The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 1 No 4 - June 1969

Arthur Murray and the Battle of Boomplaats


There are no less than five memorials to Arthur Stormont Murray. For a man who was killed in action when he was only twenty-eight this may seem a large number.

Murray was born on 22nd February, 1820, near Cork in Ireland where his father (who was a son of the Earl of Mansfield) was commanding the the 18th Hussars. The Hon. Henry Murray bought his son a cornetcy in the 15th Hussars when he was old enough and from this Arthur Murray exchanged into the Rifle Brigade. Murray was a keen rider and took horses with him to South Africa. He received his death wounds at Boomplaats while mounted on his charger.

Murray had no chance to distinguish himself in peace-time soldiering in England, but reinforcements were required in South Africa when the Seventh Kaffir War (the War of the Axe) broke out in March, 1846, and on 31st August of that year the Fairlie (Captain Horsford) sailed from Britain with the left wing of the first battalion of the Rifle Brigade, consisting of the company Murray commanded and two other companies. His wife Elizabeth Mary, whom he had married in 1844, accompanied him.

The Fairlie arrived in Table Bay on 27th October, 1846, and the Murrays did some shopping before moving on to the seat of warfare. "Lily has laid in a stock of provisions for Grahamstown," he informed his father, "such as rice, sugar, tea, coffee, preserved meats, portable soup, etc., for otherwise we should be ruined in pocket and starved in stomach at the Frontier." The ship reached Port Elizabeth on 12th November and two days later went inshore as far as possible. The troops disembarked into surf-boats and did the final part of the journey to the beach on the backs of Fingoes, a Bantu people who were supporting the Cape Government in the war. They began their march to Grahamstown on the 16th and did the eighty-odd miles in a week, which was reasonably good marching for men who had been cooped up on board ship for two and a half months.

At Grahamstown Murray presented his letter of introduction from his father to Lady Somerset whose husband (a colleague of Colonel Murray's in the Peninsular War) was now commanding the Second Division in action against the Kaffir tribes. Lily would be unable to go any nearer the combat area, so Lady Somerset helped her to find "a nice little house" which she rented for 5 a month, unfurnished.

Murray caught up with Colonel Sir Henry Somerset at his camp near the Buffalo River on 1st December, 1846, and was appointed his aide-de-camp eighteen days later. The war was a fluid affair with no fixed front and Kaffir parties often penetrated well behind the lines. Somerset was a most energetic commander and he and Murray were engaged in a number of sharp skirmishes while riding from one detachment or camp or fort to the next.

Early in January, 1847, Somerset crossed the Kei and reached Butterworth, pacified the area and brought his force back as far as King William's Town. Until the next Kaffir tribe erupted there was a lull in the hostilities and much of the force was now used to hold a protective chain of forts. Murray reverted to regimental duty and took a detachment to garrison Fort Peddie where Lily was allowed to join him, Colonel Somerset lending them his own quarters until their hut had been built. On the resumption of warfare (this time with the Gaika tribe) the troops were reassembled and chief Sandile did not surrender until he had been severely defeated in a series of stiff battles in the Amatola Hills, in which Murray was closely involved. By the 17th December Sir Harry Smith (who was both Governor of the Cape Colony and also Commander-in-Chief) was able to feel the war was uver and to proclaim the whole area up to the Kei as British territory. Most of the troops were concentrated at King William's Town where men of the Rifle Brigade built a house for the Murrays.

Their last time together did not, unfortunately, prove a very long one for war was looming on another front. Sir Harry Smith had annexed the country between the Orange River and the Vaal on 3rd February, 1848. The move was opposed by the Boer farmers under Andries Pretorius who began to advance southwards through the Orange River Sovereignty and to evict the British magistrates who had been sent to their posts without any military support. Smith's express message, ordering Colonel George Buller to mobilize a force to proceed to the Orange River, reached King William's Town on 28th July. Buller marched on 4th August, accompanied by (among others) Murray's and Hardinge's companies of the Rifle Brigade, each consisting of about eighty men. On the 21st they reached Colesberg where other units were also concentrating and Sir Harry soon arrived from Cape Town to take over command. News came in that Pretorius had reached a point only ten miles from the Orange River and had sent patrols down to watch the banks and to prevent, or at any rate report, any British attempts to cross. The Boers were thought to have a strength of about twelve hundred as against the eight hundred British. Though they were not professional soldiers they were a formidable adversary, for they were excellent shots, they had more field guns than the British and the fact that every man had his horse gave them great mobility.

