[Footnote 189: See maps Nos. 9 and 14.]
[Sidenote: The Boers occupy Stormberg, Nov. 25/99.]
President Steyn early in November ordered an invasion of the north-eastern portion of Cape Colony. In doing so he acted against the advice of a Krijgsraad held at Bethulie to discuss the project. A considerable party of the Free State burghers was, in fact, opposed to an offensive plan of campaign, but the President held that success in the struggle against Great Britain could not be attained without enlisting in his favour all the external support he could obtain. The mission of the invaders was therefore to incite the discontented in the colony to open rebellion. Under these circumstances, although many communications passed between the disaffected amongst the local farmers and Olivier, the commandant of the Boer contingent which had crossed Bethulie bridge early in November, the movements of the burghers were at first slow and hesitating. Aliwal North was occupied on the 13th, and Burghersdorp--a town without any great reputation for loyalty--two days later. The districts of Aliwal North, Albert and Barkly East were at once proclaimed to be Free State territory. It was not until the 25th that the Boer commando seized the important railway junction of Stormberg, from which the British garrison had three weeks earlier been withdrawn by Sir R. Buller to Queenstown.
[Footnote 190: Chapter XI.]
[Sidenote: Sir W. Gatacre reaches East London, Nov. 16th.]
Lieut.-General Sir W. Gatacre, with the staff of the 3rd division, the two brigades of which had been sent on to Natal, disembarked at East London on 16th November. The tasks assigned to that General were to prevent British subjects from being persuaded or compelled to take up arms against their Sovereign, to encourage and protect the loyal, and, so far as possible, to stem the Boer invasion until the return of Lord Methuen's division from Kimberley enabled the country south of the Orange river to be swept clear of the enemy, preparatory to the general advance through the Free State.
[Sidenote: Moves to Queenstown. His available strength.]
Sir W. Gatacre moved immediately up to Queenstown, taking with him the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles (898 all ranks), who had landed the same day at East London. On arriving at Queenstown he found at that station the half-battalion and a mounted company of the 2nd Berkshire regiment (strength, 574 all ranks), a small detachment of Royal Garrison artillery, and a half company of Royal engineers, which, with the Naval contingent, had formed the original garrison of Stormberg. The personnel of the Naval contingent had been ordered to return to Cape Town, but had left with the Royal artillery their two 12-pr. guns. Besides these, the gunners had two obsolete field guns belonging to the armament of the naval base, but owing to the lack of mules and equipment none of the guns were mobile. In addition to these troops the local volunteers, consisting of the Kaffrarian Rifles, the Frontier Mounted Rifles (about 229 strong), and the Queenstown Rifle Volunteers (285), had been called out; a corps of mounted infantry was being raised locally from the farmers of the Eastern province by Colonel Brabant, and a contingent of the Cape Mounted Rifles and Cape Police had been placed at the Lieut.-General's disposal. The Kaffrarian Rifles, 285 all ranks, held the base at East London. The remainder of the local troops, except some posts of observation at Cathcart, Indwe and Molteno, were concentrated at Queenstown. An armoured train, commanded by Lieutenant F. J. Gosset, 2nd Berkshire, patrolled the railway.
[Sidenote: Pushes on to Putterskraal, Sterkstroom.]
[Sidenote: and Bushman's Hoek, Nov. 27th-28th.]
For the moment it was obvious that no forward movement could take place; indeed, a telegram despatched by Sir R. Buller to General Gatacre, on 18th November, reminded him that "the great thing in this sort of warfare is to be perfectly certain that one position is safe before you advance to another, and that we are not yet strong enough in troops to play tricks." Yet patrols, furnished by the Cape Police, were sent out to Dordrecht, Stormberg and Tarkastad, and the employment of reliable native scouts was arranged. In a telegram, dated 21st November, Sir Redvers suggested that a portion of General Gatacre's force might be moved to Stormberg for the purpose of covering the coal mines at Indwe. Sir W. Gatacre replied on the same day that he had not sufficient men as yet to advance to Stormberg, but, as soon as more troops arrived, he intended to occupy that junction and clear the country round it. Meanwhile, as a result of a personal reconnaissance of the district, he proposed to occupy Putterskraal, a position which, with outposts at Bushman's Hoek and Penhoek, would "command Sterkstroom junction with the colliery line, reassure loyal farmers, and steady disloyal men." The arrival from England of two companies of mounted infantry (part of the mounted infantry of the cavalry division), under Capt. E. J. Dewar, King's Royal Rifles, on the 22nd, and of the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers on the 27th November, enabled a concentration of all the mounted troops, the detachment of Royal Garrison artillery, the 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, and the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, to be effected at Putterskraal on the latter date. Sterkstroom was also occupied as an advanced post, and on the following day the Berkshire mounted infantry, four companies of the Irish Rifles, and the Kaffrarian Rifles, brought up from East London, were pushed on to Bushman's Hoek.
