The Battle of Majuba : Telegrams of 27 February 1881

Compiled by Rob Jordan

The following telegrams may be of interest, not so much for any light they may throw on the tactics of the battle – the supposed shortage of ammunition has been convincingly refuted – but as indicating how suddenly and unexpectedly the British defeat occurred, and the panic it sowed as far afield as Pietermaritzburg.

8 a.m. Summit Majuba. Sir George Colley to Secretary of State for War.
‘Occupied Majuba mountain last night. Immediately overlooking Boer position. Boers firing at us from below.
(Butler – Life of Colley, p.386)

9.20 a.m. Mount Prospect. Press Correspondent.
‘General Colley, with six companies of soldiers, left here in the middle of the night and took possession of Spitz Kop to the left of the Neck. Firing has been heard at intervals since daybreak, and considerable numbers of Boers have been seen between the Neck and the troops’
(Times of Natal, 28th February 1881)

9.30 a.m. Summit of Majuba. Chief of Staff Colonel Stewart to Mount Prospect.
‘Send out some rations to post with a troop of 15th Hussars. All very comfortable. Boers wasting ammunition. One man wounded in foot’
(Butler – Life of Colley, p. 387)

11 a.m. Summit of Majuba. Sir George Colley to Secretary of State for War.
‘Boers still firing heavily on hill, but have broken up laager and begin to move away. I regret to say Commander Romilly dangerously wounded; other casualties, three men slightly wounded’
(Butler – Life of Colley, p. 391-2)

Midday Summit of Majuba. Press Correspondent (Thomas Carter)
‘… Firing kept up incessantly by Boers – our men very steady, return fire only when good chance offers… Our men have 3 days rations and have dug and got good water. Expect to be here 2 days at least before reinforcements can arrive and Nek be taken. Colonel Stuart, Major Fraser, Captain McGregor Staff officers here. Boers cannot take position from us: it is not more than 3 000 yards from Nek which looks like flat ground below us. I estimate 2 000 Boers round the hill: they are keeping up average of 60 shots per minute… the firing latterly has been to our front and left. I see the Boers have inspanned their cattle and are evidently ready to trek at a moment’s notice from the famous Nek. The General who with his staff has been conspicuous for his coolness and courage is communicating with our camp by signal… Until later in the day it is impossible to say what will be done one side or the other. Certainly the Boer losses are heavier than ours. How they ever came to leave this position unwatched at night no one can imagine… Sir George Colley deserves whatever credit attaches to this affair: no one worked harder last night than he… Our reserves are kept in the hollow, whenever the Boers are reinforced at any particular point a sqtiad is told off to answer their fire.’
(Transvaal Archives, Joubert collection vol. 26, no.2459; see also Natal Mercury, 28th February 1881).

2.35 p.m. Mount Prospect. Press Correspondent.
‘Our men driven from the hill, with great loss on both sides. Many officers, some of high rank, killed and wounded.’
(Times of Natal, 28th February 1881)

3 p.m. Mount Prospect. Press Correspondent.
‘Estimated number of our men got out no more than 100. The Boers charged the hill four times, and were inspanning wagons preparatory to a retreat, when our men were forced to fall back owing to their reserve ammunition not being taken to the extreme summit.
(Times of Natal, 28th February 1881)

3.25 p.m. Mount Prospect. Press Correspondent.
‘The Boers are approaching the camp, and the men are laagering. Vibart is firing on the enemy with two nine-pounders.’
(Natal Witness, 28th February 1881)

4 p.m. Mount Prospect. Press Correspondent.
‘Our men are now coming trooping in from the Amajuba Hill to the left front of our Camp. As wired, they took the hill last night. When morning broke the Boers, seeing the state of affairs, opened a heavy fire but seemingly, without serious effect, until a short time ago, when a large force of Boers came rushing on and poured a murderous fire into our fellows. Ammunition gradually fell short, and the slaughter was fearful. At last the English made a desperate rush. It was too late, and the battle is all but over. The Boers triumphed at almost every point, firing with deadly effect, knocking down our men on all hands. Stragglers were still coming in. The 60th are fighting gallantly their way back to camp, but are hotly pressed on all hands. It is stated that only seven men are left of the 58th. The Highlanders are much cut up. Firing is now going on heavily, and the men in camp are engaged fortifying it at every corner. I will wire later giving reliable news. The loss must he something fearful.’
(Natal Witness, 28th February 1881)

4.40 p.m. Mount Prospect. Press Correspondent.
‘Men still straggling in; many wounded. 60th got back well. Others suffered heavily in coming down steep hill. Boers keeping up heavy fire into them. Highlanders and 58th suffered very heavily. Babington, with flag of truce, gone out for wounded. Firing now ceased. Guns brought within camp. Fortifying still going on.’
(Natal Witness, 28th February 1881)

5.15 p.m. Mount Prospect. Press Correspondent.
‘As long as our men’s ammunition lasted, the loss on our side was very slight indeed. It was when they were forced to retreat that the slaughter commenced. The two companies of Highlanders who were on the summit remained there, throwing down stones on the advancing Boers, and receiving them at the point of the bayonet. The guns at the camp here checked the Boer pursuit to a very large extent, and did very considerable execution. No list of missing officers yet obtainable, and no estimate in loss of men possible as yet, as men are still coming in, and many are thought to be hiding amongst the rocks. No fear is entertained of the safety of the camp; but all preparations are being made for a defence in the case of an attack.’
(Times of Natal, 28th February 1881)

10 p.m. Pietermaritzburg. Sir Evelyn Wood to Secretary of State for the Colonies.
‘If Boers seriously impede lines of communication, I do not think that we can retain our position in extreme north of Colony, unless inhabitants are called to arms for defence purposes. Instruct me hereon explicitly, both as regards white and coloured people, should this possible contingency arise, as Mitchell doubts advisability of suggested action as tending to create civil war in Natal, and because of unwillingness of white people. I fear there is no doubt Colley is dead. I have assumed government, and am going to front…
(Public Record Office, London. C0879/18 Confidential print. Africa No. 230, p.30)

This post/article was copied and taken from this page of the The South African Military History Society and used with their kind written permission. Thank you so much Joan Marsh!

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