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The Battle of Modder River

War: The Boer War.

Date: 28th November 1899.

Place: In the North West of Cape Colony near the border with the Orange Free State in South Africa.

Combatants: The British against the Boers.

Generals: Lieutenant General Lord Methuen against General De La Rey and General Cronje.

Size of the armies: 8,000 British against 9,000 Boers.

Uniforms, arms and equipment: The Boer War was a serious jolt for the British Army. At the outbreak of the war British tactics were appropriate for the use of single shot firearms, fired in volleys controlled by company and battalion officers; the troops fighting in close order. The need for tight formations had been emphasised time and again in colonial fighting. In the Zulu and Sudan Wars overwhelming enemy numbers armed principally with stabbing weapons were easily kept at a distance by such tactics; but, as at Isandlwana, would overrun a loosely formed force. These tactics had to be entirely rethought in battle against the Boers armed with modern weapons.

In the months before hostilities the Boer commandant general, General Joubert, bought 30,000 Mauser magazine rifles and a number of modern field guns and automatic weapons from the German armaments manufacturer Krupp and the French firm Creusot. The commandoes, without formal discipline, welded into a fighting force through a strong sense of community and dislike for the British. Field Cornets led burghers by personal influence not through any military code. The Boers did not adopt military formation in battle, instinctively fighting from whatever cover there might be. The preponderance were countrymen, running their farms from the back of a pony with a rifle in one hand. These rural Boers brought a life time of marksmanship to the war, an important edge, further exploited by Joubert’s consignment of magazine rifles. Viljoen is said to have coined the aphorism “Through God and the Mauser”. With strong fieldcraft skills and high mobility the Boers were natural mounted infantry. The urban burghers and foreign volunteers readily adopted the fighting methods of the rest of the army.

Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police units, the Boers wore their every day civilian clothes on campaign.

After the first month the Boers lost their numerical superiority, spending the rest of the formal war on the defensive against British forces that regularly outnumbered them.

British tactics, little changed from the Crimea, used at Modder River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop were incapable of winning battles against entrenched troops armed with modern magazine rifles. Every British commander made the same mistake; Buller; Methuen, Roberts and Kitchener. When General Kelly-Kenny attempted to winkle Cronje’s commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments at Paardeburg using his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted on a battle of infantry assaults; with the same disastrous consequences as Colenso, Modder River, Magersfontein and Spion Kop.

Some of the most successful British troops were the non-regular regiments; the City Imperial Volunteers, the South Africans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who more easily broke from the habit of traditional European warfare, using their horses for transport rather than the charge, advancing by fire and manoeuvre in loose formations and making use of cover, rather than the formal advance into a storm of Mauser bullets.

Uniform: The British regiments made an uncertain change into khaki uniforms in the years preceding the Boer War, with the topee helmet as tropical headgear. Highland regiments in Natal devised aprons to conceal coloured kilts and sporrans. By the end of the war the uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab tunic and trousers; the danger of shiny buttons and too ostentatious emblems of rank emphasised in several engagements with disproportionately high officer casualties.

The British infantry were armed with the Lee Metford magazine rifle firing 10 rounds. But no training regime had been established to take advantage of the accuracy and speed of fire of the weapon. Personal skills such as scouting and field craft were little taught. The idea of fire and movement was unknown, many regiments still going into action in close order. Notoriously General Hart insisted that his Irish Brigade fight shoulder to shoulder as if on parade in Aldershot. Short of regular troops, Britain engaged volunteer forces from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who brought new ideas and more imaginative formations to the battlefield.

The British regular troops lacked imagination and resource. Routine procedures such as effective scouting and camp protection were often neglected. The war was littered with incidents in which British contingents became lost or were ambushed often unnecessarily and forced to surrender. The war was followed by a complete re-organisation of the British Army.

The British artillery was a powerful force in the field, underused by commanders with little training in the use of modern guns in battle.

Pakenham cites Pieters as being the battle at which a British commander, surprisingly Buller, developed a modern form of battlefield tactics: heavy artillery bombardments co-ordinated to permit the infantry to advance under their protection. It was the only occasion that Buller showed any real generalship and the short inspiration quickly died.

The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15 pounder guns; the Royal Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the Royal Garrison Artillery batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal Navy provided heavy field artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible.

Automatic weapons were used by the British usually mounted on special carriages accompanying the cavalry.

Winner: The British suffered heavier casualties but the Boers were forced to withdraw from their positions on the Modder River.

