Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Gordons at Majuba Hill - On this day in Scottish Military History - 1881

They say pride comes before a fall and never was that truer for a Highland regiment than on this day one hundred and thirty years ago.

In early 1881 the 92nd Gordon Highlanders were riding high on the back of a successful end to the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War. Just a few months before they had been part of 'Bobs' force which marched from Kabul to Kandahar. After twelve years of Indian service they had cleared everything before them at the point of their Martini-Henri bayonets.

They had fought hard and served well and were due to return to the UK for a well earned rest. A war in Southern Africa was to change those plans.

When we talk about the Boer War we are usually talking about the 2nd Anglo-Boer War from 1899-1902. There had been a smaller war with the Boers fought twenty years previously; the First Anglo-Boer War or the Transvaal War which lasted from December 1880 until March 1881. Transvaal had been occupied by the British in 1877. The Boers were not at all happy to be part of the Empire and in December 1880 attacked all the British troops stationed in Transvaal.

Ian Hamilton of the 92nd and the other junior officers heard of the war in Transvaal and they telegrammed Evelyn Wood, who was gathering a force of reinforcements at Durban, asking to be sent to Africa instead of home. Their request was granted and in January 1881 they were ordered to Natal.

In Natal Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, British High Commissioner for South East Africa and commander in chief of British forces in the area rounded up as many troops as he could and headed off into Transvaal to relieve the besieged British troops and beat the Boers.

Colley was determined to be the man to beat the Boers but he didn't understand that redcoats in lines made very easy targets for Boer farmers with Mauser rifles. Neither did he and the men of the 92nd approaching from India appreciate that these farmers were men who had been brought up with a rifle in their hands to defend their farms and families from the Zulus. They would be no pushover, and this over confidence in British arms and lack of respect for their opponents would have serious consequences in the very near future.

In late January Colley was beaten back at the Battle of Laing's Nek (The last battle where colours were carried into action by a British regiment - the 58th Foot) and then again at Schuinshoogte on the Ingogo River in early February.

Heavy casualties were sustained by the British in both engagements but still Colley pressed on. By late February his force now included the newly arrived 92nd Highlanders. They swaggered up from the coast to join Colley's force; the Scotsmen looked down on the 58th Foot who had been beaten back by a bunch of 'farmers'. The English regiment was mainly made up of the new short-service enlisted men. The Khaki-clad and bronze-faced 92nd were battle hardened long service soldiers and could barely hide their contempt for the rest of Colley's force who by now had lost any confidence in their commander. The Highlanders were there to finish the job.

Colley's new plan was to surprise the Boers by taking possession of the most commanding position in the area - Amajuba - '"The hill of doves"

On the night of 26th February Colley led his force of 370 men up Majuba Hill. There was a plateau at the top with commanding views over the area. By controlling the heights Colley could attack the Boers and drive them away from Laingnek before Sir Evelyn Wood VC could arrive with more British reinforcements to steal his thunder.

In Colley's mind all the British had to do was wait for sunrise and then they could scatter the surprised Boers below them. Colley took only a small force with him up Majuba Hill: contingents from the Naval Brigade made up from the compliment of HMS 'Dido', 58th Foot and 92nd Gordon Highlanders. Highlanders and Riflemen from the 60th Rifles were posted at the foot of the hill but against the advice of his subordinates Colley only took part of the Gordons with him up the hill. It was left to Ian Hamilton to command the two companies of Gordons at the top of the hill.

The Boers got a rude awakening on the morning of 27th February 1881. From the plateau above them the British fired down on them. At first the Boers were ready to quit their positions until it dawned on them that there was no artillery on the summit. Undaunted by the poor British rifle fire the Boers fired back. They started picking of the soldiers and sailors on the skyline and edged closer and closer to the British position. Whilst British musketry was poor the Boers were masters of fire and movement and slowly but surely advanced up the hillsides. On they went behind rocks and scrub taking few casualties of their own whilst slowly reducing the British numbers.

By 11:00 the Boers were close enough to engage almost hand-to-hand with Colley's force. Suddenly a forward section of the 92nd on a small knoll crumbled under sustained rifle fire and a gap in the defences allowed the Boers to take the higher ground on the plateau.

Hamilton pressed Colley to order an attack on the Boers before they could consolidated their position. Colley dithered and instead of an advance with the bayonet he told his men to wait. They waited, and died where they waited. Colley had not ordered his men to dig in after the night's climb and now they were on top of a bare plateau under devastating Boer rifle fire. More outlying positions were being outflanked by the Boers and the men occupying them retreated. The defensive ring was getting smaller and smaller and the numbers of dead and wounded were growing. The 92nd who had cleared Afghan mountains of Pathans the year before now found themselves on the receiving end of a determined assault.

Eventually they could take it no more. The tipping point seems to have been when a party of men abandoned their outpost to join the main body of troops. Their action precipitated confusion amongst the mixed up force of soldiers and sailors. Officers had been separated from their men and without any leadership men began to retreat downhill. They'd had enough of being sitting ducks and they just fled down the hill. It soon turned into a rout. Sailor, soldier and Highlander all tumbled down the hill as fast as they could. At the top a helpless Colley was killed as his army disintegrated around him.

It looked like it was all over but on one part of the plateau the British held out. A newly commissioned officer of the Gordon Highlanders rallied his men. Lieutenant Hector MacDonald was not the sort of man who would give up without a fight.

Even a man like MacDonald couldn't save the day. Outnumbered, surrounded and wounded he eventually gave up. The Boers were impressed with MacDonald and his small force of 58th men and Highlanders. They at least had fought on. MacDonald was allowed to keep his sword as a recognition of his bravery from his captors, and the site of his defence on the hill was renamed MacDonald's Koppie.

It was a short captivity for MacDonald, Hamilton and the other Gordons. With Colley dead and his force destroyed, the British under Evelyn Wood had no choice but to grant the Transvaal its freedom. The Gordons left South Africa and completed the voyage to Britain. Bloodied and beaten the cocky victors of Kandahar were left licking their wounds from their humiliation at Majuba.

Over fifty years later the day still haunted one man who had been there. In his eighties Ian Hamilton would admit that during the two minutes silence to honour the Great War dead he didn't think back to the men he commanded at Gallipoli or the men he had seen die in countless battles during his long military career. At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month his thoughts went back to the death of his old commander on Amajuba.

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