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The Boer Wars. History of the battles fought during the Boer Wars in South Africa from 1880-81 and from 1899-1902. These wars are also called the South African Wars.
The Boer wars were fought between the British and the Dutch Boers. Great Britain annexed the Transvaal in 1877 and the Boers revolt began three years later. On April 5th 1881 Great Britain recognised the South African Republic.
1st South African War:
2nd South African War:
The battle of Modder River was fought November 28th, 1899. Early in the following morning British column crossed the river unopposed, and was now within twenty-five miles of Kimberley.
Lord Methuen did not feel string enough to resume immediately his advance.
During the past week his troops had been engaged in three actions, and ere, he thought, in need of rest; as were also the horses. The ammunition train was almost empty, and the column required reinforcements to make up for the 1,000 casualties it has sustained since leaving Orange River.
De la Rey’s Genius for War
That the general should have felt it necessary to halt was unfortunate, delay being more to the enemy’s advantage than to his own. Has he advanced at once his troops would have found themselves opposed by a force of Boers considerably less numerous than themselves-dispirited, moreover disunited, and only partially entrenched in an ill chosen position.
By December 10th, when the advance was resumed, Cronje was able to bar their progress with a force nearly as equal to their own in numbers in a position naturally strong, and well entrenched.
Reinforcements were now hastening to the Boers, and within a few days Cronje had nearly 8,000 men under his command, more than twice as many as he had at Modder River.
On December 2nd De la Rey-to whose military genius the enemy’s brilliantly conceived dispositions at Modder River were due-came to the conclusion that the position at Spyfontein was not so strong as was commonly supposed owing to the ease with which it could be shelled from the group of hills to the south of it.
He urged Cronje, therefore, to take up a more advanced position at Magersfontein, his contention being that the British would be compelled to attack there over flat again open ground.
With some reluctance Cronje yielded to De la Rey’s suggestion, and on December 4th the Boers abandoned their northern lines, and began, in full view of the British camp, to entrench a new position.
The most remarkable feature of their defences was a line of trenches 3 to 4 feet deep, and narrow as a protection against shrapnel fire, extending, nor along the summit but along the foot of the hills, on a level with the plain. This original selection and construction was due to De La Rey.
As De La Rey foresaw, it would be difficult for the British artillery, even after they had detected where his men were lying to avoid overshooting the mark, and thus wasting their fire o the hills which rose abruptly in the rear.
When the British advance began, December 10th, the defences at the extremities were incomplete, they being an after thought to guard against a turning movement.
The Boer leaders, however, had little doubt but that Lord Methuen would attack, as he did, at Magersfontein Kop, which lay in the centre and was the key of the position.
It has not, we believe, been explained why Lord Methuen did not occupy and entrench the hills round Magersfontein, immediately after crossing the Modder river; nor why, when the Boers moved south from Spytfontein, he took no steps to molest their construction of a new line of defence.
During the twelve days halt, stores and ammunition had been received in the British camp; and General Wauchope arrived with the 2nd Black Watch and the 2nd Sea forth Highlanders. The 12th Lancers, 100 mounted infantry, G Battery R.H.A, a 4.7 naval gun, the 65th Battery, a balloon section, and the 21st Gordon Highlanders came upon up later.
Lord Methuen had intended to advance up the Modder River to Brown’s Drift, and then to turn north with a view to outflanking the Boer position. But later he decided to deliver a direct attack on the Magersfontein ridge.
Lord Methuem, however, was anxious to strike a heavy blow at the Boers at once, and to avoid, if possible, a slow turning movement. The success gained at Belmont moreover had impressed him with the advantages of a night attack, and he felt confident of being able to carry Magersfontein Hill in the same manner.
At 3 p.m., December 10th, the Highland brigade under General Wauchope to whom Lord Methuen entrusted the night attack, moved forward to a slight rise, four miles north of the camp, known subsequently as Headquarters Hill; and that same afternoon in the hope of demoralising the enemy, heavy fire from there greater part of the artillery was concentrated on the slopes of Magnerfontein hill.
The Value of Entrenchments
For an hour and a half cannonade continued. Large boulders were hurled 50 feet into the air by the bursting lyddite; whilst the hail of shrapnel threw up the red earth on the hillside in what looked like jets of flame.
The Boers were well covered in their deep, narrow trenches, and only three were wounded.
