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The Magersfontein Battle.

[Sidenote: Heavy Losses on Both Sides]

Lord Methuen moved from the Orange River, November 23d. The objective point of his undertaking was the relief of Kimberley, the city of diamond mines. He had at the start a success that was described in glowing terms. Though the result has appeared in the study of the course of the combat, which gave him so much distinction, and caused an amount of applause that was at least disproportionate to that which was accomplished, was that the British lost 225 men, killed and wounded--a casualty list that would have meant a bloody skirmish in a war of very considerable proportions. The fighting was fierce on both sides, and heavy losses were considered matters of course. Napoleon's observation that one had to break eggs to make an omelette was much quoted as the correct philosophy of warfare.

The second stroke by his Lordship, in the course of this campaign, was at Graspan, and the sobering effect of it, though the claim of the British was that they had won a victory, did not pass away upon reading this telegram, dated at Cape Town, December 15th, giving mature information: "A visit to Simons Town hospital confirms the reports of the extraordinary gallantry of the marines at Graspan. They have 92 casualties out of a total of 183 in the fight. Many have three wounds and some four. Sixty per cent. of the officers and sargeants were hit." All the officers of the naval detachment but two were wounded. The correspondents wrote that they were on the way to Kimberley "fighting invisible foes," but moving on slowly and surely. It was plain that though the foe was invisible, they made themselves felt. The number of Boers in action at Graspan was estimated at 3,000, and by the time the slow movement reached Modder River the force of Boers was believed to be 8,000, showing the mobility of the fighters against the relief of Kimberley. They hastened from place to place and knew how and where to concentrate to be of efficiency in obstructing the British advance. The following week the numbers of the Boers at Magersfontein was believed to be possibly 16,000.

[Sidenote: The Hottest Fight of the British Army]

The British General described the fight of November 28th as one of the hottest and most trying in the annals of the British Army. He was careful not to claim a decisive victory, and his moderate language was the more impressive for the absence of reassuring assertion overdone. He said: "After Desperate hard fighting, lasting ten hours, the men without water or food under a burning sun, made the enemy quit their position." The London Times correspondent wrote: "The fire was the hottest recorded, and the results would revolutionize existing theories. It was effective up to 1,600 yards, but the casualties among the troops lying down were trifling, their losses being only thirty, though they were in an exposed position. It was found impossible to bring the ammunition reserve to the firing line." Much in these words is significant, and they should have conveyed a warning as to what revolutionary experience ought to teach; but the commander of the column did not seem to be teachable. He held on to existing theories. If it was impossible to bring the ammunition reserve to the firing line, it was an acknowledgment that no matter what the attacking force might be in front of an enemy armed with long range rifles, the attack must utterly fail upon the consumption of the cartridges the men were able to carry into action. This, of course, if an established proposition, would limit rigidly the force of an assault.

However, the Boers, on this occasion, withdrew in the night, and the British occupied the whole of the battlefield, and the column was said to be encouraged, and moved on according to the fashionable formula of the special dispatches, "slowly but surely to Kimberley." There was nothing in the advantage gained to awaken enthusiasm, and confidence began to fail. There was an atmosphere of misfortune in which the English armies were moving.

General Gatacre, December 10th, mentioned a "serious reverse" in attack that morning at Stormberg, where he had penetrated resisting the invasion of the north of Cape Colony by Orange State forces. The general had merely been "misled to the enemy's position by guides, and found impracticable ground." Also he had taken the precaution of marching all night to surprise the enemy, and was misguided by spies, so morning broke on him in the presence of the enemy, who were posted on "an unscalable hill." The British Empire owes his Lordship a memorable debt of gratitude because he did not immediately order an impossible charge! The troops that were exhausted in a long night's march to enter a trap at daylight should, according to prevalent tactics, have been rushed upon any hill that was crowned by the enemy, and "unscalable." How could General Gatacre have found out that the hill could not be scaled without attempting it with his men? He varied the strategy by retreating nine miles immediately, and complimented the enemy's gunners for the punishment they gave him, saying, "their guns were remarkably well served, and carried accurately 5,000 yards." This was disagreeable intelligence, but the general is reported to have had the satisfaction of shooting his false guide, and rested from his labors.