[Sidenote: Situation graver. Buller suggests closing with enemy.]
The enemy was becoming bolder. A considerable number of disaffected farmers had joined the commando at Burghersdorp; more were known to be on their way up from Cradock, while at Barkly East a disloyal field cornet was issuing Government arms and ammunition to rebels. The Boer occupation of Stormberg on the 25th was followed immediately by the destruction of the railway and telegraph line to the westward. Thus French's force at Naauwpoort and Gatacre's troops at Putterskraal were cut off from each other, and the latter were left for the moment entirely dependent on their own resources. Sir Redvers, who was kept daily informed of these developments, felt "anxious," and telegraphed orders from Maritzburg on 26th November to Sir F. Forestier-Walker: "Caution Gatacre to be careful. I think he is hardly strong enough to advance beyond Putterskraal, until Methuen's return;" and on the following day he telegraphed instructions to reinforce General Gatacre by one, or, if possible, by two battalions, "and any mounted men that can be spared." Barkly East was reported to be in open rebellion, although Sir H. Elliott's action in defending the passes leading south to Griqualand East continued to be effective. The "annexation" of Dordrecht to the Free State, proclaimed officially on its occupation by the enemy, further complicated the situation. General Gatacre accordingly telegraphed direct to the General Commanding-in-Chief:--
[Footnote 191: Chapter XI.]
"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 33 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 5th December, but Queenstown is indefensible position. Are there any orders especially as regards my movements?"
Sir Redvers replied the same day (2nd December) from Maritzburg:--
"Your No. A 514. 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."
[Sidenote: Gatacre seizes Molteno and Penhoek, Nov. 29th.]
Meanwhile, on the 29th November, a raid by train had been made from Putterskraal on Molteno, and a large amount of corn removed from a mill which it was feared might fall into the enemy's hands. An officer and 50 men of the Cape Police were left in observation at Molteno, and detachments of Cape Mounted Rifles and of the newly-raised corps, Brabant's Horse, of a total strength of 400 men, was pushed out to Penhoek, a pass through the hills ten miles east of Sterkstroom.
[Sidenote: Dec. 7th Gatacre tells C.O.s of intended night march.]
By the 6th December, Sir W. Gatacre had been reinforced by two batteries of his divisional artillery, the 74th and 77th, the divisional ammunition column, the 12th company R.E., the 1st Royal Scots, the 33rd company Army Service Corps, and 16th Field Hospital. The greater portion of his detachment was unfortunately only just free from the confinement of the voyage from England. Every effort had been made on board ship to keep the infantry in good condition by gymnastics and physical drill, but they were naturally not in the best trim for a long march. The horses of the artillery had suffered from a somewhat stormy passage of 31 days, during which 14 had died of influenza. They, too, therefore, were hardly yet ready for hard work. Nevertheless, the G.O.C. 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 R. Buller, and to follow the further suggestion that he should close with the enemy. On the evening of the 7th he informed the commanding officers of units that he intended to make a night march on Stormberg and attack the Boer laager. It will be seen from map No. 14 that the buildings and sheds which mark the railway junction lie at the foot of a steep razor-back hill, called Rooi Kop, and on the eastern edge of a valley or vlei, about two miles in length from north to south, and one in breadth. This vlei, in which the enemy's main body was known to be, is shut in on the east by the Rooi Kop, which dominates all of the surrounding country. To the south and south-west, it is enclosed by a lower hill, named the Kissieberg, and on the north by a flat-topped kopje on which forts had been constructed by the British garrison when in occupation of the junction. Between this kopje and the northern point of the Kissieberg, there is a gap of a mile through which pass out the spruit, which drains the vlei, and the branch line to Naauwpoort. The railway from East London to Bloemfontein and the main road from Molteno to Burghersdorp, viâ Stormberg, cross a Nek between the Kissieberg and Rooi Kop, subsequently skirting the latter hill very closely. This Nek, on which the intelligence scouts reported the Boer guns to be posted, and the Rooi Kop, Sir W. Gatacre planned to seize before dawn on the morning of the 9th by a night march from Molteno. He proposed to employ on the enterprise the whole of the mounted infantry, one field battery, the R.E. company, the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Royal Irish Rifles, and a detachment of Cape Police. The mounted troops from Penhoek were also to co-operate on the right flank. Arrangements were also made with Sir H. Elliott for an advance of the Headquarters of the Cape Mounted Rifles in the direction of Dordrecht. By concentrating at Molteno late on the day previous to that chosen for the attack, General Gatacre hoped to surprise the enemy. Owing, however, to some difficulties in obtaining rolling stock, the movement was postponed till the 9th.
