South Africa 1877-79, 1 clasp, 1879 (Condr. F. H. Field, Commissariat)
"Conductor F. H. Field was wounded and taken prisoner at the disaster that befell the British troops at the battle of Majuba Hill on 27 February 1881. British casualties were 92 killed, 134 wounded, of whom a few succumbed during the following few weeks, and 59 taken prisoner. The officers killed included Major-General Sir George Colley and those wounded and taken prisoner included Lieutenant Ian Hamilton, “Fighting Mac” Macdonald and Conductor F. H. Field. Lance-Corporal Farmer, Army Hospital Corps, was awarded the Victoria Cross for tending the wounded under fire.
The ignominious defeat on Majuba ended the First Boer War, for which campaign no battle honours or medals were awarded. During the Zulu War Conductor Field and the other Conductors of Supplies ‘performed various and arduous duties over a wide extent of territory, and by their zeal and ability materially conduced to the successful carrying out of the plans of the Head of Department’ (Shadbolt, The South African Campaign of 1879 refers). In 1880, not long after the successful conclusion of the Zulu War, simmering tensions that existed between Boer and Britain following the latter’s annexation of the Transvaal in 1877, boiled over following the Bezuidenhout affair.
Fresh from their victories over the Zulus, regiments such as the King’s Dragoon Guards, Connaught Rifles (94th), King’s Royal Rifles (60th) and Northamptonshire Regiment (58th) were supremely confident of their abilities to defeat the Boer farmers. The British Force was later supplemented by two regiments that had gained laurels in the recent Afghanistan campaign - the 15th Hussars and Gordon Highlanders (92nd). As was to happen 19 years later, the Boers were woefully underrated and superior marksmanship and tactics, against regular British infantry in their red tunics, inflicted a series of defeats on these famous regiments, at Bronkhorst Spruit, Ingogo River and Laing’s Nek. Other British troops were tied up in besieged towns such as Pretoria and Lydenburg.
On 16 February 1881, Sir George Colley agreed to end the campaign on the condition that the Boers gave up their demands for the independence of the Transvaal but the negotiations came to nothing.
On 26 February, Colley moved secretly out of his camp at Mount Prospect with a compact force consisting of two companies of the Northamptonshire Regiment, two companies of the King’s Royal Rifles, two companies of the Gordon Highlanders, 64 men of the Naval Brigade, two guns and some Hussars. His objective was the ascent and occupation of Majuba Hill which completely overlooked and commanded the Boer camp and lines of defences on the flat beyond Laing’s Nek. In a dashing manouevre, the sudden seizure of the Boer camp would break their lines and lead his force into the Transvaal. The King’s Royal Rifles were left at a difficult pass, on a ridge at the bottom of the mountain together with all the horses, reserve ammunition and the Hussars. The top of the hill was reached just before daylight and the secret advance of the 600 troops was completed successfully.
One historian of the battle well sums up the feelings of the force as the sun rose over the mountain on 27 February: ‘It was an exciting moment. [T. F.] Carter, himself taken prisoner on Majuba, later remembered exulting that “there was our enemy at our mercy, and unaware of our proximity to them”. The British soldiers found that they were perched on top of what seemed to be an impregnable natural citadel dominating the Boer defences. “We could stay here forever” remarked Colley’ (Ransford, The Battle of Majuba Hill). But then, at the seeming moment of triumph, the unthinkable happened and the Boers launched a surprise counter-attack on the mountain. As the British began to arrange defensive positions they swarmed silently up the side of Majuba. ‘What military genius possessed these burgers! What instinctive aptitude they had for war! Here were a few hundred men prepared to assault a position which any professional soldier of the time would have insisted was impregnable … as early as 6 a.m., a desultory fire had been opened from the foothills on to the crown of Majuba, but it was heavy enough to make the soldiers keep their heads down. Within an hour that fire had become general and heavy. And all the time the storming parties were methodically moving upwards, brilliantly handled, and using cover with the utmost skill’ (Ransford). Five hours later 60 Boers were waiting on the summit of the hill to begin the attack.
Just before noon the Gordon Highlanders were subjected to an extremely heavy and accurate rifle fire which pinned them down effectively in the northern sector of the perimeter. This outbreak seemed to have little effect on Colley who still considered his position safe. Unknown to him the Boers had not deserted their camp below but, by now, several hundred were massed for the assault. On General Smit’s order the lead 60 Boers stood up and fired volley after volley into the party of Gordon Highlanders manning the knoll. As the troops retreated in confusion, the Boers seized the knoll. The reserves were called up but only did so slowly. The Boers fired on the Highlanders main position on the northern brow and the Gordons wavered and fell back, becoming mixed with the upcoming reserves. It was total confusion and a little after one o’clock: ‘…the first part of the Boer plan had been successfully executed; they had broken into the British position. It was difficult for Colley’s men to understand exactly what was going on, but plainly their position had changed from comparative security to one of extreme peril. Drifting rifle smoke covered the summit of the hill, and eddied in the depressions like a heavy fog. Anyone who showed himself above the low ridge became a target for a dozen rifles. The scent of death and the acrid smell of smoke smarted in the soldiers’ nostrils…’ (Ransford).
In Colley’s favour, who remained calm throughout, 200 of his soldiers had rallied behind the ridge and were not in a bad defensive position. But under the cover of fire, the Boers stealthily moved forward until sixty or seventy were opposite the force on the ridge and firing, almost point-blank through the cover of smoke into the British troops. Lieutenant Ian Hamilton wanted to bayonet charge the Boers with the overwhelming numbers but was stopped by Colley.
Colley attempted to reinforce the forward positions with troops from behind the ridge but, despite the exhortations of the officers, few moved into the face of the overwhelming Boer fire to drive back the attack. One who did show bravery at Majuba was Conductor Field. Carter recorded that ‘Conductor Field, who, whilst in charge of supply ammunition, which he was endeavouring to convey from the ridge to the summit of the hill, was shot and taken prisoner’ (Carter, The Boer War)
The end was not long in coming. A Boer attack from the right, combined with the withering fire from the front, broke the British troops. ‘Suddenly,’ Carter wrote, ‘a piercing cry of terror ... rose from the line of infantry. The soldiers threw down their weapons and stampeded for the rear, stupid with terror, and paying no heed to the officers who cursed and threatened them with their revolvers. Within minutes those who survived the following fire were streaming down the hillside.’ It became an ignominious rout and heavy casualties were incurred as the troops retreated off the moment. These included the General himself and Colley was killed at the moment of his final defeat. Peace soon followed and independence for the Transvaal soon followed. “Avenge Majuba!” was to become a rallying cry in the second Boer War."