It was with great reluctance that Sir Redvers Buller had been persuaded to give any forecast to the War Office in London of the disposition of troops he intended to make on reaching Capetown. But whatever these may have been, he found on his arrival that the situation had so materially changed that he had to rearrange his plans to suit the emergency.

The Boers were bringing so much pressure to bear on Ladysmith, where Sir George White had established his headquarters, and on Kimberley, that he decided to send the First Division under Lord Methuen to the relief of the latter place, and to employ in Natal the Second Division and the two brigades of which the Third Division had been originally composed. It seemed at the same time so important to reassure the loyal colonists in Eastern Cape Colony that he sent Gatacre there with one battalion of infantry and a promise of speedy reinforcements.

Writing on board ship between Capetown and East London, on November 16, Sir William says:

"I am ordered to go to East London, and take command of the district up to Bethulie Bridge. Now, what does this mean? Why, that with the Royal Irish Rifles, which has never been on service before, together with half-battalion Berkshire Regiment, and a few Volunteers, I become responsible for the railway line and adjacent country up to the Orange River, about 200 miles long—but the last 100 miles are much disaffected. I have no definite orders, except that I am to hold Queenstown if possible, but East London at any rate, and am to raise as many Volunteers as possible."

When the General reached East London he found that it could be left under the care of a local Volunteer Corps, and so he proceeded by train to Queenstown the same day. Here he found the half-battalion named above, a small detachment of Royal Garrison Artillery, and half a company of Royal Engineers. Besides these regular troops there were 229 men of the Frontier Mounted Rifles, and 285 of the Queenstown Rifle Volunteers.

Sir Redvers Buller, who was the General Commanding-in-Chief, chose Natal for his headquarters. Sir F. Forestier-Walker was in command of the Lines of Communication, with headquarters at Capetown. Sometimes Sir Redvers sent his messages direct to Gatacre, and sometimes they came through Capetown. There was no friction and no contradiction, but it may well have been that this duplication of important telegrams created an atmosphere of unrest and added poignancy to Gatacre's feeling of helplessness.

On November 18 a telegram was received from Sir Redvers Buller, pointing out that "the great thing in this sort of warfare is to be pretty certain that one position is safe before you advance to another, and that we are not yet strong enough to play tricks."[1]

[1] See Official History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902, vol. i. pp. 286, 287.

Conflicting messages

Three days, later, however, the General Commanding-in-Chief strikes a different note:

"I calculate it will be at least five days and probably a week before I have a second battalion to send you, or a battery of field artillery, but I am anxious to get into a position to protect the Indwe mines better than we do. Do you think it would be safe for you to advance your force or part of it to Stormberg, and hold that instead of Queenstown? I am told it is a good position for a force the size of yours. Of course you will have no support."[2]

[2] From contemporary copy of telegram in W. F. G.'s own handwriting.

To this Sir William replied that he had not sufficient men as yet to advance on Stormberg, but as soon as more troops arrived he intended to occupy that junction and clear the country round it.

At the time this message was sent the Boers had not yet crossed the Orange River in strength, but by November 5 they had occupied Aliwal North and Stormberg, and were advancing on Dordrecht. The first is an important town on the Orange River, near which there are good bridges, both for the road and the railway; the second is a railway junction fifty-five miles north-west of Queenstown, and Dordrecht is a small town only thirty-five miles from Queenstown to the north-east.

Invasion of Cape Colony: the Boers marching south over the Orange River at Aliwal North. Invasion of Cape Colony: the Boers marching south over the Orange River at Aliwal North.

On hearing of the occupation of Dordrecht, Sir Redvers grew anxious lest his former suggestion should be taken too seriously, and telegraphed to Sir F. Forestier-Walker:

"Caution Gatacre to be careful. I think he is hardly strong enough to advance beyond Putters Kraal before Methuen's return."[3]

[3] See Official History, vol. i. p. 288.

And on the following day he added instructions to reinforce Gatacre by one, or if possible two battalions, and "any mounted men that can be spared."[4]

[4] Ibid.

