History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 49

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[Sidenote: Secrecy and orders adapted to case.]

Throughout the month of January Lord Roberts so directed the conduct of operations and disposed of reinforcements arriving from England as to mislead the Boer General as to his designs. His real intentions were, in fact, known only to his Chief of the Staff (Lord Kitchener), his Military Secretary (Major-General Sir W. G. Nicholson), to the Director of Military Intelligence (Local Colonel G. F. R. Henderson), and to those who had to make the railway arrangements, Colonel Girouard, Major D. Murray, a.s.sistant Director of Railways, Mr. T. R.

Price, Chief Traffic Manager, Major H. Hamilton, who acted as intermediary for Lord Kitchener, and to Colonel C. P. Ridley, in charge of the western line of communications. To Lord Methuen the Commander-in-Chief wrote on the 11th January:--

"I have come to the conclusion that I must ask you to act strictly on the defensive, and as it may be even necessary for me to withdraw a portion of your force, you should consider how your line of entrenchments could be sufficiently reduced to enable you to hold the position with two, instead of three, brigades, and possibly with one or two batteries and one regiment of cavalry less than you have at present. Your request for four of the siege 47-in. guns will be complied with, and when these reach you, you will doubtless be able to make your position practically impregnable. That the relief of Kimberley cannot be immediately effected I am as sorry for, as I am sure you must be, but I trust that it will still be possible for you to give the brave garrison at that place a helping hand before they run short of supplies and ammunition."

To the central line of operations where, owing to the activity of French, the strength of the enemy had increased, Lord Roberts despatched the 6th division and placed a portion of one of its brigades (the 12th, under Maj.-Gen. R. A. P. Clements) at French's disposal. It was decided to give Lieut.-General Kelly-Kenny a separate command from Naauwpoort southward, leaving French to continue his previous campaign against the enemy round Colesberg.[309] To General French, therefore, the Field-Marshal addressed the following instructions on the 12th January:--

[Footnote 309: Lt.-General Kelly-Kenny was very much senior in the army to Lt.-General French, but the latter's local commission as Lt.-General was of older date.]

"As I see no chance of being able to leave Cape Town just at present, and cannot therefore offer you my congratulations in person, I write to let you know the satisfaction it has given me to hear of the good work you have been doing in the neighbourhood of Colesberg.

"You will have learnt by telegram that we have sent you three battalions of the 12th brigade under Clements. Kelly-Kenny, who commands the 6th division, sails to-morrow for Port Elizabeth, and the whole of his eight battalions will, I hope, be collected shortly at Naauwpoort junction, I gather that the Boers are increasing in strength between Colesberg and the river. It seems almost certain that their numbers will be still further augmented if Buller succeeds in relieving Ladysmith, for Joubert's force will then be free, and he is almost certain to hurry his men to the south-west in order to try and block our way into the Orange Free State.

"This may make the seizure of the Norval's Pont bridge out of the question; as it would, however, be of such supreme importance to get possession of this crossing of the Orange river, I shall be greatly obliged if you will inform me whether you think the operation in any way feasible. We could increase your force still more, or what would probably be of even greater a.s.sistance to you, we could threaten the enemy from the Orange River station direction. The greatest secrecy and caution would be required, and the seizure of the bridge could only be effected by a very carefully-thought-out and well-planned _coup de main_, for, if the Boers had the slightest inkling of our intention, they would a.s.suredly blow it up. There would, moreover, be no object in our getting possession of the bridge, and thus risking a number of valuable lives, unless it could be made perfectly secure on its immediate northern bank, and this, from the nature of the ground, might be impossible.

"I hope that your men and horses are keeping thoroughly efficient. Please take every care of them and save the horses as much as possible, for, until we can get hold of some of the regiments now in Ladysmith, yours is almost the only cavalry we have to depend upon."

The seizure of the bridge[310] would have been useful both in deceiving Cronje and in facilitating later movements, but the intricate ground on the northern bank of the river at that point would have rendered further advance costly, and the defence of the bridge itself difficult, and as yet it was unnecessary. French, therefore, though he at the time knew nothing of the intended scheme, exactly carried out what was the purpose of Lord Roberts' instructions when, as recorded in Chapter XXIV., he, after the demonstration of January 25th, abandoned further efforts against Norval's Pont. It was not till January 30th, during his brief visit to Cape Town, that he was given two copies of the complete plan of operations, one for himself and one for General Kelly-Kenny. It was no doubt due to these careful precautions that the secret was so admirably kept as it was, and that the Boers were so completely deceived as they were as to what was going on.[311]

[Footnote 310: See map No. 9.]

