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The Refights
The Battle of Stormberg, 10 December 1899

Situation in Eastern Cape Colony.
Gatacre decides to reoccupy Stormberg.
The Boer position at Stormberg.
The intended coup-de-main.
Details of plan. Weakness of force employed.
The undelivered telegram. Delays in entraining. Dec. 8-9.
Dec. 9. Gatacre modifies plan at last moment.
The start. Tail of the column goes astray.
Guides miss the turning and cross colliery line.
The Boer expedition.
Recrossing colliery line Gatacre loses his bearings.
Gatacre reaches his objective but marches on. Lack of all precautions.
The Boers alarmed, their sentries fire into column. 4.15 A.M.
Bulk of British infantry make an abortive rush up the hillside on right.
Fighting on left. Artillery in action. 4.30 A.M.
Infantry on right retire. 4.45 A.M.
Gatacre decides to retire to Molteno. Rest of force recalled.
Boers begin to concentrate on every side.
Over 600 men left behind.
Criticism of the operations.
Gatacre withdraws to Sterkstroom.

Situation in Eastern Cape Colony.

LEAVING Lord Methuen camped on the hard-won field of Modder River we must turn our attention for a moment to events in the north-eastern part of Cape Colony. The advance of the Boers and the consequent movements of the British troops in that region have already been described in an earlier chapter. It will be sufficient to remind the reader that Stormberg Junction, evacuated by the British with somewhat unnecessary haste at the beginning of November, was not occupied by the Boers till the 26th of that month, and that on the 27th Sir W. Gatacre moved up his headquarters from Queenstown to Putter's Kraal, thirty miles south of Stormberg Junction, at the same time rein-forcing his advanced posts at Bushman's Hoek and Pen Hoek on the Stormberg range. General Gatacre's position was one of great difficulty. With none of the divisional generals had the breaking up of the Army Corps dealt more hardly than with the commander of the Third Division. Of his own division he had only one battalion, the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, and his total force at the beginning of December amounted only to two infantry battalions and about 300 regular mounted infantry, besides about 1000 men belonging to local corps, Kaffrarian Rifles, Cape Mounted Rifles, Frontier Mounted Rifles, Cape Police and Brabant's Horse, barely 3000 men in alt with a few 7-pounder guns. It was not till December 5 that he was reinforced by the arrival of the 74th and 77th Batteries, under Colonel H. B. Jeffreys, and by the 1st Royal Scots. Queenstown in his rear was held by the half battalion of Berkshires and some 300 of the Queens-town Rifle Volunteers. His right was to some extent-more than was realised at the time-covered by the native districts, but on his left there were no troops nearer than some 900 Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown Volunteers at Cradock, 60 miles to the south-west, and General French, 120 miles to the north-west of Putter's Kraal. The Boer occupation of Stormberg Junction and Steynsburg not only effectually severed his lateral railway communication with French, but plainly foreshadowed a further advance into this great gap in the British defences, while the occupation of Dordrecht on December 2 threatened his right flank and indicated the possibility of a raid on Queenstown. The Boers and rebels were evidently inclined to be aggressive, and there were rumours that an attack on the outpost at Bushman's Hoek was in contemplation. On November 27 some of them had already ridden into Molteno, from which village Gatacre took the precaution to remove a hundred truck-loads of flour on the 29th. On December 7 they engaged the Cape Police in a skirmish at Halseton, 17 miles east of Sterkstroom on the Indwe railway. On the following day the general officially reported the following Boer dispositions: At Dordrecht 800 men; on the march from Jamestown to Dordrecht 700 with six guns; at Molteno 400, and at Stormberg about 1500. It was not the actual numbers of the Boers so much as the prospect of their indefinite increase by the spread of rebellion that constituted the real danger. The whole vast region to west and south-west was seething with disloyalty. To act on the defensive over so wide a front was almost impossible, and to have complied with all the requests for protection sent in by Dutch and English loyalists for fifty miles round would only have resulted in dispersal and impotence.

Gatacre decides to reoccupy Stormberg.

