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The Battle of Paardeberg, South Africa, 17-27 February 1900, Outline Topic: BatzB - Paardeberg
The Battle of Paardeberg
South Africa, 17-27 February 1900
Paardeberg, a major action of the Second South African War, which was fought in western Orange Free State and ended with the surrender of 4,000 Boers under General Piet Cronje to British forces under Field Marshal Lord Roberts after a siege lasting 17-27 February 1900. The battle arose after Roberts bypassed Magersfontein (q.v.), which Cronje had been occupying to block British attempts to break the siege of Kimberley along the direct northern route of the railway line, by pushing Lieut.-General John French's cavalry division around the Boer's left flank. With Kimberley relieved on 15 February and the British now astride his lines of communication, Cronje had no choice but to hurriedly withdraw east towards Bloemfontein to avoid being cut off entirely.
The Boer retirement initially evaded attempts at capture, despite the fact that Cronje was encumbered with a huge train of ox-wagons and large numbers of families who had joined the men in the field. On the bright moonlit night of 15 February, the commandos succeeded in passing unobserved just five kilometres to the north of Roberts' army. A force of 2,000 mounted infantry (including the New South Wales Mounted Rifles) was sent out the next morning under Colonel Ormelie Hannay, to pursue Cronje and hold him until the slower infantry could arrive and prevent his further escape. This attempt failed when Hannay's men encountered a determined Boer rearguard and were forced to fall back in the face of accurate light artillery fire. Amid the confusion of the retirement, the inexperienced British horsemen (regular infantrymen who had been recently mounted) raced over a steep embankment and into the river. Hannay reformed his troops and resumed the attack, but again they 'fell back in some confusion'.
Cronje was finally brought to bay at Paardeberg on 17 February, when three batteries of British horse artillery operating with French's advanced elements succeeded in getting into a position from which they could shell the head of the Boer column as it attempted to cross to the south bank of the Modder River at Vendutie Drift (ford). Forced into a defensive laager (camp) extending for three kilometres along the north bank, Cronje was quickly encircled and besieged. Over the next two days Major-General Lord Kitchener, Roberts' chief of staff who held local command while the field marshal recovered from a cold, attempted to take the Boer position before it could receive reinforcement. He ordered a series of hasty piecemeal frontal assaults which resulted in over 1,260 British casualties (including 320 dead).
During these preliminary skirmishes on the periphery of the Boer position, Hannay's mounted infantry was again involved on 18 February. In response to vague orders from Kitchener which appeared to direct him to rush the laager at all costs, Hannay prepared his force to carry out an assault - evidently determined to eliminate the stain of the fiasco a few days earlier. This attempt was cut short at 3 p.m. when Hannay was killed while riding bravely at the head of a small token band of his men.
For the next ten days the British vice around the laager was contracted mainly by the digging of trenches rather than direct assault, and the main form of pressure on the Boers came from the heavy bombardment maintained by the 91 guns with Roberts' force. By 26 February the trenches on the eastern side had reached to within 230 metres of the Boer position, and a decision was taken to advance the line with a pre-dawn attack by the Canadian battalion which was present. This succeeded in bringing the British to little more than 80 metres away, in a position which enfiladed all the Boer trenches parallel to the river. At 7 a.m. that morning Cronje finally accepted the inevitable and rode to Roberts' headquarters to offer his capitulation.
By chance, Major Thomas Fiaschi of the New South Wales Army Medical Corps was reputed to have received the enemy's formal surrender. While Fiaschi and members of his corps were collecting Canadian wounded close to the Boer lines, a group of 209 enemy displayed a white flag, filed out of their positions and offered their surrender to him as the senior officer present. In fact, at the same time as this incident was taking place, elsewhere Roberts was personally receiving Cronje's surrender. Nonetheless the story later grew that the honour of receiving the surrender of the whole Boer position at Paardeberg had gone to Fiaschi.
Other Australians played various parts in the action while attached to British units as 'special service officers'. Two members of the New South Wales permanent military forces present were Major (later ;Major-General Sir) William Bridges, attached to the artillery accompanying the cavalry brigade commanded by Colonel R.G. Broadwood, and Lieut. G. Grieve, who was killed on 18 February leading a company of the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch. Lieut.-Commander W. Colquhoun of the Victorian Naval Forces was also present, in command of one of two 12-pounder naval guns used to shell the laager. When both guns became immobilised through wheel problems on 26 February; Colquhoun took them to Kimberley for repair and succeeded in getting them back in time to take part in Roberts' subsequent operations.
Victory at Paardeberg - coincidentally achieved on the nineteenth anniversary of the defeat suffered by British forces at Majuba Hill in the First South African War - had cost the British 1,540 casualties, compared to probably less than 100 Boers, but it was the last large-scale action of that second conflict. The Capture of Cronje, then the most famous Boer general, had ramifications well beyond the loss of the men and equipment with him at the surrender. Some 14,000 Boers had rushed to his assistance but had been held off by the encircling British; these demoralised forces now rapidly dispersed in disorder towards the east. Faced with growing British strength in conventional military forces, the Boers resorted to guerrilla tactics to prolong the Second South African War for a further fifteen months.
Extracted from the book produced by Chris Coulthard-Clark, Where Australians Fought - The Encyclopaedia of Australia's Battles, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1998, pp. 68-70.
Additional References cited by Chris Coulthard-Clark:
L.M. Field (1979) The forgotten War, Carlton, Vic. Melbourne University Press.
F. Maurice (ed.) History of the War in South Africa 1899-1902, Vol. 1 (1906), London: Hurst & Blacken.
R.L. Wallace (1976) The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra: Australian War Memorial & Australian Government Publishing Service.
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