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Chapter 10

THE BATTLE OF STORMBERG

Some attempt has now been made to sketch the succession of events
which had ended in the investment of Ladysmith in northern Natal, and
also to show the fortunes of the force which on the western side of
the seat of war attempted to advance to the relief of Kimberley. The
distance between these forces may be expressed in terms familiar to
the European reader by saying that it was that which separates Paris
from Frankfort, or to the American by suggesting that Ladysmith was at
Boston and that Methuen was trying to relieve Philadelphia. Waterless
deserts and rugged mountain ranges divided the two scenes of action.
In the case of the British there could be no connection between the
two movements, but the Boers by a land journey of something over a
hundred miles had a double choice of a route by which Cronje and
Joubert might join hands, either by the
Bloemfontein-Johannesburg-Laing's-Nek Railway, or by the direct line
from Harrismith to Ladysmith. The possession of these internal lines
should have been of enormous benefit to the Boers, enabling them to
throw the weight of their forces unexpectedly from the one flank to
the other.

In a future chapter it will be recorded how the Army Corps arriving
from England was largely diverted into Natal in order in the first
instance to prevent the colony from being overrun, and in the second
to rescue the beleaguered garrison. In the meantime it is necessary
to deal with the military operations in the broad space between the
eastern and western armies.

After the declaration of war there was a period of some weeks during
which the position of the British over the whole of the northern part
of Cape Colony was full of danger. Immense supplies had been gathered
at De Aar which were at the mercy of a Free State raid, and the
burghers, had they possessed a cavalry leader with the dash of a
Stuart or a Sheridan, might have dealt a blow which would have cost us
a million pounds' worth of stores and dislocated the whole plan of
campaign. However, the chance was allowed to pass, and when, on
November 1st, the burghers at last in a leisurely fashion sauntered
over the frontier, arrangements had been made by reinforcement and by
concentration to guard the vital points. The objects of the British
leaders, until the time for a general advance should come, were to
hold the Orange River Bridge (which opened the way to Kimberley), to
cover De Aar Junction, where the stores were, to protect at all costs
the line of railway which led from Cape Town to Kimberley, and to hold
on to as much as possible of those other two lines of railway which
led, the one through Colesberg and the other through Stormberg, into
the Free State. The two bodies of invaders who entered the colony
moved along the line of these two railways, the one crossing the
Orange River at Norval's Pont and the other at Bethulie. They
enlisted many recruits among the Cape Colony Dutch as they advanced,
and the scanty British forces fell back in front of them, abandoning
Colesberg on the one line and Stormberg on the other. We have, then,
to deal with the movements of two British detachments. The one which
operated on the Colesberg line -- which was the more vital of the two, as
a rapid advance of the Boers upon that line would have threatened the
precious Capetown-Kimberley connection -- consisted almost entirely of
mounted troops, and was under the command of the same General French
who had won the battle of Elandslaagte. By an act of foresight which
was only too rare upon the British side in the earlier stages of this
war, French, who had in the recent large manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain
shown great ability as a cavalry leader, was sent out of Ladysmith
in the very last train which made its way through. His operations,
with his instructive use of cavalry and horse artillery, may be
treated separately.

The other British force which faced the Boers who were advancing
through Stormberg was commanded by General Gatacre, a man who bore a
high reputation for fearlessness and tireless energy, though he had
been criticised, notably during the Soudan campaign, for having called
upon his men for undue and unnecessary exertion. 'General Back-acher'
they called him, with rough soldierly chaff. A glance at his long
thin figure, his gaunt Don-Quixote face, and his aggressive jaw would
show his personal energy, but might not satisfy the observer that he
possessed those intellectual gifts which qualify for high command. At
the action of the Atbara he, the brigadier in command, was the first
to reach and to tear down with his own hands the zareeba of the enemy
-- a gallant exploit of the soldier, but a questionable position for
the General. The man's strength and his weakness lay in the incident.

General Gatacre was nominally in command of a division, but so cruelly
had his men been diverted from him, some to Buller in Natal and some
to Methuen, that he could not assemble more than a brigade. Falling
back before the Boer advance, he found himself early in December at
Sterkstroom, while the Boers occupied the very strong position of
Stormberg, some thirty miles to the north of him. With the enemy so
near him it was Gatacre's nature to attack, and the moment that he
thought himself strong enough he did so. No doubt he had private
information as to the dangerous hold which the Boers were getting upon
the colonial Dutch, and it is possible that while Buller and Methuen
were attacking east and west they urged Gatacre to do something to
hold the enemy in the centre. On the night of December 9th he
advanced.

