The battle of Stormberg was one of three British defeats early in the Boer War that together became known as Black Week. Stormberg Junction was an important position in north central Cape Colony, on the railroad from Bloemfontein, in the Orange Free State, to East London and Port Elizabeth in Cape Colony. Central to the plans of the Boer republics early in the war was the idea that their fellow Boers in the British Cape Colony would rise against the British and join their cause. This belief was shared by the governor of Cape Colony, Alfred Milner. He in turn made sure that the British commanders in South Africa knew of his fear.
For this to happen, the Boers would have to launch a successful invasion of the cape. Key to this were the bridges over the Orange River at Norval’s Point and Bethulie. These bridges had been deliberately left intact by the British in preparation for their own planned attack on Bloemfontein. Both bridges were captured by the Boers on 1 November 1899. This left the garrisons of Naauwpoort and Stormberg potentially very vulnerable. On 3 November Bullers decided to evacuate both garrisons.
The Stormberg garrison fell back to Queenstown, just over fifty miles further south along the railroad to East London. Fortunately for the British, the Boers did not take full advantage of this retreat. It took them until 26 November to reach Stormberg. During this period the British had already missed one chance to reoccupy the place. The new commander in this part of Cape Colony, Sir William Gatacre, had landed at East London with reinforcements (The Irish Rifles) on 16 November. Two days later he had reached Queenstown. At that moment Stormberg was still unoccupied, and Gatacre probably had enough troops to move back north, but he stopped short and gathered reinforcements. The day after the Boers occupied Stormberg, Gatacre moved his headquarters to Putter’s Kraal, thirty miles south of Stormberg Junction.
Gatacre was well aware of the danger of rebellion in the local area, and the need for a rapid counter attack. He managed to gather a force of around 2,600 men, consisting of the Northumberland Fusiliers, The Irish Rifles, the Berkshire Company of mounted infantry, the Southern and Rifle Mounted Infantry companies, a detachment of Cape Police, two batteries of field artillery and the 12th Company Royal Engineers. Inexplicably, his force did not include the former garrison of Stormberg.
Gatacre’s plan was for a surprise attack on the Boers at Stormberg Junction. On the night before the attack, his men would use the railway to move to Molteno, eight miles from Stormberg. From there they would make a rapid night march, and attack the surprised Boers at dawn. This was a physically demanding plan, but Gatacre was something of a fitness fanatic, and tended to assume everyone was as fit as he was. Late in the day he made a crucial change to his plan. Originally he had intended to advance along a road next to the railway. Now, on 9 December, hearing (incorrectly) that the Boers had put barbed wire across this road, he decided to alter the route of the march, to use a different road that did not follow the railway. He did not think it necessary to inform the officer in charge at Molteno of the change.
This change led to disaster. Gatacre’s guides were Cape policemen, who no doubt knew the area, but just not at night. Having been awake since 4 am on 9 December, Gatacre’s men began their march at 9.15 pm. Three hours later, just into 10 December, the column ran into a railway line known to be two miles beyond a crucial turning point. Gatacre was lost. Unfortunately, he did not yet know that he was lost. His guides convinced him that they knew exactly where they were, and that they were only one and a half miles from Stormberg Junction. Accordingly, Gatacre ordered his men to rest for an hour, in preparation for a final march that he believed would bring them to Stormberg from the north west.
In fact they were three miles from the junction, and would be approaching it from the south west. The march resumed at 2 a.m. At 3.45 Gatacre’s column passed right by the hills he had wanted to occupy, but the column marched on, thinking it still had several miles to go. Instead disaster was about to strike.
A small Boer force, no more than sixty strong, was camped to the right of Gatacre’s line of march. Now, one of their sentries spotted the British column, and sounded the alarm. The small Boer camp was roused, and opened fire on Gatacre’s column. Their fire alerted a bigger Boer force under Commandant Jan Henrick Olivier, which also joined the battle. In all around 800 Boers took part in the battle.
The British had marched into a trap. They were stuck in a valley bottom, tired and lost, and under fire from the ridge line. Gatacre at least attempted to retrieve the situation by ordering the Irish Rifles to seize a detached hill at the right of the Boer line. Three battalions did just that, but the rest of Gatacre’s force, perhaps confused by the march, the new route and Gatacre’s lack of clear orders, attacked straight up the front of the hills. Half way up they reached a line of crags, and could go no further. A small party got close to the top, but was then hit by shrapnel from the British guns and forced to retreat.
The infantry now began to retreat. After just over an hour of fighting, it became obvious that the battle was lost. More and more Boers were arriving, attracted by the noise of the fighting. Gatacre decided that his only option was to regroup and retreat. This is when the most notorious incident of the battle occurred. As Gatacre’s force came back together, nobody thought to make sure everybody had received the order to retreat. 634 men were simply left behind on the hillside, with no choice but to surrender.
Neither side came out of the battle of Stormberg well. The Boers had been badly surprised, and if Gatacre had reacted to the surprise attack better might have suffered a serious defeat. In one and a half hours of fighting, the famous Boer riflemen only managed to kill 28 and wound 61 (10 officers and 51 men, sometimes incorrectly reported at 51 wounded). Their own losses had been lower – probably 8 killed and 26 wounded. However, Gatacre had done worse. He had changed his plan, apparently without telling anybody. His new route made it highly likely that something would go wrong during the night march. When the first Boers appeared, he very quickly lost control of the battle. Finally, he simply mislaid 600 men, a third of his infantry. The only redeeming feature of the day for Gatacre came a few days later. When the first casualty figures were worked out back at Molteno, he had no way to know that so many men were prisoners – and so for some time thought he had presided over a disastrously costly defeat.
The defeat at Stormberg started a very bad week for the British. The next day Lord Methuen was defeated at Magersfontein, and on 15 December Buller suffered defeat at Colenso. The worst part of Gatacre’s defeat, the loss of 600 prisoners, was not his fault – responsibility for that has to lie with the regimental officers who failed to account for their own men. Nevertheless, a night march over unknown territory was always going to be risky. Worse, by the time the fighting began, many of Gatacre’s men had been awake for nearly twenty four hours. It is perhaps a reflection on the general quality of British officers at this time that Gatacre retained his command after this disaster.