Writing on November 24, Sir William says:

"I have not yet got any more troops, but am hoping for some directly. Fancy what a predicament for a General Officer to be in—no troops, no transport, no horses for his Mounted Infantry; but I trust all are coming. The only unfortunate thing is that our people in front, police, civilian officers, etc., are obliged to fall back for want of support. I have been over a good deal of country the last few days, round our outposts, and am delighted with it. It is fine and open, and the farmers are a nice set of people. The sun is hot, but nothing like India: one can ride in it all day without inconvenience, and it hardly ever gives you sunstroke."

An anxious time

And again on the 28th:

"I have had a terribly anxious time the last two days, the Boers wrecking everything in my front, and no troops to drive them out. I am thankful to say that I hear to-day that a regiment, the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, is arriving here to-morrow, ... and so I shall be able to make some kind of show—but I am still badly off for everything. I am still praying for artillery, hospitals, etc. The whole country is seething with rebellion, and to put it down we require a lot of men."

Immediately after the arrival of this reinforcement, Gatacre advanced his Headquarters to Putters Kraal, twenty-five miles up the railway, and placed outposts at Sterkstroom, Bushman's Hoek, and Penhoek. The cross railway line running from Stormberg westwards through Rosmead to Naauwpoort was soon afterwards destroyed by the enemy, thus putting a stop to any combined action between Sir William and Sir John French, who was defending a parallel railway which runs up from Port Elizabeth through Naauwpoort and Colesberg to Bloemfontein.

On November 30 Sir William writes:

"I fear this is a grumbling letter, but I am in a miserable state of inefficiency. I have only two regiments (one joined yesterday). We have waggons but no harness, and only half the mules to draw them—and are within a few miles of the enemy. I have orders to raise Mounted Volunteers, but have no saddlery, no equipment, no clothing to supply them with: it would be laughable if it were not lamentable and serious....

"The worst point about the whole thing is that I can hear nothing of any more troops coming to me, that the Boers are eating up the country in our front, and forcing the farmers to join them, because I cannot move: and consequently they are getting stronger every day. I assure you that I am perfectly sick at such a display of inefficiency, unpreparedness, and apathy.

"Yesterday I made a dash out to Molteno, some sixteen miles ahead of my present position, and seized some 7,000 bags of food, meal, etc., and brought it in on some trains which I took out."

On Saturday, December 2, Sir William sent the following message to Sir Redvers Buller:

"Military situation here requires dealing with extreme carefulness. Boers have occupied Dordrecht, and enemy is advancing in a southerly direction, evidently pointing for Queenstown. I have two British regiments only, and I am thirty-three miles to the north of Queenstown. I am holding Bushman's Hoek range, to endeavour to prevent descent into Queenstown district, which would mean general state of rebellion of Dutch. Force will be strengthened at Queenstown by next British regiment, which should arrive at Queenstown December 5, but Queenstown is indefensible position. Are there any orders, especially as regards my movements?"[5]

[5] See Official History, vol. i. p. 288.

To which this reply was returned:

"We have to make the best of the situation, and if the enemy is advancing by Dordrecht, the importance of Bushman's Hoek is diminished. You have a force which altogether is considerably stronger than the enemy can now bring against you. Cannot you close with him, or else occupy a defensible position which will obstruct his advance? You have an absolutely free hand to do what you think best."[6]

[6] See Official History, vol. i. p. 288.

Night attack suggested

On the following day the message given below reached Gatacre through Sir F. Forestier-Walker:

"General Buller inquires whether you can safely leave your present position and advance to Henning's Station, or somewhere near where you can get a safe position, and also institute a policy of worry. He thinks if you could occupy Henning's Station Boers would fall back on Burghersdorp, or if you could get near enough to Burghersdorp to make night attack, it would be the thing to stop anxiety (sic). He adds Hildyard with a battalion and half sent a column of seven thousand Boers under Joubert himself flying. The above was probably wired before Buller read notification of the enemy's occupation of Dordrecht. He wired last night as follows: tell Gatacre he will have to take care of himself till 5th Division arrives. A telegram just received says he has given you a free hand."[7]

[7] From copy of telegram in A.D.C.'s handwriting.

Burghersdorp is about twenty-three miles north of Stormberg, and Henning is a station about ten miles west of Stormberg on the cross line. This telegram, therefore, sketched a far more arduous and hazardous enterprise than that which Gatacre afterwards attempted.

