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Black Week, 10-17 December 1899

Black Week, 10-17 December 1899

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Black Week, 10-17 December 1899

Black Week saw the British in South Africa suffer three serious defeats in six days. The first came at Stormberg (10 December), where an army under Sir William Gatacre suffered a defeat after a badly handled night march. Next came Magersfontein (11 December). This saw the defeat of an expedition under Lord Methuen that had been attempting to relieve Kimberley. Finally, on 15 December the commander in chief in South Africa, Sir Redvers Buller, led his army to defeat at Colenso, ending his first attempt to relieve the siege of Ladysmith.

This was the worst run of defeats suffered by the British army since the Napoleonic wars. All three battles saw the British suffer significantly heavier losses than the Boers (Colenso was probably the worst in this respect – the British suffered 1137 casualties while inflicting only 38). What made it particularly embarrassing was the poor performance of the British generals at each of these battles. Methuen and Buller tried simple frontal assaults and then lost control of their battles, while Gatacre managed to first get lost, then fail to realise that he had left over 600 men behind.

The reaction in Britain took two strands. First was a feeling of gloom and embarrassment. The embarrassment was particularly acute for any Briton living overseas. The armies defeated in South Africa had contained some of the most famous regiments in the British army – the Black Watch had been at Magersfontein, a brigade of the Fusiliers at Colenso. For such famous regiments to suffer three humiliating defeats at the hands of a small number of Boer farmers was inexplicable. Many of Britain’s enemies took heart at the poor performance of the army.

The second strand of public reaction was enthusiasm for the war. Tens of thousands of men tried to volunteer, and on 18 December the government relented, allowing twelve battalions of militia and 20,000 members of the yeomanry to go to South Africa. Amongst the units formed at this time was the City of London Imperial Volunteers, a unit of 1,550 men raised in under two months. A similar wave of enthusiasm swept Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

The most high profile casualty of Black Week was Sir Redvers Buller. In the aftermath of Colenso he had written to General White, commanding the garrison of Ladysmith, suggesting that he should surrender to the Boers. This message caused great concern in London. On 17 December Field Marshal Lord Roberts was appointed to take command in South Africa, with Lord Kitchener as his chief of staff. Buller was kept on in a more junior capacity, as despite the disaster at Colenso his personal popularity was still high.

Ironically Black Week had little impact on the fighting in South Africa. Kimberley and Ladysmith remained in British hands. The Boers who had invaded north east Cape Colony around Stormberg stayed put. The arrival of Lord Roberts would see the British performance improve markedly, although there were still military defeats to endure before the traditional military stage of the war was finished.

The Second Anglo-Boer War

40th Company, 10th Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry - arrived in South Africa (as part of the first contingent) on 27th February 1900.

59th Company, 15th Battalion, Imperial Yeomanry - arrived in South Africa (as part of the first contingent) on 29th March 1900.

On 13 December 1899, the decision to allow volunteer forces serve in the Second Boer War was made. Due to the string of defeats during 'Black Week' in December 1899, the British government realized they were going to need more troops than just the regular army, thus issuing a Royal Warrant on 24 December 1899. This warrant officially created the Imperial Yeomanry.

The Royal Warrant asked standing Yeomanry regiments to provide service companies of approximately 115 men each. In addition to this, many British citizens (usually middle or upper class) volunteered to join the new regiment. The first contingent of recruits contained 550 officers, 10,371 men in 20 battalions of four companies each, which arrived in South Africa between February and April, 1900. Upon arrival, the regiment was sent throughout the zone of operations.

The Imperial Yeomanry’s first action was on 5 April 1900, when members of 3rd and 10th battalions fought Boer volunteers led by Frenchman Count de Villebois-Mareuil at Boshof. After a series of tactical errors, the Boers were subsequently surrounded. The Count was killed, and the Imperial Yeomanry was victorious, suffering only three casualties. One of these was Capt Cecil Boyle (see below). But the Boer would prove to be a much tougher and elusive enemy as they soon showed at Lindley later the next month.

Exact numbers are hard to determine, but were in excess of 30,000 men. Leo Amery's 'The Times History of the War in South Africa' commented that:

Altogether 35,520 Imperial Yeomanry went to South Africa. Of this number probably at least 2,000 went out a second time and so have been counted twice over. On the other hand, after October 29, 1901, when it was made permissible, a certain number of enlistments for Imperial Yeomanry took place in South Africa, while 833 officers and men were raised at home under Imperial Yeomanry conditions for a corps raised partly in South Africa and partly at home.

After the Second Boer War, the Imperial Yeomanry did not participate in any further conflicts and was officially disbanded in 1908. The individual companies of the IY returned to their British based Yeomanry regiments. The "Imperial Yeomanry" lineage is carried on by the Yeomanry regiments from which the Imperial Yeomanry companies were created and thus the IY companies earned the battle honour "South Africa" for their parent regiments. A large number of veterans returned to serve part-time in Yeomanry at home and were called again into service in World War I.

As part of a general reorganization of the entire home-based Yeomanry force in April 1901, the collective designation "Imperial Yeomanry" replaced that of "Yeomanry Cavalry". This was in recognition of the performance of the IY companies during the war in South Africa. This distinction ceased in 1907-08 when further changes brought the 54 Yeomanry regiments then in existence into the newly established Territorial Army, and the Imperial Yeomanry was officially terminated.

The 1903 report of His Majesty's Commission on the war commented: "On the whole, the Imperial Yeomanry seem to have done very good service in the war, but to have suffered from the mistake which was made in not organising a system of drafts to maintain the strength of the force, a mistake due, in no doubt, like others, to the under-rating of the resisting power of the Boers, and the belief in the speedy termination of the war. If this system had been organised upon a county basis, a steady flow of selected men trained to ride and shoot at home could have been maintained, and the necessity avoided in sending out later 17,000 untrained and unorganised men to receive their education in the face of the enemy".


In the early days of the war in the Cape Colony, the Boers surrounded and laid siege to the British garrisons in the towns of Kimberley and Mafeking and destroyed the railway bridge across the Orange River at Hopetown. [4] Substantial British reinforcements (an army corps under General Redvers Buller) arrived in South Africa and were dispersed to three main fronts. While Buller himself advanced from the port of Durban in Natal to relieve the besieged town of Ladysmith and a smaller detachment under Lieutenant General Gatacre secured the Cape Midlands, the reinforced 1st Division under Lord Methuen advanced from the Orange River to relieve Kimberley. [5]

Methuen advanced along the Cape–Transvaal railway line because a lack of water and pack animals made the reliable railway an obvious choice. Also, Buller had given him orders to evacuate the civilians in Kimberley and the railway was the only means of mass transport available. [6] But his strategy had the disadvantage of making the direction of his approach obvious. [7] Nevertheless, his army drove the Boers out of their defensive positions along the railway line at Belmont, Graspan, and the Modder River, at the cost of a thousand casualties. The British were forced to stop their advance within 16 miles (26 km) of Kimberley [8] at the Modder River crossing. The Boers had demolished the railway bridge when they retreated, and it had to be repaired before the army could advance any further. Methuen also needed several days for supplies and reinforcements to be brought forward, and for his extended supply line to be secured from sabotage. [9] The Boers were badly shaken by their three successive defeats and also required time to recover. [10] The delay gave them time to bring up reinforcements, to reorganise, and to improve their next line of defence at Magersfontein. [8]

Boer defences Edit

After the Battle of the Modder River, the Boers initially retreated to Jacobsdal, where a commando from Mafeking linked up with them. [11] The following day, Cronje moved his forces 10 miles (16 km) north to Scholtz Nek and Spytfontein, [Note 2] where they began to fortify themselves in the hills that made up the last defensible position along the railway line to Kimberley. [11] Although closer to the British camp than the Boer camp, Jacobsdal was left poorly defended, and continued to function as the Boers' supply base until 3 December. [11]

The Free State government decided to reinforce Cronje's position after the Battle of Belmont. Between eight hundred and a thousand men of the Heilbron, Kroonstad and Bethlehem commandos arrived at Spytfontein from Natal, accompanied by elements of the Ficksburg and Ladybrand commandos from the Basuto border. Reinforcements were also brought up from the Bloemhof and Wolmaranstad commandos who were besieging Kimberley. [11] The remainder of Cronje's force arrived from the siege of Mafeking. Their force now numbered 8,500 fighters, [2] excluding camp followers and the African labourers who performed the actual work of digging the Boer entrenchments. [12]

Koos de la Rey had been absent from the army immediately after the Battle of the Modder River, having gone to Jacobsdal to bury his son Adriaan, who had been killed by a British shell during the battle. He arrived at the defensive positions on 1 December [13] and surveyed the Boer lines the following day. He found the defences lacking, and realised that Cronje's position at Spytfontein was vulnerable to long range artillery fire from the hills at Magersfontein. He therefore recommended that they should move their defensive position forward to Magersfontein, to deny the British this opportunity. [14] Cronje, who was the more senior officer, disagreed with him, so De la Rey telegraphed his objections to President Martinus Theunis Steyn of the Orange Free State. After consulting with President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal, Steyn visited the front on 4 December at Kruger's suggestion. [15] Steyn also wished to settle a rift that had developed between the Transvaal and Free State Boers over the poor performance of his Free Staters in the battle on 28 November. [11] He spent the next day touring the camps and defences, then summoned a krijgsraad (council of war).

The Boers had learnt in earlier battles that the British artillery was superior in numbers to theirs, and could pound any high ground where they placed their guns or rifle pits. At Ladysmith, the Boers used rocks to build defensive sangars, but the ground at Magersfontein was sandy and less rocky. [16] De la Rey recommended, contrary to common practice, that they should entrench themselves forward of the line of kopjes, [Note 3] rather than on the facing slopes. [17] The trenches overlooking the receding, open ground sloping down towards the British axis of advance afforded the Boers concealment and protection from fire, and permitted them to use the flat trajectory of their Mauser rifles to greater effect. [18] Since the trenches were concealed, they could thwart the standard British tactic of advancing to within close range under cover of darkness and then storming the Boer position at daybreak. [19] A final consequence of De la Rey's defensive layout was that the troops would not be able to retreat, as Commandant General Marthinus Prinsloo's forces had done at Modder River. [19] Before leaving the front, Steyn raised the morale of the Free State burghers [Note 4] by dismissing Prinsloo, who was seen as the chief reason for the defeats in earlier battles. [2]

The new defensive line occupied a wide crescent-shaped front, extending for 6 miles (10 km) and straddling the road and the railway line that Methuen's advance depended upon. The main trench directly in front of the Magersfontein Hill was 2 miles (3.2 km) long, [18] and protected on the right flank by a single trench. The trenches that were to protect the left flank in the direction of the river were not completed before the battle commenced. [20] Two high wire fences complemented the natural obstacles created by the thick scrub bush. One ran north-northeast and marked the border of the Orange Free State, while a second protected the trenches in front of the Boer position. [21]

