11 December 1877, Kimberley’s first municipal election.
11 December 1899, The Battle of Magersfontein.
11 December 1899, Scottish General Andy Wauchope killed at Battle of Magersfontein.
11 December 1899, Jan de Wet, elder brother of Christiaan de Wet, killed at Magersfontein.
11 December 1899, Three Victoria Crosses awarded at Magersfontein.
11 December 1899, Naas Ferreira bravely assaults British positions at Magersfontein.
11 December 1899, Champion golfer Freddie Tait badly wounded, Magersfontein.
11 December 1899, Boers defeat Lord Methuen’s British army at Magersfontein.
Great victory for the Boers at Magersfontein
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 champion British golfer Freddie Tait, (pictured), 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.”
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-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.”
It was about this time that General Wauchope was killed, while Lt-Colonel Coode was killed in the first few minutes of the battle. The rest of the Brigade, stuck in the worst formation to be in if once battle commences, panicked, the officers lost control, and the soldiers drew back. All regimental histories agree that a withdrawal did take place at that time, be it in disorder or not. The word ‘retire’ is mentioned in many accounts, but no-one recorded who was responsible. The men were rallied by pipers playing The Campbells are Coming, appropriate at that moment, the Brigade having fallen back some 250 metres. A Boer outpost, consisting of Scandinavian volunteers, was wiped out by the Highlanders moving off about 1000 metres to their right, while the three groups of men who did breach the Boer line, were halted by “friendly” fire from their own artillery and the fortuitous arrival of Boer reinforcements. Those not killed by shellfire either withdrew back to the forward lines, or surrendered.
“I was with Macfarlan and Ramsay when we first charged, but they both went off with a lot of men to try and work round the flank of the Boers. I never saw them again, as I went on with the frontal attack. General Wauchope and our Colonel, and Captain Bruce and young Edmonds, were all killed with the lot of men that I accompanied.”
“We were led into a re-entering part of the kopje, and were fired at on three sides in the dark. The position was very strong by nature, and their trenches were cleverly planned, and they made use of wire fences, which are tremendous obstacles in the dark. Our men behaved magnificently.”
Lord Methuen, having seen the extent of the Boer line, ordered up the Guards Brigade to extend to the right of the Highlanders, and to their right went the dismounted cavalry and mounted infantry units. Extending further right of the dismounted troops as far as the Modder River was the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Despite further reinforcements being sent in by Methuen in mid-morning, the Boers lay hard and fast in their trenches, and assisted by snipers on the kopjes, were keeping Methuen’s army at bay, and in particular, keeping the Highlanders in front of the trench, pinned down and unable to move.
“It was quite impossible for any ambulance or doctor to advance, so all our wounded lay within 200 yards of the Boer trenches all day in a broiling sun, being shot at whenever they moved until seven o’clock at night, most of them without a drop of water. When our artillery fire was very hot (Author’s note: This was when the artillery had been ordered to redirect their fire from the crests of the kopjes to the trenches), and the Boer fire in consequence slacker, I managed to get some badly-wounded fellows back to some bushes and shade about 100 yards in rear. I lay all day from 4am to 7pm being shot at. I got a shot through my haversack and another grazed my heel, and the rest hit all around. I smoked some cigarettes, munched a little bit of biscuit, and would have been fairly comfortable but for my wound (which hurt a good deal), and for the heat, which was excessive. I knew the bullet had not hit a bone or an artery, so I felt very cheerful under the circumstances.”
“I never expected to get away, so I made the best of a bad job and smoked cigarettes. We were never supported all day.”
“I got back to hospital about 10pm and got dressed, and then had two bowls of tea and some biscuits, and since then I have been all right.”
“We lost the Colonel, and worst of all, poor old Macfarlan and Ramsay, also Bruce and Elton. Twelve officers wounded, and total in the regiment 355 killed and wounded.. Young Wauchope is hit in four places, but he is getting on well.” Indeed, young Wauchope, who would go on to become a General in World War I, lay on the battlefield all day and night of the 11th and was only brought in to Modder River hospital at 11am on the 12th.
“I have enquired about Stewart and MacDonald, and I am afraid they were killed; they are at present reported missing. The Boers buried about 70 of the Highland Brigade, mostly our men, I am afraid, and there was no record kept of their names…I am afraid MacGregor, the Caddie Superintendent, is dead. Hain, my old servant, is missing or killed; also Scullin, the one I had at Glasgow.”
The wounded were looked after initially at Modder River camp, the worst cases, among whom was Freddie, being sent by hospital train to the Wynberg Military Hospital. In fact, in his case, the Boer bullet had hit the bone, which meant that he would have to go to Wynberg for treatment.
“The wounded have had a very comfortable journey down here in hospital trains, and this is a capital shady spot, very unlike the Modder River.”
“All I hope that next time we get a chance of giving back what we have received.”
“Our Brigade was simply thrown away; hundreds of splendid fellows were killed and wounded, and nothing gained in the end.”
There were many stories and rumours doing the rounds, and the media in Great Britain published many, including that General Wauchope had shouted out that being caught in mass of quarter column was not his fault; that the Highland Brigade had turned tail and run; that Scottish troops would never fight under Methuen again; and many such. Freddie Tait:
“General Wauchope is in no way responsible for the fearful loss of life amongst the Highland Brigade; he got his orders, and had to carry them out, and he was killed in front of his brigade. I feel certain that if we had been led up in line we should have rushed the position with probably a quarter of the loss that we suffered. As it was, we arrived rather late and in mass of quarter column…a pretty formation to arrive within 350 yards of the Boer position. You can imagine the effect of a tremendously hot rifle fire into that compact body. Our men behaved magnificently, and a cooler lot of officers and men I never want to see.”
“The extreme darkness of the night was mainly responsible for the failure of the attack.”
“I don’t know who was responsible for the close formation. The formation was all right if we had deployed sooner; that is where the mistake occurred. Mass of quarter column was the only possible formation to march in that night. It was very dark, but at the same time we had plenty of light to deploy at least ten minutes before we were fired into. General Wauchope never made any remark about its not being his fault. His ADC and galloper have both told me so; and if they had not, I should never have believed that he made the remark – it is not the least like him…”
In a letter to fellow amateur golfer Johnnie Low at Woking, Tait continued in this vein: “The papers say the Highland Brigade retired and re-formed. The Black Watch never did; and furthermore, we held our ground all day.” To his uncle, John Porter, he reiterated this fact, stating “…the Black Watch never retired at Magersfontein. What other regiments did I only know from hearsay.”