Majuba – The Hill of Doves

After the defeat at both Laing’s nek and lngogo, Colley urgently had to look at other tactics. None of his officers were consulted and the only hint of this was in the last paragraph of a letter, dated 4 February 1881, which he wrote to General Evelyn Wood: “I would gladly give you the Pretoria column, but I must push on there myself to assume the government. The force is hardly enough for two generals and the rest of the command would be left without one. You will also, I am sure, understand that I mean to take the Nek myself’.

In order to achieve that, Colley argued to himself, he had to secure a position from where he could have the Boer forces on Laing’s nek at his feet. Majuba was the key.

On the 23rd of February 1881 a new force of almost 2000 men arrived at Mount Prospect with a reserve force left in Newcastle under General Wood. The new force consisted of the 92nd Regiment Gordon Highlanders, a Naval Brigade under Francis Romilly [overall second in command] and a division of the 15th Hussars. Both sides knew that the next encounter was close.

In the mean time a letter from General Colley to President Kruger was handed to General Smit. A paragraph in it stated that General Colley had the authority to cease hostilities, should the letter be answered within 48 hours. This ultimatum was impossible to comply with since President Kruger was then in Heidelberg.

During the night of 26 February 1881 Colley and 728 men set off on an 8km detour in order to pass unnoticed by the Boers. He left 140 men at the foot of the lmkwela hill to guard the communication link to Mt. Prospect while the rest ascended Majuba between 3 and 4 am.

George Pomeroy Colley, who died on Majuba at the age of 45, was an extraordinary person. He was one of the greatest military experts in the 19th century, an academic professor at Sandhurst, a mathematician, a musician [he played the flute (flautino)J, a poet and ornithologist. He was also fluent in German and French. He was admitted to the Military College of Sandhurst at the age of thirteen and overshadowed the other students from the outset.

As an eighteen-year-old lieutenant he served in the Queens Regiment on the Cape Colony’s eastern border in wars against the Xhosa. In 1860 he served in the war against China, in the Ashanti campaign is west Africa [Ghana], in India before he was sent back to South Africa during the 1870’s and 1880’s. The last time as Governor of Natal, High Commissioner of the Colonies in Southern Africa and Commander of all the British forces in South Africa.

General Colley died on the summit of Majuba in 1881 standing up to the enemy even after his men started fleeing. He died from a bullet wound on his forehead above his right eye.

The whole atmosphere on the hill was one of a sense of security. “We could stay here for ever” General Colley iterated. The atmosphere was a relaxed aura of achievement.

Consternation broke out the next morning when the Boers noticed the British force on top of Majuba. It was not until Commandant General Piet Joubert summoned his two generals with the words: “Daar zijn de Engelschen op den kop, julle gaat hulle nou daar afhalen” [The English are on the hill, you are going to get them down now].

With huge efficiency General Nicolaas ~DJithad his strategy and orders going. Hundred and fifty men in three divisions under Commandant Joachim Ferreira, field cornet Fanus Roos and assistant field cornet Danie Malan ascended. Making use of dead ground, where they were invisible to the enemy, and covered by accurate crossfire was tactically brilliant. By 11 am the first Boers reached the bottom of the summit and a Boer bullet fired from a distance of 900m killed Commander Romilly the second in command.

“Just hold on for three days,” was Calley’s command. The Boer gunfire increased from their “invisible” positions.

Lieutenant Ian Hamilton [whom later became Allied Commander at the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War] made a plan. Thirty men would peek over the side of the summit; fire simultaneously and as quickly as possible, before being replaced by the next thirty men with the same strategy. Of the first thirty men, twenty-eight were hit by Boer gunfire. It was at that moment that Fanus Roos commanded: “Karels die Engelse vlug. Storm!” {Boys, the English are on the retreat. Charge!]. The Boers took Gordon’s Knoll, which gave them access to the summit of Majuba. The other two divisions made it to the summit from the west and Southeast respectively. The British forces were in disarray; some fled while others like General Colley, fought till the end.

The Boers suffered only one fatality while the British lost 92 soldiers, including General Colley and 134 were wounded. This was a major deciding battle of the First Anglo Boer War and has become a legend in British military history.