The Opening Moves of the Anglo-Boer War
The British Advance on Talana Hill
The Boers held the initiative
As Buller and his army corps steamed to South Africa, the Boer armies had the initiative as they outnumbered the British troops in South Africa and they used this advantage to strike against the Cape Colony and Natal. Three Afrikaner columns advanced into northern Natal where the British Natal Field force under the command of General White had divided its forces with 8,000 men in the supply base of Ladysmith, and 4,000 men who had pushed up into the Dundee area of northern Natal. Further west, Afrikaner troops advanced upon two more towns that lay on the strategic railway that ran from Cape Colony to Bechuanaland -Mafeking and Kimberley.
Boer strategy was based on the notion that they did not have a lot of time and that they needed a striking victory that would bring the British to the negotiating table- as Majuba Hill in 1881 had done. They hoped that early victories would encourage the Boers in the Cape to rise up. At the very least they wanted to defeat the British forces already in Natal, and prevent Buller's reinforcements from reaching the front line.
As the Boers prepared for war they intended to send troops to three points where it was hoped there could be a blitzkrieg attack; at northern Natal where there were 2,000 troops, at Mafeking where there were 500 British troops, and at Kimberley where there were another 500 troops. By the time of the ultimatum on October 9th, Kruger and Steyn had decided to strike in Natal with two thirds of the troops that had been mobilised; 21,000 out of 35,000.
On 12th October after the ultimatum had expired, the Boer forces began to move forward in northern Natal. White, the British commander, ignored the advice from his staff officers (and also from Buller) and pushed his force into northern Natal rather than establish a defensive system at the Tugela. He then divided his force into two sending half to Dundee and half to Ladysmith.
The first battle of the war was fought at Talana in northern Natal on 20th October. Newcastle had already been occupied by the Boers without a fight and Dundee was the next town threatened. The engagement at Talana was typical of many a battle fought between the Boers and the British, and involved a British force attacking Boer positions on the top of a hill. British artillery was used to help a British frontal attack although during the attack British infantry was fired upon by its own guns. The hill was won by the British but with the loss of their commander General Penn Symons. The courage of the British infantry was never in doubt as they captured the hill with a bayonet attack but the Boers had already left - to be seen riding away on horses left at the bottom of the reverse side of the hill, as they were to do time and time again. The British lost 500 men to the invisible Mauser whilst the Boers lost 150 - a pyrrhic victory.
General White split the British forces in northern Natal
British forces trapped in Ladysmith
Dundee was saved for a brief while but with the arrival of more Boer forces, General White ordered a retreat back into Ladysmith. A victory at Elandslaagte enabled Penn Symons' forces to get back to Ladysmith but additional Boer forces enabled the route south from Ladysmith to be cut off and the town to be besieged. The largest British force in the country was now trapped inside a town that many felt was the last obstacle for invaders heading for Durban. Mournful Monday, the 30th October, saw the first bombardment of the town in a siege which was to last until 28th February.
On 1 November, Steyn ordered OFS commandos to cross into the Cape Colony and they took the important railway junctions of Aliwal North and De Aar. There was now the threat of a general uprising of the Afrikaners in the northern Cape. Generals French and Gatacre had troops in the area but were too far south to do anything about the Boer incursion.