Saturday, 22 February 2014

Battle of Verlopt Valley, 1900

Being too peaky for club tonight, I decided instead to stay in my nice warm flat with a glass(es) of port, and try out my new gaming mat in a theatre it is consummately suited for – the sweeping vistas of South Africa. I played a few Boer War games a year or so ago and had great fun with Rich Clarke's Kop That, so with a new mat and Chain of Command's Sharp End campaign supplement just out, I decided to give it another go.

Tonight's game would see a desperate push by General Mark Thaddeus Brayne's 6th Division against the assembled Commandos under Commandant van Heizer. After the morale-shattering events of Black Week, it is vital to restore British confidence with a decisive strike against the invaders.

Under his command, Brayne has 2400 men in Sir Frederick Caughan's “Fusiliers” Brigade (Queen's Irish, Royal Scots, Earl of Mourne's and Cambrian Fusiliers), 2400 in the Sir Iain Harlow's “Royal” Brigade (King's Own Royal Borderers, Royal Sherwood Rifles, Norfolk Light Infantry, Royal Wessex Rangers), and just shy of 1800 in Gideon Frost's Light Brigade, comprised of squadrons of the Cape Mounted Rifles, Queen's Northern Lancers, Royal Norfolk Dragoons and the Durban Mounted Infantry. Also supporting his advance are a battery of the Royal Artillery, and several large guns of the Naval Division, though these are firing from many miles away on the suspected Boer positions. All told, he has some 7,000 men and eighteen guns at his command.

Against this mighty mass of men and guns, van Heizer has only three thousand infantry and nine guns – several of them the rapid-firing pom-poms so detested by the Roinek Tommies. But with him are the land, the defensive advantage, and the trenches dug by his men in preparation for this bloody day. I now turn you over to Mark Abelard, esquire, of the Eastern Times, for his report on the battle.

The Battle (four sections: Intro, Morning, Afternoon, Evening)
I had then for some weeks been in General Brayne's company, and in that time had discovered in the venerable General an amazing ability to win battles despite his best efforts to the contrary. As one of his rather cutting junior officers mentioned, the baron's most warlike characteristics were his whiskers – a rather fine pair of muttonchops that set off very well the array of medals on his chest. These had not only been donated by the Queen, but also by such luminaries as the Rajah of Tokyo, the Czar of Patagonia and even that most noble monarch, the Grand Panjandrum of Lapland. Once in his cups, the general was ever eager to wax lyrical on all those fêted works that had won him his collection. Despite his advanced age however, the general still cut an imposing figure. Of the same great height as in his youth, his uniform had now also been altered in the horizontal to accommodate the rewards of his many celebratory feasts and regimental dinners.

To my militarily unschooled mind, it was his Major-generals who made any of his deeds possible. The first to approach me was Gideon Frost, the northerner commanding Brayne's cavalry. Having come up through the ranks, this strapping giant of British manhood was in his mid forties and appeared to me to be nothing less than a genial block of tanned leather and oak. His easy camaraderie seems to have won his colonials to his side in swift order.

Sir Iain Harlow, only a few years older but several inches shorter, is a consummate soldier from a military family, who joined his father's regiment (Norfolk Light Infantry) fresh from the fifth form at Eton and has steadily risen through the ranks to his current position as commander of the “Royal Brigade”.

Sir Frederick Caughan, the Irishman commanding the “Fusilier” Brigade, is the youngest of Brayne's commanders and a rising star in the army. At thirty-five, he has known no life but the khaki. He proudly admits to never having worn red in the field, but has a string of mentions and medals from India to show his quality. Despite his tender years, his eyes are hard, and harder still whenever the Pushto are mentioned in his company.

On the morning of January 3rd, 6th Division marched out toward the mouth of the Verlopt Valley. The hills at the far end were vital for Brayne's planned advance on the river to relieve the pressure on our other flank and crack the war wide open.

Brayne decided to command the guns personally in the centre, with Caughan's Fusiliers on his left, Harlow's Royals in the right-centre, and Frost's Light Brigade on the far right wing. Far behind the lines stayed the guns of the Naval Division, and a coterie of riders attended Brayne like some medieval conroi, ready to bear his orders to them promptly.

