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A Handbook of the Boer War

Next day he retired to the Modder River Camp


The

interval between the Highlanders' right facing the trenches and the Guards' left had never been effectively closed and early in the afternoon the Boers renewed their attacks upon it, and threatened to enfilade the line. Hughes-Hallett, who after the death of Wauchope succeeded to the command of the Highland Brigade and to whom Methuen had sent orders to hold on until nightfall, asked Colvile in vain to support him and at last was compelled to throw back his right. Methuen's orders were unfortunately known only to Hughes-Hallett and the movement was interpreted as an order from the brigadier for a general retirement. The wave of retreat beginning on the right passed rapidly down the line, and soon all but a few score of men who held on gallantly as long as there was light were streaming back in confusion to the field batteries in rear. Even the shelter of the guns did not wholly avail them for protection, for they were shelled while rallying by the Boer guns which had been strangely silent during the battle; and the retreat was continued to the bivouac ground which so many more of them, now lying on the veld, had quitted seventeen hours before. The battle was lost.

It is probable that if the work had been more evenly distributed the result might have been, at least, less disastrous. An intolerable strain was put upon one Brigade which it was unable to bear. The Highlanders were blundered into action, then abandoned to their fate for many hours,

and finally withdrawn by a misunderstanding. The inequality of the tasks set to the various columns is strikingly shown in the return of casualties. To the total of 948 killed and wounded the Highland Brigade contributed no less than 752. Two of its battalions lost 37 per cent of their strength; while the losses of the Division were but 7 per cent.

Methuen's expectations that as at Modder River after the fight of November 28 so also at Magersfontein the Boers would evacuate their positions during the night were not realized. Next day he retired to the Modder River Camp, where he received orders from Buller either to attack Cronje again or to fall back upon the Orange River; but at the instance of Forestier-Walker, who was in command of the Lines of Communication, the orders were cancelled and Methuen was allowed to remain.

Magersfontein of itself would probably have sufficed to disarrange the plans of Duller in Natal, but coming a few hours after a serious rebuff in the centre, of which the story must now be told, it loomed fearfully on his near horizon. Soon after he landed at Capetown he ordered the weak and vulnerable detachments at Naauwpoort and Stormberg to be withdrawn to De Aar and Queenstown. The movement opened to the enemy the gates of access to a district in the Cape Colony teeming with Dutch disaffection. The Free Staters, however, did not avail themselves of the opportunity with alacrity, as they were more or less committed to defensive action within their own territory; and a fortnight elapsed before Colesberg was occupied by a force under the command of a Transvaaler named Schoeman, who on November 1 had crossed the Orange River at Norval's Pont. A few days later the Colesberg district was formally annexed by proclamation to the Orange Free State and the transfer of allegiance was enthusiastically approved by a public meeting held at Colesberg on November 14. This action not only brought the inhabitants under the commando law of the adjacent Republic by which a form of conscription was enforced, but also overcame the scruples of the Free Staters who could still maintain that they were only engaged in defending their own territory. Simultaneously Du Plooy with a commando which had crossed at Bethulie annexed the Burghersdorp district; while Olivier with a force mainly composed of colonial rebels took over on behalf of the Free State all that remained of the border districts of Cape Colony as far as Basutoland. By the end of November the easy process of annexation by proclamation had augmented the territory of the Orange Free State by about 7,000 square miles; and then almost as an afterthought the burghers occupied the important strategic post of Stormberg Junction.


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