The Great Boer War Chapter 8: Lord Methuen’s Advance
by Jim Morgan
from http://www.jimmorgan.us The Great Boer War: Chapter 8 Lord Methuen’s Advance
CHAPTER 8. LORD METHUEN’S ADVANCE.
At the end of a fortnight of actual hostilities in Natal the situation of the Boer army was such as to seriously alarm the public at home, and to cause an almost universal chorus of ill-natured delight from the press of all European nations. Whether the reason was hatred of ourselves, or the sporting instinct which backs the smaller against the larger, or the influence of the ubiquitous Dr. Leyds and his secret service fund, it is certain that the continental papers have never been so unanimous as in their premature rejoicings over what, with an extraordinary want of proportion, and ignorance of our national character, they imagined to be a damaging blow to the British Empire. France, Russia, Austria, and Germany were equally venomous against us, nor can the visit of the German Emperor, though a courteous and timely action in itself, entirely atone for the senseless bitterness of the press of the Fatherland. Great Britain was roused out of her habitual apathy and disregard for foreign opinion by this chorus of execration, and braced herself for a greater effort in consequence. She was cheered by the sympathy of her friends in the United States, and by the good wishes of the smaller nations of Europe, notably of Italy, Denmark, Greece, Turkey, and Hungary.
The exact position at the end of this fortnight of hard slogging was that a quarter of the colony of Natal and a hundred miles of railway were in the hands of the enemy. Five distinct actions had been fought, none of them perhaps coming within the fair meaning of a battle. Of these one had been a distinct British victory, two had been indecisive, one had been unfortunate, and one had been a positive disaster. We had lost about twelve hundred prisoners and a battery of small guns. The Boers had lost two fine guns and three hundred prisoners. Twelve thousand British troops had been shut up in Ladysmith, and there was no serious force between the invaders and the sea. Only in those distant transports, where the grimy stokers shoveled and strove, were there hopes for the safety of Natal and the honour of the Empire. In Cape Colony the loyalists waited with bated breath, knowing well that there was nothing to check a Free State invasion, and that if it came no bounds could be placed upon how far it might advance, or what effect it might have upon the Dutch population.
Leaving Ladysmith now apparently within the grasp of the Boers, who had settled down deliberately to the work of throttling it, the narrative must pass to the western side of the seat of war, and give a consecutive account of the events which began with the siege of Kimberley and led to the ineffectual efforts of Lord Methuen’s column to relieve it.
On the declaration of war two important movements had been made by the Boers upon the west. One was the advance of a considerable body under the formidable Cronje to attack Mafeking, an enterprise which demands a chapter of its own. The other was the investment of Kimberley by a force which consisted principally of Freestaters under the command of Wessels and Botha. The place was defended by Colonel Kekewich, aided by the advice and help of Mr. Cecil Rhodes, who had gallantly thrown himself into the town by one of the last trains which reached it. As the founder and director of the great De Beers diamond mines he desired to be with his people in the hour of their need, and it was through his initiative that the town had been provided with the rifles and cannon with which to sustain the siege.
The troops which Colonel Kekewich had at his disposal consisted of four companies of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (his own regiment), with some Royal Engineers, a mountain battery, and two machine guns. In addition there were the extremely spirited and capable local forces, a hundred and twenty men of the Cape Police, two thousand Volunteers, a body of Kimberley Light Horse, and a battery of light seven-pounder guns. There were also eight Maxims which were mounted upon the huge mounds of debris which surrounded the mines and formed most efficient fortresses.