The situation was not one in which a general could afford to play with time. A counter-blow would have to be struck, struck rapidly and hard, to stem the tide of invasion and rebellion. Nor was General Gatacre the man to sit still and wring his hands over a situation fraught with difficulties. A man of boundless energy and great personal courage, he had forced his way up in the Service by sheer soldierly qualities from the obscurity of regimental duty to important commands in the field. Of gaunt, spare build, his system was impervious to fatigue, and the chief fault that his subordinates had found in him in the past was that he could not appreciate in others the existence of physical weaknesses which were foreign to himself. The object Gatacre set before himself from the first was the reoccupation of Stormberg Junction. Not only was the Junction of strategical importance, but the dispersal of the enemy over a number of different points might give him the opportunity of striking heavily and unexpectedly at the force now laagered in the Stormberg valley. The moment his artillery horses were sufficiently recovered from the journey to be fit to work, he decided to make his spring.

The Boer position at Stormberg.

Stormberg Junction occupies the centre of a typical South African basin encircled by hills through which the railway finds its way out towards Steynsburg and Rosmead on the west, towards Burghersdorp on the north-east, and towards Molteno and Queenstown on the south. On the north the hills are lower, but the rest of the "vlei" is fenced in by formidable heights. The spreading mass of the Rooi Kop covers the whole south-eastern face, the Kissieberg, a much lower ridge, forms the southern and south-western faces, while the west of the basin is bounded by a chain or "triplet" formed by three boldly-shaped peaks rising above a continuous ridge extending northwards from the Kissieberg, and by an isolated hill, north-west of the last and lowest of the three peaks. The curve of these hills may be somewhat fancifully likened to that of a scorpion with its tail angrily looped to sting. Rooi Kop would then represent the body, the Kissieberg, triplet and isolated kopje would form the upper and lower segments of the tail and the back-turned sting, while the nek over which the railway passes out to Molteno would be the junction between body and tail. The Boer laagers were scattered about the basin. The Bethulie burghers under Du Plooy, with the Albert and Burghersdorp rebels under Piet Steenkamp, together about 800 men, lay close to the station at the foot of the northern reverse of the Rooi Kop. The Smithfield laager, under Swanepoel, nearly 700 strong, was on the south-western slope of Rooi Kop. To Swanepoel was entrusted the defence of the nek, where trenches were dug and two guns posted west of the railway. Olivier, with 800 of the Rouxville commando and one gun, lay to the west close under the western ridge. Though it was mainly at the nek towards Molteno that an a¶tack was feared, the Rouxville men made a few schanses along the western heights and kept a brandwacht or picket on the nek between the triplet and the isolated kopje to the north. The whole force was under Commandant E. R. Grobler.

The intended coup-de-main.

Gatacre's intention was to surprise Stormberg by suddenly pouncing on it from Putter's Kraal without making any preliminary advance which might warn the Boers and enable them to concentrate to oppose him. He proposed to achieve this by taking his infantry and guns by train as far as Molteno in the afternoon, covering the remaining eight miles to the Boer positions by a night march, and rushing the position at dawn. It was a bold plan, but a perfectly feasible one. Only it required the very greatest care to insure that all the arrangements should be carried out perfectly, that the movement by train should be accurately timed, and that, above all, there should be no possibility of confusion or loss of direction during the night march. It was essential that the troops should not only arrive at the right point at daybreak but that they should arrive as fresh as possible, for the plan was one that asked a great deal of them. Fortunately there would be a good moon for the first few hours of the night during the next few days. And as the general's intention was to march straight along the road which ran by the side of the railway to the nek held by the Boers the chances of error were very slight.

Details of plan. Weakness of force employed.

The move, originally intended for December 8, was put off for a day owing to the difficulty of getting enough trucks together. The force with which Gatacre intended to strike consisted of the Northumberland Fusiliers and Irish Rifles, the Berkshire company of mounted infantry from Bushman's Hoek, the Southern and Rifle Mounted Infantry companies, and a detachment of Cape Police from Putter's Kraal and Molteno, the two batteries, the 12th Company, R.E., field hospital, &c., some 2600 men in all. Besides these, two companies of the Royal Scots were to be taken up to hold Molteno, while 160 of Brabant's Horse and 235 Cape Mounted Rifles with four 7-pounders and a Maxim, under Captain de Montmorency and Major Springer, from Pen Hoek, were to join at Molteno. This last detachment was intended to act independently on the right flank, and, if an opportunity offered itself, move round by the nek to the north of the Rooi Kop and intercept the Boer retreat on Burghersdorp. The detailed plan for the main attack was as follows: the troops were to rendezvous in Molteno before sunset, set out at 7 P.M., and get as far as Goosen's Farm, within two miles of the nek, soon after midnight, so as to be able to rest for two or three hours before making the attack. Shortly before dawn the Irish Rifles were to rush the ridge to the left of the nek and capture the guns, while the Northumberland Fusiliers seized the underfeatures of the Rooi Kop on the right. There was only one obvious defect in the scheme, and that a serious one. The force was dangerously small for its purpose: it left no margin for the chapter of accidents. There is no reason why the whole of the Royal Scots, and possibly even the Kaffrarian Rifles at Bushman's Hoek, should not have been taken. Still better would it have been if the half battalion of Berkshires, who had been for weeks at Stormberg, and knew the ground thoroughly, could have been temporarily borrowed from the garrison of Queenstown. It may be said that the Boers at Dordrecht menaced Queenstown and the line of communications. But there can be no worse error in strategy than the splitting up of forces to protect a number of points that may conceivably be threatened. An army is better used as a sword than as a shield, and the risks of an undertaking such as this was are always greater, and should be less lightly incurred, than the chances of a particular weak spot being discovered by the enemy. Once Stormberg was safely seized, detachments could, if required, have been sent back again to secure Molteno and other places; but for the moment the possibility of failing in his attempt was the greatest danger Gatacre had to consider.

