Meet us on:
 
Entire Site
    Try our fun game

    Dueling book covers…may the best design win!

    Random Quote
    "Revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man's nature runs to the more ought law to weed it out."
     

    Subscribe to Our Newsletter

    Follow us on Twitter

    Never miss a good book again! Follow Read Print on Twitter

    Chapter 8

    • Rate it:
    • 2 Favorites on Read Print
    Launch Reading Mode Next Chapter
    Chapter 9
    Previous Chapter
    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 Capetown-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 veldt, 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 veldt.

    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 -- ones 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 veldt -- 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 veldt 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 1,200 to a 2,800 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,
    Next Chapter
    Chapter 9
    Previous Chapter
    If you're writing a Arthur Conan Doyle essay and need some advice, post your Arthur Conan Doyle essay question on our Facebook page where fellow bookworms are always glad to help!

    Top 5 Authors

    Top 5 Books

    Book Status
    Finished
    Want to read
    Abandoned

    Are you sure you want to leave this group?