A small reinforcement of police had, under tragic circumstances, reached the town. Vryburg, the capital of British Bechuanaland, lies 145 miles to the north of Kimberley. The town has strong Dutch sympathies, and on the news of the approach of a Boer force with artillery it was evident that it could not be held. Scott, the commandant of police, made some attempt to organise a defence, but having no artillery and finding little sympathy, he was compelled to abandon his charge to the invaders. The gallant Scott rode south with his troopers, and in his humiliation and grief at his inability to preserve his post he blew out his brains upon the journey. Vryburg was immediately occupied by the Boers, and British Bechuanaland was formally annexed to the South African Republic. This policy of the instant annexation of all territories invaded was habitually carried out by the enemy, with the idea that British subjects who joined them would in this way be shielded from the consequences of treason. Meanwhile several thousand Freestaters and Transvaalers with artillery had assembled round Kimberley, and all news of the town was cut off. Its relief was one of the first tasks which presented itself to the inpouring army corps. The obvious base of such a movement must be Orange River, and there and at De Aar the stores for the advance began to be accumulated. At the latter place especially, which is the chief railway junction in the north of the colony, enormous masses of provisions, ammunition, and fodder were collected, with thousands of mules which the long arm of the British Government had rounded up from many parts of the world. The guard over these costly and essential supplies seems to have been a dangerously weak one. Between Orange River and De Aar, which are sixty miles apart, there were the 9th Lancers, the Royal Munsters, the 2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, under three thousand men in all, with two million pounds’ worth of stores and the Free State frontier within a ride of them. Verily if we have something to deplore in this war we have much also to be thankful for.
Up to the end of October the situation was so dangerous that it is really inexplicable that no advantage was taken of it by the enemy. Our main force was concentrated to defend the Orange River railway bridge, which was so essential for our advance upon Kimberley. This left only a single regiment without guns for the defence of De Aar and the valuable stores. A fairer mark for a dashing leader and a raid of mounted riflemen was never seen. The chance passed, however, as so many others of the Boers’ had done. Early in November Colesberg and Naauwpoort were abandoned by our small detachments, who concentrated at De Aar. The Berkshires joined the Yorkshire Light Infantry, and nine field guns arrived also. General Wood worked hard at the fortifying of the surrounding kopjes, until within a week the place had been made tolerably secure.
The first collision between the opposing forces at this part of the seat of war was upon November 10th, when Colonel Gough of the 9th Lancers made a reconnaissance from Orange River to the north with two squadrons of his own regiment, the mounted infantry of the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Royal Munsters, and the North Lancashires, with a battery of field artillery. To the east of Belmont, about fifteen miles off, he came on a detachment of the enemy with a gun. To make out the Boer position the mounted infantry galloped round one of their flanks, and in doing so passed close to a kopje which was occupied by sharpshooters. A deadly fire crackled suddenly out from among the boulders. Of six men hit four were officers, showing how cool were the marksmen and how dangerous those dress distinctions which will probably disappear hence forwards upon the field of battle. Colonel Keith-Falconer of the Northumberlands, who had earned distinction in the Soudan, was shot dead. So was Wood of the North Lancashires. Hall and Bevan of the Northumberlands were wounded. An advance by train of the troops in camp drove back the Boers and extricated our small force from what might have proved a serious position, for the enemy in superior numbers were working round their wings. The troops returned to camp without any good object having been attained, but that must be the necessary fate of many a cavalry reconnaissance.
On November 12th Lord Methuen arrived at Orange River and proceeded to organise the column which was to advance to the relief of Kimberley. General Methuen had had some previous South African experience when in 1885 he had commanded a large body of irregular horse in Bechuanaland. His reputation was that of a gallant fearless soldier. He was not yet fifty-five years of age.
The force which gradually assembled at Orange River was formidable rather from its quality than from its numbers. It included a brigade of Guards (the 1st Scots Guards, 3rd Grenadiers, and 1st and 2nd Coldstreams), the 2nd Yorkshire Light Infantry, the 2nd Northamptons, the 1st Northumberlands, and a wing of the North Lancashires whose comrades were holding out at Kimberley, with a naval brigade of seamen gunners and marines. For cavalry he had the 9th Lancers, with detachments of mounted infantry, and for artillery the 75th and 18th Batteries R.F.A.
Extreme mobility was aimed at in the column, and neither tents nor comforts of any sort were permitted to officers or men—no light matter in a climate where a tropical day is followed by an arctic night. At daybreak on November 22nd the force, numbering about eight thousand men, set off upon its eventful journey. The distance to Kimberley was not more than sixty miles, and it is probable that there was not one man in the force who imagined how long that march would take or how grim the experiences would be which awaited them on the way. At the dawn of Wednesday, November 22nd, Lord Methuen moved forward until he came into touch with the Boer position at Belmont. It was surveyed that evening by Colonel Willoughby Verner, and every disposition made to attack it in the morning.