The fact that he was about to do so, and even the hour of the start,
appear to have been the common property of the camp some days before
the actual move. The 'Times' correspondent under the date December 7th
details all that it is intended to do. It is to the credit of our
Generals as men, but to their detriment as soldiers, that they seem
throughout the campaign to have shown extraordinarily little power of
dissimulation. They did the obvious, and usually allowed it to be
obvious what they were about to do. One thinks of Napoleon striking
at Egypt; how he gave it abroad that the real object of the expedition
was Ireland, but breathed into the ears of one or two intimates that
in very truth it was bound for Genoa. The leading official at Tolilon
had no more idea where the fleet and army of France had gone than the
humblest caulker in the yard. However, it is not fair to expect the
subtlety of the Corsican from the downright Saxon, but it remains
strange and deplorable that in a country filled with spies any one
should have known in advance that a so-called 'surprise' was about to
be attempted.

The force with which General Gatacre advanced consisted of the 2nd
Northumberland Fusiliers, 960 strong, with one Maxim; the 2nd Irish
Rifles, 840 strong, with one Maxim, and 250 Mounted Infantry. There
were two batteries of Field Artillery, the 74th and 77th. The total
force was well under 3,000 men. About three in the afternoon the men
were entrained in open trucks under a burning sun, and for some
reason, at which the impetuous spirit of the General must have chafed,
were kept waiting for three hours. At eight o'clock they detrained at
Molteno, and thence after a short rest and a meal they started upon
the night march which was intended to end at the break of day at the
Boer trenches. One feels as if one were describing the operations of
Magersfontein once again and the parallel continues to be painfully
exact.

It was nine o'clock and pitch dark when the column moved out of
Molteno and struck across the black gloom of the veldt, the wheels of
the guns being wrapped in hide to deaden the rattle. It was known
that the distance was not more than ten miles, and so when hour
followed hour and the guides were still unable to say that they had
reached their point it must have become perfectly evident that they
had missed their way. The men were dog-tired, a long day's work had
been followed by a long night's march, and they plodded along drowsily
through the darkness. The ground was broken and irregular. The weary
soldiers stumbled as they marched. Daylight came and revealed the
column still looking for its objective, the fiery General walking in
front and leading his horse behind him. It was evident that his plans
had miscarried, but his energetic and hardy temperament would not
permit him to turn back without a blow being struck. However one may
commend his energy, one cannot but stand aghast at his dispositions.
The country was wild and rocky, the very places for those tactics of
the surprise and the ambuscade in which the Boers excelled. And yet
the column still plodded aimlessly on in its dense formation, and if
there were any attempt at scouting ahead and on the flanks the result
showed how ineffectively it was carried out. It was at a quarter past
four in the clear light of a South African morning that a shot, and
then another, and then a rolling crash of musketry, told that we were
to have one more rough lesson of the result of neglecting the usual
precautions of warfare. High up on the face of a steep line of hill
the Boer riflemen lay hid, and from a short range their fire scourged
our exposed flank. The men appear to have been chiefly colonial
rebels, and not Boers of the backveldt, and to that happy chance it
may be that the comparative harmlessness of their fire was due. Even
now, in spite of the surprise, the situation might have been saved had
the bewildered troops and their harried officers known exactly what to
do. It is easy to be wise after the event, but it appears now that
the only course that could commend itself would be to extricate the
troops from their position, and then, if thought feasible, to plan an
attack. Instead of this a rush was made at the hillside, and the
infantry made their way some distance up it only to find that there
were positive ledges in front of them which could not be climbed. The
advance was at a dead stop, and the men lay down under the boulders
for cover from the hot fire which came from inaccessible marksmen
above them. Meanwhile the artillery had opened behind them, and their
fire (not for the first time in this campaign) was more deadly to
their friends than to their foes. At least one prominent officer fell
among his men, torn by British shrapnel bullets. Talana Hill and
Modder River have shown also, though perhaps in a less tragic degree,
that what with the long range of modern artillery fire, and what with
the difficulty of locating infantry who are using smokeless powder, it
is necessary that officers commanding batteries should be provided
with the coolest heads and the most powerful glasses of any men in the
service, for a responsibility which will become more and more terrific
rests upon their judgment.

