A Black Week for the British army
South Africa
10th - 17th December 1899
A 'Black Week' for the British Army

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.

Watch now


How the lessons learnt by the British Army helped the British Expedition Force - the Old Contemptibles - in Flanders in 1914 Also watch

Why the British Army was so effective in 1914

How the lessons learnt by the British Army in South Africa helped the British Expeditionary Force - the Old Contemptibles - halt the German advance in Flanders in 1914

Order books by Spencer Jones
Courage Without Glory. The British Army on the Western Front 1915 Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914 From Boer War to World War: Tactical Reform of the British Army, 1902-1914
Courage Without Glory. The British Army on the Western Front 1915 Stemming the Tide: Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914 From Boer War to World War: Tactical Reform of the British Army, 1902-1914
Spencer Jones About Spencer Jones

Dr Spencer Jones is an award winning historian and author. He currently holds the post of Senior Lecturer in Armed Forces and War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. In addition, since October 2013 he has served as the Regimental Historian for the Royal Regiment of Artillery. His most recent work, Courage without Glory: The British Army on the Western Front 1915 has been shortlisted for the British Army Book of the Year Award. Spencer is a frequent contributor to BBC History Magazine and has appeared on a number of BBC television programmes including The One Show, Who Do You Think You Are? and The Quizeum.

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