Winner: The Boers resoundingly.
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.
Substantial reinforcements 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 Laing’s Nek.
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.
Casualties: Of the small British force 283 became casualties. Boer casualties are not known but are likely to have been trifling.
Follow-up: Assuming 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 British Crown.
Regimental anecdotes and
• 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.
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