COLLECTIBLE BOOKS: The assault that humbled the British Empire
Was the defeat of the British troops at Majuba the result of a mistaken belief that the Boers’ military power was weak?
The battle of Majuba on February 27 1881 — the last, and decisive, battle of the First Anglo-Boer War — has been described as one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history.
It is said that Maj-Gen George Pomeroy Colley was composing a poem on December 16 1880 when he received news that the Transvaal, which had been annexed three years previously, had raised its flag, the Vierkleur, at Heidelberg. Several garrison towns had been besieged.
Colley was ordered to relieve the town, and subsequently set out with his troops from Pietermaritzburg. He encountered his first setback when his force of 1,400 men was checked by the Boers at Laingsnek, and another humiliation at Schuinshoogte.
George Duxbury gives an account of the Majuba conflict in Battlefields of SA by George Chadwick and others, illustrated by landscape painter Gail van Lingen.
Duxbury writes that Colley’s defeat was the result of “misplaced contempt” for the Boers’ prowess.
Colley was apparently anxious to redeem what he described as “my failure at Laingsneck”, which he feared would cause deep embarrassment to the British name and power in SA.
He decided not to wait for reinforcements, and with little warning he set out at night with a force of 500 riflemen to occupy the summit of Majuba, a mountain near Volksrust.
Colley’s force ascended the eastern slope of the Inkwelo Mountain, which overshadows Majuba.
The top of Majuba is saucer-shaped, with a large gully on the western perimeter of MacDonald’s Kop, at the summit of the mountain. At the northwestern extremity is Gordon’s Knoll, and to the north of this a series of terraces where the Boers pressed their attack.
The British troops reached their positions on the summit between 3am and 4am on Sunday.
The men were said to be exhausted after the ascent; it was one of the reasons given afterwards for their defeat, Duxbury reports. However, though admitting that the ascent — especially the last few metres — was steep, he writes that the climb was not as strenuous as claimed. Also, he says Lt Ian Hamilton of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, who took part in the battle, wrote later that the men were “too excited to feel fatigue”, and that he saw no signs of it.
Headquarters were established in a depression in the centre of the summit, manned by about 100 men. Picks and spades were brought up the mountain, but no defences were prepared.
Duxbury points out that no serious reconnaissance was done and thus no troops were posted to the extensive “dead ground” below the terraces. He outlines the events of the day as follows:
At the break of dawn Boer camps to the north were astir. There were lights in a number of tents and wagons. Boer positions were visible, which was “a thrilling sight” to the British, who thought the Boers would soon be overpowered.
So confident were the British of victory that they walked around the summit, silhouetted against the skyline, shouting insults and waving their fists and rifles at the Boers. They even fired at a passing patrol, though it was out of range.
It was then that Comdt PJ Joubert ordered Comdt Nicholas Smit to remove the British troops. Smit carried out what has been termed as “a methodical attack”. Duxbury describes it as “a perfect example of fire and movement as is taught today, but using machine guns and artillery”.
In the early stages of the battle, a small group of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders got in Smit’s line of advance, where they were occupying the first slopes between the crest and the koppie that later became known Gordon’s Knoll.
A party of Boers assembled behind the knoll and after overcoming the Highlanders, rushed up to the summit.
The British then tried to move away from the perimeter of the summit, while the officers tried to rally the troops and get them back into their position.
Attempts were made to move in reinforcements to aid the Highlanders. The reinforcements had to move up in such a hurry that many troops had first to be roused from bed. A number of them came to the front without helmets, coats or belts. Hamilton said later he had never seen “such a mob” as these reinforcements. When they reached their positions they opened heavy fire, though Hamilton said he did not believe they saw what they were firing at.
Their wild firing seemed effective, however, and the whistling bullets drove the Boers behind the crest of the knoll.
A lull followed when both groups attempted to regroup and strengthen their positions.
Duxbury believes the British could have restored some order with a bayonet charge, but the Boers concentrated heavy fire on the British positions. Many were hit by this fusillade and the rest ran for cover in the dip.
By that time Colley had lost command of the situation and could not give direct orders to his officers.
In the meantime, the Boers, under cover of the crest-line, had slipped around to the right of the British, firing into their rear at close range.
A fresh party of Boers then threatened the left front flank. The defence broke and the British rushed into the basin. Some of those who reached the perimeter jumped over the edge.
According to several survivors, Colley followed his fleeing forces, shouting: “Steady and hold the ridge.” He was killed shortly afterwards, and the battle was over, apart from spasmodic firing as the Boers shot at the fleeing soldiers.
According to Duxbury, Smit had carried out a manoeuvre that would have been recognised in the World War 2 as “a perfect text book infantry assault”.
British casualties amounted to 92 killed and 143 wounded, against one Boer killed and five wounded.
Duxbury reports that 60 years later an old Boer veteran recalled that he had shot in Colley’s direction when he saw him fall. Until he had become too old to climb the mountain, the man had climbed up every year on the anniversary of Colley’s death to place flowers on the spot.
Duxbury says much has been written about the “magnificent effort” of the 92nd Gordons in defence of Majuba, but points out that the Boer casualty list is “damning evidence of their failure”.
Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, some British historians claim that this defeat was the beginning of the decline of the British Empire. Since the American Revolution, Britain had never signed a treaty on unfavourable terms with anyone and had never lost the final engagements of the war. “The Boers showed that the British were not the invincible foe the world feared.”