Monday, August 26, 2019 Login  
Register  
Wargaming Section
New Additions
Historical Section
The Refights
The Battle of Magersfontein, 11 December 1899

The terrain between Modder River and Kimberley.
Boers intrench Spytfontein and Scholtz Nek. Nov.29-Dec. 4. *
Friction between Federals. Steyn's visit to Boer laagers. Dec. 3-7.
Boers reinforced to nearly 8000 men.
Boers advance to Magersfontein and intrench at foot of ridge. Dec. 4.
Extent of Boer position. Trenches on left only begun at the last moment
Dec. 7. Prinsloo's abortive raid on Enslin. His super-session by Ferreira.
Methuen receives reinforcements at Modder River. Nov.29-Dec.10.
Reasons for the prolonged halt hardly justify complete inactivity.
The lack of information.
Alternative lines of advance. Methuen ends by deciding on a direct attack.
Dec. 9 and 10. Methuen shells Magersfontein Hill.
The Boers are warned.
Cronje's dispositions for the expected attack. His night-wandering.
Methuen's final arrangements.
Wauchope's reluctance to undertake the attack.
Dec.11. 12.30 A.M. The start.
The night march. Wauchope's anxiety to be in striking range before deploying.
The brigade surprised while deploying. 4 A.M.
Wauchope's last orders and death.
The Highlanders through the Boer line. The hill all but captured.
Position of the Highland Brigade at daylight.
The artillery in action.
Babington supports Highlanders' right. 5 A,M.
Methuen makes no attempt to support Highlanders, but sends Guards off to the right.
Yorkshire Light Infantry on right. Good work of cavalry Maxims.
Possibility of breaking through Boer left.
Or of attacking heights from west. Methuen's only idea to hold on till night.
11 A.M. Methuen sends forward the Gordons.
The strain on the Highlanders near the breaking-point.
2 P.M. First retreat of the Highlanders.
8.45 P.M. Boer guns open fire. Second retreat of Highlanders. Collapse of the brigade.
Close of the battle.
Dec. 12. Methuen decides to retire to the camp.
Armistice by mutual consent. The retirement.
Heavy losses of Highland Brigade.
Causes of controversy about Magersfontein.
The failure of the night attack.
Failure of the battle as a whole.
Methuen's march.
The question of a retirement to Orange River.
Effect of the battle in England.

The terrain between Modder River and Kimberley.

Rising almost imperceptibly from the north bank of the Modder by the bridge, the veld, covered with scanty grass and scrub and dotted with bushes of thorny, sweet-scented mimosa, stretches away for five miles till it is bounded by the low rock-strewn ridges that run diagonally from Langeberg Farm on the north-west, across the railway near Merton Siding, and for three miles south-east till they terminate in the sharp promontory of Magersfontein Hill, 150 to 200 feet high, jutting out into the boundless horizon eastwards like the prow of a battleship seen against the open sea. Behind Magersfontein a mass of kopjes extends northwards for two or three miles, then sinks down to rise again in a second slightly higher line of hills running from east to west from Scholtz Nek Farm, by Spytfontein Siding, to where it joins the first series of ridges near Langeberg. North of this second ridge come a few scattered kopjes and then a twelve miles stretch of level into Kimberley. The railway makes its way through the lower western half of this complex of hills, but the main road from Modder River to Kimberley goes round it to the east, skirting the foot of Magersfontein Hill, past Bissett's Farm to Scholtz Nek, crossing and recrossing the tall wire fence that marked the frontier between Cape Colony and the adjoining republic. East and south-east of the road the open veld spreads away indefinitely to the horizon, hardly broken to the eye by the sinuous furrow of the Modder passing almost midway between Jacobsdal and the Magersfontein heights. Such was the stretch of country that still lay between Lord Methuen and his goal.

Boers intrench Spytfontein and Scholtz Nek. Nov.29-Dec. 4.

During the night that followed Methuen's Pyrrhic victory at Modder River the Boers fell back upon Jacobsdal as has already been related, and were there joined by the rest of Cronje's Mafeking contingent which had come up too late to take part in the action. Early next morning (Nov.29), in pursuance of the decision of a midnight krygsraad, the combined force moved north across the Modder and laagered near Brown's Drift, about nine miles east of Modder River Bridge. That same afternoon Cronje and the greater part of the cornmandos again moved north to Scholtz Nek and Spytfontein, and at once began digging trenches and building sangars along the summits of the heights for several miles on both sides of the railway. The rest followed on the 30th, but in accordance with the peculiar tactics already noted in connection with the first part of Methuen's march, the laagers were not moved to Spytfontein, but left ten or twelve miles away on the flank of Methuen's probable line of advance, the main laager being moved, as a precaution, four or five miles east to Rondavel Drift, and the others scattered about between it and Abon's Dam. Jacobsdal itself, though nearly twice as far from the positions selected as from Methuen's camp, and practically undefended, still remained the principal base of supplies for the commandos, and it was not till President Steyn's arrival from Bloemfontein on December 3 that the greater part of the ammunition and stores left in the village were removed to the laagers.

Friction between Federals. Steyn's visit to Boer laagers. Dec. 3-7.

Steyn's visit to the front was due to the serious friction that had arisen between the Transvaal and Free State laagers in consequence of the poor spirit the Free Staters had shown on the 28th. Immediately on receipt of Cronje's report on the battle Kruger had despatched the following earnest and characteristic appeal to his brother President

 

" The Lord is with us . . . and if we now retreat it can only be due to cowardice. I am convinced that it is the want of unity that compelled us to abandon our positions. My age forbids my taking the field with my sons or I would be there now . . . Your Honour must impress upon officers and burghers that they must hold out to the death in the name of the Lord! With this resolve and strengthened by prayer I trust that we shall win the victory; for Christ hath said, 'He that will save his life shall lose it, and he that loseth it for the truth's sake shall save it.'"

 

Steyn had given effect to this appeal in an open letter addressed to his officers and burghers, in which he expressed his deep regret that so many burghers had stayed behind in the laagers while their brethren resisted the enemy, and asked how they could expect help from above if they were not bound together in unity and love. But not content with mere writing he had at once set oft, accompanied by his chief counsellor and guide, Abraham Fischer, and now successfully used his personal influence to compose the feud between the two contingents, and to inspire his burghers with a better spirit. On the 7th he left again for Bloemfontein. It is impossible not to admire the activity and resolution President Step showed as the leader of his people throughout the war which his own weakness and vanity had chiefly contributed to bring about. In the fateful months that preceded the ultimatum he had been the mere tool of abler and less scrupulous men like Kruger and Fischer, but through all the long struggle that followed he was to be the heart and soul of the national defence, the very incarnation of uncompromising reckless resistance to the end.

Boers reinforced to nearly 8000 men.

At Spytfontein the Boer force was still further strengthened. Immediately after Belmont the Free State Government had decided to recall some of its burghers from Natal to meet Methuen. Some 800-1000 burghers of the Heilbron, Kroonstad and Bethlehem commandos, under Commandants Piet de Wet, Nel and Naude, left Natal about November 26, passing through Elandsfontein on the 28th, and joining Cronje three or four days later. With them came contingents from the Ficksburg and Ladybrand commandos, who had up to this been engaged in watching the Basuto border. From the force besieging Kimberley the Bloemhof and Wolmaranstad Transvaalers and sundry Free State contingents now also came across to Spytfontein, bringing the total force at Cronje's disposal up to nearly 8000 men. De la Rey's attempt to bar Methuen's advance at the Modder River was thus, even if not a complete success, amply justified by the result, for it enabled the Boers to more than double their force before Methuen was ready to move again.

Boers advance to Magersfontein and intrench at foot of ridge. Dec. 4.

