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THE BATTLE OF MODDER RIVER


This battle,  to use Lord Methuen's words, was one of the hardest and most trying fights in the annals of the British army. He might also have truly said that it was one of the most gloriously-fought engagements that has been known in modern  warfare. On reconnoitring the enemy's position, the Boers were found to be strongly entrenched and concealed behind a fringe of furze and foliage and in front of trees in the neighbourhood of Modder River. From native sources it  was learnt that the river and the Riet River were fordable anywhere, a statement which was afterwards found to be entirely false. The enemy was discovered on the east of the village to be in strong force and aggressive. His  trenches commanded the plain for a distance of 1600 yards, and there was no means of outfianking him, as the Modder River was in flood.

The word Modder means muddy, and this term was appreciated In its full significance when our  parched troops came to make acquaintance with it. But there are times and seasons when even Ochreous water becomes clear as crystal to the fevered imagination, and before this day of days was over-in the sweltering, merciless

sun, with the thermometer at 110 degrees in the shade-men felt as though they would stake their whole chance of existence for one half-bottle of the reviving fluid. But this is a digression. The horror of that day's thirst had  barely set in at the time treated of-4 to 8 ~M. At that hour there was no suspicion that the enemy, strong in numbers, would continue to fight, and be strengthened by some 8ooo more Dutchmen. He appeared to be retiring, and there  were no signs that the village would be held. But at 8.10 a fierce roar of guns multifarious declared that the river was fringed by the enemy, and that he was well and skilfully concealed.

Parallel to the river on the north side  the Boers had constructed, with their wonted cunning, long sandbag trenches and various complicated breastworks, which afforded them splendid cover. The line extended over some five miles, and they were discovered to be posted on  both sides of the water. Where the stream of the Riet joins the Modder there is a small and picturesque island some two acres in extent. It has shelving banks all fringed with willows, and thus forms an excellent natural cover for  troops. Till now this spot had been the resort of picnickers and pleasure~seekers from the Diamond City. On the north bank were farmhouses and hotels, which had been evacuated by their owners and had been taken possession of by the  Boers. Here they had posted guns of every available kind, in every available spot. They had Hotchkiss guns and Maxim guns, and the deadly, much-abhorred VickersMaxim quick-firer, a machine which, by the way, was offered some time  ago to the British Government-and refused! This objectionable weapon was christened by some "Putt-Putt," by others "Bong-Bong," and one officer styled it "the Great Mogul," because its presence was  invariably greeted with profound salaams and Chinese prostrations. With these guns the enemy began to show that he meant business, as will be seen.

The division, that had been strengthened by the Argyll and Sutherland  Highlanders, had moved out from Wittekopslaager about 5 A.M., breakfastless, because it was thought that on reaching the river, which was but a short march of five miles off, there would be ample time for a meal. But by seven  6'clock the fighting had begun. The General had arranged with the officer commanding the Royal Artillery to prepare the infantry attack with both batteries from the right flank, and the Infantry Division being still some miles  distant, he gave them two distinct points to march on, which allowed of the brigades keeping in extended order and covering a very wide front.