[Footnote 192: The Intelligence reports of General Gatacre's staff show that they at this time believed that Olivier was expecting a large reinforcement from the Transvaal.]
[Sidenote: Move postponed to Dec. 9th.]
[Sidenote: Concentrates at Molteno, Dec. 9th.]
Early on the morning of that day, camp was struck at Putterskraal, and the baggage packed, the wagons being ordered to travel by road to Molteno. The assembling of the troops at that village was effected during the afternoon in the following manner:--By Train from Putterskraal.
- Divisional Staff.
- R.A. Staff, 74th and 77th batteries R.F.A.
- R.E. Staff, 12th company R.E.
- 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers.
- Headquarters and 4 companies Royal Irish Rifles.
- Field Hospital and Bearer company.
By Train from Bushman's Hoek.
- 4 companies Royal Irish Rifles.
- 2 companies mounted infantry.
- 42 Cape Mounted Police.
By Road from Bushman's Hoek.
- 1 company Royal Berkshire mounted infantry.
[Sidenote: Arrangements for feeding men.]
The troops had dined before leaving Putterskraal, and took with them one and a half day's rations, the half ration to be eaten in the train on the way to Molteno, and the remainder to be carried by the men on the march. The preserved meat had been issued in 6lb. tins. These were very inconvenient. Therefore many of them were thrown away.
[Sidenote: Dec. 9th, 1899. Orders for night march issues. Lack of maps.]
On arriving at Molteno, Sir W. Gatacre assembled the commanding officers and issued personally to them his orders for the movement against Stormberg. His Intelligence staff had ascertained that the actual strength of the Boers in laager at that moment was about 1,700, and that the southern face of the Kissieberg and the Nek between that hill and Rooi Kop were entrenched. The General, on receipt of this information, determined to modify his original plan. Although Stormberg had been occupied for more than a month by British troops, no systematic sketching of the surrounding country had been undertaken. Except a plan made more than a year before of the ground in the immediate neighbourhood of the junction, and reproduced in one of the Intelligence handbooks, the only map at the disposal of the Staff was the Cape Survey, the scale of which, 12-1/2 miles to an inch, was too small for tactical purposes.
[Sidenote: The method of march.]
The local Cape Police, the Berkshire mounted infantry, and others were very well acquainted with the country; and, after a personal examination of Sergeant Morgan, Cape Police, and several native policemen, who had previously been selected as guides, Sir W. Gatacre determined to move his force out from Molteno by the Steynsburg road, and to diverge from that road by a cross track, leading northwards from a point near D. Foster's farm to Van Zyl's farm, which was situated immediately in rear of the western face of the Kissieberg. Thus the position on the Nek would be turned. The distance to be covered during this flank march was said by his informants to be about nine miles. The actual distance was about ten miles. Allowing for intermediate rests for the men, the General anticipated that he would be able so to order the time as to place his men in a position to rush the Kissieberg with the bayonet before dawn, and then, as soon as daylight appeared, to plant the guns on that kopje, thus commanding the whole of the Stormberg valley. Sir W. Gatacre informed commanding officers verbally of these intentions, and arranged the following succession:
[Footnote 193: It will be observed that four houses marked Van Zyl's are shown in map 14, but, except when otherwise specified, the most northern of these is the one referred to throughout in the text.]
- Royal Irish Rifles.
- Northumberland Fusiliers.
- 74th and 77th batteries, escorted by
- Two companies M.I. and the Cape Police.
- Berkshire M.I. company.