The undelivered telegram. Delays in entraining. Dec. 8-9.

At midnight on the 8th the message summoning the Pen Hoek detachment was handed in to the telegraph clerk at Putter's Kraal. The clerk forgot to transmit it, and as the precaution of requesting acknowledgement of the order was not taken, the omission was not discovered till it was too late to remedy it. At 4 A.M. on the 9th the infantry began to pack up and clear camp, and at noon the work of entraining began. The arrangements were not well made, a train-load of mules was allowed to block the line for hours, and the entrainment of the relatively small force took the whole day. The last train did not reach Molteno till 8.30 P.M. Nothing can be more harassing to troops than waiting about in trucks and on railway platforms, especially under an African sun, and the majority of the men started on the night march sleepy and fatigued.

Dec. 9. Gatacre modifies plan at last moment.

Gatacre had arrived at Molteno earlier in the afternoon and held a consultation with his staff and with Inspector Neyland and Sergeant Morgan of the local detachment of Cape Police. A report had come in that the Boers had not only intrenched the south face of the Kissieberg and the nek but had constructed a wire entanglement in front of their trenches. The report was inaccurate, but it alarmed the general, and he now decided to abandon the direct march to the nek and to attempt to surprise the position from one of its undefended flanks. On general grounds there was a good deal to be said for this decision. But it added a whole series of difficulties to an already difficult operation. It involved a night march across unreconnoitred and very inadequately mapped ground, and left the general entirely at the mercy of guides who might indeed know the ground but might completely fail to understand his ideas or the limitations of his men. It inevitably lengthened the night march by several miles, no light matter, as the force was likely to be both late and tired before it could start. It would have been better in that case for Gatacre to have waited another day at Molteno and allowed the Boers to strengthen their front while he perfected his preparations for a night march upon their flank. If he had done so and had personally reconnoitred the position in the interval there can be little doubt which flank he would have chosen to attack. The nek to the north-east of the Rooi Kop, just above the Bethulie laager, offered both the easiest entrance into the valley and the best point from which to seize the Rooi Kop itself, the key of the position. But Gatacre was determined to go that night, and the point he chose for his attack was the western face of the Kissieberg, i.e., the Boer right. This he was told he could reach by marching to the north-west up the Steynsburg road for seven miles and then taking a path to the right which brought him almost to the point of attack, the whole march being barely two miles longer than the direct route to the nek. Once on the heights he would command the guns on the nek and the whole Stormberg valley. Of the broken and tangled nature of the ground on that side he had no idea. All he knew was that the Cape Policemen selected as guides professed to know every inch of the road, and declared that it was quite fit for wheeled traffic. Captain Tennant of the Intelligence stair; the only officer who knew the ground intimately and could have informed the general, had been left at Putter's Kraal.

The start. Tail of the column goes astray.

