[Footnote 167: As a point of historical accuracy it should be noticed that, for the battle of the 28th November, the "Modder River" is a misnomer. The fighting, as will be seen in this chapter, took place on the banks of the Riet; but since the battle honours for the engagement have been given for "Modder River," the name has become officially recognised, and is therefore used here. See map No. 12.]
[Sidenote: Boers learn to change their ideas of a "strong position."]
[Sidenote: The ground chosen by De la Rey. Nov. 26th.]
When the Boers, after their defeat on the 25th November, retreated from the heights of Graspan, the greater part of their force withdrew to Jacobsdal, little inclined to renew the combat. But General De la Rey induced the burghers to make another effort to arrest the British march on Kimberley, at a position of his own selection at the confluence of the Riet and the Modder rivers, where the terrain differed in character from that which had been occupied at Belmont and Graspan. In those engagements the Boers had entrenched themselves upon high and rugged kopjes, of which the apparent strength became a source of weakness. The hills afforded an excellent target for the British artillery. The riflemen who held the works had to aim downwards at the enemy as he advanced to the attack, and a "plunging" fire never yields satisfactory results. At their base was dead ground, inaccessible to the musketry of the defenders. Here the attacking infantry, after their rush across the open, could halt for breathing space before delivering the final assault. For these reasons De la Rey decided to adopt completely new tactics and to fight from the bed of a river, surrounded on every side by a level plain, destitute of cover over the surface of which the burghers could pour a continuous and "grazing" fire upon the British from the time they first came within range, up to the very moment of their final charge. The plain, across which the railway from Orange River to Kimberley runs nearly due north and south, is intersected by the devious windings of two rivers, the Riet and the Modder. From Bosman's Drift (see map 12) the Riet, the more southerly of the two, runs north-west for about a mile and a half, and then for the same distance turns to the north-east. Its course next changes abruptly to the north-west for nearly two miles when, increased in volume by the waters of its affluent, the Modder, it gently curves to the westward for about a mile and a half. The meanderings of the Modder are even more remarkable. Its most southern elbow is half a mile north-east of the spot where the Riet turns for the second time north-west. Thence it runs for a mile to the north, then about the same distance to the west; it turns southward for a mile, and then flows westward for three-quarters of a mile, where, a few hundred yards above the railway bridge, it merges into the Riet. Both these streams have cut themselves channels so wide as to allow a thick growth of trees and scrub to line their sides, so deep that the vegetation which they contain hardly shows above the level of the surrounding plain. There are few practicable fords across the Riet. One exists at Bosman's Drift; there is a second near the railway bridge; among the group of islets at Rosmead there is a natural ford, while the retaining wall of the weir which dams the river at this village can be used, not without difficulty, by active men in single file. Elsewhere the depth of the water and the mud at the bottom of the Riet effectually combine to prevent the passage of troops. Thus the Riet and the Modder together formed not only a gigantic moat across the approaches to Kimberley from the south and south-east, but a covered way, by which its defenders could move unseen to any part of the position.
[Footnote 168: See map No. 9 and freehand sketch.]
[Sidenote: Two hamlets on the Riet. Other details.]
On the right bank of the Riet there are two hamlets. One, known as Modder River village, is clustered round the station; the other, Rosmead, lies a mile further down the river. In both are farms and cottages with gardens, bounded by trees, strongly-built mud walls, and fences of wire and prickly cactus. On the left bank, close to the river, there are two or three farms, surrounded by gardens and substantial enclosures. About five miles to the north-east of the Modder River village the Magersfontein kopjes loom dark and frowning, a landmark for all the country round; while still further to the north the heights of Scholtz Nek and Spytfontein lie athwart the railway to Kimberley. A glance at the reproduction of Captain Erskine's freehand sketch of the ground will help the reader to appreciate the strength of the Boer position.
[Footnote 169: See map No. 13.]
[Sidenote: Nov. 26th/99. Halt at Enslin.]