De La Rey could not have wished for a better proof of the value of his entrenchment, and the small result of the artillery fire inspired the burghers with confidence, although they realised that the cannonade was the prelude to an attack.
Under Lord Methuen’s arrangements, general Pole-Carew was to leave part of the 9th Brigade to guard the camp, and with the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Northamptonshire Regiment to advance up the railway and demonstrate against the enemy’s right flank.
The Guards were to move to Headquarters Hill and there remain, ready to act as a support.
The highland brigade with the cavalry covering its right flank was to move off half an hour after midnight for the attack; then just before dawn, to deploy and rich Magerfontein Hill.
General Wauchope undertook his task with reluctance. He recognised its Hazardous nature, and expressed his doubts of the chance of success to Lord Methuen. But once committed to it, he resolved to see it through at all costs, in spite of the pitiless storm, which began at nightfall.
Soon after 12.30 a.m. the Highland Brigade advanced, guided by Major Benson, RA. Who had already carefully explored the ground. The Black Watch led, next came the Seaforths, then the Argyll’s, and Highland Light infantry. The Gordon Highlanders had only arrived in camp that evening, and did not move off till later. The troops were drawn up in mass of Quarter column, the left guides holding ropes in order to keep the battalions in formation.
It was a rough night. Rain had been falling heavily all the evening; and just after the column started a terrific thunderstorm broke over it, the vivid flashes of lightning serving to intensity the darkness.
Although drenched to the skin, the Highlanders stumbled cheerfully on through the murky night over sodden veld. They were eager to come to grips with the enemy somewhere ahead of them, somewhere between them and that misty shaft of violet light, which dipped and rose in the far distance above Kimberley-the De Beer searchlight.
The advance was very slow slower, owing to the bad weather, than night marches usually are. Again and again the troops were halted, so heavy was the going and so rough the ground; and at 3.30 a.m. when the blackness of the night began to turn to grey, some distance still intervened between the column and its objective.
Major Benson suggested that the time had come to deploy. But Colonel Wauchope, anxious to keep the troops as long as possible in a formation, which enabled him to control them, moved on a little farther. He was anxious to get within striking distance of the hill at break of dawn.
After, another half mile was gained; then the order to deploy was given. But at this moment the Black Watch came on a line of thorny bushes. To deploy there was difficult, and rather than losing time by brining back the head of the column the General decided to get the whole brigade past the obstacle before it deployed.
This necessitated advancing 400 yards farther, but it was accomplished without mishap, and Wauchope had brought the column within 700 yards of the hull.
He gave the order to deploy. He knew his men and relied upon them to do their work.
But neither Wauchope nor anyone in his command knew that between the British and the hill, within 400 yards, was a line of Boer trenches lined by thousands of eager men, peering intently through the gloom and listening for the slightest sound that might betray the expected attack.
Daylight was already showing above the hilltops as two leading companies of the Black Watch began to deploy.
Then the Boers saw them, dim, grey figures in the distance; and a moment later an appalling hail of lead struck into the serried ranks of the Highland Brigade. The troops were not merely surprised; they were caught at a moment when they were changing from one formation to another.
But moneymen among the rear companies of the Black Watch, flinching before that dreadful unseen fire, ran back on the Seaforths still in column. And as they ran they infected others with their terror. The line of bushes, which had arrested the deployment, afforded nearly half the brigade broke and rushed back in disorder from that storm of bullets taking such cover as.
On the scene of the disaster, however a steadfast remnant still remained, lying prone, awaiting the General’s orders.
General Wauchope hurried forward, and taking in the situation at a glance, sent back his cousin with orders to Colonel Coode for the Black Watch to reinforce on their right.
Young Wauchope gave the order; then returned to the General’s side, only to find him dead. A moment later the devoted aide-de-camp fell also. Colonel Coode too, as he gallantly led his men to the right in compliance with the order was killed immediately.
Colonel Hughes-Hallet, the only commanding officer now unscathed, promptly doubled out the Seaforth Highlanders to the right, in the wake of the Black Watch. The men of the two regiments soon became inextricably mixed up, but they resolutely rushed on, and small detachments, breaking through a gap in the Boer trenches at the eastern extremity of the hill, gained a footing on the lower slopes. But they were forced to fall back, being caught now between the rifles of the enemy on their right and the shrapnel of the British guns, which had just opened fire.
