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Classic Dispatches | Massacre at Majuba

By Thomas Fortescue Carter
Autumn 2018 • MHQ Magazine

Thomas Fortescue Carter had never before worked as a war correspondent when he found himself, at age 22, covering the Anglo-Boer War of 1880–1881. “It was the first time I had been under fire,” he would write, “and I confess that the sensation was not a pleasant one.” Carter had come from England to the British colony of Natal, in southeastern Africa, in 1879, two years after Britain annexed the Transvaal in hopes of resolving a long-running border dispute between the Boers and the Zulus. War broke out in 1880 after the Transvaal Boers formally declared their independence from the United Kingdom. It fell to Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, a British Army officer who’d been named commander in chief of Natal, to put the rebellious Boers back in their place, and on February 26, 1881, he led some 360 British troops—with Thomas Carter in tow—on a night march to the top of Majuba Hill, which overlooked the main Boer position. But as dawn broke, the Boers charged the summit, and the Battle of Majuba Hill ended with heavy British casualties (Colley was shot in the forehead and died), while the Boers suffered only one killed and five wounded. By the time the war fizzled to an end just a few weeks later, it was already regarded as one of the most humiliating defeats in Britain’s history.

The Boers took Carter prisoner after the battle but soon released him. His book, The Narrative of the Boer War: Its Causes and Results, was published in 1882. One reviewer called it “so determinedly just as to have met with considerable disapproval in quarters where feelings are hot on either side, and where plain truths are not palatable.”

The following account of the Battle of Majuba Hill is drawn from Carter’s book, which, nearly 140 years later, remains the classic contemporary account of the First Boer War. Carter never again worked as a journalist. He died in 1945 in what today is the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal.

We were 40 yards at the farthest from the enemy’s main attacking party. In traversing these 40 yards our men would have been terribly mauled, no doubt, by the first volley, but the ground sloped gently to the edge of the terrace along which the enemy were lying, and the intervening space would be covered in 20 seconds—at all events, so rapidly by the survivors of the first volley, that the Boers, mostly armed with the Westley-­Richards cap rifle, would not have had time to reload before our men were on them. I am not sure that the first rush of the infantry would not have demoralized the enemy, and that their volley would have been less destructive than some imagined. If only a score of our men had thrust home, the enemy must have been routed. At a close quarter conflict, what use would their empty rifles have been against the bayonets of men who would have the additional advantage of the higher ground? If a bayonet charge was impracticable at that moment, then, as an offensive weapon, the bayonet is a useless one, and the sooner it is discarded as unnecessary lumber to a soldier’s equipment the better. It was our last chance now, though a desperate one, because these withering volleys were laying our men prostrate; slowly in comparison with the number of shots fired, but surely despite of our shelter. Some out of the hail of bullets found exposed victims. In a few seconds our left flank, now practically undefended, and perfectly open to the Boers scaling the side of the mountain in that direction, would be attacked with the same fury as our front.

Looking to the spot Cameron had indicated as the one where the general stood, I saw His Excellency standing within 10 paces directing some men to extend to the right. It was the last time I saw him alive. A sudden piercing cry of terror, which will ring in my ears for many a long day, rose from the line or group of infantry. We glanced round to our rear in dismay to ascertain the cause, imagining that some mishap had befallen the small party still left to guard the crest of the mountain there. Parties of men were moving rapidly in twos and threes towards our only line of retreat in the direction of Mount Prospect. Simultaneously the ranks of the defenders beside us ceased firing; three, four, five men turned and ran past us down into the hollow of the basin.

“What the devil are you doing? Come back, come back!” was heard above the din of the enemy’s rifles. “I’ll shoot you if you don’t return,” was the last intelligible thing I heard from an officer, who, with revolver cocked, pointed it at one of the runaways. Five, six, seven, eight more men broke from the ranks in front of us and fled. The rest wavered, and before Cameron and myself could rise to our feet, the whole lot went rushing wildly over us down into the bottom of the basin, making towards the track to the right (as they faced now) by which they had gained the summit of the hill during the night. There was another despairing cry heard, which chilled one’s blood, as the men faced about and rushed helter-skelter for the next ridge.

It was not long before I was on my feet and running with the rest. Right in our path was the hospital, and we had to go round it to avoid jumping over the bodies of the wounded. Racing side by side with a stalwart Highlander—he was on my right, and had therefore the benefit of the curve in going round the hospital—grudged him the benefit at the moment, as shoulder to shoulder we ran. The thought was hardly out of my mind when the poor fellow threw up his arms and fell headlong, and a terrible volley from the stone ridge we had just left let us know that the Boers were there already. It told horribly on the fugitives, for I saw several in front and right and left of me stopped in their flight.

