History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 34

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[Sidenote: Distribution of troops after action.]

The various units of Sir W. Gatacre's force reached Molteno between 11 a.m. and 12.30 midday. In the evening they were moved as follows:

_To Cypher Gat:_ Divisional staff and Royal artillery, by train; mounted infantry, by road.

_To Sterkstroom:_ Northumberland Fusiliers and Royal Irish Rifles, by train.

_To Bushman's Hoek:_ Royal engineers and two companies Royal Scots, by train.

[Sidenote: British losses, Dec. 10th/99.]

The British casualties in the action at Stormberg were:

Killed. Wounded. Missing.

Officers --- 8 13 Other Ranks 25 102 548 --- --- --- Total 25 110 561 --- --- ---

Colonel Eagar, Royal Irish Rifles, died some months later of the wounds received in this action.

[Sidenote: Boer losses.]

The casualties of the Boers were 8 killed and 26 wounded. Commandant Swanepoel afterwards died of his wounds.

[Sidenote: Points to be noted.]

Sir W. Gatacre's decision to advance on Stormberg was fully justified by the strategical situation. General Buller's telegram, although it left him a free hand as to time and opportunity, had suggested that operation. The plan, though bold, was sound in its design, and would have succeeded had not exceptional ill-fortune attended its execution.

Several of the causes of failure stand out conspicuously in the narrative: the mistake of the guides in taking the longer route, which unduly fatigued the men; the failure to realise that the Kissieberg was within striking distance, when the cross roads near Van Zyl's farm were reached; the premature withdrawal of the five companies of one of the battalions from the attack, and the subsequent sh.e.l.ling of the British infantry who still clung to the hill. Without these acc.u.mulated mishaps a blow would in all probability have been struck at the enemy, such as would have had an important influence on the general situation in South Africa. Yet it cannot be held that chance was alone responsible for this miscarriage. A long night march to be followed by a night attack involves, under the most favourable circ.u.mstances, a considerable element of hazard, and it is therefore essential that every possible precaution should be taken to obviate mistakes and to ensure that the column should not, in its mission to surprise, be itself taken at a disadvantage. Careful reconnaissance by the staff of the route to be followed can, therefore, never be neglected with impunity. If a staff officer had examined beforehand the Steynsburg road, at least as far as the branch track which it was intended to follow, and if he had been made responsible for the supervision of the guides, the mistakes as to the route would in all probability have been avoided. This omission is the more remarkable in that one of the Intelligence staff, upon whom the duty of this reconnaissance would naturally have devolved, was well acquainted with the ground in the neighbourhood of Stormberg. It is perhaps doubtful whether in view of the fatigue shown by the troops on their arrival at Roberts' farm, and the uncertainty of the staff as to the situation, it was wise to persist in the enterprise. In any case, it is clear that the neglect to change the formation of the column, and to send out flank and advance guards when dawn appeared whilst the movement was being carried along a road surrounded by hills, was a dangerous and unnecessary risk. Finally, the abandonment of large detachments of infantry, when retreat was ordered, implies a serious lack of supervision both by the staff and by the officers then left in command of the battalions. Yet in weighing the responsibility for these errors, it must be borne in mind that the units composing the force had only just come together for the first time, that General, staff, and troops were all new to one another, and that the men engaged were not yet in hard condition.

CHAPTER XIX.

HALT ON THE MODDER BEFORE MAGERSFONTEIN.[195]

[Footnote 195: Map No. 13 and freehand sketch.]

[Sidenote: Reasons for the halt on the Modder.]

The Modder River battle (November 28th, Chap. XV.) had placed the 1st division within twenty miles of Kimberley. Signals were made to that town by a Naval searchlight fitted "with a flasher."[196] Lord Methuen[197] halted for a short time on the banks of the Modder.

Horses and men, worn out by the fighting and marching of the last six days, required rest. Reinforcements of troops and supplies were on their way to him along the lines of communication with the coast.

