History of Field Gun

The Field Gun display in its present form was started in 1907, inspired by the exploits of the Navy during the Boer War in 1899.

In South Africa, relations between the Dutch in the Transvaal, the Orange State, and the British in the Cape and Natal deteriorated after trying to resolve the problems arising from the massive influx of immigration as a result of the discovery of gold in the Transvaal. Both sides moved forces to their mutual borders. The British forces in Natal numbered just over 15,000 whilst the Transvaal Burgher army alone totalled over 26,000. A decision to dispatch more than 10,000 troops to South Africa from home and abroad was made in London. The Transvaal Government responded to this major troop movement with an ultimatum issued on 9th October 1899. With a time limit of two days, all British forces were to withdraw from the borders of the Transvaal, all troops who had landed since the previous June were to be removed from South Africa, and all those on their way from overseas were not to be landed. Two days later on 11th October 1899 at 5pm, war was declared and the Boers invaded.

The British forces were quickly overwhelmed and forced back to the towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith, which were then besieged. Ladysmith was the most vulnerable of the three towns, and should it fall, a great morale victory could be claimed by the marauding Boer forces.

At anchor off Cape Town were the cruisers HMS Terrible and HMS Powerful. The British Commander in Natal, General Sir George White VC, signalled the ships for assistance. Fortunately for the General, Captain P. Scott RN of HMS Terrible was a gunnery expert and quickly designed a carriage that could hold 6 inch, and 4.7 inch, 12 pounder naval guns for transit and in action. All the necessary guns and equipment were transported to Durban by HMS Terrible; the carriages were then manufactured in the Durban Railway workshops. The contingent was soon ready and under the command of Captain H. Lambton RN, the 280 officers and men with two 4.7 inch guns, four long range 12 pounders, and four maxim guns left Durban by rail for Ladysmith. Their train was the last to complete the journey to Ladysmith on 30th October just as the siege and bombardment started. This contingent was now known as the Naval Brigade.

The Naval Brigade were soon in action against the Boer artillery. Their long range guns were so effective in countering the enemy batteries and holding them at bay that it was not long before Captain Scott was being asked to provide another brigade. This was duly actioned and the new brigade acted in support of General Buller’s push towards their besieged comrades. Due to the nature of this operation the railway was of little use, therefore the guns had to be manhandled over difficult terrain to be brought into action in many different engagements. One of these engagements saw 12 pounders landed from HMS Tartar and HMS Philomel hauled up a now famous hill called Swartkop in the Vaalkranz battlefield area, 40kms south of Ladysmith, by a naval brigade contingent and other South African forces. These forces engaged the Boers between the 5th & 7th February 1900 before being driven off the hill by the Boer brigades and eventually reaching Ladysmith after 120 days of blockade. This is the whole idea of Field Gun: to try to reconstruct as near to the truth as possible what happened a century ago during the relief of Ladysmith. The men not only had to cope with very difficult terrain but they had to construct some sort of way of getting across a bottomless area of land; this is where the present day chasm idea came from.

The news of the relief of Ladysmith was greeted with great jubilation in Britain and Queen Victoria sent a telegram to the Naval Brigades thanking them for their invaluable assistance. Leaving Ladysmith on 7th March 1900, the sailors of HMS Powerful and HMS Terrible were soon back on board. HMS Powerful headed for home and arrived in Portsmouth on 11th April. The officers and men of HMS Powerful were soon invited to a number of military and civic receptions culminating in a Royal audience with Queen Victoria where she personally thanked the ship’s company for their part in the saving of Ladysmith.