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The Refights
The Re-fight of Modder River, 10 December 1999

Lord Methuen's British force fought their way from the Orange River station, and after being victorious at both Belmont and Graspan, he was approaching the Modder River, confident of his ability to defeat any Boer force trying to prevent him from relieving Kimberley. However, Generaal De la Rey, possibly one of the most able Boer generals, had realised that occupying the hills in the previous battles had actually contributed to the Boer defeats. He was determined to make a stand in the level, featureless terrain around the Modder River, using the confluence of the Modder and Riet Rivers, which had formed a deep trough, as a natural fortress of trenches.

Four members of the Peninsula Wargames Group in Cape Town had decided to travel the thousand kilometres to Kimberley to attend the centennial commemoration of the battle of Magersfontein on the 11th of December. They had volunteered to re-fight the battle of Magersfontein, on the Magersfontein hill itself, on Saturday, 11 December, exactly 100 years after the actual battle. This was to form part of the official commemoration, which included, amongst others, a nigh-march from Modder River to Magersfontein, a re-enactment, and various services and tours of the battlefield.

It was decided that another battle should be re-fought prior to Magersfontein, and with the co-operation of the McGregor Museum and the Kimberley Public Library, the venue was set at the Library. Modder River was selected as the battle to be re-fought because it was the last battle before Magersfontein.

Thus Paul Gouws, Johan Schoeman, Damian Enslin and Craig Nevin, found themselves far from home, setting up the terrain around Modder River in the Kimberley Public Library at 10 a.m. on the 10th of December. By 11 a.m. the terrain was completed and initial deployment began. By this time the table was surrounded by interested public, who took it on themselves to drag chairs to the table and seat themselves all around the battlefield, eagerly awaiting the commencement of hostilities.

Craig and Damian each took command of a brigade of British, while Johan and Paul commanded the OFS and Transvaal commandos respectively. Damian was appointed as Major-General Colvile, commanding the 1st (Guards) Brigade, comprising the 3rd battalion Grenadier Guards, 1st and 2nd battalions Coldstream Guards, and the 1st battalion Scots Guards, with the 18th and 75th batteries of Royal Field Artillery and the 9th Lancers attached. Craig was acting as Major-General Pole-Carew commanding the 9th Infantry Brigade, comprising the 1st battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, 2nd battalion Northampton Regiment, 2nd battalion Yorkshire Light Infantry, four companies of the 1st battalion Loyal North Lancastershire Regiment, 2 companies of the 1st battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers, and the 1st battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, with the 62nd battery Royal Field Artillery, the four 12-pounder Naval Guns, the Naval Brigade, Rimington's Guides, and the Mounted Infantry attached.

On the Boer side, Paul was acting as Generaal Koos de la Rey, commanding the Transvaal commandos, comprising of the Lichtenburg, Potchefstroom, and Klerksdorp commandos, with four 75mm Krupp guns and four 37mm Pom-Poms. Johan was in overall command, acting as Generaal Piet Cronje, commanding the OFS commandos, comprising of the Kroonstad, Fauresmith, Bloemfontein, Brandfort, and Jacobsdal commandos, with two 75mm Krupp guns. The defence of the bridge and the river banks east of the railway line was given to Generaal De la Rey, while Generaal Cronje took it upon himself to defend the river banks to the west of the railway line, including the village of Rosmead.

Spectators gathering during set up of the table.

The first move: The British Guards Brigade moves out.

The Modder River bridge, viewed from the north.

As the British players started with the opening move by advancing from the south of the table, Johan started explaining the mechanisms of the game to the spectators. It took some time for the spectators to realise that the game is really not a fast moving stream of events, and most left within the first three bounds. Some bitterenders tried to stick it out, but they were soon driven away by hunger and thirst when lunchtime arrived!

The British plan was simply to launch a frontal attack with both brigades advancing towards the river, the Guards to the east of the railway, and the 9th Brigade to the west. Damian opened the game by starting the advance on the east side of the railway. The four battalions of the Guard Brigade moved out in column towards the Riet River with orders to extend into line formation as soon as it was light. The 9th Lancers rode out on the right to protect the flank. The two batteries followed the infantry in close support. It was 5 a.m. battle time. Simultaneously the 9the Brigade moved out from the western side of the railway under similar orders, with the mounted troops protecting the left flank.

The table from the east.

The British lines advancing. A view from the east.

The British lines approach the river, seen from the east.

The approach in the dark were largely successful, but on first light, at about 5.30 a.m., while all the battalions extended into line, the 2nd Coldstream Guards stubbornly persisted in their column formation, and, with the railway immediately to their left, soon moved ahead of the rest. The 1st Coldstream Guards followed to their right, with the Grenadiers and Scots Guards extending further to the right.