Within the next few days the Third Division was strengthened by the arrival of the 74th and 77th Batteries Royal Field Artillery, the First Battalion Royal Scots, the 33rd Company Army Service Corps, and the 16th Field Hospital. All these units were only just arrived from England, so that, although the additional battalion of infantry was very valuable, Gatacre was unable to employ the men on the raid that he had been planning for some time past. They would serve, however, to protect the camp, and would thus set the other two battalions free for use as a striking force. Even these had only been two and three weeks in the country respectively, and the General had had no opportunity of getting them into the hard condition and fighting form that was reached by his Brigade on the Nile.

On December 8 he writes:

"I am frightfully busy and worried. The whole of this country is seething with rebels, and as they are all mounted, and I have only a few mounted infantry on half-fed ponies, it is very difficult to cope with them.

"I have now three regiments of infantry, but have a long railway line to guard, and every culvert has a couple of armed men in it. Fancy what an anxiety this is—their safety, their food, their overworked condition. If I had my Division I could really strike somewhere....

"I am hoping to move on a bit to-morrow or next day to recover some of the country given up prior to my arrival, as I think occupation of a position in advance of this may tend to awe the Dutch behind me."

In the Official History we read that—

"The General Officer Commanding considered that, in the existing strategic situation, any further prolongation of the defensive attitude he had hitherto been obliged to maintain would be injurious. He determined, therefore, to take advantage of the free hand left to him by Sir Redvers Buller, and to follow the further suggestion that he should close with the enemy."[8]

[8] See Official History, vol. i. p. 289.

The first week in December was spent in reconnoitring the Stormberg position so far as wandering parties of Boers would permit. The general himself prepared a sketch of the hills surrounding it and the roads leading thereto, which he carried with him on the march. The only map available was on too small a scale (twelve and a half miles to the inch) to be useful for tactical purposes, but all possible information was extracted from every man acquainted with the locality. Their accounts of the features and the distances were often inexact, and did not always agree, but eventually five local men, belonging to the Cape Mounted Police, under Sergeant Morgan of the same corps, were selected as guides.

The General's scheme was to attack the Boer laager on the Stormberg Nek; by a night march of nine miles from Molteno he hoped to reach a position from which the enemy's camp could be assaulted at daybreak.

The concentration was made at Molteno, on the afternoon of December 9, the troops being brought from Putters Kraal by train, about sixteen miles, and some from Bushman's Hoet, which was half the distance. The force consisted of the two field batteries, with an escort of Mounted Infantry and two Infantry Battalions. It should have been further augmented by the detachment from Penhoek of 235 Cape Mounted Rifles, but, owing to the miscarriage of a telegram, these men failed to appear.

Another circumstance that modified the original plan was a report that was brought in at the last minute that the enemy had fortified and entrenched the pass between the Kissieberg and Rooi Kop, over which runs the main road and the railway to the junction. The informant affirmed that the Boer main laager was placed on the heights of the Kissieberg, which could be easily ascended from the western side, where there were no artificial defences. The General was assured by all those who should have known that to reach this hill on its western flank would only add two miles to the projected march, and that they could lead him to a favourable spot for such an attempt.

The start

A council was held in the station-master's room at Molteno, and all the commanding officers were consulted as to their men's condition and fitness for the expedition. Although the train service had been most carefully timed, a delay of two hours had somehow crept in; the railway was but a single line and the siding accommodation very limited. However, no one foresaw any difficulty, and so the start was made at nine o'clock that evening by moonlight. Indeed, so eager were the men that they set out at an unusually brisk pace.

In the General's official report we read:

"The force marched, with the usual halts, for about eight miles by moonlight, and halted near Roberts's farm at 12.30. The chief guide now reported that we were within one and a half miles of the enemy's position, and, after a rest of about three-quarters of an hour, we marched off again in the dark."[9]

[9] See Despatches published March 17, 1900.

It was soon after this halt that the General realised that the guides had not brought him along the road that he had indicated, but, as he wrote, to turn back in consequence of this discovery did not commend itself to him. So the men tramped on, and at 4.20 a.m. found themselves under a face of the Kissieberg. A single shot from a Boer picket precipitated the attack, and before long the enemy had located the British column.

