South African Battle: 28 November 1899
Battle of Modder River
The Battle of Modder River was fought on 28 November 1899 where the British column under Lord Methuen forced the Boers under General Piet Cronje to retreat to Magersfontein. Methuen had already engaged the Boers at Belmont and Graspan and defeated them, suffering considerable casualties at both.
Boer General de la Rey had made his way from the Transvaal where he had been involved with engagements around Mafeking, and together with General Cronje they planned their defensive position. The Boers destroyed the railway bridge and then to the west of the railway line dug trenches along the north bank of the river. To the east, they dug a row of trenches on the south bank of the river. 8 000 Boers occupied four miles of entrenched positions on both sides of the river.
Lieutenant-General Methuen, who commanded the British force advancing on Kimberley, made the fatal error of not reconnoitering the Boer position before advancing on Modder River. Had he done so it would have revealed the extensive Boer positions and enabled the British to attack with a proper plan, instead of blundering straight into them.
At first light on 28 November the British commenced their advance and an hour later the Boers opened fire from the east on the British cavalry with rifles, one of their field guns, and a Pom-Pom, not revealing their strong trench position on the river bank. The British advance covered a number of kilometres in width and at about 8a.m. the Boers opened fire on the advancing infantry from their concealed positions on the river bank. The Boer plan had been to wait until the British were about 400 yards away, however, some of the Boers opened fire at 800 yards, revealing their position.
The British troops were forced to lie flat, with some trying to advance, but with no cover on the flat ground, this became a futile, dangerous exercise. The British guns opened fire on the buildings near the Modder River Station and the raised ground beyond the river, however they missed the banks of the river where the Boers were positioned. In addition to the rifle fire the Boers kept up with their heavy artillery barrage with their six field guns. The Boers, as was their tactic, kept moving their gun positions to confuse the British.
The battle became a day-long stalemate. Most of the British infantry were forced to stay flat on the ground for the whole day without water. Any movement resulted in Boer rifle fire. Methuen was wounded when he tried to urge his forces forward.
At around midday the British found an opening on the Boer right flank at a farmhouse – Rosmead. Although the position was occupied by the Boers, the British found a concealed donga along which to advance. After an hour the Boers were forced to evacuate the position, leaving a gap in the Boer right flank. Unfortunately the British suffered casualties when their own artillery fired on Rosmead by mistake. Late in the afternoon de la Rey had managed to secure the Boer right flank, but he realised that they were now vulnerable and it was evident that the Boers were totally outnumbered. At nightfall the Boers, as was to become their strategy, under darkness, evacuated their positions.
At the end of the battle the British were forced to camp for ten days in order to take care of their casualties, to receive further reinforcements and to repair the lines of communication which had been destroyed by the Boers. This delay allowed the Boers to prepare the trenches and perfect their strategy for the upcoming Battle of Magersfontein, where the British casualties were considerable. To quote from ’Goodbye Dolly Gray’ by Rayne Kruger (page 118) on a statement made by Mehuen in his post battle dispatch – “It had been one of the hardest and most trying fights in the annals of the British Army.” Kruger goes on later – “He little guessed that he had fought the precursor of battles which were to sear millions of lives in another Western Front only fifteen years later. But he might have reflected on something Lord Roberts had recently remarked, that the new conditions of warfare made a frontal attack over open ground impossible, and that a commander’s first duty was reconnaissance. At the Battle of Modder River an untutored farmer (here he means de la Rey) of genius proved the truth of both principles.”
British casualties were 70 killed and another 413 wounded. Boer casualties are unknown but were estimated to have been about 80 killed and/or wounded. General de la Rey’s eldest son, Adriaan, was mortally wounded, dying whilst being taken by his father to the nearby Boer hospital.