The Guards Brigade had orders to develop their attack first, which they did with the  1st Battalion Scots Guards on the right, with directions to swing their right well round in order to take the enemy in flank, the 2nd Battalion Coldstreams and the 3rd Battalion Grenadiers making the frontal attack, the former on  the left to keep touch with the 9th Brigade; the 1st Battalion Coldstreams in reserve in the right rear. Well, before they could look about them and settle down into their positions, the whole force found itself facing the Boer  commando 8ooo strong, two large guns, Krupp guns, &c. The Scots Guards on the extreme right marched through the old reservoir, and directly they emerged from cover a shower of bullets greeted them. Soon after their Maxim gun  was disabled by the Hotchkiss gun of the enemy, and presently their whole detachment was completely wiped out. First the sergeant in charge was killed, then an officer was wounded, then Colonel Stopford of the Coldstream Guards was  hit in the neck and killed, and the horse ridden by Colonel Paget was shot in five places and dropped dead. Meanwhile the 75th Battery in return launched some magnificent shots in the direction of the Dutchmen. The third of these  struck a farmhouse in which the Boers and a gun were posted, and set the whole place in a blaze. Not till the roof was burnt about their ears, however, did the Boers budge. They clung with ferocious tenacity to every position, and  the fight at all times of the day was one of great stubbornness. The 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards had extended, and, swinging their right round, had prolonged the line of the Scots Guards to the right. Farther advance was  checked by the Riet River. The troops then lay down, being fairly under cover in that position. The heat was scorching, and in the plain o~cupied by our troops Mauser bullets swept the field in thousands. There was absolutely no  cover save the shelving bank of the river, which served no purpose directly they rose on elbow from the ground. For hours our men lay on their faces unable to show a head without inviting a shower of lead-lay on the blistering sand  with the hot African sun grilling them, some of the Highlanders having their legs veritably toasted, their mouths parched and full of sand, while bullets were fluting a death-song in the air, and the thunderous detonations of the  big guns seemed to be raking the very bowels of the earth. Still the Boers stuck to their posts. For hours they plied their guns without sign of exhaustion. A terrific fire was kept up on both sides for a long-a seemingly  interminable-time, but without any appreciable advance in the state of affairs. It was felt that nothing could be done on the right flank till the guns had cleared the position. The i8th Battery, however, came vigorously into play,  and so brilliantly acquitted itself that finally thc enemy was forced to evacuate their ferociously-contested positions among the houses. But so ably had they constructed their intrenchments that from these it was impossible to  dislodge them. Meanwhile the 9th Brigade had advanced the Northumberland Fusiliers along the east side of the railway line, supported by half a battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highianders. The Yorkshire Light lnfaFntry moved  along the west side of the railway, supported by the remaining half battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland High-landers. The half battalion Loyal North Lancashire prolonged the line to the left, and endeavoured to cross the river  and threaten the enemy's right flank. The six companies of Northamptons acted as a baggage-guard.

Early in the day a plucky attempt was made on the extreme right of the line to cross the Modder. Colonel Codrington and Captain  Feilding of the 1st Coldstreams, with Captain Selheim of the Queensland Permanent Force with some two dozen men, forded the river. 'Fhe water was almost chin deep, and while they crossed, the Hotchkiss gun directed an appalling  fire on them. Though laden with all their gear and 150 rounds of ammunition, they yet succeeded in reaching the other side, where they found themselves almost swamped in mud. As they were not supported they had to retire. But this  was easier said than done. On the return passage two men were almost drowned, and had it not been for the ingenious device of their comrades, who, by joining hands and slinging their putties together, managed to drag them ashore,  they would certainly have perished.

Soon after this the General, who had been moving about surveying and commanding, was shot through the thigh. Then followed some confusion, as the two brigades, the absence of orders, had to act  independently of each other, and there was some fear that the 9th Brigade would fire on the 1st. Command of the field was now assumed by Major-General Sir H. E. Colvile, whose head-quarters were on the right close to the river. It  had been Lord Methuen's idea to take the position at nightfall at the point of the bayonet, but owing to the tremendous day's work, the heat, the absence of food, and the general fatigue that all had undergone, this. project was  abandoned. There was another reason for the change of plan.

Just as it was beginning to grow late some of the most brilliant. work of the day commenced. As the trenches were found to be utterly impregnable to rifle-fire, it was  felt that only desperate measures would rout the Dutchmen from their stronghold. Colonel Barter (King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry) and Lieutenant Thorpe, with some men of the Argyll and Sutherland and North Lancashire Regiments,  started off; and, much to the surprise of the Boers, who had evidently not calculated upon such dauntless agility, got safely across the river. The wonderful way in which this feat was accomplished was described by an eye-witness,  a correspondent of the Times.