The force of the Boers was much inferior to our own, some two or three thousand in all, but the natural strength of their position made it a difficult one to carry, while it could not be left behind us as a menace to our line of communications. A double row of steep hills lay across the road to Kimberley, and it was along the ridges, snuggling closely among the boulders, that our enemy was waiting for us. In their weeks of preparation they had constructed elaborate shelter pits in which they could lie in comparative safety while they swept all the level ground around with their rifle fire. Mr. Ralph, the American correspondent, whose letters were among the most vivid of the war, has described these lairs, littered with straw and the debris of food, isolated from each other, and each containing its grim and formidable occupant. ‘The eyries of birds of prey’ is the phrase with which he brings them home to us. In these, with nothing visible but their peering eyes and the barrels of their rifles, the Boer marksmen crouched, and munched their biltong and their mealies as the day broke upon the morning of the 23rd. With the light their enemy was upon them.
It was a soldiers’ battle in the good old primeval British style, an Alma on a small scale and against deadlier weapons. The troops advanced in grim silence against the savage-looking, rock-sprinkled, crag-topped position which confronted them. They were in a fierce humour, for they had not breakfasted, and military history from Agincourt to Talavera shows that want of food wakens a dangerous spirit among British troops. A Northumberland Fusilier exploded into words which expressed the gruffness of his comrades. As a too energetic staff officer pranced before their line he roared in his rough North-country tongue, ‘Domn thee! Get thee to hell, and let’s fire!’ In the golden light of the rising sun the men set their teeth and dashed up the hills, scrambling, falling, cheering, swearing, gallant men, gallantly led, their one thought to close with that grim bristle of rifle-barrels which fringed the rocks above them.
Lord Methuen’s intention had been an attack from front and from flank, but whether from the Grenadiers losing their bearings, or from the mobility of the Boers, which made a flank attack an impossibility, it is certain that all became frontal. The battle resolved itself into a number of isolated actions in which the various kopjes were rushed by different British regiments, always with success and always with loss. The honours of the fight, as tested by the grim record of the casualty returns, lay with the Grenadiers, the Coldstreams, the Northumberlands, and the Scots Guards. The brave Guardsmen lay thickly on the slopes, but their comrades crowned the heights. The Boers held on desperately and fired their rifles in the very faces of the stormers. One young officer had his jaw blown to pieces by a rifle which almost touched him. Another, Blundell of the Guards, was shot dead by a wounded desperado to whom he was offering his water-bottle. At one point a white flag was waved by the defenders, on which the British left cover, only to be met by a volley. It was there that Mr. E. F. Knight, of the ‘Morning Post,’ became the victim of a double abuse of the usages of war, since his wound, from which he lost his right arm, was from an explosive bullet. The man who raised the flag was captured, and it says much for the humanity of British soldiers that he was not bayoneted upon the spot. Yet it is not fair to blame a whole people for the misdeeds of a few, and it is probable that the men who descended to such devices, or who deliberately fired upon our ambulances, were as much execrated by their own comrades as by ourselves.
The victory was an expensive one, for fifty killed and two hundred wounded lay upon the hillside, and, like so many of our skirmishes with the Boers, it led to small material results. Their losses appear to have been much about the same as ours, and we captured some fifty prisoners, whom the soldiers regarded with the utmost interest. They were a sullen slouching crowd rudely clad, and they represented probably the poorest of the burghers, who now, as in the middle ages, suffer most in battle, since a long purse means a good horse. Most of the enemy galloped very comfortably away after the action, leaving a fringe of sharpshooters among the kopjes to hold back our pursuing cavalry. The want of horsemen and the want of horse artillery are the two reasons which Lord Methuen gives why the defeat was not converted into a rout. As it was, the feelings of the retreating Boers were exemplified by one of their number, who turned in his saddle in order to place his outstretched fingers to his nose in derision of the victors. He exposed himself to the fire of half a battalion while doing so, but he probably was aware that with our present musketry instruction the fire of a British half-battalion against an individual is not a very serious matter.