But the final battle which was to decide the fortunes of Methuen's column was not destined to take place at Spytfontein or Scholtz Nek after all. On December 2 De la Rey, in the course of a reconnaissance, came to the conclusion that the Boer position was faulty and could be effectively shelled by long-range artillery from the northern extremity of the Magersfontein group of kopjes. Returning to laager he strongly impressed upon Cronje the advisability of abandoning the Scholtz Nek position for a more advanced one at Magersfontein, where the English would be obliged to attack across perfectly open ground. Cronje at first regarded the suggestion with disfavour, and it is said that only Steyn's intervention enabled De la Rey to secure the execution of his scheme. At any rate it was not till December 4 that the Boers abandoned their northern lines and took up a new position in front of the Magersfontein ridges, the main laager being once more moved forward to Brown's Drift. Here at Magersfontein, in full view of the British camp at Modder River, they at once began intrenching for the frontal attack which they fully expected as soon as their slow adversary should be ready to renew his march. A certain amount of trench and "schanz" work was done on the upper slopes of the kopjes. But the most striking feature of the Boer defences was a single line of trenches excavated on the level ground in front of the kopjes and running right along the foot of the whole range. The conception of this field work, one of the boldest and most original conceptions in the history of war, was once again due to De la Rey, whose insistence, backed by the experience of the effects of horizontal fire at Modder River, carried the day against Cronje's contemptuous dislike of innovation. The trenches themselves were made from three to four feet deep and narrow - an important feature, designed to give protection from shrapnel fire, which reached its fullest development later at Paardeberg - and the excavated soil in front was so skilfully masked with tufts of scrub and branches of mimosa that the trenches were scarcely visible a hundred yards away. As a still further protection against artillery fire the trenches were pushed forward from 100-200 yards in front of the clearly defined foot of the heights. De la Rey had not spent a whole day within 1200 yards of two batteries at Modder River without recognizing the peculiar advantage of having the firing-line some way in front of a conspicuous object calculated to attract the hostile gunner's eye and over-master his attention. Hardly less striking than the position and character of the trenches was the fact that retreat from them during action would be almost impossible. The physical courage of the Boers was often called in question in the earlier days of the war, but there can be no denying the splendid moral courage of the leaders who could place a few thousand undisciplined men, armed only with rifles, in a narrow ditch on the open plain to stop an enemy who had already three times driven them from carefully chosen positions and from whom there would this time be no chance of escape.

Extent of Boer position. Trenches on left only begun at the last moment

On December 8 the Boer trenches extended on the right for about a mile north-westwards from the railway behind Merton Siding. This wing was very much thrown back, and there was a considerable gap before the trenches began again east of the railway, at the foot of a long, low kopje which projected in front of the general line of the heights. The main line of trenches round Magersfontein Hill began in the valley between it and this kopje, slightly overlapping the trenches in front of the latter, and ran on for about 500 yards beyond the south-eastern end of the hill into the dry "pan," or depression, which separated it from two low parallel folds or waves of ground, partly covered by a scattered growth of high bushes, which curved across in a south-easterly direction for about three miles, dying away into the general level of the veld nearly two miles from the Modder. It was only on the 8th that the Boer leaders, realising how easily the position could be turned on this side, decided to carry on their line of trenches along the more easterly of

these folds, right across to the river where a house and kraal at Moss Drift, six miles from Methuen's camp, formed a convenient steadying point for the flank. These defences were, however, only beginning to be made on the 10th, when the first advance of the British took place, and in the following day's battle the Boer left had to make shift with such hurriedly thrown up cover as could be constructed in a few hours, instead of the careful intrenchments that protected the centre, the last mile and a half towards the river being still entirely unprovided with any cover other than that of scattered stones and bushes. On the right the line was at the same time prolonged up to Langeberg Farm, making the length of front held over twelve miles, or nearly twenty if the base at Jacobsdal be included in it. These extensions were pure measures of extra precaution, for the Boers had little doubt but that Methuen's attack would be delivered directly at Magersfontein Kop. How certain they were is shown by a proposal made by Cronje in a krygsraad about the 6th that both wings of the Boer force should, instead of intrenching, simply lie concealed in the grass till the British infantry were well engaged with the centre trench, and then rush the British guns from both sides - a proposal showing, too, a significant, though perhaps exaggerated, contempt for the effectiveness of British scouting. But the Boers were not yet tempered to the point of courage necessary for such hazardous aggressive tactics, and the plan was rejected.

Dec. 7. Prinsloo's abortive raid on Enslin. His super-session by Ferreira.

The Boer weakness in offensive tactics was well exposed by an unsuccessful attempt to cut the British line of communications which followed almost immediately after Cronje's proposal. On the night of the 6th Prinsloo set off from Jacobsdal with over 1000 horsemen, and with three guns under Albrecht, to make a descent upon Enslin Station. But Captain Godley and the two companies of Northamptons intrenched there gallantly held their own, and after six hours Prinsloo beat a hasty retreat upon the approach, from Modder River, of the 12th. Lancers, the 62nd Battery, and an armoured train with the Seaforths. The damage to the line and the wire was repaired in a few hours. But the raid on Enslin had one important result. It led to Prinsloo's dismissal from the position of head commandant of the Free Staters for incapacity and cowardice, and to the election in his place of Commandant A. M. Ferreira, of Ladybrand, an election justified by the improved moral shown by the Free Staters at the battle of Magersfontein.

Methuen receives reinforcements at Modder River. Nov.29-Dec.10.

Meanwhile, Lord Methuen, whose wound was not sufficiently serious to prevent him from reassuming the command from General Colvile on the 6th, was resting and reorganising his force at Modder River. Supplies and ammunition poured in freely from the south during the next few days, while the engineers under Major Stewart laboured away at the construction of a low level deviation bridge, to carry the railway till the permanent bridge could be repaired. More important stilt considerable reinforcements now joined the column. Between the 4th and the 7th there arrived in camp General Wauchope, with the remaining two battalions of the Highland Brigade, the Black Watch and the Seaforths; the 12th Lancers with another 100 mounted infantry and G Battery, Horse Artillery; the 65th (Howitzer) Battery, a 4.7 naval gun, promptly nicknamed "Joe Chamberlain," and a balloon section. The whole of the mounted troops were now put under General Babington, while Colonel C. W. H. Douglas arrived to take up the position as chief staff officer hitherto occupied by Colonel Mainwaring. At the same time Methuen's communications were secured by the arrival at Orange River of the Cornwall Light Infantry and Shropshire Light Infantry, and of the Canadian and Australian Infantry contingents, the two latter being pushed up to Belmont and Enslin about the 10th. But it was not till the deviation was completed, and the last available infantry battalion, the 1st Gordons, had joined him (December 10), that Methuen considered himself ready to start again.

Reasons for the prolonged halt hardly justify complete inactivity.

The reasons which decided first General Colvile and then Lord Methuen to make so long a halt at Modder River are intelligible enough. Three hard fights in six days had put a severe strain upon the force. The cavalry horses were done up, the infantry exhausted, the ammunition train nearly empty. Methuen's wound and the losses in the staff and among cornmanding officers entailed an inevitable amount of disorganisation that needed repairing. Reinforcements, especially of mounted troops, were wanted to make up for nearly a thousand casualties, and to overcome the steadily increasing resistance of the enemy. The restoration of the railway across the river was highly desirable, not only to keep the column supplied, but to enable troops to be sent back quickly, as on the 7th, to repel an attack upon the line of communications. Kimberley was in no immediate straits. Though it could not do much to help the relieving force, it had carried out two vigorous sorties on the 25th and 28th of November, and on the 4th Kekewich signalled that he had forty days' provisions and plenty of water. The question is whether by delaying Methuen did not sacrifice more than he gained. In the first place he "lost way," sacrificed the moral and strategical advantages he had gained by his rapid advance and his hard4ought victories. The indefinable psychological impression produced on an enemy by an army in motion, the paralysing sense of uncertainty as to whither the next move will be, or where the next blow will fall, are assets in strategy that are thrown away the moment that army comes to a prolonged standstill. Again, the Boers needed a rest after their battles quite as much as the British, and, relatively to their original numbers, received even stronger reinforcements, a fact of which the British were not altogether unaware. An immediate advance would have found the Boers incompletely intrenched in a defective position, a disunited and, to some extent, disheartened force. Having beaten the Boers at Scholtz Nek, Methuen - or Colvile - could, if he thought it advisable, have fallen back on the Magersfontein kopjes or on Brown's Drift, and from tbere have superintended the completion of the bridge, and awaited the arrival of reinforcements before trying finally to disperse the Boer forces round and near Kimberley. But granting that the British commander was convinced that his force was unequal to an immediate advance to Scholtz Nek - a question of which he was, perhaps, the best judge - it is more difficult to justify the complete inactivity during those twelve days, and the absence of any attempt either to prepare the way for the next advance or to interfere with the enemy's preparations to check it. It was evident from the very first that, owing to the waterless nature of the country west of the railway, the way to Kimberley lay either by Magersfontein Hill or up along the Modder River by Brown's Drift. To have seized and intrenched either or both these positions would have been a useful precaution before December 4. Its advisability was still more plainly indicated when the Boers advanced and openly began intrenching themselves right across the British front. The occupation of one of these points was within the capacities of Methuen's force, even though it might not be quite ready to march on Kimberley, and might have forced the Boers to make attempts at recapturing it with the almost certain prospect of defeat and heavy loss. A raid on Jacobsdal, though less directly subserving the object of the march, might have alarmed the Boors, and, even if unsuccessful, have served as a reconnaissance. But the idea of obliging the enemy to conform to our movements instead of conforming to theirs, or of conducting any other operations than the one day's pitched battle, seems, at this stage of the war, to have been entirely foreign to the minds of our generals.