On the 26th November, Lord Methuen halted in the neighbourhood of Enslin, while supplies and ammunition were brought up by the railway. As far as the exhausted condition of his horses permitted, he reconnoitred in the direction of the Riet, and a strong patrol of mounted men, led by Lt.-Colonel Verner, ascertained that the Boers were in occupation of Honey Nest Kloof station (map No. 9), and saw considerable numbers of the enemy moving across the veld, trekking, as it seemed, from the river southwards towards Ramdam. But so tired were the artillery horses that, when the leader of the patrol sent back a request for guns with which to shell the Boers out of the railway station, Lord Methuen thought it better to give them absolute rest, and ordered the patrol to retire.
[Footnote 170: See map No. 9.]
[Footnote 171: At the end of this reconnaissance Lt.-Col. Verner was so severely injured by his horse falling with him that he was invalided home.]
[Sidenote: 1st Division marches, Nov. 27th to Wittekop.]
[Sidenote: Lord Methuen's first intention.]
[Sidenote: His purpose in moving on Modder River.]
[Sidenote: 4.30 a.m. Nov. 28th the march begins.]
At 4 a.m. on the 27th the division marched to Wittekop, about six miles to the south of the Modder River bridge. Here the artillery and infantry bivouacked while the cavalry and mounted infantry reconnoitred on a front of six miles along the railway towards the river. In the distance, lines of wagons could be seen leaving Jacobsdal, apparently moving towards Modder River station, and at about 1 p.m. the advance patrols of the 9th Lancers reported that they had been forced to halt by the enemy's musketry from the direction of the railway bridge, which had been wrecked by the Boers at the beginning of the war. In the afternoon Lord Methuen joined Major Little, commanding the 9th Lancers, in a reconnaissance towards the Riet, but observed nothing to cause him to change the plan he had already formed. This was to mask the Modder River bridge by a reconnaissance in force, while he marched to Jacobsdal, and thence by Brown's Drift across the Modder river to Abon's Dam, lying about sixteen miles north-east of Jacobsdal, and thus turn the position of Spytfontein (see map No. 9), on which he was convinced the burghers intended to give him battle. The cavalry did not reconnoitre up the Riet river towards Jacobsdal, and therefore the existence of the ford at Bosman's Drift remained unknown to him. His only large scale sketch of the ground near the Modder bridge did not include the windings of this stream. But in the course of the night much information came in. Major Little reported that he estimated the number of Boers near the Modder River village to be 4,000. Major Rimington ascertained that the Boers expected reinforcements, and that they were making entrenchments on the south bank near Modder River bridge. A loyal British subject, at great personal risk, succeeded in sending a message to the effect that the Boers were in force at the village, and were "digging themselves in like rabbits." On this evidence Lord Methuen concluded, and he continued to hold his opinion till the battle began, that Modder River village was merely used as an advanced post to cover the burghers' main position at Spytfontein. But as he did not wish to leave even a detachment of the enemy threatening his lines of communication, he decided to postpone his flanking movement on Abon's Dam until he had captured the entrenched village. Before dawn the orders were recast, and by 4.30 a.m. on the 28th, the division was on the march, but unfortunately the men were not all of them adequately prepared for the work which lay before them, for owing to the change of plan many started without their breakfasts.
[Footnote 172: This sketch had been made a few days before the outbreak of war by an officer who was ordered to report on the best method of defending the Modder River bridge with one or two companies of infantry. It was executed under circumstances which, even had his instructions been more comprehensive, would have prevented him from effecting any extensive reconnaissance of the Riet and Modder rivers.]
[Footnote 173: The Northamptonshire was detailed to guard the baggage at Wittekop. The 1st battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders joined Lord Methuen's column on the night of the 28th from the lines of communication.]
[Sidenote: The cavalry stopped by concealed riflemen before division arrives.]
[Sidenote: The real dispositions of defenders.]