The remainder of the 23rd was spent at Belmont Camp, and next morning an advance was made to Enslin, some ten miles further on. Here lay the plain of Enslin, bounded by a formidable line of kopjes as dangerous as those of Belmont. Lancers and Rimington’s Scouts, the feeble but very capable cavalry of the Army, came in with the report that the hills were strongly held. Some more hard slogging was in front of the relievers of Kimberley.
The advance had been on the line of the Cape Town to Kimberley Railway, and the damage done to it by the Boers had been repaired to the extent of permitting an armoured train with a naval gun to accompany the troops. It was six o’ clock upon the morning of Saturday the 25th that this gun came into action against the kopjes, closely followed by the guns of the field artillery. One of the lessons of the war has been to disillusion us as to the effect of shrapnel fire. Positions which had been made theoretically untenable have again and again been found to be most inconveniently tenanted. Among the troops actually engaged the confidence in the effect of shrapnel fire has steadily declined with their experience. Some other method of artillery fire than the curving bullet from an exploding shrapnel shell must be devised for dealing with men who lie close among boulders and behind cover.
These remarks upon shrapnel might be included in the account of half the battles of the war, but they are particularly apposite to the action at Enslin. Here a single large kopje formed the key to the position, and a considerable time was expended upon preparing it for the British assault, by directing upon it a fire which swept the face of it and searched, as was hoped, every corner in which a rifleman might lurk. One of the two batteries engaged fired no fewer than five hundred rounds. Then the infantry advance was ordered, the Guards being held in reserve on account of their exertions at Belmont. The Northumberlands, Northamptons, North Lancashires, and Yorkshires worked round upon the right, and, aided by the artillery fire, cleared the trenches in their front. The honours of the assault, however, must be awarded to the sailors and marines of the Naval Brigade, who underwent such an ordeal as men have seldom faced and yet come out as victors. To them fell the task of carrying that formidable hill which had been so scourged by our artillery. With a grand rush they swept up the slope, but were met by a horrible fire. Every rock spurted flame, and the front ranks withered away before the storm of the Mauser. An eye-witness has recorded that the brigade was hardly visible amid the sand knocked up by the bullets. For an instant they fell back into cover, and then, having taken their breath, up they went again, with a deep-chested sailor roar. There were but four hundred in all, two hundred seamen and two hundred marines, and the losses in that rapid rush were terrible. Yet they swarmed up, their gallant officers, some of them little boy-middies, cheering them on. Ethelston, the commander of the ‘Powerful,’ was struck down. Plumbe and Senior of the Marines were killed. Captain Prothero of the ‘Doris’ dropped while still yelling to his seamen to ‘take that kopje and be hanged to it!’ Little Huddart, the middy, died a death which is worth many inglorious years. Jones of the Marines fell wounded, but rose again and rushed on with his men. It was on these gallant marines, the men who are ready to fight anywhere and anyhow, moist or dry, that the heaviest loss fell. When at last they made good their foothold upon the crest of that murderous hill they had left behind them three officers and eighty-eight men out of a total of 206—a loss within a few minutes of nearly 50 per cent. The bluejackets, helped by the curve of the hill, got off with a toll of eighteen of their number. Half the total British losses of the action fell upon this little body of men, who upheld most gloriously the honour and reputation of the service from which they were drawn. With such men under the white ensign we leave our island homes in safety behind us.
The battle of Enslin had cost us some two hundred of killed and wounded, and beyond the mere fact that we had cleared our way by another stage towards Kimberley it is difficult to say what advantage we had from it. We won the kopjes, but we lost our men. The Boer killed and wounded were probably less than half of our own, and the exhaustion and weakness of our cavalry forbade us to pursue and prevented us from capturing their guns. In three days the men had fought two exhausting actions in a waterless country and under a tropical sun. Their exertions had been great and yet were barren of result. Why this should be so was naturally the subject of keen discussion both in the camp and among the public at home. It always came back to Lord Methuen’s own complaint about the absence of cavalry and of horse artillery. Many very unjust charges have been hurled against our War Office—a department which in some matters has done extraordinarily and unexpectedly well—but in this question of the delay in the despatch of our cavalry and artillery, knowing as we did the extreme mobility of our enemy, there is certainly ground for an inquiry.