British plan Edit

Methuen believed that the Boers were occupying the crests of the line of kopjes, as they had done at Belmont, but he was unable to reconnoitre the position his mounted scouts could not roam the countryside freely on account of wire farm fences, [22] nor could they approach any closer than 1 mile (1.6 km) to the Boer positions without being driven off by rifle fire. [12] No serviceable maps were available those in the possession of the British officers had been prepared for the purposes of land registration, with no consideration of military operations. Officers supplemented these maps with hasty sketches based on limited daily reconnaissance. [5] The poor maps and lack of reconnaissance would prove critical to the outcome of the battle. [23]

Ever since the victory against an Egyptian army at the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir, the standard British tactic against an entrenched position was an approach march at night in close order to maintain cohesion, followed by deployment into open order within a few hundred yards of the objective and a frontal attack with the bayonet at first light. Methuen planned to bombard the Boer positions with artillery from 16:50 to 18:30 on 10 December. Following the barrage, the newly arrived Highland Brigade under Major General Wauchope was to make a night march that would position them to launch a frontal attack on the Boers at dawn the following day. [24] Wauchope had argued for a flanking attack along the Modder River, but had been unable to convince his superior. [25]

Methuen's orders show that his intention was to "hold the enemy on the north and to deliver an attack on the southern end of Magersfontein Ridge." [26] The advance was to be made in three columns. The first column consisted of the Highland Brigade, the 9th Lancers, the 2nd King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and supporting artillery and engineer sections as well as a balloon section. [26] The first column was ordered to march directly on the south-western spur of the kopje and on arrival, before dawn, the 2nd Black Watch were to move east of the kopje, where he believed the Boers had a strong-point. He ordered the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders to advance to the south-eastern point of the hill, and the 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to extend the line to the left. The 1st Highland Light Infantry was to advance as a reserve. All units were to advance in a mass of quarter columns, the most compact formation in the drill book: 3,500 men in 30 companies aligned in 90 files, all compressed into a column 45 yards (41 m) wide and 160 yards (150 m) long, [27] with the outer sections using ropes to guide the four battalions in their night march and deployment for the dawn attack. [28] The second column, on the left under Major-General Reginald Pole-Carew, consisted of a battalion from the 9th Brigade, the Naval Brigade with a 4.7-inch naval gun, and Rimington's Guides (a mounted infantry unit raised in Cape Town). The third column, led by Major-General Sir Henry Edward Colville, was in reserve and was composed of the 12th Lancers, the Guards Brigade, and artillery, engineer, and medical support elements. [26]

Advance to attack Edit

A drizzle started by mid-afternoon on 10 December and continued throughout the artillery bombardment, which was delivered by 24 field guns, four howitzers, and a 4.7-inch naval gun. In preparation for the attack, the British soldiers bivouacked in the rain 3 miles (4.8 km) from the Boer lines. [29] Instead of "softening" the Boer positions, the explosions of lyddite shells against the facing slopes above their trenches merely alerted the Boers to the impending attack. [27] As midnight approached, the rain increased to a downpour and the leading elements of the Highland Brigade commenced their advance towards their objective at the southern end of Magersfontein ridge. [28] [30] Wauchope had made a similar night march in his advance on Omdurman in 1898, but this time he was faced not by flat desert terrain and clear skies, but rather by torrential rain, rocky outcrops, and thorn scrub, which caused delays and annoyance. [31] The thunderstorm and the high iron ore content of the surrounding hills played havoc with compasses and navigation. [27]

The brigade was advancing in quarter column as directed by Methuen's orders. The soldiers advanced packed as closely together as possible, with each ordered to grasp his neighbour to prevent the men losing contact with each other in the darkness. [32] As first light approached, the storm abated and the Brigade was on course, but the delays put them 1,000 yards (910 m) from the line of hills. Wauchope's guide, Major Benson of the Royal Artillery, suggested to Wauchope that it was no longer safe to continue in closed formation and that the Brigade should deploy. Wauchope replied ". I'm afraid my men will lose direction. I think we will go a little further." [33] Still in quarter column, the Highlanders advanced further towards the unknown enemy lines, when an advancing British soldier tripped an alarm on the fence in front of the Boer trench. [34]

Highland Brigade trapped Edit

The Highlanders had advanced to within 400 yards (370 m) of the Boer trenches when the Boers opened fire the British had no time to reform from their compact quarter columns into a fighting formation. [35] Wauchope instructed the brigade to extend its order, but in the face of such close-range Boer fire, the changing formation was thrown into disarray and confusion. General Wauchope was killed by almost the first volley, as was Lieutenant-Colonel G. L. J. Goff, the commanding officer of the Argylls. [36] The men at the head of the brigade disentangled themselves from the dead and most of them fled. [37] Some of the Black Watch at the head of the column charged the Boer trenches a few broke through, but as they climbed Magersfontein Hill they were engaged by their own artillery and Boer parties, including one led by General Cronje himself, who had been wandering the kopje since 01:00, [38] and were subsequently killed or captured. Others were shot while entangled in the wire fence in front of the trenches. [3] Conan Doyle points out that 700 of the British casualties that day occurred in the first five minutes of the engagement. [39]

An attempt was made to outflank the trenches on the right where a number of Boers were taken prisoner, but this action was soon blocked by the redeployment of Boer elements. [37] After sunrise, the remnants of the four battalions of the Highland Brigade were unable to advance or retreat due to Boer rifle fire. The only movement at that time was a team led by Lt. Lindsay, who managed to bring the Seaforth's Maxim forward to provide a degree of fire support. Later the Lancers were able to bring their Maxim forward and into action as well. [37] Methuen ordered all available artillery to provide fire support the howitzers engaged at 4,000 yards (3,700 m) and the three field batteries at a range of 1 mile (1,600 m). The Horse Artillery advanced to the southern flank in an attempt to enfilade the trenches. [37] With all guns engaged, including the 4.7-inch naval gun commanded by Captain Bearcroft RN, [40] the Highlanders were given some respite from the Boer small-arms fire, and some men were able to withdraw. As with the preliminary barrage of the previous evening, most of the shot was however again directed at the facing slopes of the hills rather than the Boer trenches at their foot. [37]

Reinforcements arrive Edit

As the day progressed, British reinforcements that were originally left to guard the camp near the Modder River started to arrive—first the Gordon Highlanders and later the 1st and 2nd Coldstream Guards. At the same time, Cronjé launched a fresh attack on the British southern (right) flank in an attempt to extend a salient to the left and behind the remaining Highlanders, cutting them off from the main British force. Initially the Seaforths attempted to stem this attack and ran into the Scandinavian Corps, which they quickly neutralised. The Seaforths then had to regroup, which prevented them from further action to halt the Boer attempts to encircle the Highland Brigade. [41] The Grenadier Guards, with five companies of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, were moved to counter the attack. The British only showed some sign of success after the freshly arrived battalions of the Coldstream Guards were committed too. But once the Coldstreams were committed, Methuen had engaged all of his reserves. [37]

The remaining Highlanders, now under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Hughes-Hallet of the Seaforths, [42] had been lying prone under a harsh summer sun for most of the day with the Boers still attempting to encircle them from the south. In the late afternoon, those who remained alive stood up and fled west towards the main body of British troops. This unexpected move left many of the field guns which had been advanced to the front line over the course of the morning exposed to the Boers. Only a lack of initiative on the part of the Boers saved the guns from being captured. The gap created by the hurried withdrawal of the Highland Brigade was filled by the Gordons and the Scots Guards. [43]

Scandinavian volunteers Edit

The Scandinavian Volunteer Corps (Skandinaviska Kåren) was not a true corps but rather a unit the size of a company, consisting of foreign volunteers. [44] [Note 5] Approximately half of the Corps (refer to the Order of battle) was ordered to hold a forward position in the gap between the high ground held by Cronje and De la Rey's forces during the night of 10–11 December. The rest of the force was entrenched in defensive positions some 1,500 metres (1,600 yd) further north-east. In the early morning hours of 11 December, General Cronje ordered Commandant Tolly de Beer to abandon the outpost, but for some reason the order did not reach the Scandinavian section, which was left on its own. [45] Save for seven men, this section was destroyed while valiantly holding back the attack of the Seaforth Highlanders, who were in the process denied access between the hills and prevented from reaching the Boer guns. [46] Cronje understood the significance of this stand, and said in a subsequent letter to Kruger that "next to God we can thank the Scandinavians for our victory". [47]

Final retreat Edit

In the late afternoon, a Boer messenger bearing a white flag arrived at a Scots Guard outpost to say that the British could send ambulances to collect their wounded lying in front of the trenches at the foot of the hills. Royal Army Medical Corps and Boer medical orderlies treated the wounded until the truce was broken by fire from the British naval gun, Captain (RN) Bearcroft not having been informed of the temporary armistice. A British medical orderly was sent to the Boers with apologies, and the truce was reinstated. When the truce was officially over, G Battery RHA, the 62nd Field Battery, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were tasked to screen the reorganisation and withdrawal of some of the British troops. [48]

The Boer guns, which had not yet seen action that day, opened fire on the cavalry at about 17:30 and the center of the British attack began to fall back. [49] [50] Men instinctively withdrew to beyond the range of the Boer guns Methuen decided that a total withdrawal was preferable to his troops spending the night near the Boer trenches. [50] Battalions and remnants of battalions retreated throughout the night and were mustered for roll call at the Modder River camp the next morning. [51]

Tactical dispositions Edit

The Boers halted Methuen's advance to relieve the siege of Kimberley, defeated his superior force and inflicted heavy losses, particularly on the Highland Brigade. The British were forced to withdraw to the Modder River to regroup and to await further reinforcements. [50] Unlike previous occasions, where the Boers withdrew after an engagement, this time Cronje held the Magersfontein defence line, [3] [52] knowing that Methuen would again be forced to continue his advance along his logistical railway "lifeline". [7]

Losses Edit

The British lost 22 officers and 188 other ranks killed, 46 officers and 629 other ranks wounded, and one officer and 62 other ranks missing. [53] Of this, the Highland Brigade suffered losses of 747 men being killed, wounded, and missing. Among the battalions, the Black Watch suffered the most severely, losing 303 officers and other ranks. [53] On 12 December, when British ambulances again went forward to collect the dead and remaining wounded, they found Wauchope's body within 200 yards (180 m) of Cronjé's trenches. [3] The British camp at Modder River, and subsequently at Paardeberg, created ideal conditions for the spread of typhoid fever. By the time the British reached Bloemfontein, an epidemic had broken out amongst the troops, with 10,000–12,000 taken ill, and 1,200 deaths in the city. [54] The disease ultimately took more British lives during the war than were lost through enemy action. [55]

The animosity that the troops on the ground felt towards their leadership is captured in this contemporary poem by a soldier of the Black Watch:

Such was the day for our regiment,
Dread the revenge we will take.
Dearly we paid for the blunder
A drawing-room General's mistake.

