When I was a child my parents had on their bookshelves an old red-bound nineteenth century tome called The Life of Sir George Pomeroy Colley by one W.F.Butler, published 1899.
(The author of the book, William Francis Butler, was the husband to the famous military painter, Lady Elizabeth Butler).
The title fascinated me because here was a book about a man that shared my family name, and an important one at that (he had to be important to have had a book written about him). I always assumed we were related because we were both Colleys. And, to add to the excitement, he was a ‘Sir’. Perhaps some great-great-grandfather.
To this day I still don’t know. It might be just a coincidence of name but then why would my father have this book on his shelves rather than a more famous Victorian general?
Colley was an all-round clever man and well thought of. He passed through his military school with the highest ever recorded marks, was fluent in various languages and was a dab hand with the paint brush. But like many a British general of the time, he underestimated his enemy – and that proved his undoing.
The First Boer War
In 1877 the British had annexed the South African state of the Transvaal, and two years later made it a crown colony. The Boers naturally resented this, and in December 1880 revolted. At the time there were only 1,700 British troops dotted around the Transvaal in small, isolated garrisons. Colley, recently appointed governor in neighbouring Natal, was ordered to deal with the situation.
The Boers, fully expecting the arrival of the British, set up camp on the Natal / Transvaal border at a pass called Laing’s Neck, the only practical route into the Transvaal from Natal. Sure enough, Colley, leading a convoy of over 1,000 troops, duly appeared.
On 28 January 1881, the British attacked the Boers at Laing’s Neck and were thoroughly repulsed. That was the first defeat. Whilst Colley awaited reinforcements, another skirmish resulted in another bloody nose, heavy losses and a second defeat. Within two weeks Colley had lost two battles and a third of his men. And the Boers, it has to be remembered, were not trained soldiers, but simply farmhands who happened to be excellent shots. But things were about to get a whole lot worse for Sir George and his professionally trained army.
Colley decided to make use of a flat-topped hill called Majuba Hill overlooking the pass. If he could occupy the hill it would put the Boers, down in the pass, at a disadvantage.
Thus, in the late hours of 26 February, Colley led 500 of his men, each with three day’s worth of rations, on a march up the hill. Silently, most silently they climbed. Four o’clock the following morning they reached the summit, found it unoccupied and felt so jubilant they started yelling down and jeering at the Boers far below.
Colley too was pleased. The hill provided a commanding position – ‘We could stay here forever,’ he said.
Colley’s assistant suggested that perhaps they should dig some entrenchments. Colley, over brimming with new-found confidence, refused. There was no way the Boers could climb up this hill with his men on top. Satisfied that his position was secure, and tired after the long trek, Colley went off to his tent for a well-earned snooze.
But the Boers did climb the hill – not the seasoned older men, but the younger boys, 200 of them. By midday they had reached the summit and crackshots that they were, the boys quickly decimated the British presence. Over half of Colley’s men fell, killed or wounded; others, in panic, fled back down the hill.
‘Poor Sir G. Colley killed’
A bunch of untrained boys barely out of school had finished off a professional force double its size and with it, one of Britain’s most-thought of generals. ‘Poor Sir G. Colley killed,’ as Queen Victoria wrote in her diary.
And thus the First Boer War (or South African War) ended in defeat after just three battles over the course of two months. The British government recognised Boer independence and all was well for almost two decades before war erupted again, with the second, much longer Boer War of 1899 to 1902.
A colleague of mine, on an occasion I cocked up at work, said, ‘Good God, Colley, no wonder we lost Majuba!’
WF Butler’s book is still there in my parental home, and I still don’t know whether I’m related to Sir General George Pomeroy Colley.
Somehow I rather hope not.
Gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century. Available in paperback and ebook formats.