The cavalry, who had moved off at 4 a.m., were brought to a standstill by the enemy's fire at about 5.30 a.m. Major Little then reported to Lord Methuen, who had accompanied the mounted troops, that all the information sent in by the officers of the advance squadrons showed that the river was strongly held from the railway bridge eastward to a clump of high poplars. Major Little's deduction, as far as it went, was perfectly correct; but he did not know, nor did anyone else in Lord Methuen's force suspect, that admirably concealed entrenchments had been thrown up along the left bank of the Riet, from Rosmead east, to the bend where the bed of the river turns sharply southwards. At many places on the northern bank shelter trenches had been constructed. The farms on the southern bank had been prepared for occupation by riflemen; the houses of Rosmead and Modder village had been placed in a state of defence. At various points behind the Riet, epaulments had been thrown up for the six field guns which the enemy had with them, while among the foliage on the bank three or four pom-poms were cunningly concealed. It is uncertain whether the whole of the long series of trenches was actually manned when the cavalry first appeared before the river, or whether the Boers only occupied the western works after it had become clear that Lord Methuen did not propose to force a crossing at Bosman's Drift, and that his line of attack was to be roughly parallel to the railway. But there is no doubt that the fear of being outflanked caused the burghers to take up a very wide front, and that the manoeuvres of the mounted troops near Bosman's Drift, and of the 9th brigade at Rosmead, forced them still further to extend it on both flanks. When the whole position was taken up, Free Staters under Prinsloo were posted on the right; the centre, through which ran the railway line, was defended by De la Rey with part of the Transvaal commandos; to the left stood another contingent of Transvaalers, composed of some of the men who, two days earlier, had arrived at Edenburg, weary with the forced march and long railway journey by which P. Cronje had brought them from the siege of Mafeking to protect the Riet. In all, between three and four thousand burghers were in array.
[Sidenote: Cronje fears for Bosman's Drift, which is unknown to British.]
[Sidenote: Mounted infantry seize farm a mile above this drift, on Riet.]
Noticing the direction of the British advance towards Modder River village, Cronje at first believed that Lord Methuen was about to cross the Riet at Bosman's Drift. He therefore hurriedly despatched a gun and a pom-pom from the delta formed by the junction of the two rivers, to support the outlying detachments of riflemen, already posted in the neighbourhood of the ford and of a farmhouse a mile further up the river. The 18th battery drove back the pom-pom and gun, and then, at about 7.15 a.m. supported the mounted infantry who had been despatched to capture the farm. Aided by the well-placed shells of the artillery, the mounted infantry carried it, and established themselves so solidly under cover of the mud walls of its kraal that a Boer gun, which later in the day played upon them for several hours, failed to dislodge them. The duty of watching the right rear was entrusted to the 9th Lancers. By their repeated attempts to cross the Riet they prevented the men who guarded it from reinforcing the main Boer positions; and they warded off the threatened attack of detachments of the enemy who, based on Jacobsdal, hovered on the right flank. Rimington's Guides at the beginning of the action were sent to the west, where they similarly covered the left flank. Among the first to cross the river was a party of the Guides, and these did good service during the subsequent fighting on the right bank.
[Sidenote: 7 a.m. Guards attack east of railway bridge: 9th brigade towards bridge.]
The infantry began to arrive on the battlefield at about 7 a.m., and Lord Methuen directed Major-General Colvile with the Guards' brigade to attack the left flank of the supposed frontage of the enemy, viz., the space from the railway bridge eastward to the clump of high poplars on the Riet. Major-General R. Pole-Carew was meanwhile to lead the 9th brigade astride of the railway upon the broken bridge, conforming his advance to that of the Guards. A verbal message was at the same time sent by Lord Methuen to say that he thought that there were along the river bank no Boers except possibly some 400 men who might be covering the broken bridge itself.
[Footnote 174: Major-General Pole-Carew had reached Lord Methuen's column on the 27th to assume command of the 9th brigade, of which Lieut.-Colonel Money, Northumberland Fusiliers, had been in temporary charge since the 23rd, when Major-General Fetherstonhaugh was wounded at Belmont.]
[Sidenote: Development of Guards' attack.]
[Sidenote: Scots Guards attempting outflanking attack are checked by concealed riflemen.]
