Battle of Stormberg

This photograph was taken at the City Hall, Belfast in 1905 at the unveiling of the memorial to the officers and men of The Royal Irish Rifles who died in the Boer War. It is surmounted by the bronze figure of a Rifleman in khaki uniform, with topee and puttees, his rifle with fixed sword (bayonet) at the ready as he stands on a large rock. Around the plinth are bronze panels, with figures at each top corner representing war, victory, death and triumph. The sculptor was Sydney March. (© Image Copyright)

(The following is an extract from 'History of The Royal Irish Rifles', by Lieutenant Colonel George Brenton Laurie, and is an account of the 2nd Battalion The Royal Irish Rifles at the Battle of Stormberg during what was described as 'Black Week' in the opening actions of the Boer War)

The battalion had formed part of the 5th Brigade, under the command of Major-General Fitzroy Hart, but this organization was now broken up, and the Royal Irish Rifles remained under the command of Major-General Gatacre, who was to have been in charge of the 3rd Division, to which the 5th Brigade belonged.

General Gatacre was a soldier of boundless energy and great personal courage. Impervious to fatigue himself, he calculated the endurance of his men by his own.

His plans were as follows: The Boers occupied Stormberg Junction, and General Gatacre decided to surprise them from Putter's Kraal. The number of Boers at or near Stormberg did not exceed 2,300, but the danger which urged General Gatacre to the attack was that rebellion was spreading in the Cape Colony, and there was no saying how many rebels might not join the Boer forces at Stormberg.

The position held by the enemy was as follows: Stormberg Junction lies in the centre of a basin, surrounded by hills. The railway runs through these hills, north-east towards Burghersdorp, west towards Rosmead, and south towards Molteno and Queenstown. The Boer laagers were scattered about the basin. The Bethulie Burghers, with rebels, numbered 800 men, and were close to the railway station.

The Smithfield laager, about 700 strong, was on the south-western slope of the Rooi Kop, a hill standing south of the railway station. This commando looked after the nek through which the railway from Molteno came, and had dug trenches and posted two guns here just west of the railway.

City Hall 1905The Rouxville burghers were on the western heights, some in schanses (stone-wall enclosures, etc.). They numbered 800 men, and had one gun with them. Commandant E. R. Grobler was in charge.

General Gatacre decided to take some 2,600 men with him, consisting of the Royal Irish Rifles, the Northumberland Fusiliers, three mounted infantry companies, some Cape Police, two batteries of Royal Field Artillery, a company of Royal Engineers, a field hospital, etc.; whilst 400 more men, with four guns, were to join him at Molteno, to be sent to operate on the right flank, under Captain de Montmorency.

(Above; the unveiling on 6 October 1905, at the City Hall, Belfast.. Note the distinctive sword bayonets carried by the Riflemen down their left hip.)

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. Here they were to rest for two or three hours before making the attack. Shortly before dawn the Royal Irish Rifles were to rush the ridge to the left of the nek, and capture the guns, while the Northumberland Fusiliers seized the under features of the Rooi Kop, on the right. The force was dangerously small for its work.

The party which was to join at Molteno, under Captain de Montmorency, was at Pen Hoek. At midnight on the 8th-gth of December a message was handed to the telegraph clerk at Putter's Kraal, summoning this detachment to join. The clerk omitted to send it. No such palpable precaution was taken as obtaining an acknowledgment of the receipt of the telegram from Captain de Montmorency; so his party did not join the force, as intended.

At 4 a.m. on the 9th of December the infantry began to pack up. The troops were road-making from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m.; breakfast was at 7 a.m.; tents were struck at 11.30 a.m.; and dinner was at 12.30 p.m. Soon afterwards the work of entraining began. The staff-work appears to have been bad—possibly from unavoidable causes. A train-load of mules was allowed to block the line for hours. Though the troops commenced to entrain at mid-day, yet the last troop train did not reach Molteno until 8.30 p.m.

That afternoon General Gatacre arrived at Molteno, and held a consultation with the local inspector of Cape Police there. Here he received a report that the Boers had constructed a wire entanglement in the nek or pass which he meant to attack. This was afterwards found to be inaccurate, but it altered the plans. The General decided not to attack the front of the basin, as he had intended, but to strike in by one of the flanks, and he chose the
western side for his point, meaning to strike in on the Boer right.

