by Ernest Gilman
First let us look at Roberts's overall strategy of moving on Bloemfontein. For three years the General had been forming his plans on how to defeat the Boers if war with them occurred,(1) but it was not until he arrived in South Africa that he adapted his thinking to the problems involved and it was only then that he was prepared to carry out any strategic moves. His reasons for moving on Bloemfontein were well thought out and his plan was simple. In 1903 he explained his position at an investigation into the conduct of the British forces in the War: 'I felt convinced that an advance on Bloemfontein must draw the Free Staters back from Kimberley and Natal, and that the occupation of their capital would render the Boer positions to the south of the Orange River untenable. To carry out this scheme, as large a force as could be collected was necessary, as the enemy had through railway communication (about two days journey) between Natal and Bloemfontein, and could transfer a considerable portion of their forces from one of the theatres of the war to the other in infinitely less time than we could. Moreover, rapidity was essential in concentrating this force, and making an advance towards Bloemfontein, as Ladysmith and Kimberley were, so far as I know, only provisioned for a very limited time.'(2) To talk about taking the Boer stronghold of Bloemfontein was one thing, but getting there was another. According to strategists at the time, especially the German General Staff, Roberts had a choice of three fast routes to Bloemfontein. The first choice was to begin in Natal, cross the Tugela River, and move through Ladysmith. The second was to go by way of the south bank of the Orange River in the centre of the Cape Colony, and through Springfontein, and the last route was via Kimberley and east across the Modder River. While the German experts believed that the first two alternatives were the most direct routes(3) they agreed with Roberts that the Modder River, or the western line route was the best choice. The British had little information concerning the geography of the various routes, they lacked suitable railway lines and bridges, but Piet Cronjé's Boer forces were concentrated in the Modder River region, and Cecil Rhodes continually demanded relief for the besieged city of Kimberley.
As in past South African history, Cecil Rhodes also played an important part in the strategy of Lord Roberts. Throughout the siege of Kimberley the former prime-minister of the Cape Colony tried to obtain aid from the British Army. He cabled military officials and Lord Milner, and even ordered the Chartered Company to contact Lord Rothschild and enlist his influence top persuade the British Cabinet that Kimberley be instantly relieved.(4) Rhodes even threatened a native uprising. It swiftly became quite obvious to Roberts that Kimberley had to be relieved at all costs, and that its deliverance must play an important part in the overall strategy of the advance.
Taking everything into consideration, especially the 'political importance' of Kimberley, Roberts completed his plans. As he later told the Coimmission: 'The western line commended itself to me for the following reasons: (1) It was on that line only we had possession of a railway-bridge over the Orange River. (2) It was by that line only that Kimberley could be relieved in time, and had Kimberley fallen, Mafeking must have fallen also. (3) It was by that line only I could deal with the Boer forces in detail, and defeat Cronjé before he could be reinforced.'(5)
But not everyone agreed with his plans and he came under fire from some important sources. One of the first criticisms came from General Buller who suggested that Roberts build a new railway line towards Bloemfontein and follow it with his army. Roberts flatly rejected this plan because too many soldiers would be needed to guard the men laying the rails, construction would be too slow to be effective (estimated at two miles a day), and consequently the element of surprise would be lost.(6)
A greater threat to the execution of Roberts's plan came from Sir Alfred Milner, High Commissioner for South Africa and Governor of Cape Colony. Just a few days before Roberts commenced his march to the east, he received a memorandum from Milner in which the latter informed him of the possibility of a rebellion breaking out in the Colony. The High Commissioner cautioned Roberts against moving east too rapidly and of releasing too many soldiers from the Colony where they were needed. The commander-in-chief answered that the best way he knew for nipping such a rebellion in the bud was to strike swiftly into Boer territory and draw all enemy forces away from British possessions.
The strongest criticism of his strategy came from Lord Wolseley, the then Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. Wolseley maintained that Roberts should have taken a more direct rouute to Bloemfontein which, according to him, wouuld have saved many British lives, and much material, that were needlessly sacrificed. Furthermore, he believed that a direct march would have frightened the Boers into retreating from Kimberley and Ladysmith to the capital of the Orange Free State. Wolseley persisted in his view throughout the war.