Why weren't we told of the trenches?
Why weren't we told of the wire?
Why were we marched up in column,
May Tommy Atkins enquire…

Boer losses are disputed. The official British account of the battle records 87 killed and 188 wounded, [53] while later accounts record a total loss of 236 men. [3] As with the Boers, several different figures regarding the strength of the Scandinavian outpost exist. British sources quote 80 men [42] and Scandinavian sources between 49 and 52 men. Uddgren records 52 men based on identified names, consisting of 26 Swedes, 11 Danes, 7 Finns, 4 Norwegians, and 4 of unknown nationality, of whom all but five were either killed, wounded or captured. [57] [Note 6]

Strategic consequences Edit

The week from 10 to 17 December 1899 rapidly became known to troops in the field—and to politicians in Britain—as "Black Week", during which the British suffered three defeats: the battles of Stormberg in the Cape Midlands and Colenso in Natal, as well as the Battle of Magersfontein. [59] The defeat at Magersfontein [Note 7] caused much consternation in Britain, particularly in Scotland, where the losses to the Highland regiments were keenly felt. Wauchope was well known in Scotland, having stood as a Parliamentary candidate for Midlothian in the general election of 1892. [61]

The reverberations of the Black Week defeats led to the hasty approval of large reinforcements being sent to South Africa, from both Britain and the Dominions. Although Cronje temporarily defeated the British and held up their advance, General Lord Roberts was appointed as overall Commander in Chief in South Africa he took personal command on this front, and at the head of an army reinforced to 25,000 men, he relieved Kimberley on 15 February 1900. Cronje's retreating army was surrounded and forced to surrender at the Battle of Paardeberg on 27 February 1900. [62]

Lord Methuen later salvaged his reputation and career through successes he achieved against George Villebois-Mareuil at the Battle of Boschoff. [63] However, he was the only general captured by the Boers during the war. [64]

Victoria Cross awards Edit

Three Victoria Cross citations were made for the action at Magersfontein: [65]

Further information:

Sources and further reading:

P. Dennis, J. Grey, E. Morris, R. Prior, and J. Connor, The Oxford companion to Australian military history, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1995

Kit Denton, For Queen and Commonwealth: Australians at war, vol. 5, Sydney, Time–Life Books Australia, 1987

L. Field, The forgotten war: Australian involvement in the South African conflict of 1899–1902, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1979

J. Grey, A military history of Australia, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 1990

Craig Wilcox, Australia’s Boer War: the war in South Africa, 1899–1902, Melbourne, Oxford University Press 2002

Black History Timeline: 1890–1899

Like many decades before, the 1890s are filled with great achievements by African Americans as well as many injustices against them. Almost 30 years after the establishment of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, African Americans such as Booker T. Washington establish and head schools. However, Black American men are losing their right to vote through grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and literacy exams.

Daderot / Wikimedia Commons

William Henry Lewis and William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson become the first African American football players on a White college team. Williams was born in 1868 Berkeley, Virginia, to formerly enslaved parents, according to the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame, which explains:

Lewis will play for three seasons at Amherst, serving as team captain in 1891, the NFF notes. After graduating, he will enter Harvard Law School, play for two seasons at that institution, and then go on to serve as an assistant coach at Harvard, leading the team to a 114–15–5 record from 1895 to 1906, including back-to-back national titles in 1898 and 1899, the NFF states.

Provident Hospital, the first Black American-owned hospital, is established by Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who also becomes a pioneer in heart surgery. Jackson State University notes:

In June: Opera soprano Sissieretta Jones becomes the first Black American to perform at Carnegie Hall. Jones will be "heralded as the greatest singer of her generation and a pioneer in the operatic tradition at a time when access to most classical concert halls in the U.S. was closed to black performers and patrons," according to PBS on its noted documentary show, "American Masters," adding that Jones also performs at the White House and overseas.

Ida B. Wells launches her anti-lynching campaign by publishing a pamphlet, "Southern Horrors: Lynch Laws and in All Its Phases." Wells also delivers a speech at Lyric Hall in New York. Wells' work as an anti-lynching activist is highlighted with the high number of lynchings—there are 230 reported—in 1892.  

August 13: A Black American newspaper, The Baltimore Afro-American, is established by John H. Murphy, Sr., a formerly enslaved person.

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams successfully performs an open-heart surgery in Provident Hospital, the first such procedure performed on a human, notes Jackson State University, which further explains:

GraphicaArtis / Getty Images

W.E.B. DuBois is the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

In September: Booker T. Washington delivers the Atlanta Compromise at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition.

The National Baptist Convention of America is established through the merging of three Baptist organizations—the Foreign Mission Baptist Convention, the American National Baptist Convention, and the Baptist National Educational Convention.

The National Medical Association is established in Silver Spring, Maryland, by African American doctors because they are barred from the American Medical Association. Robert F. Boyd is the group's first president and Daniel Hale Williams is its vice president.

May 18: The Supreme Court rules in the Plessy v. Ferguson case that separate but equal laws are not unconstitutional and do not contradict the 13th and 14th Amendments. The decision will stand for more than half a century until the Court overturns it in Brown v. The Board of Education on May 17, 1954.

In July: The National Association of Colored Women is established. Mary Church Terrell is elected as the organization's first president.

George Washington Carver is selected to head the agricultural research department at Tuskegee Institute. Carver's research advances the growth of soybean, peanut, and sweet potato farming.

The American Negro Academy is founded in Washington D.C. The purpose of the organization is to promote African American work in the fine arts, literature, and other areas of study. Prominent members included Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.

The Phillis Wheatley Home is established in Detroit by the Phillis Wheatley Women's Club. The purpose of the home—which quickly spreads to other cities—is to provide shelter and resources for African American women.

Bishop Charles Harrison Mason establishes The Church of God in Christ in Memphis, Tennessee. The church will grow to become the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States with nearly 9 million members, as of February 2021.

The Louisiana Legislature enacts the grandfather clause. Included in the state constitution, the clause allows only men whose fathers or grandfathers were qualified to vote on January 1, 1867, the right to register to vote. African American men have to meet educational and/or property requirements as well.

April 21: When the Spanish-American War begins, 16 African American regiments are recruited. Four of these regiments fight in Cuba and the Philippines with several African American officers commanding troops. As a result, five Black soldiers win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

April 25: Black American voters in Mississippi are disenfranchised through the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Williams v. Mississippi.

August 22: The North Carolina Mutual and Provident Insurance company is established. The National Benefit Life Insurance Company of Washington, D.C., is also founded this year. The purpose of these companies is to provide life insurance to African Americans.

September: The National Afro-American Council is established in Rochester, New York. It is the first national civil rights organization in the U.S. Bishop Alexander Walters is elected the organization's first president.

November 10: Eight African Americans are killed in the Wilmington Riot. During the riot, White Democrats remove—with force—Republican officers of the city.

June 4: This date is named a national day of fasting to protest lynching. The Afro-American Council spearheads this event.

Scott Joplin composes the song "Maple Leaf Rag" and introduces ragtime music to the United States. Joplin also publishes such songs as "The Entertainer"—which will again become popular when the 1973 movie "The Sting" incorporates the song—and "Please Say You Will." He also composes operas such as "Guest of Honor" and "Treemonisha." He is considered one of the greatest composers of the early 20th century, inspiring generations of the greatest jazz musicians.

Golden dreams

Alternatively dubbed the “South African War,” the Second Boer War raged from Oct. 11, 1899, to May 31, 1902. The battle was waged between the British against two Boer countries. With “boer” translating to “farmer,” the historical struggle involved Afrikaans-speaking Caucasian South Africans fighting against their colonizer. The Brits spent a whopping £200 million in their war against the Boers and had almost half a million troops on their side. Although the Boers had less than 90,000 fighters, they definitely had a hometown advantage.

While some historians believe that the war was caused by the Brit’s quest for sovereign rule, others believe that it had more materialistic origins. At the time of the conflict, the South African Republic (SAR) controlled Witwatersrand, the biggest gold mine in the world. Since the English were anxious to fill their coffers with gold, they would’ve benefitted from controlling the SAR’s gold rush. When the Witwatersrand struck gold in 1886, the SAR became Britain’s prime competitor for control of South Africa.

By 1897, British high commissioner Alfred Milner was already trying to insert the British agenda into the Boer countries’ politics. However, the Orange Free State stepped in, hosting the failed Bloemfontein Conference in an effort to keep the peace. At the conference’s end, the SAR’s president Paul Kruger attempted to appeal to the desires of the British officials. Yet, their compromises weren’t enough, and the British Empire sent in more armed soldiers to protect their stronghold in South Africa. Near the end of 1897, the Britsh troops heavily increased their presence in the SAR. Seeing no other option, the Boers decided to strike back. They gave the British the choice to withdraw their armies by October 9, 1899. On October 11, 1899, the Brits had ignored their request, and the Boers were forced to declare war.

Timeline: Key Moments in Black History

By Borgna Brunner and Infoplease Staff

Photograph of newspaper
advertisement from the 1780s

The first African slaves arrive in Virginia.

Lucy Terry, an enslaved person in 1746, becomes the earliest known black American poet when she writes about the last American Indian attack on her village of Deerfield, Massachusetts. Her poem, Bar's Fight, is not published until 1855.

An illustration of Wheatley
from her book

Phillis Wheatley's book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral is published, making her the first African American to do so.

Slavery is made illegal in the Northwest Territory. The U.S Constitution states that Congress may not ban the slave trade until 1808.

Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin greatly increases the demand for slave labor.

Poster advertising $100 reward
for runaway slaves from 1860

A federal fugitive slave law is enacted, providing for the return slaves who had escaped and crossed state lines.

Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved African-American blacksmith, organizes a slave revolt intending to march on Richmond, Virginia. The conspiracy is uncovered, and Prosser and a number of the rebels are hanged. Virginia's slave laws are consequently tightened.

Congress bans the importation of slaves from Africa.

The Missouri Compromise bans slavery north of the southern boundary of Missouri.

Denmark Vesey, an enslaved African-American carpenter who had purchased his freedom, plans a slave revolt with the intent to lay siege on Charleston, South Carolina. The plot is discovered, and Vesey and 34 coconspirators are hanged.

The American Colonization Society, founded by Presbyterian minister Robert Finley, establishes the colony of Monrovia (which would eventually become the country of Liberia) in western Africa. The society contends that the immigration of blacks to Africa is an answer to the problem of slavery as well as to what it feels is the incompatibility of the races. Over the course of the next forty years, about 12,000 slaves are voluntarily relocated.

Nat Turner, an enslaved African-American preacher, leads the most significant slave uprising in American history. He and his band of followers launch a short, bloody, rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. The militia quells the rebellion, and Turner is eventually hanged. As a consequence, Virginia institutes much stricter slave laws.

William Lloyd Garrison begins publishing the Liberator, a weekly paper that advocates the complete abolition of slavery. He becomes one of the most famous figures in the abolitionist movement.

On July 2, 1839, 53 African slaves on board the slave ship the Amistad revolted against their captors, killing all but the ship's navigator, who sailed them to Long Island, N.Y., instead of their intended destination, Africa. Joseph Cinqu was the group's leader. The slaves aboard the ship became unwitting symbols for the antislavery movement in pre-Civil War United States. After several trials in which local and federal courts argued that the slaves were taken as kidnap victims rather than merchandise, the slaves were acquitted. The former slaves aboard the Spanish vessel Amistad secured passage home to Africa with the help of sympathetic missionary societies in 1842.

The Wilmot Proviso, introduced by Democratic representative David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, attempts to ban slavery in territory gained in the Mexican War. The proviso is blocked by Southerners, but continues to enflame the debate over slavery.

