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-
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-
sun, with the thermometer at 110 degrees in the shade-
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-
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-
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
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-
"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
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-
It was a brilliant but a hardly-
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
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-
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.-
"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.
"Lieutenant the Hon. A. Russell showed great -
"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.
"Native Driver Matthews for making the other natives stick to their carts when they would otherwise have bolted.
"Drill and Colour-
"Drill and Colour-
'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
"The names of Lieut. -
"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-
"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. -
"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-
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-
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-
"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
"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-
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-
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-
The list of killed and wounded was a grievously long one
|The Growth of the Transvaal|
|The Web Thickens|
|The Zulu War|
|Isandlwana, an hour by hour account|
|Affairs at Home|
|The First Anglo Boer War|
|Between the Wars|
|The Fate of SGT Elliot|
|The Siege of Pretoria|
|The Reform Movement|
|The Critical Moment|
|The Fate of the Raiders|