The 9th Lancers on the right extended into line, and still mounted, approached the river. As they passed the old pumping station on the southern leg of the Riet River, within 800 yards of the leg parallel to them to the north, at about 7 a.m., the first volley from the Boers hidden[]\

\ in this part of the river bed, crashed out. Because of the horizontal fire and marked field of fire, this first volley proved to be highly effective, killing 8 men, and wounding 22 others and an officer. The Lancers, taken by surprise, could not immediately dismount and find cover, and thus took further casualties when another volley from the Boers, this time joined by every Boer that could shoot at them, crashed into them. 18 men fell dead from their horses and another 45 and another officer were wounded before they dismounted, and while one man in four led away and tended their horses, the rest went to ground to return fire to the unseen enemy ahead. They were pinned, and disoriented, for they just took the first volley of the most effective fire of the war, due to the low trajectory and high velocity of the Mauser bullet, applied with great accuracy over a horizontal field of fire. The Lancers could do no more.

A closer view of the blown-up bridge, again from the east.

The town of Rosmead with the drift over the river, viewed from the north.

The Boers hidden in the river bed open up on the British lines.

Almost simultaneous with this, the Mounted Infantry and Remington's Guides rode into a similar fate on the British left flank, when they, while riding up in column on the road leading to the drift south of Rosmead, came under deadly effective fire from the Bloemfontein and Brandfort Commandos on the south bank below the drift. Six men were killed and 26 wounded, as they immediately dismounted and went to ground to the right of the junction of the road they were following northward and another from the south-east. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, having had deployed into line, moved in support on the right of the pinned mounted troops, and as they emerged from the dead ground some 800 yards from the river bed, combined fire from the Fauresmith, Bloemfontein, Brandfort commandos and two 75mm Krupp guns deployed around Rosmead, slashed their ranks, again with deadly effect, killing 8 men, and wounding 29 and an officer. The other battalions, started filling up the gap between the Highlanders and the railway line, with the two companies of Royal Munster Fusiliers and the four companies of Lancastershires, immediately to their right, followed by the Yorkshire Light Infantry in the gap left towards the railway line. The Northumberland and Northamptons followed behind in support. The Naval Brigade moved up to the pinned mounted troops and prepared to move through their positions to attack the enemy.

In the meantime, the 2nd Coldstream Guards, stubbornly marched ahead in culumn formation next to the railway line on the right, and was met with withering fire from the Transvaal commandos deployed in trenches next to the railway line just south of the river bed. This stopped them in their tracks as they lost 7 men killed, and 22 men and an officer wounded. Before they could respond positively a second volley from the Lichtenburg and Potchefstroom commandos, combined with highly accurate fire from 4 75mm Krupps and 4 Pom-Poms on the northen banks of the river, rppied into their packed ranks, resulting in a further 3 deaths and 19 wounded. This was too much for the Coldstream Guards, as they were totally demoralised and started to withdraw disorderly towards their starting line. They, also were out for the count! However, the 1st Coldstream Guards quickly moved up to fill the gap left by their shaken kinsmen and soon started taking casualties as well, in the form of 2 dead and 13 wounded.

Boer guns firing from the British right flank

The British Guard lining up for the attack, while the Boer lines fire away.

The advance of the 9th Brigade toward the drift at Rosmead.

In the center of the right flank, it wasn't going too well for the Grenadiers either, who took 35 wounded when the Klerksdorp and Potchefstroom commandos in the river bed ahead opened up. Even the Scots Guards, supporting the Grenadiers, took heavy casualties when some Boer guns deployed on their right flank enfiladed them while forming up into line. By 8 a.m. the Scots had lost 8 dead and 35 wounded.

By now, General Colville, having identified the positions of the Boers, had the two batteries deployed just behind the pinned Lancers and to the right of the Guards. From there, they started to bombard the Boer guns, concentrating their fire on each position in order to neutralise them. In this they were very effective when they scored direct hits on a Krupp and a Pom-Pom on their right flank, killing five Boer gunners. The Boers quickly limbered their guns and pulled them back to the station.

On the British Left flank, the British guns were quickly deployed behind the mounted troops, and proceeded with bombardments aimed at the Krupp guns deployed around Rosmead. By 8.30 a.m., they scored a direct hit on one of the guns, killing a Boer and wounding 14 others in attendance. The gun was disabled, and would play no further role in the battle. The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, together with the Munster Fusiliers, were converging on a farmhouse and kraal on the south bank occupied by some 120 Bloemfontein burgers. They managed to drive the Boers out but at a cost of 1 dead and 29 wounded Sutherlanders and 2 dead and 17 wounded Fusiliers. The Boers lost 7 burghers killed (including the Veldkornet in command) and 2 wounded. The Yorkshire Light Infantry to their right was also feeling the cost of assaulting a prepared position when they took 7 dead and an officer and 22 wounded from fire directed by the Kroonstad commando, deployed in the river bed west of the bridge.

