Confronting the British troops lay a circle of hills which might or might not be tenanted by the enemy. Lord Methuen followed the established military course of shelling these hills from a long range, preparatory to an advance. Unfortunately it served no purpose, for the enemy retired temporarily, only to return when the bombardment was over, knowing that after the artillery had concluded their futile expenditure of shells, the British infantry would, in the course of things, advance. It was on Sunday, December 10, that the Highland Brigade set off early in the afternoon under a deluge of rain. When they came within a few miles of the Boers they halted, and darkness began to fall.
At this point Lord Methuen communicated to the Brigade commanders his plan for carrying the enemy’s position. The attack would be launched by the Highlanders at break of dawn.
At midnight, under a lowering sky, and in the black darkness of an African night, the Highland Brigade set out upon its tragic march. The men were drenched to the skin, carried no food, and were formed in quarter column. On the right the Black Watch, then the Seaforths, the Argyll and Sutherlands next, and in reserve the Highland Light Infantry. The Gordons, who had only arrived before the march began, remained in camp. It is important to follow out the plan of attack as indicated by Lord Methuen in his despatch.
“The night march was ordered for 12.30 A.M., the bearings and distance having been ascertained at great personal risk by Major Benson, Royal Artillery, my Deputy-Assistant-Adjutant-General. The distance is two and a half miles, and daybreak was due at 3.25 A.M. I may remark that two rifles went off by accident before the march commenced, and it is pretty clear flashes from a lantern gave the enemy timely notice of the march. Before moving off, Major-General Wauchope explained all he intended to do, and the particular part each battalion of his brigade was to play in the scheme, namely, that he intended to march direct on the south-west spur of the kopje, and on arrival near the objective before daybreak the Black Watch were to move to the east of the kopje, where he believed the enemy to be posted under shelter, whilst the Seaforth Highlanders were to march straight to the south-east point of the kopje, with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders prolonging the line to the left, the Highland Infantry to be in reserve until the action was developed. The Brigade was to march in mass of quarter column, the four battalions keeping touch, and if necessary ropes were to be used for the left guides. These ropes were taken, but, I believe, used by only two battalions. The three battalions were to extend just before daybreak—two companies in firing line, two companies in support, and four companies in reserve—all at five paces interval between them.”
It is not our business to criticise the scheme of attack, but only to deplore the fact that so many brave men should lose their lives in such an abortive attempt. It would have been impossible to reach the Boer lines in anything but disorder had the Highland Brigade not advanced in close column: the blunder appears to have been that they maintained close formation too long. Long before, in the year 1746, the Highlanders, who might be expected to have an intimate knowledge of the country through which they were passing, set out upon a similar night attack, only to find themselves hopelessly lost—and that not so very far from Inverness. At Magersfontein the distance was a short one, but the difficulty of ascertaining how far the Boer trenches were from the foremost columns led to chaos. No one has described the situation more graphically than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Great Boer War. “With many a trip and stumble,” he writes, “the ill-fated detachment wandered on, uncertain where they were going and uncertain what it was they were meant to do. Not only among the rank and file, but among the principal officers there was the same absolute ignorance. Brigadier Wauchope knew, no doubt, but his voice was soon to be stilled in death. The others were aware, of course, that they were advancing either to turn the enemy’s trenches or to attack them, but they may well have argued from their own formation that they could not be near the riflemen yet. Why they should be still advancing in that dense clump we do not now know, nor can we surmise what thoughts were passing through the mind of the gallant and experienced chieftain who walked beside them…. Out there, close beside him, stretched the long trench, fringed with its line of fierce, staring, eager faces, and its bristle of gun-barrels. They knew he was coming. They were ready. They were waiting. But still, with the dull murmur of many feet, the dense column, nearly four thousand strong, wandered onwards through the rain and the darkness, death and mutilation crouching upon their path.”
The end came quickly enough. Within a few hundred yards the Boer rifles opened fire upon the massed columns of the Highlanders. They fell in solid ranks and companies. The destruction inside a few moments has been rightly enough compared to the fall of corn before the reaper. Out of the darkness there was one single lurid blaze of light, a prolonged roar of musketry, and the Highland Brigade was decimated as it stood.
Just as the fire opened, the order had been given for the men to deploy, but the extension never took place. Wauchope was one of the first to fall. As his biographer has finely said: “General Wauchope fought and fell as a man and as a soldier, carrying out his orders loyally to the end. He died where he would have wished to die—at the head of his gallant Highlanders, with his face to the foe.”