It will be convenient to describe the operations of the Guards' brigade throughout the day, before touching upon those of the 9th brigade. On receipt of his instructions, Major-General Colvile formed his troops, then at some distance east of the railway, into two lines; the first consisted of the Scots Guards on the right, the Grenadiers in the centre, the 2nd battalion of the Coldstream on the left; the first battalion of the Coldstream was in reserve as second line. The clump of high poplars was selected as the point of direction. As the Guards deployed they were smitten by artillery, and later by rapid musketry. As soon as the deployment was completed, the Scots Guards were ordered to advance at once, swing round their right, and take the enemy in flank. Lieut.-Colonel Pulteney with two companies and a machine gun was pushing round to the right, to carry out the turning movement, when, at about 8.10 a.m. he came under a sudden and violent fire from the enemy concealed in the low bushes of the Riet or in the trenches on its left bank. The companies suffered considerably; and of the men forming the detachment with the Maxim all were killed or wounded by a well-concealed pom-pom. Colonel Paget, who commanded the Scots Guards, sent four companies to Colonel Pulteney's assistance, but even with this reinforcement it was impossible to make further progress across the plain.
[Sidenote: 1st Coldstream, thrown in on right, are stopped by Riet.]
[Sidenote: but move along it and entrench upon it.]
When Major-General Colvile saw that the Boers had thus arrested the march of the Scots Guards, he determined to employ his reserve, the 1st Coldstream, in prolonging the line of the brigade to the right so as to extend beyond the enemy's left. The 1st Coldstream was then on the right rear of the leading battalions and was formed in two lines, one behind the other, each in echelon of companies from the left. Lt.-Colonel Codrington, who commanded it, accordingly moved to the right, where he was unexpectedly stopped by the Riet, of the existence of which he was unaware. Major Granville Smith's company, which was one of those that first reached the river, was ordered to line part of the left bank, to repel an expected attack in flank from burghers who had been seen on the plain beyond the further bank. In this part of its winding course the right of the Riet is higher than the left, so that Major Granville Smith's field of view was very limited. He therefore sought for a ford by which he could reach the dominant bank. Finding traces of a disused drift, he waded alone over a narrow spit of rock through water which reached to his chin, to the right side of the river, where he was soon joined by Lt.-Colonel Codrington with two other officers and 18 non-commissioned officers and men. After driving away some Boers by musketry, the little party reconnoitred up and down the stream in the vain hope of finding a more practicable ford, and was then ordered by a staff officer to recross and return. During the time employed in this unsuccessful quest the greater part of Colonel Codrington's battalion had pushed down the river, some companies in the bed, others along the bank. As they scrambled on, fording was attempted at many points, but in every case the deep water, and the almost equally deep mud at the bottom of the stream, proved impassable. The leading company reached the angle of the bend where the Riet breaks away to the westward, but there, shot down by invisible Boers, some hidden along the right bank, others holding a farm and garden on the left bank, they could get forward no further. A patrol worked down stream sufficiently far to the west of the bend to be able to see the railway bridge, but was driven back by musketry. The battalion took up a position along the left bank, entrenching itself with the Slade-Wallace tools, carried as part of the soldiers' equipment. Some companies faced to the west, the remainder to the north and east. Here they remained till nightfall. They were a target for the defenders of the banks of the Riet, for a detachment which lined the Modder near the northern reservoir, and for a pom-pom. This latter was, however, quickly driven away by a few well-aimed section volleys. Some time after 9 a.m. two companies of Scots Guards, by order of Major-General Colvile, fell back from where they were on the plain, and forming up along the river bank prolonged the line of the 1st Coldstream to the south-west. At dusk a handful of officers and men succeeded in making their way to the Scots Guards' machine gun which had been silenced in the morning, and brought it back, together with one or two wounded men of the detachment who lay around it. At intervals during the day the British right flank was annoyed by shots from Boers on the plain to the east of the Riet. These men several times appeared to be about to make a serious attack upon this part of the line, but their purpose always withered up under the fire of the Grenadiers' Maxim gun, of detachments of the Guards left to hold the southern reservoir, and of the mounted infantry and 9th Lancers on the extreme right rear.
[Sidenote: Grenadiers and 2nd Coldstream move at 7 a.m., Nov. 28th, straight for river east of bridge.]
[Sidenote: They are stopped at 1,000 yards from it.]