At 9.15 P.M., more than two hours later than had been originally intended, the infantry marched out of Molteno, the Irish Rifles leading. 'There were no signs of the Pen Hoek detachment, but the general decided to proceed without it. Three days' rations were taken with the force. The column had less than ten miles to cover, which, on a good road, with a bright moon till nearly midnight, ought to have left a sufficient margin for a rest before dawn. The Irish Rifles were ordered to march with bayonets fixed, an order absurd as a precaution and most pernicious in its effects on the men, since the fixing of the bayonet involves carrying the rifle at a particular angle and forbids any easing of the strain by constant changes in its position. The artillery followed, after a consid6rable interval, the wheels of the guns and wagons enveloped in raw hide to deaden the sound. Then came the mounted troops. The change made in the dispositions at the last moment had never been clearly explained to the troops, and the greater part of them marched down the Steynsburg road in the belief that they were going straight to Stormberg. One result of this neglect was that the tail of the column, the field hospital and bearer company, the Maxim of the Irish Rifles, and sundry ammunition wagons, actually did go by the Stormberg road and completely lost touch of the column. But for the intervention of a small party of war correspondents, these details would have walked straight into the Boer position at the nek. More astonishing still, Colonel Waters, the Divisional Intelligence officer, who had been left in command at Molteno, and who had been present at the consultation in the afternoon, had apparently not realised that any change in the plan had actually been decided on, and when Colonel Edge, R.A.M.C., sent back to Molteno to ask what he should do, his messenger was told that the detachment was on the right road and should proceed-an order which, fortunately, did not reach in time to cause any mischief.

Guides miss the turning and cross colliery line.

With the main body everything seemed to go well at first and the men stepped out bravely. But the seven miles seemed strangely long. It was already past midnight and the moon had set, when the head of the column struck a railway line running directly across the road. This was the colliery line which branches off from the main Stormberg-Rosmead line west of Stormbeig, and crosses the Steynsburg road nine miles out of Molteno. It was evident that the guides had missed the turning, and on arriving shortly before 1 A.M. at a farm, which proved to be that of a farmer called Roberts, Gatacre called a halt, and expressed uneasiness as to his position. But unwilling to admit their error, the guides now declared that they had taken a slightly longer road to avoid wire and a bad piece of track which the guns would have found difficult to get over at night, but that the column was now only one and a half miles from the enemy's position. The statement of the guides was confirmed by Sergeant Morgan, and Gatacre, completely at the mercy of these men, could not but believe them, and ordered the force to rest for the next hour. Whether intentionally or not, the guides had seriously understated the distance. As a matter of fact it was nearly three miles; a small matter, perhaps, in the eyes of mounted men, but very serious when it was a question of the slow and weary progress of foot-soldiers at night.

The Boer expedition.

The Boers that night were making an expedition, too. Possibly they had realised in the afternoon that some movement was on foot, and had concluded that Gatacre intended a raid on Steynsburg. Possibly, by a mere coincidence, they had chosen that same day on which to begin an expedition to menace Gatacre's left flank and beat up recruits. Whatever the reason, a few hours before Gatacre started, Grobler and Steenkamp had left Stormberg with 500-600 Bethulie burghers and colonial rebels, and had laagered for the night near the Molteno-Steynsburg road. If; instead of stopping at Roberts's farm, the column had gone on along the Steynsburg road, another two or three miles would probably have brought it right upon Grobler's laager. As it was, the column lay midway between the two Boer forces, unsuspecting and unsuspected.

Recrossing colliery line Gatacre loses his bearings.

About 2 A.M. the march began again. A little later the column recrossed the colliery line along an execrable track winding eastwards into a dark mass of low ridges. Colonel Eager of the Irish Rifles reported to the general that lie thought the guide had lost his way. But the guides again protested they knew exactly where they were, and in answer to Gatacre's constant queries during the next hour only replied that the distance was somewhat greater than they had estimated. But if the guides knew their whereabouts, which is probable enough, they certainly had neither realised clearly what Gatacre had intended to do, nor had they succeeded in making Gatacre understand where they were leading him. It is necessary here to go back a little and explain the cause of a very curious but not unnatural misconception that seems to have entered Gatacre's mind at the moment when the force recrossed the colliery line. Unaware of the fact that this line makes a considerable curve round Roberts's Farm, and observing that the second section of railway he crossed ran in an entirely different direction to the first, Gatacre assumed that on this second occasion he was crossing, not the colliery line, but the main line to Rosmead. In other words, he believed that the guides had taken him much further round than was really the case, and that he was now somewhere to the north-west of Stormberg Junction, moving round on to the rear of the Boer position. It was not till months after the battle that this misconception was corrected. It is only typical of the confusion of this night march that while Gatacre thought he was approaching Stormberg from the north-west, many of the regimental officers, unaware of the change of the original plan, and knowing that the straight road from Molteno to Storm-berg crossed and recrossed the railway at several points, were only confirmed by crossing the colliery line in the impression that they were marching on Stormberg from the south-east.