To my untrained eye, the land before us is a barren nightmare that no man raised in England's green and pleasant land could truly comprehend. Though small copses were visible deep in the valley and on the left hill (which I am told is called Wag Kop, or Watch Head), the vast tapestry of this land is woven mainly of dust and earth and thin grass that a goat could not eat, let alone a horse. But men who have long lived and campaigned here wax lyrical about it, and I am told the natives move great herds of cattle across these plains with no great hardship than American cow-men.

Caughan being an enthusiastically self-professed “new man” in the army, arrayed his brigade with the Cambrians in reserve, and each other battalion in column with two companies skirmishing ahead to provide cover. The more traditional Harlow placed his advance battalions, the KORB and his own Norfolk Light Infantry, in line, with the Royal Wessex Rangers and Sherwood Rifles in column reserve. All I could see of the Light Brigade was a swirling morass of horseflesh in the distance. Next to me, Brayne chattered cheerfully with an adjutant, while a harassed-looking lieutenant of the Royal Artillery tried to find the courage to move his commander out from in front of the mouths of his cannon.
Caughan's Fusilier Brigade
Harlow's Royal Brigade

Frost's Light Brigade

The Morning's Work
The battle started at 0830, much to Brayne's harrumphed surprise, with a bugle call from Caughan's position. His whole skirmish line advanced toward the base of Wag Kop. Their audacity was answered with cannon fire from the crest, and the whole line shivered.
Caughan's advance from the top of Wag Kop.
Brayne sent riders to give Harlow and Caughan permission to advance. Eventually, they arrived and Caughan's Irish battalions surged forward to rejoin their skirmishers. I was jolted from my observation of the Fusiliers as the naval guns began their bombardment of Staan Kop, on the opposite side of the valley. At this prearranged signal, Frost's horse leapt forward in a great mass, distracting me from the equally inspiring sight of the Fusiliers seizing the first step of Wag Kop. Their advance was rewarded with the sight of an equal Armageddon being wreaked on the summit of Wag Kop. Though I could not see the enemy, or their response to the naval pounding, I saw men in our gallant line begin to duck and hug the earth as bullets began to sing around them. As men fell to their faces, I saw sergeants marching among them as though unaware of death's cold breath.
The colonial horse advance up Staan Kop.
Harlow's brigade then began its inexorable advance forward, men still in parade drill order. Brayne ordered the artillerymen behind him to open fire on the Loeuberg in the centre of Verlopt Valley. It was at this point, not even 10 o'clock of the morning, that Frost's colonials seemed to gallop uncontrollably past the head of Staan Kop. I was later informed that they had seen a Boer Commando fleeing their position naval fire. In fact the Cape Mounted Rifles, through superhuman effort, managed to catch their rebellious cousins in the saddle and routed them completely. Cheekily, their captain Charles van der Loop insisted they had killed all eight hundred men they chased. The lancers and dragoons moving up behind must have felt quite abashed not to be part of the charge. Of course, I heard all this later in the barracks when van der Loop was defending his men's decision to flee the field.  

(40 inches in three turns saw the Cape Rifles utterly rout their enemy, removing 8 stands)
The Royals begin their advance.
The Cape Rifles rout the foe on the slope of Staan Kop.

