1899 - 1902



Anglo Boer War
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General  Gatacre left Putter's Kraal and concentrated at Molteno the 2nd Northumberland, 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, and Nos. 74 and 77 Batteries of Field Artillery, with Mounted Infantry, Cape Mounted Rifles, the 12th Company of Engineers, and  details-in all about 2500 men. At 9 P.M. on December 9th, began the march that was destined to be so ill fated. The night was black, the ground was rocky, and the guide, a local policeman, from ignorance, underestimated the distance  and led the troops by a circuitous route absolutely into the teeth of the enemy. Instead of going north-east for nine miles, the men were led north-west, a detour of twenty miles. A terrible night-march this, which none who  undertook it can ever forget. Tramp, tramp, through the long midnight hours, over hills and down nullahs, through rivers and stumbling over stony kopjes with bayonets fixed, in grim silence, with scarce a whisper allowed, and with  never a pipe as consolation lest the scent should betray the stealthy advance. For seven long hours the force, like a phantom procession, trudged and stumbled until they came to a small V-shaped plateau surrounded by kopjes, which,  unknown to them, was fronting the enemy's position. This was on a high unscalable eminence called Rooi Kop, that jutted black against the clear grey of early morning. From here the Boers, chuckling doubtless at their own cunning,  were slyly watching the approach of the party; for it was now dawn. On nearing the plateau below this eminence, the Irish Rifles, with General Gatacre and his staff at the head of the column, were greeted, to their astonishment, by  a fierce tornado which was suddenly opened by the enemy on the right. Though the column was marching in fours and utterly unsuspicious of the position of the enemy, they gathered themselves together with marvelbus rapidity.  Following the Rifles were over a hundred of the Northumberland Fusiliers, and in the rear the artillery. In a very short space of time General Gatacre got his column into line for action, and a hot fight ensued, in which the Rifles  - all honour to them !-distinguished themselves in distressing circumstances. It was not possible to recover easily from the surprise, and it was evident that the General and his men were totally unprepared to meet, and unequal to  crushing, a powerful enemy in an intrenched position. Naturally the casualties were many. However, the artillery were soon climbing a small kopje on the left, while the' Rifles and Northumberland Fusiliers, in skirmishing order,  mounted the hill held by the Republicans. Footsore and weary with their long midnight march, they toiled up the steeps amidst a cruel hailstorm from the enemy's fire, which came pouring at the same time from three separate quarters  in flank and rear. One of the almost impregnable hill-tops was gained at the point of the bayonet, but so furious became the storm of bullets that the British, now outnumbered at the rate of seven to one, were forced to retire.  Mean-while the artillery were drawing the fire of the enemy's guns and launching their shrieking shells into the fort that the Boers had constructed at the corner of the kopje. But the position was unassailable The Boers had  expected the attack, and by an elaborate system they had measured and marked. off distances from their batteries, a system which could not be upset in a moment. The Dutchmen swarmed in hundreds behind excellent cover and were not  to be routed. Our men, who, many of them, had been occupied the whole previous day in fatigue-work, were numb from exhaustion, dropping here and there, fainting or asleep, in the very face of death.

The infantry, with the Maxim detachment, were then ordered to retire towards Molteno, while the artillery remained to cover the retreat. But the retirement was not so easy. The triumphant Boers now brought their guns to the  tops of the kopjes, and sent shell after shell to catch the troops as they slowly wound along the valley. Many of the shells burst with terrific force, ploughing up the roadway around our men, and shooting clouds of blinding  dust into eyes and ears and throats, but fortunately doing little damage. The Boers also brought their rifles to bear on the little force, and our worn-out troops suffered the horrible experience of being hunted like hares  along roads through which they had so laboriously; so hopefully, toiled the night before, tramping the weary ten miles to Molteno with the enemy taking long shots at them from innumerable points of vantage. Their progress was  necessarily slow, for sometimes they had to hide in cornfields, to crouch among boulders, and occasionally to fall prone to earth when shells came screaming and bursting along their line of route. Afterwards they would rise  again, still holding their life in their hands, and plod on in the expectation that every step would be their last. For eight long miles this exciting form of torture was experienced, numbers of the poor fellows dropping all  along the road from wounds, exhaustion, and from the effects of the now fiercely blazing sun. Terrible was their plight both during the attack and after it, for the Boers, as usual, paid no heed to the sacred demand of the  wounded or of the white flag, and no sooner saw a party of stretcher-bearers approach to pick up a man than they made the event the signal for a volley. All, therefore, that could be done for those stricken down was to wait  patiently till they could crawl a short distance out of the line of fire and swoop down on them and bear them hastily away. The unfortunates who~were too severely wounded to so crawl, and those who were killed, had to be ]eft  where they fell. Nor did those who were successfully removed in the ambulance wagon fare much better, for this was fired on continually, but luckily, owing to the shells not bursting, caused more horror than harm.