"That it could even be attempted to cross the river sliding side ways through the rush of water over the paddles along a rickety iron bar one by one, clinging to the short supports in full view  of the opposite shore, was an act of reckless heroism against which even the wary Cronje had not provided. This, however, is what was actually done, and it would be difficult to find a parallel for the stubborn pluck of the men who  accompanied Colonel Barter across the 300 yards of dam and weir. One by one some 400 of them crossed. Then a detachment of the Royal Engineers, showing how well they could take their part in the forefront of the fighting line.  followed them, after that some more of the Yorkshire Light Infantry. Little by little a force was collected which cleared several of the nearest houses on the right and effected an occupation of an irrigation patch from which they  were never dislodged." It was quite wonderful to note the effect of the gallant British cheer which rang out from General Pole-Carew's men as they burst from the river, bayonet in hand. The Boers were startled and fled, with  our men closely in pursuit. At the rousing, ringing, menacing sound, their hopes had failed-they thought that the rumour of victory was already in the air. "The thunder growl edged with melodious ire in alt," as Carlyle  called it, never did better work. It demoralised and brought about the end.

Shortly after, a battery of Royal Artillery came upon the scene, but before it had time to unlimber, more Boers took to their heels, falling over each  other in their haste to be off and catch their horses. The sound of British lungs in their rear and the sight of the guns was too much for them. Thus after twelve hours' fighting the day was practically won, for, when morning came,  it was found that the enemy had entirely cleared out, and removed to fresh intrenchments half-way between the river and Spyfontein.

It was a brilliant but a hardly-earned victory. It is stated that the Naval guns fired over 500  rounds, and the 18th Battery more than 1 100. The 75th fired 900 rounds, the 62nd (who came to the rescue from the Orange River late in the day), 500 rounds. The glorious gunners vied with one another in the display of gallantry  and proficiency.

A vivid story of the energetic march of the 62nd Battery was told by an officer, who must have had an even more trying time than most.

"We had orders to reinforce the main body at once; marched twenty  miles the first day, had a few hours' rest, and started at the first streak of dawn again. We did about twenty-five miles, and were Just going to have a well-earned rest when an orderly came galloping up with the order to go at  once (I am talking of the 62nd now), as the battle was going against our troops. We started off again at a trot, and kept it up for about five miles, when our horses were just done up. We had to take four out of our gun-teams, as  they dropped dead of exhaustion. The sergeants hooked their own horses in, and off we went again. We lost more horses, and had to walk after we had done about eight miles. We were only able to just make the horses drag the guns  into action. I shall never forget it. I was feeling very queer. I don't think any of us were afraid, but we were all of us expecting to be shot every minute, as the bullets came in showers. . . . We were in action in this place  about two hqurs. Our troops were being shot down in heaps, and things were looking very black, when Lord Methuen came up to our Colonel and asked him to send his batteries up closer (we were then 1500 yards from the Boer trenches,  and you must understand that a rifle carries 2500 yards). Our Colonel did. We then advanced up past our own infantry and came into action about 900 yards closer than artillery had ever taken up position before. After ~vere loss on  our side we managed to silence the Boer guns. The order was then given to retire. We got out of range, and were on the point of congratulating ourselves on being so lucky, when up rode an orderly giving us instructions to go and  relieve the Guards. Our Major advanced. . . . We took up our position 8oo yards from the Boer trenches, and, by Jove ! the Boers let us have a fearful reception. Before I got my horses out they shot one of my drivers and two horses  . and brought down my own horse. We then got my gun round on the enemy, when one of my gunners was shot through the brain and fell at my feet. Another of my gunners was shot whilst bringing up shell, and I began to feel queer.

At  last we had a look in; our shells began to tell. We were firing six rounds a minute, and were at it until it was too dark to fire any more. The Boer firing had ceased, and the Guards were able to get up and retire. They blessed the  artillery that day. We had to keep our position all night, with not a soul near us and nothing to eat and drink. Our orders were to open fire as soon as it was light enough, ~nd the infantry were to take the place at the point of  the bayonet. . . . But in the morning the Boers had fled. The field presented a terrible sight at daybreak; there were dead and dying in every direction. I couldn't describe it; it was awful. We lost heavily on our side, but the  Boer losses must have been heavier. The Boers bury their dead in the trenches as soon as they drop, so that one cannot gauge their loss, but we counted hundreds."

