravery was not rewarded. Exposed in their uphill dash, scores were shot down yards from victory, and those few who made it in were grimly beaten back down the hill to be destroyed by chasing fire.

The Grim End
The sun beat down hard now. It was one of the clock, and victory being so close made men reckless. The heat made them desperate. The sacrifice of the Royal Sherwood made them angry.
The British lines at 1300 hours.
There was an exchange of fire for some time, and then with a great cry, the South Essex leapt forward. They were on the berg before the Boers could say “taxation without representation”. Fire drove them to the ground, but their example was what mattered. The Ulstermen charged the kraal's. bridge, and suddenly there were three lines of British on the berg, then four, with more beyond the river.
The British flood the hill.
They were held at bay by fire for a while, and then, with a great lurch the South Essex and the more forward of the Ulstermen were among the Boers, all shouting “Faugh a Ballagh” together as brothers. The Boers who stood were cut down and the rest fled to no avail. By 1400 hours, Brandswaterberg and all it surveyed were under Her Majesty's control.

It was an honour to watch the army at work, and though the disdain some officers have for their commander was discomfiting, the trust and loyalty shown between them and the other ranks is a stirring thing to behold.
On behalf of the Eastern Times, Mark Abelard esq.
Butcher's Bill:
British: 500 dead, 1100 wounded
Boer: 900 dead, 500 prisoners, 250 wounded

This was a bloody game, as the butcher's bill attests to. The Boer fire was variable, but shockingly effective in a few cases: the Assassin's Hill ambush, the Pisang Gap disaster. Playing at this level really brings it home every time you lose a stand it's fifty men dead, wounded or shellshocked. The size of the game is just right for horror without detachment or excuses. These men aren't statistics and they aren't few enough to be expendable.

It might have been a deployment error, but the RSR nearly stormed Koek Kop in turn two – had they not had 2 points of shock, reducing their movement on the Tactical Initiative card to 9”, they would have flooded across the bridge and brought British steel home right at the start of the game. It gave the British an unwonted but historical overconfidence. Within two turns, their casualties had quadrupled, and they were not much closer to seizing the Brandwater.

At first, keeping battalions in large formations seems clever – you might slow down, but you're unlikely to be forced to retreat by shock. But that's not how tactics worked at the time, and that's not how this game goes. You were supposed to “ride the crest of the wave”, moving forward in successive lines, picking up stragglers who went to ground – a large-scale version of the “leapfrogging” now performed on a squad level to gain territory. The QIR in Turn Four were grounded as a battalion of fourteen stands by this simple fact, when an advance by line would have led to a quicker storming of Doos Kruin. The South Irish tried to do this properly in Turn Eight, but a lack of motivation (snake-eyes to move) cost them dearly, and they ended up bunching up in front of the guns on Assassin's Hill.

A salient point about the war is how well brigadiers and colonels did in spite of their superior officers, here represented by Major General Brassick. He was given the “complete tosser” card, which denied him his turn if it was drawn before he was. Lucky bugger that he was (how else did he get to command a division?), he avoided his fate all but twice, gently prodding the men's morale here and there throughout the game.

Man (or rather men) of the match goes to the Ulster Light Infantry. For two hundred casualties, they caused about half the Boer losses themselves, and never once faltered in their duty. Runner-ups are the much-abused Royal Sherwood Rangers, who took horrendous 66% casualties but came out standing in the end.

All in all, this was a terrific game, as TFL games always are. I can't wait for the finished product, but until then, it's back to the painting table and the books to create my next Boer War scenario.

P.S. I recommend Alfred T. Mahan's history of the war as a starter. It's available free from Project Gutenberg in a variety of formats.

P.P.S. Sorry for how incredibly long this post was.


  1. AH,
    No need to apologize for the length of such an excellent battle report. Gripping.


    1. John,

      Much obliged, thank you.