Frederick Douglass launches his abolitionist newspaper.

Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery and becomes one of the most effective and celebrated leaders of the Underground Railroad.

The continuing debate whether territory gained in the Mexican War should be open to slavery is decided in the Compromise of 1850: California is admitted as a free state, Utah and New Mexico territories are left to be decided by popular sovereignty, and the slave trade in Washington, DC, is prohibited. It also establishes a much stricter fugitive slave law than the original, passed in 1793.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin is published. It becomes one of the most influential works to stir anti-slavery sentiments.

Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act, establishing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. The legislation repeals the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and renews tensions between anti- and proslavery factions.

The Dred Scott case holds that Congress does not have the right to ban slavery in states and, furthermore, that slaves are not citizens.

John Brown and 21 followers capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. (now W. Va.), in an attempt to launch a slave revolt.

The Confederacy is founded when the deep South secedes, and the Civil War begins.

President Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring "that all persons held as slaves" within the Confederate states "are, and henceforward shall be free."

Congress establishes the Freedmen's Bureau to protect the rights of newly emancipated blacks (March).

The Ku Klux Klan is formed in Tennessee by ex-Confederates (May).

Slavery in the United States is effectively ended when 250,000 slaves in Texas finally receive the news that the Civil War had ended two months earlier (June 19).

Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, prohibiting slavery (Dec. 6).

Black codes are passed by Southern states, drastically restricting the rights of newly freed slaves.

A series of Reconstruction acts are passed, carving the former Confederacy into five military districts and guaranteeing the civil rights of freed slaves.

Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, defining citizenship. Individuals born or naturalized in the United States are American citizens, including those born as slaves. This nullifies the Dred Scott Case (1857), which had ruled that blacks were not citizens.

Howard University's law school becomes the country's first black law school.

Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, giving blacks the right to vote.

Hiram Revels of Mississippi is elected the country's first African-American senator. During Reconstruction, sixteen blacks served in Congress and about 600 served in states legislatures.

Reconstruction ends in the South. Federal attempts to provide some basic civil rights for African Americans quickly erode.

The Black Exodus takes place, in which tens of thousands of African Americans migrated from southern states to Kansas.

Spelman College, the first college for black women in the U.S., is founded by Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles.

Booker T. Washington founds the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. The school becomes one of the leading schools of higher learning for African Americans, and stresses the practical application of knowledge. In 1896, George Washington Carver begins teaching there as director of the department of agricultural research, gaining an international reputation for his agricultural advances.

Plessy v. Ferguson: This landmark Supreme Court decision holds that racial segregation is constitutional, paving the way for the repressive Jim Crow laws in the South.

W.E.B. DuBois founds the Niagara movement, a forerunner to the NAACP. The movement is formed in part as a protest to Booker T. Washington's policy of accommodation to white society the Niagara movement embraces a more radical approach, calling for immediate equality in all areas of American life.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is founded in New York by prominent black and white intellectuals and led by W.E.B. Du Bois. For the next half century, it would serve as the country's most influential African-American civil rights organization, dedicated to political equality and social justice In 1910, its journal, The Crisis, was launched. Among its well known leaders were James Weldon Johnson, Ella Baker, Moorfield Storey, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, Benjamin Hooks, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Julian Bond, and Kwesi Mfume.

Marcus Garvey establishes the Universal Negro Improvement Association, an influential black nationalist organization "to promote the spirit of race pride" and create a sense of worldwide unity among blacks.

The Harlem Renaissance flourishes in the 1920s and 1930s. This literary, artistic, and intellectual movement fosters a new black cultural identity.

Nine black youths are indicted in Scottsboro, Ala., on charges of having raped two white women. Although the evidence was slim, the southern jury sentenced them to death. The Supreme Court overturns their convictions twice each time Alabama retries them, finding them guilty. In a third trial, four of the Scottsboro boys are freed but five are sentenced to long prison terms.

Jackie Robinson breaks Major League Baseball's color barrier when he is signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers by Branch Rickey.

Although African Americans had participated in every major U.S. war, it was not until after World War II that President Harry S. Truman issues an executive order integrating the U.S. armed forces.

Malcolm X becomes a minister of the Nation of Islam. Over the next several years his influence increases until he is one of the two most powerful members of the Black Muslims (the other was its leader, Elijah Muhammad). A black nationalist and separatist movement, the Nation of Islam contends that only blacks can resolve the problems of blacks.

Pictured from left to right:
George E.C. Hayes,
Thurgood Marshall,
and James Nabrit

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kans. declares that racial segregation in schools is unconstitutional (May 17).

A young black boy, Emmett Till, is brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. Two white men charged with the crime are acquitted by an all-white jury. They later boast about committing the murder. The public outrage generated by the case helps spur the civil rights movement (Aug.).

Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat at the front of the "colored section" of a bus to a white passenger (Dec.1). In response to her arrest Montgomery's black community launch a successful year-long bus boycott. Montgomery's buses are desegregated on Dec. 21, 1956.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a civil rights group, is established by Martin Luther King, Charles K. Steele, and Fred L. Shuttlesworth (Jan.-Feb.)

Nine black students are blocked from entering the school on the orders of Governor Orval Faubus. (Sept. 24). Federal troops and the National Guard are called to intervene on behalf of the students, who become known as the "Little Rock Nine." Despite a year of violent threats, several of the "Little Rock Nine" manage to graduate from Central High.

Four black students in Greensboro, North Carolina, begin a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth's lunch counter (Feb. 1). Six months later the "Greensboro Four" are served lunch at the same Woolworth's counter. The event triggers many similar nonviolent protests throughout the South.

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) is founded, providing young blacks with a place in the civil rights movement (April).

Over the spring and summer, student volunteers begin taking bus trips through the South to test out new laws that prohibit segregation in interstate travel facilities, which includes bus and railway stations. Several of the groups of "freedom riders," as they are called, are attacked by angry mobs along the way. The program, sponsored by The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), involves more than 1,000 volunteers, black and white.

James Meredith becomes the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi (Oct. 1). President Kennedy sends 5,000 federal troops after rioting breaks out.

Martin Luther King is arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Ala. He writes "Letter from Birmingham Jail," which advocated nonviolent civil disobedience.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is attended by about 250,000 people, the largest demonstration ever seen in the nation's capital. Martin Luther King delivers his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. The march builds momentum for civil rights legislation (Aug. 28).

Despite Governor George Wallace physically blocking their way, Vivian Malone and James Hood register for classes at the University of Alabama.

Four young black girls attending Sunday school are killed when a bomb explodes at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a popular location for civil rights meetings. Riots erupt in Birmingham, leading to the deaths of two more black youths (Sept. 15).

FBI photographs of Goodman,
Chaney, and Schwerner

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act, the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. It prohibits discrimination of all kinds based on race, color, religion, or national origin (July 2).

The bodies of three civil-rights workers (Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Schwerner) are found. Murdered by the KKK, James E. Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been working to register black voters in Mississippi (Aug.).

Martin Luther King receives the Nobel Peace Prize. (Oct.)

Sidney Poitier wins the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Lilies of the Field. He is the first African American to win the award.

Malcolm X, black nationalist and founder of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, is assassinated (Feb. 21).

State troopers violently attack peaceful demonstrators led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., as they try to cross the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Fifty marchers are hospitalized on "Bloody Sunday," after police use tear gas, whips, and clubs against them. The march is considered the catalyst for pushing through the voting rights act five months later (March 7).

Congress passes the Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for Southern blacks to register to vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and other such requirements that were used to restrict black voting are made illegal (Aug. 10).

In six days of rioting in Watts, a black section of Los Angeles, 35 people are killed and 883 injured (Aug. 11-16).

Bobby Seale
and Huey Newton

Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), coins the phrase "black power" in a speech in Seattle (April 19).

Major race riots take place in Newark (July 12-16) and Detroit (July 23-30).

President Johnson appoints Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. He becomes the first black Supreme Court Justice.

The Supreme Court rules in Loving v. Virginia that prohibiting interracial marriage is unconstitutional. Sixteen states still have anti-miscegenation laws and are forced to revise them.

Eyewitnesses to the
assassination of
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. (April 4).

President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibiting discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing (April 11).

Shirley Chisholm becomes the first black female U.S. Representative. A Democrat from New York, she was elected in November and served from 1969 to 1983.

The infamous Tuskegee Syphilis experiment ends. Begun in 1932, the U.S. Public Health Service's 40-year experiment on 399 black men in the late stages of syphilis has been described as an experiment that "used human beings as laboratory animals in a long and inefficient study of how long it takes syphilis to kill someone."

The Supreme Court case, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action, but imposed limitations on it to ensure that providing greater opportunities for minorities did not come at the expense of the rights of the majority (June 28).

Guion Bluford Jr. was the first African-American in space. He took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the space shuttle Challenger on August 30.

The first race riots in decades erupt in south-central Los Angeles after a jury acquits four white police officers for the videotaped beating of African-American Rodney King (April 29).

Colin Powell becomes the first African American U.S. Secretary of State.

Halle Berry becomes the first African American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar. She takes home the statue for her role in Monster's Ball. Denzel Washington, the star of Training Day, earns the Best Actor award, making it the first year that African-Americans win both the best actor and actress Oscars.

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the most important affirmative action decision since the 1978 Bakke case, the Supreme Court (5?4) upholds the University of Michigan Law School's policy, ruling that race can be one of many factors considered by colleges when selecting their students because it furthers "a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body." (June 23)

Condoleezza Rice becomes the first black female U.S. Secretary of State.

In Parents v. Seattle and Meredith v. Jefferson, affirmative action suffers a setback when a bitterly divided court rules, 5 to 4, that programs in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., which tried to maintain diversity in schools by considering race when assigning students to schools, are unconstitutional.

Sen. Barack Obama, Democrat from Chicago, becomes the first African American to be nominated as a major party nominee for president.

On November 4, Barack Obama, becomes the first African American to be elected president of the United States, defeating Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain.

Barack Obama Democrat from Chicago, becomes the first African-American president and the country's 44th president.

On February 2, the U.S. Senate confirms, with a vote of 75 to 21, Eric H. Holder, Jr., as Attorney General of the United States. Holder is the first African American to serve as Attorney General.

On Aug. 9, Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., by Darren Wilson. On Nov. 24, the grand jury decision not to indict Wilson was announced, sparking protests in Ferguson and cities across the U.S., including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and Boston.

The protests continued to spread throughout the country after a Staten Island grand jury decided in December not to indict Daniel Pantaleo, the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner. Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by Pantaleo in July.

The 114th Congress includes 46 black members in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate.

Michael Bruce Curry becomes the first African-American Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Simone Biles became the first African-American and woman to bring home four Olympic gold medals in women?s gymnastics at a single game (as well as a bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Also, in Rio, Simone Manuel was the first African-American woman to win an individual event in Olympic swimming.

Carla Hayden was confirmed as the first female African-American head of the Library of Congress.

The road to war

Even before the discovery of gold, the South African interior was an arena of tension and competition. Germany annexed South West Africa in 1884. The Transvaal claimed territory to its west Britain countered by designating the territory the Bechuanaland protectorate and then annexed it as the crown colony of British Bechuanaland. Rhodes secured concessionary rights to land north of the Limpopo River, founded the British South Africa Company, and in 1890 dispatched a pioneer column to occupy what became known as Rhodesia.