[Footnote 311: President Steyn telegraphed to C. De Wet as late as the end of January that the British advance would be made by Colesberg, and suggested the despatch of reinforcements to that point from Magersfontein. But De Wet, who was now in command of all Free State troops in the western theatre, having been transferred from Natal early in December, refused, on the ground that if Magersfontein were weakened, the British would make Kimberley their point of attack. The records of the O.F.S. railway at this period show how much anxiety was felt as to Colesberg. Between the 27th December and 13th January 2,700 burghers pa.s.sed through Bloemfontein _en route_ to Norval's Pont, and between the 25th January and 8th February (including a Heidelberg commando over 500 strong between 6th and 8th) another 1,442; not until the 9th was the stream of reinforcements for the south stopped at Bloemfontein. By that time Lord Roberts himself, and nearly all the army, including Kelly-Kenny's and French's divisions, had reached their destination south of the Riet.]

Kelly-Kenny, with his division, less Clements' brigade, was to cover the communications south of Naauwpoort, allay unrest and disaffection, and open up the railway line as far as possible from Rosmead in the direction of Stormberg, thus diverting attention from Gatacre. A proposal made on the 23rd by him that French should be instructed to seize Bethulie bridge by a forced march was refused by the Field-Marshal, who, not to disclose his real reasons, told him that the enterprise was a doubtful one; the country difficult, and strong opposition would be offered to the move. To Sir W. Gatacre the Commander-in-Chief issued orders on the 19th January that Dordrecht should be garrisoned, and that Brabant's newly-formed Colonial division should use that town as a base, and thence operate towards Jamestown so as to menace the line of retreat of the Boer force at Stormberg. Meanwhile Gatacre himself was to act strictly on the defensive. Brabant was placed under his orders, but was to be given a "perfectly free hand" and be allowed to report direct to Army Headquarters.

[Sidenote: Enemy perplexed. Move begun.]

These various orders and instructions successfully effected Lord Roberts' purpose. The distribution of the British troops perplexed and confused the enemy, and the Boer leaders remained pa.s.sive, making no substantial change in their dispositions save to increase the strength of the body covering the crossing to the north of Colesberg. By the end of January Lord Roberts' staff had nearly finished the work of preparation, and the Commander-in-Chief directed the concentration of all available troops between the Orange river and the Modder for the delivery of the stroke he had designed, leaving before Colesberg and Magersfontein sufficient forces under the respective commands of Major-General Clements and Lord Methuen to hold the enemy, at each of these points, in check. It was on January 29th that General French was summoned to Cape Town.[312] Immediately after his return the actual transfer northwards of an army corps, made up of a cavalry division, three infantry divisions, and some corps troops, was carried out. A few details had started as early as the 28th.

[Footnote 312: It is one of the sequels of any attempt to preserve in war that secrecy which is the very master-key of the house of success that the evidence of much that has been done during the period of reticence is conflicting. The actual motive which led Lord Roberts to desire General French's presence at Cape Town was anxiety as to the expenditure of horses and ammunition, which the brilliant operations around Colesberg had involved. He did not summon him in order to discuss with him the plan of campaign, which was only incidentally disclosed to him during his visit. The demonstration that in all essentials that plan had been definitely formed; and that Lord Kitchener and Sir W.

Nicholson had been engaged in making the necessary changes in the distribution of transport in order to carry it out; and that they began this work about two or three days after Lord Roberts arrived, is complete. Moreover, there is not a trace in the records or in the memory of any of those at Cape Town of an idea of employing in command of the cavalry division anyone else but the man who had given so much cause to put trust in him. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that General French acquired the impression, from his conversations with Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener, that he only with difficulty persuaded them on January 29th to send the cavalry division and himself in command of it. What, other things apart, makes it certain that this cannot have been so is that the cavalry division moved at once when General French returned to Colesberg. To make so sudden a change was a physical impossibility. The preparations had required weeks of strenuous work.]

