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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. The
British troops fire over the edge of the hill, down at the hidden Boer riflemen

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 627 men.

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 possible.

British Regiments:
Royal Navy:
15th Hussars.
Royal Artillery
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 Highlanders.
Majuba is not a British Battle Honour.

Sir George Colley at Majuba

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.

Majuba Hill. Lance Corporal Turner winning the V.C.
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
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.

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 traditions: