Steve Lunderstedt

Sunday 19 December 2021

Magersfontein O Magersfontein

Greetings my fellow lovers of history and walks in the veld.

Over the days of 10 to 12 December 1899 one of the great battles in southern African history took place on the edge of the Kalahari some 30 kilometres south of the diamond city Kimberley. The war between Great Britain against the two Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal had commenced on 11 October 1899 and three days later, on the 14th, the Boers had besieged Kimberley.

On their advance to relieve Kimberley, Lord Methuen’s British army had had three victories – Belmont (23 November 1899), Graspan (25 November) and Modder River (28 November).

The next battle, at Magersfontein, was between 10 and 12 December 1899, when the heat and humidity in the area is often quite horrendous, and the thunderstorms mightily impressive.

The Transvaal and Orange Free State Boer forces on 9 December 1899 were busy preparing their defences at Magersfontein – trenches forward of the Magersfontein ridge and kop as well as fortified redoubts and trenches along Scrub ridge and down to the Modder River. They had been busy doing that since 4 December when they had left Spytfontein ridge and moved to Magersfontein to seal off another possible British advance on Kimberley, the diamond town being some 35 kilometres north of the Modder river.

Reinforcements for the Boers were pouring in and they would number some 8500 fighting men by sunrise on 11 December. General JH ‘Oom Koos’ de la Rey, hurting from the death of his eldest son Adaan at the battle of Modder River on 28 November, as well as physically from a wound to his shoulder, was busy supervising the Boer defensive positions, but would rest on occasion at his headquarters at Bissett’s farmhouse. The Bissett farmhouse would be used during the coming battle as a temporary first aid dressing station by the Boers.

The British army was nearly ready to move from the Modder River. Most of their reinforcements had arrived and General Lord Methuen was fine tuning his attack plans for a night march on Sunday 10 December 1899. His force of nearly 15 000 men would attack the Boers before sunrise on the 11th.

The famed Scottish regiment, the Black Watch, had finally arrived at Modder River in two batches, the left half battalion joining the right half battalion on 6 December.

On 7 December it was very hot with lightning, thunder and heavy rain at night. The Black Watch were on outpost duty facing Magersfontein from 05h30 to 18h00 on the 8th, Lt Freddie Tait of the Black Watch writing that they “Saw nothing of the enemy.” And “Not nearly so warm”.

Tait, famous champion British golfer, wrote in his diary the next day, the 9th, that the “Naval gun in position, fired a few shots at enemy’s outposts with effect. Arrival of more guns and stores.”

The fate of both the Boer forces and the Black Watch drew ever closer.

Great victory for the Boers

For the 2nd Battalion Royal Highlanders (Black Watch), Magersfontein was a battle to remember, and not with fondness. At 00h30 on the morning of 11 December 1899, the Highland Brigade under command of Major-General Andy Wauchope, marched off to a pre-determined position, each soldier having been issued a blanket, a rifle, and 150 rounds of ammunition. In addition each man had his mess tin and every other man a one-pound tin of beef.

“Parade at 12.30am for night attack,” wrote golfer Freddie Tait, serving with the Black Watch. “Received tremendous fire in mass of quarter column at 4am; suffered great loss. Charged to within 200 yards of Boer position. FGT hit in thigh, and remained, being shot at all day, until 7pm at night. Reached hospital at 10pm and got wound dressed. 355 killed and wounded in the Black Watch; seven officers killed and eleven officers wounded.”

A paragraph from Tait’s diary is not sufficient for such a battle, so excerpts are extracted from his personal letters to various friends and family members.

“We started a night march on the enemy’s position at 12.30am on Monday morning…The Black Watch first, then the Seaforths, Argyll’s and HLI (Highland Light Infantry). The night was pitch dark, and the country we had to go over was covered with small boulders, and low, thick, prickly bushes. We got nothing to eat before starting, and very few of the men had time to fill their water bottles. The march went all right until about 2am when a tremendous thunderstorm broke over us, and lasted for more than an hour. We were absolutely soaked to the skin. With the rain the night got still darker, consequently we got along at a painfully slow rate. A night march is bad enough on a fairly clear night, but on a really dark night it is hopeless.”

Major George Benson of the Royal Artillery, with some men of the Rimington Scouts, had been ordered to lead the Highland Brigade to a pre-determined position some 700 metres south of the Magersfontein spur by 3am, and when the Brigade left the bivouac area at 12.30am they were in mass of quarter-column – approximately 3500 men in an area 40 metres wide and 160 metres long. The thunderstorm and dark night ensured that the pace of the Brigade slowed dramatically, and the column fell behind schedule. By 3.30am they had meandered some 500 metres to the left of the intended deployment position. Benson recommended to Major-General Wauchope that the Brigade deploy as the outline of hills could be seen, but Wauchope, dismissing Benson, opted to continue a little further. It would be fatal to both the General and the Brigade. A patch of thorn bushes then slowed the Brigade further and only once the Black Watch had threaded their way through it did Wauchope order deployment into open order ready for the attack.

“About 4am,” according to Tait, “we could dimly see the kopje that the enemy were holding…and, as far as I could judge, about 600 yards from it. We were just going to deploy when the most terrific fire started about 300 yards off (that is to say, midway between us and the kopje). It was still too dark to see anything.”

“The front of the hill was lit up as though someone had pressed a button and turned on a million electric lights,” wrote Colour Sergeant McInnes of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

A and B Companies of the Black Watch had already deployed and C Company was making its way out of the mass of quarter column when the Boers opened fire from trenches dug forward of the kopje some 400 metres in front of the Black Watch. Chaos ensued. Tait, in H Company, was at the rear of the Black Watch, and although the soldiers would be jam-packed, officers would be off to the left-hand side.

“Our orders were to lie down, fix bayonets, and charge.”

A and B Companies did charge with bayonets fixed but did not reach closer than 200 metres from the Boer trench before they were pinned down.

Tait continues: “Not wanting to miss anything, I got in front of the front company and charged. We got along a 100 yards or so when we got into the dreadful flanking as well as frontal fire, and lost heavily. We managed to get 50 yards nearer, losing heavily all the time, and there we lay down (what was left of the lot with me) and began firing. I was about 15 or 20 yards in front, and had just got up to get back in line when I got a bullet through my left thigh. I was knocked clean over, but two of my men got up and pulled me back into the line. It was still not quite light. I was able to turn over on my stomach and fire at the Boers.”

“Our front three companies charged straight on, and the other five went off to the right to try and turn the Boers’ right flank. The front three companies (I was in that lot) got to within about 200 yards, but we could not get any nearer; the remnant of the three companies lay down at this point, and held their ground until 7pm…I think only six men of this lot got away unhurt after 15 hours of fighting.”

General Wauchope, when the Boers opened fire, was standing on the extreme front left of the Brigade and noticed the so-called gap in the trench, as the rifle flashes were less in this area than straight ahead of him and to his right stretching down Scrub Ridge to the Modder River. He shouted above the noise to his aide-de-camp, a relative (A.G. Wauchope), that this was real fighting, and ordered Lt-Colonel Coode to advance the Black Watch to this ‘gap’ and to come at the Boers from the rear. This order was passed along and the Black Watch, together with some Seaforth Highlanders, rushed towards the gap and the sandbag line, fixing bayonets as they ran.

Tait states that he was with A and B Company who had rushed at the trenches, quite possible given that he was not stuck in the mass of quarter of column. At least three groups of Highlanders made it through the gap and moved to attack the Boers from the rear.

“A quarter of an hour later it was quite light, and then we began to get it properly. The men on each side of me were hit straight away, and in a few minutes very few were left unhit.”

The day was long and tough going, the Highlanders and the balance of the British army pinned down along a Boer defensive line of over 14 kilometres. The Boers held the upper hand the entire day of the 11th.

Burials and withdrawal

On Tuesday 12th December 1899, as the sun rose in the sky on the battlefield of Magersfontein, the OFS burghers in the trenches closest to the wounded Scottish soldiers still lying badly wounded after some 24 hours, had heard enough, and they called for a ceasefire. The call was taken up by all around and the British were happy to oblige, now being allowed to bring in their medical men and ambulance wagons to remove their wounded, all under the white flag.

The burghers moved freely across the plain in front of their trenches, talking to the British ambulance crews and to the wounded and trying to avoid looking at the bloated and sun-blackened bodies of the dead Highlanders – dozens of them spread all around. The burghers were not regular soldiers, and although they had seen death before in its various guises, never before had they seen so many in one place. If the flies had been bad before the battle, they were worse now, attracted by the decaying bodies, and the stench was unbelievable. Ants too were all over the place. Most of the Boers were God-fearing family men and could not believe what they had and were witnessing.

During the night, with the British wounded crying out for water and for mother, a lone Scottish soldier had been brought out of the field of fire by the burghers and taken to Bissett’s farm where the Boer medical men were working long hours. A boy-soldier, it looked as if he had just entered his teen years – many had sons and grandsons at home on the farm that were his age. In a coma, the boy would not survive his wounds.

Those burghers standing around, talking, drinking sweet black coffee and smoking their pipes, despite the sadness and tragedy of death all around, were happy. Happy that they had survived, and amazingly, the tactics of their beloved General de la Rey had worked yet again. Prayers and thanks for deliverance were sent upwards, and even while burial parties and ambulance crews walked quietly around, there were many who did what generations of warriors have done – examine the bodies and collect souvenirs. Money, dirks, bayonets, water bottles, diaries, pith helmets, and more, the loot taken back to the trenches were merely souvenirs of surviving a major battle.

On the small rise (Scandinavian Hill now renamed Horse Artillery Hill), the British gunners and soldiers walked around looking at the Boer dead and wounded, the volunteers of the Scandinavian Corps who bore the brunt by bayonet the previous morning from some of the Scottish soldiers. Their wounded were taken by the British to their hospital at the Modder River, while the dead just lay there, black and bloated in the ugly grip of rigor mortis.

And while all this was happening on the field in front of the trenches, the two armies still faced each other off down along scrub ridge to the Modder river, as well as in front of the Langberg Boer-entrenched positions waiting for the next move…

And it came in the form of high explosive.

The British naval gunners were not aware of the ceasefire some six kilometres away and they had earlier orders to shell the kop area, which they did. The burghers sprinted for the relative safety of the trenches and sangars while the British close-by tending to the wounded lay prone and cursed their own gunners.

The entire Boer line opened fire, not just with the Mauser and Martini-Henry rifles, but also their pom-poms and 75mm Krupp guns. The four British batteries – 24 guns in all – on and near a small rise later known as Horse Artillery Hill, remained silent. They knew there was a temporary truce.

Signals were hurriedly communicated to the Naval gunners by heliograph and on horseback and after a few minutes they ceased fire. The reply by the Boers to this breach of battlefield etiquette, stuttered, and then died down to silence once more. But this time no-one dared leave the trenches – the British it appeared could not be trusted, and now the Boers waited patiently for the next British move.

The British general, Lord Methuen, could not believe his ill luck. The Highland Brigade had collapsed under intense pressure the previous day, their general, Andy Wauchope killed, so many dead and even more wounded. And the Boers, unlike at the battle at the Modder on 28 November, were still in the trenches when the sun rose. The observation balloon reported that Boer reinforcements were still coming in from around Kimberley, and on the field it was total stalemate. Methuen had no more reinforcements, he had played all his cards, and the men would not be able to stand another day in the December sun. If only water and food could be got to them. If only he had another Brigade of men it could be so different. If only…

Methuen reluctantly ordered a total withdrawal of his army from the field of battle, and slowly but surely, the Guards men of Buckingham Palace, the cavalry and mounted infantry, the guns, the 9th Brigade at Langberg, and all the rest, withdrew in an orderly fashion back to the Modder river.

It was not a quiet withdrawal. The burghers all along the massive line of defence fired at will, helping the retreating British soldiers to recall what life was all about.

Lord Methuen had indeed been defeated, but he and his staff were kept busy, organising the ambulance trains to take the wounded back to decent hospitals, arranging the many funerals that would take place later in the day at the Modder, writing up reports, interviewing all the high ranking officers about what had happened and why. Yes, they were indeed busy. Later the recriminations would begin but today the men must come first.

The Boers all along the line were ecstatic, but celebrations were mooted. War and the death that came with it was not a celebratory matter. They too would bury their dead that day.

And work began on extending their trenches, making them deeper, more shell proof with sandbags…they knew that the British would come back with an even bigger force.

General Piet Cronje, who had not wanted to use the trench system favoured by de la Rey, was the victor of Magersfontein. Overall in command, he had been in the forefront from virtually the beginning of the battle, and he, like his men, had never quite seen the amount of death all around like he would see this day. It would be a memory that neither he, his burghers, nor the British survivors, would ever forget to their dying day.

And what about General JH “Koos” de la Rey, the architect of this great victory?

The General, a pacifist at heart, had taken leave of the field just prior to the battle. He could do no more than what he had arranged. Still in pain from his shoulder wound received at the Modder battle, his heart was hurting even more. He had gone to the north of Kimberley to meet up with his wife Nonnie, who had rushed to the front from Lichtenburg on hearing the news that their eldest son Adaan had died from his wounds some 12 days prior on 29 November.

That they heard the guns of battle is not denied.

When asked several years later what he thought of the great Boer victory at Magersfontein, de la Rey replied:

“When I think of Magersfontein, I think of Mrs Joubert.”

(This particular Mrs Joubert from Lichtenburg lost all three of her sons that terrible day at Magersfontein on 11 December 1899.)

3 thoughts on “SOS – Steve on Sunday (sometimes)”
  1. My brother Russell and I visited this battle site when he was working in Kimberley. There is a quaint little museum with a paper mache model of the actual battle site. With all the advantages of hindsight, we concluded that the ‘thin red line’ of Boer defences was a little pathetic – they never occupied the “ground of tactical importance” and should the British have used their cavalry to occupy the high ground behind the Boers, it would have been all over bar the shouting. (The Boer defences were literally a ‘thin red line’ with absolutely no depth – therefore starkly susceptible to out-flanking.)
    Both diligent students of numerous courses in tactics, we agreed the right approach would have completely changed the outcome. (Hindsight is sometimes embarrassing but neither of us could fathom why the Brits wanted to launch a dawn attack? It achieved nothing.)

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