They reached Molteno at last in safety, but with numbers woefully thinned. When they formed up for the roll-call, the ominous silence that followed the call of name after name was more than tragic. Dismay blanched every face.  Where were the 366 splendid fellows of the Northumberland Regiment who had started out in rude health only the night before? They were missing, perhaps dead! Where, too, were the roistering, cheery boys of the Royal Irish  Rifles-some 294 of them-none of whom, when his name was spoken, was there to give back the word? They too were missing, perhaps dead! In this hour of mute regret those who were left could only thank God that they had come safely  through the terrible ordeal, and think with awe on the strange workings of fate that had caused some to be taken and others left. Naturally enough after a disaster so great, all had something to say of the mistakes which brought it  about. Reuter's correspondent declared that "the primary and greatest mistake made on the ioth inst. was that what was to have been at the utmost a four hours' night-march lengthened out to over seven hours, and landed us  right into the enemy's position in broad daylight. Of course, the guides went wrong, took the force a roundabout way, and are accordingly blamed. But how is it that our leaders, knowing that four hours should suffice to take them  to their objective, should have wandered on for seven without suspecting that something was radically wrong? Then, also, at the end of that time our troops walked, in daylight, in a column four deep, right under the enemy's nose.  No scouts or skirmishers were out, and it was here that we lost so heavily, the Boers from covered positions firing volley after volley right into the mass of men below. Again, the men, most of whom had been on duty since 4 A.M.  the previous (Saturday) morning, were tired and hungry, and yet were asked to storm the position without rest immediately after a long and tiring night-march."

The Times correspondent attributed some of the misfortune to the  fact that "the Berkshire Regiment, by whom the redoubts now occupied by the Boers at Stormberg had been built, and to whom every inch of the ground was familiar, were left at Queenstown, instead of being employed to recapture  the works which they had so unwillingly evacuated about a month previously. The consequence of no one knowing where he was going or what he had to attack or when proximity to the enemy had been reached, was that the infantry,  marching in fours, were suddenly fired into at a point where, after ascending but a few feet, their further advance against the enemy was precluded by an unclimbable precipice The moment that the first shots were fired companies  doubled straight at the points whence the firing seemed to have proceeded, and commenced to scale the hill. Soon, however, they came upon a perpendicular wall of rock, from the summit of which the Boers were plying their rifles at  half-a-dozen yards' distance. Here fell Lieutenant-Colonel Eager, and close to him Major Seton of the Royal Irish Rifles. Colonel Eager was the man who reached the highest point atttained by any of the attackers, and was then shot  down, where many another British officer has fallen before now, at the head of his battalion, gallantly leading them as in the days of old, when long-range weapons had not been invented."