When the Scots Guards commenced their turning movement, the Grenadiers and the 2nd battalion of the Coldstream began their frontal attack, and arrived within 1,000 or 1,100 yards of the enemy who lined the river bank. At this range the hostile fire was so severe that it became impossible to get nearer and, as the day wore on, the difficulty of keeping the men supplied with ammunition grew more and more serious. When night put an end to the engagement, in many companies the soldiers had but ten cartridges left in their pouches with which to cover an attack, or repel a counter-stroke. So long as the men lay flat on the ground they were little molested, as a growth of thistles hid them from the enemy's view, but any attempt to move brought upon them a shower of bullets, to which they were unable to reply with any effect, as the Boers, perfectly protected by their trenches or concealed by the vegetation which lined the river bank, suffered little from the shrapnel of the supporting British guns, and could not be seen by the infantry.
[Footnote 175: A few groups of officers and men were able to win their way three or four hundred yards nearer to the Boer defences, but with heavy loss.]
[Sidenote: 18th and 75th batteries support Guards.]
[Sidenote: Naval guns engage Boer guns.]
The 18th and 75th batteries came into action to the east of the railway, and after various short duels with Boer guns which appeared and disappeared on different parts of the field, they covered the movements of the brigade of Guards. The 75th battery was to the left rear of the 2nd Coldstream, first at 1,700, then at 1,200 yards, range. There it remained till 4 p.m. when, owing to casualties and want of ammunition, it was ordered to fall back a few hundred yards. The 18th battery, two hundred yards to the left rear of the 75th, opened fire at 1,400 yards range; the targets for both batteries were the buildings and enclosures stretching eastward for a mile from the railway bridge. The Naval brigade, about 250 strong, under the command of Major A. E. Marchant, R.M.L.I., had been brought up by rail from Enslin under the escort of an armoured train. At about 7 a.m. their four 12-pr. 12-cwt. guns began to engage the enemy's artillery from a knoll, a little to the west of the line, distant 4,800 yards from the broken bridge.
[Sidenote: The 9th brigade advance.]
While the Guards, covered by the fire of the artillery, were preparing for the already described movements, Major-General Pole-Carew, as ordered by Lord Methuen, led the 9th brigade towards the broken railway bridge, the point assigned as his object. The Northumberland Fusiliers and the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were ordered to advance along the railway, the former on its east, the latter on its west, each supported by half a battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, while the half-battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire was to prolong the line to the left, and if possible cross the river and threaten the enemy's right. But Pole-Carew speedily realised that by the time the first line of the Guards' brigade had fully extended, their left would almost reach the railway, and would therefore overlap his right. To obtain more room, and also in the hope of being able to turn the right flank of the enemy, he marched westward, and, thanks to a slight swell in the ground, was able to reach the railway, some 2,000 yards south of the broken bridge, without attracting much attention. But as soon as the Northumberland Fusiliers were in the act of crossing the line from east to west, the Boer guns opened upon them and a few minutes later, about 7.30 a.m., the whole river bed, west of the bridge, burst into one wide fusilade. In order to maintain touch with the Guards, and to protect the westward march of his brigade, the Major-General ordered the Northumberland Fusiliers to change direction to their right, extend, and endeavour to beat down the enemy's enfilading musketry, which was pouring across the plain, here smooth as a glacis and as destitute of cover. Soon afterwards he found it necessary to leave half the battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to prolong the line of the Northumberland Fusiliers to the left; and, later, he was compelled to direct the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry yet further to prolong the covering force, behind whose protection he was making the westward march. The continual necessity thus to increase the numbers employed in this protective work now left him only the half-battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire and the half-battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders available for carrying out the original design.
[Sidenote: Attempt to take Boer outposts.]
The left of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry made their way to within a few hundred yards of a farmhouse and kraal, some 300 yards south of the river. These buildings and a patch of rocky ground to the west were strongly held as outworks by the Boers; and Major-General Pole-Carew, being convinced by a report from Captain E. S. Bulfin, his brigade-major, that they covered a ford across the Riet, endeavoured to take them, but without success. In the hope of bringing enfilade fire upon the defenders, he sent a small party of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders into a donga, which runs into the river between the farmhouse and the nearest Boer trench on the left bank. Advancing with a rush, this detachment reached the river bed without loss, and was subsequently reinforced by another handful of the same battalion.
[Sidenote: After some delay they are captured.]