It is pleasant to remember that this hurried march and its  trials were fully appreciated by Lord Methuen, who reported that the 62nd Battery was of great service. It must be noted that it came into action between three and four o'clock in the afternoon. The gunners had made a splendid  forced march from Orange River in some twenty-three hours, yet there and then, with worn-out horses and jaded frames, joined in the fight.

Heroic actions were so abundant that they made quite a formidable list in the General's  despatch, but they afford such inspiriting reading to all who honour Great Britain's heroes, that the list is reproduced in its entirety.

"From the Lieut.- General Commanding the First Division to the Chief Staff Officer.

"MODDER RIVER, Dec. I, 1899.

"I have much pleasure in bringing to your notice the names of the following officers and rank and  file who distinguished themselves during the day

"Major Count Gleichen, C. M.G., for the coolness shown by him throughout the engagement, especially in attending to the wounded under a heavy fire.

"Sergeant ~rown and Private Martin, 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards, who helped him, were both shot.

"Sergeant-Major Cooke, 3rd Battalion Grenadiers, displayed remarkable coolness under fire.

"Lieutenant the Hon.  A. Russell showed great -coolness in working the machine-gun, which he did with marked success.

"Major Granville Smith, Coldstream Guards, in volunteering to find a ford, which he did in dangerous mud and a strong nver.

"Captain and Adjutant Steele, Coldstream Guards, for excellent service during the day.

"Sergeant-Major S. Wright, Coldstream Guards, showed great coolness when a change of ammunition carts was being made, and was of  great value at a critical time.

"Native Driver Matthews for making the other natives stick to their carts when they would otherwise have bolted.

"Drill and Colour-Sergeant Price, Coldstream Guards, at Belmont and at  Modder River rendered excellent service whilst commanding half a company.

"Drill and Colour-Sergeant Plunkett, Cold stream Guards, collected 150 men, and helped the 9th Brigade crossing the river under Captain Lord Newtown  Butler.

"No.1825, Lance-Corporal Webb, Coldstream Guards, twice asked leave to go into the open to bind up the wounds of a Grenadier; under a heavy fire he succeeded in his object.

'4 Captain Hervey Bathurst, Grenadier  Guards, was of great value in rallying a number of Grenadiers and Coldstreams shaken by the fire.

"I again call attention to Colonel Paget's cheerfulness and intelligence under the most trying surroundings.

"He draws  attention to Captain Moores, Royal Army Medical Corps, who, although wounded in the hand, said nothing, but continued his duties. Also he draws attention to the good services of the Master of Ruthven, Scots Guards. The valuable  services of Captain Nugent, aide-de-camp, and Captain Ruggles-Brise are again noted.

"The names of Lieut. -Colonel Barter, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and Major the Hon. C. Lambton, Northumberland Fusiliers, are  mentioned for having rendered invaluable assistance to their Brigadier. Captain Bulfin, Yorkshire Regiment, did his duty admirably.

"Lieutenant Percival, Northumberland Fusiliers, managed with great difficulty to establish  himself with a small party on a point near the railway, from which, by his judgment and coolness, he was able to keep down the fire of the enemy, many of his small party being killed.

"Nos. 3499, Lance-Corporal R. Delaney,  4160, Private J. East, 4563, Private Segar, 4497, Private Snowdon, Northumberland Fusiliers, under a very heavy fire picked up and brought in a wounded man of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders; No.3955, Private Smarley,  Northumberland Fusiliers, No. I of a Maxim detachment, who showed great coolness and judgment when wounded.

"Major Lindsay, Royal Artillery, 75th Battery, ignored a painful wound, and continued in command of his battery.  Lieutenant ~egbie, Royal Artillery, suddenly placed in command of his battery, led it and brought it into action with great coolness.

"Captain Farrell, wounded a second time, continued to do his duty, having first placed a  wounded rpan on one of the gun~carriages. Wounded gunners and drivers continued at their duty.

