February 24, 1900.
We are once more upon the Modder. I should think the amount of blood, Dutch and English, this river has drunk in the last few months will give it a bad name for ever. There is something deadly about that word Modder. Say it over to yourself. Pah! It leaves a taste of blood in the mouth.
We have been fighting in a desultory kind of way for the last week here. Coming from Kimberley, where we had gone to holloa back French (you could follow him by scent all the way from the dead horses), we made a forced march and rejoined him here by the river, where he is busily engaged, with Kitchener at the other end, in bombarding old Cronjé in the middle. They have fairly got the old man. Kitchener had stuck to him pretty tight, it seems, after we left them that evening at Klip Drift. French has nicked in ahead. Macdonald has arrived, I believe, or is arriving, and there are various other brigades and divisions casting up from different quarters, all concentrating on unhappy Cronjé. Lord Roberts, I suppose, will get the credit, but part of it, one would think, belongs to Kitchener, who planned the movement and put it in train before Lord Roberts arrived.
Cronjé, by all accounts, has about 4000 men with him. He has dug himself into the river banks, which are steep and afford good cover. You would never guess, sweeping the scene with your glasses, that an army could be hiding there. The river curves and winds, its course marked by the tops of the willows that grow along its banks. The land on both sides stretches bare and almost level, but there are a few rises and knolls from which our artillery smashes down its fire on the Boer laager. At one point you can make out a ragged congregation of waggons, broken and shattered, some of them burning or smouldering. That is where the laager is, but not a soul can one see move. The place looks an utter solitude, bare and lifeless in the glare of the sun. There is no reply to our busy guns. The little shrapnel clouds, stabbed with fire, burst now here now there, sometimes three or four together, over the spot, and the blue haze floats away, mingling with the darker, thicker vapour from the less frequent lyddite. "What are they shooting at?" a stranger would say; "there is nobody there." Isn't there? Only 4000 crafty, vigilant Boers, crowding in their holes and cuddling their Mausers. Ask the Highlanders.
You will have heard all about that by this time. The desperate attempt last Sunday to take the position by storm. It was another of those fiendish "frontal attacks." Have we been through Belmont and Graspan and Modder River and Magersfontein for nothing? Or must we teach every general in turn who comes to take charge of us what the army has learnt long ago, that a frontal attack against Mausers is leading up to your enemy's strong suit. For Methuen there were reasons. Methuen could not outflank, could not go round, was not strong enough to leave his lines of communication, and had practically no cavalry. He had to go straight on. Belmont, Graspan, and Modder were turnpike gates. The toll was heavy, but there was no choice but to pay. But what was the reason of this latest? We had them here safely bottled up. We have them still. It is only a question of days. The attack could have gained nothing by success; has lost little by its failure. The casualties were 1500. I know all about eggs and omelettes, but these were simply thrown in the gutter.
Never tell me these Boers aren't brave. What manner of life, think you, is in yonder ditch? Our artillery rains down its cross fire of shells perpetually. The great ox-waggons are almost totally destroyed or burnt. The ammunition in the carts keeps blowing up as the fire reaches it. The beasts, horses and oxen, are strewn about, dead and putrid, and deserters say that the stench from their rotting carcasses is unbearable. Night and day they have to be prepared for infantry attacks, and yet, to the amazement of all of us, they still hold out.
Old Cronjé's apparent object is to try and save Bloemfontein by delaying us till reinforcements come up from the south and east. This is really what we want, because the more of the enemy we get in front of this great army of ours, the harder we shall be able to hit them. But evidently Cronjé is ignorant of our strength.Meantime we can make out in our break-of-day scoutings up the river that bodies of men are approaching from the east. They have made a laager about ten miles up, and evidently mean to dispute our passage to the capital. The longer old Cronjé holds out, the more men from Colesberg and Natal will come up, the more entrenchments will be cut, and the harder will be our way to Bloemfontein. 'Tis the only way he sees to save the town, for we should march straight in else. Perhaps, too, he cherishes some hope of being relieved himself; of a determined attack from without, which might enable him, by a sudden sally, to break through; though, for dismounted men (and their horses are all dead by this time), the chances of ultimate escape in a country like this must be very small, one would think. Anyhow, he sticks to his work like a glutton. The shells burst over them. The lyddite blows them up in smoke and dust, the sun grills, the dead bodies reek, our infantry creep on them day and night; foul food, putrid water, death above and around, they grin and bear it day after day to gain the precious hours. And all the time we on our side know perfectly well that no relief they could possibly bring up would serve our army for rations for a day.