The lack of information.

Not only were no steps taken by Methuen to further his plans or hamper the dispositions of the enemy, but very little was done to gain information about the latter. Cavalry patrols, indeed, were sent out every day. Some of these had ridden over Magersfontein Hill before the 4th, others wore fired at near Merton Siding, while on the 6th a small patrol of the 12th Lancers under Lieutenant Tristram was caught in an ambush on the south bank of the Riet, not five miles from the bridge. But cavalry patrols cannot take the place of trained scouts or spies, especially against a watchful mounted enemy. For the want of these Methuen himself was hardly to blame, though more might no doubt have been done even with the means at his disposal. Anyhow the fact remained that his knowledge of the ground was confined to the immediate neighbourhood of his camp, and of the enemy to what could be seen with field-glasses from the first rise of the veld.

Alternative lines of advance. Methuen ends by deciding on a direct attack.

With this information at his disposal Lord Methuen made his plans for the advance. Of the various alternatives open to him, a flank march by Jacobsdal would have involved subsequently recrossing the Modder in face of the enemy - an operation he had no desire to repeat. There remained an advance up the river to Brown's Drift, along the north bank or possibly on both, and an attack on Magersfontein ridge. The former plan involved making a flank march in front of the enemy's position. But this was more a theoretical than a real objection. For the march would have been beyond effective range even of the Boer guns on the ridge. It was not likely that the Boers would venture out across the open to attack the force, but nothing could, in those days, have been more desirable than if they had. The mere hope of such a thing might have made the flank march worth trying, even if it had served no other purpose. The occupation of Brown's Drift and of the low ridges between it and Magersfontein would have been promptly followed by the evacuation of the latter position. That in itself would have been a great gain, for nothing is more disheartening to a force than to be compelled to abandon a carefully prepared position without fighting. And Methuen's first intention certainly was to carry out this move under cover of a feint along the railway. But at the last moment, acting, it would seem, on the suggestion of his chief of the staff he changed his mind and decided to rush Magersfontein Hill from its south-eastern end by a night attack. Having effected this, he intended to leave a force of 1200 men and two guns intrenched there, and, holding Moss and Brown's Drift to secure his lines of supply, to push on to Abon's Dam, and from there attack the Boers on Scholtz Nek if they attempted to make another stand. The idea uppermost in Methuen's mind was, no doubt, to strike a heavy blow at the Boers at once, instead of deferring the encounter by a turning movement and the success gained at Belmont, in spite of loss of direction and delay, had impressed him with the possibilities of a night attack pressed home in very extended order. The fear for his communications can hardly have been a reason for abandoning the move upon Brown's Drift, for the seizure and garrisoning of Magersfontein could have been performed as well after as before that operation. There can be little doubt that Methuen's first decision was the sounder one. And in any case the fact remains that Methuen ended by doing precisely what the Boers expected him to do, and that an advance up the river would, as the Boers themselves have admitted, have met with little effective resistance, and have been followed by the abandonment of Magersfontein. The details of the scheme of attack are also open to criticism. The Boers were known to be holding the ground between the point chosen for the assault and the river, and the attacking force would thus, like Grimwood's brigade at the battle of Ladysmith, be exposed on their right flank or even their rear, if the attack was only partially successful. An attack on the south-western end of the ridge, over the smaller advanced kopje near the railway, would have been free from this objection, for the Boer right was too far thrown back to have been able to interfere to any effect.

Dec. 9 and 10. Methuen shells Magersfontein Hill.

On the 9th a few trial shells had been fired at the hills by the 4.7 naval gun from the granger's hut, three miles up the line from the bridge. But it was not till the following afternoon, Sunday, that the attack began in earnest. At 3 P.M. the Highland Brigade under General Wauchope, to whom, as the freshest portion of his force, Lord Methuen had decided to entrust the night attack, moved up to the slight rise, afterwards known as Headquarter Hill, on the left of the Kimberley road, about four miles from the station. From there the Black Watch on the left and the cavalry on the light, the 9th Lancers in front, advanced in extended order along the whole eastern front from Magersfontein to the river as far as the first fold of ground without becoming seriously engaged, and fell back by order about 4.30 P.M. as the guns opened fire. For the next hour and a half the whole of the artillery - the naval gun at 7000 yards on the left, the howitzers at 4000 west of Headquarter Hill, and the three field batteries drawn up in line on the light at 2700 - concentrated an intense fire on the slopes of Magersfontein Hill. The hail of shrapnel and the great volcano jets of red earth and ironstone boulders hurled fifty feet high by the bursting lyddite, seemed to convert the whole Hillside into a perfect inferno of fire. Lord Methuen had no doubt but that he was inflicting heavy loss, and producing a profound demoralisation among the Boers which would materially help the night attack.

The Boers are warned.

The Boers lost three men wounded. They gained, firstly, information, and, secondly, confidence - the two main essentials of victory. They now knew that the expected attack on Magersfontein was not far off. They also knew that to men securely intrenched the appalling roar of bursting shell meant little more than the din of a thunderstorm. De la Rey could not have arranged a better demonstration of the soundness of his tactics, or found better means to exhort the burghers to stay in their trenches, than this ineffectual and purposeless cannonade. There were certain courses that might have justified Methuen's action. One was to have utilised the cannonade as a feint and to have marched that night on the laager at Brown's Drift. Another was to have at once occupied the ridge forming the Boer left, at that moment very weakly manned and only partially intrenched. This Wauchope would apparently have done if he had not been recalled by Methuen, and the evacuation of Magersfontein would probably have followed. A third was to have attacked the hill itself late that same afternoon. In the failing light, still further obscured by a heavy drizzle, an otherwise impossible attack might, perhaps, have been carried through without great loss, though the occupation of an unreconnoitred position at nightfall was not without its dangers.

Cronje's dispositions for the expected attack. His night-wandering.

Cronje, when the bombardment opened, was at the head laager at Brown's Drift. As soon as it ceased he galloped off to Magersfontein with half-a-dozen "adjutants" to complete all preparations in expectation of an immediate attack. Riding on to the summit of the hill by the nek on the north be surveyed the damage done and then walked down to the trenches and held a council of war with his leading commandants. In the main the positions of the commandos had already been assigned. All that was necessary was to warn commandants and field-comets to see that their men were in the trenches and ready to meet an attack before dawn. On the right Cronje had placed his brother Andries, with the Klerksdorp and some of the Potchefstroom burghers and sundry Free State contingents. In all there may have been 1500-2000 Boers west of the railway and on the hills behind who took practically no part in the next day's battle. The centre trenches were held by about 2500 men, mostly from Potchefstroom - men of Cronje's own commando on whose courage he could rely - under Commandants P. Schutte and Martins, and some Bloemfontein and Hoopstad Free Staters. On the left were the Ladybrand, Ficksburg, Senekal, Heilbron, and Kroonstad Free Staters under Ferreira, and the Lichtenburg, Wolmaransstad and Bloembof Transvaalers under Commandants Vermaas, F. J. Potgieter and Tollie de Beer. Of these about 2000 probably took part in the action, though barely half that number were in their places when the battle opened. Nominally De la Rey was in command of the whole left wing. But at that moment he was at Kimberley, where he had gone to meet his wife - to tell her one may surmise, of her brave son's death - and in his absence the commandants acted on their own judgment. Albrecht, with a Knipp and the Jacobsdal and Fauresmith burghers, had for some days been quartered between Brown's Drift and Jacobsdal to cover that place and, if possible, to demonstrate against the British camp. Five Krupps and two "pom-poms" were posted on Magerstontein ridge and the heights behind. The only guns on the left flank were two or three "pom-poms." Mention should lastly be made of the Scandinavian contingent, a little force that had already shown its courage at Mafeking, which was now sent forward about 1000 yards in front of the Boer left to cover the gap between it and the Boer centre. After giving his final instructions Cronje threw himself down on the wet ground to snatch a few hours' sleep. At one o'clock he started up, climbed the hill again, and, summoning his staff, rode off in order to inspect the left wing and make sure that the men were watchful and in their trenches. But in the streaming rain and inky darkness he completely lost his way, and after two hours and more of vain groping found himself; just as night was growing grey, back at the foot of Magerafontein Hill, not 200 yards behind the end of the main trench. What strange sequence this night-wandering of the Boer general and his little staff was yet to have the next few pages will show.