Moreover, before he could attempt to carry out his orders to remove the non-combatant population of 8,000 Europeans and 25,000 natives from Kimberley, it was necessary to restore or replace the railway bridge which had been wrecked by the Boers. A message from Colonel Kekewich, who commanded at Kimberley, reached the General on the 4th December. It was to the effect that the town could hold out for forty days more. His fears for the immediate safety of the place thus allayed, Lord Methuen was able to concentrate his energies on the construction of the temporary (or "deviation") bridge across the Riet.

He also threw up a series of redoubts on both sides of the river to enable a small garrison to defend the bridge when the column should resume its march on Kimberley. By dint of great exertions on the part of the Royal engineers and the infantry employed with them, the temporary bridge was completely finished by the 10th December.

[Footnote 196: It was not until the 3rd December that the signals were clearly understood, and an exchange of messages properly established.]

[Footnote 197: Wounded at the action of the Modder on 28th, he left hospital on 29th, but had to return there from 2nd to 6th December.]

[Sidenote: Boers select their position for stopping further advance.]

[Sidenote: Its nature.]

After the engagement of the 28th November, Lord Methuen had reason to believe that the Boers would make their next stand at Spytfontein, twelve miles south of Kimberley. This was at first their intention, but on the 29th November a Boer council of war was held at Jacobsdal, at which two different plans of action were discussed. P. Cronje wished to take up a flank position at Jacobsdal, so as to compel the British troops to attack him, and thus diverge from their direct line for Kimberley. With the Boers so placed, if Lord Methuen had marched straight upon the town, he would have exposed himself to the danger of being cut off from his line of supply over the Modder bridge. De la Rey, on the other hand, desired to make one more effort to bar the direct road, and his scheme was eventually adopted. At first the heights of Spytfontein were chosen. Preparations for their defence were taken in hand on the afternoon of the 29th, when Cronje and the bulk of his force arrived from Jacobsdal. But De la Rey realised that if the heights of Magersfontein, which lay between Spytfontein and the river, were allowed to fall into the hands of the British, Lord Methuen could utilise them as artillery positions for a bombardment of the Spytfontein range. Under cover of this he would be able to deliver an infantry attack. De la Rey suggested that the Magersfontein heights should themselves be held as the cornerstone of the defence. His views prevailed, and the fortification of a position nearly nine miles in length was at once begun. The fight at Modder River had demonstrated the advantage of placing the main firing line so that it should just be able to graze the surface of the country over which the British had to advance. He therefore proposed to hold the ground, now to be occupied, in a similar manner. In the centre, Magersfontein Hill, a grim and rock-bound kopje, rises precipitously from the veld and dominates the plain, six miles in width, which stretches from its foot to the Modder River bridge. From this hill the Boer line extended five miles north-west to Langeberg farm along the foot of a series of kopjes, in some places sufficiently well defined to be marked on map No. 13, in others mere hillocks, but together forming a continuous and formidable line of defence across the railway. From the south-east of Magersfontein Hill a low scrub-covered spur, or ridge, three miles in length, runs southward to Moss Drift on the Modder. Though not of sufficient height to be fully shown upon the map, it exercised an important influence upon the course of the battle. From the river the ground rises gradually towards the heights of Magersfontein. There are two well-marked knolls upon its surface; one, equidistant between the kopjes and the railway bridge, was chosen by Lord Methuen to be his Headquarters for the coming battle; the other, about a mile to the southward of the main hill, was held by the Horse artillery battery during the engagement. The greater part of the plain was comparatively free from scrub, but in the neighbourhood of the low ridge the bush was thick enough to r.e.t.a.r.d the movement of the troops, and in places it was so dense as to limit the range of vision to a few yards. Nor was the scrub the only obstacle for the a.s.sailants--two high wire fences crossed the plain; one, stretching away towards the north-east, marked the frontier of the Orange Free State; while the other ran across the trenches which guarded the centre of the Boer position. The reproduction of the freehand sketch of Magersfontein will show the strength of the ground taken up by the enemy.

[Sidenote: Boers gather from all quarters. Their occupation of the ground.]

