The battle of Paardeberg was the last major battle of the Second Boer War, and was a resounding British victory. It came in the immediate aftermath of the successful relief of Kimberley during Field Marshal Lord Robert’s great flanking march that ended with the capture of Bloemfontein.
On 11 February 1900, Roberts led his army away from the Modder River, where it had been facing the Boers at Magersfontein. His plan was to cross the Riet River thirty kilometres to the south east. Once across that barrier his infantry would head east into the Orange Free State, while the cavalry under Sir John French would ride north, cross the Modder River thirty kilometres east of the main Boer position and relief Kimberley.
The plan was an immediate success. The Boer commander at Magersfontein, General Piet Cronje, could not believe that a British general would be willing to abandon the railway link back to the coast. French was able to gallop through the only serious Boer opposition he encountered, and on 15 February 1900 entered Kimberley.
Cronjé now had a serious problem. He was in serious danger of being cut off from the Orange Free State. He took what must have seemed like the logical decision to head east back towards Bloemfontein, perhaps presuming that the British would be concentrating on Kimberley. On 16 February 1900 the Boer force moved across the front of the British infantry guarding the fords over the Modder River without being detected, but his rearguard was detected by a force of mounted infantry on its way to Kimberley.
Sir John French’s cavalry spent most of 16 February 1900 searching for the Boer force that had been besieging Kimberley, without success. That evening he received orders to move east as quickly as possible to catch Cronjé’s retreating burgers. With his remaining 1,200 men French set off to find the Boer army.
Cronjé’s retreat was not rapid. His army had been joined by many of the wives and children of the burghers. Even the fighting men were not as mobile as they had been – perhaps as many as a third of them had lost their horses during the long period spent at Magersfontein. At about 11.00 a.m. on 17 February 1900 they reached the Modder River at Paardeberg and paused to rest, confident that they were in no danger.
Soon after that, French and the British cavalry arrived. They opened fire from short range, causing great confusion in the Boer camp. Despite being badly outnumbered, French was able to pin the Boers in place while Kitchener rushed up more troops. Kitchener, Lord Roberts’s chief of staff, was heavily involved because Lord Roberts was ill with a chill.
When ordered into battle at Paardeberg to attack a Boer position entrenched half way up a hill the Black Watch, with one of its companies commanded by Lieutenant Gideon Grieve, a New South Wales Military Forces special service officer ran across the flat ground leading to it but was cut down by rifle, machine gun and pom pom fire. The machine guns were German Maxims, the pom poms fired a one pound round at the rate of about 40 per minute, giving rise to their name. Even lying flat on the ground failed to protect the Scottish troops since there was absolutely no cover and the Boers were firing low from their trenches.
Although wounded himself, Grieve ran forward to pick up a more severely wounded soldier and both were killed.
That illness left Kitchener in charge at Paardeberg on 18 February 1900. At first his position was ambiguous – Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Kelly-Kenny actually outranked Kitchener, who could only give orders in Lord Roberts’s name. Roberts was consulted, and he confirmed Kitchener’s authority. Kelly-Kenny had been preparing to bombard the Boer position, but Kitchener dismissed this idea, and instead ordered a frontal assault on the Boer camp.
The attack went disastrously wrong. Through the day of 18 February 1900 Kitchener threw his men at the Boer positions with energy and determination, but little skill. By the end of the day the British had suffered 320 dead and 942 wounded, the worst casualty figures of any single day during the war. That night Kitchener sent a report to Lord Roberts, reporting on the day's actions and promising to do better the next day.
This was enough to summon Roberts from his death bed. He arrived at Paardeberg at 10:00 hrs on 19 February 1900, in time to prevent another costly attack. Roberts was not willing to risk repeating the heavy losses of the previous day when a less costly siege would achieve the same results. Kitchener was sent off to repair and guard the railway.
On 22 February 1900 the New South Wales Lancers reinforced by elements of the Australian Horse moved to Koodoesrandrift and took place in the ring around Paardeberg, 13 kilometres distant.
The siege lasted for eight days. The British were able to bombard the Boer camp from every side. Conditions within the camp quickly became intolerable. As soon as Lord Roberts realised there were women and children in the camp, he offered them a safe conduct, but Cronjé refused it. The sluggish Modder River was soon full of decomposing horses and cattle (the British would soon suffer a typhus epidemic as a result of this pollution). The British had nearly fifty guns, the Boers only four. Cronjé’s only hope was that a relief force could be raised.
Christiaan de Wet did make a brief attempt to help. With 500 men he managed to capture a kopje to the south of the British position, from where he was able to get a message through to Cronjé urging him to attempt to break out. Cronjé refused. Finally, De Wet was forced to retreat before he was captured.
The end came on 27 February 1900. The previous day Cronjé had finally signalled that he was willing to surrender. That night the Canadians supported by some New South Wales Mounted Rifles worked their way close to the Boer lines. On the morning of 27 February 1900 they were rewarded for their efforts by the surrender of Cronjé and just over 4,000 of his men. The humiliation was made worse by the surrender having taken place on the anniversary of the Boer victory at Majuba. Cronjé’s surrender spread gloom and despondency throughout the Boer republics. When the two armies next clashed, at Poplar Grove on 7 March, the Boers fled without offering any resistance.
The British had won the battle, the last conventional one of this conflict - it was to be another two years before the war was to end.
Australian Units Involved:
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