GENERAL Methuen still pressing forward, fought a pitched battle on Tuesday, Nov. 28, which he officially describes as "one of the hardest and most trying fights in the annals of the British army." The Boers had entrenched themselves to dispute the passage of the Modder River, which, being in flood, made it impossible for our troops to outflank them. A direct attack was therefore made at dawn in a widely extended formation, the cavalry and infantry being supported by artillery fire, while the Naval brigade rendered great assistance from the railway.
The enemy, 8,000 strong, had two large guns, four Krupp guns, &c. A desperate engagement ensued, lasting for ten hours, before the Boers were driven from their positions. Ultimately a small party of British troops succeeded in crossing the river, at a point about twenty-five miles south of Kimberley.
Then there came a week's rest for the column.
On Saturday night, Dec. 9th, Lord Methuen ordered the artillery to move out towards the Boer position to the north-east on the Magersfontein hills, which had been strongly entrenched by 12,000 Boers. The shelling of the position commenced on Sunday morning, and a heavy fire was kept up all day.
The shell fire was resumed on Monday morning, and at the same time our force left the camp. The artillery kept up a terrific fire upon the Boer entrenchments, while the infantry advanced to carry the position.
The enemy, however, notwithstanding the heavy fire from our guns, kept their trenches, and the infantry, advancing to close quarters, were met with a deadly rifle fire.
Our losses were very heavy, the Highland brigade being the chief sufferers. It was a massacre. The objective of the Highland brigade was the eastern spur of the Boer position.
The Guards followed the bank of the river, while the Yorkshire Light Infantry moved along the river-side.
Just before daybreak the Highland brigade arrived within 200yds. of a Boer entrenchment at the foot of the hill. As they had no suspicion that the enemy was in such close proximity, they were still marching in quarter column and in close order.
They were met with a terrible fire on their flanks, and were forced to retire, with heavy loss. Re-forming under the shelter of a fold in the ground, the Highlanders held their ground with the utmost gallantry.
They were joined later on by the Gordons, and the brigade then fought its way to within 300yds. of the enemy, displaying the most desperate valour and dash.
Meanwhile, the naval gun at Modder river, a Howitzer, and the 75th, 62nd, and 18th Field Batteries, and G Battery of the Horse Artillery opened a terrific fire with lyddite on the Boer position, enfilading their trenches and searching every portion of the ground.
The Boers came into open ground in our direct front for the purpose of making a flank attack on the British force, but they were arrested by the Guards and artillery.
In the evening the Boers opened on us with shell fire, but did no further damage. Their force included 4,000 from Mafeking.
Next morning our whole force returned to a safe retreat. Once more, it is said, some one had blundered.
The Highlanders were badly guided into point blank range of the extreme Boer trenches, and before they could be extricated they had lost something like 15 per cent, of their number in killed and wounded.
The kopjes on which we were advancing are low and rambling, affording, to be sure, good cover for the Boers, but our long-range guns had been able to rake them thoroughly, and this superior range of artillery was expected to stand us in splendid stead when the time came for the grand assault.
Commandant Cronje had received heavy siege artillery from Pretoria, at his urgent request, as an offset to our heavier metal, which had bothered him a good deal at Modder, but since the naval guns and Howitzer battery arrived they had been supreme.
"Joe Chamberlain," our equivalent to the Boer " Long Tom," proved, a veritable triumph in its penetrating and destructive power. "Joe" spits out with equal ease and effect solid shot, shrapnel, and lyddite.
The naval contingent went into the fight as he always does, cheering and laughing. There was a boisterous, cheerful, dancing crowd of bluejackets about each gun. We were now in daily communication by the flash light and the Morse code with Kimberley.
Our losses in killed and wounded exceeded 700. Among the officers killed were General Wauchope, Colonel Goff, Major the Marquis of Winchester, Major Milton and Major Ray.
Among the incidents was that of one officer of the Army Medical Corps who attended the sick in the firing line until killed.