During the twelve days which elapsed between the engagement at the Modder and the battle of Magersfontein large reinforcements reached General Cronje. These additions to his army were chiefly due to the energy of President Steyn, who ordered up every available burgher to oppose the British advance. Parties of men summoned from the commandos watching the Basuto border; the Bloemhof and Wolmaranstad commandos, and detachments of Free Staters, were marched southward from the investment of Kimberley; and the Heilbron, Kroonstad, and Bethlehem commandos, detached from the Boer camps in Natal, increased Cronje's righting power. Nor were the exertions of the President of the Orange Free State confined to hurrying fresh troops to the point of immediate danger, for realising that the _moral_ of the Boers had been shaken by the losses they had already sustained, he went down to the laager on the 5th December, and by his fiery eloquence infused fresh life into the somewhat depressed burghers. By the 10th December the right and centre of the enemy were entrenched along the line of kopjes which runs south-east from Langeberg farm on the west to Magersfontein Hill on the east; their left held the low scrub-covered ridge which extends from Magersfontein Hill to Moss Drift on the Modder. Owing to the fact that many of the Boer field-works at Magersfontein were constructed after the battle of the 11th December, it is impossible to describe with accuracy the defences which they had thrown up before that date.

On the right and centre these appear to have consisted of narrow trenches, dug about 150 yards in front of the hills. They were three or four feet in depth, and owing to the peculiar nature of the soil it was possible to make them with perpendicular sides--mere narrow slits in the ground which afforded complete protection from shrapnel fire.

These trenches were not in one continuous line, but were dug along the waving foot-line of the hills, and so arranged that they flanked one another. The parapets, slightly raised above the ground, were well concealed by bushes and stones. On the Boers' left but little work had been done, and the men who held this section were largely dependent on natural cover. Cronje's dispositions were as follows: When the action of the 11th December began, the right was held by part of the Potchefstroom commando, who were soon afterwards ordered to reinforce the left wing. The works in the right centre were manned by another detachment of the Potchefstroom and part of the Fauresmith commandos; while further to the south-east the Ladybrand, Hoopstad, Kroonstad, Bloemhof, and Boshof commandos defended Magersfontein Hill. The Scandinavian corps, about sixty strong, connected the centre with the left wing, which was posted on the low ridge running southward to the river. The remainder of the Fauresmith and the Wolmaranstad commandos held the northern end of this low ridge, the centre of which was occupied by those of the Potchefstroomers who were transferred from the right wing. The south end was defended by the men of Lichtenburg, while across the Modder river near Brown's Drift was posted a detachment of 200 Jacobsdalers with a gun, under Albrecht. On the right the supervision was entrusted to A. Cronje, on the left to De la Rey, while the supreme command was vested in Piet Cronje. As regards the Boer numbers there is the usual conflict of evidence. A Boer general says that there were from 5,000 to 6,000 burghers present; an ambulance officer reckons them in all at 7,000; while two commandants estimate them at 4,000. The Boers had five field guns, distributed along their line; two pom-poms were posted on Magersfontein Hill; while three more pom-poms were allotted to the defence of the low ridge.

[Sidenote: Lord Methuen's reinforcements and detachments.]

By the 10th December all the reinforcements expected by Lord Methuen had gradually reached the Modder River camp. These consisted of the 2nd battalion Black Watch and the 2nd battalion Seaforth Highlanders, who, together with the 1st battalion Highland Light Infantry[198] and the 1st battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, composed the Highland brigade, commanded by Major-General Wauchope. The 12th Lancers, G. battery R.H.A., the 65th (Howitzer) battery R.F.A., and some details of mounted infantry, also joined the relieving column.

Drafts of sailors and marines raised the strength of the Naval brigade, now under command of Captain Bearcroft, R.N., to 375 officers and men, with one 47-in. gun, and four 12-pr. 12-cwt. Naval guns. The latest arrival, that of the 1st battalion Gordon Highlanders, placed under Lord Methuen's command a total of about 15,000 officers and men.