- Machine guns, ammunition reserve, and Field Hospital, escorted by 12th company R.E.
[Sidenote: Dependence on guides.]
The column was to move off in three echelons, the first consisting of the divisional staff and the infantry, the second the artillery and mounted infantry, and the third the field hospital, machine guns, etc. Guides were allotted to each unit. Complete reliance was placed on the efficiency of these guides, and the precaution of causing the road to be previously reconnoitred by a staff officer had not been taken. Both Sir W. Gatacre's intelligence officers, one of whom knew the ground intimately, had duties on the line of communication, and were thus unable to accompany the column. The General, with all the rest of his staff, took his place at the head of the leading battalion, which was preceded by eight infantry scouts under a subaltern. The remainder of the infantry marched in fours. The batteries were in column of route. The wheels of the 77th were covered with raw hide. The wheels of the 74th had not been so padded, as that battery was only added to the column at the last moment. The hide proved to be of but little value for the purpose of deadening the sound, and only made the draught heavier.
[Sidenote: Mistake at starting.]
The head of the column moved off about 9 p.m., somewhat later than had been originally planned. The artillery and mounted infantry followed in due course along the Steynsburg road, but the machine guns, field hospital, and R.E., owing to a lack of staff supervision, took the one direct on Stormberg, and, finding that there were no troops in front of them, halted where they were until daylight, having first ascertained from the officer left in command at Molteno that he did not know the route by which the main column was advancing.
[Sidenote: The guides miss the road.]
Meanwhile, the infantry of that column had pressed on with the keenness of soldiers eager for their first fight, and at 1 a.m. a homestead, which proved to be that of Mr. J. Roberts. The guides had in fact passed the branch road leading to Van Zyl's farm, but on being interrogated, the head guide, Sergeant Morgan, assured Sir W. Gatacre that he and his assistants knew the way perfectly, and that they were leading the column by a road which, though slightly longer than that originally selected, avoided wire and a bad piece of track which the guns would have found it difficult to cross at night. They added that they were within one and a half miles of the spot, to which the General desired to be guided. The map and freehand sketch show that the guides now proposed to lead the column to the rear of the Kissieberg by the wagon-track which leaves the Steynsburg road at Roberts' homestead, and after crossing the Bamboosberg Spruit and the colliery branch line, strikes, near Van Zyl's house, the track by which General Gatacre had intended to approach the enemy's position. The distance still to be traversed was, as will also be noticed, not one and a half, but about two and a half miles. Moreover, after crossing the spruit and the railway, the track traverses the northern slopes of a stony irregular underfeature which guards the approaches to the Kissieberg from the south and west. Progress over this ground was unlikely to be rapid. Roberts' homestead is 10-1/2 miles from Molteno. The troops had, therefore, already marched rather further than was originally anticipated; and, as they had halted for a short time every hour, their rate of marching had been fast for night-work over such country. The men were somewhat weary owing to the march. They were out of condition. They had been engaged on heavy fatigue work on the morning of the 9th. Whether, therefore, the guides had missed the true road in the dark, a supposition which is favoured by the fact that they had previously assured the General that the whole route was fit and easy for wheeled transport, or whether, not realising the importance in military operations of obedience to orders, they had, on their own judgment, diverted the column to the longer route in the belief that it would be easier, the effect on the General's plan of attack was serious. Sir W. Gatacre, nevertheless, decided that he would give his men an hour's rest, and then push on.
[Sidenote: The march resumed. Column arrives at dawn at destined spot.]
About 2 a.m. the march was resumed in the same order as before, except that the guns and mounted infantry had closed up to the infantry. But after crossing the railway the roughness of the ground added to the fatigue of the troops; moreover, doubt as to the manner in which the column was being guided had spread discouragement. The General, moving at the head of the leading battalion, constantly questioned the guide, but was as constantly assured by Sergeant Morgan that the right road was being followed, although the distance was greater than he had estimated. The column, therefore, trudged on until at length, as the first signs of dawn were beginning to appear, it reached the cross roads near Van Zyl's house, and thus was on the very ground from whence General Gatacre intended to make his assault on the Kissieberg. If the assault had been delivered at once, the ridge might have been carried and command over the Stormberg valley have been thus secured.
[Sidenote: Boers quite unprepared for the surprise march. All circumstances favourable.]
[Sidenote: The column is taken away two miles further. En route it is surprised.]
