South African Battle: 18 – 27 February 1900
Battle of Paardeberg
The Battle of Paardeberg was a major battle during the South African War (1899-1902). It was fought near Paardeberg Drift, on the banks of the Modder River in the Orange Free State, near the town of Kimberley.
After the 124-day siege of Kimberley was finally lifted on 15 February 1900, Boer General Cronje and his commandos started retiring eastwards towards Bloemfontein. The main body of the convoy moved slowly due to the presence of women and children. As strange as it may seem today, when the Boers fought in those days, many of them took their families along, and to understand this, one has to appreciate the struggles they faced in the Great Trek of 1836. On the night of 16 February 1900 they halted on the banks of the Modder River near Paardeberg Drift.
On the morning of 17 February, just as the convoy was about to embark on crossing the river, the British started with an artillery bombardment of the camp. Cronje’s rear-guard, together with the artillery, made a stand whilst Cronje created a laager and ‘dug in’. Despite pleas from various Boer leaders, General de Wet being one of them, to leave the wagons and break out, Cronje refused as he felt the lives of the women and children would be compromised.
The following day Kitchener decided on a number of frontal attacks, rather than to encircle Cronje’s camp and force them to surrender. These attacks, against entrenched Boers, had the same result as many of the attacks against the Boers in battles leading up to the Relief of Kimberley. The British attacked Cronje’s position from the east and southwest. General de Wet, who had been moving to support Cronje since learning of Cronje’s predicament the previous day, captured a strategic position occupied by soldiers of Kitchener’s Horse and attacked the British with artillery. Cronje’s and de Wet’s forces inflicted heavy casualties on the British and by nightfall on 18 February, 24 officers and 279 men had been killed in action, with 59 officers and 847 men wounded.
On 19 February, Cronje asked for a 24 hour truce to bury the dead and attend to the wounded, but this request was turned down by Lord Roberts, who ordered the bombardment of both Cronje’s and de Wet’s positions. On the following day the British consolidated their encirclement of Cronje’s laager and kept up a continued attack on de Wet’s position, a hill which de Wet had taken from the British, together with some prisoners, aptly named Kitchener’s Kopje.
On 21 February, Lord Roberts sent a message to Cronje indicating that he had learnt of women and children being part of Cronje’s laager and offered them safe passage. Cronje refused this offer. De Wet realised that he was in danger of being encircled by British forces and decided that, being outnumbered, he should evacuate Kitchener’s Kopje and travel eastwards. This left Cronje alone. Very little military activity happened on 22 February, other than the British launching a balloon in order to map the position of the Boer laager. Later that day it began to rain heavily.
On 23 February, de Wet having joined up with other Boer commandos who were making their way from Bloemfontein, attempted to retake their previous strategic position. In de Wet’s memoirs, ’Three Year War’ (page 45) he states – “A council was at once held as to the best method of effecting the release of General Cronje. It was decided to recapture the positions which I had abandoned.” Commandant Theunissen and 100 men were taken prisoner in the attempt to regain one of the positions. Cronje’s laager was now being flooded by continuous rain and the Boers in the laager witnessed the flooding of the Modder River which created a further problem for their possible escape as, to get to Bloemfontein they would have to negotiate a flooded river. The next two days resulted in a waiting game, with sporadic fire from both Boer and British trenches. De Wet and his troops had created a route of escape for Cronje, but this would have meant him leaving his wagons in the laager. The British were waiting for a Boer surrender.
De Wet in the meantime sent Captain Danie Theron, a Boer Scout, with a message to Cronje. Theron made his way through British lines with a plan of escape for Cronje, with support from de Wet. However, Cronje was not prepared to risk the lives of the women and children. Also, most of his horses had been killed in the continuous bombardment of his laager by the British.
26 February, the ninth day of the battle of Paardeberg, saw the heaviest bombardment of the Boer laager by British artillery. It was reported that the British had over 100 artillery pieces bombarding the position. Danie Theron returned to de Wet having delivered de Wet’s plan for escape.
Cronje had called a krijsraadt (Council of War) with the senior Boers with him, and discussed the option of surrendering. He asked for support for the next day (27 February), which was a significant day in Boer history, and asked the Boers to hold out until the following day (28 February).
During the night of 26 February, about 450 men from the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry, who had lost more than 70 soldiers in an earlier charge against Boer positions, were called to take the lead in the attack planned for the following day. This was a daily routine during the course of the battle, involving battalion rotation. However, this time, instead of another charge, with the help of the Royal Engineers and the cover of darkness, they dug trenches in strategic positions overlooking the Boer lines.
On 27 February 1900, the Boers woke up staring into the muzzles of Canadian rifles and Cronje sent a message to Roberts notifying him of the Boer’s surrender. Cronje surrendered with some 4 019 men and 50 women; around 10% of the Boers’ entire army were now prisoners.
The significance of 27 February in Boer history was that, on this date in 1881, the Boers of the Transvaal had regained their independence from Britain with their victory at the Battle of Majuba.
Unbeknown to Cronje, the British under General Buller, (or was it Lieutenant-General Warren), had gained significant ground in the Relief of Ladysmith, in that battles won on 27 February, the very day that Cronje surrendered, enabled the British forces to relieve Ladysmith the following day. The call for “Avenge Majuba” had been realised – on two fronts.
De Wet ends the Paardeberg saga in his memoirs with the following (page 48) – “I have heard men say that the General’s horses had all been killed, the attempt which I urged him to make must have failed – that at all events he would have been pursued and overtaken by Lord Roberts’ forces. The answer to this is not far to seek. The English at that time did not employ local scouts who could lead them by night as well as by day. Moreover, with the re-enforcements I had received, I had about sixteen hundred men under me, and they would have been very useful in holding back the enemy, until Cronje had made his escape. No words can describe my feelings when I saw that Cronje had surrendered, and noticed the result which this had on the burghers. Depression and discouragement were written on every face. The effects of this blow, it is not too much to say, made themselves apparent to the very end of the war.”