Considering the comparative ease with which the Boers couuld destroy bridges Wolseley's viewpoint appears to be unrealistic. He did not take actual events into consideration and expected British troops to protect the bridges when they did not control the countryside. On the other hand, Roberts, who was well aware of the situation, mostly because of his senior intelligence officer, Colonel G.F.R. Henderson, held a more realistic viewpoint. Later Roberts told the Royal Commission: 'Both the Norval's Pont and Bethulie Bridges were in the hands of the enemy, and by the time I had forced them back into the Orange Free State, and had been able to repair either of these bridges (which I was certain would be destroyed, and which actually happened), and I had occupied Bloemfontein, I should have between me and Kimberley, not only Cronjé, but the whole of the Boer force which was not engaged in Natal. I should have then been obliged either to march across the veldt against this increased force, or to have transported the greater portion of my troops by rail to the Modder River Camp (if the railway could have been kept intact, which was hardly likely, seeing how weakly it was necessarily guarded, and the number of Boers who would have been available to destroy it), and then to turn the Magersfontein position.'(7) Looking back over the events that followed Roberts's march along the Modder River, it becomes obvious to me that his strategy was the best available at the time. By his unorthodox choice of routes and flanking method he completely outmanoeuvered the Boers. Unlike other officers Roberts did not rely primarily on the railroad for transportation, and by adopting such strategy he was able to move swiftly into the enemy's heartland. He disproved the Boers', and especially Cronjé's belief that 'the English do not make turning movements; they never leave the railway, because they cannot march.'(8) Not only was Roberts successful in outflanking Cronjé but by his guidance of the Orange River crossing he skirted one of the largest concentrations of Boer forces ever to be organized during the war. Roberts's strategy was highly respected by Christiaan de Wet, possibly the most brilliant strategist the Boers possessed in the field. Writing about his war experiences, De Wet paid great tribute to Roberts for he firmly believed that if the British had taken one of the more direct routes they would have initiated a similar stalemate to the one involving Buller.(9)
While criticism of Roberts's strategy generally came from those outside the combat areas his most reliable supporters were primarily in the field. For example, there were the German observers attached to the British forces whose reports prompted the General Staff in Berlin to concede: 'The grounds for his (Roberts's) decision were sound, and the course of the operations showed how correctly he had appraised all the circumstances, and the effect which this advance would exert on the Boers.'(10) A similar view was expressed by the American military observer attached to Roberts's forces. In late March, 1900, he reported to his stuperiors in Washington that: 'The Boers had become wedded to the conviction that the English could or would not leave the railroad, that Lord Roberts threw them into such a state of paralysis by his strategy, that they have not even yet fully recovered.'(11)
On February 11, 1900, Roberts's forces commenced full-scale operations, and it soon became obvious that the commander's strategy was to be successful. On February 15 Kimberley was relieved, and two days later a detachment of cavalry, which had taken part in the rescue, galloped forty-seven miles to the south and cut off Cronjé's eastward retreat. Roberts had already outflanked a strong enemy force. The cavalry commander, Lieutenant-General J.D.P. French, victim of a breakdown in communications, did not know where the main British force was located. He did, however, know that his forces were greatly outnumbered by the enemy. But Cronjé, unaware of this, failed to take advantage of the situation and French was suuccessful in holding the Boers until the main British force caught up to Cronjé's laager. Roberts's strategy produced immediate positive results and the information was warmly greeted by the British and Colonial populations so starved for good news. On that eventful Saturday, 'The Cape Argus' reported that the surrounding of Cronjé's laager at Paardeberg was 'skilfully planned and brilliantly carried out, the first movement in the invasion of the Free State has accomplished more than the most sanguine anticipated a week ago.'(12) Less than a week after he had commenced his march, Roberts had relieved Kimberley, restored the confidence of the British population, and was at the threshold of a great military victory. But that victory was not to come easily, and Roberts would receive much criticism for the way he achieved it.
Even before the battle of Paardeberg commenced an event occurred which was to give Roberts's critics food for comment. Because of a sudden cold Roberts was unable to ride with the main force, and was consequently absent when it made contact with Cronjé's laager. Although Lieutenant-General T. Kelly-Kenny was the highest ranking field officer, Roberts's chief-of-staff, Lord Kitchener, took over direct command of the troops. As few officers knew about this change in command, a general state of confusion resulted when the British attacked Cronjé's laager. Although Kitchener did order the troops into battle on the eighteenth of February, Roberts, knowing that such a change in command was unorthodox, never admitted that he had commissioned his chief-of-staff to follow such a course. At the royal inquiry into the events of the war Roberts told his questioners: 'I never intended Lord Kitchener to take command. He went to the 6th Division as my representative.'(13) When further questioned as to who gave the order for the attack against the laager, Roberts absolved himself from all responsibility. He told the Commission: 'I do not know who gave the orders, for I was not on the Spot, but General Kelly-Kenny was in command.'(14) This was a rather head-in-the-sand attitude taken by Roberts who had communicated with Kelly-Kenny on the seventeenth from his stopover at Jacobsdal. His orders to his subordinate, concerning Kitchener's position seemed quite specific at the time. He informed Kelly-Kenny: 'I hope to join you tomorrow; meanwhile please consider that Lord Kitchener is with you for the purpose of communicating to you my orders, so that there may be no delay, such as references to and fro would entail.'(15)
When the main force under Kitchener came upon Cronjé's laager, the chief-of-staff had two choices of action, attack, or surround and lay siege. Kitchener chose to attack. He was so confident that his decision was a wise one that he told his staff officers on the very next morning: It is now seven o'clock. We shall be in the laager by half-past ten. I'll then load up French, and send him on to Bloemfontein at once.'(16)
Thus, without proper reconnaissance and appropriate preparations, Kitchener launched about 20 000 troops against the well fortified Boer force of about4 500. Because of Kitchener's lack of reconnaissance, he failed to see that the Boers had fortified themselves in trenches within the laager, and had surrounded themselves with a well-camouflaged force of sharpshooters. His impetuous action cost him about 1 500 casualties while the enemy were not even close to capitulation.