There was a curious incident some minuets after the burghers opened fire from their hithero-concealed trenches. Several men of the Black Watch and Seaforth Highlanders doubling out to the right had got close up to the Boer Trenches, crawling though a wire fence, only to be stopped somewhat farther on by another similar obstacle. Captain Mcfarlane, of the Royal Highlanders, led a party of 25 men up the south face of the hill, but fired on heavily by the Boers, he was eventually driven back by the Shrapnel of our own guns. Lieutenant Coxx, of the Seaforth Highlanders, with four men, actually climbed the hill, but all five were killed.
Another party rushed along under the base of the hill, and had not Cronje appeared at the moment, might have been followed by other gallant men, and have taken the Boer trenches in reverse. The Boer General slept in his cloak in the heavy rain on Magersfontein Hill until 1 a.m. when he rode to the left of the trenches to ensure that the burghers were in position and o the alert. The Commandant and the six, members of his staff lost their way in the darkness and pouring rain, and eventually got back again near the foot of Magersfontein Hill, and took cover when the bullets whistled over their heads during the attack. One of the Boer Staff caught sight of the little party of Highlanders climbing in the hill and pointed them out to Cronje, who with his companions emptied their magazines on their assailants. Some Boers lying in the trenches a little to the easts of the hill, now running up drove the Highlanders back.
The situation became like that at Modder River. To advance was impossible, but the troops would not retire. So the infantry, with dogged determination, lay just where they were, waiting for the guns to come up from the rear to their assistance and maintain the battle.
Day had barely broken when the guns opened fire, and, despite the ill-effect which the first shells had on Hughes-Hallett’s advance, they did good working keeping down the enemy’s fire, the howitzers a 3,500 yards and the big naval gun plying the hill lyddite, while the field batteries opened at 2,500 yards.
Towards 6 a.m. the 18th Battery moved forward to within 1,400 yards of the trench and was after joined by the 62nd, the two batteries remaining in this position throughout the day. The 75th Battery assisted in checking the efforts made by the Boers, entrenched to the southeast of Magersfontein Hill, to enfilade the right of the Highlanders.
A Dangerous Position
Seeing that the Boers were threatening Hughes-Hallett’s flank, he brought up the 12th Lancers and the Mounted Infantry, under Lord Airlie and Major Milton, dismounted them, and sent them into the firing line on the right of the highlanders.
Later the cold stream and Grenadier Guards came up and relieved the pressure at this point. The Lancers then returned to their horses.
Lord Metheun learned almost at once of the disaster, which had befallen the Highland Brigade.
That such a thing might happen he had not it seems even contemplated. He had no plan ready for retrieving the disaster; and although, including the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, there were five battalions available, he did not send one forward to the assistance of the stricken brigade.
He directed Sir H Covile, however to take the Guards due east towards a low, bushy ridge facing the extreme left of the Boer position, instructing him not to advance beyond the ridge, but there to hold himself I readiness to cover, if necessary the retirement of the whole force.
An aggressive movement, on the part of Pole-Crew could hardly of failed to bring relief to the Highland Brigade on the other flank. Had Pole-Carew pushed on, and occupied the little hill which rises immediately to the east of the railway, at the point where the enemy’s line bent back sharply to the north-west, we would have been able to enfilade the whole of the Boer trenches in the centre.
Lord Methuen could not, from where he was occupied, realise the advantage of such an attack; and Pole-Carew did not advance because he had been ordered merely to demonstrate against the enemy’s right and to him had been entrusted the safety of the camp at Modder River.
From 6 to 11 a.m. therefore the battle remained stationary, Methuen’s idea being that his men should hold that his men should hold o till night, when he hoped that the Boers, as happened at Modder River, would become demoralised, and retire under cover of darkness.
The General, endowed by Nature with great personal courage and endurance, did not apparently fully understand what he was asking the shaken Highland Brigade to do. At 11 o’clock it had already hung on for more than six hours in a very trying position. Hungry and thirsty, moreover, the men were now suffering from a burning African sun. Most of their officers had been wither killed or wounded; and every main the ranks had long become convinced that he could do no good by remaining those exposed within easy range of good shots in those hidden trenches, and their determination perceptibly began to weaken.