After delivering this first volley the Boers kept up a terrible fire, and every moment their number increased as they swarmed up the hill, now on all sides except that we were running for. It was cruel work; our poor fellows dropped by the score. I had still to run up the sharp brow of the basin on the hill-top before I could get out of this murderous fire, and my long mackintosh, with inside pockets stuffed with tins of meat, etc., was a great encumbrance, as the loaded skirts of the garment swung about and dealt me knocks on the shins.

I thought of turning sharp round and remaining by the hospital, but it struck me it would fare ill for any one found on the top of the hill whilst the enemy’s blood was up, whether surgeon or civilian, so I continued my headlong course, loosing off as I ran, and letting go my mackintosh, provisions and all. Going up the rise now was horrible work; the Boer rifles charged incessantly, and I could see the men still falling in every direction in front of me, mown down like grass. One Highlander, who was certainly not more than five yards from me, and directly in front, fell with an agonizing cry, “O my God!” right across my path, and I had to jump over his body. On the right I saw one whom I thought was Cameron fall dead. The Boers behind us were taking a terrible revenge now.

It is singular how many thoughts flash across the brain of a man when he is expecting momentarily his death-blow. One of the most practical that entered my mind was, that the direction our men for the most part were taking, towards the spot at which we had arrived on the mountain, would lead them right into the line of fire of Boers stationed down the slope of the hill there. That the enemy was there in force I knew, so I directed my steps to that part of the edge of the basin on the other side of which I knew there was a precipice and bush in the kloof below. At all events, it was less likely that the enemy would be round so soon to stop the way at that point. The death-cries of the fugitives in every direction, the expectation of death every moment from one out of the shower of bullets coming from behind, made me redouble my efforts, but I never did more than hope to gain the ridge.

Every man who came up out of the basin to the ridge at any point along the whole face of the mountain was almost certainly shot down, as he presented a fair mark on the sky-line, not more than 50 yards distant from the enemy’s rifles. I gained the ridge, but was cowed at sight of the 40 feet sheer drop in front of me. I hesitated, and for the moment wished I had taken the same route as most of our men. Up to my side came two men of the 58th, and they also halted at sight of the chasm. A bullet from our rear struck one of them to the ground, and thinking it was as well to die of a broken neck as to be shot in the back, I sat down on the edge of the precipice, and dropped. Fortunately, there were growing out of the sides tufts of a kind of heather, and clutching frantically at these in my descent, I managed to land on my feet unhurt. I was hardly better off now than before, for the bush was very thin, and the ravine full of immense boulders, some lying flat, others tilted up on end, but every where monkey rope and undergrowth blocked the way. The uninjured 58th man who had been left on the ridge of the basin above, had followed my lead down the precipice, and as he got down safely he called out to warn me I would never get through the way I was going. He himself struck off to the left of the ravine, to gain a slope which was only grass-covered. I sang out to him to keep to the right, and make for the bush, as he would not have a chance of life in the open in a few minutes.

Already the Boers, seeing no attempt to rally was made, were in pursuit of our men, and had gained the face of the mountain looking down on our line of flight below. If their fire had been terrible before, it was equally so now. They poured continuous volleys into the ravine down which I was trying to make my way; their bullets pinged on the stones all round. Scrambling sometimes on hands and knees, tumbling and slipping at every other step, now tripped up by my feet catching in those confounded and confused monkey ropes, now coming to a dense mass of undergrowth which barred the way, I had not traveled many yards before I felt thoroughly exhausted; and, indifferent to bullets or anything else, I halted and gave myself up for lost. One of these showers of whistling missiles must sooner or later strike me; they could not keep impinging on the rocks, within a foot or less of my body, every second much longer. I lay on my back in the place where I had last fallen, and after a minute or two, with the renewed energy which despair brings, I rose and forced my way on again, always tumbling and falling, and being impeded by some obstacle or another. It was useless, however, and panting for breath, and thoroughly knocked up, I had to halt again. The fierce sun poured down on my head (my helmet had gone long ago), and increased my misery. I felt certain that I could not be hit now, or I should have been knocked over long since; so I again lay still, whilst strange thoughts came and went in rapid succession. For a second time, however, I made an attempt to get out of the fire. The ringing sound of the bullets on the stones was a wonderful incentive to renewed exertion; besides, some little way forward I saw the bush was dense, and offered cover from the enemy’s sight. Twenty yards more and I saw a slab of rock lying flat, the ends supported by being lodged on boulder-points. Under this slab there was a cavity large enough to hold three men in a crouching position. No bullet coming from the hill above could strike any one under that massive shelter, so I halted here, and took refuge under its friendly cover.

Barring a ricochet, or the Boers continuing the pursuit down this ravine, I was safe for the present. When night came, I might manage to sneak through down the mountain, and gain our camp. Meanwhile, the enemy’s fire continued without intermission, and I could hear that it was on all sides. MHQ

This article appears in the Autumn 2018 issue (Vol. 31, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Massacre at Majuba

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