The Battle of Paardenburg

War: The Boer War.

Date: 27th February 1900.

Place: North West of Cape Colony in South Africa on the border with the Orange Free State.

Combatants: British against the Boers.

Generals: Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener against General Cronje.

Size of the armies: 15,000 British troops against 7,000 Boers.

Uniforms, arms and equipment: The Boer War was a serious jolt for the British Army. At the outbreak of the war British tactics were appropriate for the use of single shot firearms, fired in volleys controlled by company and battalion officers; the troops fighting in close order. The need for tight formations had been emphasised time and again in colonial fighting. In the Zulu and Sudan Wars overwhelming enemy numbers armed principally with stabbing weapons were easily kept at a distance by such tactics; but, as at Isandlwana, would overrun a loosely formed force. These tactics had to be entirely rethought in battle against the Boers armed with modern weapons.

In the months before hostilities the Boer commandant general, General Joubert, bought 30,000 Mauser magazine rifles and a number of modern field guns and automatic weapons from the German armaments manufacturer Krupp and the French firm Creusot. The commandoes, without formal discipline, welded into a fighting force through a strong sense of community and dislike for the British. Field Cornets led burghers by personal influence not through any military code. The Boers did not adopt military formation in battle, instinctively fighting from whatever cover there might be. The preponderance were countrymen, running their farms from the back of a pony with a rifle in one hand. These rural Boers brought a life time of marksmanship to the war, an important edge, further exploited by Joubert’s consignment of magazine rifles. Viljoen is said to have coined the aphorism “Through God and the Mauser”. With strong fieldcraft skills and high mobility the Boers were natural mounted infantry. The urban burghers and foreign volunteers readily adopted the fighting methods of the rest of the army.

Other than in the regular uniformed Staats Artillery and police units, the Boers wore their every day civilian clothes on campaign.

After the first month the Boers lost their numerical superiority, spending the rest of the formal war on the defensive against British forces that regularly outnumbered them.

British tactics, little changed from the Crimea, used at Modder River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop were incapable of winning battles against entrenched troops armed with modern magazine rifles. Every British commander made the same mistake; Buller; Methuen, Roberts and Kitchener. When General Kelly-Kenny attempted to winkle Cronje’s commandoes out of their riverside entrenchments at Paardeburg using his artillery, Kitchener intervened and insisted on a battle of infantry assaults; with the same disastrous consequences as Colenso, Modder River, Magersfontein and Spion Kop.

Some of the most successful British troops were the non-regular regiments; the City Imperial Volunteers, the South Africans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, who more easily broke from the habit of traditional European warfare, using their horses for transport rather than the charge, advancing by fire and manouevre in loose formations and making use of cover, rather than the formal advance into a storm of Mauser bullets.

Uniform: The British regiments made an uncertain change into khaki uniforms in the years preceding the Boer War, with the topee helmet as tropical headgear. Highland regiments in Natal devised aprons to conceal coloured kilts and sporrans. By the end of the war the uniform of choice was a slouch hat, drab tunic and trousers; the danger of shiny buttons and too ostentatious emblems of rank emphasised in several engagements with disproportionately high officer casualties.

The British infantry were armed with the Lee Metford magazine rifle firing 10 rounds. But no training regime had been established to take advantage of the accuracy and speed of fire of the weapon. Personal skills such as scouting and field craft were little taught. The idea of fire and movement was unknown, many regiments still going into action in close order. Notoriously General Hart insisted that his Irish Brigade fight shoulder to shoulder as if on parade in Aldershot. Short of regular troops, Britain engaged volunteer forces from Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand who brought new ideas and more imaginative formations to the battlefield.

The British regular troops lacked imagination and resource. Routine procedures such as effective scouting and camp protection were often neglected. The war was littered with incidents in which British contingents became lost or were ambushed often unnecessarily and forced to surrender. The war was followed by a complete re-organisation of the British Army.

Royal Canadian Regiment crossing the Tugela River
Royal Canadian Regiment crossing the Tugela River

The British artillery was a powerful force in the field, underused by commanders with little training in the use of modern guns in battle.

Pakenham cites Pieters as being the battle at which a British commander, surprisingly Buller, developed a modern form of battlefield tactics: heavy artillery bombardments co-ordinated to permit the infantry to advance under their protection. It was the only occasion that Buller showed any real generalship and the short inspiration quickly died.

The Royal Field Artillery fought with 15 pounder guns; the Royal Horse Artillery with 12 pounders and the Royal Garrison Artillery batteries with 5 inch howitzers. The Royal Navy provided heavy field artillery with a number of 4.7 inch naval guns mounted on field carriages devised by Captain Percy Scott of HMS Terrible.
Automatic weapons were used by the British usually mounted on special carriages accompanying the cavalry.
Winner: The British
British Regiments:
Sixth Division (commanded by Lieutenant General Kelly-Kenny)
12th Brigade:
2nd Bedfordshire.
1st Royal Irish Regiment.
2nd Worcestershire.
2nd Wiltshire.

13th Brigade (commanded by Major General Knox)
2nd East Kents.
2nd Gloucesters.
1st West Riding Regiment.
1st Oxfordshire Light Infantry.

Royal Field Artillery: 76th, 81st and 82nd Batteries.
Royal Engineers: 38th Company.

Ninth Division (commanded by Major General Colville)
3rd Highland Brigade (Major General McDonald)
2nd Black Watch.
1st Highland Light Infantry.
2nd Seaforth Highlanders.
1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

18th Brigade:
2nd Royal Warwickshire.
1st Yorkshire.
1st Welsh.
1st Essex.

The Cavalry Division (commanded by Lieutenant General French)
1st Brigade (Broadwood)
Household Cavalry Regiment.
10th Hussars.
12th Lancers.

