Ministry of Defence
Ministry of Defence

Lest We Forget
British Legion
The Royal British Legion



Major General Hector Macdonald
("Fighting Mac"), (1857 - 1903)
(K.C.B., D.S.O., A.D.C., L.L.D.)

Born 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.

The Battle of Majuba Hill - The First Boer War 1881

On 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.

The 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.

Colley 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.

Several 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!"

Together, 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 was speechless.

When 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.

Later 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.

By the second Boer War the battle cry was "Remember Majuba!"

The Battle of Paardeberg - Second Boer War 1900

One 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.

When 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.

After 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.

One 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' parades.

Riding 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.

On 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.

To 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.

Surveying 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 up-country.

On 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.

Kitchener 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.

Macdonald 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 orders.

The 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.

At 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.

When 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.

Pieter 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.

Kitchener 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.

They 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.

A 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.

'I 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.'

Perhaps 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.

It 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:

WINDSOR CASTLE, February 23, 1900.

'The 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.

'The Queen saw Lady Roberts, who had heard from Lord Roberts what a help Lord Kitchener was to him.

'The 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.

'Pray 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.'

When 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.'


26 May 2004

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