British Regiments:
Naval Brigade.
9th Lancers: now the 9/12th Royal Lancers.
Royal Horse Artillery.
Royal Field Artillery: 18th, 62nd and 65th Batteries.
Royal Engineers
3rd Grenadier Guards.
1st and 2nd Coldstream Guards.
1st Scots Guards.
1st Northumberland Fusiliers:
2nd Black Watch
2nd Northamptonshire Regiment:
1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment:
2nd Yorkshire Light Infantry
1st Highland Light Infantry
2nd Seaforth Highlanders
1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
Army Service Corps.
Army Medical Corps.
Kimberley Light Horse
Diamond Fields Horse
Australian Troops.
Colonial Mounted Irregulars
Rimington’s Scouts.
South African Reserve.

The Boer invasion of Natal in the East of South Africa caused Major General George White’s force to be besieged in Ladysmith, north of the Tugela River.

In the West, Boer forces under Cronje, De La Rey and Prinsloo crossed the border and laid siege to Mafeking in the North and Cecil Rhodes’ diamond mining capital, Kimberley and began an invasion of Cape Colony.

Sir Alfred Milner, the British High Commissioner of Cape Colony, saw his plans to annex the two Boer Republic in ruins with the added danger of a revolt in his own colony by Boers in sympathy with their cousins in the republics.

On 30th October 1899 General Sir Redvers Buller arrived at Cape Town from Britain as the new commander-in-chief. In November 1899 British reinforcements, comprising an army corps of 40,000 men, disembarked from an armada of transports.

The plan was for the whole army corps to continue to Natal and confront the Boer incursion. Under pressure from Milner, Buller divided his force, taking the greater proportion on to Natal, but leaving three infantry brigades with artillery and supporting arms, commanded by Lord Methuen, to march to the relief of Cecil Rhodes in Kimberley and the town’s garrison commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Kekewich.

Methuen’s division moved up to Orange River station on the single railway line that ran north to Rhodesia. He then pressed on up the line towards Kimberley, his troops fighting two successful but costly actions against the Boers at Belmont and Graspan. These two battles followed the same pattern: the Boers driven from the hill tops they held by heavy artillery bombardment and an infantry attack at the point of the bayonet. On each occasion the Boers were fortunate there was no substantial British cavalry force to follow up the attacks or there would have been repeats of the slaughter inflicted on them at Elandslaagte.

Due to the partnership of the two Boer Republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal, command was divided. Prinsloo led the Free State burghers while De la Rey commanded the Transvaalers.

De la Rey, a deeply religious but inspired commander, resolved not to repeat the mistakes that had cost the Boers a run of battles. His men would entrench in the plain, not on the hilltops where they were vulnerable to British artillery fire.

De la Rey ordered his commandos to dig trenches along the bank of the Modder River, at the Riet River junction, astride the wrecked railway bridge south of Modder River station.

In the early hours of 28th November 1899 the British infantry advanced across the plain towards the Boer positions.

Failing to comply with De la Rey’s instructions Cronje’s Free Staters, entrenched along the Riet, opened fire on the Guards Brigade at 1,000 yards, instead of letting them advance into close range. Along the line the Boer riflemen opened a heavy fire from their trenches, sending the British troops to cover.

The British Foot Guards reached the Riet, on the eastern end of the Boer position, and attempted to find a ford across the river. The brigade commander, General Colville, called the Coldstream back from moving too far along the bank, preventing them from discovering the main ford which lay to the east of the railway bridge.

Two British artillery batteries, 18th and 75th, came into action deployed along the back of the pinned infantry line. The bombardment created considerable difficulties for the Boers on the river bank, in spite of the counter battery fire of the small Boer artillery.

To the West of the railway bridge Cronje had failed to position sufficient Boer riflemen to hold Rosmead Drift, a major ford across the Modder.

Part of Pole-Carew’s 9th Brigade, 1st North Lancashire Regiment and 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, inched forward; the infantry attack supported by the fire of the 62nd Battery, Royal Field Artillery, and finally rushed the ford, pushing the Free Staters back across the river.

De la Rey organised a counter attack by his commando from the Transvaal and held the British until dusk when the Boers retreated from the position, leaving Methuen in control of the battlefield and the Modder River crossing points.

Casualties: The British suffered 450 casualties and the Boers 75 casualties.

Follow-up: De la Rey and Cronje withdrew to the Magersfontein position 6 miles to the North of the Modder River to await the next attack by Methuen’s force, pressing on up the railway to relieve Kimberley.

Regimental anecdotes and traditions: