Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Gatacre, William Forbes

GATACRE, Sir WILLIAM FORBES (1843–1906), major-general, born near Stirling on 3 Dec. 1843, was third son of Edward Lloyd Gatacre (1806-91) by his wife Jessie, second daughter of William Forbes of Callendar House, Falkirk, Stirlingshire. The second son is Major-general Sir John Gatacre, K.C.B. The father was squire of Gatacre in the parish of Claverley, Shropshire, a manor held by his ancestors from the time of Henry II or earlier, and was high sheriff of Shropshire in 1856. He taught his sons to be good horsemen, and it was to home life and parentage that Gatacre owed what was most characteristic of him — a mind and body which delighted in exercise and seemed incapable of fatigue.

Educated at Hopkirk's school, Eltham, and at Sandhurst, Gatacre was commissioned on 18 Feb. 1862 as ensign in the 77th foot, then stationed in Bengal. He was promoted Heutenant on 23 Dec. 1864. He went to Peshawur with the regiment in November 1866, and in 1867 he spent six months' leave alone in the upper valleys of the Indus, shooting and exploring. He was invalided home soon afterwards. The 77th returned to England in March 1870, and he was promoted captain on 7 Dec.

In February 1873 he entered the Staff College, and after spending two years there he was employed four years at Sandhurst as instructor in surveying. In August 1880, after a year's service on the staff at Aldershot, he went back to India mth his regiment. He was promoted major on 23 March 1881, and lieutenant-colonel on 29 April 1882. He was then serving on the staff of Sir Harry Prendergast at Rangoon; but he returned to regimental duty in 1883, and succeeded to the command of the regiment at Secunderabad on 24 June 1884.

From 17 Dec. 1885 to 30 Sept. 1889 Gatacre was deputy quartermaster-general of the Bengal army. In the Hazara expedition of 1888 he gave striking proof of his activity and endurance. He was mentioned in despatches, and received the D.S.O. and the India medal with clasp. After being in temporary command of the Mandalay brigade for twelve months, and gaining a clasp for the Tonhon expedition, he was made adjutant-general of the Bombay army, with the substantive rank of colonel and temporary rank of brigadier-general (25 Nov. 1890). He had been made brevet-colonel on 29 April 1886. He was in command of the Bombay district from January 1894 to July 1897, but from March to September of 1895 he was engaged in the Chitral expedition. He commanded the 3rd brigade of the relief force under Sir Robert Low [q. v. Suppl. II], and on 20 April his brigade was sent forward as a flying column, as the Chitral garrison were in straits. It reached Chitral on 15 MsbV, after a most arduous passage of the Lowari pass; but the garrison had already been relieved by Colonel Kelly's force from Gilgit. Gatacre received the medal and was made C.B.

On his return from Chitral Gatacre went to England for three months in the winter of 1895-6. During the summer of 1896 he was in temporary command at Quetta, and during the first half of 1897 he was fighting the plague at Bombay. The deaths there in January from this cause rose to more than 300 a day. Gatacre not only took care of his own troops but served as chairman of a committee to deal with the problem generally. Thanks to his energy and tact, the outbreak was well under control by July, when he left India to take command of a brigade at Aldershot. Five testimonials expressed the gratitude of the citizens of Bombay — Christian, Mussulman, and Hindu — for what he had done. In 1900 the gold medal of the Kaiser-i-Hind order was awarded him on this account. In January 1898 lie went to Egypt, with the local rank of major-general, to command the British brigade in the advance up the Nile for the recovery of Khartoum. He brought it into such condition that it was able to march 140 miles in a week. On 8 April the Anglo-Egyptian army under Sir Herbert Kitchener attacked the Mahdist forces under Mahmoud in their intrenched camp on the Atbara. The British brigade was on the left. Gatacre was one of the first men to reach the zariba, and would have been speared if his orderly had not bayoneted his aissailant. Kitchener's despatch spoke of his untiring energy and devotion to duty, his gallant leading of his men, and his hearty co-operation throughout (Lond. Gaz. 24 May 1898). Some said that he drove his officers and men too hard, but he was unsparing of himself. 'In the ranks they call him "General Backacher" and love him' (Steevens, p. 61). He was promoted major-general on 25 June. In the further operations, which ended with the capture of Omdurman (2 Sept.), he commanded a division of two British brigades. He was again mentioned in despatches, received the thanks of parliament, and was made K.C.B. (15 Nov.). He received the British and Egyptian medals with two clasps and the Medjidie (2nd class). On 15 Dec. he was made a freeman of Shrewsbury, and in February 1899 he received a reward for distinguished service.

On 8 Dec. 1898 he took over command of the eastern district. On 21 Oct. 1899 he embarked for South Africa, to command the third division of the army corps sent out under Sir Redvers Buller [q. v. Suppl. II]. With one exception all the battalions of his division went to Natal to save Ladysmith, while Gatacre himself remained in Cape Colony, charged with the defence of the railway from East London to Bethalie and the country on each side of it. On 2 Dec. Buller asked Gatacre if he could not close with the enemy, or otherwise hinder their advance southward. On the night of 9 Dec. Gatacre made an attempt to seize the railway junction at Stormberg. He had by this time three battalions (Northumberland fusiliers, royal Irish rifles, and royal Scots), some mounted infantry, and two batteries of field artillery. Without good maps and led astray by the guides, his force, instead of surprising the enemy, was itself surprised on the march. A confused fight followed, in which some mischances occurred, and retreat became necessary. Many men were left beliind, worn out with fatiffae, and out of a total of 3035 there was a loss of 696. 'I think you were quite right to try the night attack, and hope better luck next time,' was Buller's reply to Gatacre's report of his failure. Lord Roberts on his arrival investigated the facts, and came to the conclusion that Gatacre had shown want of judgment and of ordinary precaution (Lond. Gaz. 16 March 1900).

By his orders Gatacre acted on the defensive for the next three months, barring recomiaissances on 23 Feb. and 5 March 1900. On 15 March he crossed the Orange river at Bethulie with his division, now numbering 5000 men, and came in touch with the main army, which was at Bloemfontein. He was placed in charge of the lines of communication. On the 19th he was told 'it is very desirable British troops should be seen all over the country,' and was asked if he could send a force to Smithfield, which he did. On the 28th Lord Roberts telegraphed, 'If you have enough troops at your disposal, I should like you to occupy Dewetsdorp,' and he sent there three companies of the Irish rifles and two of mounted infantry. On the 31st, in consequence of De Wet's successful stroke at Sannah's Post, there came orders to draw in outlying parties, especially the Dewetsdorp detachment. These were passed on without delay, and the detachment reached Reddersburg on 3 April. There it was surrounded, and surrendered after twenty-four hours' fighting, when Gatacre with a small relieving force was within a few miles of it. It is not easy to see where he was in fault ; but he was held responsible for what had occurred, was relieved of his command on 10 April, and returned to England (Maurice, ii. 300-11 and 614). He was informed that there was no slur upon his honour, his personal courage, his energy and zeal, 'which are beyond all question.' He received the Queen's medal for South Africa with two clasps.

He resumed command of the eastern district at Colchester, and remained there till 8 Dec. 1903. He was placed on the retired list on 19 March 1904, but was employed for some months in comiection with remounts and the registration of horses. Having joined the board of the Kordofan trading company, he went out to explore rubber forests in Abyssinia towards the end of 1905. He caught fever from camping in a swamp, died at Iddeni ou 18 Jan. 1906, and was buried at Gambela. A tablet was put up to his memory in Claverley church, Shropshire.

Gatacre married (1) in 1876 Alice Susan Louisa, third daughter of Anthony La Touche Kerwen, D.D., dean of Limerick, by whom he had three sons, and whom he divorced in 1892; (2) on 10 Nov. 1895 Beatrix, daughter of Horace, Lord Davey [q. v. Suppl. II], who survived him without issue.

[An admirable life of him, by Lady Gatacre, 1910; The Times, 6 March 1906; Captains G. J. and F. E. Younghusband, The Relief of Chitral, 1895; G. W. Steevens, With Kitchener to Khartum, 1898; Sir F. Maurice, Official History of the War in South Africa; S.A. War Commission, Evidence, ii. 272-8.]

E. M. L.