I was distracted from the drama of Staan Kop by the advance of the Royal Scots to my left, who unlike Harlow's Royals were dispersing as they moved forward. I was glad of it however, for behind the tail of the hill, the Cape Rifles were now caught in a deadly crossfire which saw a hundred men cut down in the first volley, and the survivors disordered and sent to ground. The guns firing at Staan Kop quiesced, and in that moment we heard the screams of men and horseflesh, which at the time we took to be the misery of Boers. As van der Loop's later testimony proved of course – It was not.
The result of the first volley against van der Loop's men.
Casualties were mounting at the foot of Wag Kop. The men of the Royal Scots in the centre were feeling the particular weight of Boer fire. But now, around 1030, they stiffened their sinews and surged up the foot of that ancient hill. The Earl of Mourne's Fusiliers were stopped short of the Boer trenches by enemy fire, but their musketry cleared the positions nonetheless. On the other side of the trees, the Scots and Irish beat back the Boers as well – though for rather more casualties.
The Fusiliers seize the foot of Wag Kop.
During all this action on the flanks, Harlow's stalwart Royals had continued their methodical advance into the valley. This ended for the Norfolk Light Infantry as it approached the base of the Loeuberg and a Boer artillery piece caught the battalion in its sights. I saw myself as great holes appeared in their flank company. As cannon fire hit them from the other flank too, their stately advance ground to a halt. Seeing this, Harlow split his brigade in columns around the hill, trusting to the artillery to keep quiescent any Boers now in his midst.
The British advance from the Boer end of the valley.
It was now, around 1100, that Gideon Frost received a terrible shock. He had ridden forward with a few aides after the naval barrage ended, to inspect the field from Staan Kop. Imagine his surprise when four hundred Boers rode straight at him, as though meaning to take him captive! He later admitted they had clearly meant simply to re-occupy the heights, but at the time he was jolted quite out of his skin – especially with the bodies of the Cape Rifles lying steaming on the hillsides below him. Thinking quickly, he sent a bugler back over the crest, and managed to co-ordinate a counter charge with the Durban Light Infantry and the Royal Norfolk Dragoons that made a quick and messy end of his would-be kidnappers. They too however, came under fire from hidden Boer positions, and were trapped on the reverse slope of Staan Kop for several hours, until a break in Boer fire allowed them to remount and dash over the crest of the hill.

By midday, the foot of Wag Kop and all of Staan Kop were in British hands, and the mouth of the valley secure. However, the hill of Verlopt, von Duyne's kraal on the valley floor, and the foothills around were still in enemy hands – and of our own men, only half were on the front lines, the rest being in reserve not more than half a mile from myself and General Brayne.

The Afternoon
As before noon turned to after, the Norfolk Light Infantry were still suffering under Boer artillery fire, now identified as coming from a knoll on the rear slope of Wag Kop. Shouting encouragement to the family regiment, Harlow waved the Royal Sherwoods and the Wessex Rangers forward to join his densely packed front line. That line shuddered beneath the hammerblows of Boer ordnance, but shuddered forward in the best British tradition.
Royal Sherwoods and Wessex Rangers join the Royal advance.
Under their old colonel's watchful eye, the NLI were soon far ahead of the rest of their brigade, powering down the centre of the valley. Despite the honour with which they bore themselves, they were soon driven to ground with great casualties. One sergeant I spoke to said that they had been reduced to less than half their fighting strength by three o'clock, due to the several Boer cannon trained on them and the sharpshooters on the crest behind van Duyne's kraal. Soon after this grisly waymarker however, the naval guns turned their attention to said crest and began to dampen the Boer spirits considerably. As the guns pounded, the rest of the Royals began to swamp the bottom of the valley, supporting their brethren however late.
Naval shells fall around van Duyne's kraal.
At the foot of Wag Kop, the serried ranks of the Earl of Mourne's Fusiliers carried on up the slopes, passing the exhausted survivors of the first assault. The naval fire landing ahead trailed off as they reached the copse, and soon they were within a hundred yards of the peak. This was when they realised that a few demoralised Boers still held the trenches there, and they halted to prepare for a charge. Further down the slope, Caughan himself had ridden forwards to rally the Scots on his flank. So well did he rouse them that they charged the few survivors of their earlier heroics and cut them down too, clearing that face of Wag Kop completely. By half past one, they had cleared the heights, and their opponents were fleeing down the north face of the mountain. Wag Kop was unequivocally Caughan's. I later learned that Colonel Andrews of the Mournesmen had been dissatisfied with this achievement, and led his men pell-mell over the crest to sweep away the few Boers who had retreated before them. They were so pitiful that he instead took them prisoner.
Mournesmen chase the Boers off the peak.
There was then a great lull in the battle for several hours. Our casualties had been great on the valley floor, and the great advances made on the flanks required a redressing of the ranks. Having fought now for six hours, our men needed food and water brought forward from the rear, as well as the bullets and bandages that pay the price of any victory. By five o'clock, all were ready once again, and Harlow's Royals had consolidated their hold on the valley floor, all the way up to the rear of the Loeuberg. I now rode forward to observe the battle's endgame.

