South African Military History Society

Durban Branch July 1998 News Sheet No 281


It was vintage "Gillings" at our June meeting with our former Chairman, Ken Gillings drawing on his vast knowledge of the Anglo-Boer War and giving us a talk on "The Battle of Stormberg". There was no DDH curtain-raiser to start proceedings, but for nearly two hours our speaker held us spellbound. For although there is very little written on this battle and it was overshadowed by the British defeats at Magersfontein and Colenso, it was the third massive disaster to hit the British in that "Black Week" of December 1899. Its outcome was to affect British thinking for the rest of the War.
Our speaker started off by giving us a brief history of the North-Eastern Cape and its relative importance in both British and Boer strategy. He then went on to describe the key personalities involved. On the British side there was Maj. Gen. Sir William Forbes Gatacre, a fearless and tireless leader who drove his men until they literally dropped. On the Boer side there was Cmdt. Jan Hendrik Olivier, affectionately nick-named "Big John" both for his stature and courage. He led the Bethulie Cormuando from the Rourville District of the Orange Free State.
Before the outbreak of hostilities the British had occupied Stormberg Junction for strategic reasons and had fortified the area. However, when Gen. Buller arrived at the Cape as supreme commander of the British forces in Southern Africa, he immediately ordered the withdrawal of the garrison to Queenstown as he feared another Nicholson's Nek debacle. The area was immediately occupied by the Boers as part of their invasion of the Cape Colony.
Gen. Gatacre arrived as his troops reached Queenstown and immediately ordered his troops back to Putterskraal - a small encampment south-east of Molteno which was the town nearest to the Strormberg. As he could not allow his communications with Col. French some 200 kms to the north-west of him to be threatened by the Boers he determined to retake the Junction.
At that stage his forces were stretched to their limit along the Stormberg. The Kaffrarian Rifles were encamped at Sterkstroom with a small detachment of Mounted Infantry (M.I.) at Boesmanshoek - a pass over the Bamboesberg between Sterkstroom and Molteno. At Dordrecht there was an armoured train manned by the Berkshire Light Infantry plus a few Cape Mounted Police. Obviously he lacked sufficient firepower to go on the offensive. At the beginning of December 1899 he only had about 3000 men plus a few 7pdr guns at his disposal. However on the 5th December 1899 he was reinforced by the arrival of the 74th and 77th Batteries of the RFA and lst Battalion of the Royal Scots. Against him there were 3400 burghers plus 6 guns spread out between Dordrecht, Jamestown, Molteno and Stormberg Junction.
Gatacre's plan was to attack the Stormberg Junction without warning. His troops would proceed from Putterskraal to Molteno by train and then by means of a night march along the Stormberg road where he hoped to capure the Junction.
However by the time he arrived in Molteno at 20h30 on the night of December 9th 1899, his troops had spent the whole day in the blazing sun in the trucks and were already exhausted. In addition, his orders to a Scout group at Penhoek Pass to join him in the attack, had not been relayed by the telegraphist.
At that stage he was advised that the Boers had entrenched themselves at the foot of the Kesiesberg and at the nek on the approach road to Stormberg Junction. Bearing in mind the near disaster of the previous week at the Battle of Modder River where the Boer forces had adopted a similar strategy, he changed his plan. Instead of the frontal attack, he opted for an outflanking march up the Steynslurg road to Van Zyl's Farm where he could attack the Boer positions from the rear.
Such was the chain of his command that virtually nobody other than those in his immediate vicinity were advised of this change of attack. Even the rear-guard of his own column which included some artillery and his ambulances were not aware of the change of plan and marched along the original route for nearly two hours before the error was discovered. In fact even when they returned to Molteno they were assured that they were still on the right track by the Intelligence Officer who also had not been advised of the change of plan!
Meanwhile back on the Steynsburg road Gatacre had his Infantry marching with "fixed bayonets at the ready" - an energy sapping execcise for his already exhausted men. In addition he got lost!. His guides who professed to know the area overshot the turnoff point by nearly 3 kms so that although they were behind the Boer positions, they would have to retrace their steps in order to engage the enemy. However at this stage he gave his troops an hour's rest, but they were so tired that most of them fell into a deep sleep and could barely be woken when the march was restarted. This took place at 02h00 and the exhausted soldiers stumbled along the deeply ratted track that was to bring them back to their original turnoff point at 03h45, but he did not realize that he had reached his objective. It was at this point that some of the starving stragglers decided to indulge in some sheep-rustling from Van Zyl's farm and the subsequent sniping attack by the irate owner caused several casualties. But at this stage several events happened simultaneously. In the predawn light the column of troops was spotted by a lone Boer at ablutions and the alarm was raised.
The Boer laager became scene of turmoil as the burghers grabbed their rifles and ran for the ridges lining the track along which Gatacre's weary column was wending its way. Using the sangars previously built by the British garrison on the approach hills to Stormberg Junction, they begun to fire wildly into the valley below.
The column staggered to a halt and Gatacre ordered the Royal Irish Rifles (RIR) to seize the hill behind the ridge ahead of them. Only three Coys obeyed and the rest, together with the Northumberland Fusiliers rushed towards the slopes of the Kesiesberg only to find their advance blocked by a long rocky cliff or krans. Finding themselves pinned down against this krans and dead tired by this 24-hour "labour under arms" and unsupported by covering fire, many of the British soldiers went to sleep! A few hundred made their way up through gaps in the cliff face to reach the summit, but the rest ran back to the shelter of a nearby donga where they took cover behind the horses for the guns.
Meanwhile the RIR held their ground, but required support to clear the nek and the kopje that descends down to it from the Kesieberg. The Mounted Infantry came up on their left thereby allowing them to check any further Boer advance from the north-east. As soon as the column came under fire the Artillery took up a position on a low ridge to the left of the nek but had to abandon one of their guns which was bogged down as they skirted the donga. But they were blinded by the rising sun and shelled their own men thereby forcing those troops that had managed to scale the krans to retreat back to the base of the hill and retire to the donga.
When Gatacre saw the men streaming back to the donga there was nothing for it but to order a general retreat and try to reform back at Molteno. Accordingly, two Battalions fell back under each others covering fire while the RIR withdrew across the open plain covered by the Mounted Infinitry. The Boers observing this withdrawal concentrated their fire on the British column and brought their Krupp guns into action. A short sharp artillery duel developed, but the noise of the firing alerted the two other commandos that had laargered on the western flank of the column and they too began firing at the British. Once again the Mounted Infantry and the Artillery covered the retreat and when the stream of fleeing soldiers ceased, Gatacre assumed that all his troops were safe and ordered the return march to Molteno. What he did not realize was that there were still over 600 unwounded soldiers fast asleep at the foot of the Kesieberg. Later when they woke up, they had no option but to surrender to the Boers and become prisoners-of-war.
Fortunately for the British it was Sunday and Olivier would not allow his commandos to encircle and entrap the retreating column and apart from a few desultory shots, the British escaped unscathed. The total British casualties were 10 officers and 28 other ranks killed and 51 wounded, but it was the surrender of the 634 officers and men that was so calamitous. The Boer cnua'ties were 8 killed and 26 wounded.
At Molteno, the British regrouped and retired to Sterkstroom, but some Mounted Infantry were left at Cyfergat to keep an eye on Molteno. The resultant stalemate lasted a couple of months with one more attempt by the British to take the Junction on 23rd February 1900. Once again they were thwarted by the Boers and it was only when Gen. Cronje surrendered at Paardeberg that the Boer forces finally withdrew. Stormberg eventually became a British stronghold, but again was subjected to guerrilla attacks in the later stages of the Anglo-Boer War.