"Three companies of the Royal Irish Rifles formed to the left, and occupied a kopje; the remainder of this battalion and the Northumberland Fusiliers advanced up a steep hill against the enemy's position."[10]

[10] Ibid.

"There was no good position for the British guns, except the ridge 2,000 yards to the west of the Kissieberg. But the infantry's need of immediate support was too pressing to allow time for that ridge's occupation. Lieutenant-Colonel Jeffreys, by direction of General Gatacre, caused the 77th Battery to come into action near the kopje, the 74th unlimbering in the open veldt to the westward. The Mounted Infantry continued to escort the batteries....

A fatal mischance

"The Boers from the main laager had now manned the hill, but the British artillery was bursting shells on the threatened crest, and a Boer gun, which had come into action, was for a time silenced.

"The attack had lasted half an hour, and progress up the hill was being slowly made by the British infantry, when five companies of the Northumberlands, on the right of the line, were ordered to retire by their commanding officer. He considered that his battalion must leave the hill. The three foremost companies, who were nearly on the summit, did not hear this order, and, under the command of Captain Wilmott, remained with the Irish Rifles, clinging on as they were. The fire of the enemy appeared to be slackening, and for the moment the groups of British officers were convinced that, if they were supported, they could gain the crest. But the withdrawal of a portion of the attacking line had made further success impossible. Nor was that all. Seeing the five companies of the Northumberland Fusiliers falling back to the west, the batteries conceived that all the assailants were retreating, and exerted themselves to the utmost to cover the movement by their fire. The sun was now rising behind the western face of the Kissieberg, so that all the upper part presented to the British guns a black target, on  which neither friend nor foe could be distinguished. Thus a fatal mischance came about. A shell fused for explosion just short of the Boer defensive line burst over the foremost group of the Irish Rifles, and struck down Lieutenant-Colonel Eager, Major H. J. Seton, the second-in-command, Major Welman, Captain Bell, and three men. A conference had a few moments before been held between Colonel Eager and Captain Wilmott, as to the steps which should be taken to protect the men from the shells of their own gunners. The former officer had stated that as the situation of the infantry was evidently unknown to the batteries, and was masking their fire, it was necessary to fall back. Captain Wilmott, on the other hand, urged that if the men were once ordered to withdraw, it would be very difficult to get them up the hill again. Colonel Eager replied that there was no help for it. Therefore a general retirement now began."[11]

[11] See Official History, vol. i. pp. 297-8.

An officer of the Royal Irish Rifles writes in his official report:

"At this time I did not think there was more than a piquet in front, and a rush at the end of the kopje would have taken that part of the position and the Boer gun. Colonel Eager, Major Seton, Major Welman, and Captain Bell were knocked over at this point by one of our shells, otherwise I think they would have taken this portion of the Boer position. From subsequent conversation with one Voss, Secretary to Swanepoel, Commandant Smithfield Laager there is no doubt that many of the Boers were leaving the position."

It seems, therefore, clear that the day was almost won, for had our shells fallen a little farther forward, so that the infantry could have held on a quarter of an hour longer, they would doubtless have found the defences evacuated. If our victorious troops had been able to eat the enemy's breakfast, we should have heard nothing of the fatigues of the night march, nor of the missing telegram.

But, unfortunately, the morning ended differently. We will close the account with a quotation from a letter written by one of the aides-de-camp:

"The General, as soon as he realised the state of things, arranged for the retirement, quite cool under the hottest fire, encouraging the men and moving over the position in every direction, not recklessly, but with a fine courage, which did us all good to watch. The retirement was carried out in wonderful order, and, weary though the men were, they hastened to join their units, and marched home in fair order.... Throughout the retirement he was the last man of the column, beating up tired stragglers, and bringing in abandoned transport."

In all the accounts something is said about a secondary force of Boers that came on to the scene soon after the general retirement had begun, but according to the following extract from another officer's report, they refrained from doing us as much damage as might have been effected by a more experienced enemy.

"Just as we were moving off about 400 Boers appeared on the high plateau on our right flank from the Steynsburg direction, but were at once checked by the fire of our guns, and gave the infantry no further trouble."