Methuen's final arrangements.

Lord Methuen had meanwhile, during the afternoon of the 10th, completed his arrangements for the morning's battle. The 9th Brigade, which was to act principally as a reserve, was considerably broken up. The North Lancashires were left with the Naval Brigade to guard the camp. The Yorkshire Light Infantry were guided three miles up stream to Voetpad's Drift, which they occupied and intrenched without opposition. General Pole-Carew, with the Northumberland Fusiliers and Northamptons, had already advanced some distance on both sides of the railway during the afternoon, and bivouacked at the granger's hut. His orders were to make a demonstration on the left flank, but not to force the fighting. The safety of the camp was at the same time entrusted to him. The Guards, during the afternoon, struck their tents on the "Island " - another warning to the Boers - crossed the drift after dark, and bivouacked on the north bank with orders to march off to Headquarter Hill at 12.30 to be ready to act as a support wherever required. The transport was moved up behind the same rise, in readiness for an early advance next day. Here the Highland Brigade, guns, and most of the cavalry were already in bivouac. The cavalry, joined at daybreak by the 12th Lancers, were to cover the right flank of the Highlanders, a disposition which would indicate that Methuen underestimated the strength or, perhaps, hardly realised the proximity of the Boer left wing.

Wauchope's reluctance to undertake the attack.

The Highland Brigade, lastly, was to march off at 12.30 for the attack. It was to be guided by Major G.E. Benson, R.A., who had previously, at great personal risk, ascertained the bearings and distance of the south-eastern point of the hill. Shortly before dawn the brigade was to deploy, and in widely-extended order rush the hill, much as the Guards had rushed Belmont. The task was one that Wauchope undertook with reluctance. From the very first he had realised, better than most of his colleagues, the seriousness of the conflict upon which the nation had entered. Nor did he now hesitate to express to his commander the doubts that rose up in his mind at the thought of the hazardous venture to which his brigade was being committed. It was this expression of opinion that, after the battle, gave rise to painful and inaccurate rumours to the effect that there had been a serious personal disagreement between the two generals. Once the decision was made, Wauchope was resolved to carry it out at all costs, and when, at the last moment, postponement of the enterprise, on account of the unfavourable weather, was seriously debated at headquarters, he declared himself opposed to any delay. It was the natural thing for a brave soldier to do, but there can be little doubt that Lord Methuen would have been well advised to have put off the attack. The rain, which had increased with the darkness, had towards midnight become a steady downpour, and a recollection of the difficulty and confusion attending night marches, even in the best weather and over well-known ground, ought to have counselled greater prudence.

Dec.11. 12.30 A.M. The start.

Soon after 12.30 A.M. the Highland battalions moved out silently into the night. They were drawn up in mass of quarter columns, with six paces interval between companies and eight paces between battalions. This, the most compact formation possible, was rendered advisable by the roughness of the ground and the fearful weather; in no other way would it have been possible to bring so large a force within striking distance of its object on such a night. The Black Watch led, followed by the Seaforths, Argylls, and Highland Light Infantry. Ropes held by the left guides connected some, but not all, of the battalions. At the head of the column on the left was Benson with two of Rimington's Guides. To his left again strode the ill-fated Wauchope, with his two aides-de-camp, Captain Rennie and Lieutenant Wauchope, his cousin. Alone of all the officers in the Brigade the general still carried his old claymore. Before starting Wauchope had fully explained his plan to his staff and to his commanding officers. The brigade was to halt at a point south-east of the extremity of the hill, there deploy under cover of darkness, the three kilted regiments in front and the Highland Light Infantry in reserve, and then lie down, ready to rush the position with the first light of dawn. By the position Wauchope understood the south-eastern face of the hill itself. Of the extension of the line of trenches into the level beyond the point where the hillside began to recede northwards, neither he, nor Methuen, had any idea.

The night march. Wauchope's anxiety to be in striking range before deploying.

The night was pitch dark. Beneath the continuous rain the sandy veld, dry and burning but a few hours before, had turned into a waste of sodden mud, broken only by an outcrop, here and there, of scorched ironstone boulders, by wiry patches of leafless scrub, or waist-high clumps of prickly mimosa, unsuspected till the front ranks stumbled upon them. No sooner had the column started, than the down-pour, accompanied by a heavy thunderstorm, redoubled its violence. Through the blinding curtain of obscurity and rain the only thing that was now and again visible, besides the continual flashes of vivid lightning, was the misty violet beam of the Kimberley searchlight flaring along the northern sky. Yet in spite of the inky gloom and the disturbance to his compasses caused by the lightning, Benson guided the column unswervingly from start to finish along the course he had marked out. But the advance was painfully slow, and again and again the column had to halt. It was already half past three, and the night was perceptibly beginning to grow grey. But though the outline of the hill could now, as the rain ceased, be dimly descried, it was impossible to judge the distance that still divided the column from its objective. Twice Benson whispered suggesting that the time had come to deploy. But Wauchope was anxious to press on a few hundred yards more, while the column was still in a formation which enabled it to move comparatively quickly. It was already late, deployment would add another fifteen minutes, and practically put an end to any further advance before dawn. At all hazards Wauchope was resolved that dawn should not find the brigade beyond striking distance of the position. The column moved on a little further without mishap. The word to extend was just about to be given when the Black Watch struck into a line of thick thorny bush, through which they made their way with difficulty in twos and threes as gaps were found. It was impossible to deploy in the middle of the bushes, and sooner than bring back the head of the column the general decided to get the whole brigade past this obstacle. This meant another 300-400 yards advance. The Black Watch, having reformed on the farther side of the bush, moved on slowly while the remaining battalions found their way round to the right. Before the Highland Light Infantry were in position again Wauchope ordered the column to halt and deploy outwards, the Seaforths moving forward to the left of the leading battalion, the Argylls to the right, and the Light Infantry holding themselves in reserve. Whether Wauchope clearly realised that he was already within 600-700 yards of the hill it is impossible to tell. But what is certain is that neither he nor any one in the force knew that between them and the hill, and barely 400 yards away, ran the Boer trenches, lined by thousands of rifles, over whose barrels keen eyes were peering into the gloom, while keen ears were strained to catch the first sound of the expected advance.

The brigade surprised while deploying. 4 A.M.