The Boers who had fought these two actions had been drawn mainly from the Jacobsdal and Fauresmith commandoes, with some of the burghers from Boshof. The famous Cronje, however, had been descending from Mafeking with his old guard of Transvaalers, and keen disappointment was expressed by the prisoners at Belmont and at Enslin that he had not arrived in time to take command of them. There were evidences, however, at this latter action, that reinforcements for the enemy were coming up and that the labours of the Kimberley relief force were by no means at an end. In the height of the engagement the Lancer patrols thrown out upon our right flank reported the approach of a considerable body of Boer horsemen, who took up a position upon a hill on our right rear. Their position there was distinctly menacing, and Colonel Willoughby Verner was despatched by Lord Methuen to order up the brigade of Guards. The gallant officer had the misfortune in his return to injure himself seriously through a blunder of his horse. His mission, however, succeeded in its effect, for the Guards moving across the plain intervened in such a way that the reinforcements, without an open attack, which would have been opposed to all Boer traditions, could not help the defenders, and were compelled to witness their defeat. This body of horsemen returned north next day and were no doubt among those whom we encountered at the following action of the Modder River.
The march from Orange River had begun on the Wednesday. On Thursday was fought the action of Belmont, on Saturday that of Enslin. There was no protection against the sun by day nor against the cold at night. Water was not plentiful, and the quality of it was occasionally vile. The troops were in need of a rest, so on Saturday night and Sunday they remained at Enslin. On the Monday morning (November 27th) the weary march to Kimberley was resumed.
On Monday, November 27th, at early dawn, the little British army, a dust-coloured column upon the dusty veld, moved forwards again towards their objective. That night they halted at the pools of Klipfontein, having for once made a whole day’s march without coming in touch with the enemy. Hopes rose that possibly the two successive defeats had taken the heart out of them and that there would be no further resistance to the advance. Some, however, who were aware of the presence of Cronje, and of his formidable character, took a juster view of the situation. And this perhaps is where a few words might be said about the celebrated leader who played upon the western side of the seat of war the same part which Joubert did upon the east.
Commandant Cronje was at the time of the war sixty-five years of age, a hard, swarthy man, quiet of manner, fierce of soul, with a reputation among a nation of resolute men for unsurpassed resolution. His dark face was bearded and virile, but sedate and gentle in expression. He spoke little, but what he said was to the point, and he had the gift of those fire-words which brace and strengthen weaker men. In hunting expeditions and in native wars he had first won the admiration of his countrymen by his courage and his fertility of resource. In the war of 1880 he had led the Boers who besieged Potchefstroom, and he had pushed the attack with a relentless vigour which was not hampered by the chivalrous usages of war. Eventually he compelled the surrender of the place by concealing from the garrison that a general armistice had been signed, an act which was afterwards disowned by his own government. In the succeeding years he lived as an autocrat and a patriarch amid his farms and his herds, respected by many and feared by all. For a time he was Native Commissioner and left a reputation for hard dealing behind him. Called into the field again by the Jameson raid, he grimly herded his enemies into an impossible position and desired, as it is stated, that the hardest measure should be dealt out to the captives. This was the man, capable, crafty, iron-hard, magnetic, who lay with a reinforced and formidable army across the path of Lord Methuen’s tired soldiers. It was a fair match. On the one side the hardy men, the trained shots, a good artillery, and the defensive; on the other the historical British infantry, duty, discipline, and a fiery courage. With a high heart the dust-coloured column moved on over the dusty veld.
So entirely had hills and Boer fighting become associated in the minds of our leaders, that when it was known that Modder River wound over a plain, the idea of a resistance there appears to have passed away from their minds. So great was the confidence or so lax the scouting that a force equaling their own in numbers had assembled with many guns within seven miles of them, and yet the advance appears to have been conducted without any expectation of impending battle. The supposition, obvious even to a civilian, that a river would be a likely place to meet with an obstinate resistance, seems to have been ignored. It is perhaps not fair to blame the General for a fact which must have vexed his spirit more than ours—one’s sympathies go out to the gentle and brave man, who was heard calling out in his sleep that he ‘should have had those two guns’—but it is repugnant to common sense to suppose that no one, neither the cavalry nor the Intelligence Department, is at fault for so extraordinary a state of ignorance. [Footnote: Later information makes it certain that the cavalry did report the presence of the enemy to Lord Methuen.] On the morning of Tuesday, November 28th, the British troops were told that they would march at once, and have their breakfast when they reached the Modder River—a grim joke to those who lived to appreciate it.
