- James Houser
December 11, 1899 - "Black Week" of the Second Boer War
Updated: Jun 17, 2021
December 11, 1899. The British Army thought this would be a pushover. What could a bunch of South African farmers do against the might of Queen Victoria’s Empire? But the Boers of South Africa are ready and today, at the Battle of Magersfontein, they will slaughter the assault of the Highland Brigade. The humiliations of December 1899 will leave deep scars on Britain’s national pride, but the “Black Week” is only the beginning of the Boer War.
I gave background on the Boers, and discussed some events of the First and Second Boer Wars, in posts back in February and May. The first is the Battle of Majuba Hill, the first real British encounter with their South African enemies. The second is the siege of Mafeking, which I will mention today but not go into. I’ll mention them both today and these will be readily available on the website, but since these posts were a long time back and I don’t want to make you read them, you’re getting the full James Houser treatment. If you do want more background on the Boers, though, the February story is what you’re looking for.
Way back in the 1600s, the Dutch Republic settled the African Cape, setting up a colony of settlers that grew over the years. When the British seized Cape Colony in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars, they ended up keeping it, and soon the independent-minded Dutch-speaking Afrikaners were chafing under the dominion of the British Empire. Finally fed up with the policies and high-handedness of their new rulers, starting in 1836 a significant number of Afrikaners pulled up stakes, loaded up their wagons, and headed inland. Like the pioneers on the American frontier, these Boers – Dutch for “farmer” – ventured in their wagon trains deep into the untamed wilderness of inner South Africa. This would be known to the Boers as the “Great Trek.”
Though they encountered heavy resistance from native African tribes such as the Zulu, the Boers managed to establish themselves in two independent states far from British rule: the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. These “Boer Republics” would remain independent throughout the 19th Century. They may still be there today, except for one major factor. As it turned out, purely by accident, the Transvaal was sited directly on top of the largest nexus of natural diamonds in the world. Like many an African state before them, the Boer Republics would find themselves targeted for the resources contained within their borders – although in this highly unusual case, the Boers were settler-colonialists themselves. The discovery of diamonds in the Transvaal triggered a diamond rush, bringing in immigrants from all over the world, but especially attracting business interests from Britain. Pretty soon, there was pressure from the stockholders for the British Empire to annex the Boer Republics.
In 1877, the British government unilaterally annexed the Transvaal, angering the Boer residents something fierce. The Protestant, austere, Bible-thumping Boers had fled into the interior of Africa to seek isolation from the corrupt ways of the British Empire, and did not take this affront to their independence lightly. In 1880, they launched a major revolt against the British Empire, known as the First Boer War. In an utterly humiliating moment for the redcoats, the Battle of Majuba Hill on February 27, 1881 ended in a rout for the British, the death of General George Colley and total victory for the Boer militia bands. The British signed a treaty ending the First Boer War and recognizing Transvaal independence once again, but this would not be the end of conflict between the Boers and the British. The core issue was still unresolved.
For the next twenty years, the British continued to grow their infrastructure in South Africa, spanning the land with railroads that connected their many frontier posts. The two Boer states began to feel increasingly surrounded as British administration was established in a growing perimeter around their borders. The Boers, a fiercely independent and disorganized people, had no real standing army; they relied entirely on militia callouts to fight the British, insurgent African tribes, or the odd cattle rustler. Don’t feel too sorry for the Boers, though: they ruled over the black population with an iron fist, reducing them to a permanent subclass in a caste system that outstripped anything even in the United States. As the diamond mines became richer, they brought massive wealth to the Transvaal, allowing the Boers to upgrade their armaments and infrastructure – but these improvements were at the expense of black labor, especially the poor workers who died by thousands in the mines.
Though the British Empire would expand into the Boer Republics under a vague justification of liberating those poor Africans, they were far more concerned about the booming British expat population of the Transvaal. British-born mine foremen, administrators and businessmen were increasingly upset that they had no voting rights in the Boer Republic, and some imperialist British officials saw this as a wedge issue. Joseph Chamberlain, the Colonial Secretary 1895-1903, was a rising star in the Conservative Party and a shining paragon of imperialist arrogance. He was the driving force behind imperial expansion in this period, and thought that a splendid little war with the Boers would be just the thing. If they could leverage public outrage over the “mistreatment” of the Queen’s subjects in the Boer Republics, the Government could find the war they wanted. The result would be the annexation of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and the creation of a new British-ruled South African dominion - for the English and by the English.
