Battle of Poplar Grove, 7 March 1900

The battle of Poplar Grove (Boer War) saw the failure of both a Boer attempt to defend Bloemfontein and a British attempt to capture the main Boer army in the Orange Free State.

The Boers at Poplar Grove were badly outnumbered. In the aftermath of the surrender at Paardeberg, only around 6,000 men were left to defend the Orange Free State capital. They had a new commander, Christiaan De Wet, who began work on a new defensive line on the hills around Poplar Grove. His main problem was that the morale of the Boer commandoes was at a very low ebb after Cronjé’s surrender.

The British commander, Lord Roberts, decided to send two infantry division straight at the Boer position, while the cavalry made a wide flanking move to the south, coming up behind the Boers to prevent their escape. His main problem was the poor condition of his cavalry horses. Many of them had been lost during the successful relief of Kimberley, while the remaining horses had been on short rations since the loss of the main supply column at the start of the operations in February. Worse, the commander of the cavalry, Sir John French, can best be described as being in a sulk. His mood was not improved by a dressing down he had received after the chief supply officer forgot to include the sick and injured horses in his calculations of required rations and accused the cavalry of taking too much food.

As a result, French moved very slowly on the morning of 7 March. He started late, and stopped twice to take long breaks to rest his horses. As a result the cavalry were nowhere near where they needed to be when the infantry advance began.

That advance never needed to turn into an attack. The British infantry came into view from the Boer camp at about 8 a.m. Demoralised by recent events, the burghers simply turned and fled. De Wet blamed the fiasco on Cronjé’s surrender, only two weeks earlier, although it probably helped save his army. If the Boers had stood and fought at Poplar Grove then French would have been able to get into place to cut off their retreat, and the entire army might have been lost. As it was, three quarters of De Wet’s men abandoned the fight, at least for the moment. When he made his next stand at Driefontein it was with only 1,500 men.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (2 March 2007), Battle of Poplar Grove, 7 March 1900, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_poplar_grove.html

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