The Battle of Majuba Hill

The Battle of Majuba Hill

Dr John Laband
ARRSE Rating
4.5 Mushroom Heads
This book examines the reasons behind one of Britain’s more embarrassing imperial episodes, the Transvaal Campaign of 1880-81 and the disaster of the battle of Majuba Hill where regular British troops were comprehensively defeated by Boer irregulars and routed. The author, Dr John Laband, knows his stuff and this is clearly shown throughout the book.

I must confess that I knew little of the Transvaal Campaign (or the Transvaal Rebellion, the First Boer War, the Anglo-Transvaal War – there are a number of names depending on how you interpret the longer-term implications and what your politics are!). The author quickly explains the background and the context of the campaign, both locally in the Transvaal and South Africa and the wider context within the Empire. There is also a brief (and effective) description of the politics and changes within the British Army (most notably the move from long-service to short-service soldiers) and the development of the Boer militia as a fighting force.

Laband covers the whole campaign, which seems mostly to have been sieges, skirmishes and battles. In the sieges (mainly of companies maintaining garrisons in the Transvaal), the British held on, due at least partially to many Boers being content to isolate the garrisons rather than assault them. The skirmishes and battles are largely a list of defeats where the British quickly discovered that the Boers were more mobile, better shots and made better use of ground. This came to a head at Majuba Hill where the Boers demonstrated that they could assault regular British troops uphill and chase them off it. It was the climax to a campaign where the British discovered that the Boers were better than they were despite being an irregular militia.

The Boers had to shoot well in order to live, both hunting for the pot and fighting routinely in low-level skirmishes. This also taught them how to use ground well and they were well-motivated as they did not want to be ruled by foreigners. The British lacked individual marksmanship skills, were arguably arrogant in their views of the Boers, had recently changed the way that soldiers were retained (resulting in less-experienced soldiers) and, in the way the units were broken up by their chain of command, began to lose sub-unit cohesion. On Majuba Hill, this resulted in a rout.

The author brings all this alive in such a way that this book can be read as either a simple history book for those interested in the subject or as a well-presented university primer. It’s plainly written, the maps are simple and clear and the author knows what he is writing about.
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This is a fascinating book and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the British Empire or the history of the British Army. It explains simply why soldiers do (and do not) fight and is an excellent read.
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