[Sidenote: The cavalry division.]

The commander of the cavalry division was Lieut.-General J. D. P.

French. It consisted of three cavalry brigades and two M.I. brigades; of these the 1st cavalry brigade (Brig.-Gen. T. C. Porter) was formed of the 6th Dragoon Guards, 2nd Dragoons, one squadron of the Inniskilling Dragoons, one squadron of the 14th Hussars, New South Wales Lancers, and T., Q., and U. batteries R.H.A.; the 2nd cavalry brigade (Brig.-Gen. R. G. Broadwood) was made up of the composite regiment of the Household cavalry, 10th Hussars, 12th Lancers, and G.

and P. batteries R.H.A.; the 3rd cavalry brigade (Brig.-Gen. J. R. P.

Gordon), of 9th and 16th Lancers, and O. and R. batteries R.H.A. To the 1st M.I. brigade (Colonel O. C. Hannay) were a.s.signed the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 7th regiments M.I., the New South Wales Mounted Rifles, Roberts' Horse, Kitchener's Horse, and the Grahamstown Volunteers M.I.; the 2nd M.I. brigade, commanded by Colonel C. P. Ridley, was made up by the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th M.I. regiments, the City Imperial Volunteers, Queensland M.I., and Nesbitt's Horse.[313] Each cavalry brigade had an ammunition column, detachment of A.S.C., field hospital, and bearer company. The division was given a field troop R.E. and six transport companies.

[Footnote 313: The New Zealand Mounted Rifles joined the brigade on 14th February.]

[Sidenote: The infantry divisions.]

The infantry divisions were the 6th (Kelly-Kenny), the 7th (Tucker[314]), which had landed from England during the fourth week of January, and a new division, the 9th, to be formed under command of Lt.-Gen. Sir H. Colvile. Of these divisions the 6th comprised the 76th and 81st Field batteries, an ammunition column, the 38th company R.E., the 13th infantry brigade, under Major-General C. E. Knox (composed of 2nd East Kent, 2nd Gloucester, 1st West Riding, and 1st Oxfords.h.i.+re L.I.), and a new brigade, the 18th, made up of the 1st Yorks.h.i.+re, 1st Welsh, and 1st Ess.e.x, under the command of Brigadier-General T. E.

Stephenson. The 7th division retained its original const.i.tution, viz.: the 14th brigade, under Major-General Sir H. Chermside (consisting of 2nd Norfolk, 2nd Lincolns.h.i.+re, 1st King's Own Scottish Borderers, and 2nd Hamps.h.i.+re), the 15th brigade under Major-General A. G. Wavell (including 2nd Ches.h.i.+re, 2nd South Wales Borderers, 1st East Lancas.h.i.+re, and 2nd North Staffords.h.i.+re), and as divisional troops, the 18th, 62nd, and 75th Field batteries, an ammunition column, and 9th company R.E. The new 9th division, under Lieut.-General Colvile, had as its nucleus the 3rd, or Highland brigade, now under Major-General H. A. MacDonald (2nd Black Watch, 1st Highland Light Infantry, 2nd Seaforth, and 1st Argyll and Sutherland). The other brigade, to be termed the 19th, was a.s.signed to Colonel H. L.

Smith-Dorrien, and was to be organised from the 2nd Duke of Cornwall's L.I., 2nd Shrops.h.i.+re L.I., 1st Gordon Highlanders, and the Royal Canadian regiment. The 65th (howitzer) and 82nd Field batteries, an ammunition column, and 7th company R.E., formed Colvile's divisional troops. Each of the infantry brigades included a bearer company, a field hospital, and a detachment of the Army Service Corps. From each of these divisions the cavalry was withdrawn and included in the cavalry division. Two naval guns were attached to each of the 6th and 9th divisions, but the remainder of the naval brigade, under Captain J. Bearcroft, R.N., was at first ordered to remain with Lord Methuen.

