1881 - 1901: Late Victorian Era

1835 - 18801902 - 1914

NATAL, 1881 – 1882

On the way home from India the Gordons were ordered to participate in the First Boer War.


The Regiment participated in the disastrous Battle of Majuba Hill on 27 February 1881. Under the leadership of General Colley, they formed part of a force of over 400 men. The troops were ordered to scale the heights of Majuba Hill which overlooked the Boers encampment at Laing’s Nek at night.

The men were impeded by the weight of the ammunition, kit and rations which they carried. They were so confident after the climb that they failed to make any entrenchment once they reached the top. They were spotted at dawn by the Boers who stormed the heights and poured volley after volley into the British ranks. It was a resounding victory for the Boers and a humiliating defeat for the British Army.


The Childers Reforms of 1881 reorganised British Army infantry regiments. This reorganisation saw the creation of The Gordon Highlanders, by merging the 75th and 92nd Regiments of Foot. These became 1st and 2nd Battalion respectively. The amalgamation was marked by the 92nd Foot holding a mock funeral during which the Colours of the 92nd were buried in a coffin during a torchlight parade. The next morning the men of 2nd Battalion found the grave had been exhumed and a defiant message left on the flag. The new regiment found themselves immediately deployed for service across two fronts: 1st Battalion forming part of the Nile Expedition and 2nd Battalion being in South Africa until returning for home the following year.


In response to internal unrest in Egypt caused by a rising tide of Egyptian Nationalism and resentment of foreign involvement in its affairs, Britain sent a military expeditionary force to Egypt in August 1882 in order to protect British lives and property. The Gordons were part of a large British force sent to quell it. Landing at Port Said on 1 September 1882, the force marched west, heading for their main target – Tel-el-Kebir. Moving across the desert at night, the force struck before sunrise on 13 September. Surprise was theirs. Deep ditches and high parapets were crossed under heavy fire, and fierce hand to hand fighting secured victory, ending the revolt.


Mohammed Ibn Al-Sayd Abdullah was intent on ridding Sudan of infidel forces and in 1883 led a Mahdi revolt which resulted in an Egyptian army under Colonel Hicks being cut to pieces. The subsequent collapse of local Egyptian garrisons and the slaughter of anti-Mahdist supporters prompted Britain to send a punitive expedition to the Sudan. Led by Major General Sir Gerald Graham, the Gordons formed part of this expeditionary force who were dispatched via convoy and landed at Suakin, the last stronghold for the Egyptian forces in Sudan. Suakin and was being threatened by dervish forces under the command of Osman Digna, a ruthless Sudanese slave-dealer. On 29 February 1884, they annihilated a Mahdist force at El Teb. Half of the 1st Battalion were called to reinforce the defensive square formation i.e. the army’s main defensive formation – whilst the other half continued to protect the flanks.


At Tamai, on 13 March 1884 a breach in the 2nd Brigade’s square formation allowed the fanatical enemy to infiltrate the square and inflicted significant casualties. However, the enemy then came under fire from the First Brigade led by General Bullen. This brigade included the Gordons. Despite being attacked on all four sides simultaneously, the brigade fought steadily, held its ground and came to the assistance of the broken British square at a critical moment thus deciding the battle.


On 18 February 1884, General Charles Gordon – a Royal Engineer – entered Khartoum charged with evacuating the city before it fell into the hands of Mahdist forces. Although met with acclaim, he was almost immediately surrounded by 3000 dervishes led by the Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. A relief force was dispatched from Britain and Garnet Wolseley assigned command. Wolseley’s battle plan was to establish two columns.

A River Column – including the 1st Gordons – made their approach up the Nile to Berber. On 28 January 1885, a small advance party from the River Column got within sight of Khartoum where the Union Flag was no longer flying and it was obvious that it had fallen into Mahdist hands. Two days before, the Mahdists had entered Khartoum and Gordon had been dragged out and killed.


“D” Company 1st Battalion (part of River Column) led by Captain Ian Hamilton were involved in a heated but successful battle with the dervishes at Kirbekan. With General Charles Gordon’s death at Khartoum, the expedition was abandoned. Garnet Wolseley ordered the British relief force to retreat to Egypt. The Gordon Relief Expedition returned to Cairo in September 1885. It received thanks from both Houses of Parliament, Wolseley was created a Viscount and all soldiers received medals. But this was little compensation for the British expulsion from Sudan.


The Chitral Expedition was a military expedition in 1895 sent by the British authorities to relieve the fort at Chitral which was under siege after a local coup. The Gordons formed part of the Chitral Relief Force and served under Major-General Low. On 3 April 1895, Low’s mem stormed the Malakand Pass which was defended by 12,000 local warriors. There were significant engagements over the next ten days but ultimately, on finding themselves outnumbered, the enemy slipped away.


Despite the general peace that followed the 2nd Afghan War, frequent uprisings broke out on the North-West Frontier, instigated by the many tribes of the area.  After one such uprising in 1897, involving the Afridi tribe, an Expeditionary Force under Major General Sir William Lockhart was assembled to put it down.  The Afridis were prominent in the revolt attacking British frontier posts and holding the Khyber Pass. 

They occupied the village of Dargai where an action similar to that of the Malakand Pass (1895) took place. The assault was gallantly led by King’s Own Scottish Borderers and Ghurkas who took the crest. The British Force were forced to withdraw due to lack of water. A section of Gordons formed the last covering party and were all but cut off.