General French's Cavalry Division heading off General Cronje
General French's Cavalry Division heading off General Cronje after Paardeburg

2nd Brigade (Porter)
6th Dragoon Guards (Carabineers)
2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys)
6th Dragons (Inniskillings)
New Zealanders.
Australians.

3rd Brigade (Gordon)
9th Lancers.
16th Lancers.

Royal Horse Artillery: G, P, O, R, Q, T and U Batteries.

Reserve:
2nd Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
2nd Shropshire Light Infantry.
2nd Gordon Highlanders.
Royal Canadian Regiment.
Robert’s Horse.
Kitchener’s Horse.
City of London Imperial Volunteers.
Royal Field Artillery: 2nd, 38th, 39th, 44th and 88th Field Batteries.
A Battery RHA.
37th and 65th Howitzer Batteries.
3 Royal Naval 4.7 inch guns.
Siege Train.

Account:
With the arrival in South Africa of Lord Roberts, Lord Kitchener and substantial reinforcements and the British advance towards Kimberley, General Cronje resolved to abandon his position around the Magersfontein Hills and retreat East along the Modder River back to the Orange Free State. As Cronje made his preparations General French swept past the Boer positions with the British Cavalry Division into Kimberley, ending the siege, although the ride across the Veldt came near to wrecking his regiments by its destruction of horses.

On 15th February 1900 General Cronje, his Boer army and an enormous column of ox drawn wagons started the slow march towards Bloemfontein, covering 10 miles a day.

Cronje and his force marched around Lieutenant General Kelly-Kenny’s 6th Division encamped on the Modder River and continued east. General French, alerted by a mounted infantry patrol, pursued the cumbersome column with the remnants of his division and came up with it at Paardeburg Drift on the Modder River.

Cronje would probably have been able to push aside French’s small force of some 1,500 troopers, but chose to halt and entrench his Boer riflemen on the banks of the Modder River.

Cronje’s halt enabled Kelly-Kenny’s infantry division to march up and surround the Boer positions. Kelly-Kenny had absorbed the painful lesson of the early battles of the war: that positions held by entrenched Boers armed with magazine rifles and modern artillery can only be attacked at great loss with doubtful prospects of success. Kelly-Kenny’s plan was to use his overwhelming preponderance of artillery to bombard Cronje’s Boer force into submission. The British artillery opened fire; the Boer positions becoming increasingly untenable, as quantities of wagons and oxen were blown to pieces.

The Boers were temporarily reprieved by the arrival of Lord Kitchener with orders from Lord Roberts putting him in overall command. With his military experience entirely in wars where the premium was on dash and aggression, Kitchener ordered a series of attacks against the Boer positions of the sort that had proved so costly for the British in almost every major battle of the war: Modder River, Magersfontein, Colenso and Spion Kop. Responding to Kitchener’s orders Kelly-Kenny’s 6th Division attacked from the South across open country to the Boer entrenchments on the Modder River, while two flanking attacks by Colville’s 9th Division assaulted the Boers from the West along the Modder and downstream from the East.

The 6th Division assault reached the Modder River in places but the British suffered heavy casualties from the hidden Boer riflemen, doing little damage in return. On the left of the line the Highland Brigade repeated the experience of Magersfontein, advancing across the Veldt in the face of heavy fire. But the British infantry was learning fast and better use was made of whatever cover could be found. Kelly-Kenny issued orders that no unit in his division was to attempt to cross the river.

Kitchener directed all the commanders to press their attacks. Kelly-Kenny was sufficiently senior to resist Kitchener and avoided making further frontal assaults with his division. On Kitchener’s direct command a half battalion of Cornwalls holding a key kopje on the south eastern corner of the battle field was brought forward and committed to the assault. Once the Cornwalls had moved the Boer leader De Wet, who had been shadowing the battle from a distance with his commando, looking for an opportunity to assist Cronje’s embattled force, took the kopje and gave Cronje his one chance of escaping; a chance Cronje and his men refused to take. Every attempt to displace De Wet failed and it was only when De Wet abandoned the position and left the scene that Cronje’s fate was finally sealed.

The last British attacks took place at around 5pm from the East; following suicidal assaults by Colonel Hannay’s Mounted Infantry, the 1st Leinster Regiment attacked, only to be forced back with considerable loss.

Although the British force was in disarray following the day of costly and abortive assaults, the soldiers making their way back to camp for food and water, the Boers were in worse condition. Few Boers had become casualties but the lengthy bombardment had destroyed virtually all their wagons, oxen and horses.

Lord Roberts arrived on the field on Monday 19th February 1900.

Overtures from General Cronje seeking an armistice prevented any further British attack on his laager, although desperate attempts to recover what came to be called “Kitchener’s Kopje” were made against De Wet.


The surrender of General Cronje to Lord Roberts after the Battle of Paardenburg

On the Wednesday Roberts made the decision to retreat. He was saved from what would have been the greatest humiliation of the war by De Wet’s withdrawal from the kopje and Cronje’s surrender the next day, transforming Paardeburg from disaster to triumph.

Casualties: British casualties were 1,270, the highest for any day in the war. Boer casualties in the fighting were negligible but some 4,500 surrendered with Cronje.

Follow-up: Following the battle and Cronje’s surrender Roberts marched to Bloemfontein and took the surrender of the capital of the Orange Free State.

References:

  • The Boer War is widely covered. A cross section of interesting volumes would be:
  • The Great Boer War by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Goodbye Dolly Gray by Rayne Kruger
  • The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham
  • South Africa and the Transvaal War by Louis Creswicke (6 highly partisan volumes)


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