About 11 a.m. an order reached Pole-Carew telling him that as the Guards were crossing the river, his battalion near the railway was to cease fire so as to avoid the possibility of injuring their comrades. This order was with the greatest difficulty conveyed to the right of the 9th brigade, but as soon as it was obeyed, the musketry of the Boers so redoubled in intensity that in self-defence the troops had to re-open fire. Almost immediately after the message had arrived, Lord Methuen came up and told Pole-Carew that the Guards had not succeeded in their attempt to cross. His purpose was to arrange for concerted action on the left flank. The Major-General explained to him the local situation, and said that he proposed to reinforce the little party of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the river bank, and under cover of their fire on the farm, rush it, and then make every effort to cross the river by the islands at Rosmead. Lord Methuen approved, and some twenty or thirty more of the Argyll and Sutherland rushed down into the donga. A strong flanking patrol of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, under Lt. R. M. D. Fox, supported by a detachment of the Argyll and Sutherland, was now utilised for the attack on the house and kraal. The Boers did not make a vigorous resistance but retreated across the river as the British advanced, and at about 11.30 the farm and the rocky ground were in Major-General Pole-Carew's hands. The enemy on the north bank had been so greatly shaken by the fire of two guns of the 18th battery, under Capt. G. T. Forestier-Walker, that they were already in retreat from Rosmead when the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry attacked the farmhouse. This section, which at 10.15 a.m. was sent to assist the 9th brigade by Col. Hall, the officer commanding the artillery, had come into action on a small knoll south-west of the village of Rosmead, on the extreme left of the line, and its shells had dislodged a party of about 300 Boers, who were seen galloping away northwards from Rosmead and from the wood to the east of it.
[Sidenote: Situation at 11.30 a.m. Nov. 28th.]
At 11.30 a.m. the general situation was as follows:--the half battalion Loyal North Lancashire was close to the southern bank facing a ford, to which it had been sent by Capt. Bulfin. The farm covering the weir was in our hands; thence eastwards to the railway stretched the 9th brigade, immovable under the fire of the Boers entrenched along both banks. The small detachment of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders held the donga between the farm and the nearest Boer trench on the south bank.
[Sidenote: Lodgments on further bank.]
[Sidenote: Rosmead is captured.]
A few minutes later Lieut.-Col. Barter, K.O.Y.L.I., followed by a few men of various corps, began to cross the river by the weir, while a quarter of a mile lower down the stream two companies of the Loyal North Lancashire under Major Coleridge commenced the passage of the drift. Major-General Pole-Carew now despatched a messenger to inform Lord Methuen, who had returned to the centre of the line, that he had made a lodgment on the right bank and required reinforcements. But there were no troops in hand. No battalions had been retained as final reserve, and the only troops not engaged were the baggage guard of six companies of the Northampton regiment and three companies of Royal engineers. All that could be done was to direct various officers to convey orders to the 9th brigade, and to the companies of the Guards in its immediate neighbourhood to move westward, in support of the movement on the extreme left. But their efforts served to prove once more the truth of the axiom that when once troops are heavily engaged in the fire-fight, they can only advance or retire; for it was found impossible to withdraw any large number of men from the right and centre of the 9th brigade. Without waiting for the reinforcements he had asked for, the Major-General, as soon as he had collected about 150 men of various corps, dashed into the river, and partly by wading through water up to the men's armpits, partly by scrambling along the wall of the weir, brought his party safely into Rosmead.
[Sidenote: Pole-Carew moves against Modder River village.]
After making preparations to repulse any attempt by the enemy to recapture the village, the Brigadier began to organise a force with which to push up the right bank towards Modder River village, and thus attack the heart of the defence. In about an hour he had collected some five hundred men of various corps, and leaving part of the Loyal North Lancashire to guard Rosmead, he advanced eastward to capture this important post. On his right, in the brushwood, were some of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. On the left were parties of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry under Colonel Barter, and some of the Loyal North Lancashire. A company of Northumberland Fusiliers, commanded by Major the Hon. C. Lambton, followed in support; and a patrol of Rimington's Guides scouted on the left flank.
[Sidenote: Vigorous resistance by Albrecht.]
