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.
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
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.
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
The British artillery was a
powerful force in the field, underused by commanders with little
training in the use of modern guns in battle.
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
Sixth Division (commanded by Lieutenant General Kelly-Kenny)
1st Royal Irish Regiment.
13th Brigade (commanded by Major General Knox)
2nd East Kents.
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.
2nd Royal Warwickshire.
The Cavalry Division (commanded by Lieutenant General French)
1st Brigade (Broadwood)
Household Cavalry Regiment.
General French's Cavalry Division heading off General Cronje
2nd Brigade (Porter)
6th Dragoon Guards (Carabineers)
2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys)
6th Dragons (Inniskillings)
3rd Brigade (Gordon)
Royal Horse Artillery: G, P, O, R, Q, T and U Batteries.
2nd Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
2nd Shropshire Light Infantry.
2nd Gordon Highlanders.
Royal Canadian Regiment.
City of London Imperial Volunteers.
Royal Field Artillery: 2nd, 38th, 39th, 44th and 88th Field
A Battery RHA.
37th and 65th Howitzer Batteries.
3 Royal Naval 4.7 inch guns.
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
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
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.
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.
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
The surrender of General Cronje to Lord Roberts after the Battle of
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.
the battle and Cronje’s surrender Roberts marched to Bloemfontein
and took the surrender of the capital of the Orange Free State.
- 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