The question now, since the assault had failed, was how to extricate
the men from their position. Many withdrew down the hill, running the
gauntlet of the enemy's fire as they emerged from the boulders on to
the open ground, while others clung to their positions, some from a
soldierly hope that victory might finally incline to them, others
because it was clearly safer to lie among the rocks than to cross the
bullet-swept spaces beyond. Those portions of the force who
extricated themselves do not appear to have realised how many of their
comrades had remained behind, and so as the gap gradually increased
between the men who were stationary and the men who fell back all hope
of the two bodies reuniting became impossible. All the infantry who
remained upon the hillside were captured. The rest rallied at a point
fifteen hundred yards from the scene of the surprise, and began an
orderly retreat to Molteno.

In the meanwhile three powerful Boer guns upon the ridge had opened
fire with great accuracy, but fortunately with defective shells. Had
the enemy's contractors been as trustworthy as their gunners in this
campaign, our losses would have been very much heavier, and it is
possible that here we catch a glimpse of some consequences of that
corruption which was one of the curses of the country. The guns were
moved with great smartness along the ridge, and opened fire again and
again, but never with great result. Our own batteries, the 74th and
77th, with our handful of mounted men, worked hard in covering the
retreat and holding back the enemy's pursuit.

It is a sad subject to discuss, but it is the one instance in a
campaign containing many reverses which amounts to demoralisation
among the troops engaged. The Guards marching with the steadiness of
Hyde Park off the field of Magersfontein, or the men of Nicholson's
Nek chafing because they were not led in a last hopeless charge, are,
even in defeat, object lessons of military virtue. But here fatigue
and sleeplessness had taken all fire and spirit out of the men. They
dropped asleep by the roadside and had to be prodded up by their
exhausted officers. Many were taken prisoners in their slumber by the
enemy who gleaned behind them. Units broke into small straggling
bodies, and it was a sorry and bedraggled force which about ten
o'clock came wandering into Molteno. The place of honour in the rear
was kept throughout by the Irish Rifles, who preserved some military
formation to the end.

Our losses in killed and wounded were not severe -- military honour would
have been less sore had they been more so. Twenty-six killed,
sixty-eight wounded -- that is all. But between the men on the hillside
and the somnambulists of the column, six hundred, about equally
divided between the Irish Rifles and the Northumberland Fusiliers, had
been left as prisoners. Two guns, too, had been lost in the hurried
retreat.

It is not for the historian -- especially for a civilian historian --
to say a word unnecessarily to aggravate the pain of that brave man
who, having done all that personal courage could do, was seen
afterwards sobbing on the table of the waiting-room at Molteno, and
bewailing his 'poor men.' He had a disaster, but Nelson had one at
Teneriffe and Napoleon at Acre, and built their great reputations in
spite of it. But the one good thing of a disaster is that by examining
it we may learn to do better in the future, and so it would indeed be
a perilous thing if we agreed that our reverses were not a fit subject
for open and frank discussion.

It is not to the detriment of an enterprise that it should be daring
and call for considerable physical effort on the part of those who are
engaged in it. On the contrary, the conception of such plans is one of
the signs of a great military mind. But in the arranging of the
details the same military mind should assiduously occupy itself in
foreseeing and preventing every unnecessary thing which may make the
execution of such a plan more difficult. The idea of a swift sudden
attack upon Stormberg was excellent -- the details of the operation
are continually open to criticism.

How far the Boers suffered at Stormberg is unknown to us, but there
seems in this instance no reason to doubt their own statement that
their losses were very slight. At no time was any body of them
exposed to our fire, while we, as usual, fought in the open. Their
numbers were probably less than ours, and the quality of their
shooting and want of energy in pursuit make the defeat the more
galling. On the other hand, their guns were served with skill and
audacity. They consisted of commandos from Bethulie, Rouxville, and
Smithfield, under the orders of Olivier, with those colonials whom
they had seduced from their allegiance.

This defeat of General Gatacre's, occurring, as it did, in a
disaffected district and one of great strategic importance, might have
produced the worst consequences.

Fortunately no very evil result followed. No doubt the recruiting of
rebels was helped, but there was no forward movement and Molteno
remained in our hands. In the meanwhile Gatacre's force was reinforced
by a fresh battery, the 79th, and by a strong regiment, the
Derbyshires, so that with the 1st Royal Scots and the wing of the
Berkshires he was strong enough to hold his own until the time for a
general advance should come. So in the Stormberg district, as at the
Modder River, the same humiliating and absurd position of stalemate
was established.

Arthur Conan Doyle