The Boers in and near Stormberg on the morning of the 10th December were under the command of Olivier: they consisted of about 1,700 burghers of the Bethulie, Rouxville and Smithfield commandos, with two guns and a Maxim. A detachment under Commandant Swanepoel, with one gun, held the Nek between the Kissieberg and Rooi Kop. A piquet of about fifty men was stationed on the western ridge of the former hill, and another piquet watched the north end of the vlei; the remainder of the burghers slept on the lower inner slopes of the two hills. The Boer accounts of the fight all agree in stating that Gatacre's night march was a complete surprise to them. So secure did Olivier feel in his position that on the 9th he had detached a commando of colonial rebels, amounting to some 500 or 600 men, under Grobelaar and Steinkamp, to Steynsburg to beat up more recruits in that direction. In consequence of a dispute about a gun, which was referred to President Steyn by telegram for settlement, Grobelaar had outspanned for the night some seven or eight miles away on the Stormberg-Steynsburg road, and his commando lay about a mile north-west of Roberts' farm. Sir W. Gatacre's information, therefore, as to the strength of the Boers in the Stormberg valley was accurate, their dispositions favoured the plan he had formed for a surprise, and the British assailants, notwithstanding the circuitous march, had now arrived in time, though only barely in time, at the spot for its execution. But either the chief guide did not fully comprehend the General's intentions, or he had lost his bearings, for he pointed to a kopje nearly two miles off, and said that that was the real place. The wearied men continued to trudge along the road, which, skirting the lower western slopes of the Kissieberg, leads to Stormberg junction. Day was breaking, but no change was made in the formation of the troops. The infantry remained in fours, with no flankers out, and still only eight men were in front as an advance guard. The Boer piquet on the Kissieberg saw the grey thread as it wound its way slowly along the foot of the hill within effective range of the crest. A single shot echoed through the valley, and a corporal of the leading company of Irish Rifles fell dead. A rapid fire, although from but a few rifles, was then opened on the British troops at a range of about 400 yards. It was impossible to convey orders to a long column of route, thus taken at a disadvantage. Each company officer had to act on his own initiative, and as few, if any of them, knew where they were, or where was the enemy they were required to attack, confusion inevitably arose.
[Footnote 194: The sun rose at Stormberg on December 10th at 4.38 a.m. (Cape Government Railway time).]
[Sidenote: A confused attack on Kissieberg.]
The three leading companies of the Irish Rifles, under their commanding officer, Lieut.-Colonel H. A. Eagar, front-formed, extended rapidly at right angles to the road, and dashed forward and seized the underfeature +a+ (map No. 14), which faces the extreme northern spur of the Kissieberg. In pushing on towards this point, the men were much exposed to enfilade fire from their right, and a good many casualties occurred. The other five companies of the Irish Rifles and the Northumberland Fusiliers faced to the right, confronting the main ridge, against which they scrambled upwards by successive stages. The companies extended as they moved on, and gradually opened out into firing line and supports. The western face of the Kissieberg was found to be exceedingly steep and difficult to climb. A series of krantz, or perpendicular walls of rocks, barred the ascent, except at certain gaps, while between these krantz were interspersed bushes and large boulders. The company officers ordered their men to unfix bayonets, and to help each other up the rocks. The enemy's fire for the moment had ceased to be effective, as the British soldiers were more or less under cover of the krantz, but the clamber through the gaps in the first barrier, nearly twelve feet high, took a considerable time. On the top a halt was made to let men get their breath, and then began again the onward advance of small groups of twos and threes in the direction of the shoulder of the hill, where the burghers had managed to place a gun. The Boers' shooting from the crest now again became effective, whilst they themselves, carefully concealed, offered no target to the British rifles. The rocks and bushes made communication between the different parts of the line of the attack very difficult.
[Sidenote: Artillery come into action. A gun lost.]
At the moment when the first shot killed the corporal, the batteries, under the command of Lieut.-Colonel H. B. Jeffreys, had rapidly moved off to the left by sub-divisions for about 1,000 yards, and then onward up the valley. 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. Lieut.-Colonel Jeffreys therefore, by the direction of General Gatacre, caused the 77th battery to come into action near kopje +a+, the 74th unlimbering on the open veld to the westward. The mounted infantry continued to escort the batteries. In getting into place a gun of the 74th battery had stuck in a donga, owing to a horse being struck. It was smothered by a hail of bullets. The three drivers were almost immediately wounded, and all the rest of the team were shot down. The gun had therefore to be abandoned, part of its breech mechanism being first removed.
[Sidenote: The course of the attack on Kissieberg.]
Meanwhile the three companies of the Irish Rifles, which had seized kopje +a+, had made their way step by step up the northern extremity of the Kissieberg, and had struggled on to within close proximity of its crest line. 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 about half an hour, and progress up the hill was being slowly made by the British infantry, when the five companies of the Northumberland 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 to the summit, did not hear of this order, and, under the command of Capt. W. A. 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 and men were convinced that, if they were supported, they could gain the crest. But the withdrawal of a portion of the attacking line had made any 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 immediately 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 Lieut.-Colonel Eagar, Major H. J. Seton, the second in command, Major H. L. Welman, Captain F. J. H. Bell, and three men. A conference had a few moments before been held between Lieut.-Colonel Eagar 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 Eagar replied that there was no help for it. Therefore a general retirement now began from the main ridge of the Kissieberg downwards towards the rising ground a mile to the westward. The movement was made by rushes. The enemy had been reinforced by Swanepoel's detachment from the Nek, and coming down the slopes of the hill poured in a hot fire on the retiring infantry. The material effect of this was not great, because the Boers' shooting throughout the day was remarkably indifferent. But under its influence a large proportion of the British troops took cover in the donga which drains the valley between the Kissieberg and the height to the westward. As an eye-witness describes it:--
[Sidenote: Word-sketch of retreat.]
"This donga was too deep to be used as a line of defence, being six feet deep at least, with both banks washed away underneath, and with nothing for the men to stand upon to enable them to bring their rifles to bear. It was here that the trouble in the retirement commenced. The men retiring from the hill rushed to this donga for cover from the heavy rifle-fire, and on getting into it, and thinking they were safe from immediate danger, laid down and many went to sleep, and the greatest difficulty was experienced to get them on the move again and to leave the donga. Many men were by this time thoroughly done up and did not appear to care what happened to them. Many men still remained on the hill, some because they had not heard the order to retire, and some because, utterly weary, they had sunk down in sleep in the dead angle at the foot of the height."
[Sidenote: Stages of retreat.]
On the extreme left the retreat to the western ridge was effected in good order, the three companies of the Irish Rifles moving back first, then the batteries in succession, the mounted infantry covering the first stage, and remaining in close touch with the enemy, until Colonel Jeffreys was able again to bring his guns into action on the spur marked +b+ on the map. During this withdrawal, Major E. Perceval was severely wounded, but continued to command the 77th battery until the close of the day's operations. The artillery held this second position for over an hour, the infantry forming up in rear. The enemy now re-opened with a very long range gun, which made excellent practice, but fortunately the large majority of its shells only burst on impact, or not at all.
[Sidenote: New foes appear, but are driven off.]
[Sidenote: An ill-starred order.]
At about 6 a.m. a further development began, one which might have proved fatal to the British force had the Boers then possessed the discipline and vigour in counter-attacks they acquired in the later stages of the war. Grobelaar and Steinkamp with the Burghersdorp commando had been roused by the sound of the guns from their bivouac on the Steynsburg road, and, riding back, lined the crest of the hill to the west of Bamboosberg Spruit, and thence opened a long-range fire threatening the line of retreat. Against this fresh enemy five guns of Major Perceval's battery were brought into action facing west, and with well-directed shrapnel at a range of 1,200 yards, drove back the dangerous force. The remaining gun of that battery and the 74th battery continued to check the Boers' pursuit from the eastward. Yet it was evident that the whole plan had failed, and that the troops were not in a physical condition to renew the attack on the Kissieberg. Sir W. Gatacre therefore decided to retire on Molteno, and directed the retreat on Van Zyl's farm, 1,200 yards to the north-west of D. Foster's homestead, the mounted infantry and artillery covering the retirement. The General, when he gave this order, had received no report that a considerable proportion of the infantry had failed to rejoin their proper units. He had remained with the mounted infantry throughout the action, and having seen numbers of men of both regiments crossing the valley, was under the impression that the battalions were now intact behind the western ridge. An extraordinary number of them were, in fact, still missing. The largest proportion of these had probably never left the Kissieberg. The equivalent of two companies of the Northumberland Fusiliers are known to have been taken prisoners there. Of those who had retired, some had remained in the donga. Besides all these, there was a considerable number of officers and men dispersed about the valley, and particularly in the enclosures near the northern Van Zyl's farm. It seems possible that, if the general retreat from the position at +b+ could have been delayed even for a comparatively short time, some of the scattered parties of men, who were afterwards taken prisoners, might have rejoined their battalions.