The ground was intricate, but once there and on the heights, he could command the guns and the whole Stormberg Valley.

At 9.15 p.m. the column marched out of Molteno, the Royal Irish Rifles leading. Just before moving off, Colonel Eager said: "The battalion represents the North of Ireland, which is watching you. I know I have not to ask you to do your duty." Two days' rations of tinned meat and biscuit were carried. The distance to be covered was ten miles. There was a bright moon, which set about midnight. The road at first was quite good; every-thing looked promising, and the men were in capital spirits. General Gatacre gave the order to fix swords, and the men marched on, carrying their arms in this rather constrained position. The artillery followed the infantry, but with a long interval between, and the wheels of the guns, etc., were wrapped up in raw hide, to deaden the sound. Behind the guns came the mounted troops. Various details, including the Maxim gun detachment of the Royal Irish Rifles, under Lieutenant Wright, had not been informed of the change of plan from the frontal to the flank attack, and they took the direct road to the nek and lost themselves. The guides, in the darkness, missed the right turning, and the force halted at I a.m. at a farm, owned by a Mr. Roberts. The guides informed General Gatacre that the distance from the coveted heights was now only one and a half miles; in reality it was three miles away. The Boers had sent out some 600 men that night, probably to beat up Gatacre's left flank. This force was under Grobler, and was laagered three miles farther up the road from the British column, so Gatacre was actually between the two bodies of Boers, who had not the vaguest idea that his outposts were nearer than Molteno. Here indeed was a chance, if he had known of it, to finish up the 600 Bethulie warriors with the bayonet. However, not knowing this, at 2 a.m. the march was resumed. The track—for it could not be called a road—became appallingly bad. Colonel Eager reported to the General that he thought the guide had lost his way. The guide as stoutly protested that he had not. At 3.45 a.m. on the 10th of December the head of the column reached the point which General Gatacre had aimed for. He was at the foot of the heights which formed the western boundary to the Stormberg Basin, and he was on the western side of those heights, in a small valley, which led into the Stormberg Basin.

Everything was as he could wish it. Unfortunately in the dark he did not know that he had arrived there, and his guides did not quite understand his plans, so there was a misunderstanding. The guides thought he wanted to push on by road into the valley, and did not realise that the infantry, facing east, could have climbed straight up the hill and dominated all the Boer camps from these heights with their rifles; so the column toiled along the road, past the heights on their right, until broad daylight came on, still marching in fours, with swords fixed.

Colonel Eager realized the danger, and requested the General's permission to send half a company out as an advanced guard. General Gatacre ordered him not to do so. A few hundred yards to the east of the British force lay one of the Boer laagers, its outpost absolutely unconscious of the presence of the enemy. There was a picquet, with a single Boer sentry on the road which ran through the nek, which the force was now approaching in column of route. To his horror, the sentinel saw this long serpent of marching men drawing near him. He roused his comrades—between ten and twenty in number—and fire was opened. The Dutch poured out of their laager, wheremost of them had been making coffee, and rushed for the heights. General Gatacre ordered the Royal Irish Rifles to rush through the nek and seize a detached hill just inside it, but it was too late to issue orders then. Everyone had felt that they were called upon to act promptly for themselves in the emergency, and, though three companies (" F," "G," and "H ") dashed through the nek for the hill beyond, the remainder of the Royal Irish Rifles formed for attack towards their right flank, and, with the Northumberland Fusiliers prolonging their right, rushed for the summit, led by " C " Company, under Captain Bell. The advance was well maintained, and half the distance had been crossed when the whole force was brought to a standstill by a line of precipices, which rose sheer up for some distance, and was only scalable here and there.

