Battle of Hedge hill (Wynne's hill) Natal 1900
22 February 2018
The Wynne Hill phase of the great Battle of the Thukela / Tugela Heights (12th to 28th February 1900).
After the Boers had withdrawn from the south bank of the Thukela (Tugela) River, the British had occupied this sector by the 20th February 1900. The first stage of the next phase was the attempt by Maj Gen John Talbot Coke’s 10th Brigade to occupy the fields between the Colenso Koppies and the Boer trenches at the foot of Grobbelaarskop. The Soutpansberg Commando’s resistance was so effective that Coke was at his wit’s end; his troops simply could not advance due to the heavy counter-attack by the well concealed Boers. General Sir Redvers Buller then tasked Maj Gen Arthur Wynne and his 11th Brigade to occupy Horseshoe Hill and Hedge Hill, known collective as the Wynne Hills. They appear to be three distinctive hills but are in fact one geographic feature separated by two deep gullies. Nonetheless they were referred to as Wynne Hill West, Wynne Hill and Wynne Hill East.
At approximately 14h00 on the 22nd February 1900, Wynne’s Brigade advanced with the South Lancashire Regiment on the right, the Royal Lancaster Regiment on the left and the Composite Rifle Battalion in reserve. Two battalions of Maj Gen Neville Lyttelton’s 4th Brigade were ordered to occupy Wynne Hill West. The Boer defenders comprised the Ermelo Commando on Wynne Hill West and the Middelburg Commando on Wynne Hill and Wynne Hill East. They were later reinforced by some burghers of the Standerton Commando.
As the British advance commenced, they came under heavy rifle fire from several sides and Gen Wynne was severely wounded in the thigh. Colonel Crofton of the Royal Lancaster Regiment assumed command of the Brigade. As the soldiers surged over the rim of the hills, the Boers fell back onto their main line of trenches and subjected the British to heavy fire in an exposed position, forcing them to retire to below the crest line. The right hand companies of the Royal Lancasters on Wynne Hill managed to advance to a stony bush-covered ridge where they became pinned down and lost most of their officers, including Major Yeatherd who had taken command from Crofton.
Any movement by the British attracted the immediate attention of the burghers who had by now surrounded them on three sides.
The battle raged for the remainder of the day and Crofton requested to be reinforced. At 18h00 the Kings Royal Rifles fixed bayonets and swarmed over the crest. The leading company (F Company) under Capt The Hon Reginald Cathcart came under heavy attack and Cathcart was killed. Lieutenant DGBH Blundell assumed command and led the remainder of the men onto the relative shelter of a stone sheep kraal where they spent an uneasy night, during the course of which Lt Wake leopard crawled several hundred metres back to below the crest line to inform Crofton of their predicament. He was ordered to return to his men, which he did. The Boer firing continued until after midnight.
At dawn on the 23rd February 1900, the firing resumed; the intensity of the battle was so great that General Lucas Meyer’s binoculars, which were hanging around his neck, were struck by a stray bullet and destroyed.
The battle for the Wynne Hills continued throughout the 23rd February 1900, with the troops clinging precariously to their positions while under continuous Boer rifle and artillery fire. Later that day, the exhausted soldiers were relieved by Maj Gen Henry Hlidyard’s battalions. Colonel Walter Kitchener of the West Yorkshire Regiment (brother of Lord Kitchener) assumed command of the 11th Brigade, replacing the wounded General Wynne.
Commandant PF Trichardt of the Middelburg Commando had not only succeeded in defending his position against overwhelming odds but, together with the Ermelo Commando had inflicted heavy casualties on the 11th Brigade; over 500 officers and men had been killed and wounded in the two days of action. The scene was set for the next phase; the suicidal rush by Maj Gen Arthur Fitzroy Hart’s 5th (Irish) Brigade on Terrace Hill, which would later be known as Inniskilling or Hart’s Hill on the 23rd / 24th February 1900.
Script by: Ken Gillings