"Lieutenant Rochford Boyd, Royal Artillery, on this, as on former occasions, showed himself reliable and capable of acting  without orders.

"I personally bring to notice the value of Lieut. -Colonel Rhodes's service and Major Streatfeild's service in sending forward reinforcenients to Major-General Pole-Carew, for on this movement the result of  the evening's success depended.

"I cannot too highly commend the conduct of the troops, ably assisted by the Naval Brigade, for on them the whole credit of our success rests."

There were some miraculous escapes, one  sergeant in the Cold-stream Guards having had many nasty experiences. In an account of them he said :-"During the afternoon some one seemed to have spotted me from the

trenches. First a shot struck the side of my boot and  struck my rifle just in front of my face, filling my eyes with dirt and splinters. I rose up a little, when another shot struck the middle finger of my left hand. I had got on my knees, when a bullet struck me fair in the chest on  the buckle of my haversack, breaking it through the centre and causing a slight puncture of the skin and bruising my chest. Have been congratulated as being the luckiest beggar in my battalion."

The terrible nature of the  fighting was described by an officer in the Guards, who must have had a charmed life He wrote

"We had no cover except little scrub bushes about six inches high, and the ground sloped gently down to the Boers from about 2000  yards. I don't suppose troops have ever been in a more damnable position. I sat tip occasionally to see how things were going, but only for a moment, as it was always the signal for a perfect storm of bullets. My ammunition-bearer  had his head blown to bits by a 14lb. shell from a 37-milimetre Maxim, a most damnable gun. I happened to be in the line of it just before dark, and they pumped six rounds at me. The first four pitched in a line about twenty, ten,  fifteen, and the fourth four yards in front of me, and threw dirt all over me, and the next two just pitched behind me. I didn't like it a bit. . . . It was the worst day I have ever spent in my life. Twelve hours under a constant  and heavy fire of Maxims, 12-pounders, and other quick-finng guns and rifles, a hot sun, no cover, no water, and no food is more than enough for yours truly. . . . The guns yesterday fought magnificently, and I believe fired more  rounds per gun than have ever been fired in a battle before. . . . We had a lovely wash this morning. I washed shirt and drawers, besides myself-I wanted it. My clothes have not been off since we left the Orange River on November  21.

Cronje and Steyn are said to have both been present at the battle."

In this battle the hardships of warfare were accumulated. Not only had the troops to display active but passive heroism. Though the longing for water  exceeded the craving for food and repose, the unfortunate fellows were very near the verge of famine. Their position at times must have savoured of the tortures of Tantalus, for many of the men were groping after the enemy in a  doubled-up fashion and under a shower of lead, along farms and gardens, while hens clacked, pigs grunted, goats offered milk, and potatoes and other edibles smiled a mute invitation. When the Boers were routed, however, these  delicacies at last became the reward of their labours, but of the niceties of the culinary operations it is best not to speak. Our gallant Highlanders needed the services of no Vatel an old can and a wood fire right royally served  their purpose. The crossing of the river, which was so splendidly effected, particularly by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was fraught with unlooked-ft~r dangers, as the following quotation from a letter of a private in the  regiment will show. Talking of the enemy he said

"They held their position for five or six hours, and it was with great difficulty that we managed to shift them. Our regiment was the first to cross the river on the left  flank, and my company was the first to get over. We advanced along the river and drove the Doers before us; but, unfortunately, our big guns dropped two or three shells uncomfortably close to us, entirely by mistake. When the first  of these shells fell, I was only about ten yards past the spot. About twenty of our men were killed by the Doer bullets; and our regiment, I think, sustained the heaviest loss of any that took part in the fight. I felt a bit  frightened when I first went into battle, but as the day advanced I got myself again. My legs are badly burned by the sun, and are very sore, but I am rapidly getting all right again. We expect to have another fight this week, and  it will be even worse than the last, so one never knows the hour when he may fall."