The lines of communication with Orange River were held by the 2nd battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, the 2nd battalion Shrops.h.i.+re Light Infantry, and part of the 1st battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers, strengthened at various points by sections of P. battery R.H.A. The Royal Canadian regiment of infantry garrisoned Belmont, and a mixed force of Australians, consisting of a detachment of Victorian Mounted Rifles, and infantry companies from Victoria and South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia, occupied Enslin.

[Footnote 198: This battalion reached the Modder battlefield on the evening of the 28th November.]

[Sidenote: Minor engagements.]

During the halt on the Modder river small affairs had been of daily occurrence. The patrols had frequently come into collision with the enemy. On the 7th December, Prinsloo, the Free State Commandant-General, with about a thousand Boers and three guns had attacked Enslin station, which at that time (prior to the arrival of the Australians) was held by Captain H. C. G.o.dley, with two companies of the Northamptons.h.i.+re.

Prinsloo did not press home the a.s.sault, and when the 12th Lancers and the 62nd battery arrived from the camp on the Modder, followed by an armoured train carrying the Seaforth Highlanders, he withdrew to Jacobsdal. Some damage was done by the enemy to the railway and telegraph lines, but this was quickly made good.

[Sidenote: Lord Methuen's information Dec. 10th.]

When Lord Methuen, on the 10th December, issued orders for an advance, the information which he had been able to obtain from a reconnaissance by Major G. E. Benson, D.A.A.G., and from the reports of scouts, patrols, and strong reconnoitring parties, showed that the enemy's main line of defence ran along the foot of the hills stretching from Langeberg farm to Magersfontein Hill. It was known that the Boers had outposts on the low ridge, that they held Moss Drift, that they had detachments to the south of the river, and that near Langeberg farm and Brown's Drift were laagers of considerable extent. The General estimated the numbers opposed to him at 12,000 to 15,000 men, with six or eight guns.

[Sidenote: Plans proposed and rejected.]

Various projects for the further movement upon Kimberley had been weighed and found wanting. A purely frontal attack upon the kopjes between Langeberg and Magersfontein Hill involved the crossing of a wide extent of open and level ground, with the danger of a counter-attack by the enemy from the low ridge held by the left wing of Cronje's army. To the west of Langeberg farm the country was so waterless as to preclude any attempt in that direction. A flank march up the Modder river to Brown's Drift, and thence to Abon's Dam, about 16 miles N.E. of Jacobsdal, seemed feasible, for the British column would turn the works of Magersfontein and then fall upon the eastern flank of Spytfontein, the northern of the two lines of heights which lay athwart the railway between the Modder and Kimberley. But before the relieving column could thus swing clear of Magersfontein and strike off thirteen or fourteen miles to the eastward through a country cut up by wire fences, the consequent exposure of Modder River camp, with all its acc.u.mulation of stores and its newly-restored railway bridge, had to be taken into account. Lord Methuen considered its safety, and that of the line of communication along the railway to the nearest post at Honey Nest Kloof, essential to his enterprise. Now the adequate defence of the station and this section of the railway required a far larger detachment than he could spare from his division engaged in making a flank march and an attack on Spytfontein. The idea of a.s.saulting the left flank of the Boers was discussed, but abandoned, because it was thought that the bush-covered ground would diminish the effect of the artillery and cause an undue loss of life among the infantry. Therefore, it was finally decided to carry the heights of Magersfontein, and after their occupation and entrenchment to make a turning movement against the left flank of the Spytfontein range. The tactics of Belmont were to be repeated. After a vigorous bombardment of the hill of Magersfontein in the late afternoon of the 10th, the Highland brigade was to march at night to its foot, and at dawn on the 11th attack this, the key of Cronje's position.

[Sidenote: The plan finally chosen for Dec. 10th night attack.]

