Modder River Camp, December 1, 1899.
We had a great old fight here two days ago, and suffered another crushing victory; but though I saw it all, I daresay you know more about the whole thing by this time than I do.
This is Modder River, deep and still, just beneath my feet. It is a lovely, cloudless morning, and going to be a very hot day. I am writing my letter on the banks of the river in the shade of green trees and shrubs, with birds singing and twittering, and building their nests round me; it is spring-time here, you know, or early summer. Here and there, sauntering or sitting, are groups of our khaki soldiers enjoying mightily a good rest after the hard work, marching and fighting, of the last ten days. From the river-bed come voices calling and talking, sounds of laughing, and now and then a plunge. Heads bob about and splash in the mud-coloured water, and white figures run down the bank and stand a moment, poised for a plunge. Three stiff fights in seven days doesn't seem to have taken much of the spring out of them.
You would scarcely think it was the scene of a battle, and yet there are a few signs. If you look along the trees and bushes, you see here and there a bough splintered or a whole trunk shattered, as though it had been struck by lightning. A little lower down the river there is a shed of corrugated iron, which looks as if some one had been trying to turn it into a pepper-pot by punching it all over with small holes. They run a score to the square foot, and are a mark of attention on the part of our guards, who, lying down over yonder in the plain, could plainly distinguish the light-coloured building and made a target of it. In many places the ground is ploughed up in a curious way, and all about in the dust lie oblong cylinders of metal, steel tubes with a brass band round one end. These would puzzle you. They are empty shell cases. The tops, as you see, have been blown off, which is done by the bursting charge timed by a fuse to ignite at a certain range, i.e., above and a little short of the object aimed at. The explosion of the bursting charge by the recoil, checks for an instant the flight of the shell, and this instant's check has the effect of releasing the bullets with which the case is filled. These fly forward with the original motion and impetus of the shell itself, spreading as they go. Horizontal fire is easy to find cover against, but these discharges from on high are much more difficult to evade. For instance, ant-hills are excellent cover against rifles, but none at all against these shells. It is shrapnel, as this kind of shell is called, that does the most mischief. The round bullets (200 to a caseful) lie scattered about in the dust, and mixed with them are very different little slender silvery missiles, quite pretty and delicate, like jewellers' ornaments. These are Lee-Metford bullets. You could pick up a pocketful in a short time.
The action itself was mainly an infantry one. Here are one or two jottings taken that day:—
"November 26th, 7.30 A.M.—We left camp, six miles south of Modder River, a little before daylight and marched north. The country is like what one imagines a North American prairie to be, a sea of whitish, coarse grass, with here and there a low clump of bushes (behind one of which we are halted as I write this). One can see a vast distance over the surface. Along the north horizon there is a ripple of small hills and kopjes, looking blue, with the white grass-land running up to them. It is a comparatively cool morning with a few light clouds in the sky and a pleasant breeze. On our left is the railway, and all along on our right, extending far in front and far behind, advances the army."
"We incline to the left near to the railway. The horrid, little, grey-bluish, armoured train crawls in front. It is dreadfully excited always in presence of the enemy, darting forward and then running back like a scorpion when you tease it with your stick-end. One can see by its agitation this morning that the enemy are not far off. Behind it comes a train of open trucks with the famous Naval Brigade, with their guns, search-light, &c. The river flows somewhere across the landscape yonder in the plains. One cannot see it, but a few belts of bushes indicate its course. It is just that awkward moment before one gets touch of the enemy. They, no doubt, can see us (I wonder how they like the look of us), but we cannot see them. They must be somewhere along the river among those bushes, and probably in trenches. But where does their main strength lie? where are their guns? There goes fire, away on the right (probably at the Lancers, who are the right flankers); the dull short discharge of Mausers. The train moves forward a hundred yards, but as yet the men keep their places, clustered in the trucks. Two officers standing on a carriage roof watch with a telescope the distant fire. It has now ceased. A flag-wagger flutters his flag in eager question. Nothing moves on the plain save here and there a lonely prowling horseman, cantering on, or dismounted and peering through his glass. It was three minutes to eight when the first shot was fired. 'This will be a bit more history for the kiddies to learn,' yawns the next man to me, leaning idly over his pony."
"It is a half-hour later as the great guns begin their booming; that solemn, deep-toned sound like the striking of a great cathedral clock. We moved forward to the top of a rise overlooking the distant river and village."