Indeed they did not, and it was a pathetically common experience to wish a man good luck one morning and on the next to find that his helmet  and belongings were being gathered together-all that was left of him-to be sent home to his friends. For instance7 there was the case of poor Colour-Sergeant Christian of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, a hero who did  magnificent work, but who never lived to receive the decorations he deserved. An extract from one of his last letters is full of pathetic interest

"We have been fairly roughing it since we came out here. I have lost  everything, and have nothing but what I stand up in. I haven't had the kilt off since we landed from the boat three weeks ago, and we consider it very lucky if we can manage to get a wash once a week. Just now we are all right, as  the river is close at hand. You wouldn't know the regiment now if you saw us; we are brown all over. They have taken our sporrans away and covered our kilts with khaki cloth; in fact, I believe they will be making us dye our  whiskers khaki colour next. Not a man has shaved since we left Dublin, so you can imagine what we are like. I haven't said anything about the battle, as I am sure you will know more about it at home than w~ do here. It may seem  strange, but it is true. The people at home know more about what is going on than we do here. We have been receiving congratulatory telegrams from every one connected with the regiment, giving us great praise for our share in the  battle, and really I must say the regiment did very wel], considering we have so many youngsters in the ranks. The most trying part was lying down so long under fire without seeing any one to fire at. I was rather luckier, having  to retire at first, and then chase some Doers out of the house with the bayonet, and then we had to ford the river and clear the north bank of the nve?. We were clearing them beautifully with the bayonet when a shell from our own  guns burst among us. This seemed to demoralise every one, and they all commenced to retire. But, seeing this was my first fight, I couldn't see my way to retire without seeing who I was retiring from, and besides there was a lot of  wounded lying abo~t; so a major of the North Lancashire Regiment and myself succeeded in rallying ten men of different corps and held an enclosure. We were soon tackled by the Boers, but after we killed half-a-dozen of them they  appeared to get tired of t and cleared off; and we managed to get all the wounded in. I believe I have got recommended for the Distinguished Conduc~ Medal and the Victoria Cross for my share in this, but of course it is one thing  being recommended and quite another thing getting it."

Boer treachery, of which we had many examples, had hitherto been practised with monotonous regularity. They had fired on the ~hite tiag and disregarded the sacred sign  of the red cross. They had shot the hand that tended them, they had used Dum-Dum and explosive bullets, but on this occasion th& triumph of originality in treacherous trickery was achieved. On the principle of "all is fair  in love and war," the enemy utilised their ambulance for the purpose of removing their Hotchkiss gun from the field, and that too when the precious weapon was not even invalided!

Tales of many plucky actions which were  recorded would fill a volume in itself. Private Anderson, Scots Guards, over and over again traversed the fire zone and carried off the wounded to a place of safety. Lieutenant Fox, Yorkshire Light Infantry, was seriously wounded  whilst valiantly leading an assault against the enemy 5 strong position. When the horses approached to take the guns out of action, the Boers at once commenced to aim at them, and for the moment it seemed as though the work of  removing the guns could not be persisted in. Twenty-five horses were killed, but the chargers of several officers were next utilised, and the officers themselves, some of them wounded, walked or crawled off the field in order that  the valuable weapons should be borne off in safety. A driver was also heroically self-abnegating. Though shot through the lungs, he refused to leave his post, and valiantly drove his gun out of action.

The list of killed and wounded was a grievously long one

Killed: Staff-Lieutenant-Colonel H. P. Northcote. 2nd Coldstream Guards-Lieutenant-Colonel H. Stopford, Captain S. Earle. Wounded: Field Artillery-Major W. Lindsay, hand;  Captain Farrell, foot; Lieutenant - Dunlop, shoulder; Lieutenant Furse. 3rd Grenadier Guards-Major CountGleichen, severely; Lieutenant Hon. F. Lygon, slight. 2nd Coldstream Guards-Lieutenant Viscount Acheson. Royal Army Medical  Corps-Captain Gurse Moore. Killed: 2nd Yorkshire Light Infantry, Second Lieutenant L. W. Long. Wounded: Staff-Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen, slightly; bullet flesh wound in thigh. Royal Engineers-Captain N. G. Von Hugel,