The battle of Paardeberg was the first significant British battlefield victory during the Boer War. It came in the immediate aftermath of the successful relief of Kimberley during Field Marshal Lord Robert’s great flanking march that ended with the capture of Bloemfontein.
On 11 February, Roberts led his army away from the Modder River, where it had been facing the Boers at Magersfontein. His plan was to cross the Riet River twenty miles to the south east. Once across that barrier his infantry would head east into the Orange Free State, while the cavalry under Sir John French would ride north, cross the Modder River twenty miles east of the main Boer position and relief Kimberley.
The plan was an immediate success. The Boer commander at Magersfontein, Piet Cronje, could not believe that a British general would be willing to abandon the railway link back to the coast. French was able to gallop through the only serious Boer opposition he encountered, and on 15 February entered Kimberley.
Cronjé now had a serious problem. He was in serious danger of being cut off from the Orange Free State. He took what must have seemed like the logical decision to head east back towards Bloemfontein, perhaps presuming that the British would be concentrating on Kimberley. On 16 February the Boer force moved across the front of the British infantry guarding the fords over the Modder River without being detected, but his rearguard was detected by a force of mounted infantry on its way to Kimberley.
Sir John French’s cavalry spent most of 16 February searching for the Boer force that had been besieging Kimberley, without success. That evening he received orders to move east as quickly as possible to catch Cronjé’s retreating burgers. With his remaining 1,200 men French set off to find the Boer army.
Cronjé’s retreat was not rapid. His army had been joined by many of the wives and children of the burghers. Even the fighting men were not as mobile as they had been – perhaps as many as a third of them had lost their horses during the long period spent at Magersfontein. At about 11.00 a.m. on 17 February they reached the Modder River at Paardeberg and paused to rest, confident that they were in no danger.
Soon after that, French and the British cavalry arrived. They opened fire from short range, causing great confusion in the Boer camp. Despite being badly outnumbered, French was able to pin the Boers in place while Kitchener rushed up more troops. Kitchener, Lord Roberts’s chief of staff, was heavily involved because Lord Roberts was ill with a chill.
That illness left Kitchener in charge at Paardeberg on 18 February. At first his position was ambiguous – Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Kelly-Kenny actually outranked Kitchener, who could only give orders in Lord Roberts’s name. Roberts was consulted, and he confirmed Kitchener’s authority. Kelly-Kenny had been preparing to bombard the Boer position, but Kitchener dismissed this idea, and instead ordered a frontal assault on the Boer camp.
The attack went disastrously wrong. Through the day of 18 February Kitchener threw his men at the Boer positions with energy and determination, but little skill. By the end of the day the British had suffered 320 dead and 942 wounded, the worst casualty figures of any single day during the war. That night Kitchener sent a report to Lord Roberts, reporting on the day's actions and promising to do better the next day.
This was enough to summon Roberts from his death bed. He arrived at Paardeberg at 10 a.m. on 19 February, in time to prevent another costly attack. Roberts was not willing to risk repeating the heavy losses of the previous day when a less costly siege would achieve the same results. Kitchener was sent off to repair and guard the railway.
The siege lasted for eight days. The British were able to bombard the Boer camp from every side. Conditions within the camp quickly became intolerable. As soon as Lord Roberts realised there were women and children in the camp, he offered them a safe conduct, but Cronjé refused it. The sluggish Modder River was soon full of decomposing horses and cattle (the British would soon suffer a typhus epidemic as a result of this pollution). The British had nearly fifty guns, the Boers only four. Cronjé’s only hope was that a relief force could be raised.
Christiaan de Wet did make a brief attempt to help. With 500 men he managed to capture a kopje to the south of the British position, from where he was able to get a message through to Cronjé urging him to attempt to break out. Cronjé refused. Finally, De Wet was forced to retreat before he was captured.
The end came on 27 February. The previous day Cronjé had finally signalled that he was willing to surrender. That night the Royal Canadians worked their way close to the Boer lines. On the morning of 27 February they were rewarded for their efforts by the surrender of Cronjé and just over 4,000 of his men. The humiliation was made worse by the surrender having taken place on the anniversary of the Boer victory at Majuba. Cronjé’s surrender spread gloom and despondency throughout the Boer republics. When the two armies next clashed, at Poplar Grove on 7 March, the Boers fled without offering any resistance.