Daylight was already showing clear above the heights, and the grey figures of the men were fairly visible at a few yards distance. The two leading battalions were in the act of deploying. A and B companies of the Black Watch had gone forward nearly 100 yards, and were just extending clear of each other. But a few minutes more and the whole brigade would be ready for the attack. Wauchope may well have congratulated himself that he had successfully brought his men within striking range: he knew he could trust them to do the rest. Suddenly, from every side, from the left, from the ground almost at their feet, from the bill-side beyond, from the bushes and sand heaps to their right, flashed out a line of fire, and an appalling sleet of missiles swept through the close locked ranks of the Highland Brigade. The Boers had detected their presence, and from their magazines poured in a quintuple volley into the enormous target in front of them, their rifles becoming, to quote the expression of one who was there, "as it were so many Maxims." Never were troops caught at a more terrible disadvantage than the hapless Highlanders. They were surprised in what was more fatal than the worst of all formations, namely, at the halt, and in the very act of exchanging one formation for the other. It was an awful moment, destined to haunt for ever the memories of those who lived through that day. Fortunately the fire was mostly too high, and the casualties, though considerable, especially among the officers of the leading companies, were but a small fraction of the total losses suffered by the brigade in the next few hours. The bulk of the men in the two leading battalions endeavoured hurriedly to complete their extension and lay down, fixing bayonets in readiness for the charge. But there were many who gave way before the sudden terror of invisible death before them. Some fear-maddened soldier may have shrieked out the word "Retire." A number of men in the rear companies of the Black Watch ran back into the ranks of the Seaforths. The movement communicated itself to the battalions still closely packed in rear, growing as it went, and a minute later, in spite of all the efforts of officers to keep their men lying down, a mob of broken men stampeded back to the line of bushes, leaving a hustled, trampled but steadfast remnant - barely half the brigade - lying scattered on the scene of the disaster, waiting for their general's orders.

Wauchope's last orders and death.

At the first burst of fire General Wauchope, at once realising the cause of the disaster, walked forward in front of the leading companies to ascertain, if possible, how far the advanced trenches extended. A glance at the line of flashes was enough. He immediately sent back his cousin to tell the Black Watch to reinforce on the right as quickly as they could. Young Wauchope ran back along the lines of prostrate men, gave the order to Colonel Coode and to all the officers he could see, and then hurried forward again to the spot where he had left the general alone. But before he returned Wauchope had fallen, and a moment later his devoted aide-de-camp fell wounded too. Coode gallantly led his men forward, but was killed almost immediately. Next day all three were found close together within 200 yards of the trenches. Such officers of the Black Watch as were unwounded doubled forward their men to the right of the two companies already extended in front. At the same time Colonel Hughes-Hallett, the only commanding officer untouched, acting promptly on his own initiative, and disregarding the last orders received before the catastrophe swung out the Seafortlis to the right, where in the dark their leading companies at once became inextricably mixed up with those of the Black Watch. Together the men of the two regiments pushed forward, in spite of a murderous fire, into the broad gap to the right of the Boer trenches, crawling with some difficulty through an old wire fence which ran along to the left of the road and had apparently been drawn back till it joined the end of the trenches.

The Highlanders through the Boer line. The hill all but captured.

Not twenty minutes had passed since the first surprise, and already several hundred of the Black Watch and Seaforths had made their way round to the eastern foot of the hill, where another fence delayed their advance. One brave little party of 20 or 30 men, led by Captain MacFarlan, adjutant of the Black Watch, rushed straight up the south-eastern point of the hill. But the converging fire from our own men behind, and the shrapnel of the British guns, which had just begun to open fire on the point of Magersfontein Hill, drove them down again. A little farther to the right Lieutenant Cox, of the Seaforths, with three or four men, climbed up the hill-side-the party were seen falling back again, but were all killed before they reached the bottom. The rest pushed on along the very foot of the hilt where they were to some extent covered. At their head was a party of nearly 100 men, led by Lieutenant Wilson, of the Seaforths, and Sergeant Frazer, of the Black Watch. Finding themselves almost round the reverse of the hill, they now swung round and began rapidly climbing up. A minute more and they would have been on the crest and taking the Boers in rear. For a moment it seemed as if the dead general's last order would still save the day. But the issues of battle often hang on the slenderest thread, and a mere chance was now destined to turn the scale against the ill-fated Highland Brigade. It has already been related how Cronje and his little staff of six adjutants, after straying blindly about the veld in the darkness, suddenly found themselves a few hundred yards on one side of the end of the main trenches almost at the same moment that Wauchope was deploying his men on the other. When the firing broke out, Cronje made his way up the kopje behind him, taking cover in rear of the crest-line. Suddenly one of his adjutants saw, in the grey half-light, a line of dim figures coming straight up the hill from his left, and pointed them out to his chief. Besides Cronje and his staff there was not a soul on that side of Magersfontein Hill. But Cronje was not the man to hesitate at such a moment. "Schiet, kerels, schiet!" ("Shoot, boys, shoot!") he shouted to his adjutants, throwing himself down behind the nearest rock and discharging the contents of his magazine into the advancing Highlanders. So sudden and fierce was the fire of these seven rifles that the assaulting force, ignorant of the great chance within its reach, checked, and began replying to the fire. At this very moment the Boers on the east of the pan began to push forward in order to close the gap through which the whole Highland Brigade was threatening to make its way. Their fire took the advancing companies of Seaforths and Black Watch in flank. To add to the mischief, the British guns, sweeping with shrapnel the hillside and the level pan across which the Highlanders were struggling to advance, effectually prevented any support reaching the little force clinging to the slope. Completely cut off, searched by the Boer fire from in front and behind, and raked by the British guns from their left, they at last wavered, broke, and rushed across the pan towards the rising ground beyond. Here they were surrounded, and after a short struggle the survivors, 30 or 40 in all, were made prisoners. The night attack had finally failed.

Position of the Highland Brigade at daylight.

And now day, rising fresh and clear after the night's storm, flooded the scene of the disaster with pitiless light. The shattered fragments of the Highland Brigade lay strewn all along the front of the Boer trenches. Absolutely exposed on the bare veld to a point blank fire from the trenches and from snipers on the hill behind, the leading companies began to suffer terribly. The khaki aprons which had been issued proved no protection as the men lay prone on the sand, and the dark kilts, and, even worse, the bright metal of the canteen tins, only served to furnish the enemy with a conspicuous target. Of the officers many had fallen, and the rest, dressed as they were in every detail like the rank and file, were not easily distinguished by the bewildered eyes of the men where companies and battalions alike were inextricably mixed together. Nevertheless, during the next hour one brave attempt after another was made by the Highlanders to achieve the impossible and fight their way to the trenches. Near the scene of the original disaster small parties of the Black Watch got within 150 yards of the main trench, where they were gradually picked off by the Boer riflemen, only a few who found a sheltering bush or ant heap, and lay absolutely motionless all day, managing to escape. In the centre a scanty line of men still lined the eastern foot of' the hill. But fired at from the crest in front of them, and from across the pan directly in their rear, it gradually dwindled away. Between 6 and 7 A.M. the shrapnel of our batteries drove the survivors back across the Kimberley road, and the Boers finally closed the gap between their centre and left. On the right, Hughes-Hallett, who had succeeded in keeping a large portion of his battalion well in hand, had already twice attempted to push forward against the trenches on the Boer left. But so heavy were the losses in officers and men of the Seaforths, that the attempt was abandoned. It was about this time, however, that the Seaforths, helped by the fire of G Battery, R.H.A., surrounded and completely destroyed the little body of Scandinavians under Field-Cornet Flygare, who, with reckless courage, had refused to abandon their advanced post. Meanwhile in rear, behind the line of bushes, officers had been busy rallying the men who had run back at the first surprise. Kelham led forward a number of the Highland Light Infantry, mixed with men of all the kilted battalions, to support Hallett, whose right was continually being drawn out along the bushy ridge to meet the flanking fire of the Boers. Other parties pushed forward on the left against the centre trenches. Lieutenant Lindsay took the Seaforth Maxim round to the extreme left of the line, very pluckily under a heavy fire cutting down an opening for it through a barbed wire fence, and there fought it for half an hour in the open, till two wounds and the loss of most of the detachment compelled him to cease fire. From 6 A.M. onwards the bulk of the Highland Brigade lay scattered in little groups and struggling lines along a front of fully three miles, and at a distance of from 200-600 yards from the trenches. Spasmodic efforts to rush the trenches were still made from time to time, but gallantry was powerless in the face of overwhelming advantage of position. For the rest of the morning the men lay there, exposed to a pitiless short-range fire, their faces pressed flat against the glowing sand, and the bare insides of their knees blistered by the burning sun. It had been impossible to make coffee before the start of the night march, their water-bottles were in many cases all too speedily emptied or given to wounded comrades, and they now suffered all the tortures of intense thirst. Rarely have troops gone through so severe an ordeal.

The artillery in action.