The Evening
At five o'clock, the Queen's Northern Lancers began their advance around Staan Kop, and though they lost men to heavy Boer fire, their two squadrons swept the eastern guns that had so plagued the Royal Brigade. By six o'clock, they were battered and bruised, but in victorious control of three Boer pieces.
QNL charge the Boers' eastern gun position.
At the same time, the Royal Wessex Rangers had fixed bayonets and advanced toward van Duyne's kraal. Unfortunately, they took desperate casualties until their advance ended a mere few hundred yards from their goal. But then, with bugles ringing, came the Royal Sherwood Rifles, and like the crest of a wave they crashed against the Boer positions, charging through Boer bullets and British cannon to seize the kraal, the hill behind and then were on the flats in front of the imposing Verlopt Kop itself, under fire from yet more Boer defenders.
The RSR crash into the kraal...
...and come under fire on the other side.
While the Royal reserves were redeeming their front line, Caughan's men advanced swiftly across Wag Kop, storming every position before them. By sunset at eight o'clock, they had seized the entire British left flank, forming a khaki cordon against the end of the Verlopt Valley. The new man had proved his worth in this new war, without a doubt.
British lines at 1900, from the west. Fusiliers intact.
But old courage still has its place. As the light faded, Harlow rode forward to join the Royal Sherwoods in person, he drew his old sabre and roused them mightily. The light hit that old blade as it had at Waterloo, as it had at Blenheim, and so the Major-General dismounted and led the battalion forward in open order, singing as they cleared the trenches with good old fashioned British steel. As the night closed in, the Royal Brigade had advanced as far as the Fusiliers, though with far greater casualties.
The Royal Sherwoods charge home once more, in the dying of the light.
I am told by scouts of the Durban Mounted Infantry that van Heizer's Boers slipped away in the night, realising their position to be untenable thanks to the last gasps of our assault down the vale of Verlopt. If every victory is as costly as this, we shall empty the British Isles, the colonies and the Dominions to hold this sun-scorched savannah. Is the paramountcy of British arms worth such a price?

Mark Abelard esq., Eastern Times
Endgame, from the Verlopt heights.
The view from the west - look at the Fusiliers in the foreground!

The view from the south. RSR top right.

The view from the east. Remnants of NLI & RWR left.

Butcher's Bill
Boers: 723 dead or incapacitated, 450 wounded or missing, 300 taken prisoner.
British: 500 dead or incapacitated, 250 wounded, 350 Cape Mounted Rifles routed
View from Verlopt the next morning.

A minor British victory in the end, despite the poor showing of the Cape Mounted Rifles. They routed wholesale after some brutally effective Boer shooting on the reverse of Staan Kop. Although Verlopt was not taken by nightfall, its position was clearly untenable given the ending positions of the British. 
Campaign-wise, the British casualties were quite high using the Sharp End casualty mechanic. Of those 750 casualties, 350 occurred among Harlow's treasured Norfolk Light Infantry, and another 150 among his Royal Wessex Rangers. His Royal Sherwood Rifles lost only half a company, and they are conspicuously his only battalion to have shaken into open order. They were also the ones to take the kraal, win a second charge in the flats and then take a trench in a third charge, despite starting in his reserve. Of course, his front line was brutally torn up due to their formed order, which diminished their chances of getting anything done.

Man of the Match is definitely Caughan. For one hundred and fifty casualties, he swept Wag Kop and the hill behind it, taking the most ground of any of the three Major-Generals. Second place I think goes to van Heizer, whose battleplan to bleed the British until nightfall nearly worked – and would have if it were not for the two large commandos that were slaughtered on the rear of Staan Kop. Nearly half the Boer casualties occurred in those two brutal engagements. Now that van Heizer has been forced to retreat, Colenso is open. Next battle: the river...

Picking where to deploy Boers, I am tempted to adapt Chain of Command's 3C for Kop That! It would reduce paperwork immensely when trying to remember where I left my hidden Boers.

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