The advanced troops got back to Molteno at 11 a.m., and all were in by 12.30. The casualties were officially returned as eight officers wounded (one died of wounds) and thirteen missing; in other ranks there were 25 killed, 102 wounded, and 548 missing. The whole force employed amounted to 3,035 of all ranks.

The main facts of this account are taken from the History of the War in South Africa recently published. So little is said in the General's despatch of the part played by the infantry that this omission is a subject of comment in Lord Roberts's covering letter of February 1900.[12] It may therefore be concluded that the Field-Marshal (who was commanding the forces in Ireland at the time that the engagement was fought) was at the time of writing ignorant of many incidents that have since been brought to light.

[12] See Despatches published March 17, 1900.

With an ace

In Sir William's letter three days later he speaks of the action as "a most lamentable failure, and yet within an ace of being the success I anticipated," and goes on:

"The fault was mine, as I was responsible of course. I went rather against my better judgment in not resting the night at Molteno, but I was tempted by the shortness of the distance and the certainty of success. It was so near being a brilliant success."

Both in the articles published at the time, and in the Official History referred to above, the circumstances in which Sir William was placed are held to have made some demonstration imperative.

"Sir William Gatacre's decision to advance on Stormberg was fully justified by the strategical situation. General Buller's telegram, although it left him a free hand as to time and opportunity, had suggested that operation. The plan, though bold, was sound in its design, and would have succeeded had not exceptional misfortune attended its execution."[13]

[13] See Official History, vol. i. pp. 301, 302.

On the following day, Monday, the battle of Magersfontein was fought on the north-west, and on Friday of the same week Sir Redvers Buller delivered his unsuccessful attack on Colenso. Owing to the proximity of dates, the attempt to retake Stormberg is associated in the public mind with the other engagements of that week; but in the numbers employed, in the losses suffered, and in political importance it shrinks into insignificance compared with them. At Magersfontein, on December 11, 14,964 troops of all ranks were engaged, the total killed and wounded was returned as 885, with 63 missing; at Colenso, out of 19,378 men, the losses were 899, with 240 missing; while at Stormberg, out of 3,035 engaged, 135 were killed and wounded, and 571 taken prisoners.[14] From a political point of view, though no ground was gained, still none was lost, and Sir William was actually able, the day after, to establish his headquarters at Sterkstroom, which was five miles farther up the railway than he had been at Putters Kraal.

[14] See Official History, vol. i. app. vi. pp. 468, 469, 470.

From the General Commanding-in-Chief Sir William received the following telegram:

"Your telegram respecting your action and dispositions, I think you were quite right to try the night attack and hope better luck next time. I don't think you will find them attack you when in position, but it would be better to retire than run the risk of being surrounded; as to this you must judge for yourself, but military considerations should be held paramount.—BULLER."[15]

[15] See original text. From Frere Camp, 2.17 p.m.; reached Sterkstroom 4.4 p.m., December 11, 1899.

Writing on December 18, Sir William says:

"I have now three regiments—the Derbyshire, Royal Scots, and Royal Irish Rifles. I have been obliged to send the Northumberland Fusiliers to East London to look after the base, as Sir Redvers Buller wished this done. My Howitzer Battery he has been obliged to send to Natal to assist Clery.

"I have up here (Sterkstroom) a large camp with supplies, stores, etc., and have been ordered by Buller to entrench and endeavour with my mounted troops to harry the district round me, but I have so few trained troops, and these Boers are so mobile (all mounted) that it is a very difficult matter to catch them.


"You must not expect to see much movement from my force: I have no strength—cannot leave my line of communications, which are long. All the districts behind me are ready to rise, and I cannot separate my regiments. I have received orders to entrench my camp, and this I am about to do. This will, of course, free my mounted men a bit, as the post, with provisions, will be safe for them to come back to. As I am writing I hear of a threatened rising in Alice and Seymour, two districts south-west of Stutterheim, right away behind me, which makes it difficult for me to retain my communications with the coast. These may be exaggerated reports, but I have had so many warnings that one cannot afford to disregard them. You may rest assured we shall fight to the end anyhow, and my thoughts will be with you."