The men laid down under cover, whilst Colonel Eager, Major Seton, Major Welman, and Captain Bell drew together, studied the formation of the ground, and arranged for the forward movement. The three companies who had taken the hill beyond the nek outflanked the Boer position, whilst the mounted infantry had also pushed inside the Stormberg Valley. Everything was in capital train. The General rode up to the three companies on the hill, whilst Colonel Eager, without orders, but wisely comprehending the situation, arranged for the rush to clear the heights. The two batteries—the 74th and the 77th—opened fire on the heights, but, unfortunately, thinking the Royal Irish Rifles were the enemy in the uncertain light, commenced to shell them. The results were instantaneous. The first shell mortally wounded Colonel Eager and severely wounded Majors Seton and Welman, Captain Bell and several riflemen. The next few were equally deadly, and in a few seconds, to the surprise of the Boers, some of whom had been pouring in an ineffectual fire, whilst others were hurrying to the rear, the whole of the infantry who had been lying close under the cliffs, ready to escalade them, were driven down the slope, vainly trying to avoid the deadly shrapnel of their own guns. The officer commanding the Northumberland Fusiliers ordered his battalion to retire to reform it, ready to support either attack. Some of the Royal Irish Rifles, hearing the order, moved with this battalion, assuming that it also applied to them. Some of the Northumberland Fusiliers did not hear it, and remained where they were.

The men who retired first took shelter in the donga at the foot of the hill, but this was enfiladed, so the retirement was continued as far as the small hills across the valley. The movement was carried out in good order, and each part covered the retreat of the others. Arriving at these small hills, one company was told off to hold the heights, whilst the remainder formed in quarter column under cover. General Gatacre had been with the party that held the hill inside the nek. From here he had meant to sweep down the enemy's position, pressing home his attack. With the hills abandoned to the Boers, he saw that this could not be done, so he gave the order to the three companies to retire, which they did, under heavy fire, in good order, and the mounted infantry of the force galloped back, and a new line was formed on a ridge across the road up which the force had marched. This was about an hour and a quarter after the first shot had been fired. Naturally, the noise had drawn in all parties of Boers, even Grobler's detachment. This last commando fired into Gatacre's troops from the rear, and the 77th battery had three guns firing forward and three backward.

In the meantime, some 600 men of the two infantry battalions lay on the hill under the cliffs, keeping up the fight with the Boers. General Gatacre ordered the force he was now with on the ridge to retire. Major Allen, of the Royal Irish Rifles, urged the General to allow him to take up the remaining companies of the Rifles to carry the heights, but General Gatacre refused to let him do this. The remainder, nearer to the enemy, were left to their fate. Afterwards it transpired that the officers and men did not know what was going on, and that they held tenaciously to their ground, expecting that the remainder of the force was moving to make a flank attack. No orders were given, and each party was overpowered in detail. The retreating force, under General Gatacre, was not kept well in hand, and the infantry straggled a great deal. The guns and mounted infantry kept the enemy at a distance, and Lieutenant and Adjutant Sitwell collected the men of the Royal Irish Rifles who were least fatigued and formed an efficient rearguard. About 11 a.m. Molteno was reached; 634 unwounded prisoners (officers and men) were taken by the Boers. The total casualties of the whole force were 28 killed and 61 wounded on the British side, and 8 killed and 26 wounded on the Boer side.

The Royal Irish Rifles loss was as follows: —Twelve non-commissioned officers and men killed and forty-six non-commissioned officers and men wounded; also wounded officers as follow: Lieutenant-Colonel Eager (mortally wounded), Majors Seton and Welman, Captains Bell and Kelly, and Lieutenant Stevens. The following officers were captured: Captain Weir, Lieutenant Christie, and 2nd-Lieutenants Maynard and Rodney, and 216 unwounded non-commissioned officers and men. The battalion, under Major Allen, was entrained that afternoon, with the remainder of the infantry of General Gatacre's force, and was sent down to Sterkstroom.

General Gatacre had, on the whole, bad luck at Stormberg. The idea was sound; but his arrangements were not thoroughly supervised. He surprised his enemy, but, from want of precautions, was not able to use his advantage, and appears to have sent no orders to his troops. That he should have left 600 of them to be made prisoners was also a piece of bad staff work; whilst the crowning calamity was the successful shelling by the British artillery of their own side. On the whole, the force was lucky to have been able to effect their retreat. An enterprising enemy would have stopped it and captured the whole force. The prisoners were sent to Pretoria.

Hard things have been said of the regimental officers; such as that they must have known that their men were left behind on the hill. The officers knew it perfectly well, and reported it, but General Gatacre refused to either wait for the 600 men who were holding their own on the hill, or to let any signal be made to them.