General Hector Macdonald
("Fighting Mac"), (1857 - 1903)
(K.C.B., D.S.O., A.D.C., L.L.D.)
April 13th 1853, on the Black Isle, near Dingwall, MacDonald was the
son of a crofter. He worked with a draper in Inverness, before joining
the army, at the age of 17 he enlisted in the 92nd Gordon Highlanders.
By 21 he rose to the rank of Colour Sergeant. In 1879 MacDonald saw
action in the Second Afghan War and he marched into Kabul under the
command of Sir Frederick Roberts. The march on Kabul was enforced because
of the murder of the British resident and his staff there. Macdonald
displayed a great deal of courage during the march in which they met
considerable opposition. He was fortunate in his acts of bravery; these
being noticed by Lord Roberts himself who was impressed. His gallantry
in Afghanistan saw him being promoted from the ranks (1880), a rare
occurence at the time. The 92nd Gordon Highlanders were sent to South
Africa the following year. Here occured the Battle
of Majuba Hill (see below) where, as a Second Lieutenant, he was
in command of 20 men on the hill. During the heavy fighting on the hill
every one of his troop was killed and he was reduced to hand to hand
combat with the enemy. He was taken prisoner but so impressed the Boer
Commander General Joubert that he was released. In 1885, as Captain,
he joined the Egyptian army working closely with the Sudanese troops
within that army and played a vital part in the repelling of the Dervishes
at Toski in 1889. For this he won the DSO. In 1891 his Sudanese battalion
acquitted themselves well at the battle of Tokar for which he was promoted
to the rank of Major. He rose steadily through the ranks and by the
time Sir Herbert Kitchener was ready to retake the Sudan in 1896 Hector
was Lieutenant-Colonel. He then went on to serve with honour at the
Battle of Omdurman in the Anglo-Sudanese campaign. It was this action
that made him a national hero, he was made a C.B. and appointed as an
ADC to Queen Victoria and promoted to full Colonel. In 1899, October,
he was promoted to Brigadier-General and when Major-General Wauchope
was killed at the battle of Magersfontein, during the Second Boer War,
he was sent to take command of the Highland Brigade. This gave him the
rank of Major-General. Here he took part in the Battle
of Paardeberg (see below) and he was knighted by King Edward VII
in 1901 for his service during that war. He took command of the army
in Ceylon in 1902. MacDonald's name and face was widely used to sell
products, but he had difficulty with his heroic status. In 1903, questions
were raised about his sexuality and allegations made about his behaviour
in Ceylon. There were suspicions that the allegations were fabricated
by MacDonald's enemies. He was despised by some of the military establishment,
who considered themselves of a superior class and looked down on MacDonald's
thick Scottish accent and 'uncultured' ways. Before any trial, the allegations
were raised publicly in the International Herald Tribune newspaper and
the disgraced MacDonald shot himself in a Paris hotel room.
Battle of Majuba Hill - The First Boer War 1881
the night of 26 February 1881 Major-General Sir George Colley planned
to lead a force of 650 soldiers and sailors, including 180 Gordon Highlanders
to capture a hill called Majuba, the hill was steep and would take the
soldiers all night to accomplish the goal. At dawn the army had taken
the hill and now could see the Boer's camp below, Colley became a little
to comfortable with assuming the position at the summit, Lieutenant
Ian Hamilton and Colonel A.D. Macgregor suggested entrenchment, but
Colley failed to do so.
Boers now could see the soldiers at the top of Majuba and began to take
action, the commander put together a force and began to climb the steep
hill. The Boers knowing the hill very well new how to climb the slopes
and remain under cover. The Boers came over the crest of the summit
and attacked, it had been said the Boers were firing so rapidly that
you could only see their rifles through the smoke as they crept on.
Their fire was so accurate the British quickly began a retreat-which
soon became a rout.
was asleep when the attack began and was now awake shouting orders,
a bullet struck him in the head and he died instantly. After a short
time most of the men were killed or wounded, many shot in the back as
they ran for their lives. Macdonald was a Second Lieutenant who commanded
a force of twenty men that tried to hold part of the west side of the
hill. Men dying one by one in the hail of fire until only Macdonald
and his lance corporal remained, down to their last round Macdonald
began fighting with his fists, even hurled rocks at the Boers until
he was overpowered.