At 112 a.m. Lord Methuen, seeing that the centre of the line was wavering, sent forward reinforcements-six companies of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, under Colonel Downman.
The Gordon’s advanced in widely extended order, and by a series of conducted rushes, succeeded, despite the galling fire, which greeted them, in getting within 400 yards of the enemy’s trenches. It was a fine effort, but useless. Six companies in broad daylight could not hope to carry the position. The companies would have had a greater steadiness influence on those they tried to support had they been halted at 800 yards from the trenches.
Intense Strain on Highlan
Thus, although the advance of the Gordon’s gave a temporary encouragement, it did nothing really to relieve the strain on the Highland Brigade, and that strain was rapidly approaching a breaking point, especially on the right flank, where, throughout the morning, the struggle had been swaying backwards and forwards. By midday, so intense had the strain at this point become that Hughes-Hallet twice sent messengers to General Colvile urging him to send forward reinforcements.
Neither of the messengers, however, succeeded in delivering the message, and at 1.30 p.m. Hughes-Hallett was compelled to throw back his right as the only means of checking the Boers, who, advancing, were now making an effort to enfilade the scattered brigade.
Colonel Downman, who at the time was lying in n the very front of the firing line, more than two miles away, saw the right come back, and, knowing that Hughes-Hallett was acting as Brigadier, assumed that a general retirement was intended to a less deadly range.
Downman was unaware that Lord Methuen had told Hughes-Hallett to hold on at all cost until nightfall. He ordered his men; therefore, to retire towards the guns; and the whole of the line conformed to the movement.
At first the men fell back in good order. But as they retreated, the storm of fire from the enemy’s trenches broke forth with increased effect, and the Highlanders ran, suffering severely. Downman was among the first to fall, being mortally wounded ad he raised in the firing line. Captain Towse, of the Gordon’s, however, stood by the side till Sergeant Nelson and Lance-Corporal Hodgson came to his aid helped him carry back his Colonel under heavy fire. For his conspicuous gallantry on this occasion and on April 30th, 1900, when he was terribly wounded, Captain Towse received the Victoria Cross.
When the men of the highland brigade began to retire it was impossible to rally them, Colonel Hughes-Hallett an other officers did all they could, but the men had had enough, and fell back rapidly, even beyond the guns, which for a time were left exposed to attack.
An effort to reform was made.
“The men,” according to one vivid narrative, “were dazed by what they had undergone, and Nature shrank back from that deadly zone where the bullets fell so thickly. But the pipes blew, and the bulges sang, and the dispirited men, the backs of their legs so flayed and blistered by lying in the sun that they could hardly bend them, hobbled back their duty.” But just then the Boer guns, which, which for some reason unexplained, had remained silent all day, suddenly opened fire. The first shells burst in the midst of the rallying crowd. A moment later, the sorely tried men were in full retreat across the plain, and the brigade, as such, was not re-formed until after dusk.
This final route came as a bitter disappointment to Lord Methuen. Up to thsat time he had hoped that the highland Brigade might yet hold its position until nightfall, and so enable him to retrieve the fortunes of the battle by another attack on Magersfontein Hill at early dawn.
After some desultory skirmishing on the right the long days action came gradually to an end. The howitzers and naval gun continued-but slowly than before-to shell the enemy’s lines, but after 4 p.m. there was no fighting; and the British troops, who with the exception of the Highland Brigade still held their position, sank exhausted to the ground.
Many men fell sleep, lulled by the thunder of the guns, and woke only to find the sun setting and the firing at an end. But for the Medical corps no rest was possible. They had been busy all day. They were busy all night. Their quiet courage and devotion is deserving of the highest praise; Lord Methuen freely acknowledged it in his dispatches.
General Colvile was avers to this course. He maintained that there was still a hope of the Boers abandoning their positions, but the general opinion of the Staff was in favour of a retirement.
In the view of this, Lord Methuen adhered to his original intention, and at noon the entire force withdrew.
The Boer losses were about 250.
A night attack is proverbially a difficult and hazardous operation. Most soldiers will, therefore, hold that the General’s persistence in the operation under very unfavourable weather conditions was an error, and the less excusable in that Kimberley, only 20 miles distant, had still six weeks food supply. And the blunder was the more unfortunate in that it had the effect of breaking up, to all intents and purposes, the Highland Brigade, whose oft-proved courage has been the envy of all armies of the world.
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