On 20th October 1897, during the Tirah campaign, enemy tribesmen held the rocky heights around the village of Dargai. To reach the bottom of the steep 200-metre climb up to the enemy-held ridge, the British had to cross an open area 150 metres wide, raked by enemy fire. After several attacks had failed with heavy casualties, the Gordons were ordered in. Lieutenant Colonel H H Mathias spoke simply and directly to his men: ‘The General says this hill must be taken at all costs – the Gordon Highlanders will take it’. Led by their officers, and to the sound of their pipers, the Gordons rushed over the deadly ground. Despite heavy fire, they kept going and reached the base of the hill. They continued up the narrow path, still under heavy fire, until the spirit of the defenders broke, unable to believe that the Gordons were still coming on. The Gordons reached the top and the Heights were taken with the loss of 7 men killed and 37 wounded.

CEYLON, NOVEMBER 1888 – 1901

The Gordons were posted here to garrison the barracks. Detachments were sent to various locations around the island during their stay.


Barely two weeks after arriving in South Africa, 2nd Battalion found themselves in action at Elandslaagte, a small railway station seventeen miles north of the town of Ladysmith. They advanced steadily across open, boulder-strewn ground and moved around the Boers left flank. In poor visibility and pouring rain, the British infantry faced a barbed wire farm fence in which several men were entangled and shot.  As the Battalion reached the crest of the final ridge, the Brigade Commander, Colonel Sir Ian Hamilton, himself a Gordon Highlander, rode up and spurred the men of his old Regiment on. Bugles sounded the charge and the Boer position was taken. A Boer camp was then spotted in a hollow. After securing it, British troops suddenly came under intense fire from a hidden party of Boers who then charged towards them. Confusion reigned briefly before order was re-established and the counter-attack defeated.


The 118-day siege of the town made headline news around the world. The Boers surrounded Ladysmith and cut the railway link to Durban. Around 13,000 British troops defended the town, including the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders. Lieutenant General Sir George White, a former officer of the 92nd who had won a VC in Afghanistan in 1879 commanded the Garrison at the besieged town of Ladysmith.

On 15 December, the first relief attempt was defeated at the Battle of Colenso. Temporarily unnerved, the relief force commander, General Buller, suggested that White either break out or destroy his stores and ammunition and surrender. White could not break out because his horses and draught animals were weak from lack of grazing and forage, but also refused to surrender.  Those inside held on until the siege ended when a relief force finally broke through.


1st Battalion The Gordon Highlanders arrived in South Africa in time to participate at Magersfontein. Following the disastrous performance of the Highland Brigade during the initial attack, two half battalions of Gordons were ordered in from the reserve to reinforce the front line. However, intense Boer fire from hidden trenches stalled the advance. The Commanding Officer of 1st Gordons, Lieutenant Colonel Downman, was shot and mortally wounded.

Due to misunderstandings and in the absence of orders, the British line retreated. At noon the next day, after the wounded and dead had been collected from the battlefield, the British force withdrew entirely. British casualties were 971 (752 from the Highland Brigade). Of those, Gordons casualties were 9 killed or died of wounds and 21 wounded. Boer losses were approximately 250.


In mid-February 1900, British and Canadian troops intercepted the retreating army of Boer General Piet Cronjé. In a valley surrounded by hills near Paardeberg Drift, Cronjé decided to form a laager (camp) and dig in on the banks of the Modder River.

The subsequent battle raged for nine days as British forces laid siege to the Boer laager. Trench warfare played a fundamentally important role on both sides. This tactic, as well as the advantage of overwhelming numbers and the inability of the Boers to either break out or be relieved, resulted in final British victory. General Cronjé was forced to surrender on Majuba Day, exactly nineteen years after the Boers had won the First Anglo-Boer War at Majuba Hill. Over 4000 Boer prisoners were marched into captivity.


For Sir Ian Hamilton and the men of the Winburg Column, including the Gordons, Doornkop was the last remaining obstacle on their advance to capture Johannesburg and Pretoria, the seat of the Boer government.  At 3pm, the infantry were ordered forward. The grass in front of them was burnt and burning, and against this dark background the khaki figures showed distinctly.

In short rushes, the Gordons advanced up the hillside under devastating fire. The momentum of their charge and the advent of artillery support saw the Gordons reach the skyline, where they charged into the Boer position with fixed bayonets. Retreating to a second line of defence, the Boers fled when 1st Gordons charged once more.


The Gordons now under the command of General Ian Hamilton marched to Pretoria as part of a flanking column which included the 19th Infantry Brigade, Highland Brigade and a large force of mounted troops. At Houtnek, it was necessary to clear the Boers from a flat topped kopje called Thaba and the Gordons were responsible for clearing the way

Captain Ernest Towse with 12 men from his company were first to reach the crest and promptly came face to face with 150 Boers. Rather than surrender, he ordered his men to charge which they did with great gallantry. Towse was shot though the face and blinded. Reinforcements ensured the Boers were driven down and the plateau gained after 6 hours fighting.


After the capture of Lydenburg March 1901, 2nd Battalion was assigned guard and escort duty on the Pretoria-Pietermaritzburg Railway until November. A detachment of 23 Gordon Highlanders leapt into action when a train exploded at Naboomspruit on 4 July 1901. They were subsequently surrounded by 150 Boers and there were many casualties in the first few minutes. Twenty minutes later only five men were able to fire a rifle. The Boer leader Commandant de Villiers was forced to surrender but in so doing commended his captors saying they ‘behaved with utmost gallantry’.