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A Black Week for the British army

South Africa
10th – 17th December 1899

At the close of 1899 the might of the British Empire went to war with the small largely agricultural republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State in South Africa.

It was going to be a quick victory. The British Army – professional and well equipped – was pitched against a small citizen army, largely made up of farmers (Boers), supported by limited artillery.

But the British were forgetting the bitter lessons of an earlier war against the Boers which ended in an ignominious defeat at Majuba almost 10 years before. Now they learnt the same hard lessons again.

Within weeks the British forces were driven back and besieged in the towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith and the road to Cape Town – and defeat – lay open.

In London, the British government scrambled to assemble a new and much bigger force from Britain, the Mediterranean and India which immediately sailed to South Africa. On arrival in Cape Town the army was split into three columns each lead by an experienced general. They set off to relieve the besieged towns.

But in a single week (10-17 December 1899) each column was defeated with nearly 3 000 British casualties making this a “Black Week” for the British Army according to the future Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.

These three battles – Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso – shook late-Victorian Britain and encouraged other European powers, notably Germany, France and Russia, to question the strength of the British Empire.

And in South Africa, the war dragged on until peace was finally declared on 31st May 1902.  By then more than 55 000 British soldiers had been killed, wounded or captured and the Boer Republics ruined.

Dr Spencer Jones of Wolverhampton University tells the story of Black Week – the battles, the generals and the mistakes.

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A Black Week for the British army