The battle of Magersfontein (with Stormberg and Colenso) was one of three major British defeats during Black Week (Boer War). Lord Methuen, with an army 10,000 strong, had left his camps on the Orange River on 11 November 1899 and begun a march north along the railway towards the besieged town of Kimberley. After two relatively easy victories at Belmont (23 November) and Rooilaagte (25 November), the British had suffered something of a mauling at the Modder River (28 November), although in the end the Boers had retreated from that position. In the aftermath of that battle, Lord Methuen decided to rest his men and wait for reinforcements.
This gave the Boers time to decide what to do next. At first they favoured defending a position at Spytfontein, close to Kimberley. However, on examination it was discovered that that position would be vulnerable to attack from the hills at Magersfontein, and so it was decided to make a stand there instead. From this position they could block both the railway and road routes from the Modder River bridge to Kimberley.
At first the Boers built their defences along the top of the kopjes at Magersfontein. However, De la Rey was convinced that this was a mistake, and that the Boers would be much more dangerous if they instead dug trenches at the base of the hills. This would allow them to take advantage of the flat trajectory of their Mauser rifles, just as they had done at the Modder River. With the aid of President Steyn, De la Rey was able to have this plan put in place. The 8,500 Boer troops at Magersfontein dug themselves into a trench network along the base of the hills.
Methuen now had 15,000 men. He had been joined by the rest of the Highland Division (the Black Watch and the Seaforth Highlanders), under Major General Andrew Wauchope. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had joined the expedition in time to fight at the Modder River. While Methuen waited at the Modder River he was also joined by the 12th Lancers, 100 mounted infantry, a battery of horse artillery, a howitzer battery and a 4.7 inch naval gun. Finally, on 10 December the 1st Gordon Highlanders joined him. Only now was Methuen ready to move.
He began with an artillery bombardment of the hilltops at Magersfontein on 10 December. This achieved nothing, for the Boers were not on the hilltops. Just after midnight on 11 December, the Highland Brigade began their advance. Not expecting to meet with any resistance at the base of the hills, the four Highland regiments (Black Watch, then Seaforths, then Argylls, then the Highland Light Infantry) advanced in close formation – 96 lines, each of 100 men. Wauchope kept them in close formation longer than was wise, but if the Boers had been where he had expected them, then this probably would not have mattered.
At 4 a.m., just as Wauchope was about to deploy his men ready for the assault, the Boers opened fire. It was later claimed that they must have been warned by Boer sympathisers or in some other mysterious way, but the artillery bombardment of the previous day was surely enough warning of an impending attack, and Methuen had attempted night marches at both Belmont and Rooilaagte. One Boer version of the battle mentions tin cans strung out in front of the Boer lines to give warning.
The Highlanders didn’t stand a chance. At 400 yards the Boer rifle fire was devastating. Never lucky in battle, Wauchope was killed early in the battle. Half of the brigade turned and fled, trampling the commander of the Highland Light Infantry on their way. Most of the survivors were pinned in place, just as they had been at the Modder River.
Despite this disaster, the British came almost unbelievably close to victory. On the right of their line, a mixed company of Seaforths and the Black Watch had managed to get around the left of the Boer line, and were about to climb up the rear slopes of the hill. The only Boers on the rear of the hill were Piet Cronjé and six of his staff, who had been attempting to sleep there. As the Highlanders climbed the hill, Cronjé and his party opened fire. Misjudging their numbers, the Highlanders stopped and opened fire themselves. By the time they realised their mistake, the chance was gone. The gap in the Boer lines had been closed, reinforcements hurried to the area, and finally the British artillery, unaware of the presence of the Highlanders, began to shell the area. The best chance for a British victory had slipped away.
Meanwhile, in front of the Boer lines the Highland brigade was prone on the ground, trying to avoid being shot. Several times small attacks were made, but with no success. At around 11 a.m. a second attack was sent in, this time with the Gordons, but they too were forced to the ground.
Once again Methuen failed to react. He still had the Guard’s Brigade in reserve, but did nothing with them. The Highlanders were ordered to remain where they were until nightfall, in the hope that the Boers would once again retreat overnight. However, this was not to be. At around 1.30 p.m. the Boers made an attempt to gain a position from where they could fire at the Highlanders from the side. An attempt to deal with this threat was misinterpreted by many as the start of a retreat. That retreat rapidly turned into a rout as Boer rifle fire poured into the retreating Highlanders, causing more casualties than during the initial attack. A second retreat had to be staged after the Boer artillery opened fire.
With this second retreat the fighting was effectively over. Methuen did not decide to abandon the attack until the middle of the next morning, but neither side was in a fit state to continue. Ammunition was low in both armies. Rumours began to spread of a truce to collect the wounded, and although no such armistice was officially agreed, one soon came into effect. British losses were devastating. In total Methuen’s army had lost 205 dead, 690 wound and 76 missing or captured. The Boers had only lost around 250 men. The Highland Brigade was especially badly hit, suffering 752 casualties – the Black Watch alone lost 355 men.
The battle of Magersfontein ended any hope that Methuen would be able to relieve Kimberley. He retreated to the Modder River, where he remained until Field Marshal Roberts arrived in February 1900. This time the Boers remained in their trenches, strengthening their position in preparation for the next British attack. That attack would never come. When Lord Roberts finally arrived, he decided to launch a great flank march around the Boer lines and into the Orange Free State.