[Sidenote: Lord Methuen's Failure]

He had not the perseverance of Lord Methuen, who was enabled to wire truthfully that he had failed, December 12th, in assaulting the enemy's position at Magersfontein. It was there his Lordship met in full force General Cronje, who had been spending a few days intrenching himself after the fight on the Modder River. There was no effort on the part of the British officers to claim Magersfontein as a victory, though they did insist that the loss of the Boers was something frightful. The Highland Brigade was marched after the fashion of General Gatacre at Stormberg, so as to come right on the enemy just at the time and in the formation that they wanted to see him. It was, of course, during the darkness of early morning, after a very hard night for the men, that they entered the trap. The Boers had been waiting patiently and exercising their mobility in getting together so as to have a force of about 12,000 men. In that which immediately followed, the emergence of the troops from the strain of the march, General Wauchope seemed to believe his orders meant a massacre of his men, and it is the story of the battle whether strictly true or not, that will give it endless fame, that he called to the men not to hold him responsible, as he was obeying Lord Methuen's orders. He died on the field, and his son, near him, was wounded.

[Sidenote: The Losses]

The Highlanders composing his brigade were, it is told with a dreadful simplicity, in "formation of quarter column," with no time to deploy, and they could not, by anything known in military maneuvers, have been placed in better form for the enemy. The loss of the brigade was their brave and capable commander Wauchope, with about 700 men killed and wounded, fifty of them officers, seven-tenths of them Highlanders. This was the overture. There came after it a great deal of bombarding by the British of the Boer trenches, and the result was Lord Methuen retired to the Modder River, the retreat having been conducted in the official reports in an "orderly" manner. It will be noted that a considerable number of the Highlanders escaped, and that is accounted for by the fact that they were just a few minutes too early on the ground. They were quicker than expected according to the time table, and "bad light" saved those whose names were not found in the casualty lists. It was said that General Gatacre personally executed the false guides; but the trap for Lord Methuen immediately succeeding the affair at Stormberg was a case bearing such a close resemblance to the Magersfontein incident, where the guides were not accused of wilfully going on, that there rests a suspicion as to the criminality of the error that General Gatacre avenged. [Sidenote: What the Dispatches Say] The dispatches say in the case of the experience of Lord Methuen, "six miles had to be covered before the Highland Brigade could reach the Boer stronghold. It is not yet clear through what mischance the force which was led by guides came upon the Boer trenches so unexpectedly and so suddenly. Beyond question the Boers were aware of the approach of the British and had prepared to receive them." There were persistent reports that the Boers suffered heavy losses in the combat that opened with the fall of 700 Highlanders. Whatever were the casualties of the Boers, they must have been inflicted by the British Artillery which fired lyddite shells for several hours, and as nothing could be seen to positively show what the effect of the shelling was, there are evident exaggerations in the fancies about it. Reuter's Special Agency telegraphed from Modder River December 12th: "Twelve ambulances started early this morning under a flag of truce to collect the wounded and bury the dead. General Wauchope's body was found near a trench. He had been shot through the chest and in the thigh." The Boer General Cronje telegraphed that he estimated his losses in this engagement at 100 killed and wounded, and the British at 2,000. Rumors in the camp of the British placed the Boer loss at 700 at least. The Queen sent to the widow of General Wauchope a touching message expressing her deep sympathy, and paid a warm tribute to the general's qualities as a soldier and his services to the nation. Her Majesty referred to the fact that with a single exception, that of the Soudan, in every campaign in which he had taken part he had been wounded.

[Sidenote: Sudden Change of Public Sentiment]

The most hopeful of British military movements in South Africa, for a time, was that of the column of Lord Methuen, which was terminated by the decimation of the Highland Brigade. He was reported as steadily advancing, winning his way with dashing marches without heavy losses. His high qualities were mentioned with emphasis in all the newspapers--his stalwart physique, his cleverness, his kindliness, his courage, his intelligence; there was no praise too effusive for the adulation to which he was subjected. The fact that the Highlanders were put into a trap under his orders changed all this, and he is accused of madness. The orders that he gave on the field are described as those of a maniac; but his misfortune was quite like that which preceded it at Stormberg, and succeeded it at Colenso. Whatever is to be said of the disaster of Magersfontein, it must be recognized as typical and to signify either that the Boers were invincible or the methods of war as conducted by the British just at that period defective to helplessness. Four days later came the repulse of Buller's army, and the malady of disaster was manifest there also; so that it would almost warrant characterizing as a disease, a contagion, or a plague.

