The Boer War can be seen as falling into four main phases. The first phase saw the Boers invade British territory, and lay siege to Ladysmith and Kimberley. The second phase saw the arrival of General Sir Redvers Bullers to take command of the British response, and was dominated by a series of attempts to relieve the besieged towns, each of which ended in failure.
The relief of Kimberley was entrusted to Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen. Despite his high rank, Methuen had almost no experience of command in the field, having served as a staff officer for most of his career (as had Bullers). His one field command had come in the bloodless Bechuanaland Expedition of 1884-5. He was popular, hard working and interested in his profession (by no means common amongst Victorian officers), but the Kimberley expedition was to suggest that he was not too bright, and was unwilling to adapt his plans when things went wrong.
Methuen prepared for the relief expedition at the point where the railway from Cape Town crossed the Orange River. That railway line continued on across the flat country to Kimberley, no more than a week’s march away. The only barriers in his way were the Modder River, and three places where clusters of kopjes linked by ridges blocked the direct route. However, Methuen would be marching without a good map, so his freedom of movement was limited. As long as he followed the railway he was safe. This meant that the Boers could fairly safely predict the route of the British advance.
They needed that advantage, for they were very heavily outnumbered. Methuen began his march with around 10,000 men, and continued to receive new troops on the march, until he had 15,000 men present for the battle of Magersfontein. In contrast, the Boers opposing him started with 2,000 men, although by the time of Magersfontein they too had been reinforced, giving them 8,500 men. Methuen’s main weakness was a lack of cavalry.
Methuen began his march on 21 November 1899. Towards the end of the next day his advance guard ran into the first Boer defensive line, at Belmont. Methuen decided to launch a frontal assault on the Boer position, with the intention of putting “the fear of God into these people”. The Battle of Belmont (23 November) was a clear British victory, despite a plan based on an inaccurate map. The British infantry forced their way to the top of the kopje, and the Boers were forced to retreat. British losses were twice those suffered by the Boers, but the Boer commander, Jacob Prinsloo, described the battle as “a terrible fight to our disadvantage.”
An inevitable side effect of the victory at Belmont was that Methuen was confirmed in his belief in the value of the frontal assault. On 25 November he used the same tactic against a second Boer defensive line (battle of Enslin, Graspan or Rooilaagte). Once again the Boers were forced to retreat after a costly British attack, once again they were able to retreat largely intact.
Methuen was now very close to Kimberley. Only the Modder River and the hills at Magersfontein blocked his advance. Methuen expected the Boers to defend the line of hills. Instead they decided to make a stand on the Modder River. Prinsloo had been replaced by Koos de la Rey and Piet Cronjé. De la Rey arrived first, and was responsible for the plan. The Modder and Riet rivers flowed through narrow cuts, some thirty feet below the level of the surrounding plains. De la Rey decided to use the river banks as natural trenches, and dug his men into the river bank facing the British advance.
The Boer plan totally surprised the British. On 28 November (Battle of the Modder River), unaware of the true nature of the river, Methuen’s men were preparing to advance towards what they thought would be a largely unopposed river crossing. When the British advanced to within 1,200 yards of the river, the Boers opened fire. The British could neither advance nor retreat, and were forced to spend the rest of the day flat on the ground trying to find what little cover they could. The accurate Boer rifle fire inflicted nearly 500 casualties on the British (70 dead and 400 wounded). Boer losses were not as low as a description of the battle would suggest – 50 were killed, mostly by British artillery fire. Overnight, discouraged by one minor British success, the Boers decided to withdraw.
Despite the setback at the Modder River, Methuen was now almost within site of Kimberley. From his position by the Modder River, Methuen was actually in regular contact with the besieged town. Knowing that the town was safe, Methuen waited for reinforcements to arrive. When he was ready to move again, he had 15,000 men. Against him the Boers now had around 8,000 men.
Once again it was De le Rey who came up with the Boer plan that would win them the battle of Magersfontein (11 December 1899). He had realised just how powerful modern accurate rifle fire was on the South Africa plains. Instead of building their defences along the top of the hills around Magersfontein, De la Rey persuaded his colleagues that they should build their trenches along the base of the hills.
Methuen was totally fooled. On 10 December his artillery bombarded the empty hilltops. The next day the Highland Brigade advanced towards the base of the hills, unaware that they were approaching the Boer trenches. Finally, when the Scots were 400 yards from the hidden trenches, the Boers opened fire. The results were devastating. The Highlanders were still in their closed marching formation, just about to spread out for the advance. The commander of the Highland Brigade, Major General Andrew Wauchope, was killed, and the brigade stumbled back in retreat. Just as at the Modder River, they spend most of the day flat on the ground trying to avoid rifle fire. Finally, at about 1.30 p.m. the British line retreated, despite orders to hold on till darkness fell. The retreat quickly turned into a rout as the Boers fired on the retreating Scots – any idea that it was not Christian to fire on a retreat foe was long gone by now.
The British suffered 971 casulaties at Magersfontein (205 dead, 690 wounded and 76 missing or prisoners). Boer losses were much lower, perhaps around 300. In the aftermath of the defeat, Methuen retreated back to the Modder River. Magersfontein came in the same week as defeats at Stormberg (10 December) and Colenso (15 December). This became known as Black Week. Buller lost his command and was replaced by Field Marshal “Bobs” Robert, although he remained in South Africa. Methuen remained on the Modder River when Roberts arrived to launch a second attempt to relieve Kimberley, and remained in South Africa until the end of the war, managing to be captured by the Boers at the battle of Tweebosch (7 March 1902). Finally, Kimberley would have to wait until February 1900 to be relieved.