Boers approached Macdonald to take him prisoner, one Boer grabbed Macdonald's
sporran. Macdonald could not stand for this and gave the Boer a kick
in the stomach, which sent him to the ground. Just as the Boer was getting
up, another pointed a rifle at Macdonald's head, but the would-be robber
of the sporran put his friend's rifle away with his hand saying, "No,
no; don't slay him - this man is too good to kill!"
they jumped on Macdonald and held him down, grasping his throat and
twisting an arm back on to the rocks. He shouted at them in Gaelic,
and they replied in guttural Dutch, punching him in the face until he
the Boers dragged Macdonald to his feet he had four men holding him,
he lost his pistol and his sword, Macdonald was now a prisoner, the
battle lasted only one hour. British casualties were 93 killed, 133
wounded and 58 taken prisoner; Boer losses were said to be one killed
and five wounded.
that day Macdonald was brought before Boer General Joubert, and after
reading the inscription on Macdonald's sword, Joubert said "A man
who has won such a sword should not be separated from it" the sword
was returned to Macdonald, he was held prisoner at Laing's Nek for several
days and then he was sent back to his camp.
the second Boer War the battle cry was "Remember Majuba!"
Battle of Paardeberg - Second Boer War 1900
day towards the end of January 1900 'Fighting Mac' arrived at the Modder
River Camp to take up his command, and the Highland Brigade turned out
to welcome their new Brigadier. The Modder River camp lay where the
rivers Riet and Modder meet. Hector Macdonald was considered a worthy
successor to Lord Clyde, Sir Archibald Alison, and 'Andy' Wauchope,
a fit man to command Scotland's sons. And that meant a very fine man
indeed. There was a great deal of work to do, and the new commanders
Macdonald arrived at the Modder he was cheered by the men. Then he called
his battalion commanders together and talked to them. The disaster at
Magersfontein must be forgotten. The way ahead would be difficult, but
Lord Roberts was taking over command, and from now on there would be
no looking back. To give the men something to think and talk about,
Macdonald announced one day that for a few hours he would temporarily
take over personal command of a company - normally a Captain's duty.
Parading this company before the whole brigade he informed them that
they had to contend against a wily enemy capable of playing clever tricks.
They would have to use all their cunning to beat the Boers at their
addressing the company, he put them through an hour's parade-ground
drill. It is safe to say that they had never before been drilled by
a General with a Colour-Sergeant's word of command and a voice that
carried far beyond the tents of the camp. The Highland Brigade talked
of very little else that day; everyone agreed that 'Fighting Mac' was
the man to get things done. Besides, he knew his drill book, and that
was rare. Macdonald had many years of experience behind him. He had
served in the ranks and he knew what private soldiers thought and how
they behaved; in some respects he never ceased to be an ordinary Highland
soldier. He was not a man who sat in the Officers' Mess and left the
care of his men to subordinates. So when he set out to inspect his new
command, visiting each battalion in turn, he made sure he not only met
every officer personally, but also as many of the N.C.O.s and men as
of the criticisms of Kitchener was that he hardly ever talked to the
men. But 'Fighting Mac' went amongst them, asked to meet non-commissioned
officers, inspected the cook-houses, made sure the troops were being
properly fed, examined a platoon's boots, inquired into the recreational
facilities, and arrived unexpectedly at drill parades to see what was
happening. And to make the Highlanders forget their recent set-back,
and give them something to think about, he ordered a series of ceremonial
on a gray horse down the ranks of the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherlands,
the Seaforths, and the Highland Light Infantry, 'Fighting Mac' stopped,
dismounted, talked to men and their commanders, shook hands with private
soldiers and Lance-corporals, let them have a good look at him, expressed
surprise if buttons or brasses were unpolished, drank with the officers
and Sergeants in their messes, and in three days had won the hearts
of what had seemed a dispirited, lost brigade.
February 8th, 1900, Roberts and Kitchener arrived at the Modder camp,
where there were now some 37,000 men, 113 guns, 12,000 horses, and 22,000
transport animals. It was reported that there were no less than seventy-eight
'Fighting Macs', twenty-one of them Macdonalds.
mislead the enemy and divert attention, Macdonald's brigade, with two
squadrons of the 9th Lancers and the 62nd Battery under command, left
the Modder camp on Saturday, February 3rd, and marched to Koodosberg
Drift, a crossing of the river. The drift, or ford, was found to be
undefended and was at once seized by Macdonald, who, after pitching
camp on the south bank, sent out strong parties across the drift to
seize and entrench the Koodosberg and some adjacent hills. A few Boer
scouts were seen hurrying away with news of his arrival, and on Tuesday,
February 6th, large numbers of enemy were seen assembling on the north
bank. Next morning they began an attack on a crest held by the Seaforths.
