On Sunday, the 27th of February, Sir George Colley made the last move. During the afternoon of the previous day the General who was a great theorist, had been cogitating some scheme whichhe only communicated to Colonel Stewart, and to one or two others. No sooner had " lights out" been sounded, than an order was passed round for detachments of the 58th, third battalion of the 60th Rifles, Naval Brigade, and Highlanders, to parade with three dayís rations. Then the order came that the force was to form up by the redoubt nearest the main road on their left. At ten a start was made, the General and staff riding in front, with the 58th leading, followed by the 6oth, and the Naval Brigade in the rear. The direction taken was straight up the Inguela Mountain. Arrived on a plateau about half way up, the troops proceeded by a path, narrow, almost as a sheep path, which winds across the steepest part of the mountain. Great boulders edged the hillside, and masses of rock hung perpendicularly above the surface of the ground. One step and the climber would have been hurled down some thirty feet, to be dashed to pieces against the stones, or entangled in the bush. This march was conducted in strict silence, no voice being raised, and indeed not a breath more than was required for climbing expended. Men and officers, all were bent on the one great feat of mounting and gaining the summit. The march continued over loose stones, and boulders and obstacles multifarious-sometimes round wrong tracks, owing to mistakes of the guide, and sometimes over grass and glassy slopes, where a man could make progress merely by means of hands and knees. Thus the force stealthily ascended, creeping up in ones and twos, the General and staff leading the way in ever-increasing darkness and silence.
So heavy was the work of ascent that, when at last they reached the top, the troops almost dropped from exhaustion. It was this exhaustion that is said by some to have influenced the General's plans, but others declare that he was not likely so to be influenced. Instead of attempting at once to throw up a rough entrenchment, he refused to permit it, declaring that the men were already over fatigued. A slight entrenchment might have made all the difference in the sad history of Majuba, but the General gave no orders to entrench, and thus the troops were left open to the enemy.
At early dawn, on looking towards the Nek, it was obvious that a large Boer force was there congregated, while at the base of the mountain was the right flank of the Dutch camp. Gazing down from the great height which had been so perseveringly gained, all hearts warmed with a glow of triumph and of anticipation. The rocket tubes and Gatlings would soon arrive, and then those below would be awakened to the tune of the guns ! From their point of vantage it seemed as though the British had the Boers at their mercy.
The hilltop of Majuba was hollowed out basinwise, and there seemed only a necessity to line the rim of it in the event of a rush from the enemy. But the suspicion that the Boers would creep from ridge to ridge, and mount the crest, never dawned on anyone. In the dense darkness it was impossible to become acquainted with the nature of all sides of the hill, and the troops imagined them all to be equally impregnable.
Mr.. Carter, who was there, says that at this time some twenty Highlanders stood on the ridge watching the lights of the enemy, and pointing to the camp below them, and laughingly repeating their challenge, " Come up here, you beggars. They never imagined it would be possible for them indeed to come ! He further states his belief that the reason why no entrenchmentís were attempted was that every staff officer on Majuba felt certain " that the Boers would never face the hill-entrenchmentís or no entrenchmentís on the summit-as long as the British soldier was there." For this almost fatuous belief in their own security these gallant soldiers were destined to pay heavily.
So soon as day light served to show our troops standing against the sky-line, the enemy began to advance at the base of the mountain. The first shot on that eventful day was fired at a Boer scout by Lieutenant Lucy of the 58th, but the General, hearing it, sent word to " stop that firing. Silence again reigned. But in the meantime the Boers were crawling cautiously up the hill after leaving their horses safely under cover. About 6 P.M. they opened a steady fire, to which the British troops responded cordially. The Boer bullets, though doubling those of the British, did little damage, as the troops were partially sheltered within the basin of the hilltop. Thus the fight continued till nine, none of the officers at that time even suspecting that the enemy would venture to "rush " their stronghold. No one was wounded, and nothing was to be seen on any side of the hill, as the Boers kept closely under cover. At this juncture many men, worn out and fatigued, laid themselves down to sleep. Suddenly Lieutenant Lucy appeared asking for reinforcements, and saying that the fire was " warming up " in his direction. Some minutes later the General, who was perpetually moving round the line, cool, collected, and calculating as ever, flashed a message to Mount Prospect camp, ordering the 60th Rifles to be sent from Newcastle to his support.
Later the General espied two Boers within 600 yards or so of him mounting the ravine, and pointed them out. He had scarcely done this when Commander Romilly fell. This gallant sailor was deservedly, and gloom suddenly spread over the hitherto cheerful force. Still no one dreamed that the Boers would really get to close quarters. The first awakening came when the firing, which had been till then in single shots, poured upwards in volleys. From the sound it was evident that the enemy was much nearer than had been supposed. The Highlanders, who were facing this unexpected fusillade, were soon reinforced by the reserves which had been ordered to their assistance.
