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
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
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 welcomed it.
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 own game.
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 possible.
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 'spit-and-polish'
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
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 withdrew
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
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 announced.
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
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