While these forces jostled for position in the region at large, the domestic politics of the Transvaal became unsettled. Paul Kruger’s government made strenuous efforts to accommodate the mining industry, but it was soon at loggerheads with Britain, the mine magnates, and the British and other non-Afrikaner Uitlander (“Outlander”) immigrants. British policy makers expressed concern about the Transvaal’s potential as an independent actor, and deep-level-mine owners chafed at mine bosses’ corruption and inefficiency. The grievances of the Uitlanders, largely excluded from the vote, provided both cause and cover for a conspiracy between British officials and mining capitalists. An Uitlander uprising in Johannesburg was to be supported by an armed invasion from Bechuanaland, headed by Leander Starr Jameson, Rhodes’s lieutenant, who would intervene to “restore order.”

The plot was botched. The Uitlander rising did not take place, but Jameson went ahead with his incursion in December 1895, and within days he and his force had been rounded up. While Rhodes had to resign as prime minister of the Cape, British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain managed to conceal his complicity. The Jameson Raid polarized Anglo-Boer sentiment in South Africa, simultaneously exacerbating republican suspicions, Uitlander agitation, and imperial anxieties.

In February 1898 Kruger was elected to a fourth term as president of the Transvaal. He entered a series of negotiations with Sir Alfred Milner (who became high commissioner and governor of the Cape in 1897) over the issue of the Uitlander franchise. Milner declared in private early in 1898 that “war has got to come” and adopted intransigent positions. The Cape government, headed by William P. Schreiner, attempted to mediate, as did Marthinus Steyn, the president of Free State, even while he attached his cause to Kruger’s. In September 1899 the two Boer republics gave an ultimatum to Britain, and, when it expired on October 11, Boer forces invaded Natal.

By the end of March, Virginia, Maryland and Mississippi have also voted against ratification. But Nevada, New Jersey, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Washington ratify, bringing the total to 35 states—one short of the goal needed for the amendment to become law.

Delaware’s vote to reject ratification shocks suffragists, and deals a serious blow to their momentum. Suddenly, the fate of the suffrage amendment appears in doubt. Anti-suffrage sentiment runs high in most of the states left to vote: State legislatures in Connecticut, Vermont, Florida decline to consider the amendment, leaving only North Carolina and Tennessee, with North Carolina sure to reject.

Battle [ edit | edit source ]

As dawn broke, the British at last came in sight of the Kissieberg. A small Boer picket with one 75mm Krupp gun under Sergeant Hendrik Muller of the Free State Artillery Corps, opened fire. Although Gatacre's force had merely to march around the hill to force the Boers to retreat, about half the infantry rushed forward without orders to storm it. They found that the hill was a typical kopje, ringed by a vertical rock face, which most of them were unable to climb. A few soldiers scrambled to the top, only to be swept off by the British guns which came into action with the rising sun in the gunners' eyes. Β]

The commanding officer of the Northumberland Fusiliers took it on himself to order a retreat, and most of Gatacre's force began to fall back in disorder. Gatacre gave the order to retreat to Molteno. Mounted Boer reinforcements appeared and attacked from both sides. The retreat of the exhausted British infantry was covered by the mounted infantry and the artillery, although two 15-pounder guns were lost. Not until they reached Molteno did Gatacre realise that over 600 men had been left behind on the Kissieberg. Hopelessly cut off, they were forced to surrender.

Battle of Stormberg

63. Podcast on the Battle of Stormberg: General Gatacre’s disastrous defeat in Northern Cape Colony, fought on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War the first battle of ‘Black Week’: John Mackenzie’s britishbattles.com podcasts

The previous battle in the Boer War is the Battle of Modder River

The next battle in the Boer War is the Battle of Magersfontein

Lieutenant General Sir William Gatacre the British commander at the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

War: The Boer War

Date: 9th and 10th December 1899

Place: Stormberg Valley in the Eastern Cape Colony, South Africa.

Combatants : British against the Boers

Generals: Lieutenant General Sir William Gatacre against General Olivier.

Size of the armies: 2,600 British against 1,700 Boers.

Arms and equipment: The Boer War was a serious jolt for the British Army. At the outbreak of the war British tactics were appropriate for the use of single shot firearms, fired in volleys controlled by company and battalion officers the troops fighting in close order. The need for tight formations had been emphasised time and again in colonial fighting. In the Zulu and Sudan Wars overwhelming enemy numbers armed principally with stabbing weapons were kept at a distance by such tactics, but, as at Isandlwana, would overrun a loosely formed force. These tactics had to be entirely rethought in battle against the Boers armed with modern weapons.

In the months before hostilities the Boer commandant general, General Joubert, bought 30,000 Mauser magazine rifles, firing smokeless ammunition, and a number of modern field guns and automatic weapons from the German armaments manufacturer Krupp, the French firm Creusot and the British company Maxim. Unfortunately for the Boers they chose to buy high explosive ammunition for their new field guns. The war was to show that high explosive was largely ineffective in the field, unless rounds landed on rocky terrain and splintered the rock. The British artillery relied upon air-bursting shrapnel which was highly effective against infantry in open country.

There were many reports of Boer ammunition failing to explode. It seems likely that this will have been due to a lack of training for the Boer gunners in the use of shells which needed to be fused before firing.

Boer Wapenschouwing or shooting competition before the South African War: Battle of Stormberg 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Once the war was under way the arms markets of Europe were closed to the Boers, due to the British naval blockade, and the error in ammunition selection could not be remedied.

The Boer commandoes, without formal discipline, welded into a fighting force through a strong sense of community and dislike for the British. Field Cornets led burghers by personal influence not through any military code. The Boers did not adopt military formation in battle, instinctively fighting from whatever cover there might be. Most Boers were countrymen, running their farms from the back of a pony with a rifle in one hand. These rural Boers brought a life time of marksmanship to the war, an important advantage further exploited by Joubert’s consignment of smokeless magazine rifles. Viljoen is said to have coined the aphorism “Through God and the Mauser”. With strong field craft skills and high mobility the Boers were natural mounted infantry. The urban burghers and foreign volunteers readily adopted the fighting methods of the rest of the army.

Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police units, the Boers wore their every day civilian clothes on campaign.

After the first month the Boers lost their numerical superiority, spending the rest of the formal war on the strategic defensive against British forces that outnumbered them, although operating with aggression when led by the younger generation of leaders like De Wet.

British tactics, developed on the North-West Frontier of India, Zululand, the Sudan and in other colonial wars against badly armed tribesmen, when used at Modder River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop were inappropriate against entrenched troops armed with modern magazine rifles. Every British commander made the same mistake Buller, Methuen, Roberts and Kitchener (Elandslaagte was a notable exception where Hamilton specifically directed his infantry to keep an open formation). When General Kelly-Kenny attempted to winkle Cronje’s commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments at Paardeburg using his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted on a battle of infantry assaults, with the same expensive consequences as earlier in the war.

Boer laager or encampment during the South African or Boer War: Battle of Stormberg 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

The British Army was not the only European Army to fail to appreciate the effect of long range magazine fed rifle fire. The Germans and the French in the opening months of the First World War made massed infantry attacks in the face of such fire, suffering enormous casualties, as did the Russians and Austro-Hungarians.

Some of the most successful British and Empire troops in the South African War were the non-regular regiments the Imperial Light Horse, City Imperial Volunteers, the South Africans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who more easily broke from the habit of earlier British colonial warfare, using their horses for rapid movement rather than the charge, advancing by fire and manoeuvre in loose formations and making use of cover, rather than the formal advance into a storm of Mauser bullets.

War Aims of the Boers in the South African War:

Having started the hostilities the Boers found themselves without an achievable war aim. The only strategy that might have had a chance of success would have been to invade and occupy the whole of Cape Colony, Natal and the other neighbouring British colonies. The two Boer republics did not have the resources to carry out such an extensive operation. In any case they could not have prevented a British sea landing to retake these areas.

Boers crossing the bridge over the Orange River at Aliwal North before advancing south to Stormberg before the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Once war was declared the Boers invaded and occupied Natal as far as the Tugela River, but with Ladysmith holding out in their rear. The Orange Free State government was not prepared to allow its forces to advance further south in Natal. In Cape Colony some of the citizens of Boer origins joined their brothers from the two Republics but most did not.

The only other offensive operations the Boers carried out were to besiege Mafeking in the north and Kimberley further south on the Cape Colony border. Both sieges were unsuccessful. A limited incursion was carried out into the central area of Cape Colony up to the area around Stormberg, leading to Gatacre’s disastrous counter-attack.

Conan Doyle, who served as a doctor in South Africa during the war, reports that the Boers missed an opportunity at the beginning of the war to invade Cape Colony and capture the substantial quantity of stores built up at places like De Aar.

A major difficulty for the Boer armies was that although competent in defence, digging field fortifications and using their magazine rifles to great effect to defend them, the Boers lacked an effective tactical offensive capability. The absence of formal military discipline made it difficult for the Boer commanders to devise strategies they could rely on their troops to carry through. As the British built up their armies and began to advance defeat for the Boers became inevitable.

Stormberg Pass near to the scene of the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War: picture by H.C. Seppings Wright

The Boer armies suffered from a wide variation in competence and commitment. The general belief was that the Transvaalers were more resilient and determined fighters than the Free Staters. The younger Boer commanders tended to be more resourceful and aggressive and felt handicapped by the older more senior commanders.

The British regiments made an uncertain change into khaki uniforms in the years preceding the Boer War, with the topee helmet as tropical headgear. Highland regiments in Natal devised aprons to conceal coloured kilts and sporrans. By the end of the war the uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab tunic and trousers. The danger of shiny buttons and too ostentatious emblems of rank was emphasised in several engagements with disproportionately high officer casualties. Officers quickly took to carrying rifles like their men and abandoned swords and other obvious emblems of rank.

The British infantry was armed with the Lee Metford magazine rifle firing 10 rounds, but no training regime had been established to take advantage of the accuracy and speed of fire of the weapon. Personal skills such as scouting and field craft were little taught. The idea of fire and movement on the battlefield was largely unknown, many regiments still going into action in close order. Notoriously General Hart insisted that his Irish Brigade fight shoulder to shoulder as if on parade in Aldershot. Short of regular troops, Britain engaged volunteer forces from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who brought new ideas and more imaginative formations to the battlefield.

The war was littered with incidents in which British contingents became lost or were ambushed often unnecessarily and forced to surrender. The war was followed by a complete re-organisation of the British Army, with emphasis placed on personal weapon skills and fire and movement using cover.

Northumberland Fusiliers in 1901. The Sergeant is wearing the Queen’s South Africa Medal and the King’s South Africa Medal: Battle of Stormberg 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

The British artillery was a powerful force in the field, underused by commanders with little training in the use of modern guns in battle. Pakenham cites Pieters as being the battle at which a British commander, surprisingly Buller, developed a modern form of battlefield tactics: heavy artillery bombardments co-ordinated to permit the infantry to advance under their protection. It was the only occasion that Buller showed any real generalship and the short inspiration quickly died.

