Topic: BatzB - Magersfontein
South Africa, 11 December 1899
Magersfontein, scene of a heavy British defeat the volume of Boer bullets sweeping the by Boer forces on 11 December 1899, during the Second South African War. For nearly three weeks the British under Lieut.-General Lord Methuen had been pressing north towards Kimberley (then languishing under a Boer siege) though forced to fight three sharp and costly engagements against enemy detachments seeking to impose delay (see Belmont, Graspan and Modder River). Following the last of these actions, Methuen had rested his troops for more than a week, while building up supplies and taking reinforcements-including several Canadian detachments, and a contingent of Victorian Mounted Rifles which joined a small party of 29 men of the. New South Wales Lancers already serving with the force.
By 10 December, his division now comprising some 15,00 men, Methuen prepared to brush aside vet another Boer blocking force about 24 kilometres short of his objective. The enemy occupied the Magersfontein Range which ran from north-west to south-east across the British axis of advance along the railway line to Kimberley. The strong point to this position was a dominating hill at the southernmost end of the range, to the right (east) of the railway, which rose to a height of 60 metres above the surrounding veldt. Separated by a gap of a kilometre was a lower extension of the range in the form of a series of scrub-covered ridges which never rose more than 18 metres as they made a more southerly sweep towards the banks of the Modder River.
To defend his position, the Boer commander (General Piet Cronje) had about 8,000 men. These were deployed in sangars across the forward slopes of the high ground, though the bulk occupied rifle pits constructed at the level of the veldt, carefully concealed so as to be barely visible at a distance of 100 metres while commanding sweeping arcs of fire across the open plain in front of them. These trenches formed a broken but formidable defensive line covering the base of Magersfontein Hill and the ridge line, as well as the flat ground (or pan) in between. Pom-pom quick-fire weapons and Maxim machine-guns were placed below the crest line, while the Boer field-guns were positioned out of sight on reverse slopes from Where their fire could be directed by observers.
Although once more denied detailed knowledge of the enemy's dispositions, Methuen prepared to launch a dawn assault against the bluff Which he correctly identified as the key to the Boer Position. He effectively announced his intention on the wet afternoon of 10 December by ordering an advance by the Black ('batch to within about a kilometre of the hill; these retired, without drawing a shot from the Boers, after removing several wire fences which blocked their path. This demonstration was then followed at 4, 30 p.m. by a two-hour bombardment from the 31 guns and howitzers available in the British train. Although the barrage looked spectacular, the enemy defenders were actually sheltering out of harm's Way in rear positions and reportedly suffered no more than three men wounded. Any element of doubt in Cronje's mind regarding the actual direction of attack had, however, now been eliminated.
Methuen's approach on the night of 10 December took place in pitch-dark and amid driving rain which, while it helped conceal movement, added immeasurably to the discomfort of the troops and the problem of control. The principal attack formation, a brigade of 4,000 men from four highland regiments under Major-General A.J. Wauchope, was forced to move into position in mass of quarter-column, a formation which effectively had the troops advance on a very narrow front, packed together shoulder-to-shoulder. The intention was to take the units to their start-point by this means, before shaking out into extended deployment about an hour before daybreak when they would fix bayonets and charge. This plan miscarried horribly when the formation for the movement Was retained too long, and the dense mass of men blundered on until only 400 metres from the Boer trenches in the gloom of approaching dawn at about 4 a.m.
The storm of bullets which the Boers suddenly poured into the packed ranks of the Highlanders rivalled a First World War battle in its intensity. Though much of the fire was high, many British fell-including Wauchope - and the rest either sought refuge on the ground or broke and ran to the rear. By the time daylight finally arrived, the makings of a disaster were already evident. As at Modder River, retreat was impossible, so that Survivors of the failed British assault remained largely pinned down where they were for the next fourteen hours. Whereas they were formerly sodden from the night's storm, now they were forced to endure the burning sun without shade, food or water, and were subjected to searching enemy fire in response to any visible movement. Only the supporting fire of the British artillery could do anything to mitigate the troops' plight, by forcing the Boers to periodically seek shelter from shells. The Royal Horse Artillery's G. Battery had come forward to within 1,300 metres of the low ridge line on the right and 1,800 metres of the bluff, and maintained a heavy and effective fire for the rest of the day and throughout the night until the next morning. The mounted escort for this battery (which included the New South Wales Lancers) stayed with the guns for the whole of that time, deploying forward to help suppress Boer sniper fire and themselves being hotly engaged. When withdrawn the next day they were almost the last British troops to retire from the battlefield.
All hopes which Methuen might have entertained of retrieving the situation evaporated shortly after 1 p.m., when an order to retire, given to a small group of men being troubled by enfilading fire, was taken by adjoining troops as a general instruction to fall back. The mass retirement which resulted was accompanied by a withering fire from the Boers which caused the most severe losses of the entire day. Only with the arrival of dusk were survivors of the most advanced attacking units able to withdraw safely, and ambulance parties to begin clearing the field of casualties. The failed attack had produced British losses totalling over 900, with 220 of these killed; Boer losses were only one-third this number, and included 87 killed.
Unlike at the Modder River battle, the Boers did not vacate their positions under the cover of darkness on this occasion, and the morning of 12 December found them still holding their ground in strength; the trenches before Magersfontein were not, in fact, abandoned by the burghers until twelve weeks later. In the meantime Methuen pulled his mauled division back to its previous camp at Modder River on the night of the 11th. Here he was ordered to stay by the British commander-in-chief in South Africa, General Sir Redvers Buller, while rebuilding the strength for his force in preparation for a renewed drive towards Kimberley.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 60-62.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
W. Baring Pemberton (1964) Battles of the Boer War, London.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: Magersfontein, South Africa, December 11, 1899