A complex game of diplomatic intrigue ensued starting in the mid-1890s, with a pro-war faction of British imperialists insulting and provoking the Boer Republics into a conflict. This included coup attempts, ultimatums, and false flag attempts, with each new development breathlessly reported back to Britain by reporters angling to find a great, lurid story. To the Boers, of course, it was clear that Britain was looking for an excuse to invade and attack them, and President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal was determined to make a fight of it. After consulting President Marthinus Steyn of the Orange Free State, the two men agreed to do unto the British before the British could do unto them. The Boers would not wait for the Union Jack to come across their border: they would strike first.
The Boer military was barely a military at all. It consisted of volunteer units called “commandos”, usually around a thousand men each and led by prominent local leaders. The Boers had extensive modern weaponry, like Krupp guns and Mauser rifles from Germany – bought with all that diamond money – but they almost totally lacked discipline or an organized command structure. Boer commanders, lacking military authority or resort to punishment, had to lead by persuasion and example. The uncoordinated, ungovernable nature of the Boer militaries would eventually spell their doom, as everyone did what he thought best.
What did make “Brother Boer” special, though, was a combination of qualities developed on the South African plains. The Boer was a born marksman, practically raised with a rifle, and was especially adept at long-range fire from a concealed position after years of hunting on the plains. His drab clothing fit in perfectly with the beige, rocky landscape of South Africa. His natural riding ability, and the fact that every Boer was mounted, made him a mobile and flexible fighter, easily able to run rings around slow-moving British columns. Finally, the Boer commandos were highly motivated despite their ill discipline and lack of organization. They were formed from neighbors, friends, and families, with old men and young boys alike filling the ranks. These farmers, shepherds and cowboys would become the British Army’s most troubling surprise of the Imperial era. At the start of the Boer War, almost 40,000 men of all ages joined the Commandos.
The British were preparing for war as well. The elderly general commanding in South Africa, Sir George White, had around 13,000 troops ready for war. General Redvers Buller’s large 1st Corps of reinforcements was about to set sail from London on their way to South Africa, and the beefy, mustachioed Buller – beloved by his men – was to take charge in South Africa. Buller instructed White to keep his forces positioned well away from the enemy’s borders, and wait for the arrival of his much larger forces before getting caught up in a battle. White ignored these orders and kept his units scattered throughout South Africa, carefully watching the border – and incredibly vulnerable.
On October 11, 1899, the Boers struck. Thousands of mounted men poured out from the Republics’ boundaries, making immediately for the main British outposts. The Orange Free Staters struck west, surrounding the diamond town of Kimberley and the far-flung outpost of Mafeking, where Sir Robert Baden-Powell would mount his famous year-long defense. To the east, the Boers overwhelmed the bulk of White’s force and trapped it inside the town of Ladysmith. With three major British South African towns completely surrounded by the rapidly moving Boers, the few battles that ensued were a mix of results. Though the British usually managed to drive off the mounted Boer attacks, any attempt to break the perimeters were blown away by accurate rifle fire from invisible sources.
General White had truly screwed the pooch. Within a matter of weeks, the Boers had bottled up his entire army inside the towns, and every breakout attempt was hopeless. A golden opportunity lay in front of the Boers, if they had realized it: with White’s army trapped, and Buller’s troops still en route, the Boers could have made a shot deep into British South Africa and possibly overrun the country. But the Boer Generals – older men like Piet Cronje and Piet Joubert, veterans of the First Boer War – were not nearly so imaginative or so daring. They had trapped the Limeys, and that was enough; now the British would have to attack them on ground of their choosing. They did mount some raids, including Louis Botha’s famous armored train attack that captured a young war correspondent named Winston Churchill.
When Buller’s I Corps arrived in South Africa, instead of launching an immediate offensive into the Orange Free State like he had wanted, he had a newer and more urgent mission: to rescue the remnants of White’s trapped army. White’s poor decision-making, and the unexpected aggression and tactical ability of the Boers, had thrown off the whole British war plan. The funny little South African farmers had humiliated and trapped an army of the Queen’s soldiers, and only after they were rescued and their honor redeemed could the attack on the Boers begin. His first priority was the relief of Kimberley to the far west and Ladysmith to the far east, since their food supplies were low and they had to be rescued before the war could be won.
So it was that in November 1899, Buller made the difficult decision to break his army up. The 1st Division, led by General Lord Methuen, was to advance straight north from Cape Town to break through to Kimberley. Another force under General William Gatacre tried to secure points inside the Orange Free State and protect the critical railroads. Buller himself took two divisions by rail on the roundabout route east, where they could prepare to make the march to relieve Ladysmith. By splitting up his forces, Buller sacrificed his numerical and firepower superiority – and played right into the Boers’ hands. Because they wanted the British to attack.