The army had been reinforced the night before by the welcome addition of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, which made up for the losses of the week. It was a cloudless morning, and a dazzling sun rose in a deep blue sky. The men, though hungry, marched cheerily, the reek of their tobacco-pipes floating up from their ranks. It cheered them to see that the murderous kopjes had, for the time, been left behind, and that the great plain inclined slightly downwards to where a line of green showed the course of the river. On the further bank were a few scattered buildings, with one considerable hotel, used as a week-end resort by the businessmen of Kimberley. It lay now calm and innocent, with its open windows looking out upon a smiling garden; but death lurked at the windows and death in the garden, and the little dark man who stood by the door, peering through his glass at the approaching column, was the minister of death, the dangerous Cronje. In consultation with him was one who was to prove even more formidable, and for a longer time. Semitic in face, high-nosed, bushy-bearded, and eagle-eyed, with skin burned brown by a life of the veld—it was De la Rey, one of the trio of fighting chiefs whose name will always be associated with the gallant resistance of the Boers. He was there as adviser, but Cronje was in supreme command.
His dispositions had been both masterly and original. Contrary to the usual military practice in the defence of rivers, he had concealed his men upon both banks, placing, as it is stated, those in whose staunchness he had least confidence upon the British side of the river, so that they could only retreat under the rifles of their inexorable companions. The trenches had been so dug with such a regard for the slopes of the ground that in some places a triple line of fire was secured. His artillery, consisting of several heavy pieces and a number of machine guns (including one of the diabolical ‘pompoms’), was cleverly placed upon the further side of the stream, and was not only provided with shelter pits but had rows of reserve pits, so that the guns could be readily shifted when their range was found. Rows of trenches, a broadish river, fresh rows of trenches, fortified houses, and a good artillery well worked and well placed, it was a serious task which lay in front of the gallant little army. The whole position covered between four and five miles.
An obvious question must here occur to the mind of every non-military reader—Why should this position be attacked at all? Why should we not cross higher up where there were no such formidable obstacles?’ The answer, so far as one can answer it, must be that so little was known of the dispositions of our enemy that we were hopelessly involved in the action before we knew of it, and that then it was more dangerous to extricate the army than to push the attack. A retirement over that open plain at a range of under a thousand yards would have been a dangerous and disastrous movement. Having once got there, it was wisest and best to see it through.
The dark Cronje still waited reflective in the hotel garden. Across the veld streamed the lines of infantry, the poor fellows eager, after seven miles of that upland air, for the breakfast which had been promised them. It was a quarter to seven when our patrols of Lancers were fired upon. There were Boers, then, between them and their meal! The artillery was ordered up, the Guards were sent forward on the right, the 9th Brigade under Pole-Carew on the left, including the newly arrived Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. They swept onwards into the fatal fire zone—and then, and only then, there blazed out upon them four miles of rifles, cannon, and machine guns, and they realised, from general to private, that they had walked unwittingly into the fiercest battle yet fought in the war.
Before the position was understood the Guards were within seven hundred yards of the Boer trenches, and the other troops about nine hundred, on the side of a very gentle slope which made it most difficult to find any cover. In front of them lay a serene landscape, the river, the houses, the hotel, no movement of men, no smoke—everything peaceful and deserted save for an occasional quick flash and sparkle of flame. But the noise was horrible and appalling. Men whose nerves had been steeled to the crash of the big guns, or the monotonous roar of Maxims and the rattle of Mauser fire, found a new terror in the malignant ‘ploop-plooping’ of the automatic quick-firer. The Maxim of the Scots Guards was caught in the hell-blizzard from this thing—each shell no bigger than a large walnut, but flying in strings of a score—and men and gun were destroyed in an instant. As to the rifle bullets the air was humming and throbbing with them, and the sand was mottled like a pond in a shower. To advance was impossible, to retire was hateful. The men fell upon their faces and huddled close to the earth, too happy if some friendly ant-heap gave them a precarious shelter. And always, tier above tier, the lines of rifle fire rippled and palpitated in front of them. The infantry fired also, and fired, and fired—but what was there to fire at? An occasional eye and hand over the edge of a trench or behind a stone is no mark at seven hundred yards. It would be instructive to know how many British bullets found a billet that day.