Smith moved forward as soon as possible. Under him were the two Rifle Brigade companies and two each from the 45th and the 91st Regiments, a detachment of Cape Mounted Rifles (not to be confused with that famous regiment, The Cape Mounted Riflemen, which was formed from the F.A.M.P. which was formed in 1855), three field guns under the command of Lt. Dynely of the Royal Artillery and a small unit of Sappers and Miners. The Medical Department consisted of Mr. (later Sir John) Hall, Dr. Atkinson and a Mr. Power. Supplies were brought forward by waggon. The crossing of the Orange was not opposed, Pretorius gradually withdrawing his force to the neighbourhood of the farm Boomplaats which lay to the north-west, about seventy-five miles short of the capital town of Bloemfontein.

The British halted at the deserted farm of Touwfontein for their morning meal on 29th August, 1848, and learnt that Pretorius was holding a range of low hills about twelve miles away and on the right of the track which led to Boomplaats. Smith reached this objective early in the afternoon and at once ordered an attack, with the Cape Mounted Rifles on the left, the 45th in the centre and the Rifle Brigade on the right, the 91st remaining in reserve. Captain Murray drew his sword, gave the signal to advance in extended order and himself rode in front on his charger. The 45th were held up by heavy fire and only carried the Boer positions when the 9lst had come up in support. The Cape Mounted Rifles beat off a Boer flanking party which had tried to come round them to attack the waggons in the rear and carried their objectives, as did the Rifle Brigade and the fight was over, Pretorius withdrawing over the Vaal and making no further effort to conquer the Sovereignty.

Murray was one of the only two British officers to be killed. On gaining the crest of the first small hill his party had been met by heavy fire and a bullet broke his left arm. Before he could dismount or be lifted down from his charger a second shot struck him in the stomach and penetrated to the lower part of the spine. He and the other casualties were placed in waggons as soon as possible and taken to Boomplaats farmhouse which Dr. Hall had made into his field hospital. Murray died soon after midnight. He was conscious to the end, asking Hall to write to his father and to send back a sealed package to his wife. Next day Hall had Murray buried at the foot of a peach tree in the farm's orchard and the others who had been killed were buried near by. As there was no chaplain with the force a burial service was not read though this was done later by Bishop Gray who made a detour for this purpose on 1st May, 1850, on his way to Bloemfontein.

Murray and the other dead officer were later reinterred, each in a stone tomb on the site, and the fourteen rank and file in four other tombs, all of which have been maintained in good order up to the present day. Action on several further memorials was soon under way. Murray's father, by this time a major-general and commanding Britain's Western District, sought permission to erect a marble tablet in the military church at Plymouth and this was sanctioned by the Master-General of Ordinance on 13th November, 1848. Nine days later Sir Harry Smith's aide-de-camp, Lt. E. A. Holdich, asked the authorities of Cape Town Cathedral if a position on the wall to the right of the church's entrance door could be reserved for a marble tablet which would be subscribed for by officers and men of the regiments which had been at Boomplaats. The monument was carved in England by the noted sculptor Edward Richardson (a man in much demand for military memorials in particular) and on 17th February, 1852, the church wardens gave permission for it to be set up. It can now be seen in the new Cathedral, with the finely sculptured figures of an officer and a private soldier in the uniforms of the time, leaning on reversed muskets at the sides of the panel which records the names of Murray and his fallen comrades in arms. Murray's widow played her part and provided an iron obelisk in memory of her husband and the six men of his company who were killed. Still bearing the name of its maker (J. Sibson of St. John's Wood, London), the obelisk is to be found in the courtyard of the present Cathedral at Cape Town. Finally, in 1859 (the year before he himself died) General Murray published in England a "Memoir and Correspondence of the late Captain A. S. Murray."

Sir Harry Smith (who commended the young officer's great gallantry in a sympathetic letter to General Murray) later recorded his opinion that Murray had attacked too eagerly and had not taken advantage of such cover as was available. Presumably with his smaller numbers Sir Harry could not undertake an outflanking movement and there was no alternative to a frontal attack. Murray, then, was confronted by the same problem that was to vex other British officers for the next half century of South African warfare. He can hardly be faulted for failing to solve a problem which they, with longer and bitter experience behind them, also failed to solve.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Mr. Langham-Carter has had several articles published in the "Army Quarterly" in Great Britain. He served, in the rank of Lieut.-Colonel, in the Indian Army in World War II. He is today Recorder at St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town.

REDAKTEURSNOTA: Mnr. Langham-Carter het al verskeie artikels gepubliseer in die ,,Army Quarterly" in Groot Brittanje. Hy het gedien met die rang van Luit.-Kol. in die Indiese Weermag in die Tweede Wereldoorlog. Hy is vandag Griffier by St. Georges Katedraal in Kaapstad.

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