Site Menu

Additional Info

Share

The Battle of Stormberg

War: The Boer War

Date: 9th December 1899

Place: Stormberg Valley in Northern Cape Colony, South Africa.

Combatants: British against the Boers

Generals: Major General Sir William Gatacre against General Olivier.
Size of the armies: 3,000 British against 2,000 Boers.

Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The Boer War was a serious jolt for the British Army. At the outbreak of the war British tactics were appropriate for the use of single shot firearms, fired in volleys controlled by company and battalion officers; the troops fighting in close order. The need for tight formations had been emphasised time and again in colonial fighting. In the Zulu and Sudan Wars overwhelming enemy numbers armed principally with stabbing weapons were easily kept at a distance by such tactics; but, as at Isandlwana, would overrun a loosely formed force. These tactics had to be entirely rethought in battle against the Boers armed with modern weapons.

In the months before hostilities the Boer commandant general, General Joubert, bought 30,000 Mauser magazine rifles and a number of modern field guns and automatic weapons from the German armaments manufacturer Krupp and the French firm Creusot. The commandoes, without formal discipline, welded into a fighting force through a strong sense of community and dislike for the British. Field Cornets led burghers by personal influence not through any military code. The Boers did not adopt military formation in battle, instinctively fighting from whatever cover there might be. The preponderance were countrymen, running their farms from the back of a pony with a rifle in one hand. These rural Boers brought a life time of marksmanship to the war, an important edge, further exploited by Joubert’s consignment of magazine rifles. Viljoen is said to have coined the aphorism “Through God and the Mauser”. With strong fieldcraft skills and high mobility the Boers were natural mounted infantry. The urban burghers and foreign volunteers readily adopted the fighting methods of the rest of the army.

Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police units, the Boers wore their every day civilian clothes on campaign.

After the first month the Boers lost their numerical superiority, spending the rest of the formal war on the defensive against British forces that regularly outnumbered them.

British tactics, little changed from the Crimea, used at Modder River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop were incapable of winning battles against entrenched troops armed with modern magazine rifles. Every British commander made the same mistake; Buller; Methuen, Roberts and Kitchener. When General Kelly-Kenny attempted to winkle Cronje’s commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments at Paardeburg using his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted on a battle of infantry assaults; with the same disastrous consequences as Colenso, Modder River, Magersfontein and Spion Kop.

Some of the most successful British troops were the non-regular regiments; the City Imperial Volunteers, the South Africans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who more easily broke from the habit of traditional European warfare, using their horses for transport rather than the charge, advancing by fire and manouevre in loose formations and making use of cover, rather than the formal advance into a storm of Mauser bullets.

Uniform: The British regiments made an uncertain change into khaki uniforms in the years preceding the Boer War, with the topee helmet as tropical headgear. Highland regiments in Natal devised aprons to conceal coloured kilts and sporrans. By the end of the war the uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab tunic and trousers; the danger of shiny buttons and too ostentatious emblems of rank emphasised in several engagements with disproportionately high officer casualties.

The British infantry were armed with the Lee Metford magazine rifle firing 10 rounds. But no training regime had been established to take advantage of the accuracy and speed of fire of the weapon. Personal skills such as scouting and field craft were little taught. The idea of fire and movement was unknown, many regiments still going into action in close order.

Notoriously General Hart insisted that his Irish Brigade fight shoulder to shoulder as if on parade in Aldershot. Short of regular troops, Britain engaged volunteer forces from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who brought new ideas and more imaginative formations to the battlefield.

The British regular troops lacked imagination and resource. Routine procedures such as effective scouting and camp protection were often neglected. The war was littered with incidents in which British contingents became lost or were ambushed often unnecessarily and forced to surrender. The war was followed by a complete re-organisation of the British Army.

The British artillery was a powerful force in the field, underused by commanders with little training in the use of modern guns in battle. Pakenham cites Pieters as being the battle at which a British commander, surprisingly Buller, developed a modern form of battlefield tactics: heavy artillery bombardments co-ordinated to permit the infantry to advance under their protection. It was the only occasion that Buller showed any real generalship and the short inspiration quickly died.

The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15 pounder guns; the Royal Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the Royal Garrison Artillery batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal Navy provided heavy field artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible.

Automatic weapons were used by the British usually mounted on special carriages accompanying the cavalry.

Winner: The Boers

British Regiments:
Royal Artillery: 74th and 77th Batteries
Royal Engineers:
2nd Northumberland Fusiliers
1st Royal Berkshire Regiment
2nd Royal Irish Rifles
New South Wales Lancers
Volunteer Mounted Infantry

Account:
The Boer War began with invasions by Boer armies into the British colony of Natal and the North West and centre of Cape Colony in South Africa. British forces in the African colonies were inadequate to resist these incursions until reinforcements could arrive.

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.

Lieutenant General Gatacre, known as "Backacher" to the troops
Lieutenant General Gatacre,
known as "Backacher" to the troops

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.

Follow-up:
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.

References:

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)