Others hinted that it was the habit of the General to overwork his troops-a habit so well known that it had earned for him in Egypt the title of "General Backacher." Further comments were made by those who always  find the art of criticism so much easier than the art of performance, but to repeat them at a time when the principal actors in the sorry affair are unable to defend themselves would be unjust and ungenerous. Our Generals,  besides treachery, had from the first unusual ignorance to deal with. One of our misfortunes has been the necessity to rely for information on friendly Kaffirs, or those who affected to be friendly. Now, as all know, the  Kaffirs, even when honest, are scarcely reliable Their notions of size, for instance, are on a par with those of the man who described the dimensions of a bump by saying it was about the size of a piece of chalk. To the Kaffir  an impi is an army, whether small or large, and it is almost impossible to bring home to him the value of exactness. In fact, in the matter of ambiguity the Kaffir has the makings of a politician, and therefore it was no wonder  that so many of the well-organised military schemes in this unlucky war came to grief. But in the case at Stormberg there were other difficulties to contend with. The map of the ground was utterly unreliable. The configuration  of the hills was incorrectly presented and the distances badly judged. The general knowledge of the direction was so imperfect that none was sufficiently well informed to put a check upon the movements of the guide, nor had the  position been reconnoitered by any of those engaged against it. In this way the winding and circuitous route more than doubled the march, knocked up the troops, and ruined the effect of the night assault; for it was full  daybreak before the British approached the point of attack. One of the sufferers from the disaster declared that the British were so worn out that after the engagement they threw themselyes down and did not mind whether they  were taken prisoners or not. He himself crawled to within three miles of the base camp, and then lay down on the veldt and fell asleep. How long he remained asleep he did not know. Most of the prisoners, he believed, were taken  by the Boers while the men were asleep.

A report was circulated that General Gatacre had shot with his own hands the guide who led him astray, but this statement was entirely incorrect. The military authorities thoroughly  sifted the case of the sergeant of the Cape Police who acted as guide on the occasion, and it was allowed that he erred genuinely in mistaking the enemy's position.

The following officers were wounded in the engagement at Stormberg :-

2nd Royal Irish Rifles-Lieutenant-Colonel Eager (since dead),  MajorSeton, Captain Bell, Captain Kelly, Lieutenant Stephens, Lieutenant Barnard-stone. Suffolk Regiment-Second Lieutenant Maynard. Missing: Captain Weir, Lieutenant Christie, Second Lieutenant Rodney. 74th Field  Battery-Lieutenant Lewis. 77th Field Battery-Major Percival. 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers-Missing: Major Stevens; Captain Fletcher, Captain Morley, Second Lieutenant Wake, Second Lieutenant Coulson, Lieutenant Radcliffe. Dorset  Regiment-Three hundred and six non-commissioned officers and men were also missing.

The scene of General Gatacre's disaster was on the junction of the  eastern line of railway in Cape Colony running from East London through Queenstown, Molteno, and Burgersdorp to Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State. There were many strategical reasons for wishing to seize upon it. First, it  was desirable to engage the. enemy in the centre, and so save the Boer corn mandoes from falling in too great strength on Lord Methuen's line of communications. Secondly, from the situation of the place it was possible also to  effect a junction by rail with General French. Thirdly, a victory gained in the centre of the disaffected districts would have been a feather in the cap of tile General, for it must have drawn to him such waverers whose  vacillating loyalty was daily growing dangerous. The melancholy reverse was, therefore, from many points of view to be regretted. Perhaps, however, it achieved one object. It forced those at home to realise the necessity for  sending more than sprinklings of troops to meet a strong, courageous, and well-equipped foe.

The General, in giving an explanation of the reverse, declared that the operation which proved so wretched a failure was started  under the promise of complete success. By himself and the local guide, however, the distance was under~stimated. He did not consider that the guide was guilty of treachery, merely of unintentional error. However this may have  been, it is certain that the British plans were entirely well known, and that the Boers had had ample time to prepare for the coming of the force. It was evident that the gallant General did not take a leaf out of the book of  Metellus, the Spanish commander, who, when asked how he should proceed the next day, said, "If my shirt knew I would put it in the fire." Possibly, being a great theoris~, as was poor Sir George Colley, he may have  agreed with the opinion held by Marshal Bugeaud, that military affairs were too often wrapped in mysterious silence. Certainly there was no secrecy about the strategy of the advance on Stormberg, and the guileless manner in  which the General trusted to the guidance of a local policeman was comn~ented on none too generously by the distressed public, whose disappointment was too great to allow them to look coolly at the ups and downs of warfare and  the fallibility of human designs. General Gatacre, after the reverse, held Bushman's Hock and Cyphergat, two positions to the south of Molteno, where he could await the reinforcements which would shortly reach him from the Cape.