Macdonald immediately ordered two companies of the Black Watch and two
of the Highland Light Infantry into the fight and inflicted severe losses
on the enemy.
the position from a low hill, he made a rapid appreciation of the situation
and decided that if a mounted force were dispatched from the Modder
camp the Boers could be surrounded. A message was sent back to Lord
Methuen, who sent out reinforcements, but the Boer scouts quickly observed
the movement of the large body of men and horses and guns, and the enemy
February 9th the brigade returned to camp, and next day Lord Roberts,
who had now arrived with Kitchener and his staff, visited the Highlanders
to congratulate them on having successfully engaged the enemy. Addressing
the battalions drawn up on parade, he said he looked to them under General
Macdonald to act up to their great traditions during the difficult months
ahead. While Macdonald had been claiming the attention of the Boers
on the river, Roberts had withdrawn his main force some forty miles
south, moving the troops by rail with such secrecy that even Commanding
Officers had no idea where they were going. By the night of Sunday,
February 1lth, about 5,000 men had been concentrated at Ramsden, twenty
miles north-east of Belmont, and were ready to advance. Thus began the
historic battle of Paardeberg.
now took over active command, Lord Roberts unfortunately having been
taken ill suddenly with a feverish cold. He set up his headquarters
on the night of February 17th, 1900, on a hill south of the river, five
miles from Paardeberg. Later the hill became known as Kitchener's Kopje.
From it he and his staff watched the Boers early next morning, some
5,000 men, women, and children assembled in the laager surrounded by
British troops. He now ordered Macdonald to advance with his brigade
and clear the enemy from the right river bank. At the same time a full
scale infantry attack was launched in the central sector.
rode out to make a reconnaissance of the ground over which his battalions
must pass and found no cover at all. The land sloping down to the river
bank was flat, treeless, and without rocks or boulders. The whole movement
would have to be carried out within sight and range of the enemy's position.
His right wing was required to wheel round straight on to the river,
leaving the left and centre battalions to clear the forward enemy positions
from the river bed. The maneuver was plainly ill-conceived. But a brigade
commander did not argue with Kitchener, one obeyed. So he called his
battalion commanders together, and with a heavy heart gave them their
Boers waited silently until the leading Highlanders were within a hundred
yards of their forward posts and then opened fire. As the first unexpected
fusillade hit the advancing Scots they faltered and fell flat, and those
who were not dead or wounded began to crawl, still clearly visible in
the morning sunlight. It was almost impossible for a man to dig in while
lying on his stomach under close fire, but somehow - although they were
being killed by the dozen - they managed to stay where they were for
the whole day, returning the enemy fire and retaining the initiative,
but quite unable to move forward. They lost heavily, but they did not
withdraw. Macdonald himself was wounded in the foot by a Mauser bullet,
and his horse was killed beside him as the wound was being dressed.
But in spite of the pain he refused to retire, and stayed with his brigade
until nightfall, when Roberts rode up and ordered the Highlanders to
withdraw so that the artillery could come up to engage the enemy at
dawn. The Scots now knew all the Boer strongholds, and they handed this
information over to the gunners.
7.40 that evening Kitchener had sent Roberts a message saying, 'I hope
tomorrow we shall be able to do something more definite.' He did not
mention that during the afternoon the Boers had developed an attack
on their right flank and had inflicted heavy casualties on the army.
Kitchener's message roused Roberts, who rode out at once to take over
command. Kitchener had never lost a battle, but he had never fought
against white men using modern weapons and he had not learned the lessons
of Majuba and Magersfontein. He had ordered his men to dig in and to
prepare for a renewed frontal attack next morning.
Roberts arrived he found Kitchener's Kopje in enemy hands, some 1,200
British soldiers dead on the battlefield, and the Boers still in their
stronghold, trapped on the river bed with hundreds of carcasses of horses
and cattle rotting around them, killed by gun fire. The troops were
battle-weary, having made no progress and having lost confidence. It
was a relief when the order came to pull out of the line. Macdonald,
leaning on a stick, watched them march back to a temporary camp where
they were to bivouack for the night. Then he borrowed a horse from the
Black Watch and went to visit each battalion in turn.
