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A Handbook of the Boer War

And he sanctioned another assault on the Platrand


Boers believed that "their strength was to sit still," and they were not far wrong. Early in the New Year, however, external pressure emanating from Pretoria and Bloemfontein was brought to bear upon Joubert, and he sanctioned another assault on the Platrand, which was from the first considered to be the key to Ladysmith. It is a series of plateaux, about two miles long and varying in breadth from half a mile to a few hundred yards. Its chief features are Caesar's Camp and Wagon Hill. A mile north of the centre of the position is Maiden's Castle. The contours on Caesar's Camp and Wagon Hill are pinched in in three places and divide the Platrand into four positions of unequal area, the smallest being Wagon Point, an underfeature on the extreme right of Wagon Hill. The latter is joined by a nek to Caesar's Camp, the plan of which owing to the contraction of the contours somewhat resembles the outline of a dumb-bell. The highest point of the position is a knoll on Wagon Hill, and the front slopes southwards down to Bester's Valley and Fourie's Spruit. On each flank were hills occupied by the enemy's artillery.

The strength of the assaulting column as detailed was composed of approximately equal numbers of Free Staters and Transvaalers and amounted to upwards of 4,000 burghers. To the former Wagon Hill was assigned as their objective, to the latter Caesar's Camp, which was held in greater strength. Early on the morning of January 6, the sentry of

the picket posted on the nek between Wagon Hill and Wagon Point, became aware of movement on the slope and gave the alarm. Soon after, a party of Engineers and Infantry preparing gun positions on Wagon Point in view of a contemplated operation in support of Buller's expected advance by way of Potgieter's Drift, were fired on at short range by a body of Free Staters, who had succeeded in climbing to the nek, and who then threatened a redoubt in the western shoulder of the knoll on Wagon Hill, which commanded Wagon Point. The first rush was checked by the Natal Volunteers, who opened with a Hotchkiss gun from the knoll at a range of less than 100 yards, and threw the leading ranks of the enemy into confusion. The working parties were thus given time to take up their rifles, and to organize themselves more effectively for defence.

A counter-attack was made from the adjacent post on the eastern shoulder, but it failed to dislodge the enemy, a small party of whom diverged towards their left, and circled round Wagon Point to the rear of the position between Wagon Hill and Maiden's Castle. Here they lighted upon the heavy gun at the foot of the northward slope for which an emplacement had just been made on Wagon Point, and although the gun was successfully defended by the escort, the insecurity of the Platrand position was shown by the attempt.

While the Free Staters were assaulting Wagon Hill and Wagon Point, the Transvaalers obtained a footing on the edge of the Caesar's Camp position; but their supports failed them. A considerable proportion of the burghers detailed for the attack on Caesar's Camp, most of them Transvaalers, again either refused, as on November 9, to take part in it, or shirked during the advance. But at dawn, after a struggle in the dark at such close quarters that the face of each combatant was often for the first time revealed by the flash of his adversary's rifle, the enemy had his finger on the key to Ladysmith; and was clinging, like swallows on the eaves, to the whole length of the Platrand from Wagon Point along a sinuous contour line which curved round the eastern shoulder of Caesar's Camp, and awaiting the supporting bombardment which, as soon as there was light enough for the alignment of the sights, would be opened upon the position from the flanking guns on Bulwana and Rifleman's Ridge, and from Middle Hill on the front.

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