The 58th, 60th and Naval Brigade disappeared over the ridge to meet the enemy, and vigorously returned their fire. For one moment that of the Boers appeared to slacken ; then suddenly there came a precipitate retreat of our men, the officers shouting "Rally on the right !" This order was obeyed, the troops describing a semicircle and coming back to the ridge to a point at left of that from which they had been demoralising. At this standpoint the men had become hopelessly mixed up- sailors, Highlanders, and 58th men all in a wild melee. Over this heterogeneous mass the officers had lost their personal influence. While order was being restored the Boer firing ceased. The pause was just sufficient to allow breathing time, for they almost instantaneously reopened with redoubled vigour. Their shooting was scarcely successful, but a hail of lead from the upturned muzzles of rifles continued to traverse the thirty yards which now separated the foes.
The enemy numbered only about 200, but they hoped by rapidity of fire to hold the British in check till their comrades should come to the rescue. Mr. Carter thus graphically describes what was really the last despairing effort of our men :- The order was given in our lines, Fix bayonets, and immediately the steel rang from the scabbard of every man, and flashed in the bright sunlight the next second on the muzzle of every rifle.
"That's right " cheerily called Major Fraser. ' Now , men of the 92nd, don't forget your bayonets ! he added, with marked emphasis on the word bayonets. It was the bayonet or nothing now, officer's words sent quite a pleasant thrill through all. Stewart immediately added, ' And the men of the 58th ! ' the Naval Brigade ! sang out another officer, Captain MacGregor, I think, "Show them the cold steel, men! that will check them", continued Fraser, whilst volley after volley came pouring in, and volley after volley went in the direction of the enemy. But why this delay? The time we were at this point I cannot judge, except personally recalling incidents in succession. When the bayonet rang into the rifle-sockets simultaneously with the reopening of the Boers' volleys, I felt convinced that in two minutes that murderous fire would be silenced, and our men driving the foe helter-skelter down hill. After the bayonets had been drawn and fixed, and remained fixed our men still firing for at least four or five minutes, and no order came to ' charge,' I changed my opinion suddenly. "
Here we may imagine the agony-hope, doubt, suspense-that passed like a lightning flash through the minds of all who were present.
The uproar at this time grew appalling. Commands of the officers,' crash of shot, the shrieks of the wounded, all helped to aggravate the din. Boers were fast climbing the mountain sides, and the troops, worn out and almost expended, were beginning to lose the spirit of discipline that hitherto had sustained them. The officers stepped forward boldly, sword in one hand and revolver in the other, but to no purpose. Only an insignificant number of men now responded to the command.
Mr. Carter declares that when Lieutenant Hamilton of the 92nd asked Sir George Colley's permission to charge with the bayonet he replied" Wait a while." Such humanity was almost inhumanity, for waiting placed at stake many lives that might have been
'The correspondent says :-
Evidently Sir George Colley allowed his feelings of humanity to stand in the way of the request of the young officer. We were forty yards at the farthest from the enemy's main attacking party,
In traversing these forty 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 twenty 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 time to reload before our men were on them. I am not sure that the first rush of the infantry would not have demoralised 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 our men, who would have had the additional advantage of the higher ground? If the 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 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 ten paces directing some men to extend to the right. It was the last time saw him alive".
It is unnecessary to dwell further on the tragic events of that unlucky battle. After midday our troops retreated, and the retreat soon became a rout. At this time Sir George Colley was shot. Dismay seized all hearts, followed by panic. The British soldiers rushed helter-skelter down the precipitous steeps they had so cheerfully climbed the night before, many of them losing their lives in their efforts to escape from the ceaseless fire of the now triumphant enemy.
Before leaving this sad subject, it may be interesting to note a Boer account of the day's doings which is related by Mr. Rider Haggard in his useful book on " The Last Boer War " :-
" A couple of months after the storming of Majuba, I, together with a friend, had a conversation with a Boer, a volunteer from the Free State in the late war, and one of the detachment that stormed Majuba, who gave us a circumstantial account of the attack with the greatest willingness. He said that when it was discovered that the English had possession of the mountain, he thought that the game was up, but after a while bolder counsels prevailed, and volunteers were called for to storm the hill. Only seventy men could be found to perform the duty, of whom he was one. They started up the mountain in fear and trembling, but soon found that every shot passed over their heads, and went on with greater boldness. Only three men, he declared, were hit on the Boer side ; one was killed, one was hit in the arm, and he himself was the third, getting his face grazed by a bullet, of which he showed us the scar. He stated that the first to reach the top ridge was a boy of twelve, and soon as the troops saw them they fled, when, he said, he paid them out for having nearly killed him, knocking them over one another ' like bucks ' as they ran down the hill, adding that it was "alter lecker ' (very nice)".