The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15 pounder rifled breach loading guns, the Royal Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the Royal Garrison Artillery batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal Navy provided heavy field artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible and the iconic long 12 pounders, seen in the Royal Navy gun competitions at the Royal Tournament.

Maxim automatic weapons were used by the British, often mounted on special carriages, accompanying the mounted infantry, cavalry and infantry battalions, one on issue to each unit.

Winner of the Battle of Stormberg: The Boers

British Regiments at the Battle of Stormberg:

Royal Field Artillery: 74th and 77th Batteries

33rd Company (part) Royal Engineers:

2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers

1st Royal Berkshire Regiment, later the Duke of Edinburgh’s Royal Regiment, then the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment and now part of the Rifles

2nd Royal Irish Rifles, later the Royal Ulster Rifles and now the Royal Irish Regiment

Officers of 77th Field Battery Royal Field Artillery, one of Gatacre’s batteries at the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War, standing by one of the battery’s 15 pounder field guns

The two Boer Republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, began the war against Great Britain on 14th October 1899. Their principal operation was to invade Natal. They also began sieges of Mafeking and Kimberley, both important towns along the western borders of the two Boer republics, and the Boers in the Orange Free State invaded across the Orange River into Cape Colony.

The Government in Great Britain sent an Army Corps to South Africa under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Redvers Buller.

The three battles in Natal, Talana Hill on 20th October, Elandslaagte on 21st October and Ladysmith on 30th October 1899 saw the British force in Northern Natal under Lieutenant General Sir George White penned up in Ladysmith and put under siege by the Boers.

Buller arrived in South Africa and prepared his strategy for the war. Lieutenant General Lord Methuen would command the force, comprising the 1st Division, with the task of marching up the railway running north along the western border of the Boer Republics to relieve Kimberley. Lieutenant General Gatacre would conduct a holding operation in the Eastern Cape Colony, while General French carried out the same role in Western Cape Colony.

Sir George White, the British commander-in-chief in Natal, was under siege in Ladysmith so a general fell to be appointed to command the relief force in Natal. Buller took this role on himself, leaving the overall strategy of the war with no direct guiding hand.

Boers in position on a mountain as at the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War: picture by F.J. Waugh

Buller expected it would take him two weeks to relieve the Ladysmith garrison, after which he would return to Cape Colony. Buller was to spend the rest of the active war crossing the Tugela River and breaking the siege of Ladysmith.

In early 1900 the British government sent a strong command team of Lord Roberts and General Kitchener to take over the offensive in the Orange Free State from Cape Colony. In the meantime Lord Methuen was left to command the only advance on the Boer Republics, while General Gatacre was left to deal with the Boer incursion in the Eastern Cape.

Lieutenant General Sir William Gatacre:

In 1899 Major General (local Lieutenant General) Sir William Gatacre was one of the British Army’s rising stars. The Battle of Stormberg ruthlessly eclipsed this star.

Gatacre was commissioned into the 77th Regiment (later 2nd Middlesex Regiment) in 1862 and went to India with his regiment. He was promoted major in 1881 and lieutenant colonel commanding an infantry battalion in1884.

Gatacre took part in the operations in Upper Burma in1887/8, was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the DSO. He then occupied a number of appointments in India.

In 1886/7 Gatacre had charge of the plague relief in Bombay, for which he was decorated. Gatacre showed his intellectual abilities by producing a substantial report, used in subsequent plague operations.

In 1888 Gatacre held a staff appointment in the Hazara Expedition on the North-West Frontier of India.

In 1895 Gatacre commanded the 3rd Brigade in the Chitral Relief Force on the North-West Frontier. Increasingly concerned as to the fate of the besieged Anglo-Indian garrison in Chitral Fort, Sir Robert Low, commanding the relief column, sent Gatacre on with a small force, confident that Gatacre would push forward with an energy not to be expected from other senior officers. Gatacre did not disappoint, forging across the mountains and re-building collapsed roads where necessary. Gatacre thereby confirmed his reputation as a senior officer of resource, determination and unrivalled energy.

In 1896 Gatacre returned to Britain to command a brigade at Aldershot.

When Kitchener led the British operation to recover the Sudan for the Egyptian Khedive in 1897, Gatacre was given command of the British Brigade, leading it at the Battle of Atbara, spectacularly cutting through the Dervish thorn wall at the head of his troops, and then the British Division in 1899, leading it at the Battle of Omdurman.

Omdurman was one of the landmark battles of British military history. Presence at Omdurman opened doors in the British military hierarchy and few did better than Gatacre, who was knighted, KCB, and promoted major general.

General Gatacre on the road to Chitral during the operations to relieve the Anglo-Indian garrison on the North-West Frontier of India in 1895: Battle of Stormberg 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Winston Churchill encountered Gatacre in the Sudan and knew of his reputation in India and South Africa. Churchill wrote of Gatacre in ‘River War’, his account of Kitchener’s reconquest of the Sudan in 1897/9 published in the same year before the South African War began: ‘The officer selected for the command of the British brigade [in the Sudan in 1897] was a man of high character and ability. General Gatacre had already led a brigade in the Chitral expedition, and, serving under Sir Robert Low and Sir Bindon Blood had gained so good a reputation that after the storming of the Malakand Pass and the subsequent action in the plain of Khar it was thought desirable to transpose his brigade with that of General Kinloch, and send Gatacre forward to Chitral. From the mountains of the North-West Frontier the general was ordered to Bombay, and in a stubborn struggle with the bubonic plague, which was then at its height, he turned his attention from camps of war to camps of segregation. He left India, leaving behind him golden opinions, just before the outbreak of the great Frontier rising, and was appointed to a brigade at Aldershot. Thence we now find him hurried to the Soudan—a spare, middle-sized man, of great physical strength and energy, of marked capacity and unquestioned courage, but disturbed by a restless irritation, to which even the most inordinate activity afforded little relief, and which often left him the exhausted victim of his own vitality.’

Gurkhas crossing the Lowrai Pass during General Gatacre’s dash to relieve the garrison of Chitral Fort on the North-West Frontier of India in 1895: Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Writing after Gatacre’s dismissal from command in his book on the South African War ‘London to Ladysmith via Pretoria’ published in 1900 Winston Churchill described Gatacre as ‘brave and capable’.

Sir George Robertson of the Indian Medical Service, the commander of the besieged Chitral Fort garrison, wrote of Gatacre in his book ‘Chitral The Story of a Minor Siege’: “He [Gatacre] is a man whose exploits, based on an almost superhuman energy and power of endurance, may someday become fabulous. After making a record, he sets himself to break it as a point of honour…” Robertson wrote with considerable gratitude for Gatacre’s efforts to relieve the garrison, thrusting over the mountains in the most distant reaches of British India with a small force and limited supplies amongst hostile tribes.

General Gatacre giving the signal to cease firing at the end of the Battle of Omdurman in 1898: Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Gatacre described with some pride attending the Governor-General’s Ball in India in the 1880s, leaving at one am and riding two hundred miles on relays of horses arranged in advance to ensure he was at his desk at the usual time that morning.

In reference to the South African War Churchill makes the comment that Gatacre had to learn the lesson of fighting against Europeans armed with magazine fed rifles in common with British officers of all ranks.

William Forbes Gatacre as a colonel in India in 1888: Battle of Stormberg 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Gatacre’s driving passions were to ensure that he and his soldiers were fit for battle and to get at the enemy.

Account of the Battle of Stormberg:

General Buller arrived in South Africa at Cape Town in early November 1899 with the 1st Army Corps, the British army hurriedly assembled to fight the Boers, in which General Sir William Gatacre commanded the 3rd Division, comprising eight infantry battalions with supporting arms.

Buller’s immediate priorities were to stem the invasion of Natal and to relieve Kimberley to prevent the diamond resource falling into Boer hands.

In the Eastern Cape a Boer force commanded by General Olivier was advancing south down the East London railway towards Stormberg and further east towards Dordrecht.

Buller took the lion’s share of the Army Corps to Natal, leaving Methuen with a force to march up the western railway to relieve Kimberley, while Gatacre was given the unenviable task of stemming the central Boer invasion of Cape Colony with the smallest possible force.

General Gatacre’s camp at Queenstown prior to the operation leading to the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

General Gatacre arrived at Queenstown on the south to north railway line from East London on the southern coast to Aliwal North on the Orange Free State border on 18th November 1899. Instead of the eight infantry battalions of the 3rd Division with supporting artillery and other arms, Gatacre was accompanied by one battalion, the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles. He found he had in addition those units of the local garrison, part of 1st Berkshire Regiment, a detachment of Royal Garrison Artillery, a half company of Royal Engineers, 230 men of the Frontier Mounted Rifles and 285 men of the Queenstown Rifle Volunteers, the local defence unit. The Frontier Mounted Rifles possessed five mountain guns and maxim machine guns.

Battle of Stormberg on 9th and 10th December 1899 in the Boer War: map by John Fawkes

From his arrival at Queenstown Gatacre worked to raise local units and bring his troops to a good level of fitness and training. At the same time he conducted extensive reconnaissance of the ground leading to the Boer positions.

By the time Gatacre reached Queenstown the Boer invasion of Central Cape Colony had reached the railway junction of Stormberg and the town of Dordrecht to the east. Churchill described the area: ‘Stormberg Junction stands at the southern end of a wide expanse of rolling grass country, and though the numerous rocky hills, or kopjes as they are called, which rise inconveniently on all sides, make its defence by a small force difficult, a large force occupying an extended position would be secure.’

Churchill arrived at Stormberg on his way from De Aar to East London in November 1899. He found the half battalion of 1st Royal Berks and sailors from the Royal Navy about to leave the town after erecting extensive fortifications.

The abandonment of Stormberg by the British was probably unnecessary. The Boers’ inability to take any of the three towns they besieged during the war, Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking, suggests that even if they had attacked Stormberg it is unlikely they would have taken it. Stormberg was a key position being the eastern junction of the main west-east railway line joining the two south-north lines in Cape Colony.

Map of the Eastern Cape and the area of operations leading to the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Gatacre’s instructions from Buller were vague. He was made responsible for the East London to Aliwal North Railway line and the adjoining country up to the Orange River. Already the Boers held one hundred miles of the line south from the Orange River. Gatacre was to hold Queenstown, if possible, and East London at any rate. Gatacre described his one regiment, 1st Royal Irish Rifles, as having seen no active service since its formation in 1881.

Gatacre’s instructions required him to raise Volunteer corps from those parts of the population that were actively loyal to the British Crown.

During November 1899 Gatacre received telegraphic instructions from Buller in Natal or from General Forestier-Walker, the commander in Cape Town. These various instructions were hard to reconcile. Buller on the one hand instructed Gatacre to take no risks and wait for the substantial re-enforcements that were on their way from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and on the other hand suggested that with even the small force available to him Gatacre should be able to defeat the Boer force holding Stormberg.

On the ground Gatacre found that the loyal British population was fearful of the Boer incursion and vociferously looked to the British force to take positive steps to defend them, while the strong pro-Boer elements in the community appeared to be on the verge of joining the invaders unless deterred by vigorous action to expel the Boers. Everything in Gatacre’s character urged him to take aggressive steps against the Boers at Stormberg.

