9th Lancers: now the 9/12th Royal Lancers.
Royal Horse Artillery.
Royal Field Artillery: 18th, 62nd and 65th Batteries.
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
Colonial Mounted Irregulars
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:
• The battle is commemorated by the excellent pipe tune “91st at Modder River”, a reference to the involvement of the 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be:
The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Goodbye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger
The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham
South Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly partisan volumes)
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