[Sidenote: The course of the retreat.]
The line of the retreat to Molteno was to the west of the ridge which rises between the colliery line and the Kissieberg, and so gave some shelter from the enemy's fire. The minished battalions struggled along, some of the companies being able at first to keep their formation, though, long before they arrived at Molteno, almost all had fallen into disarray. The fatigue of the men had reached its climax, and most of them could hardly keep on their feet. Whenever there was a necessary halt, not a few fell down, asleep almost before they reached the ground, and it was with difficulty that they could be again roused. They suffered very much from thirst as there were no water-carts, and they had had no opportunity of drinking during many hours. The batteries of artillery remained in action at +b+ for some time. They then retired alternately, and by their steadiness and the excellence of their practice held the enemy at bay.
[Sidenote: Boers gain a second gun, but do not seriously pursue.]
The Boers followed in the rear sufficiently close to necessitate the abandonment of a second gun, which stuck in a water course, but there was no determined attempt at vigorous pursuit, and when once the kopjes had been passed, the mounted infantry were able to keep at a distance those of the enemy who did not linger in the valley to loot.
[Sidenote: Distribution of troops after action.]
The various units of Sir W. Gatacre's force reached Molteno between 11 a.m. and 12.30 midday. In the evening they were moved as follows:
To Cypher Gat: Divisional staff and Royal artillery, by train; mounted infantry, by road.
To Sterkstroom: Northumberland Fusiliers and Royal Irish Rifles, by train.
To Bushman's Hoek: Royal engineers and two companies Royal Scots, by train.
[Sidenote: British losses, Dec. 10th/99.]
The British casualties in the action at Stormberg were:
Colonel Eagar, Royal Irish Rifles, died some months later of the wounds received in this action.
[Sidenote: Boer losses.]
The casualties of the Boers were 8 killed and 26 wounded. Commandant Swanepoel afterwards died of his wounds.
[Sidenote: Points to be noted.]
Sir W. 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 ill-fortune attended its execution. Several of the causes of failure stand out conspicuously in the narrative: the mistake of the guides in taking the longer route, which unduly fatigued the men; the failure to realise that the Kissieberg was within striking distance, when the cross roads near Van Zyl's farm were reached; the premature withdrawal of the five companies of one of the battalions from the attack, and the subsequent shelling of the British infantry who still clung to the hill. Without these accumulated mishaps a blow would in all probability have been struck at the enemy, such as would have had an important influence on the general situation in South Africa. Yet it cannot be held that chance was alone responsible for this miscarriage. A long night march to be followed by a night attack involves, under the most favourable circumstances, a considerable element of hazard, and it is therefore essential that every possible precaution should be taken to obviate mistakes and to ensure that the column should not, in its mission to surprise, be itself taken at a disadvantage. Careful reconnaissance by the staff of the route to be followed can, therefore, never be neglected with impunity. If a staff officer had examined beforehand the Steynsburg road, at least as far as the branch track which it was intended to follow, and if he had been made responsible for the supervision of the guides, the mistakes as to the route would in all probability have been avoided. This omission is the more remarkable in that one of the Intelligence staff, upon whom the duty of this reconnaissance would naturally have devolved, was well acquainted with the ground in the neighbourhood of Stormberg. It is perhaps doubtful whether in view of the fatigue shown by the troops on their arrival at Roberts' farm, and the uncertainty of the staff as to the situation, it was wise to persist in the enterprise. In any case, it is clear that the neglect to change the formation of the column, and to send out flank and advance guards when dawn appeared whilst the movement was being carried along a road surrounded by hills, was a dangerous and unnecessary risk. Finally, the abandonment of large detachments of infantry, when retreat was ordered, implies a serious lack of supervision both by the staff and by the officers then left in command of the battalions. Yet in weighing the responsibility for these errors, it must be borne in mind that the units composing the force had only just come together for the first time, that General, staff, and troops were all new to one another, and that the men engaged were not yet in hard condition.