Sir Harry Smith:

A Reminiscence Of The Boer War In 1848

The Fortnightly Review, 1 December 1899

"WHAT price Majuba?" was the triumphant shout of the Gordons as they swept over the crest of the hill at Elandslaagte, and it is a fitting battle cry for a regiment that had three companies in the famous disaster of 1881. But it seems to have occurred to no one that the defeat of Majuba was in itself merely a revenge for the victory of Bloemplaatz in 1848, which is almost forgotten in English history, seeing that the men who defeated us in 1881 must have been in many cases the actual sons of those whom we had routed in 1848. As Bloemplaatz (or Boomplaatz as it is also called) was the first open field on which Englishman met Boer it is interesting to note how many of their characteristics have remained unaltered during the last fifty years.

During the period between 1840 to 1848 a great African Empire was founded, and the events of those years form a peculiar example of the adventurous and predatory character of our early colonising in the dark continent, as will be seen from the following narrative. The British Government took, in 1842, the first step towards annexing the then anarchical State of Natal by sending a small detachment of cavalry, under Captain Smith, to garrison Durban; the Dutch farmers at once revolted and besieged the town, whereupon Smith sallied out with half his small garrison and walked confidently into a Boer trap, losing fifty men and two guns.

After this misadventure, having got through the usual British preliminary reverse, he settled down doggedly to his work. His garrison was small, and they were soon so hard pressed that, after a gallant defence of five weeks, he would certainly have been compelled to surrender, but for the extra-ordinary feat of a trusty messenger named King, who rode four hundred miles through a wild unknown country in nine days, taking a message to Grahamstown. This heroic effort saved Durban, for, as the troops were eating the last of their horses, two warships arrived to their relief, and the Dutch beat a hasty retreat, the better-disposed amongst them settling down under British rule, and the more dis-affected trekking over the Drakensberg to find new homes north of the Orange or Vaal rivers.

Was at this juncture that a fresh Governor appeared on the scene, whose individuality has left a very decided impression on the History of Natal; he was Sir Harry Smith, who has given his name to more than one of the towns in South Africa. He was a man of peculiar character, being gifted with so great a charm of manner as to win him friends and followers wherever he went, but cursed with so uncontrollable a temper that he was often unable to restrain an outburst of oaths at the most inconvenient moments. Like John Nicholson in India, he turned both these characteristics to good account, and, like Nicholson, he knew how to make his subordinates work for him and care for him. Mr. Nixon, the traveller, tells a story of Sir Harry Smith, which he read in a Cape magazine, that well illustrates these peculiarities: "It was during a negotiation with the Kaffirs in the east of the colony. Some native chief had shown a tendency to rebel. Sir Harry summoned them to a conference with him, at which he determined to urge them into submission.

He arranged a speech about the greatness of England. At a proper place be was to touch the spring of a galvanic battery which was connected with some kegs of gunpowder placed under a waggon on a neighbouring hill, and which, it was hoped, would be blown to pieces. Sir Harry commenced his speech. The crisis arrived. The connection was made; but, unfortunately, the waggon was too well built to explode, and was only tilted on end.

But notwithstanding the failure of the carefully rehearsed drama, the interview did not come to an end without a real theatrical performance. After the set speech was ended, one of the chiefs ventured to express a doubt of the intentions of the British. This was too much for Sir Harry. Carried away by a fit of rage, he drew his sword, and, presenting it at the naked breast of the savage, he swore he would run him through if he did not there and then take an oath of obedience to the Government. The assembled chiefs were cowed by the unwonted outbreak. One after another they subscribed the required submission, and Sir Harry's wrath averted a Kaffir war." Among the Boers. John Nixon

He was not, however, successful only in the character of Sir Anthony Absolute - he could also take that of Charles Surface when necessary for his country's interests. Soon after his arrival in Africa he visited Natal, and created so good an impression by his courteous and agreeable manners, that he seems to have, for the moment, quite reconciled Pretorius and the disaffected Boers. But when shortly afterwards he issued a proclamation annexing the country between the Orange and Vaal rivers to England, they broke out afresh into open resistance; Sir Harry, however, was a match for them in war as in peace; he had proved his daring and determination at Sobraon in the bloody Sikh war, and a few hours after hearing of the revolt, he was on his way to Bloemfontein with some eight hundred men and three six-pounders.

He crossed the deep and strong Orange River (by means of caoutchouc pontoons) unmolested, and met Pretorius with a force nominally a thousand strong at a spot called Bloemplaatz, which had been carefully selected as being most easily defensible; after three hours' fighting the Boers were driven from all their positions, and fled helter-skelter, leaving forty-nine men dead on the field, and a proportionate number of wounded. By referring to the London Gazette we can get Sir Harry's own official description of the fight, and as he makes several observations which show in a curious way how very little the Boer has changed in the last fifty years, the report is, at this moment, of considerable interest.

