The Battle of Modder River
War: The Boer War.
Date: 28th November 1899.
Place: In the North West of Cape Colony near the border with
the Orange Free State in South Africa.
British against the Boers.
Generals: Lieutenant General
Lord Methuen against General De La Rey and General Cronje.
of the armies: 8,000 British against 9,000 Boers.
arms and equipment: The Boer War was a serious jolt for the
British Army. At the outbreak of the war British tactics were
appropriate for the use of single shot firearms, fired in volleys
controlled by company and battalion officers; the troops fighting in
close order. The need for tight formations had been emphasised time
and again in colonial fighting. In the Zulu and Sudan Wars
overwhelming enemy numbers armed principally with stabbing weapons
were easily kept at a distance by such tactics; but, as at
Isandlwana, would overrun a loosely formed force. These tactics had
to be entirely rethought in battle against the Boers armed with
In the months before hostilities the Boer
commandant general, General Joubert, bought 30,000 Mauser magazine
rifles and a number of modern field guns and automatic weapons from
the German armaments manufacturer Krupp and the French firm Creusot.
The commandoes, without formal discipline, welded into a fighting
force through a strong sense of community and dislike for the
British. Field Cornets led burghers by personal influence not
through any military code. The Boers did not adopt military
formation in battle, instinctively fighting from whatever cover
there might be. The preponderance were countrymen, running their
farms from the back of a pony with a rifle in one hand. These rural
Boers brought a life time of marksmanship to the war, an important
edge, further exploited by Joubert’s consignment of magazine rifles.
Viljoen is said to have coined the aphorism “Through God and the
Mauser”. With strong fieldcraft skills and high mobility the Boers
were natural mounted infantry. The urban burghers and foreign
volunteers readily adopted the fighting methods of the rest of the
Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police
units, the Boers wore their every day civilian clothes on campaign.
After the first month the Boers lost their numerical superiority,
spending the rest of the formal war on the defensive against British
forces that regularly outnumbered them.
British tactics, little changed from the Crimea, used at Modder
River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop were incapable of
winning battles against entrenched troops armed with modern magazine
rifles. Every British commander made the same mistake; Buller;
Methuen, Roberts and Kitchener. When General Kelly-Kenny attempted
to winkle Cronje’s commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments
at Paardeburg using his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted
on a battle of infantry assaults; with the same disastrous
consequences as Colenso, Modder River, Magersfontein and Spion Kop.
Some of the most successful British troops were the non-regular
regiments; the City Imperial Volunteers, the South Africans,
Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who more easily broke
from the habit of traditional European warfare, using their horses
for transport rather than the charge, advancing by fire and
manoeuvre in loose formations and making use of cover, rather than
the formal advance into a storm of Mauser bullets.
The British regiments made an uncertain change into khaki uniforms
in the years preceding the Boer War, with the topee helmet as
tropical headgear. Highland regiments in Natal devised aprons to
conceal coloured kilts and sporrans. By the end of the war the
uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab tunic and trousers; the
danger of shiny buttons and too ostentatious emblems of rank
emphasised in several engagements with disproportionately high
The British infantry were armed with the Lee
Metford magazine rifle firing 10 rounds. But no training regime had
been established to take advantage of the accuracy and speed of fire
of the weapon. Personal skills such as scouting and field craft were
little taught. The idea of fire and movement was unknown, many
regiments still going into action in close order. Notoriously
General Hart insisted that his Irish Brigade fight shoulder to
shoulder as if on parade in Aldershot. Short of regular troops,
Britain engaged volunteer forces from Britain, Canada, Australia and
New Zealand who brought new ideas and more imaginative formations to
The British regular troops lacked imagination and
resource. Routine procedures such as effective scouting and camp
protection were often neglected. The war was littered with incidents
in which British contingents became lost or were ambushed often
unnecessarily and forced to surrender. The war was followed by a
complete re-organisation of the British Army.
artillery was a powerful force in the field, underused by commanders
with little training in the use of modern guns in battle.
cites Pieters as being the battle at which a British commander,
surprisingly Buller, developed a modern form of battlefield tactics:
heavy artillery bombardments co-ordinated to permit the infantry to
advance under their protection. It was the only occasion that Buller
showed any real generalship and the short inspiration quickly died.
The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15 pounder guns; the Royal
Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the Royal Garrison Artillery
batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal Navy provided heavy field
artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field
carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible.
Automatic weapons were used by the British usually mounted on
special carriages accompanying the cavalry.
British suffered heavier casualties but the Boers were forced to
withdraw from their positions on the Modder River.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
- 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