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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 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,

Arthur Conan Doyle