The only corps troops retained by the Commander-in-Chief were the 15th company Southern division R.G.A., the 1st Telegraph division, and the balloon section, Royal Engineers. Rimington's Guides were distributed amongst the various columns. The total effective strength of the force, including the Guards' and 9th brigades, which remained before Magersfontein to hold Cronje in check, was a little under 40,000 men and 108 guns. The battalions at this time much varied in strength, those of the 13th brigade averaged but 721, those of the Highland brigade 780, the battalions of the 15th brigade were as high as 900, and the Guards' battalions reached the figure of 938. The cavalry regiments had an average of about 473 all ranks. For details of units, see Appendix 10.

[Footnote 314: Lt.-General C. Tucker.]

[Sidenote: Reinforcements asked for.]

The intelligence of the failure of Sir R. Buller's operations against Spion Kop forced the Field-Marshal on 28th January to telegraph to the War Office that the despatch of the 8th division and another cavalry brigade from England had become advisable, but, in deference to reluctance felt by the Cabinet to denude further the home garrisons of regular infantry, Lord Roberts suspended his request for them at present until the result of later operations in Natal should be known.[315] The brigade of cavalry was at once promised.

[Footnote 315: The 8th division was again definitely asked for on 28th February, and then granted.]

[Sidenote: Demonstrations westward. MacDonald seizes Koodoesberg, Feb.

5th, 1900.]

Lord Roberts did not wait for it, for his advance could no longer be delayed. As the troops were pushed forward successively, it was certain that the enemy must become aware of the a.s.sembly of so large a number very close to Magersfontein, even though the concentration was screened by Lord Methuen's and General Clements' forces. It was essential, therefore, to distract Cronje's attention from the flank, eastward of which the Field-Marshal meant to aim his blow. Nor were there lacking ample excuses for demonstrations to the westward. The very unsatisfactory condition of the districts south of Orange river west of the Kimberley railway was known to the Boer leaders. Cronje had already detached to Douglas 200 men and two guns, under Commandant Liebenberg, to support a Cape rebel, L. F. Steinkamp, in raising the standard of revolt in those regions. To counteract this effort, Prieska had been re-occupied on 27th January by Lieut.-Colonel Alderson with a battery and 600 M.I., but their immediate return to De Aar was necessary, as the mounted men were needed for the general advance. A diversion on a larger scale was now planned. By Lord Roberts' order Lord Methuen temporarily attached to the Highland brigade two squadrons of the 9th Lancers, the 62nd Field battery, and the 7th company R.E., and directed Major-General MacDonald to march at 5.30 on the morning of the 4th February to Koodoesberg Drift, where the road from Kimberley to Douglas crosses the Riet at about twenty miles below its junction with the Modder, and to begin the construction of a fort covering this pa.s.sage of the river. The column halted at Fraser's Drift, seven miles out, and there bivouacked for the night. Koodoesberg Drift was reached the following day. The hot season was at its height. A reconnaissance was pushed to the north-west. The top of the Koodoesberg, a long, flat-topped kopje, about 1,200 yards from the river, was seized. It completely commanded the drift. A mounted patrol of fifteen Boers retired from this hill as the British cavalry approached. General MacDonald's force pa.s.sed that night on the south bank, being covered by two companies of infantry on the far side of the river. At daylight, on the 6th of February, the construction of a redoubt suitable for 200 men on a small knoll to the north of the drift was begun. Almost immediately a patrol of 9th Lancers reported that about 300 of the enemy[316] were creeping up the northern slope of the Koodoesberg. The Major-General accordingly ordered his brigade-major, Lieut.-Colonel Ewart, to advance rapidly with the working parties on the hill and try to antic.i.p.ate the a.s.sailants at the summit. Ewart, supported by the Highland Light Infantry under Lt.-Colonel Kelham, succeeded in doing so. A Boer detachment which had already reached the top retired hastily. It was then found that the plateau was some two miles in length, and therefore too extensive for complete occupation. Kelham was accordingly ordered to hold its southern edge, and the R.E. began to build sangars across the narrow Nek which divided the south of the hill from the main plateau. The Black Watch was moved over the river to the right bank in support. In the afternoon arrived large reinforcements, which had been despatched by Cronje from Scholtz Nek to aid De Wet. These, estimated by the British troops to be about 2,000 strong,[317] enabled the enemy to push on again up the reverse slopes of the Berg and definitely establish themselves on the northern and western edges of the plateau. On this the British field-works were further strengthened. Visser's homestead, a farmhouse lying in the plain to the south-east of the kopje and to the north of the drift, was placed in a state of defence, and occupied by two companies of the Black Watch. The two squadrons of 9th Lancers during this time were manoeuvred by Major Little near to the farm, with the object of inducing the Boers to come out into the open and attack, but they confined themselves all that afternoon to heavy sniping. At dusk the companies of the H.L.I. on the eastern extremity of the Berg were relieved by another company of that battalion and four companies of the Seaforth.

