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UPDATE: 17/02/2023

17 February 1900, The Battle of Paardeberg begins.
17 February 1930, The Theatre Royal and John Orr department store burns to the ground.

The battle of Paardeberg (17-27 February 1900) was one of the last conventional battles of the Anglo-Boer War, and was a resounding British victory. 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 surrender of Bloemfontein.


Battle of Paardeberg

On 10 February 1900, Roberts led his massive army away from the Modder River, where it had been facing the Boers at Magersfontein. His plan was to cross the Riet River thirty kilometres to the south east. Once across that barrier his infantry would head east into the Orange Free State, while the cavalry under General John French would ride north, cross the Modder River thirty kilometres east of the main Boer position and relieve Kimberley.

The plan was an immediate success. The Boer commander at Magersfontein, General 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 at Klipdrift, and on 15 February 1900 entered Kimberley.

Cronje 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. Leaving Magersfontein on the 15th, 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.


Vendutie Drift at Paardeberg

General John French’s cavalry spent most of 16 February 1900 searching for the Boer Long Tom that had been shelling Kimberley, but without success. That evening he received orders to move east as quickly as possible to catch Cronje’s retreating burgers. With his remaining 1200 men French set off to find the Boer army.

Cronje’s retreat was not rapid. His army had been joined by at least 87 wives and children of the burgers. 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 10h00 on 17 February 1900 they reached the Modder River at Paardeberg and Vendutie Drifts, 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 wagon train who immediately went into laager at Vendutie Drift. Despite being badly outnumbered, French was able to pin the Boers in place while General Lord Kitchener rushed up more troops.

17 February 1900, The Battle of Paardeberg begins.
17 February 1930, The Theatre Royal and John Orr department store burns to the ground.

One of the most intriguing artifacts once on loan to the Canadian War Museum was a white handkerchief. Frayed and dirty, it had been hoisted on a rifle by Boer commandos surrendering to the troops of the Royal Canadian Regiment — one of whom considered the rag a worthy battlefield keepsake.

It was brought home from Paardeberg, South Africa, where on 27 February 1900, Canadian soldiers were hailed across the British Empire for defeating a 4,000-strong Boer army, and handing Great Britain its first significant victory in the Anglo-Boer War.

The Battle of Paardeberg was the first time men in Canadian uniform, fighting in a Canadian unit, made war overseas. It also gave Canada its first remembrance day: from 1900 until the end of the First World War, Canadians gathered not on November 11, but on February 27 — Paardeberg Day — to commemorate the country’s war dead and its achievements in South Africa.

Paardeberg, or “horse hill” in the Afrikaans language, is the mountain that casts its shadow over a stony, sun-baked plain in central South Africa, not far from the city of Bloemfontein, then the capital of the Boer republic of the Orange Free State. In 1900, a battalion of 1,000 Canadian troops were among a much larger British column marching on the city. En route, they confronted and encircled a Boer force that had dug into trenches on the banks of the Modder River at Paardeberg.

The British laid siege to the Boers for days, pounding their encampment, or “laager,” with artillery fire. On the morning of February 18, the Canadians under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter (a veteran of the North-West Resistance) were ordered to make a frontal assault on the enemy trenches and force a surrender.

The exposed plain offered poor cover for an infantry attack, and by nightfall over two dozen Canadians lay dead and dying among the sourgrass and the anthills, while the terrified survivors of the failed assault crawled back to their own lines. Sixty were wounded. Among the dead lay 27-year-old Private James Findlay of Barrie, Ontario, shot through the heart, the first Canadian soldier ever killed across the seas.

On the night of February 26–27, the Canadian battalion, after several days of rest, was ordered to stage an assault on the Boer lines. Once again their attack across the open plain was stopped by enemy fire, and 13 more Canadians were killed. But this time only half the battalion withdrew to safety; the rest clung to the ground until morning, or dug their own makeshift trenches only 55 meters from the Boers. At dawn the Canadians resumed firing on the enemy, and by 6:00 a.m., the besieged Boers, running out of supplies and keen to bury their dead, raised their white flags and surrendered.

The battle was a turning point in the war for Britain, and Canada received much of the credit. Queen Victoria sent a congratulatory telegram to the troops. At Paardeberg, British Field Marshal Frederick Roberts hailed the troops. “Canadian,” he said, “now stands for bravery, dash and courage.”
(From “thecanadianencyclopedia”).

From Kimberley Calls and Recalls on Facebook By Steve Lunderstedt

Aeon Computer Kimberley

About Steve Lunderstedt


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