General Gatacre’s contingent faced the invasion in the middle of the colony down the railway line to East London. The size and nature of the country dictated that campaigning took place largely along the railways. Gatacre resolved to move north up the Stormberg Pass and drive the Boers back from Stormberg station lying beyond the pass.
Gatacre ordered his force to gather at Molteno Station some 20 miles to the South in the early hours of 9th December 1899 to move up by train to the mouth of the pass and begin a night flanking approach up the western side of the valley. Due to inadequate communications part of the force, 1st Royal Berkshire Regiment who knew the ground well having built entrenchments in the area to be attacked, failed to arrive leaving the rest of the British troops waiting around at Molteno the full day. A further problem; Gatacre did not have guides who knew the area sufficiently well and did not brief the guides he had precisely as to his intentions.
The force finally moved off during the night of 9th December 1899. The approach march took the British to the wrong side of the ridge where the middle of the column came under fire from Boer piquets. The front of the British column marched on, unaware that the following companies had stopped to assault the Boer positions.
The uphill attack, foundering due to the steepness of a section of cliffs, was fired on by the British guns attempting to lay a supporting bombardment on the crest.
The force began to retreat in some confusion pressed hard by the Boers; but covered by a rearguard of guns and some mounted infantry. Once clear of the battle it was found that 600 men of the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Irish Rifles had been left behind. Forming the van of the column and continuing along the route when the Boers opened fire, these men were unaware of the retreat and finding themselves surrounded were forced to surrender.
Casualties: British casualties were 90 men with the 600 captured by the Boers. Boer casualties were trivial and are unknown.
Following this disastrous operation Gatacre was forced to fall back down the railway.
Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso were the defeats that made up “Black Week”. Although there were more failures for the British, Lord Roberts in the West and General Buller in Natal pushed the Boers back, relieving Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith, capturing the capitals of the Free State, Bloemfontein and the Transvaal, Pretoria and finally after a protracted guerilla campaign bringing the war to a successful conclusion.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
• General Gatacre was known to the troops as “Back acher” because of the burdens he imposed on them; not a fault provided he could deliver success in battle.
• Gatacre was hardly assisted by the inefficiency of the British military system. The failure of the Berkshire Regiment to join the force at Molteno lay at the door of a telegraph clerk forgetting to send the signal ordering the battalion up.
• The one intelligence officer in Gatacre’s force who knew the area well had been left at the base and was not available.
• Gatacre is reputed to have shot the guide who led the column. This is discounted. It is said the guide, a Cape Police sergeant, gave evidence to the Board of Enquiry that he became confused.
• In due course Gatacre joined the growing group of British generals whose careers ended with the Boer War.
The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be:
The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Goodbye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger
The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham
South Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly partisan volumes)
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