As it was the Highlanders could never have hung on at all but for the guns. It was barely light when the guns opened at 4.20, and the unfortunate effect of some of their first shells has already been referred to. But they now proved invaluable in keeping down the fire from the Boer trenches. The naval gun and howitzers plied the hillside and trenches with lyddite, the latter at 3500 yards, while the field guns opened at about 2000 yards. Towards 6 A.M. Colonel Hall ordered up the 18th Battery to a point to the left of the Kimberley road and 1370 yards from the trenches. At 7 A.M. it was joined by the 62nd, and the two batteries stayed in this exposed position for the rest of the day. The 75th, somewhat later, moved off to help in checking the continued Boer attempts to enfilade the right of the Highlanders on the low bushy ridge.

Babington supports Highlanders' right. 5 A,M.

It was on this exposed fight flank that the situation, from the moment the night attack had failed, was most critical, and it was mainly due to the promptitude and energy of General Babington that the right of the Highland Brigade was not crumpled up within the first hour after daylight. The Cavalry Brigade had moved off at 3 A.M. and, soon after the first outbreak of fire, was advancing in extended order towards the first low ridge between Magersfontein and the river. On the right the advance of the 9th Lancers was very soon checked by a heavy fire from the Boers on the further ridge. On the left Babington had first sent forward G Battery, Horse Artillery, under Major R. Bannatine-Allason, to support the Seaforths. Soon after 5 A.M., seeing that the Boers were threatening a fresh move against Hughes-Hallett's right, Babington brought up the 12th Lancers and Mounted Infantry, under Lord Airlie and Major Milton, and, dismounting them, pushed them forward into the fighting line on the right of the Highlanders. Not only was the menace of a Boer advance checked, but the Seaforths were able to gain a little ground, supported by G Battery, which pushed up with them to within 1000 yards of the enemy.

Methuen makes no attempt to support Highlanders, but sends Guards off to the right.

Lord Methuen had known, almost at once, of the disaster which had befallen the Highland Brigade. The heavy firing from the Boer trenches, and the sight of stragglers dribbling back across the plain, were evidence enough that the night attack had failed, even if he had not learnt the full details from Major Benson, who had come back cool and unscathed out of the awful mellay. The one thing to do was to support the Highlanders without delay. The Guards Brigade had meanwhile arrived at Headquarter Hill, and though they were nearly three miles in rear of the critical point of the action, there can be little doubt that if they had been sent forward immediately into the gap between the Boer left and centre, they could still have wedged their way through and have taken the hill. But Methuen had, apparently, never contemplated the possibility of the Highlanders not succeeding at once. He had no alternative ready, and straightway resigned himself to letting the Highland attack - though it involved the fate of the whole battle and possibly the fate of Kimberley - stand or fall on its own merits. Including the Gordons, who were acting as baggage guard, he had five battalions immediately under his hand. But he did not send a single one forward to help the uncertain issue of the attack. Informing Colvile that the attack had been checked and was likely to fail, he ordered him to keep his brigade in hand, so as to protect the Highland right and, if necessary, their retirement, or even the retirement of the whole force. This amazing communication was followed up by an order to proceed, not towards the scene of action, but due east towards the low bushy ridge. Beyond this he was not to advance. Leaving behind the Scots Guards, detached as divisional troops, Colvile advanced to the ridge, the two Coldstream battalions leading, well extended, with the Grenadiers in reserve. Both the leading battalions on arrival at the ridge reported a strong force of the enemy intrenched in front of them. The right of the Coldstreamers extended to within 2500 yards of the river, from which point the line was prolonged by the 9th Lancers and Mounted Infantry, who, under Babington's personal direction, had been making repeated attempts to force their way across the level but rough ground on the extreme right. On the left was a gap of a mile or more only partially covered by the Mounted Infantry. Soon after 6 A.M. Colvile was informed that the Highland Brigade was holding its own but required the support of another battalion on its right to meet the reinforcements the Boers were bringing up. He accord-ingly withdrew the 2nd Coldstream and sent them with two companies of the 1st Coldstream more to the left, so as to close the gap, the two companies of the 1st Coldstream eventually replacing the 12th Lancers in the firing-line.

Yorkshire Light Infantry on right. Good work of cavalry Maxims.

About 9 A.M. Colonel Barter brought forward five companies of the Yorkshire Light Infantry along the river bank, leaving three intrenched at Voetpad's Drift. Finding himself unable to drive the Boers out of their position at Moss Drift Barter extended to his left so as to complete the British line on the east. Here the Yorkshiremen stayed all day, unable to make any progress but playing a useful part by the steadiness with which they checked the attempts of the Boers, especially of those across the river with Albrecht to outflank the British position. The arrival of the infantry on the right wing enabled Babington to withdraw two squadrons and the Maxim detachment of the 9th Lancers from that flank and bring them round to support Hughes-Hallett, whose men were already showing signs of wavering before the steadily-reinforced fire of the Boers on the ridge opposite. The squadrons and some of the Mounted Infantry were afterwards sent round to the right again, but the Maxims of the 9th and 12th Lancers, under Lieutenants Allhusen and Macnaghten, remained all day alongside of G Battery, and shared with the horse gunners the credit of some of the best work done on a day of failure.

Possibility of breaking through Boer left,

The battle now became stationary. The attempts of the Highlanders to reach the trenches had long ago expended themselves, and they were only kept in their places by the steady support of the artillery. All along the centre the firing slacked off considerably, and was now most vigorous on the right, where the Coldstream battalions were fairly heavily engaged against the Boers on the opposite ridge. There can be little doubt, judging by the Boer accounts of the battle, that even now a determined advance anywhere along the right wing would have succeeded in breaking through the Boer line. For the Boer left, though reinforced some time before by a strong body of Potchefstroomers, whom Cronje had brought round from the right wing as soon as he saw that the British advance along the railway had no serious intent, and by a steady stream of men from Brown's Drift, from the laagers on the east, and even from Spytfontein, was in considerable difficulties all the morning. It required all the exertions of the commandants to keep the burghers in their half-finished trenches or behind the imperfect shelter of the rocks and bushes. For such an advance Methuen had available the Gordons, Scots and Grenadiers, and with three untouched battalions much might still have been effected. Even apart from the prospect of defeating the Boer left a bolder policy was really required on that wing to enable Colvile to carry out the task assigned to him, and one cannot help feeling that the occasion would almost have justified Colvile in giving some latitude of interpretation to instructions issued before the situation was altogether defined. The event was soon to show that from their ridge the Guards could do nothing to prevent the Boers outflanking and driving in Hughes-Hallett's right.

Or of attacking heights from west. Methuen's only idea to hold on till night.

There was another alternative to an advance on the right which was perhaps equally feasible. On the left Pole-Carew had advanced his men on both sides of the railway to within about 1000 yards of the trenches, and made a demonstration against the Boer right. Failing any orders, beyond a message from Methuen to hold himself in readiness to reinforce the right and in view of explicit instructions originally received not to endanger the safety of Modder River camp by advancing too far, that was as much as he could do. But there can be little doubt that if he had received orders to push on, and had been reinforced by another battalion, he could have effected a lodgment on the lower ridge immediately to the east of the railway. Once in command of that hill Pole-Carew could have enfiladed the whole of the centre trenches. But from the first Methuen never seems to have entertained the thought of taking any aggressive step to retrieve the failure of his first plan. His only idea, once he found that the Highlanders had neither taken the hill nor been driven back, was that his men should hold on all day long till nightfall in front of the Boer trenches, in the hope that the Boers, as at Modder River, would get demoralised at night, and that a second night attack would prove successful. An order to that effect was sent to Hughes-Hallett as the senior officer in the Highland Brigade. Methuen can hardly have realised what he was asking the shaken and disorganised Highlanders to do; indeed after his own exaggerated language about Modder River the last thing one would have expected was an attempt to lay an even heavier strain upon the endurance of his men.

