Battle of Majuba Hill
War: First Boer War
Date: 27th February 1881
Place: In the northern tip of
Natal near to the Transvaal Border, in South Africa.
The Battle of Majuba Hill. General Colley stands in the middle to the left.
British troops fire over the edge of the hill, down at the hidden Boer
Combatants: British against the
Boers of the Transvaal
Generals: Major General Sir
George Pomeroy Colley against Commandant General J.P. Joubert.
Size of the armies: Colley’s British force comprised only 22 officers and
Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British infantry in South Africa at that date wore red jackets, blue
trousers with red piping to the side, white pith helmets and pipe clayed
equipment. The highlanders wore the kilt. The standard infantry weapon was
the Martini Henry single shot breech loading rifle with a long sword
bayonet. Gunners of the Royal Artillery wore blue jackets.
The Boers, being essentially a
citizen militia, wore what they wished, jacket, trousers and slouch hat with
a bandolier, and carried hunting rifles. The Boers were mainly mounted
infantry, riding the ponies they used to tend their stock, many with a life
times experience of marksmanship. They carried no bayonet leaving them at a
substantial disadvantage in close combat, which they avoided so far as
58th Regiment: later 2nd Battalion, the Northamptonshire Regiment and
now the Royal Anglian Regiment.
2nd Battalion, 60th Rifles: now the Royal Green Jackets.
92nd Highlanders: later 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders and now the
Majuba is not a British Battle Honour.
Sir George Colley at Majuba
Winner: The Boers
Account: In early
February 1881 Major General Sir George Colley, the British High
Commissioner for South East Africa, lay at Newcastle in Natal ready to
move up the road towards the Transvaal where the Boers were in revolt
against British rule. The Boer demands were for self-rule under the
overall suzerainty of Britain.
were on the way to South Africa, but carried the disadvantage for Colley
of bringing a senior general, Sir Frederick Roberts, to supercede him.
Colley moved with the forces he had and suffered his first defeat at
On 7th February 1881 Colley
tried again, moving forward to the Ingogo River where he suffered
another sharp reverse at the hands of the Boer riflemen. On 12th
February 1881 Brigadier General Sir Evelyn Wood VC, a veteran of
Britain’s colonial wars, arrived at Durban with regiments hurried over
from India: the 15th Hussars, 2nd/60th Rifles and the 92nd Highlanders.
Coming up with Colley, Wood persuaded him to stay put until the
substantial reinforcements from Britain arrived at the front. Wood moved
back to the Tugela River to organise the newly arriving troops.
The aid post on Majuba Hill. Lance Corporal Turner winning the V.C.
Colley did not intend to
comply with the compact he had made with Wood and on the night of 26th
February 1881 he marched out, towards the Boer positions, with a small
force of infantry: 22 officers and 627 men of the 58th Regiment, 60th
Rifles, 92nd Highlanders and the Royal Navy contingent. This small force
moved towards the Boer camp which lay on the far side of Mount Majuba.
2 companies of the 2nd/60th
were left as a picket at the base of Mount Imguela on the way to Majuba
with a dismounted troop of the 15th Hussars and 2 more companies of
infantry a little further along the road.
The British force reached the
top of Majuba Hill in the early morning and, exhausted, fell to the
ground on the plateau that stretched the length of the oblong summit.
Little was done to prepare a position.
As dawn broke the Boers, encamped to the North East on lower ground,
were in consternation at seeing the British above them. In trepidation
they awaited an attack on their camp, but Colley did nothing.
Regaining their confidence
the Boers began to work their way up the several sides of Majuba, while
older marksmen covered them, picking off any soldier who appeared on the
skyline and pinning down the British force. As the Boers moved up the
sides of Majuba, the small size of Colley’s force became apparent.
The British had not occupied
the whole summit and the Boers were able to infiltrate to the top,
bringing fire on the British troops from higher sections of the plateau.
British casualties mounted. There was little coordinated command.
Lieutenant (later General) Ian Hamilton urged Colley to charge the Boer
line, but the general procrastinated, saying “Wait, wait.”
Finally the British infantry,
suffering considerable loss, broke and fled from the top of the
mountain, leaving a small group of 92nd Highlanders to be surrounded and
captured. At the time of the break, Sir George Colley was shot dead. The
troops rushed to the bottom of the hill, falling back on the picket
companies which were themselves enveloped by the Boers, now mounted and
in pursuit. Only a heavy bombardment from the Royal Artillery guns in
the main camp stemmed the Boer advance. The battle was over.
Photograph of the memorial marking where Colley fell
Casualties: Of the
small British force 283 became casualties. Boer casualties are not known
but are likely to have been trifling.
overall command, Sir Evelyn Wood, on instructions from London,
negotiated terms with the Boers which gave them what they had sought
from the start, self-government under the overall suzerainty of the
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
- Although a small battle, Majuba was a major disaster for Britain
and the British Army. It highlighted many of the inadequacies of an army
steeped in the methods of early 19th Century warfare and failing to
grasp the implications and potential of modern long range breech loading
firearms. In the two South African Wars the British Army learnt a great
deal from the Boer Commandoes on the importance of field craft and
individual handling of rifles; lessons put to good use in 1914 against
the German Army.
- Colley was a disastrous commander, rash in assuming battle, but timid
in the conduct of the battle itself. He should have awaited the
reinforcements being sent to Natal. Instead he attempted to win the war
against the Boers with the inadequate resources available to him before
he might be superceded by the arrival of General Roberts.
- Victorian Britain had a tendency to make martyrs of generals killed in
action furthering British colonial interests, particularly if they had a
reputation for being religious. Colley was given just such a status.
Illustrations of the stone marking the spot where “Colley fell” were
widely published in the British press.