[Illustration: BOERS FIRING ON GENERAL FRENCH'S TRAIN EN ROUTE TO DURBAN. The excellent marksmanship of the Dutch of South Africa enables them to hit a man at the distance of a mile or more with their accurate aim.]

[Illustration: TWO SIDES TO THE QUESTION. Boer or Briton? A heated discussion on the crisis.]

The general destruction of the Boers by bombarding and the courage displayed by the British soldiers under trying circumstances, could not aid the British Empire to assert complacency, and there was a passing consternation that reflection over the monotony of misfortunes converted to indignation, and then the spirit of the people rose to the occasion. There was a general rally and hardening of resolution.

This sort of thing was, however, wired from the Modder Riveras late as December 13th: "Our lyddite shells fell always where the enemy was thickest; most awful havoc was inflicted by the Royal Horse Artillery, who under a hot fire of a raid by the Boer firing line are said to have filled the trenches with dead."

[Sidenote: The Official Boer Account]

Much has been said of the Boers on the Modder River blazing away several times in the night, shelling imaginary foes, and there is evidence that the continued use of the British Artillery, shelling Boer lines, and an apprehension of desperate sorties (because after the various storming parties of the British there was no calculating what they might undertake), did for several nights disturb the nerves of the Boers in their intrenchments, and caused them to open fire and continue to blaze with their Mausers and artillery into darkness until they expended a great amount of ammunition; and the British found considerable relief in the enjoyment of this evidence that they were still held in great respect by their enemies. The official Boer account, telegraphed from Pretoria, was this:

"Despatch riders from the field report that the Boers have taken a large quantity of booty, including 200 Lee-Metford rifles. two cases of cartridges, some quantities of filled bandoliers, and hundreds of bayonets. A large number of British retired from Tweerivieren, in the direction of Belmont. The loss of the British is very great. Heaps of dead are lying on the field. The wounded are attended to temporarily at Bisset's Farm. The Boers lost a considerable number of horses. The sappers and miners must have suffered severely, as many implements were found on the field. The slaughter on the battlefield yesterday cannot be described otherwise than sad and terrible. It was for us a brilliant victory, and has infused new spirit into our men to enable them to achieve greater deeds."

[Sidenote: What the Battle Meant for Kimberley]

The Magersfontein battle was of intense interest to the people of Kimberley, and a special service dispatch gives this account of what was seen and heard by the anxious inhabitants of that city:

"This morning the ceaseless roar of cannon and Maxims was heard here from 4.25 till 10.30. Riding out at 5.30 A.M. to a ridge beyond the racecourse, I saw shell after shell burst on the side of a sugar-loaf-shaped kopje standing alone to the left of Spitzkop.

"Great puffs of white smoke rose every now and them, appearing like the spray of breakers on a rocky shore. Presently a captive balloon ascended and descended out of sight. The roar of the guns as heard here was most impressive, and told plainly of a great engagement."

The British casualties at Magersfontein are--official total:

Officers and men killed ... 82

Wounded ...................... 667

Missing ......................... 348

                                      1,097

A Mafeking dispatch, January 3d, states "The Boers, despite repeated warnings, concentrated their fire during the last two days upon the women's laager and hospital. Children have been killed and women mutilated by the bursting of shells.

It was at this time reported in their towns that the Boers used explosive bullets. Surgeon Major Anderson authorized the statements that the wounds inflicted at Gambier fight were altogether different to previous experience in Egypt and in India, and that it was impossible they could have been produced by Martini or Mauser bullets, though, perhaps, they might have been caused by Snider ones, but from a scrutiny of the wounds made while dressing them in hospital here he has no doubt in his own mind that bullets of an explosive character were used by the Boers.

Captain Baden Powell deposed Wessels, chief of the tribe of the Baralongs, who had quarters at Mafeking. Wessels has lately been intractable. He spread false reports among the tribes that the military authorities were endeavoring to make the natives slaves.

Parent Category: Books
Category: Hopkins and Halstead: South Africa and the Boer-British War
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