A Seaforth Highlander while he was lying wounded saw a Boer, a typical German in appearance, faultlessly dressed, with polished top boots and shirt with silk ruffles, walking about among the ant hills with a cigar in his mouth, picking off our troops. He was quite alone, and it was very apparent from his frequent use of field glasses that he was doing his best to single out the officers.
A wounded Boer prisoner, who was brought in with the wounded Highlanders, stated that one lyddite shell, which was fired on Sunday, fell plump in the middle of a large open-air prayer meeting, which was being held to offer up supplications for the success of the Boer arms.
The Highlanders actually crossed the river upon two occasions exposed to a heavy cross fire. They scrupulously respected the white flag hoisted over a large house which they had to pass to get to the river. The first section of the two into which the regiment was divided had, it seems, got across the river, and the treacherous Boers were under the delusion that there were no more to follow, and thereupon they opened fire upon the Highlanders' rear from the loop-holed house. The treachery was thus witnessed by the second section, and the men were so enraged that they stormed the house and bayonetted every Boer within its walls.
A week after the battle dead Boers continued to be found on and near the field of operations, as well as in the river. Over a hundred bodies had now been found and buried, and the Boers carried off at least as many, as well as a large number of their wounded.
A day or two after the battle our mounted troops brought into camp a thousand head of cattle intended for the Boer commissariat.
On Tuesday night, Dec. 26th, the Boers thought they saw in the darkness the whole British army advancing, and they blazed away at the phantom for dear life. The Boer fusillade formed a most brilliant spectacle, which the amused and wondering camp enjoyed immensely, despite the annoyance of having to stand to arms while it lasted. The Magersfontein and other kopjes were superbly illuminated by the Boer rifle and gun fire. The enemy wasted not fewer than 20,000 rounds during the night.
With the powerful telescope now used by the staff the positions of the Boer trenches and rifle pits could be distinctly seen, but their big guns were masked. .
New Year's Day was celebrated in Camp by a long-looked-for gymkhana, and the whole army enjoyed the sports. There were nearly 140 entries for races, which were of half a dozen different kinds, and dancing and piping contests, and tent-pegging and other competitions were also included among the events.
Modder River village, where our camp rested, is a watering resort, situated on the northern side of the river. Along this bank there is a continuous fringe of trees and thick bush extending for miles. The crest of the hill before the fall of the river commands a plain on the other side for a great distance.
The enemy, in addition to the natural strength of their position, had constructed sandbag trenches and all kinds of breastworks; they had occupied the houses, and posted guns at every point of vantage.
In the night time Commandant Cronje's burghers looted the Modder Hotel, which is Kimberley's Rosher-ville. Beautiful roses were growing in the garden. The spoils included a peacock, which they docked of its gorgeous tail feathers in order that the bird might be easier carried, a hen which they lifted from its nest, and the thirteen eggs upon which it had been long and patiently sitting with the ambition of motherhood. The strong-stomached Boers sucked the addled eggs as they lay in their entrenchments. What poultry was left fell to Tommy Atkins.
Cavalry reconnaissances the first week in January enabled Lord Methuen to gain an excellent idea of the Boer positions on the West. The Boer front extended virtually from Koodoosberg, situated a mile north of the Reit River, by way of Kamiel Hock, or Kopjes Dam, Langeberg, to Magersfontein. Their centre position comprised the ridges to the Modder River at Brownsdrift, and crossing the river reached Rotfontein and Klipfontein, and thence to Jacobsdal.
It was seen that an attack upon this front of forty or fifty miles would meet with serious opposition.
Altogether, what with the numerous natural obstacles, the sloping ground, and the Riet River, the Boer position was a peculiarly strong one.
The district south of the Riet River and west of the railway is pastoral. The owners, with a few notable exceptions, were residing on their farms and homesteads. To all appearances they were not disloyal, but simply obeying the advice given to them by the prime Minister,Mr. Schreiner, in his proclamation, setting forth the virtue of strict neutrality. These people in times of peace supply Kimberley daily with farm produce, and the farmers seemed anxious to have the nearest and most profitable market reopened, and to buy and sell in peace.