Boer burghers in the field during the South African War: Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

On 21st November 1899 Gatacre received a telegram from Buller saying: ” I calculate it will be at least five days and probably a week before I have a second battalion to send you, or a battery of field artillery, but I am anxious to get into a position to protect the Indwe mines better than we do [Indwe with its important coal mines lay beyond Dordrecht some fifty miles along the railway spur running east from Sterkstroom]. Do you think it would be safe for you to advance your force or part of it to Stormberg, and hold that instead of Queenstown? I am told it is a good position for a force the size of yours. Of course you will have no support.”

For Gatacre this will have been little short of an order to re-take Stormberg once he received any reinforcement. For the moment he had no transport or medical services or even horses for his mounted infantry. For any movement Gatacre’s troops would have to march, carrying their stores and ammunition, or use the railway line. In the meantime Gatacre continued to reconnoitre the countryside in preparation for his attack.

On 29th November 1899 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers arrived under Gatacre’s command [2nd Northumberland Fusiliers appeared to be a unit of little if any military experience. Only the colonel in the 1988 photograph of the battalion officers wears any campaign ribbons. The regiment’s 1st Battalion had served in India until the late 1880s]. Parties of Boers were raiding the countryside and there was intense pressure from the loyal sections of the population on Gatacre to act.

As soon as the Northumberland Fusiliers arrived, Gatacre moved his force twenty-five miles up the railway line from Queenstown to Putters Kraal, with outposts further up the line at Sterkstroom and in the countryside at Bushman’s Hoek and Stenhoek.

Officers of 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, one of General Gatacre’s two infantry battalions at the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

The distances were: Queenstown to Putter’s Kraal-25 miles, Putter’s Kraal to Sterkstroom-3 miles, Sterkstroom to Molteno-16 miles and Molteno to Stormberg-10 miles. At Sterkstroom a branch railway line headed east to Dordrecht and on to Indwe.

Gatacre received information that the Boers were destroying the railway line from Stormberg west towards the main Port Elizabeth to Colesberg line, the other south-north line running up through Cape Colony, held by General French with such units of his Cavalry Division as were not in Natal.

On 29th November 1899 Gatacre took several trains up to Molteno and brought out 7,000 bags of grain left in store by the retreating British earlier in the month.

On 2nd December Gatacre reported to Buller that the Boers were advancing south and had occupied Dordrecht in addition to Stormberg. Gatacre described his forces as occupying the Bushman’s Hoek range to prevent a Boer advance into Queenstown, which Gatacre feared would precipitate a general rebellion of the non-British population.

Buller telegraphed back: “….You have a force which altogether is considerably stronger than the enemy can now bring against you. Cannot you close with him, or else occupy a defensible position which will obstruct his advance? You have an absolutely free hand to do what you think best.”

The next day Gatacre received a telegram from General Forestier-Walker the overall commander in Cape Colony saying: ” General Buller inquires whether you can safely leave your present position and advance to Henning’s Station, or somewhere near where you can get a safe position, and also institute a policy of worry. He thinks if you could occupy Henning’s Station Boers would fall back on Burghersdorp, or if you could get near enough to Burghersdorp to make night attack, it would be the thing to stop anxiety. He adds Hildyard with a battalion and half sent a column of seven thousand Boers under Joubert himself flying. The above was probably wired before Buller read notification of the enemy’s occupation of Dordrecht. He wired last night as follows: tell Gatacre he will have to take care of himself till 5th Division arrives. A telegram just received says he has given you a free hand.”

These instructions/suggestions were unrealistic. Burghersdorp was a hundred miles up the railway north of Stormberg, the present high-water mark of the Boer advance, and Henning ten miles along the westward line out of Stormberg, a place Gatacre could only reach by train passing through Stormberg or by a flank march across mountainous country.

Non-commissioned officers of 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, one of General Gatacre’s two infantry battalions at the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

The reference to Hildyard’s action against Joubert was a clear indication that Gatacre’s seniors considered he had more than enough force to defeat the Boers he faced. On the other hand Gatacre was constantly reminded that he had a free hand. It was to be his decision when and where to attack but woe betide him if he did not do so.

Gatacre’s troops were inexperienced and newly arrived in an arid mountainous country after a long sea voyage. His lack of transport and the inhospitable terrain forced Gatacre to operate on or near the railway line and he could take no action or make any preparations for action without it being quickly brought to the attention of the invading Boers by their numerous sympathisers among the Cape Colony inhabitants, the ‘Cape Dutch’.

In the first weeks of December 1899 Gatacre received reinforcements1st Royal Scots, 74th and 77th Field Batteries Royal Field Artillery, a company of Army Service Corps and a Field Hospital. All these units were newly arrived from Britain, out of condition and unacclimatised.

But with the additional units Gatacre decided that he must attack the Boers at Stormberg before his position became untenable in the light of the constant Boer raids and the increasing defiance of the disloyal sections of the community.

1st Royal Scots would remain in camp providing guards for the railway line. The field batteries would accompany the attacking force, although they had arrived from Britain without horses and were using tram horses commandeered in South Africa with little time to train them to artillery work.

A further handicap was that there were no maps of a sufficient scale to assist Gatacre in his operations [the only map was 12 ½ miles to the inch and considered to be inaccurate]. He therefore spent the first week of December in patrols of the area around Stormberg, preparing his own sketches of the countryside. In this activity Gatacre was forced to dodge the parties of raiding Boers, having no adequate mounted force to escort him. Gatacre also questioned local inhabitants widely to obtain information on the geography of the area. Much of this information was inexact and contradictory, particularly on distance and heights.

Railway line leading into Stormberg, scene of the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Gatacre conducted an extensive enquiry to find members of his force with sufficient local knowledge to act as guides for the approach march to Stormberg. He decided on five members of the Cape Mounted Police led by Sergeant Morgan.

Gatacre’s plan was to move the attacking force up to Molteno by train. From Molteno to make a night approach march up the main road that followed the railway line and attack the Boer laager or encampment on the Stormberg Nek before dawn.

Gatacre’s force concentrated at Molteno in the afternoon of 9th December 1899. The troops came up from Putters Kraal in a series of trains along the single track. Two companies of Royal Irish Rifles joined the trains from the outlying posts at Bushman’s Hoek, a post half way to Molteno a mile to the west of the railway line. 235 of the Cape Mounted Rifles, with five mountain guns and two maxims, from the post at Penhoek some ten miles east on the line to Dordrecht, were intended to join the force at Sterkstroom, but the telegraph operator omitted to send the order summoning them and they failed to appear (query whether this was inefficiency or deliberate sabotage). It is hard to see such an omission being overlooked if Gatacre had been served by a sufficient trained staff.

Two companies of 2nd Royal Irish Rifles marching from Bushman’s Hoek to join the train before the Battle of Stormberg on 9th December 1899 in the Boer War

There could be no possibility of concealing the movement of the British force from the Boers at Stormberg, involving as it did the concentration of two and a half thousand soldiers at the various stations and the movement of several trains, with the troops in open trucks accompanied by the twelve guns of the two field batteries, over a distance of some twenty miles through country peopled by Boer sympathisers and probably with Boer patrols on the neighbouring mountains.

Gatacre is criticised because his two infantry battalions came straight from arduous training and working programs to the operation without the opportunity to rest and were held in the open sun for some hours by delays on the railway. Gatacre acknowledged that there was substance in this criticism. This criticism can be dismissed as a minor objection against the background of lack of resources and time available.

British troops on a train near Stormberg scene of the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Gatacre assembled at Molteno 74th and 77th Field Batteries Royal Field Artillery, half of 33rd Company Royal Engineers, 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, 2nd Royal Irish Rifles and a detachment of dismounted Mounted Infantry, 2,600 men in all, with 12 guns.

Officers of 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, one of General Gatacre’s two infantry battalions at the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Once at Molteno Gatacre received a report that the Boers had entrenched the pass between the Kissieberg and Rooi Kop which carried the railway and the road into Stormberg. Gatacre was assured by his informant that the Boer laager was on the Kissieberg and that this could be climbed on the western side. The guides assured Gatacre that this approach would involve an additional two miles of march and that they knew the way, which would be along the road to Steynsberg with a turning to the right that would take the column under the southern end of the Kissieberg.

In the light of this information Gatacre decided to change the operation so that instead of an attack up the Stormberg road the attack would be made on the south-western corner of the Kissieberg with an approach march up the Steynsberg road and a right hand turn onto a minor track leading into the valley to the west of the Kissieberg.

Gatacre assembled a conference of his senior officers in the station master’s office at Molteno and gave them the up to date situation. Gatacre enquired into the men’s condition and was assured by his officers that their men were ready for the operation.

Cape Mounted Rifles with maxim machine guns at Penhoek. The railway telegraph clerk failed to send the order for the unit to join Gatacre’s force for the Battle of Stormberg on 9th December 1899 in the Boer War

It had been intended that the march would begin at 7pm but there was considerable difficulty in organizing the number of trains on the single line and a two hour delay developed. Gatacre considered an overnight stop at Molteno with the attack postponed to the next evening and decided to begin the operation as planned that evening. Gatacre estimated that the approach march would take 6 hours.

The change of route was not communicated to the field ambulance and column of reserve ammunition which came up to Molteno by road. They took the original main road towards Stormberg, returning when they realised that the column was not in front of them, and being sent back up the road for a second time by the intelligence officer left in Molteno who also had not been informed of the change of plan.

The march began at 9pm with the soldiers reported as setting off at an eager and brisk pace. The night started off with a strong moon, which disappeared leaving the column in complete darkness.

At 12.30am the column reached a colliery railway line. Gatacre realised that the column had missed the turning to the right and was now marching towards Steynsberg. The column halted while Gatacre discussed the new situation with the chief guide. Sergeant Morgan reported that the column could take a turning to the right further on and would arrive under the Kissieberg with only an additional two miles added to the route. The troops rested for forty five minutes and resumed the march. The column again crossed the colliery railway which formed a wide left hand semi-circle and came into the valley beneath the Kissieberg.

The guides appear to have thought that the second crossing of the line was the main Colesberg to Stormberg line from the west. They had become thoroughly disorientated.

At 4.20am the column was under a face of the Kissieberg, but further north than Gatacre had planned. Ironically it seems that the column marched past the spot picked by Gatacre for the attack but in the dark failed to identify it and marched on.

It was now nearly sunrise (5.15am) and a Boer rifleman fired a shot from the top of the mountain alerting his comrades who took up positions along the summit.

It is generally accepted that the Boers were otherwise unprepared for the British attack.

2nd Northumberland Fusiliers begin the attack on the Kissieberg at the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War: picture by Edward Read

Three companies of the leading 2nd Royal Irish Rifles moved on and occupied positions on a hill at the northern end of the valley. The remainder of the Royal Irish Rifles and the following 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers began to scale the Kissieberg Mountain on their right. The Boers assembled on the crest and fired down on the British troops. A Boer gun was brought up and also opened fire from the crest.

The point Gatacre had intended for the assault was believed to be accessible. Where the column in fact made the attack the Kissieberg was steep and in parts comprised sheer rock faces that could not easily be climbed by the troops.

