Most people in Britain thought the Boer War would be a walkover, but the British commander, Sir Redvers Buller, was less sure. He had fought alongside the Boers against the Zulus, and knew how tough and resourceful they were.
Buller was right to be worried. During the last month of the nineteenth century, the British lost three battles in a week. First came Stormberg where they marched through the night to attack Boer positions, got lost, then were shelled by their own artillery, and withdrew in considerable disorder.
On December 10, 1899, Lt-Gen the third baron Methuen decided to try his luck at Magersfontein. He believed the Boers were holding the top of a line of hills, but in fact they were dug in in hidden trenches beneath. Under their deadly rifle fire, the British again withdrew in disorder with heavy losses.
Finally on December 15, Buller himself led 20,000 men against about 8,000 Boers at Colenso in an attempt to cross the Tugela River. Again the attack was muffed, and the British had to retreat having lost 143 men killed and about 1,000 wounded or captured, while the Boers were said to have suffered only 8 men killed.