While many authorities have agreed that an attack against Cronjé's laager was essential, they have uniformly condemned Kitchener for the way he carried out the assault. Not only was Kitchener guilty of a lack of preparation but he also failed in his attempt to coordinate the attack. Throughout the day he galloped everywhere giving and/or countermanding orders to officers who did not even know he was in charge. He failed to use the regular channels of communication. In most cases, high ranking officers like Kelly-Kenny, Hannay, Colvile and Smith-Dorrien had not been informed of what part their men were to play in the battle. Kitchener naively believed he could improvise his way to victory over a well-equipped white enemy as he had done against the less organized forces in the Sudan. Many historians have questioned Kitchener's actions on the eighteenth, and most attribute it to his lack of tactical experience. Honwever, in the most recent biography of Kitchener, Philip Magnus presents the theory that he was prompted into immediate action because he was haunted by his indecision at the Sudanese battle at Atbara some two years before.(17)
Even though many military historians were highly critical of his methods during the battle, Kitchener refused to acknowledge his blunders, and not until he had taken his command in India did he offer an extensive explanation of his position. On Christmas day, 1903, he wrote to Sir Ian Hamilton: 'I am quite willing to accept the full responsibility for the battle of Paardeberg ... Instead of penitently acknowledging my error, as one writer considers I should, I maintain that it was the only course to pursue, and that had I allowed Cronjé to escape(18) after all the exertions I had called for and received from the army, I should be most rightly censured, and have lost the confidence of the troops. It was in no frenzy, but with the most deliberate view of my responsibility in the matter, that I decided on the attack, which I maintain is very erroneously described as a frontal attack. As a matter of fact, it was an all-round attack,(19) as the artillery from the north and south outflanked and enfiladed in every way the positions taken up by the enemy to resist the attacks from east and west.
'I believe every general on the ground agreed with me that, under the circumstances, an attack on Cronjé's force was the right action to take; certainly not one of them suggested any other course.'(20)
It would seem that Kitchener had no qualms about his handling of the British forces at Paardeberg; but this is not entirely true, for on the day after Kitchener ordered the assault on Cronjé's laager, the American military observer attached to Lord Roberts's troops overheard the celebrated English General say: 'If I had known yesterday, the 18th, what I know today; I would not have attacked the Boers in the river bed; it is impossible against that rifle.'(21) These words were not those of a person pleased with his recent actions. There is no doubt that Kitchener believed he was right in attacking the laager, but it is also obvious that he questioned the methods by which he attempted to achieve his ends.
On February 19, 1900, Lord Roberts arrived at Paardeberg and once again took over the command of all the troops. At first he agreed with Kitchener to renew the attack because of the possibility that Cronjé might receive substantial assistance, but after surveying the situation, Roberts decided against such action. He believed his forces were strong enough to beat back any commandos attempting to rescue Cronjé, and that the respite would be most beneficial to his forces and mounts which had suffered a costly setback on the previous day.(22)
David James's biography of Lord Roberts offers what I believe to be the clearest insight into the General's reasons for not continuing the attack against the laager. James brings forth two main problems which Roberts had to face. The most important problem not referred to in any of the standard works on the war is the availability of seasoned troops. Roberts had nearly 'the entire trained fighting strength of the Empire',(23) and he could not afford to lose such troops in another assault against the well-fortified laager. It is true that British soldiers were pouring into Cape Town but these troops were green, and if Roberts repeated Kitchener's setback he would have to rely on these recent arrivals. Roberts could not afford to lose another substantial number of experienced troops. The second reason for not renewing the attack was that the available hospitals were overcrowded with the casualties of the day before and could not handle further cases.