[Footnote 316: The actual strength of this force was 350. Its leader was C. De Wet.]

[Footnote 317: General De Wet officially reported that he only received a reinforcement of 200 men. Other Boer accounts give his total strength during the action as 800.]

[Sidenote: Course of struggle.]

As soon as it was dark the Boers dragged a gun, which, with a further reinforcement of 200 men, had been received from Cronje, up the north-western slopes of the hill, and at 9 a.m. (7th February) they opened with shrapnel on the breastworks at the eastern edge of the plateau. The troops holding that ground were now reinforced by two more companies of the H.L.I. and four of the Black Watch, Lieut.-Colonel Hughes-Hallett being placed in command. A little later the cavalry patrols reported that a party of Boers was pa.s.sing across Painter's Drift, two miles down the river, to attack the left flank.

The defence of the bank of the Riet had been entrusted to Lt.-Colonel A. Wilson, commanding the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and that officer despatched two and a half companies of his battalion with two guns, under Major E. B. Urmston, to meet this movement. The rest of Major Granet's battery was in action on the left bank of the river against the enemy's artillery. On the Koodoesberg itself there was a sharp fight, and a few of the burghers crept within 300 yards of the British sangars. The heat of the day was intense, and considerable difficulty was experienced in conveying water and ammunition up the steep slopes of the kopje to the British fighting line. Unfortunately, this steepness at the same time rendered it almost impossible to withdraw the wounded. Meanwhile Major Urmston's detachment frustrated the attempt of the enemy, a Ladybrand commando under Commandant Froneman, to work down the bed of the river from Painter's Drift.

[Sidenote: MacDonald receives reinforcements.]

[Sidenote: MacDonald withdrawn.]

General MacDonald had early in the morning telegraphed to the Modder camp for reinforcements. In response to this request a cavalry brigade, with two batteries R.H.A. had been sent out under Major-General Babington,[318] and about 3.15 p.m. could be seen at a distance of about four or five miles to the north approaching the river. MacDonald now hoped to a.s.sume the offensive, and reinforced Hughes-Hallett with the remaining half-battalion of the Seaforth, preparatory to a direct attack upon the Boers on the plateau, but, owing to some misunderstanding, concerted action with the cavalry brigade was not arranged until too late, and the general advance was accordingly postponed until the following morning. The enemy, meanwhile, fully realised that the arrival of the cavalry brigade rendered his isolated position on the plateau no longer tenable. The burghers, therefore, began slipping away from the hill, and by nightfall had practically evacuated it, leaving their gun for some time on the kopje unprotected save by a small escort. General Babington tried to follow them up, but the Household cavalry, which was in front, was checked by wire fences and came under heavy rifle fire. Their attempt to cut off the gun was also quite stopped by musketry from some thick bush and broken ground. The Boers subsequently succeeded in removing the piece during the night, although its descent from the kopje was a task of some serious labour and took two hours. The Commander-in-Chief's object in making this feint against the enemy's right had been gained. He had arrived that morning at the Modder camp, and now ordered the two brigades to return. General MacDonald therefore withdrew on the evening of the 8th of February, having first ascertained by a reconnaissance that the enemy had completely evacuated both the Berg and Painter's Drift.

[Footnote 318: O. and R. batteries R.H.A., composite regiment of Household cavalry, 16th Lancers, one squadron 10th Hussars, one squadron 12th Lancers, and two troops of the Scots Greys.]

[Sidenote: Results of demonstration.]