Gatacre reaches his objective but marches on. Lack of all precautions;

Meanwhile the hours of the night dragged on; the men, cramped from long marching with fixed bayonets, weary with stumbling about on the rough paths, and vaguely conscious that the column had lost its way, grew tired and restless. Towards 3 A.M. the guides had led them through a nek down into a dark and forbidding valley, along the southern edge of which they were now wearily trudging. This valley, one of the many little partitions into which the South African veld is divided, formed a rough lozenge a little over a mile across from east to west. To the north it was open, except for an isolated kopje near its north-eastern corner. On the west and south it was enclosed by low ridges. But on the east it was bounded by a continuous chain of high kopjes, seeming a veritable mountain-range in the gloom. It was about 3.45 when the head of the column reached the south-eastern corner of the valley, where another path entered the valley from the south. Gatacre was now, if he had only known it, at the very spot at which he had wished to arrive. That path from the south was the one his guides ought to have taken before, those heights that formed the eastern boundary of the valley also formed the western boundary of the Stormberg basins he was actually at the western foot of the Kissieberg. Even though the men were tired, and dawn was fast coming on, there was still time to seize the heights as he had planned. But Gatacre believed that he was miles away to the north. The guides knew better; but then they, apparently, misunderstood his plan, and thought that all he wanted to do was to enter the Stormberg valley by road. To do that meant marching another mile or more along the foot of the heights to the nek between the end of the triplet of kopjes and the isolated hill beyond, and for this point the column now marched, passing a farmhouse to the right and crossing the upper branches of a donga which ran diagonally from south tq north across the valley. Day had dawned, bathing the tops of the hills in misty deceptive light, and leaving their lower slopes shrouded in a clinging shade. But even that shade was fast giving way to broad daylight as the head of the column approached the nek. Yet in spite of this not a single scout was sent ahead. The infantry, in column of fours, with bayonets fixed, still trudged on in front; the artillery and mounted troops followed in rear. The general seemed to be deliberately courting a surprise.

The Boers alarmed, their sentries fire into column. 4.15 A.M.

Only a few hundred yards, the thi6kness of the three-peaked ridge, now separated the British column from Olivier's laager. But the Boers were as unconscious of the proximity of danger as the British themselves. Save for a solitary sentry with the small brandwacht on the nek which the head of the column was now approaching, the whole laager had lain stilled in peaceful slumber. But now, as day broke, some of the Boers would already have waked, and, drawing their gaily-coloured blankets more closely round their shoulders, would have congregated round the camp fires, where Kaffirs struggled to produce the early cups of coffee. The shivering sentry, gazing down into the valley at his feet, saw a movement in the grey shadow of the hill. Perhaps, too, his ear caught the rumble of a wagon, or the metallic stroke of a hoof against a stone. The movement, indistinct at first, grew clearer as he watched it. A great column of men was marching on the path at the foot of the hills, straight for the very nek which he was guarding - was almost upon it. He waked his comrades. In a moment the ten or fifteen rifle-barrels of the brandwacht lay slanting down along the boulders by the side of the path. Then a shot rang out, followed by another and then another. The laager was alarmed. But though surprised the Boers had all the advantage of knowing where they were and what to do. It took no calling of the roll, no falling in or words of command to avoid a panic. At the first shot sleepers and coffee drinkers alike seized their rifles and hastened, some to their horses, others to the positions on the crest immediately above them, and before the British recovered from the first shock of surprise, Olivier's men were spreading everywhere along the heights and firing away wildly into the valley.

Bulk of British infantry make an abortive rush up the hillside on right.