A view from the south towards Rosmead.

A view from the south towards the Modder River bridge. Craig, Damian and Paul can be seen in the background.

A Boer perspective of the Guard's attack from the northern banks of the Modder.

A terrific firefight broke out between the Boers on the Riet River and the Grenadiers and Scots. For the next hour, salvo upon salvo hit the slowly advancing British troops. By 9 a.m. they were within charge distance, but not before it cost the Grenadiers another 14 killed and 79 wounded, and the Scots another 2 killed and 17 wounded.

Things were starting to look bad for the Boers on the eastern side of the bridge. Their guns that caused so many casualties on the flank, were neutralised. The Coldstream Guards were putting so much pressure on the Lichtenburg and part Potchefstroom commandos holding the drift to the east of the bridge, that they started withdrawing over the drift to take new positions on the north bank of the river. This effectively left the other commandos on the south bank's only avenue of escape exposed to the enemy, and they were under threat to be cut off. This led to some conjecture when Paul insisted that there must have been some other way of crossing the river, as historically, when the Boers fell back towards Jacobsdal, they must have been able to cross the river at another point. It was all given that their horses would have been on the north side and that they could swim through, but finally a throw of a dice decided the matter that the Boers could withdraw over the river. So a new 'drift' was discovered and the Klerksdorp and Potchefstroom commandos successfully withdrew over the Riet River to join their comrades on the north bank of the Modder.

The Boer perspective from the village of Rosmead towards the attack of the Naval Brigade.

The 9th Brigade's attach developing. A view from the station.

The Boer commandos firing desperately to stop the advaning British lines.

On the British left flank, thinks were looking up for the British as the Sutherland Highlanders occupied the farmhouse and kraal and from its cover started firing on the Boers in the river bed some two-hundred yards away. In the meantime, the 400 men from the Naval Brigade, with artillery support, assaulted the Boer positions in front of the drift, losing only 2 men killed. The Bloemfontein commando lost another 3 men killed and 3 wounded and the Brandford commando lost 3 killed and 11 wounded. Fire from the other commandos was still heavy and the Yorkshire Light Infantry felt the brunt of it as they advanced slowly towards the river, losing 2 officers wounded, 12 men killed and 20 wounded. The North Lancastershires on their left lost 22 men wounded.

Attempts of Generaal Cronje to get the Fauresmith commando to leave their positions and support the severely pressed Bloemfontein commando, failed. It was only when the Fauresmith burghers realised that their only way across the river was being threatened that they started moving to their right to assist the others. But it was too late. A combined assault by the Naval Brigade and the Highlanders forced the Bloemfontein and Brandfort commandos to flee across the drift to the north bank, leaving the Naval Brigade to occupy the drift and effectively cutting off the Kroonstad, Fauresmith and Jacobsdal commandos. The Jacobsdal commando had not fired a single shot! The assault cost the Highlanders an officer wounded, 6 dead and 16 wounded. The Munster Fusiliers caught a volley from the Fauresmith commando, that cost them two officers wounded, 10 killed and 31 wounded, but the field was won! Three entire OFS commandos was cut off and had to surrender, amounting to nearly 1000 men, amongst them General Cronje!

A view from the western side of the table with the Boers taking hits from the British artillery.

The Boer positions after falling back over the river, viewed from the north.

British troops pouring into the previously occupied positions of the Transvalers on the river bed.

The fight on the British right flank was virtually over as well. As the commandos prepared to contest the British passage of the river, desultory fire caused another 2 dead and two wounded on the Grenadiers. The British artillery promptly replied by directing their fire on the now exposed commandos on the north bank, killing 4 Boers and wounding 16. This was enough for the Boers, who started to withdraw to the north.

The battle was over. A clear victory for the British!

The players was exhausted, as it was almost 6 p.m. The battle took nearly 7 hours, not including the 2 hours to set up and pack up. There was a lot of conjecture over the rules, which cost a lot of time, but all in all a most enjoyable game, possibly the best so far.

British troops advancing to take Boer positions.

As to total casualties, it was a costly affair for the British, who lost 10 officers wounded, 119 men killed, and 496 wounded. The Boers, like always, had minimal casualties, losing 2 officers, 32 killed, and 71 wounded. The biggest loss, however, was the 949 burghers that were captured, including Generaal Cronje, himself!

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