The British losses during this action were two officers and four men killed, and five officers and forty-two men wounded. The Boers admitted a loss of five killed and six wounded. Locally the results of the engagement were hardly satisfactory, but nevertheless its effect was exactly what had been hoped for, as General Cronje at once began to reinforce his right and further strengthen his entrenchments on that side. A simultaneous demonstration, also made to the westward, by a body of 1,500 men under Brig.-Gen. Broadwood, helped to confirm the Boer leaders' a.s.sumption that the relief of Kimberley would be attempted by the west route. Broadwood reached Sunnyside on the 7th, hoping to strike a blow at Liebenberg's commando at Douglas; but it had already fallen back across the river, and the British, unable to spare the time to pursue, retired on the 8th to Richmond, a farm thirteen miles west of Graspan.

[Sidenote: Numbers in South Africa, 4th Feb. 1900.]

The Commander-in-Chief had at first intended to leave Cape Town for the north on 30th January, but postponed his departure, as he found that a little more time was required to collect between the Modder and Orange rivers the troops he designed to employ. On the 4th February, "to correct any misapprehension which may exist at the War Office as to the total force at my disposal," the Field-Marshal informed the Secretary of State by telegram that the effective strength of fighting men in Cape Colony, exclusive of seven militia battalions and of the garrisons of Kimberley and Mafeking, was 51,900, and that the entire fighting strength of the force in Natal was estimated at 34,830, of whom 9,780 were invested in Ladysmith. Under these circ.u.mstances Lord Roberts recommended that the number of militia battalions in the country should be increased to thirty, and that, if possible, two more regular battalions should be sent, one from Malta and the other from Egypt. Four days later Lord Roberts informed the War Office that he would be glad if the whole of the 8,000 Imperial Yeomanry originally asked for by Sir R. Buller could be sent out, and more, if available.

He suggested that additional mounted men should be raised in the colonies, and added,

"I trust you will make arrangements to supply us with horses from Australia, India, and America. Our wants will, I fear, be considerable."

[Sidenote: Details of movement. 25th Jan. to 12th Feb. 1900.]

On 6th February the Field-Marshal, accompanied by his Chief of the Staff, left Cape Town for Lord Methuen's camp. Meanwhile the concentration had gone on. The details of the moves by rail had been worked out by the Director of Railways and the General Traffic Manager; ten miles of additional sidings had been laid down between Orange River and the Modder, and at these sidings, between the 28th of January and the 12th of February, there were detrained some 30,000 troops, with horses, guns, equipment, and transport, besides an immense amount of supplies. Clements' brigade, with two squadrons Inniskilling Dragoons, 660 Australian infantry who were in process of being converted into mounted troops, 450 mounted infantry, two batteries (J., R.H.A. and 4th R.F.A.) and a section 37th Howitzer battery, lay round Rensburg to face General Schoeman's commandos. The rest of Kelly-Kenny's division and French's original force were brought round by rail to Orange River, the former unit being there completed by the new brigade--the 18th--formed out of line of communication battalions, under the command of Brig.-Gen. T. E.

Stephenson. Seven militia battalions, just disembarked from England, were hurried up country to replace these regular battalions, and protect the western and the central lines of rail. By the 8th of February the cavalry division, except detachments of the 6th Dragoon Guards and 14th Hussars and Hannay's M.I. brigade, had been a.s.sembled at the Modder River camp under Lieut.-General French. Hannay's brigade was at Orange River station; the 6th division at Modder River camp; the 7th at Enslin and Graspan. Of the 9th division, the Highland brigade was on the Riet, while the new 19th brigade was in process of formation under Smith-Dorrien at Graspan. The distribution of troops in South Africa on the 11th February, 1900, will be found in Appendix 10.

[Sidenote: Motives of Lord Roberts. Instructions given below.]

To Cronje it appeared that the English were about once more to hurl themselves against his carefully-prepared entrenchments. Lord Roberts had at last under his hand a force whose strength and mobility permitted of the execution of a great turning movement, and warranted the confident hope that the tide of fortune would turn in favour of the British flag. It was his desire that the troops, about to engage in this fresh enterprise, should reap to the full the benefit of the practical experiences of the earlier actions of the war, both as regards the special conditions of fighting in South Africa and the modifications in tactics necessitated by the introduction of smokeless powder and magazine small-bore rifles. He also recognised that the tasks he was about to a.s.sign to his mounted troops would tax their horses to the utmost, and was anxious to impress on all concerned the necessity for the most careful horsemasters.h.i.+p. He therefore issued the following instructions:--

History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902 Part 49

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