The series of battles that took place from December 10 to 17, 1899, would go down in British history as “Black Week.” The first of these encounters took place when Gatacre’s force of around 1800 infantry suddenly ran up on 2300 Boers who held the high ground of the Stormberg Hill. Gatacre’s Tommies fixed their bayonets and moved up in an orderly skirmish line, the typical British tactic of the early Boer War, and immediately began dropping like flies. They soon realized that the cliff face was nearly impossible to climb, and as the force split up to try and find a way around, their own artillery began to hit them from behind with shellfire.
Soon Gatacre had no choice but to order a retreat, but the withdrawal turned into panic and confusion. When the British rallied, they realized to their horror that an entire battalion had been accidentally left behind, holding an outcrop of the Stormberg, and forced to surrender. For the cost of eight (!) Boer dead, the British had lost 26 killed, 68 wounded and a humiliating 700 captured. The Stormberg, though, was small potatoes compared to what was happening in front of Kimberley and Ladysmith.
Methuen’s 1st Division of 10,000 men advanced slowly up the railroad on its way to rescue Kimberley. There, 40,000 civilians and 1600 British soldiers were holding off only around 6500 Boers under Piet Cronje. The Boers were significantly outnumbered by Methuen’s men, among whom were some of the most famous units in the British Army: the Guards Brigade, including the legendary Coldstream and Grenadier Guards, and the Highland Brigade with its famous bagpipes and kilts. These were some of the best infantry in the world, and if anyone could break through to Kimberley, they could.
After a couple of smaller engagements, the British approached the main Boer position at the Modder River on November 30, 1899. The Boers were led by the cautious Cronje and his fellow general, the brilliant and pious Koos De La Rey. De La Rey was something of a Stonewall Jackson figure to the Boers, with a stern outlook, a quick trigger finger and a propensity to speak in Old Testament quotes – but he was a clever and hard-bitten fighter, a far better commander than Cronje. He had the Boers dig trenches along a well-sited line of hills north of the Modder, as well as in the low ground on the south bank, to await the British attack.
As the British approached, not a peep could be heard or movement seen along the hills. Methuen said loudly, “They’re not here!” before the first crack of rifle fire threw the Tommies flat. Though they tried to advance in rushes, there was almost no cover on the wide plains of South Africa. They were still a thousand yards away from the Boer lines when most of the infantry was pinned down. As the British hid from the Boer rifle fire, the Guards Brigade tried to push forward but was quickly forced back by the highly accurate, rapid stream of bullets pouring from the brown mass of the South African plain. Methuen rode around on horseback trying to encourage his men, but he himself was wounded.
The breakthrough only came when the 9th Brigade found an unguarded ford across the Modder; the Boer commando defending the site had decided on its own to move somewhere else, another sign of Boer indiscipline and lack of command structure. Though De La Rey personally led a counterattack that drove the British back, their presence on the north bank left the Boers no other choice. In the darkness, the Boers withdrew. They had inflicted almost 500 casualties for the cost of 80 of their own – including De La Rey’s son Adriaan, mortally wounded by an artillery shell. The grieving father only took a few days to bury his son before returning to his commandos. The British were now only 16 miles from Kimberley, and the Boers had to prepare for their final stand.
Methuen, having suffered heavy losses, paused to replenish his forces by bringing up the Highland Brigade of General Andrew Wauchope. Now with 15,000 men and 27 artillery pieces, he began his slow advance up the railroad once again. Cronje and De La Rey began to prepare their shaken commandos for another defensive battle. The site would be the great hill mass of Magersfontein, squarely along the British line of approach. After a morale visit from Free State President Steyn, the grieving De La Rey proposed a new, radical battle plan. Rather than position troops along the top or slope of the Magersfontein hills, where they would be easy targets for the superior British artillery, the Boers should dig in along the FOOT of the hills facing the British – deliberately surrendering the high ground. These concealed positions would be nearly invisible to the British, untouchable by artillery, and be a nasty surprise if the British launched a night attack. De La Rey’s tactic would be a masterstroke, one that would cost the British dearly.
In the predawn hours of December 11, 1899, the British moved out to attack Magersfontein. The British had a tried-and-true tactic for assaulting an enemy trench frontally: approach in the early morning before dawn, fix bayonets, and attack en masse, relying on the superior courage of their infantry to carry the day. For this task, the Highland Brigade was selected, and Wauchope led it himself, carrying his family’s claymore to lead the attack personally. The Highlanders slipped forward.