The cavalry was useless, the infantry was powerless—there only remained the guns. When any arm is helpless and harried it always casts an imploring eye upon the guns, and rarely indeed is it that the gallant guns do not respond. Now the 75th and 18th Field Batteries came rattling and dashing to the front, and unlimbered at one thousand yards. The naval guns were working at four thousand, but the two combined were insufficient to master the fire of the pieces of large calibre which were opposed to them. Lord Methuen must have prayed for guns as Wellington did for night, and never was a prayer answered more dramatically. A strange battery came lurching up from the British rear, unheralded, unknown, the weary gasping horses panting at the traces, the men, caked with sweat and dirt, urging them on into a last spasmodic trot. The bodies of horses which had died of pure fatigue marked their course, the sergeants’ horses tugged in the gun-teams, and the sergeants staggered along by the limbers. It was the 62nd Field Battery, which had marched thirty-two miles in eight hours, and now, hearing the crash of battle in front of them, had with one last desperate effort thrown itself into the firing line. Great credit is due to Major Granet and his men. Not even those gallant German batteries who saved the infantry at Spicheren could boast of a finer feat.
Now it was guns against guns, and let the best gunners win! We had eighteen field-guns and the naval pieces against the concealed cannon of the enemy. Back and forward flew the shells, howling past each other in mid-air. The weary men of the 62nd Battery forgot their labours and fatigues as they stooped and strained at their clay-coloured 15-pounders. Half of them were within rifle range, and the limber horses were the centre of a hot fire, as they were destined to be at a shorter range and with more disastrous effect at the Tugela. That the same tactics should have been adopted at two widely sundered points shows with what care the details of the war had been pre-arranged by the Boer leaders. ‘Before I got my horses out,’ says an officer, ‘they shot one of my drivers and two horses and brought down my own horse. When we got the gun round one of the gunners was shot through the brain and fell at my feet. Another was shot while bringing up shell. Then we got a look in.’ The roar of the cannon was deafening, but gradually the British were gaining the upper hand. Here and there the little knolls upon the further side which had erupted into constant flame lay cold and silent. One of the heavier guns was put out of action, and the other had been withdrawn for five hundred yards. But the infantry fire still crackled and rippled along the trenches, and the guns could come no nearer with living men and horses. It was long past midday, and that unhappy breakfast seemed further off than ever.
As the afternoon wore on, a curious condition of things was established. The guns could not advance, and, indeed, it was found necessary to withdraw them from a 1200 to a 2800-yard range, so heavy were the losses. At the time of the change the 75th Battery had lost three officers out of five, nineteen men, and twenty-two horses. The infantry could not advance and would not retire. The Guards on the right were prevented from opening out on the flank and getting round the enemy’s line, by the presence of the Riet River, which joins the Modder almost at a right angle. All day they lay under a blistering sun, the sleet of bullets whizzing over their heads. ‘It came in solid streaks like telegraph wires,’ said a graphic correspondent. The men gossiped, smoked, and many of them slept. They lay on the barrels of their rifles to keep them cool enough for use. Now and again there came the dull thud of a bullet which had found its mark, and a man gasped, or drummed with his feet; but the casualties at this point were not numerous, for there was some little cover, and the piping bullets passed for the most part overhead.
But in the meantime there had been a development upon the left which was to turn the action into a British victory. At this side there was ample room to extend, and the 9th Brigade spread out, feeling its way down the enemy’s line, until it came to a point where the fire was less murderous and the approach to the river more in favour of the attack. Here the Yorkshires, a party of whom under Lieutenant Fox had stormed a farmhouse, obtained the command of a drift, over which a mixed force of Highlanders and Fusiliers forced their way, led by their Brigadier in person. This body of infantry, which does not appear to have exceeded five hundred in number, were assailed both by the Boer riflemen and by the guns of both parties, our own gunners being unaware that the Modder had been successfully crossed. A small hamlet called Rosmead formed, however, a point d’appui, and to this the infantry clung tenaciously, while reinforcements dribbled across to them from the farther side. ‘Now, boys, who’s for otter hunting?’ cried Major Coleridge, of the North Lancashires, as he sprang into the water. How gladly on that baking, scorching day did the men jump into the river and splash over, to climb the opposite bank with their wet khaki clinging to their figures! Some blundered into holes and were rescued by grasping the unwound putties of their comrades. And so between three and four o’clock a strong party of the British had established their position upon the right flank of the Boers, and were holding on like grim death with an intelligent appreciation that the fortunes of the day depended upon their retaining their grip.
