Topic: BatzB - Modder River
South Africa, 28 November 1899
Modder River, an action fought on 28 November 1899 (during the Second South African War) between Boer and British forces, took place in the vicinity of the railway station situated near the junction of the Riet and Modder rivers. A week earlier the British force had set out from the Orange River under Lieut.-General Lord Methuen, driving north along the axis of' the railway line to Kimberley which was then under siege from the Boers. In two sharp actions, at Belmont (q.v.) and Graspan (q.v.), Methuen's men had been forced to turn enemy detachments out of prepared delaying positions at disproportionate cost to themselves. Although increased in strength to over 10,000 men, Methuen's force still suffered a shortage of mounted troops which meant that the Boers could not be prevented from making orderly retreats free from interference. This enabled between 4,000 and 6,000 burghers under generals Piet Cronje and J .H. (Koos') De la Rev to occupy a fresh defensive position dug in sandy soil along the east-west line of the Riet, about a kilometre south of' Modder River station.
Although warned of the Boer presence in strength, Methuen continued to place his trust in scouts' retorts that the crossing was only weakly held by probably no more than 400 men. In the early morning hours of 28 November he advanced directly over open flats towards the river, his object being to secure the ground can either side of the bridge over which the railway passed (which in any event had been destroyed). The fallacy of the information upon which he was acting was demonstrated at 5.15 a.m., when patrols of the 9th Lancers approaching to within 1,600 metres of the river drew heavy fire from positions extending for 2.5 kilometres east of the bridge-establishing that the area was anything but lightly held.
Despite these serious warning signs, Methuen remained convinced that he faced only a rearguard attempting to make a gesture of defiance and pressed blindly on. The whole British movement was stopped cold 45 minutes later when the Boers opened fire at a range of 1, 100 metres and forced the troops to go to ground. By crawling and then making short rushes, the British succeeded in reaching to within about 730 metres of the enemy lines on the right, but could then get no further. Methuen brought up artillery and commenced shelling the Boer trenches. Although this fire helped cut down ground covered by the troops, only a few casualties were caused among the defending burghers.
Unable to either advance or retire, the bulk of Methuen's force were kept pinned down all day in torturous heat of more than 42`C. Only on the left flank was any progress made, when troops succeeded in reaching the Riet and forcing the Boers defending posts on the south bank back across the river. By 2 p.m. British troops were occupying the hamlet of Rosmead on the far bank, on the Boer's right flank, but this threat posed to the enemy centre could not he exploited after reinforcements failed to reach here and the troops' own artillery accidentally fired on them. When the fighting halted for the night at about 7 p.m., the enemy remained in full possession of all their other positions. Darkness at least enabled medical attention to reach the wounded, and food and water to he delivered to men who had been without either for more than ten hours.
The cessation of firing also allowed the Boers to again abandon their positions during the night without hindrance. Although Methuen was thus left in possession of the battlefield and able to take his entire force across to the northern bank the next morning, this hollow victory had been won at a cost of 70 British dead and 313 wounded. Australian participation in the action once more took the form of the 29 men of the New South Wales Lancers under Lieut. S.T. Osborne, who acted as escort to the artillery on the field throughout the day. At least one of the Australians had his horse shot from under him, but otherwise the little band passed through the engagement without loss while sharing the deprivations of the whole force.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 59-60.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
W. Baring Pemberton (1964) Battles of the Boer War, London.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
Battles where Australians fought, 1899-1920
Citation: Modder River, South Africa, November 28, 1899