It was impossible for the Highland Brigade to advance in any order: their officers were killed, their ranks were broken, they were confronted by barbed wire and strong entrenchments, and yet it came hardly on them that they should have to retreat. F. G. Tait, the famous Scottish golfer, who was destined to fall at the Modder River, remarked in a letter home: “General Wauchope and our Colonel, and Captain Bruce and young Edmonds were all killed, with the lot of men that I accompanied. 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 actually suffered. As it was, we arrived rather late, and in mass of quarter column…. You might imagine the effect of a tremendously hot rifle fire into that compact body.”
According to F. G. Tait the first orders that emerged from the chaos and noise and the groans of the wounded were those of, ‘Lie down, fix bayonets, and prepare to charge.’ This, unhappily, led very little farther. Tait writes as follows: “We got along a hundred yards or so when we got into the dreadful flanking as well as frontal firing, and lost very heavily. I could now see that the enemy were in trenches about 200-250 yards off. 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 able to turn over on my stomach and fire at the Boers. 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 quite impossible for any ambulance or doctor to advance, so all our wounded lay within 200 yards or so 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.”
And yet out of this dismal event, despite their terrible position, the Highland Brigade did not lose their prestige. Trapped, bewildered, unable either to advance or retreat, they held their ground and died without fear. Many, indeed, perceiving that no officers were left to lead them, advanced on their own initiative through the hail of fire, and were discovered in the morning suspended on the barbed wire before the Boer trenches. A section of the Black Watch, it is recorded, refused to retire, and entrenching themselves as far as they could, carried on the combat throughout the long terrible day, until when night fell there was not one single survivor left. All through that desperate day the Highlanders lay exposed to the Boer fire, refusing to surrender, without food or water, wounded and unwounded together, awaiting the support from the artillery and the reserves, which was so difficult to give. It has been recorded of the Argyll and Sutherlands that their claim to the pledge, “We die, but we do not surrender,” was most nobly earned that day. At Magersfontein the regiment that had provided the ‘thin red line’ at Balaclava remained steady under the terrific fire, and it was owing in a large degree to the 93rd and to the Coldstream Guards that their unfortunate comrades, who had led the advance and suffered more terribly, were enabled to hold out during the day.
To return to the actual conflict. It is stated that within a few moments of the opening of the Boer fire at least 600 men were out of action. Less courageous or disciplined soldiers would have broken and scattered wildly to the rear, and none could have called them cowards; but the Highland Brigade, assembling as far as was possible within their own units, had by the break of day made some attempt at following up the belated attack. Unfortunately the Boers were so securely entrenched that it was a very one-sided affair. The rising sun brought the Horse Artillery up at the gallop, and under cover of their fire the Highland Brigade were enabled to get some respite from the deadly Boer marksmanship. As day advanced reinforcements were hurried up, the Gordons coming with the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Coldstreams, and the gallant Yorkshire Light Infantry to protect the flank. In the afternoon the Highland Brigade—who had tasted neither food nor water for twenty-four hours—made a pitiful effort to charge the Boer position. The fire that was opened upon them was, at so short a range, almost annihilating. It was inevitable that they must remain out of action until they could fall back and reassemble. The Gordons, who came fresh into action, did what was possible to distract the Boer fire from their unhappy comrades, and when the evening came the merciful darkness enabled the wreckage of the Highland Brigade to creep back to the rear.
The bitterest day in the story of the Highland regiments was, at last, at an end. The disaster at Magersfontein brought with it a loss of nearly 1000 men; out of the Highland Brigade 57 officers had fallen, and in the Black Watch alone 19 officers and over 300 men. Never in the annals of that regiment had there been such a loss since the action at Ticonderoga in 1757.
In his report of the action, Lord Methuen sums it up as follows: “The attack failed. The inclement weather was against success. The men in the Highland Brigade were ready enough to rally, but the paucity of officers and non-commissioned officers rendered this no easy matter. I attach no blame to this splendid brigade. Nothing could exceed the conduct of the troops from the time of the failure of the attack at daybreak. There was not the slightest confusion, though the fight was carried on under as hard conditions as one can imagine, for the men had been on the move from midnight, and were suffering terribly from thirst.”
The next morning the Boers awaited a British attack, which never came. It was evident from the disaster that had overtaken the Highland Brigade that it would be almost impossible to storm the Boer position by a frontal assault. Lord Methuen, feeling that he could not carry out a flanking movement without reinforcements, decided he would rest his troops, and postpone for the present the advance on Kimberley.