Sir Harry tells us that the position occupied by the Boers was "a succession of ridges of hills on either side of a stream, strongly undulating and covered with large stones and brush. Its advance was formed by a lower range" - one fancies one might almost be reading a description of Laings Nek or Elandslaagte, from the account of the position they chose. Sir Harry, as a matter of fact (though he does not say so), seems to have ridden almost on to them before he was aware of their presence. They sprang up, he says, "like the clansmen of Roderick Dhu," and poured in a tremendous fire from which he was compelled to make a hurried escape, covering his retreat with a volley of oaths; but his outburst of rage did not prevent him from issuing his orders, a few moments later, as coolly as he had ever done on a barrack square.

The Cape Mounted Rifles, who were reconnoitring, and, of course, not fitted to stand their ground against musketry, were ordered back, while the three guns were brought up. "A more rapid, fierce, and well-directed fire I have never seen maintained," says Sir Harry - and he had seen real war in the Peninsula as well as in India. The attack soon began in grim earnest; Sir Harry placed his two companies of the Rifle Brigade and his two companies of the 45th Regiment (the Sherwood Foresters) on his right, in order to turn the enemies' left flank.

The Cape Mounted Rifles were now on his left and the detach-ment of the 91st Regiment (Argyllshire Highlanders) was in reserve behind the three guns, which were by this time pounding away at the enemy as rapidly as they could be served; but the Dutch farmers stood their ground manfully - on their right they even repulsed the Cape Mounted Rifles and (contrary to their custom) followed them into the plain, threatening the English camp.p> On their left, however, the attack was too strong for them; they had been pounded for somc time by the artillery when Sir Harry gave the word, and a simul-taneous rush was made by the English regiments; the Rifles turned their left flank, the 45th attacked their left centre, and the 91st their right centre at the same moment. This was too much for the brave peasant soldiers. A hill on their left was seized, and they were compelled to retire all along the line; but they still defended each ridge obstinately, and finally ensconcing themselves on the last and highest point of the neck they threw back the Cape Rifles and Griquas who had been pushing them closely. It took another combined attack of all the English forces to dislodge them from this position, and then at last they gave in, and were gone before any adequate pursuit could be made.

In this engagement (which ended the war) Sir Harry's force had consisted of at least 800 regulars and 250 Griquas (who, he charitably says, "did their best"), so we may consider his losses comparatively light, amounting as they did to 54 killed and wounded. The Boer force, however, which before the battle had dwindled from 1,000 to 750, suffered severely, leaving 49 dead on the field, while the number of their wounded must have been far greater, but it has never been ascertained. "It was one of the most severe skirmishes I believe I ever witnessed," wrote Sir Harry afterwards, and we may judge of the desperate stand which the Boers made by another remark of his: "No prisoners were taken," he says, "for none of the rebels would yield. Captain Armstrong was treacherously wounded by a man to whom he offered quarter, and this was not the only instance of its being refused."

Such was our first pitched battle with the Boers, in which we may observe several characteristics singularly familiar in the engagements of our present war. "The Boer," says Sir Harry, "never fights without his horse, from which he usually dismounts to fire over the saddle, and consequently when vigorously pressed he has no time to remount." This was in 1848, but now in 1899 we have again seen our cavalry stampede the Boer horses (at Elandslaagte) without allowing them "time to remount." Another point for which we could perhaps find a parallel is that although the English actually counted 49 corpses on the field, no Boer narrator will admit to more than eight or ten killed, and a few wounded.

At Majuba there were only some five hundred and fifty English-men engaged in the actual fighting, while the numbers of the Boers are not known for certain, but there were undoubtedly fewer com-batants than at Bloemplaatz. Beyond doubt the Boer farmers of 1881 were many of them sons and grandsons of those who fought in 1848; resistance to England seems to run in families. Amongst the fifteen men who forwarded the formal protests of the Transvaal against Sir Harry's manifesto we find such names as Pretorius, Kruger, Kock, Botha, Steyn, which are to be read in every paper to-day. On our side we find, as usual, Rifles, Highlanders, and Cape Mounted Infantry; but the most noticeable coincidence is that, of all his officers, many of whom had been with him on the Sutlej, the man whom Sir Harry especially mentions as having shown, "with much judgment, gallantry, and ability, a great knowledge of his profession," is Colonel Buller, of the Rifle Brigade, who was of the same family, though not an immediate relation of Sir Redvers, our Commander in the present war.

George F. H. Berkley