After yet another interesting question time, our new Chairman Paul Kilmartin took the honour of conveying the meetings thanks for a most instructive and entertaining evening.

FUTURE EVENTS: From this newsletter onwards it is proposed to cover this information on a separate sheet which can be used as a poster and to diarise future events.

Lecture programme

SPECIAL INTEREST: The Society for the Preservation of Militaria will be hosting a meeting on Saturday the 27th June 1998 at 14h30. Their guest speaker will be Mr David Eskine-Hall of the Medal Department at Spinks in London and he will give a talk on "Famous Gallantry Awards" He will be available to identity and value any medals members may wish to bring along.
Members of this Branch of the SA Military History Society are cordially invited to attend

BATTLEFIELDS' TOUR: Details will be included with this newsletter. Please remember to 'phone Ken on (031)2670013 (w) as soon as possible and also advise the Royal Hotel in Ladysmith of your booking.

The venue for all meetings will be the 1st Floor lecture theatre, Dept. of Civil Engineering, University of Natal, Durban, which is housed in the building on the right of the Memorial Tower Building (opposite the entrance to the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre), commencing at 19h30 on the second Thursday in the month. Please bring your own refreshments and glass. VISITORS AND INTERESTED PERSONS ARE WELCOME TO ATTEND.

Dr Ingrid Machin
Secretary: Durban Branch
4 Hadley,101 Manning Road,Glenwood,Durban,4001
Telephone: (031) 21 3983

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