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Black Watch: the Regiment’s 2nd Battalion fought at the Battle of Magersfontein on 10th and 11th December 1899

TODAY IN KIMBERLEY’S HISTORY – 11 DECEMBER

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11 December 1877, Kimberley’s first municipal election.
11 December 1899, Scottish General Andy Wauchope killed at Battle of Magersfontein, 1899
11 December 1899, Jan de Wet, elder brother of Christiaan de Wet, killed at Magersfontein, 1899
11 December 1899, Three Victoria Crosses awarded at Magersfontein, 1899
11 December 1899, Naas Ferreira bravely assaults British positions at Magersfontein, 1899
11 December 1899, Champion golfer Freddie Tait badly wounded, Magersfontein, 1899
11 December 1899, Boers defeat Lord Methuen’s British army at Magersfontein, 1899

DID YOU KNOW

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.

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Scottish General Andy Wauchope

“Parade at 12.30am for night attack,” wrote champion British 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 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 the Black Watch to deploy 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 rilfe 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-campe, 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.”

From Kimberley Calls and Recalls on Facebook By Steve Lunderstedt

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