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