Methuen and Wauchope, however, had made a terrible mistake. They believed the Boers would be on top of the hills, in accordance with all accepted military doctrine and conventional tactics. The Highland Brigade crammed together, holding onto each other in the darkness as they edged forward to the base of the hill, where they would wait until dawn before launching a surprise attack. Stumbling forward in the darkness, the Scots felt rain begin to trickle down as the sky slowly lightened. Wauchope ignored suggestions that he should spread his units out, saying “Just a little farther.”
At 400 yards, the Boers caught sight of their foe: a huddled mass of kilted Highlanders, all advancing together like one giant monster. They let loose a barrage of rifle fire that slashed into the surprised Scots, who had not thought the Boers could ever be so close. Within the first few moments, Wauchope was dead, begging with his last gasp for his men not to blame him. The first moments of the engagement caused 700 British casualties as the Highland Brigade went to ground, stunned and pinned by the lethal rifle fire. The Highlanders were trapped. Methuen ordered his artillery to open fire, but the gunners could not find a target; the Boers were too well concealed, and no one could seem to fathom that they might be at the BOTTOM of the hill.
The Coldstream Guards and later the Grenadier Guards came up to try and save the Highlanders, but it was no use. After hours under galling fire in the blazing sun, with no way to advance or retreat, the morale of the brave Scots broke and many began to flee in panic. The Highlanders – some of the most historically courageous men in Europe – dissolved, streaming back in disorder. With all Methuen’s troops committed and none able to get past the sheet of lead, the British commander was forced to ask for a truce to collect his casualties. As soon as the truce was over, however, the Boer artillery opened up for the first time, blasting the exposed enemy center and finally forcing Methuen to retreat. The Boer trap had caught the British lion.
The Battle of Magersfontein cost the British almost a thousand casualties, for around 200 Boer losses. The defeat was shocking to the British, especially to the ruined Highland Brigade. Methuen withdrew to the Modder River to await reinforcements – and figure out what to do next. Up north, the people of Kimberley suffered.
For the British, though, the humiliation was not over. After the disasters at Stormberg and Magersfontein, only Buller’s force far to the east offered a ray of hope. But Sir Redvers Buller’s poor men had fared no better. In his attempt to cross the Tugela River at Colenso on December 15, he ran into the same problems that had foiled Methuen: invisible Boer riflemen, ineffective artillery, poor planning, and a brilliant commander. The brilliant commander in this case was the young, charismatic Louis Botha, whose complex network of rifle pits and concealed artillery slashed away at the British assault. The Battle of Colenso not only smashed the Irish Brigade (Queen Victoria, upon reading the news, wept “My poor, brave Irish”) but resulted in ten artillery pieces actually being captured.
The three defeats of Stormberg (December 10), Magersfontein (December 11), and Colenso (December 15) hit the British public all at once. It would be forever remembered as “Black Week,” the day that British military prestige suffered a body blow, provoking widespread mourning and demands for vengeance. All confidence was lost in Redvers Buller, who had acquired the nickname “Reverse” Buller. Within days, Sir Frederick Roberts, the hero of Kandahar, would be dispatched to South Africa with thousands more troops. By June 1900, Roberts would relieve all three sieges and overrun the Boer Republics – but only after many difficult battles. It took Redvers Buller four attacks to break the deadlock on the Tugela River, but he finally managed to do so after careful planning and impressive tactical advances. It seemed like the British had recovered their reputation.
But not so fast! The Boers had been overwhelmed, but not defeated. Even after the British had seized their cities and families, the Boer generals and commandos would continue to fight for almost two years. De La Rey, Botha, and the great Orange Free State guerrilla Christiaan de Wet would ride rings around the British occupiers, and even concentration camps and barbed-wire perimeters would fail to bring them in. Only a British peace offer, including amnesty and respect for Boer privileges in the new Union of South Africa, would end the Second Boer War.
But peace came at a price. Not for the Boers or the British, mind you, but for a third party that wasn’t consulted. As the price for their surrender and the end to one of Britain’s most vexing and complicated conflicts, the Boers demanded that South Africa’s racial status quo be maintained. The blacks could have no rights or privileges in South Africa as they did in those other colonies. Desperate for peace against these intractable opponents, the British bowed to this pressure. To win the war, they sold their souls down the river, allying with the white settler class of South Africa to preserve a radical system of racial segregation.
By the 1980s, it would be reviled around the world as apartheid. But it had been born in those terrible humiliations the British had suffered during Black Week – where the farmers of the Boer Republics had beaten the best the British Empire could bring, and preserved white supremacy in the process.
The Empire isn’t always the bad guy.