Cronje now sent a message into the British lines, asking for twenty-four
hours in which to bury his dead. It was not an unreasonable demand in
a campaign in which there was no real hatred. All day his men had refrained
from shooting stretcher-bearers and water parties, and there were many
women and children in his camp. But Roberts replied that if the Boers
surrendered they could carry out their burials peacefully. To this Cronje
replied, 'Since you are so unmerciful as not to accord the truce asked
for, nothing remains for me to do. You do as you wish.' This was interpreted
by Roberts as a desire for surrender, so he sent an officer forward
under a white flag to make the necessary arrangements, but it soon became
clear that Cronje had intended a complete rejection of Roberts's demand.
'During my lifetime I shall never surrender,' the Boer leader proudly
now urged that a new direct attack on the position should be mounted
at dawn, but Roberts was unwilling to waste further lives, realizing
that it was only a matter of time before the Boers, completely surrounded,
were forced to capitulate. And nine days after the start of the battle,
on the day after the relief of Ladysmith, he was proved right. It was
February 27th, the anniversary of the disastrous Battle of Majuba, when
Cronje's forces, severely shaken by the continual heavy concentration
of artillery fire which the gunners had directed on to their laager,
at last surrendered.
were met by Field Marshal Lord Roberts, V.C., wearing neat khaki drill,
carrying his Kandahar sword but wearing no badges of rank. Cronje dismounted
and walked towards the victor Roberts shook him warmly by the hand,
saying,'I'm glad to see you,' a statement which he at once realized
might have been more happily phrased, for he immediately added,'You
have made a gallant defence, sir.' But Cronje did not reply, for he
spoke no English. Roberts thereupon invited his prisoner and his family
and staff to lunch. The Boers were equally chivalrous. It was Joubert
who had returned Macdonald's sword after Majuba. And now the wounded
General remembered that this was Majuba day itself, and wrote to Roberts
to remind him.
fortnight later the British marched into Bloemfontein, the capital of
the Orange Free State which had for so long resisted British occupation.
With them rode Hector Macdonald, although he had still not recovered
from his wound and had spent only a week in hospital.
am not able to walk yet,' he wrote home to his elder brother William,'but
I hope to be able to do so in a month or two. The bullet entered the
outside of my left foot, just under the ankle joint, and came out at
the other side a little lower down - a very clean wound which, if caused
by a Martini bullet, would have cost me my foot.'
it was not surprising that Hector Macdonald did not stay in hospital
long, but hastened to rejoin his brigade as soon as he could hobble
with a stick. Macdonald was given the task of keeping this corner of
the Orange Free State clear of Boers, which meant that his battalions
must be almost continually on the move. And on June 3rd, 1900, the Dutch
leader Christiaan de Wet suddenly swooped on a convoy escorted by 150
of the Black Watch, overpowered them by sheer force of numbers, and
took many prisoners. Again at the end of July, at Honing Sprint, he
captured 100 Highlanders who were acting as an escort to a supply train
for Lord Roberts at Pretoria. But in August came revenge, when over
5,000 Boers and five held guns were captured by Macdonald at Prinsloo.
was not work which Hector Macdonald's men liked, but they were well
trained. And north of Bloemfontein they won a brilliant success on the
railway line near Brantford, driving the enemy across the Vet River
and pursuing them for several miles. Although only seven prisoners were
taken, so quick were the Boers to escape, the equipment and supplies
which fell to Macdonald's men included thirty-one wagons and 270 oxen,
six cases of dynamite, and large stores of artillery and rifle ammunition,
food, blankets, and clothing, most of which was of British origin. After
the Paardeberg battle, the Queen wrote to Kitchener:
CASTLE, February 23, 1900.
Queen wishes to write a line to Lord Kitchener to say how she follows
him and Lord Roberts everywhere, and how we have been cheered by news
of the past ten days, and are hoping for more good news. She knows,
however, that we must be patient and not expect things to go too fast.
Queen saw Lady Roberts, who had heard from Lord Roberts what a help
Lord Kitchener was to him.
many losses grieve the Queen very much, but she knows that they are
unavoidable. She was so sorry for poor General Macdonald, but hopes
his wound is not really severe. Pray tell him so from her.
say everything kind from the Queen to Lord Roberts, and believe that
no one thinks more constantly or prays more fervently for the well-being
of her dear, brave soldiers of all ranks than she does.'
the time came for the breaking up of Macdonald's brigade, Lord Roberts
said, 'No words of mine can adequately describe their magnificent conduct
during the long and trying campaign. We have only to look at the gallantry
displayed by the Gordons at Elandslaagte, at the unflinching bravery
of the Highland Brigade at Magersfontein and at Paardeberg, to realize
that the traditions of these regiments have been nobly maintained.'