‘Hollo, here is a river!’ cried Codrington when he led his forlorn hope to the right and found that the Riet had to be crossed. ‘I was given to understand that the Modder was fordable everywhere,’ says Lord Methuen in his official despatch. One cannot read the account of the operations without being struck by the casual, sketchy knowledge which cost us so dearly. The soldiers slogged their way through, as they have slogged it before; but the task might have been made much lighter for them had we but clearly known what it was that we were trying to do. On the other hand, it is but fair to Lord Methuen to say that his own personal gallantry and unflinching resolution set the most stimulating example to his troops. No General could have done more to put heart into his men.
And now, as the long weary scorching hungry day came to an end, the Boers began at last to flinch from their trenches. The shrapnel was finding them out and this force upon their flank filled them with vague alarm and with fears for their precious guns. And so as night fell they stole across the river, the cannon were withdrawn, the trenches evacuated, and next morning, when the weary British and their anxious General turned themselves to their grim task once more, they found a deserted village, a line of empty houses, and a litter of empty Mauser cartridge-cases to show where their tenacious enemy had stood.
Lord Methuen, in congratulating the troops upon their achievement, spoke of ‘the hardest-won victory in our annals of war,’ and some such phrase was used in his official despatch. It is hypercritical, no doubt, to look too closely at a term used by a wounded man with the flush of battle still upon him, but still a student of military history must smile at such a comparison between this action and such others as Albuera or Inkerman, where the numbers of British engaged were not dissimilar. A fight in which five hundred men are killed and wounded cannot be classed in the same category as those stern and desperate encounters where more of the victors were carried than walked from the field of battle. And yet there were some special features which will differentiate the fight at Modder River from any of the hundred actions which adorn the standards of our regiments. It was the third battle which the troops had fought within the week, they were under fire for ten or twelve hours, were waterless under a tropical sun, and weak from want of food. For the first time they were called upon to face modern rifle fire and modern machine guns in the open. The result tends to prove that those who hold that it will from now onwards be impossible ever to make such frontal attacks as those which the English made at the Alma or the French at Waterloo, are justified in their belief. It is beyond human hardihood to face the pitiless beat of bullet and shell which comes from modern quick-firing weapons. Had our flank not made a lodgment across the river, it is impossible that we could have carried the position. Once more, too, it was demonstrated how powerless the best artillery is to disperse resolute and well-placed riflemen. Of the minor points of interest there will always remain the record of the forced march of the 62nd Battery, and artillerymen will note the use of gun-pits by the Boers, which ensured that the range of their positions should never be permanently obtained.
The honours of the day upon the side of the British rested with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Yorkshire Light Infantry, the 2nd Coldstreams, and the artillery. Out of a total casualty list of about 450, no fewer than 112 came from the gallant Argylls and 69 from the Coldstreams. The loss of the Boers is exceedingly difficult to gauge, as they throughout the war took the utmost pains to conceal it. The number of desperate and long-drawn actions which have ended, according to the official Pretorian account, in a loss of one wounded burgher may in some way be better policy, but does not imply a higher standard of public virtue, than those long lists which have saddened our hearts in the halls of the War Office. What is certain is that the loss at Modder River could not have been far inferior to our own, and that it arose almost entirely from artillery fire, since at no time of the action were any large number of their riflemen visible. So it ended, this long pelting match, Cronje sullenly withdrawing under the cover of darkness with his resolute heart filled with fierce determination for the future, while the British soldiers threw themselves down on the ground which they occupied and slept the sleep of exhaustion.
Taken from The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published in 1900 and in the public domain in the United States.