Lord Methuen's orders, which are textually quoted at the end of the chapter, may be thus summarised. A preliminary bombardment of the main Boer position was fixed for the afternoon of the 10th; and to facilitate this a column, consisting of the 9th Lancers, mounted infantry, G. Battery R.H.A., the 18th, 62nd and 75th Field batteries, the 65th (Howitzer) battery, the Highland brigade, and the 2nd Yorks.h.i.+re Light Infantry, was to move forward from the Modder river towards the southern end of Magersfontein Hill. The main body of infantry was to halt behind Headquarter Hill, while the 2nd Yorks.h.i.+re Light Infantry was to proceed to Voetpads (or Bridle) Drift, and entrench there against attack from all sides. The cavalry and mounted infantry were to cover the advance on a line from the railway to the river. After the reconnaissance they were to retire to the right of the Highland brigade, protect it, and leave a party to watch the outer flank of the artillery. Major-General Pole-Carew, with two battalions of the 9th brigade (1st battalion Northumberland Fusiliers and 2nd battalion Northampton), was to move with the 47-in. Naval gun, which from a position west of the railway was to co-operate with the artillery engaged in the bombardment. Major Rimington, with his Guides, was to guard the left of this column. On the following morning (the 11th December) fire was to be re-opened, care being taken that the guns were not directed against Magersfontein Hill, the point at which the Highland brigade was to break into the enemy's line. The camp on the Modder river was to be garrisoned by the half-battalion of the North Lancas.h.i.+re regiment, by details, and by the greater part of the Naval brigade, whose four 12-pr. guns were mounted in the works on the south side of the river. The supply column, with five days'

rations, under the escort of half the Gordon Highlanders, was to move off at 4 a.m. on the 11th December, and to follow the route taken by the Highland brigade for two miles. Major-General Colvile, with the 12th Lancers, the 7th company Royal engineers, the Guards' brigade, with its Bearer company, the Field Hospitals of the Guards' and Highland brigades, and the ammunition column, by 3 a.m. on the 11th was to be 500 yards to the left rear of the ground to be occupied by the brigade division of Field artillery, _i.e._, somewhat in rear of Headquarter Hill.

[Sidenote: Wauchope with Methuen, Dec. 9th.]

On Sat.u.r.day afternoon, December 9th, Major-General Wauchope had a conversation with Lord Methuen in the hotel which was used for Headquarters. When he came out he said to Colonel Douglas, Lord Methuen's Chief Staff Officer: "I do not like the idea of this night march." Colonel Douglas urged him to see Lord Methuen again and frankly tell him so. He, however, did not go back again to Lord Methuen. The written orders for the march were received at General Wauchope's quarters at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning, December 10th. Later in the day, Major-General Wauchope a.s.sembled the officers commanding the four battalions of his brigade, and explained to them the manner in which he proposed to carry out his mission. The brigade was to form a ma.s.s of quarter-columns, the battalions marching in the following order. The Black Watch was to lead, with the Seaforth and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders following in succession. The Highland Light Infantry was to close up the rear. The deployment from ma.s.s for attack was to be to the left. The Seaforth would thus be on the left of the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherland on the left of the Seaforth.

The Highland Light Infantry was to remain in reserve.

[Sidenote: Wauchope issues his orders.]

[Sidenote: Bombardment of Dec. 10th.]

[Sidenote: Metheun sees Wauchope again.]

Late in the afternoon of the 10th December, the preliminary bombardment took place. The 47-in. gun came into action to the west of the railway, near the Ganger's Hut, two miles and a half north of Modder River bridge. The Howitzers went to a point near Headquarter Hill, the three field batteries took up a position somewhat more forward and to the east. As the artillery was brought into action the infantry was withdrawn, and the guns sh.e.l.led Magersfontein Hill for two hours. At 6.30 p.m. Lord Methuen ordered the fire to cease. Soon after the bombardment was over he visited General Wauchope at his quarters. Shortly afterwards he told Colonel Douglas that General Wauchope thoroughly understood his orders and appeared to be quite satisfied with the work he had to do. Though his guns had provoked no reply from the Boers, Lord Methuen felt confident that they had not only inflicted loss, but had produced considerable moral effect on the Boer commandos. This, however, was not the case. The fire had but one important result, that of warning the enemy that an attack was imminent.

History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 34

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