The 77th Field Battery came into action near the hill face while the 74th Field Battery moved to the left and came into action in the valley. The mounted infantry remained with the guns as escort.

The British guns burst shrapnel on the crest of the hill to some effect silencing the Boer gun for a time.

The infantry advance up the side of the Kissieberg continued for half an hour making progress albeit slowly due to the difficult terrain. The Boer fire appeared to be slackening.

A number of events took place during the operation which are difficult to put into the chronology with precision. A Boer raiding party said to number around five hundred, attracted by the firing, appeared on the hill top on the western side of the valley, opposite the Kissieberg, and opened fire on the British. The 74th Field Battery turned and opened fire on these Boers, firing ‘trail to trail’ with 77th Field Battery, which was firing in the other direction onto the Kissieberg.

It seems clear that the infantry climbing the Kissieberg in several places found they could make no further progress up the mountain due to the sheer stone ridges. The commanding officer of 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers gave orders that his battalion withdraw off the hillside. Five companies of the Fusiliers received this order and began to climb down, but three of the battalion’s companies, of which Captain Wilmott was the senior officer, remained with the Royal Irish Rifles further up the mountain.

The gun batteries seeing the Fusiliers coming down into the valley assumed that there was a general retreat and that it was necessary to bring their fire down from the mountain crest. The directing gunner officers were considerably hampered by the dawn sun breaking over the top of the mountain, shining into their eyes and throwing the mountain side into darkness. The British artillery rounds began to fall among the Royal Irish Rifles and Fusiliers still near the top of the mountain.

Lieutenant Colonel Eager, the commanding officer of 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, discussed the situation with Captain Wilmott who urged that the troops were nearly at the crest and that the attack should continue. Eager assembled his senior officers near the top of the mountainside to confer over what action to take when a British shrapnel shell burst over this conference wounding all the officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Eager, Major H. J. Seton, the second-in-command, Major Welman and Captain Bell. Colonel Eager subsequently died of his injuries.

Gatacre’s troops return to Molteno after the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War: picture by H.C. Seppings Wright

It would seem that at some points on the mountain there was very little preventing the British infantry from reaching the top of the Kissieberg and taking the Boer positions. A Boer official reported later that Boers were already leaving their positions due to the threat of being overrun. A Royal Irish Rifles officer was convinced that Colonel Eager, his two majors and the senior captain were about to make the decision to continue the attack when they all became casualties from the British shell burst.

It may be that Colonel Eager took the view that with the loss of the five companies of Northumberland Fusiliers and the fire of the British guns on their own men the attack could not succeed and that the troops must withdraw.

Whatever the source of the order, if one was in fact given, many of the British troops on the Kissieberg climbed back down.

Others of the British troops, unaware of the withdrawal, stayed put on the mountainside moving neither up nor down, exchanging fire with the increasingly re-enforced Boer line.

As the main body of troops came down into the valley, both Northumberland Fusiliers and Royal Irish Rifles, it was clear to Gatacre that they were in no fit state to renew the attack and that a return to Molteno was necessary.

The withdrawal was further hampered by the Boers firing from the western heights adding to the confusion of the retreat.

Gatacre’s ADC describes Gatacre as working hard to ensure that the men came off the mountain and spent the return march bringing in exhausted soldiers who had fallen by the wayside and supervising the recovery of abandoned transport. The Boers made no serious effort to impede Gatacre’s retreat.

Wounded Lieutenant Stephens of 2nd Royal Irish Rifles carried by four privates back to Molteno after the Battle of Stormberg on 10th December 1899 in the Boer War: picture by F.J. Waugh

The British troops began to march in to Molteno at 11am and the whole force was back by 12.30pm. The inhabitants of Molteno turned out to assist the returning exhausted soldiers, providing them with water and food.

Rolls were called and it was then realised that many troops could not have received the order to withdraw and been left on the mountainside in the confusion of the descent or collapsed in exhaustion on the route back. Of the force of 2,600 men, 13 officers and 548 men were missing, all Boer prisoners.

Death of Captain Montmorency at the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Casualties at the Battle of Stormberg:

British casualties were given officially as 8 officers wounded of whom 1 died (Lieutenant Colonel Eager) and 13 missing, all captured, and 25 soldiers killed, 102 wounded and 548 missing, some killed but the majority captured.

1 gun was lost, stuck in boggy ground.

Boer casualties were trivial and are unknown.

Follow-up to the Battle of Stormberg:

The consequences of Gatacre’s failure were in no way adverse on the ground. Gatacre moved his base further north on the railway to Sterkstrom and the Boers made no move, other than to withdraw from Dordrecht, which Gatacre re-occupied. The numbers of Cape Dutch joining the Boer ranks did not increase particularly.

British troops recovering collapsed comrades on the road to Molteno after the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War: picture by Edward Read

In terms of public relations the consequences were volcanic. Stormberg, Magersfontein and Colenso were the British defeats that made up “Black Week”, a term coined by Fleet Street. Gatacre’s reputation was irretrievably damaged. Lord Lansdowne, the Secretary of State for War, directed Buller to dismiss Gatacre along with Methuen, held responsible for the defeat at Magersfontein. Buller did not do so and Gatacre remained in command of the 3rd Division, a line of communication formation, for the time being.

Gatacre was relieved of his command on 10th April 1900, following the capture of two companies of 2nd Royal Irish Rifles at DeWetsdorp, and ordered to return to England. This was the effective end of his military career. Gatacre left the Army in 1904 and died of fever in the Sudan in 1906.

Although there were more failures for the British, Lord Roberts in the West and General Buller in Natal pushed the Boers back, relieving Kimberley, Mafeking and Ladysmith, capturing the capitals of the Free State, Bloemfontein, and the Transvaal, Pretoria, and finally after a protracted guerilla campaign bringing the war to a successful conclusion for the British on 31 st May 1902.

The Operation at the Battle of Stormberg:

Almost every account of the Boer War seems to search for criticisms to level against Gatacre in what has been a campaign of ridicule and denigration sustained over the century since the battle.

Gatacre described the operation as “a most lamentable failure, and yet within an ace of being the success I anticipated……The fault was mine, as I was responsible of course. I went rather against my better judgment in not resting the night at Molteno, but I was tempted by the shortness of the distance and the certainty of success. It was so near being a brilliant success.”

Populace of Molteno provide water and food to the returning British troops after the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War: picture by Albert Morrow

The Official History of the South African War stated: “Sir William Gatacre’s decision to advance on Stormberg was fully justified by the strategical situation. General Buller’s telegram, although it left him a free hand as to time and opportunity, had suggested that operation. The plan, though bold, was sound in its design, and would have succeeded had not exceptional misfortune attended its execution.”

The main criticisms levelled against Gatacre seem to be that he was wrong to conduct a night march at all, that he failed to conduct the operation with sufficient secrecy (a widely made allegation that ignores the reality that every British action was reported to the Boers by the ‘Cape Dutch’ and that in spite of the lack of secrecy the Boers were surprised by the attack), that he failed to conduct sufficient reconnaissance, that there were officers and soldiers familiar with the terrain that he failed to take on the expedition, that he failed to turn back once it was clear that the wrong route had been taken and that finally he failed to take sufficient steps to get all his men off the mountain and bring them back.

The reality is that once a military operation has gone wrong any criticism seems valid. It only required a group of Gatacre’s men to find a way to the top, which could easily have happened, and it was very likely that the attack would have been a resounding success with the Boers driven off in flight and Stormberg captured. No criticism of any sort would then have been levelled.

At least one of the junior officers on the mountain considered that if Colonel Eager had ordered the attack to continue the troops were so near the top in places that they would have succeeded, particularly as the Boers were already melting away.

Essentially Gatacre’s difficulty was that he was required to undertake an operation with a small number of inexperienced, inadequately trained troops, insufficient equipment, a lack of trained staff officers, no maps, on ground neither he nor anyone else available to him seemed to be sufficiently familiar with. In such circumstances the odds were heavily stacked against Gatacre.

General Gatacre in India in the 1880s: Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Lord Roberts in a memorandum to the Secretary of State for War dated 16th April 1900 wrote of the Stormberg battle: “In my opinion, Lieut.-General Gatacre on this occasion showed a want of care, judgment, and even of ordinary military precautions…..

Probably the most telling criticism of Gatacre is that he prepared the operation on the basis of an approach march along the main Molteno-Stormberg road that followed the railway line and at short notice changed the operation to one based on a new and less certain route along the Steynsberg road. Even if Sergeant Morgan knew the area well it is hard to criticize him for missing the turning off the new route on a moonless night. Here can be seen the impetuous streak that dominated Gatacre’s character, usually to his advantage, but at Stormberg to his destruction.

The change of route was so precipitate and ill-organised that an important part of the force, the following field ambulance and ammunition column were not informed and used the Stormberg road.

Gatacre acknowledged after the battle that he should have waited to the next day before launching the attack.

Boers with a gun captured at the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Battle Honours:

Stormberg is not a battle honour. All the regiments that fought in South Africa received the battle honour ‘South Africa’ with the dates of presence in the country.

Regimental anecdotes and traditions relating to the Battle of Stormberg:

  • General Gatacre was known to the troops as “back acher” because of the burdens he imposed on them and on himself. Once disgraced, this nickname, born of wry admiration and affection on the part of Gatacre’s men, became a term of public derision.
  • One of the many stories arising from Stormberg is that Gatacre is reputed to have shot the guide who led the column. This is untrue. The guide, Sergeant Morgan, gave evidence to the subsequent Board of Enquiry, saying that he became confused over the route.
  • Gatacre’s widow Lady Beatrix Gatacre wrote a biography of her husband published in 1910 designed to rehabilitate his memory entitled General Gatacre: The story of the life and services of Sir William Forbes Gatacre, K.C.B., D.S.O. 1843-1906.
  • The provision of tram horses to the two field batteries on their arrival in South Africa gave rise to a story involving a gunner unable to make his new horse move. His comrade called out “don’t bother with yer spurs, Fred. Ring yer bleedin’ bell.”

Non-commissioned officers of 77th Field Battery Royal Field Artillery, one of Gatacre’s batteries at the Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

Queen’s South Africa Medal with clasps for ‘Natal’ ‘Belmont’ and ‘Modder River’: Battle of Stormberg on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War

References for the Battle of Stormberg:

The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be:

The Times History of the War in South Africa

The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Goodbye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger

With the Flag to Pretoria by HW Wilson

General Gatacre: The story of the life and services of Sir William Forbes Gatacre, K.C.B., D.S.O. 1843-1906 by Lady Beatrix Gatacre (widow)

The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham (Stormberg is only mentioned in passing)

South Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly partisan volumes)

63. Podcast on the Battle of Stormberg: General Gatacre’s disastrous defeat in Northern Cape Colony, fought on 9th/10th December 1899 in the Boer War the first battle of ‘Black Week’: John Mackenzie’s britishbattles.com podcasts

The previous battle in the Boer War is the Battle of Modder River

The next battle in the Boer War is the Battle of Magersfontein

Watch the video: On This Day: 10 December 1962 (May 2022).