December 10th 1899 – “Black Week” in South Africa

The Second Anglo-Boer War (sometimes referenced simply as the Boer War in the UK although there was an earlier conflict fought between 1880 and 1881) was fought between the British Empire in Africa and the Boers, a combined force from the South African Republic and the Republic of the Orange Free State. The Boer Republics declared war on Britain on October 11th 1899 after years of escalation and fears of Britain attempting to annex their territories for their gold and diamond deposits. The war would last until May 31st 1902 with a British victory and the absorption of their defeated foe’s lands in to the British Empire.

In 1899, Britain was overconfident regarding the state of her imperial security in the south African region and as such was woefully under-prepared for when the Boers struck. The Boer forces moved through much of the sparsely defended countryside while laying siege to the fortified British positions in towns like Kimberley and Ladysmith.

Then in one disastrous week beginning on December 10th 1899, the British Army suffered three devastating defeats by the forces of the Boer Republics. This week would become known as “Black Week”. The first came at Stormberg where Sir William Gatacre’s exhausted forces were beaten after undertaking a night march through heavy rain.

Second 2nd Anglo Boer War South Africa Black Week 1899 1902The next day on December 11th, an expedition under Lord Methuen that had been attempting to relieve the besieged town of Kimberley was also defeated by Boer forces at Magersfontein. Among the 1,000 British casualties at Magersfontein was Major-General Andrew Gilbert Wauchope CB CMG whose loss exacerbated the sense of disaster regarding the battle in Africa and back home.

On the following Friday, Commander-in-Chief of British forces in South Africa General Sir Redvers Henry Buller VC GCB GCMG was defeated attempting to relieve the town of Ladysmith. The battle at Colenso cost over 1,000 British casualties and forced Redvers in to retreat. This defeat brought an end to the “Black Week” and proved a wake-up call to the British who began a massive build-up of reinforcements.

There were several factors that led to these disasters. Firstly, the British forces in Africa were used to fighting rebel tribesmen armed with spears rather than a well disciplined force armed with equivalent weapons to themselves. The British also struggled to organise themselves effectively beyond the immediate battlefield which meant opportunities to take advantage of weaknesses in the Boer lines were missed. Finally, the Boers were fighting in territory they had grown up in whereas much of the British force consisted of troops brought in from across the Empire such as Australia and New Zealand as well as Britain itself.

All these lessons would be learned and through 1900 and 1901 the Boers would be beaten back until their final defeat in 1902.


8 responses to “December 10th 1899 – “Black Week” in South Africa

  1. The Battle at Ladysmith must have come as quite a rude awakening for the British Empire forces. For almost 100 years since the Napoleonic wars, they had been used to ‘colonial’ warfare against ill-disciplined and poorly armed natives. Little did they know that they would face one million heavily armed German’s in 15 years time. Great post Tony.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! A timely reminder of this war – usually forgotten these days. Oddly, it’s my second reminder in a week – a few days ago I was at a book launch of a friend of mine, a military historian who used to lecture at Sandhurst. He’s back in NZ and has been working on a book about NZ’s early film history, including the story of the first footage made here, which came about because of that ‘Black Week’. On that news, our PM decided to send a second contingent of Kiwis to fight in South Africa, some 266 men who were trained from late December 1899 and departed in January 1900. What nobody knew was that they were filmed on parade in Wellington’s Newtown Park. Decades later, this canister of film was discovered and painstakingly worked on (it had virtually turned into a solid mass of acetate by this time) – and from the first few frames that emerged, my friend was able to identify what the film was about, and where and when it was taken. The clue was their clothing: our army had run out of uniforms and this contingent got issued jerseys instead of jackets.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s brilliant Matthew. It really is amazing what they can do with those old films. Sadly, I wonder how much has been lost over time now. It’s great actually seeing that past alive on screen


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