Battle of Magersfontein
War: The Boer War.
Date: 11th December 1899.
Place: 6 miles north east of the Modder River in the North
West of Cape Colony, South Africa.
against the Boers.
Generals: Major General Lord Methuen and
General De la Rey.
Size of the armies: 8,000 British against 9,000 Boers.
Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The Boer War was a serious jolt for the British Army. At the
outbreak of the war British tactics were appropriate for the use of
single shot firearms, fired in volleys controlled by company and
battalion officers; the troops fighting in close order. The need for
tight formations had been emphasised time and again in colonial
fighting. In the Zulu and Sudan Wars overwhelming enemy numbers
armed principally with stabbing weapons were easily kept at a
distance by such tactics; but, as at Isandlwana, would overrun a
loosely formed force. These tactics had to be entirely rethought in
battle against the Boers armed with modern weapons.
In the months
before hostilities the Boer commandant general, General Joubert,
bought 30,000 Mauser magazine rifles and a number of modern field
guns and automatic weapons from the German armaments manufacturer
Krupp and the French firm Creusot. The commandoes, without formal
discipline, welded into a fighting force through a strong sense of
community and dislike for the British. Field Cornets led burghers by
personal influence not through any military code. The Boers did not
adopt military formation in battle, instinctively fighting from
whatever cover there might be. The preponderance were countrymen,
running their farms from the back of a pony with a rifle in one
hand. These rural Boers brought a life time of marksmanship to the
war, an important edge, further exploited by Joubert’s consignment
of magazine rifles. Viljoen is said to have coined the aphorism
“Through God and the Mauser”. With strong fieldcraft skills and high
mobility the Boers were natural mounted infantry. The urban burghers
and foreign volunteers readily adopted the fighting methods of the
rest of the army.
Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police
units, the Boers wore their every day civilian clothes on campaign.
After the first month the Boers lost their numerical superiority,
spending the rest of the formal war on the defensive against British
forces that regularly outnumbered them.
British tactics, little
changed from the Crimea, used at Modder River, Magersfontein,
Colenso and Spion Kop were incapable of winning battles against
entrenched troops armed with modern magazine rifles. Every British
commander made the same mistake; Buller; Methuen, Roberts and
Kitchener. When General Kelly-Kenny attempted to winkle Cronje’s
commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments at Paardeburg using
his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted on a battle of
infantry assaults; with the same disastrous consequences as Colenso,
Modder River, Magersfontein and Spion Kop.
Some of the most
successful British troops were the non-regular regiments; the City
Imperial Volunteers, the South Africans, Canadians, Australians and
New Zealanders, who more easily broke from the habit of traditional
European warfare, using their horses for transport rather than the
charge, advancing by fire and manouevre in loose formations and
making use of cover, rather than the formal advance into a storm of
Uniform: The British regiments made an
uncertain change into khaki uniforms in the years preceding the Boer
War, with the topee helmet as tropical headgear. Highland regiments
in Natal devised aprons to conceal coloured kilts and sporrans. By
the end of the war the uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab
tunic and trousers; the danger of shiny buttons and too ostentatious
emblems of rank emphasised in several engagements with
disproportionately high officer casualties.
The British infantry
were armed with the Lee Metford magazine rifle firing 10 rounds. But
no training regime had been established to take advantage of the
accuracy and speed of fire of the weapon. Personal skills such as
scouting and field craft were little taught. The idea of fire and
movement was unknown, many regiments still going into action in
Notoriously General Hart insisted that his Irish Brigade fight
shoulder to shoulder as if on parade in Aldershot. Short of regular
troops, Britain engaged volunteer forces from Britain, Canada,
Australia and New Zealand who brought new ideas and more imaginative
formations to the battlefield.
The British regular troops lacked
imagination and resource. Routine procedures such as effective
scouting and camp protection were often neglected. The war was
littered with incidents in which British contingents became lost or
were ambushed often unnecessarily and forced to surrender. The war
was followed by a complete re-organisation of the British Army.
The British artillery was a powerful force in the field, underused
by commanders with little training in the use of modern guns in
battle. Pakenham cites Pieters as being the battle at which a
British commander, surprisingly Buller, developed a modern form of
battlefield tactics: heavy artillery bombardments co-ordinated to
permit the infantry to advance under their protection. It was the
only occasion that Buller showed any real generalship and the short
inspiration quickly died.
The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15
pounder guns; the Royal Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the
Royal Garrison Artillery batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal
Navy provided heavy field artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval
guns mounted on field carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of
Automatic weapons were used by the British usually
mounted on special carriages accompanying the cavalry.
The Highland Light Infantry on the march
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.
Major General Andrew Wauchope:
commander of the Highland Brigade at
the Battle of Magersfontein.
Wauchope was killed in the battle
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.
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 main Boer trench from which the
Highland Brigade was
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
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 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