Had the British but known how near they were to their goal, and how few the men opposed to them at that moment, the leading companies might even now have rushed through the nek and have been almost into the laager. But they were utterly bewildered and ignorant of everything save that they were being fired at, and the column backed confusedly and came to a standstill. Gatacre with prompt decision ordered the leading battalion to deploy and seize the detached hill beyond the nek; but only three companies carried out the order. The rest, together with the Northumberland Fusiliers, had already opened out for the attack, and, without waiting for orders, had begun scrambling up the rocky bush-clad slopes on their right. The first impetus of the charge carried the men well up the initial slope. But the ridge was of a formation peculiar to and common in South Africa. About half way up and almost continuous along its whole length ran a krantz or outcropping wall of steep rocks, only scaleable at gaps here and there. Against this curtain of sheer cliff the attack came to a standstill. The stormers were as men caught in a blind alley; the heart was taken out of their brief spurt, and the weariness and exhaustion of the long night reasserted itself. Checked by the rocks, dulled by twenty-four hours of labour under arms, unsupported by covering fire, they simply lay down under the cover of the cliff and abandoned all thought of trying to find a way up, or else turned back and ran down again to the plain pursued by a hot but wildly aimed and harmless fire. A few indeed found their way up at the gaps in the cliff, and worked up under cover of the stones and bushes on the upper slope. Conspicuous among these was Colonel Eager, who with a handful of men was manfully battling for that purchase on the crest that would have commanded the laager and perhaps won the day. But there was no one to support them, no formed body in reserve that could have been sent up; the general had gone off to the left, and there was no one to direct the men uselessly crouching under the krantz to make their way to the gaps. Within a few minutes almost the whole of Gatacre's infantry had fretted itself away in an objectless attack on the steepest and most difficult part of the Boer position, and the general was left with nothing in hand. It was now that he might have found good use for the battalion left guarding Molteno and Putter's Kraal.

Fighting on left. Artillery in action. 4.30 A.M.

On the left things were rather better. The three companies of the Irish Rifles had made good their hold upon the detached kopje, and only wanted support to enable them to clear the nek and turn the position the rest of the infantry were attacking. The mounted infantry had come up behind them well out on to their left and were thus practically in the Stormberg valley. An immediate bold dash into the valley might possibly have succeeded. But the general wanted men to help to hold the left of the detached kopje, and parties of Boers rapidly came up and held the low folds of ground that ran across the valley and checked a further advance, even if other events had not put that out of the question. Meanwhile at the first burst of fire Colonel Jeffreys had wheeled his guns into line to the left and trotted them across the valley. To avoid the heavy fire of the Boer riflemen the batteries drove as far away from the heights as the donga, which ran across the plain, would allow. One gun of the 74th Battery passed too near the donga and sank through the soft ground at its edge. The efforts of the gunners to extricate it at once attracted a murderous fire from the Boers at about 800 yards range, and as horses and gunners were falling fast it was thought better to leave it for the time being and rescue it later. The rest went on to the foot of the detached hill, where Gatacre ordered them at once to come into action to help the infantry, the 74th a little way up the slope and the 77th on the top of the hill. Driving as far as the horses could get up the rough slope, the men quickly unlimbered and man-handled the guns up to the top. Here the left guns of the 77th came under a heavy short-ranged fire from the Boers, who still held on to the eastern underfeatures of the hill Major Perceval was severely wounded, but continued to command his battery. Both batteries were now shelling the crest. The light was in their faces and the whole mountain-side was in black shade. Knowing nothing of Colonel Eager and his handful of stalwarts struggling towards the crest, the gunners of the 74th Battery sent several low shots bursting right over them, wounding Colonel Eager, Major Seton, and several others, and effectually driving the rest down the hill-side.

Infantry on right retire. 4.45 A.M.

This unfortunate incident could have had no effect on the fortunes of the day. Before this, the undirected main attack had completely failed. The men were everywhere dribbling back to the foot of the hill, and barely half an hour after the first shot the officer commanding the Northumberland Fusiliers ordered them to fall back to the donga. But the donga offered little shelter, being enfiladed from the slopes of the Kissieberg, and the retreat was continued across the valley to the low kopjes on the far side. The fire though heavy was too long-ranged to do much damage, and the men retired in fairly good order, stopping at intervals to cover each other's retreat. But they were utterly spent and unfit for any further active fighting. Leaving one company of the Northumberland Fusiliers to hold the ridge, the rest were reformed in quarter column under cover.

Gatacre decides to retire to Molteno. Rest of force recalled.

Gatacre could hardly believe his eyes when he saw his infantry streaming across the plain, amid the hundreds of little puffs of dust beaten up by the heavy fire from the heights. By his almost heroic exertions he had done much to retrieve the effects of the surprise on the left, the side where he still hoped to press home his attack, once the artillery fire and the advance of the main body of infantry had weakened the Boer hold on the crest. The retirement of the infantry put all that out of the question. It was evident that the men were not in a state in which they could be taken forward again to reinforce the left, which was holding its own without difficulty, but was too weak to take the offensive. Reserves there were none. The only thing to be done was to get the whole force collected and reformed on the far side of the valley and beat a retreat to Molteno. The left was now ordered to retire. The artillery fell back by alternate batteries to the northern extremity of the rise that bounded the valley; the three companies of Irish Rifles retired steadily and in good order across the open plain. The mounted infantry remained on the kopje, covering the withdrawal with admirable tenacity, till all the troops had reached the ridge and the guns had come into action again, and then galloped back round the rear of the new position and, dismounting behind the infantry, prolonged their firing-line to the right.

