South African Battle: 27 February 1881

The ignominious defeat on Majuba ended the First Anglo-Boer War.

In 1880, not long after the successful conclusion of the Anglo-Zulu War, simmering tensions that existed between the Boers and the British, following the British annexation of the Transvaal Republic in 1877, boiled over. Fresh from their victories over the Zulus, regiments such as the King’s Dragoon Guards, Connaught Rifles, King’s Royal Rifles and the Northamptonshire Regiment were supremely confident of their ability to defeat the Boers. The British Force was later supplemented by the 15 Hussars and the Gordon Highlanders. The Boers were woefully under-rated and their superior marksmanship and tactics, against the regular British infantry in their red tunics, inflicted a series of defeats on these famous regiments at Bronkhorst Spruit, Ingogo River (Schuinshoogte) and Laing’s Nek. Other British troops, who could have been called on as reinforcements were tied up in besieged towns such as Pretoria and Lydenburg.


On 26 February, Major-General Colley moved secretly out of his base camp at Mount Prospect with a compact force consisting of 2 companies of the Northamptonshire Regiment, 2 companies of the King’s Royal Rifles, 2 companies of the Gordon Highlanders, 64 men of the Naval Brigade, 2 guns and some Hussars. His objective was the ascent and occupation of Majuba Hill which overlooked and commanded the Boer camp and lines of defences on the flat beyond Laing’s Nek. This manoeuvre and the seizure of the Boer camp would break their lines and lead his force into the Transvaal. The King’s Royal Rifles were left at the bottom of the mountain together with the horses, reserve ammunition and the Hussars.  The top of the hill was reached just before daylight and the secret advance of the 600 troops was completed successfully. 

The Boers were also used to the terrain and took advantage. The British on the other hand were not used to this type of battle. British discipline began to wane. Colley attempted to reinforce the defensive position, but with more Boers arriving on the summit many of the British soldiers, disobeying orders, decided to flee. The casualties were heavy, with Colley himself paying the ultimate price. The Gordon’s were the most disciplined, but once outnumbered, and with Colley gone, the battle was over. British casualties were:

  • Killed            6 Officers and 86 other ranks
  • Wounded      9 Officers and 125 other ranks
  • Prisoners      6 Officers and 53 other ranks.


At first light on the following morning the Boers saw the British silhouetted against the rising sun on the top of Majuba. The British were busy arranging their defensive positions whilst the Boers were beginning to climb the mountain to engage the enemy. At 6am the Boers started firing at the British positions forcing the British to ‘keep their heads down’. This Boer fire was a diversion and enabled the Boer attackers to make their progress up the mountain undetected. By 11am 60 Boers had reached the summit.

Around midday, the Gordon Highlanders on their position Gordon Knoll, were under heavy Boer fire. More Boers were making their way up the mountain. The Gordon’s began their retreat from the Knoll. Confusion broke out amongst the British troops as the retreating Gordon’s came into contact with reserves ordered by Colley to help. Colley organised his troops in a defensive position however the Boers accurate fire made life difficult for the Brits.


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