The Highland Light Infantry on the march
Winner: The Boers.
Royal Horse Artillery:
Royal Artillery. 18th, 62nd and 65th Field Batteries.
3rd Grenadier Guards.
1st and 2nd Coldstream Guards.
1st Scots Guards.
1st Northumberland Fusiliers:
2nd Black Watch:
2nd Northamptonshire Regiment:
1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment:
2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry:
1st Manchester Regiment:
1st Highland Light Infantry:
2nd Seaforth Highlanders:
1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders:
Following Lord Methuen’s hard won victory at Modder River on 28th November 1898, the British paused to rebuild the railway bridge, broken down by the Boers; a precaution essential in Methuen’s view to enable him to relieve Kimberley and bring out Cecil Rhodes and the civilian inhabitants of the town.
Although forced back from the Modder River position, the battle justified De la Rey’s tactic of entrenching his riflemen on level ground, rather than on the top of hills, where they were vulnerable to fire from the powerful British artillery.
The British delay at
Modder River bridge enabled De la Rey to dig a further line of
trenches at the base of Magersfontein Hill, 6 miles to the North
|To carry out his task of relieving Kimberley, Methuen was
bound to make the single strand of railway leading north to the town
the axis of his advance; giving the Boers no difficulty predicting
the British line of approach. Methuen made it easier still for De la
Rey by announcing the imminent attack during the afternoon of 10th
December 1899 with an extensive bombardment by his field artillery;
the target for the gun fire being the summit of the hill, rendering
the bombardment completely ineffectual.
During the night the Highland Brigade under Major General Wauchope, comprising the 2nd Black Watch, 1st Highland Light Infantry, 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, made its approach march in close order, guided by the brigade major, Major Benson, to deliver a dawn assault on Magersfontein Hill. Daylight was breaking as the brigade approached the hill. At 1,000 yards from the Boers’ concealed entrenchments, Major Benson urged Wauchope that the brigade should move into open order, but the brigade commander, fearing that the soldiers would become disordered in the near darkness, continued the advance in close columns. As the order was finally given to move into open order the Boers opened fire.
The initial volleys were not particularly effective, the Boers taking a little time to get the range in the dawn twilight, but the highland battalions were thrown into confusion by the surprise attack, the soldiers rushing about or going to ground behind whatever cover they could find. Attempts were made by the officers to lead their men in the charge against the Boer positions, but no move developed.
sun came up, revealing the Highlander Brigade pinned to the ground
in front of the Boer positions, where it stayed for the rest of the
day. Whenever a soldier moved he attracted fire. Some rushes were
made but no general advance was achieved.
powerless to intervene, Methuen sent forward companies of the 1st
Gordon Highlanders to support their fellow highland regiments and
moved the Guards Brigade up on their right to engage the Boer left.
The artillery batteries fired in support of Wauchope’s stranded
troops as best they could.
The Boers had left a substantial gap between the Magersfontein positions and the Free Stater’s trenches leading down to the river. There was an opportunity here, but Methuen did not attempt to take advantage of the gap and in due course the Boers moved reinforcements in to cover between the two entrenchments.
After nine hours exposed to constant fire in front of the Boer positions the highland regiments finally broke up and withdrew, suffering substantial losses as they rose from whatever cover they had found and made for the rear. The battle was over and Methuen had been soundly beaten.
Casualties: British casualties were 902. The Highland Brigade lost 53 officers and 650 soldiers, among them the brigade commander, Major General Wauchope, and 2 commanding officers killed. The commanding officer of the Gordons was also killed. Boer casualties were 236.
This defeat caused Methuen to be side-lined. Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, on their arrival with further reinforcements, took over the advance in the West, leading to the inexorable invasion and conquest of first the Orange Free State and then the Transvaal and the relief of Kimberley and Mafeking.
Regimental anecdotes and
• Magersfontein, Stormberg and Colenso were the defeats that made up “Black Week”. Although there were more failures for the British, Lord Roberts in the West and General Buller in Natal pushed the Boers back, relieving Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith, capturing the capitals of the Free State, Bloemfontein and the Transvaal, Pretoria and finally after a protracted guerilla campaign bringing the war to a successful conclusion.
• The losses in the Highland Brigade caused great distress in Scotland. The battle is commemorated in the pipe retreat march “The Highland Brigade at Magersfontein”. Major General Andy Wauchope was something of a Scottish celebrity, having stood against Gladstone in the contest for the seat of Midlothian during the 1892 General Election, reducing the Prime Minister’s majority to 690. He is said to have been greatly mourned.
• The citation for Captain Towse of the Gordon Highlanders, awarded the Victoria Cross for his conduct later in the war when he was blinded, described him as assisting the rescue of an officer of his regiment at Magersfontein.
The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be:
The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Goodbye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger
The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham
South Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly partisan volumes)
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