At first his men were little exposed to fire, but when they reached the neighbourhood of Fraser's farm they found the enemy prepared for them. A storm of bullets, and of inverted shrapnel from Albrecht's guns (at the spot where these guns are shown 500 yards north-west of the bridge), fell upon them as they endeavoured to cross long hedges of prickly pear, and to climb through strong wire fences. Nor were other Boer artillerymen, posted close to the railway station, unobservant of the British flanking movement. Their shells fell thick among the ranks of the detachment, while the burghers in the trenches on the south side of the river, turning their aim from the right and centre of the 9th brigade, poured their fire against those who were the more dangerous enemy, because threatening to cut off their retreat. The Brigadier had expected that the party of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, placed in the donga on the left bank of the river, would have kept these Boers in check by flanking fire; but owing to a mistake either in the delivery, or in the interpretation, of an order, the officers had brought their men across the Riet and had joined in the advance along the right bank.
[Footnote 176: Major Albrecht fought his guns with great determination; his infantry escort, according to Boer accounts, retreated when they saw the advance of the British, and his ammunition was almost exhausted, but his gunners stood their ground.]
[Sidenote: Pole-Carew is obliged to fall back to Rosmead.]
[Sidenote: Nov. 28th/99.]
[Sidenote: Lord Methuen being wounded command devolves on Colvile.]
Captain Forestier-Walker, who was now in action with the section of the 18th battery near the farm which had been carried earlier in the day by the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, vigorously shelled the trees and brushwood in front of our men as they advanced, but his efforts were much hampered by the fact that the undergrowth was so thick that it was impossible to see exactly how far forward they were. All attempts to establish communication by signal, between the officer commanding the 9th brigade and the troops on the south side of the river, failed. The attack broke down from want of strength to drive it home, and the baffled troops sullenly fell back to Rosmead. They were so closely pressed by the enemy's musketry that, in order to cover the retreat, two officers, Major H. F. Coleridge, North Lancashire, and Captain T. Irvine, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, each with ten or eleven men of different battalions, threw themselves into farmhouses, which they stubbornly defended until, many hours later, after their detachments had suffered severe loss, they were ordered to evacuate their posts. On his return to the village Major-General Pole-Carew found that the British strength on the north bank had been increased by the arrival of 300 officers and men of the Royal engineers, and of part of a company of the 2nd battalion of the Coldstream Guards. After writing to Lord Methuen to report his failure to force his way up the right bank, and to ask for co-operation in the fresh attempt for which he was then rallying his troops, Pole-Carew heard a rumour that Lord Methuen had been wounded, and that Major-General Colvile was now in command of the division. The rumour was true. Lord Methuen had been wounded at about 4 p.m. near the centre of the line, and one of his staff officers, Colonel H. P. Northcott, had previously fallen mortally wounded, while conveying orders for the reinforcement of the troops on the north bank. Not long after this news came in, the officer commanding the two guns of the 18th battery, still in action near the farm to the south of Rosmead, reported that he heard through the officer commanding the artillery that Major-General Colvile had issued orders for a vigorous bombardment of the position by the artillery till dusk, when the Guards were to attack the left of the Boer line with the bayonet. Pole-Carew then considered whether, in view of the projected movement of the Guards' brigade, his local attack was still feasible. He decided that, owing to the configuration of the ground over which both bodies of troops would have to move in the darkness, the danger was so great lest his detachment should enfilade the Guards as to prohibit an advance from Rosmead. All, therefore, that could be done was to secure firmly that village.
[Sidenote: 62nd battery with four guns arrives after forced march.]
