Battle of Majuba Hill
The Battle of Majuba Hill (near Volksrust, South Africa) on 27 February 1881 was the main battle of the First Boer War. It was a resounding victory for the Boers. Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley occupied the summit of the hill on the night of 26–27 February 1881. His motive for occupying the hill remains unclear. The Boers believed that he may have been attempting to outflank their positions at Laing's Nek. The hill was not considered scale-able by the Boers for military purposes and thus it may have been Colley's attempt to emphasize British power and strike fear into the Boer camp.
The bulk of the 405 British soldiers occupying the hill were 171 men of the 58th Regiment with 141 men of the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders, and a small naval brigade from HMS Dido. Besides the Gordons, most of his troops were inexperienced and their regiments had not seen action since the Crimean War. General Colley had brought no artillery up to the summit, nor did he order his men to dig in against the advice of several of his subordinates, expecting that the Boers would retreat when they saw their position on the Nek was untenable. However, the Boers quickly formed a group of storming parties, led by Nicolas Smit, from an assortment of volunteers from various commandos, totaling at least 450 men, maybe more, to attack the hill.
By daybreak at 4:30, the 92nd Highlanders covered a wide perimeter of the summit, while a handful occupied Gordon's Knoll on the right side of the summit. Oblivious to the presence of the British troops until the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders began to yell and shake their fists, the Boers began to panic fearing an artillery attack. Three Boer storming groups of 100-200 men each began a slow advance up the hill. The groups were led by Field Cornet Stephanus Roos, Commandant D.J.K. Malan and Commandant Joachim Ferreira. The Boers, being the better marksmen, kept their enemy on the slopes at bay while groups crossed the open ground to attack Gordon's Knoll, where at 12:45 Ferreira's men opened up a tremendous fire on the exposed knoll and captured it. Colley was in his tent when he was informed of the advancing Boers but took no immediate action until after he had been warned by several subordinates of the seriousness of the attack.
Over the next hour, the Boers poured over the top of the British line and engaged the enemy at long range, refusing hand-to-hand combat action and picking off the British one by one. The Boers were able to take advantage of the scrub and long grass which covered the hill, something that the British were not trained to do. It was at this stage that British discipline began to wane and panicky troops began to desert their posts, unable to see their opponents and being given very little in the way of direction from officers. When more Boers were seen encircling the mountain, the British line collapsed and many fled pell-mell from the hill. The Gordons held their ground the longest, but once they began to rout the battle was over. The Boers were able to launch an attack which shattered the already crumbling British line.
Amidst great confusion and with casualties amongst his men rising, Colley attempted to order a fighting retreat, but was shot and killed by Boer marksmen. The rest of the British force fled down the rear slopes of Majuba, where more were hit by the Boer marksmen, who had lined the summit in order to shoot at the retreating foe. An abortive rearguard action was staged by the 15th The King's Hussars and 60th rifles, who had marched from a support base at Mount Prospect, although this made little impact on the Boer forces. Two hundred and eighty-five Britons were killed, captured or wounded, including Captain Cornwallis Maude, son of Government Minister Cornwallis Maude, 1st Earl de Montalt.
As the British were fleeing the hill, many were picked off by the superior rifles and marksmen of the Boers. Several wounded soldiers soon found themselves surrounded by Boer soldiers and gave their accounts of what they saw. Many of them were simply farm boys armed with rifles. It was thus a major hit on British prestige to have been defeated by a group of Dutch farm boys with a hand full of older soldiers leading them. Britain would never recover from the injury to its honor.
Although small in scope, the battle is historically significant for three reasons:
- It led to the signing of a peace treaty and later the Pretoria Convention, between the British and the reinstated South African Republic, ending the First Boer War.
- The fire and movement ("vuur en beweeg" in Afrikaans) tactics employed by the Boers, especially Commandant Smit in his final assault on the hill, were years ahead of their time.
- Coupled with the defeats at Laing's Nek and Schuinshoogte, this third crushing defeat at the hands of the Boers ratified the strength of the Boers in the minds of the British, arguably to have consequences in the Second Anglo-Boer War. "Remember Majuba" became a rallying cry.
Some notable British historians, although not all agree, claim that this defeat marked the beginning of the decline of the British Empire. Since the American Revolution, Great Britain had never signed a treaty on unfavorable terms with anyone and had never lost the final engagements of the war. In every preceding conflict, even if the British suffered a defeat initially, they would retaliate with a decisive victory. The Boers showed that the British were not the invincible foe the world feared.
- Martin Meredith, Diamonds Gold and War, (New York: Public Affairs, 2007):162
- The South African Military History Society Journal vol 5 no 2. Details the battle.
- Jan Morris, Heaven's Command, Faber and Faber, London, 1998, pp 442–445.
- Castle, Ian (1996). Majuba 1881: The Hill of Destiny. Osprey Campaign Series #45. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-85532-503-9.
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