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Second Boer War: Battle of Paardeberg

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Battle of Paardeberg - Conflict and Dates:

The Battle of Paardeberg was fought between February 18-27, 1900, and was part of the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Armies & Commanders:

British

Boers

  • General Piet Cronje
  • General Christiaan de Wet
  • 7,000 men

Battle of Paardeberg - Background:

In the wake of Field Marshal Lord Roberts' relief of Kimberley on February 15, 1900, the Boer commander in the area, General Piet Cronje began retreating east with his forces. His progress was slowed due to the presence of a large number on noncombatants that had joined his ranks during the siege. On the night of February 15/16, Cronje successfully slipped between Major General John French's cavalry near Kimberley and Lieutenant General Thomas Kelly-Kenny's British infantry at the Modder River fords.

Battle of Paardeberg - Boers Trapped:

Detected by mounted infantry the next day, Cronje was able to prevent elements from Kelly-Kenny's 6th Division from overtaking them. Late that day, French was dispatched with approximately 1,200 cavalry to locate Cronje's main force. Around 11:00 AM on February 17, the Boers reached the Modder River at Paardeberg. Believing that his men had escaped, Cronje paused to allow them to rest. Shortly thereafter, French's troopers appeared from the north and began firing on the Boer camp. Rather than attack the smaller British force, Cronje inadvisably decided to form a laager and dig in along the banks of the river.

As French's men pinned the Boers in place, Roberts' chief of staff, Lieutenant General Horatio Kitchener, began rushing troops to Paardeberg. The next day, Kelly-Kenny began planning to bombard the Boer position into submission, but was overruled by Kitchener. Though Kelly-Kenny outranked Kitchener, the latter's authority on the scene was confirmed by Roberts who was in bed ill. Possibly concerned about the approach of Boer reinforcements under General Christiaan De Wet, Kitchener ordered a series of frontal attacks on Cronje's position.

Battle of Paardeberg - The British Attack:

Ill-conceived and uncoordinated, these assaults were beaten back with heavy casualties. When the day's fighting ended, the British has suffered 320 dead and 942 wounded, making it the single costliest action of the war. In addition, to make the attack, Kitchener had effectively abandoned a kopje (small hill) to the southeast that was occupied by De Wet's approaching men. While the Boers suffered lighter casualties in the fighting, their mobility had been further reduced by the death of much of their livestock and horses from British shelling.

That night, Kitchener reported the day's events to Roberts and indicated that he planned to resume attacks the next day. This roused the commander from his bed, and Kitchener was dispatched to oversee the repair of the railroad. In the morning, Roberts arrived on the scene and initially desired to recommence assaulting Cronje's position. This approach was resisted by his senior officers who were able to convince him to lay siege to the Boers. On the third day of the siege, Roberts began to contemplate withdrawing due to De Wet's position to the southeast.

Battle of Paardeberg - Victory:

This blunder was prevented by De Wet losing his nerve and retreating, leaving Cronje to deal with the British alone. Over the next several days, the Boer lines were subjected to an increasingly heavy bombardment. When he learned that women and children were in the Boer camp, Roberts offered them safe passage through the lines, but this was refused by Cronje. As the shelling continued, nearly every animal in the Boer lines was killed and the Modder became filled with the dead carcasses of horses and oxen.

On the night of February 26/27, elements of the Royal Canadian Regiment, with assistance from the Royal Engineers, were able to construct trenches on high ground approximately 65 yards from the Boer lines. The following morning, with the Canadian rifles overlooking his lines and his position hopeless, Cronje surrendered his command to Roberts.

Battle of Paardeberg - Aftermath:

The fighting at Paardeberg cost the British 1,270 casualties, the majority of which were incurred during the February 18 attacks. For the Boers, casualties in the fighting were relatively light, but Cronje was forced to surrender the remaining 4,019 men in his lines. The defeat of Cronje's force opened the road to Bloemfontein and severely damaged Boer morale. Pressing towards the city, Roberts routed a Boer force at Poplar Grove on March 7, before taking the city six days later.

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