While the little column had been striving in vain to force its way up the right bank of the river, the situation on the left bank had remained unchanged. The infantry lay prone on the ground, engaged in a desultory fire-fight with an unseen enemy, while the artillery continued to shell the buildings and the river-banks near the railway bridge. During the course of the afternoon Colonel Hall, commanding the artillery, had received a welcome reinforcement of four guns of the 62nd battery, under Major E. J. Granet. The 62nd, which had been left to guard the Orange River bridge, received orders late on the 26th to leave two guns at that camp, and proceed with all speed to rejoin Lord Methuen's division. Owing to a deficiency in rolling stock, no railway transport was available, and it became necessary for the battery to march the whole way. Starting at 10 a.m. on the 27th, Major Granet reached Belmont, thirty miles distant, at dusk. He halted there till 6 a.m. on the 28th, when, escorted by twenty-five of the Royal Munster Fusiliers mounted infantry, he marched to Honey Nest Kloof, where he decided to water and feed his horses. He had but just halted, when a message reached him that there was fighting on the Riet river and that guns and ammunition were urgently required there. He started immediately, and despite the heavy ground over which he had to pass, reached the battlefield a little after 2 p.m. In twenty-eight hours the 62nd battery had covered sixty-two miles, at the expense of six horses which fell dead in the traces, and of about forty more, which never recovered from the fatigue of this forced march. The battery was first sent to the left to support the advance up the north bank of the river, but before it had opened fire, Colonel Hall ordered Major Granet more to the eastward, as he was afraid that the shells might fall among the detachment during its progress through the trees and brushwood which concealed its movements. At 2.45 p.m., the 62nd came into action 1,200 yards from the south bank, behind a swell in the ground which covered the gunners from the waist downwards. Its fire, aimed first at the north bank, was distributed laterally, and then for depth, with good results, as the enemy's musketry slackened, and numbers of men were seen stealing away. About 5 p.m., to support the projected attack by the Guards, the battery was moved close to a sandpit on the west of the railway, where it was joined by the section of the 18th from the left of the line.
[Sidenote: Colvile breaks off the fight.]
After considerable delay, caused by the difficulty of sending messages across the shot-swept plain, Major-General Colvile was informed that Lord Methuen had been wounded, and that the command of the division had devolved upon him. He handed over the Guards' brigade to Colonel Paget, Scots Guards, with orders to collect his battalions for the attack upon the left of the Boer line, but soon afterwards decided that it was too late to risk the passage of the river at night with troops exhausted by hunger, thirst, and the burning heat of an exceptionally hot day. He therefore resolved to break off the fight till daybreak next morning, and directed Colonel Paget to form up his brigade for the night at the southern reservoir.
[Sidenote: Pole-Carew holds Rosmead, and concentrates 9th brigade on north bank.]
[Sidenote: Boers abandon position. Night, Nov. 28-29.]
As soon as Major-General Pole-Carew reluctantly abandoned the idea of renewing his attack along the north bank of the Riet, he posted his troops for the defence of Rosmead. He realised the risks which he ran in holding so isolated a position throughout the night, but he and his staff considered that the importance of maintaining the lodgment, which had been effected on the enemy's side of the Riet, made it worth while to incur the danger. To the Royal engineers, under Major G. F. Leverson, was allotted the western face of the village; the Yorkshire Light Infantry held the north, and the Loyal North Lancashire the north-east; the Argyll and Sutherland guarded the east. The men lined the walls, banks, and houses at a yard and a half apart, in groups of six, of whom five rested while one stood sentry. In the centre of the village was the reserve, two companies of the Northumberland Fusiliers, and a company of the 2nd battalion Coldstream Guards. The remainder of the 9th brigade was ordered to cross the river. To guide them, two fires were lit at the drift; and by daybreak the whole command was concentrated on the north bank. It was reinforced by the 1st Highland Light Infantry, who had arrived during the night by rail from Orange River. In the grey of the morning, while the Guards were preparing to support the 9th brigade, the guns re-opened fire upon Modder River village, but it was soon discovered that during the night the enemy had abandoned his position, and had disappeared with all his guns and pom-poms. With horses utterly tired out, immediate pursuit was impossible, though by midday patrols of mounted men had regained touch with such of the Boers as had fallen back upon Magersfontein. By the afternoon, the whole division had crossed the Riet, and was concentrated on its northern bank.
[Footnote 177: On the 28th, the field batteries expended ammunition as follows:--
18th 1,029 rounds 62nd 247 " 75th 1,008 " The Naval guns 260 "]
[Sidenote: Casualties of Nov. 28th.]
The British casualties consisted of four officers killed (among whom was Lieut.-Colonel H. R. Stopford, commanding the 2nd battalion Coldstream Guards) and 19 wounded; among the other ranks 67 were killed, and 370 wounded. The losses among the Boers are not accurately known, but 23 burghers were found dead in Rosmead and buried near the village, while 27 bodies were subsequently found in the river itself.
[Footnote 178: For details as to casualties, see Appendix 6.]