Boers begin to concentrate on every side.

Barely an hour and a quarter had passed since the first shot was fired. But already the sound of battle was

beginning to concentrate the whole hornet's nest upon the British column. Olivier now brought his gun into action on the crest and Swanepoel, who had at first waited at the nek facing Molteno in expectation of an attack, moved across to the Kissieberg with a number of his burghers as soon as he realised that he was threatened by nothing more formidable than the distant reconnoitrings of an armoured train. Some of the Boers on the Kissieberg came down by Van Zyl's farm at the south-eastern corner of the valley, enfilading the parties of infantry that still kept straggling across the plain, and threatening to cut off the British line of retreat. But Lieutenant Radcliffe's section of Amphlett's Mounted Infantry quickly took up a position on the broad hill to the south of the valley and checked this danger. Grobler and Steenkamp, too, had heard the firing from where they were on the Steynsburg road, and came galloping back to join in the fight. From some rising ground behind the colliery line they began firing straight into the British rear. For a moment things looked serious. But Major Perceval, whose battery was just taking up a new position, promptly swung round three guns, and his admirably ranged shells sufficed to keep Grobler's very half-hearted attack at arm's length. But it was an unusual spectacle to see guns firing thus, trail to trail, and the danger of continuing and waiting to be completely enveloped by the Boers was obvious. For some time past the stream of stragglers from the opposite hill-side and the donga had ceased Believing all his force to be reassembled, Gatacre concluded that there was nothing further to wait for, and gave the order for a general retirement to Molteno.

Over 600 men left behind.

Astonishing as it may seem, with so small a force, neither Gatacre nor anyone else seems to have realised that there were still some 600 unwounded officers and men at the foot of the Boer position, some in the donga, but the majority under the curtain of rock where the first charge had been checked, or among the stones and bushes on the slope below. It is almost inconceivable that regimental officers can have failed to notice the absence of nearly a third of their battalions. The most reasonable explanation seems to be that officers reforming their men behind the ridge assumed that the absent companies were engaged in lining the ridge, while those on the ridge in their turn believed everybody else to be behind them. But even that is no adequate excuse, and it is difficult to free the senior regimental officers, especially the officer commanding the Northumberland Fusiliers, who had ordered the first retirement, and should have seen that the order reached all the men on the slope and was complied with, from the charge of grave negligence both during the first and second retreats. Nor is it easy to see why the officers and men scattered on the slope made no attempt to get back. Possibly they may not have realised that the whole force was finally retreating; possibly, scattered as they were, each party believed itself the only one left and was unwilling to face alone the exertion and danger of crossing the open plain. Many too had long since gone fast asleep after the fatigues of the night. Whatever the explanation, the fact that a third of the infantry was simply left unnoticed is a striking proof of some of the difficulties of modern war, difficulties that may partly be obviated by more widely diffused knowledge of signalling, but whose real cure lies in the greater development in officers and soldiers of initiative, of the capacity to look after themselves.

The retreat to Molteno. 5.30-11 A.M.

Under cover of the guns and mounted infantry the wreck of the two infantry battalions was withdrawn, and retired, between the colliery line and the broad rise which forms the southern boundary of the valley, down to the Steynsburg-Molteno road. Their path necessarily led them in a consider-able curve round the Boer position, a difficult and dangerous manoeuvre if the Boers had shown the least enterprise. But the occupation of the broad rise on their inside flank by Radcliffe's section, joined later by the Berkshire Mounted Infantry, sufficed to keep the Boers at a distance, and they contented themselves with dropping an accurate but harmless long-range shell-fire into the retreating column, first from Olivier's gun and later from Swanepoel's two guns at the nek. The infantry were utterly exhausted and demoralised, and after the first few miles the column degenerated into a crowd of stragglers dragging their way along the road. Only here and there an officer succeeded in keeping a small party together. It only needed 300 averagely enter-prising men to head the column off, swallowing the infantry in driblets as it came along, to have completed the disaster. But the Boers did nothing beyond occupying successive positions as the British evacuated them, and following up the column at a safe range, like curs yapping after a man armed with a stick. This was mainly due to the mounted infantry and guns, who, by a judicious use of each ad-vantageous position, secured sufficient start for the helpless infantry. General Gatacre himself was with the very rearguard, and at the beginning of the retreat narrowly escaped destruction from some of the gunners who, mistaking his little party for Boers, sent a couple of shells right into the middle of them. Three guns were stuck in a quicksand at the spruit which runs across the Steynsburg road at Van Zyl's Farm. Two were dragged out with the help of some of the mounted infantry, but one had to be abandoned. The breech block was removed and thrown into a wagon, which stuck later on and fell into the Boers' hands. A few miles out of Molteno some of the local farmers satisfied their rebellious feelings by firing a few shots at the troops from some kopjes south of the road. About 11 A.M. the remnants of the expedition that had set out so hopefully on the preceding evening staggered back into Molteno.