11 A.M. Methuen sends forward the Gordons.

Soon after 11 A.M. Methuen ordered forward six companies of the Gordons under Colonel Downman to support the Highland line opposite the centre of the Boer position, where it was already showing signs of weakening. In widely extended lines the Gordons advanced by a series of orderly rushes under a fire that now broke out with renewed intensity. Passing through the rear of the scattered brigade, rallying and sweeping forward with them many waverers, they made a most gallant but useless attempt to charge the Boer position. More than 400 yards from the trenches the attack died away, many of the officers having fallen, and the Gordons remained lying down amid the scattered Highland Brigade. Their bravery was wasted, and in view of what followed soon after it would have been better if they had halted at 800 yards from the trenches, where they could have had a more steadying influence. The Howitzers now moved up to within 2500 yards of the trenches and began steadily pounding the Boer lines, especially the laager on the left of the main Magersfontein kopje and the horse lines in rear of the ridge. The direction of these was indicated by the balloon, which proved of considerable service during the day. The 75th Battery too about this time moved closer into the centre and took up a position in a line with, but some 600 yards to the right of, the other two batteries.

The strain on the Highlanders near the breaking-point.

The advance of the Gordons had given a temporary stimulus to the Highland Brigade, but it afforded no real relief from the strain to which they were subjected. And that strain was rapidly nearing the breaking-point. By half-past one nearly ten hours had passed since the first awful catastrophe. For those ten hours the men had struggled and hung on in front of an impossible position, suffering casualties all the time and tortured by the burning African sun. They had long become convinced that no useful purpose could be served by their remaining exposed within easy range of the enemy, and the confusion of the various units and the loss of so many officers served to increase their unrest. All through the morning, by ones and twos, men had been creeping back from the firing-line. As yet there had been no general retirement, but it was imminent.

2 P.M. First retreat of the Highlanders.

On the right of the Highland Brigade the firing-line had been swaying backwards and forwards all the morning, and, in spite of the support of the Horse Artillery and the cavalry Maxims, had been finding it more and more difficult to maintain its position. Methuen had already, about the time that he ordered forward the Gordons to support the left of the brigade, sent word to Colvile to assist the right, but the latter had only managed to spare a few companies. About 1.30 P.M. the Boers, gallantly led by the burghers of Ficksburg, made a determined effort to enfilade the right of the Highlanders. Hughes-Hallett twice sent messengers to Colvile requesting that the Guards should be advanced to cover his flank. But the messages failed to reach their destination, and Hughes-Hallett found himself obliged to swing back his right. The movement instantly provoked a murderous fire, and the retirement originally ordered only for the two companies on the right began to communicate itself along the line. More than two miles away Downman, lying in the very front of the firing-line, saw the right come back, and, knowing that Hughes-Hallett was the acting brigadier, assumed that a general retirement of the brigade to less deadly range was intended. Like almost every other officer in the brigade he was quite unaware of the order Lord Methuen had sent to Hughes-Hallett to hang on till nightfall. He ordered the men near him to retire towards the guns. The movement spread quickly along the whole front of the brigade, and first in tens and then in hundreds the Highlanders rose up from the ground and began to come back - at first in good order. But the storm of fire that burst out instantly from the trenches and the hillside was too great even for the heroic exertions of the batteries to subdue, and a moment later the whole line streamed back helter-skelter across the open veld for the cover of the bushes and the guns. The losses in this retreat were terribly heavy, especially among those who had fought their way close up to the trenches in the early morning. Some small parties, indeed, were so far advanced that retreat was practically out of the question, and remained in their positions till dusk. Downman fell mortally wounded the moment he rose to retire. Captain E. B. Towse, of the Gordons, with conspicuous gallantry, stayed by his wounded colonel's side till Sergeant Nelson and Lance-Corporal Hodgson came and helped to carry him back under the heavy fire.

8.45 P.M. Boer guns open fire. Second retreat of Highlanders. Collapse of the brigade.

Once the retreat began it was no easy matter to stop it, but gradually officers got their men together again, and Hughes-Hallett, Ewart, the brigade-major, and others set to work reforming the brigade. Rallying points were assigned to the different battalions about 1000 yards from the trenches, while orders were sent back for water carts and food. But the Highland Brigade was now a complete wreck; the breaking strain had been passed, and physically and morally the men were completely unstrung. It was not long before this fact was made unpleasantly manifest. Except for the "pom-poms," the Boer field guns had given no sign of their existence all day. It would seem that the fire which the British batteries directed on the crest of the ridge with the first light of dawn and kept up ever since was so heavy that the Boer gunners never plucked up courage enough to go to their guns, and possibly Albrecht's absence on the south bank may have contributed to this astonishing lack of initiative. In any case, it was not till nearly 4 P.M. that they suddenly opened fire from the hill. Their first shells burst right over the midst of the Highlanders drawn up in the open. A moment later the brigade was seen dribbling away across the plain, helpless, unnerved, and utterly indifferent to the orders and reproaches of its officers. A partially successful attempt to rally the men was made a few hundred yards back, but the brigade as a whole was never properly reformed till after dusk. To Lord Methuen the first and still more the second retreat of the Highlanders was a bitter disappointment. Up till then he had hoped to retrieve the day by another attack on the trenches at early dawn. This attack was to be carried out by Colvile with the Gordons, Grenadiers, and Scots, the last-mentioned of whom had been acting as escort to the artillery till they were sent forward after the first retreat of the Highlanders to take their place as a firing-line in front of the guns, while the rest of the troops remained in their places all night and acted as a containing force the next morning. It is just possible that, but for the unfortunate misunderstanding which brought about the first retreat, the Highlanders might have held on till nightfall. But it was more than could be expected of any troops. The best chance of assuring Success for Methuen's plan would have lain in withdrawing the Highlanders to a safer range some hours before.

Close of the battle.

The rest of the day was spent in desultory skirmishing on the right flank, where the 9th Lancers had been especially persistent in their attempts to pierce the Boer lines a mile or so north of the river. But even there a deadlock gradually ensued along the whole line. The Howitzers and naval gun continued, more slowly than before, to drop shell among the Boer lines, occasionally a rifle cracked on one side or the other; but from 4 P.M. onwards the battle weakened and gradually died away. In many cases the men had gone to sleep from sheer exhaustion, and only woke up to find the sun setting and the battle over. But though a second night attack was out of the question, the troops were not allowed to abandon their positions. The shattered Highland Brigade was reformed behind Headquarter Hill, except a few companies left to cover the guns, its place being taken by the Scots. The rest of the Guards remained in their places, while the cavalry and guns were retired a short distance. Food and drink were at last brought out from the transport wagons, and after some slight rearrangement of dispositions under cover of darkness, those who were not needed as sentries slept as they lay, with their rifles at their sides. While the weary soldiers slept the work of the Medical Corps was still at its height. All day long trainload after trainload of wounded had been despatched south from Modder River, and the work of collection and ministration was now even heavier than before, as the stretcher-bearers were at last able to push forward in search of the wounded to a distance that in daylight would have meant certain death. Even during the day officers and men of the Corps had exposed themselves fearlessly in the fire-swept zone, and it would be difficult to praise too highly the quiet courage and devotion shown by them in this as in other actions.

Dec. 12. Methuen decides to retire to the camp.

At dawn General Colvile repaired to headquarters for instructions and found Lord Methuen inclined to order an immediate retirement on Modder River Camp. Colvile strongly urged the advisability of holding on in the hope that the Boers might yet abandon their positions, and Methuen concurred to the extent of sending his chief engineer with Colvile to select sites for field works. But at a council held an hour later, Methuen, finding the general opinion of his Staff in favour of retirement, reverted to his original intention and ordered a withdrawal at noon. The shock received by the Highland Brigade, the scantiness of gun ammunition, and the difficulty of arranging the water supply at such a distance from the river, were the chief reasons for the decision which was perhaps the wisest under the circumstances, though the Boers have admitted since that their rifle ammunition had run so low that it is doubtful whether they could have held out for a second day's engagement.

Armistice by mutual consent. The retirement.