"A dead level stretches below us to the river, marked by some bush tufts and the few roofs of Modder River village. The Naval Brigade have got their four guns in the plain just near the foot of our hill. They are hard at work now bombarding the enemy's big gun by the river. This, after a while, is almost silenced. Each time it speaks again the deadly naval guns are on to it. At last, when it does fire, it shows by its erratic aim that its best gunners are out of action."
"9.30.—The naval guns draw slowly closer to the river. Every shell bursts along the opposite bank where the enemy are. More to the right and nearer the river our field-batteries are pounding away as hard as they can load and fire. All the time the subdued rumble of Maxims and rifles goes on, like a rumble of cart-wheels over a stony road. Now it increases to one continuous roar, now slackens till the reports separate. Now, after one and a half hours, the fight seems to be concentrating towards the village opposite. A haze of smoke hangs over the place. The guns thunder. The enemy's Maxim-Nordenfelt goes rat-tat-tat a dozen times with immense rapidity. 'Come in,' says a Tommy of the Grenadiers who has come to our hill for orders; and indeed it sounds exactly like some one knocking at a street door. Now the under-current of rifle fire becomes horrible in its rapidity. Can anything in that hell down there be left alive? Suddenly their plucky big gun opens again and sends several well-directed shells among our batteries. The naval guns turn their attention to it immediately. You can see the little, quick glints of fire low along the ground at each discharge, and then the bursting shell just over the big gun on the river-bank."
"10 A.M.—Both sides are sticking to the business desperately. The rattle of rifle-fire is one low roar. The air shudders and vibrates under it. Now the naval guns draw towards the river again; so do the rest of our batteries. Things can't stand at this tension. The big gun speaks again, but wildly; its shell bursts far out on the plain."
"10.30.—The aspect of the place is now awful. The breeze has died a little and the smoke hangs more. It is enveloped in a haze of yellow and blue vapour, partly from bursting shell and partly firing guns. Those volumes of smoke, with gleams of fire every now and then, make it look like some busy manufacturing town, and the blows and throbs with which the place resounds convey the same idea."
"11 A.M.—The fight is dogged as ever but slower. There are cessations of firing altogether, and it is comparatively slow when continued. The stubbornness of the enemies' resistance to our attack and to the fearful shelling they have had is calling forth expressions of astonishment and admiration from the onlooking officers on the hill."
"As the circle narrowed and our attack concentrated on the village and bridge, we all thought that the end was coming, and, on a lull of the firing about 11.30 the Major even exclaimed, 'There, I think that's the end, and I can only say thank God for it.' But he was wrong. He had scarcely said it when that indomitable heavy gun of theirs, re-supplied with gunners, began again; again the Naval guns, on a tested range, crack their shrapnel right in its face; the batteries all open and soon the whole orchestra is thundering again. That dreadful muttering, the 'rub-a-dub, a-dub-a-dub, a-dub-a-dub' (say it as fast as you can) of the rifles keeps on; through all the noise of fire, the sharp, quick bark of the Boer Maxim-Nordenfelt sounds at intervals and the mingled smoke and dust lies in a haze along the river."
It was, all through, almost entirely an infantry action, but about the middle of the day we were sent down to the river on the Boer right, as parties of the enemy were thought to be breaking away in that direction. And here, I am sorry to say, poor Parker who had served in the Greek-Turkish war, and used to beguile our long night marches with stories of the Thessalian hills and the courage of the Turks, was hit, it is feared mortally. The fight itself continued with intermissions all day, and even in the evening, though parts of the Boer position had been captured and many of them had fled, there were some who still made good their defence, holding out in places of vantage with the greatest obstinacy. These took advantage of the night to escape, and it was not till next morning that we had the place in our possession. The Boers themselves, as we are told by people here, thought the position impregnable. Certainly it was very strong. The river has cut a channel or groove thirty feet deep in the ground; the edges, sharp and distinct, so that men can lie on the slant and look out across the plain. A big loop in the river is subtended by a line of trenches and rifle-pits hastily dug (they only decided twenty-four hours before the attack to defend the position; this by Cronjé's advice, who had just come south from Mafeking, the others were for retiring to the next range of hills), from which the whole advance of our infantry across the level is commanded. "We," as the soldiers explained to me, "could see nothing in our front but a lot of little heads popping up to fire and then popping down again." These shelters, a long line of them, are littered thick with empty cartridge cases, hundreds in each; one thinks involuntarily of grouse-driving. Bodies, still unburied, lay about when I was there. Such odours! such sights! The unimaginable things that the force of shot and shell can do to poor, soft, human flesh. I saw soldiers who had helped to do the work turn from those trenches shaking.