Criticism of the operations.

Hardly any casualties occurred in the retreat, and very few stragglers were left behind and taken actually prisoners. But long after the retreat was over, 634 unwounded officers and men came out from the hillside where they had remained, and without attempting to fire a shot handed themselves over to the Boers. These figures, taken together with the trifling casualties of 28 men killed and 10 officers and 51 men wounded on the British side, and 8 killed and 26 wounded on the Boer side, are the best evidence of the feebleness with which the fight was conducted on both sides. The Boers allowed themselves to be surprised, their shooting was extraordinarily wild, they made no attempt to seize the opportunity offered them of cutting off and completely destroying their retreating enemy. Such as it was, their success was entirely undeserved. The British performance is not quite so easy to criticise. General Gatacre's plan was a well-conceived piece of audacity, and nothing but a most extraordinary combination of bad management and bad fortune could have made it fail against an enemy of such poor fighting quality. The inadequacy of the force taken; the neglect of simple precautions which prevented the arrival of the detachment from Pen Hoek; the long and wearying delays of the entrainment; the change of plan at the eleventh hour, involving an extra effort on the part of the men and a plunge into country completely unknown to the general or to any of the officers with him; the pernicious order to march with fixed bayonets, a precaution whose absurdity stands in all the more striking contrast to the culminating piece of carelessness, the unscreened and blindly confident route march after daybreak over ground of which the general knew nothing save that he was within two miles of the enemy's positions-all these were sheer mismanagement on the part of the general or of his staff. The first error of the guides was pure misfortune, as far as the general was concerned; but that from the moment of recrossing the colliery line the general and the guides seem to have been completely at cross-purposes, so that the point intended for attack was actually reached and passed by, must have been chiefly due to the neglect to take with the column the only officer who knew the ground and knew the local men. When the fight began Gatacre displayed conspicuous courage and energy in trying to repair the mischief of the surprise, till the failure of the infantry set his attempts at naught. In great measure that failure was due to the heavy strain he had put on his men and to the initial confusion of the surprise. But even making all allowances for this the failure was worse than it should have been, and may be reckoned as part of the ill luck that attended Gatacre's efforts. Again, the blame for the abandonment of over 600 men, almost the worst part of the whole affair, must be at least shared by the regimental officers, who seem to have made no effort to discover where their men were. The excellent behaviour of the mounted infantry and of the guns was, perhaps, the one redeeming point in a most lamentable collapse.

Gatacre withdraws to Sterkstroom.

In the first confusion and distraction of his defeat Gatacre ordered a general retreat to Queenstown. That retreat would probably have been followed by the spread of invasion and rebellion as far as Tarkastad and Cradock, and by the interruption of the railway communication along the main line from Port Elizabeth to Naauwpoort. Fortunately he countermanded the order almost immediately, in consultation with his staff, and now decided only to fall back as far as Sterkstroom, thus making his headquarters actually nearer to the Boers than they had been before at Putter's Kraal. The bulk of the infantry and the artillery were sent back by train to Sterkstroom during the afternoon. The detachment from Pen Hoek, which had arrived in the course of the day and had reconnoitred out towards Stormberg, returned to its position the following day. The rest of the mounted troops remained at Cyphergat watching Molteno, and then returned to Bushman's Hoek. A few days later Gatacre was reinforced by the arrival of the 79th Battery, R.F.A., and of the 1st Battalion of the Derbyshire Regiment, while the Northumberland Fusiliers were sent down to East London to recruit and be reorganised. The situation in Eastern Cape Colony was now more critical than ever, but fortunately the Boers made no attempt to follow up their success immediately, and before Christmas Gatacre himself, undiscouraged by his reverse, was carrying on successful minor operations in the direction of Dordrecht.







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