Ever since daybreak the Guards had been exchanging a brisk fire with the Boers opposite them, while the enemy's "pom-poms" on the east opened on the cavalry as they moved forward from their bivouac. Between eight and nine the action promised to become general, when the report spread that an armistice had been concluded for the purpose of collecting the dead and any remaining wounded on both sides. All fire ceased at once, and shortly afterwards, in complete silence, the ambulances were seen moving forwards between the lines, each with its attendant company of stretcher-bearers, and the doctors from both the Boer and the British forces met outside the line of trenches. The armistice was a matter of mutual courtesy rather than of definite agreement. No general instructions were, in consequence, issued, and the naval gunners at the granger's hut, seeing the Boers coming out of their trenches and suspecting some counter-stroke or flanking operation, unfortunately opened fire on them. In a moment the Boer guns on the ridge opened fire, selecting as their target G Battery, which stood completely exposed in the open. But the gunners remained perfectly steady, and clearly showed their intention of not replying, and Albrecht, who had crossed from Twee Rivier during the night and resumed command of the Boer guns, with some difficulty induced his men to cease firing. At midday the retirement began under cover of the guns. The Boers, beyond shelling the retiring troops, made no attempt to harass the withdrawal, and the Grenadiers, who were the last of the infantry to leave their positions, retired with almost ostentatious deliberation. The last event of the day was an earth-shaking salvo of lyddite from the Howitzers, and by 4 P.M. the rearguard of the column was back in camp.

Heavy losses of Highland Brigade.

The total casualties of the battle amounted to 971, including 23 officers and 182 men killed, 45 officers and 645 men wounded, and 76 men missing or prisoners, or about 7 per cent. of Methuen's force. The mounted troops and Guards lost a certain number. Of the Mounted Infantry both Major Milton and Major Ray were killed, the former in a gallant and successful attempt to rally some of the broken Highlanders. Of the Coldstream battalions Major the Marquis of Winchester was killed and Colonel Codrington and Major Lambton wounded. But the great bulk of the losses fell on the Highland Brigade. The unfortunate Highlanders lost 46 officers and 706 men killed and wounded, and of these casualties again by far the greater part fell on the two leading battalions, of whom the Seaforths lost 11 officers and 200 men, and the Black Watch 17 officers and 338 men, the latter figures giving a percentage of 60 per cent. among the officers and 37 per cent. among the men. The losses of the Highlanders, spread as they were over ten hours' fighting, are the best evidence of the strain to which the brigade at last succumbed. The Boer casualties, according to the Transvaal Identification Department, were about 250, including the Scandinavians, who lost 43 out of 50. The steadiness with which the Boers held their positions all day, practically without artillery support, is deserving of all praise.

Causes of controversy about Magersfontein.

Except perhaps Spion Kop there are few battles in this war that have provoked more embittered controversy than Magersfontein. The causes of the controversy are not far to seek. Lord Methuen's view was that the Highland Brigade had failed him and that their failure was the sole cause of his defeat. They had stampeded, so he believed, at the first outbreak of fire, and when rallied bad not even hung on passively till he could retrieve their failure by another attack. The Highlanders on their side considered that they had been sent into almost certain disaster; and that, instead of supporting them in their desperate attempts to retrieve that disaster; Lord Methuen had simply left them alone all day to beat themselves to pieces in an impossible frontal attack. It was inevitable under these circumstances that when Lord Methuen addressed the officers of the brigade on the following day, in a speech which, however kindly in its intentions and conciliatory in its language, still betrayed only too plainly the mistaken assumption underlying it, his words should arouse fierce resentment in the minds of high-spirited men smarting under a bitter sense of loss, shock, and undeserved humiliation. Feeling ran even higher at home, where the unfortunate but not unnatural misconceptions of the battlefield, crystallised in the letters of private officers or of press correspondents, were still further distorted by the most absurd and cruel rumours.

The failure of the night attack.

But apart from these misconceptions it ought not to be impossible to obtain a clear idea of the causes of the failure at Magersfontein. The problem really falls into two parts: the failure of the night attack and the failure of the battle as a whole. A night attack is under any circumstances a dangerous and delicate operation. In this case the difficulty and danger were indefinitely increased, firstly, by the shell-fire on the 10th which warned the Boers and did away with the element of surprise; secondly, by Lord Methuen's ignorance of the projection of the line of the Boer trenches into the level beyond the foot of the hill and, thirdly, by the awful weather which necessitated the closest possible formation for the night march and made the column late in reaching its destination. The immediate cause of the disaster was undoubtedly General Wauchope's mistake in not deploying till within 400 yards of the trenches. But so closely is this cause bound up with the preceding ones that it is difficult to attach any blame, anything more than a mere regret, to Wauchope's action. One may well imagine that if the Boers had not been on the alert, or else if they had not been several hundred yards further forward than was expected, the deployment would have taken place undisturbed. Again, if the march had not been so seriously delayed by the weather, it is probable that Wauchope would not have been so eager to push on as far as possible before deploying. And, in any case, one can hardly blame a British general, moving over practically unreconnoitred ground, for an error of a few hundred yards on a night in which the Boer commander, going from one part of his own lines to another, was so hopelessly lost that he all but strayed into the arms of the advancing British column. It is possible that the situation might yet have been saved if at the first burst of fire Wauchope had ordered the "Charge." Whether that be so or not Wauchope certainly showed courage and presence of mind, and his last orders went very near to retrieving the disaster.

Failure of the battle as a whole.

The defects of the plan of operations, of which the night attack on Magersfontein was to form the pivot have already been dwelt on. Not the least was the absence of any provision for the contingency of failure. That defect was never remedied. Instead of concentrating all available troops to strike a blow which should retrieve the failure of the night attack, Lord Methuen simply used them to hold the lists while the Boer fire and the burning sun slowly but surely completed the demoralisation of the confused and leaderless Highland Brigade. There can be no surer sign of weak generalship than laying a severe strain upon, and running great risks with one part of an army while leaving another part inactive - than being forced into accepting the defeat of a section as the defeat of the whole. By this standard Magersfontein, and not only Magersfontein, but Ladysmith, Colenso, Spion Kop, stand equally condemned.

Methuen's march.

With Magersfontein ended Lord Methuen's march to the relief of Kimberley. In spite of the serious deficiency in mounted troops the march had begun well, and Belmont and Enslin had been creditable not only to the soldiers who stormed the heights but to the general who planned the attack. But Modder River had been an unfortunate blunder, which only the steadiness and endurance of the troops had turned to victory. Lastly at Magersfontein the difficulties of the situation and the initial disaster seem to have paralysed the general's judgment and left him with no other idea but that of repeating the dogged tactics of Modder River under far more trying conditions. Lord Methuen was still, during two long years of campaigning, to show his energy and resourcefulness as a general and his high qualities as a leader of men, but there can be little doubt that at the moment his task was too much for him, as for many another.

The question of a retirement to Orange River.

After his return to Modder River camp Lord Methuen received a telegram from Sir R. Buller ordering him, unless he felt strong enough to venture another attack, to fall back to Orange River. Methuen at once called a council of war. The general opinion was decidedly in favour of retreating and arrangements were actually made for entraining the troops next morning. During the night, however; General Pole-Carew induced Methuen to defer the retreat in order to discuss the question once more in view of a scheme the former had drawn up for a turning movement by Jacobsdal. The particular scheme was rejected, but the retreat was again put off and eventually countermanded, fortunately for the future prospects of the campaign.

Effect of the battle in England.

At home the news of Magersfontein was received with a poignant sense of anguish and disappointment. Stormberg had been accepted, like Nicholson's Nek, as one of those unfortunate incidents inseparable from warfare with a mobile enemy. But this was very different. A British force of 13,000 men beaten on the open field with a loss of nearly 1000 - small figures really, but how great they seemed to a generation that had not known serious war! Nowhere was the feeling more intense than in Scotland, where General Wauchope's death was felt as a personal bereavement by the whole nation. For it was not only among his soldiers that "Andy" Wauchope's fearless courage and unwavering high principles had made him beloved, but wherever men had enjoyed the privilege of knowing his grave dignity and uncondescending sympathy. There could be no better instance of that universal popularity than the wave of non-political enthusiasm that once rocked almost to its fall the safest parliamentary seat in Great Britain. But profound as was the national sorrow and sense of defeat, another lesson yet was required before England even began to realise the task that faced her. At the moment the only step the Government took was to call out a seventh division. Meanwhile, all hopes centred on Sir Redvers Buller and the army of the Tugela. There neither numbers, generalship nor resolution would be lacking. There at least victory was certain.







  Copyright (c) 2019 www.saboerwar.com Terms Of Use  Privacy Statement