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The Battle of Modder River was the first major setback suffered by Lord Methuen during the first attempt to relieve the siege of Kimberley. Technically it was a British victory, but achieved at great cost and with no credit to Methuen.
Having left the Orange River on 21 November, Methuen’s men had forced their way past two Boer postitions along the railway (Battle of Belmont and Battle of Rooilaagte). Methuen was now convinced that the last line of Boer defences would be in the hills around Magersfontein. The only other possible barrier, the Modder River, he dismissed at insignificant.
He was wrong. The Modder River had cut a trench through the soft soil of the veldt, running some thirty feet below the level of the surround plains. From a distance this mini-canyon was invisible – only the narrow line of trees and bushes along the river banks were visible. Methuen also misinterpreted his only map of the area. That map only showed the small area around the railway bridge, but was apparently treated as if it covered a wider area. It was also out of date in that it had been made at the end of the summer, and showed the river as fordable in several places. Since then the water levels had risen, and by the time Methuen’s men arrived, neither the Modder, or the Riet River that joined it on the east of the battlefield, could be easily forded.
At first Methuen had intended to cut loose from the railway, swing around to the east and hit the flanks of what he thought would be the main Boer position in the hills south of Kimberley. However, when it became clear that there was at least a small force of Boers on the Modder River, Methuen decided that he must clear that position first.
The Modder River did not resemble the sort of hilltop position that the Boers had favoured so far. Koos de la Rey had realised at Rooilaagte that the Boer’s modern rifles would be most effective when firing across level ground. Their long flat trajectory and smokeless powder meant that they could hit the British accurately at long range and without giving away the Boer positions. Technically Piet Cronjé was in charge of the Boer force defending the Modder, but in his absence De la Rey took control. His plan was to use the southern bank of the Modder River as a huge trench. Rifle pits would be dug into the banks, and instead of attacking the British as they attempted to cross the river, they would be attacked during their advance. By the time Cronjé arrived at the Modder, the plans were too far advanced to be changed. However, his relationship with De la Rey was not good, and would get worse after the battle. Together they had around 3,500 men to hold the line of the river.
Methuen had at least twice this many men. Although he had suffered losses on the route, and had left some men to guard the railway behind him, he had been joined by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the first contingent from the Highland Brigade. Not expecting any real problems, his plan was quite simple. On the morning of 28 November the infantry would cross the river, brush aside any opposition they encountered, and then take their breakfast on the other bank. Right up to the moment that the Boers opened fire, Methuen and his staff were completely unaware that they faced any real opposition. They knew that the railway bridge was being defended, but the river banks looked empty.
The British infantry advanced steadily towards the river. Even when a Boer artillery battery was spotted, Methuen concluded that this was a sign of a retreat. The only impact on his plans was that he moved most of his artillery and cavalry to his right wing. At 8.00 a.m. Methuen’s only concern was which building to use as his headquarters after the river was crossed.
At 8.10 am, with the British infantry 1,200 yards from the river, the Boers finally opened fire. The only response possible for most of the infantry was to throw themselves to the floor, and remain as still as possible. For many of the infantry that was the last action they took for ten hours. Anyone who rose from the ground, moved, or in any way drew attention to themselves, was shot.
In the crisis Methuen revealed his lack of command experience. For the rest of the day he wandered around the battlefield, rarely remaining in contact with his staff. At one point he joined a small party from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in an attack down a small gully. Later in the day he was wounded when once again too far forwards.
The British now suffered from their poor knowledge of the area. The Scots Guards were sent to the right, in an attempt to outflank the Boer position. Instead they discovered the Riet River. This was undefended, but unfordable. Farther to the right the Riet was actually fordable at Bosman’s Drift, a mile further to the right, but the British never discovered that crossing. Instead the Guards worked their way back up the Riet River until they too came under fire from the Boer riflemen on the Modder.
The only British success came on their left flank. Here the key to the Boer position was a farmhouse, converted into a fortress, that guarded the approaches to a dam in the river. After several attacks by the highlanders (including the one that Methuen accompanied), the Yorkshire Light Infantry managed to seize the farmhouse at around noon. Soon afterwards a force led by the North Lancashires, managed to get across the river, partly under cover of the dam. The Free State troops on the Boer right withdrew, and by 2 p.m. the British had captured the village of Rosmead, at the extreme right of the Boer lines. Methuen’s loss of control now prevented the British from winning a major victory. They were behind the main Boer lines. A part of the Free State contingent fled the battlefield, having fought in three battles in under a week. However, with Methuen wandering out of touch with his headquarters, nobody had the authority to take advantage. As night fell most of the British infantry were still flat on the ground in front of the river.
British losses at the Modder River were 70 dead and 413 wounded. This made it one of the most costly battles so far in South Africa. Boer losses had not been high (perhaps around 150), but they did include De la Rey’s son Adaan, mortally wounded by shrapnel. Despite this, De la Rey was the only one of the Boer commanders to favour remaining in position overnight. His collegues, led by Cronjé, felt that the loss of the Free State contingent and the British position on the north bank of the river meant that they had to withdraw back to Jacobsdal, and the hills south of Kimberley. De la Rey and Cronjé had a furious argument after the battle, in which De la Rey accused Cronjé of shirking his duty. One result of this would be that De la Rey was not present at the next battle, at Magersfontein, despite being entirely responsible for the successful plan used there.
That battle would not take place for nearly two week. Stung by the losses suffered at the Modder River, Methuen decided to wait for reinforcements. When he next advanced, he would have the Highland Brigade to add to his existing army.
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