The Battle of Magersfontein

The Rovos Rail journey takes pride in educating our passengers on the rich history of South Africa. A notable stop is the site of the Battle of Magersfontein. The battle was fought on the 11 December 1899 at Magersfontein, north east of the Modder River, near Kimberley in the present-day Northern Cape. Back then, Magersfontein was found on the borders of the Cape Colony and the independent Boer-run Orange Free State. The second Anglo-Boer War’s early days were fought in the Cape Colony, with many towns being laid under siege. The Boers, by 1888, had surrounded and laid siege to Kimberley and Mafikeng and had destroyed the railway bridge across the Orange River at Hopetown, trapping the British troops.

Magersfontein battle

 To solve this, the British sent an army corps under General Redvers Buller to South Africa where they were divided into three main fronts. Buller advanced from Durban to relieve Ladysmith, Lt General Gatacre secured the Cape Midlands and the 1st Division under Lord Methuen advanced from the Orange River to relieve Kimberley. The British had taken a substantial knock from the Boers with regards to weapons, numbers and, of course, the navigation of foreign landscapes. However, as the months progressed, the Boers lost their high numbers and fought the defence, resulting in the sieges. British tactics had changed little from the Crimea War, thus, sinking the British deeper into defeat.

The railway bridge at Modder River was rebuilt by Lord Methuen and his troops as they arrived, a vital part of the rescue mission of Kimberley. The 9000 Boers led by General De La Rey dug a line of trenches at the base of the Magersfontein Hill where they would be safe from the British guns and correctly predicting the 8000 British would arrive at the summit of the hill via the railway. The British, led by Major General Andrew Wauchope, made its approach at daybreak. As the British approached the hill, the Boers opened fire and took the regiment by surprise. The soldiers rushed around in confusion and could not re-organise themselves, leading many to their demise. By the time the sun had risen, the Highlander Brigade at the front had been pinned to the ground by the Boers with no British soldier being able to move without attracting fire. Methuen was at a loss before sending companies forward to engage the Boers.

British soldier

Methuen did not advance to the gap left between the Magersfontein positions and the Free State trenches, allowing the Boers to close in. After nine hours of constant fire and exposure to the heat, the British regiments broke and withdrew, making for the rear. The battle was won by the Boers by a considerable margin. The British suffered 902 casualties, among them Major General Wauchope. The Boers lost 236 men.

This battle was a decisive victory for the Boer cause and is a significant part of South Africa’s military history. Guests on our luxury Rovos Safari will be able to embark on a tour of the battlefield with an experienced guide and historian and discover more about this exciting time in history.