Although Roberts was successful in getting Cronjé to surrender some eight days later, the Commander-in-Chief has been condemned in the standard works of the war because of his reluctance to renew the attack. Possibly, the strongest criticism came from 'The Times History of the War' where it was alleged that the British generals, including Roberts, had become soft and their fear of losing men dictated their decisions. According to 'The Times' this concern was 'significant only as indicating the decadence of the military instinct in the higher ranks of the British Army, as exemplified even in its best representatives'.(24) When one takes into consideration the reasons for Roberts's action such a statement seems unwarranted. 'The Times' disagreed, but to Roberts, another attack would cause a 'further loss of life which did not appear ... to be warranted by the military exigencies of the situation' (25)
Further criticisms by 'The Times' of Roberts's decision to pound and starve out Cronjé are similarly weak. It asserted that another attack would have put fear in the Boers and uplifted the British soldiers. Again 'The Times' assumed too much as it refused to accept the reasons for Roberts's stand, and the fact that the Boers had successfully defended themselves on the eighteenth. 'The Times' assumed that the British could have overpowered the laager and it based its entire argument on that questionable premise. It also assumed that if the Boers suffered many casualties they would panic while the morale of the British soldiers would be lifted. Needless to say that the question of what would have happened to British spirits if a second attack failed was not discussed.
When Lord Roberts accepted the surrender of Cronjé and his 4 000 Boers on February 27, the British took the offensive for the first time in the war. Paardeberg was the turning point of the war, and contrary to the views expressed by 'The Times' and the German General Staff, its influence was strongly felt by both belligerents, particularly since it occurred on the twentieth anniversary of the Battle of Majuba. It gave new hope to the British soldiers and the Empire while it put fear into the hearts of most burghers, and nearly dashed the hopes of the Boer Republics. The English people now believed that their forces would eventually overpower the enemy and they were encouraged to help the government in power. Furthermore, it stifled all desire for intervention by a third power as the Boers were soon to discover. So by the end of February Lord Roberts had turned what seemed to be defeat into victory. He had captured an important Boer general and a large enemy force, Kimberley had been recently relieved, and the communications with Magersfontein were tightly secured. The noted American military historian, A.T. Mahan, stated: 'The good effect of Roberts's advance upon the general fortune of the war, and the correct military principle of the original plan, by him resumed, were clearly and quickly evident.'(26)
Needless to say, the Boers did not look upon Cronjé's surrender as a happy event. They, like the British, were greatly affected by the events of the February 27th, but in a larger sense. Now, for the first time in the war, the burghers recognized that their homes were vulnerable to attack from an enemy who had tasted victory. The Boers had failed to gain any significant military superiority and their hopes of bringing any British territory under their flag were lost. The British had rushed in large numbers of men and large quantities of material, and had now taken the initiative away from the Boers through the strategy of their new Commander-in-Chief, Lord Roberts. The fight was not over, but the military advantages once held by the Boers were lost.
Boer sources testify to the great effect Roberts's victory had on the burghers. For example, the Assistant Commandant-General of the Transvaal forces, Ben Viljoen, wrote a whole chapter in his book on the effects of Paardeberg which he entitled 'Dispirited and Demoralized'.(27) Viljoen's description of the atmosphere within the Boer ranks was typical of the comments made by others in a position to report. 'The reader will now gather an idea of the enormous change which had come over our troops. Six months before, they had been cheerful and gay, confident of the ultimate success of their cause. Now they were downhearted and in the lowest of spirits. I must admit that in this our officers were no exception.'(28)
The evidence shows that the Boer leaders grasped the significance of Paardeberg as soon as the battle commenced. If they would be able to inflict large losses on the enemy, it would be a great victory, possibly inducing Great Britain to ask for peace. On the other hand, if the British were victorious a significant segment of the Boer forces would be lost, and Lord Roberts's forces would be an immediate threat to the future life of the Republics. During the battle the rallying cry of the Boers was 'relieve Cronjé'. Commandos from everywhere came to Paardeberg to help, and by doing so weakened the Boer positions elsewhere, such as Ladysmith and Arundel. As the battle raged on everything else became of secondary importance.
One of the best insights into the Boer attitudes about Paardeberg was presented by Christiaan de Wet. He was quick to realize the significance of Paardeberg, and he continuously risked the lives of his commandos in order to help Cronjé escape from the British. When Roberts decided to cease attacking the laager and starve it into submission, it became obvious to everyone except Cronjé that his escape was the only way the Boers could snatch victory from the British. De Wet made several attempts to rescue Cronjé but the latter refused to abandon his wagons and material which were owned by the burghers within the laager.
In order to maintain contact with the laager De Wet kept his commando in the area around Stinkfontein, not too far from the British lines. De Wet later explained his dangerous position: 'We had made up our minds to stand firm, for we knew that if General Cronjé failed to make his way out, it would be a real calamity to our cause.'(29) With this in mind De Wet dispatched a message into the laager on February 25th in which he told the obstinate Cronjé that 'our fate depended upon the escape of himself and the thousands with him, and that, if he should fall into the enemy's hands, it would be the deathblow to all our hopes'.(30)
On February 27th De Wet's worst fears were confirmed; Cronjé was forced to capitulate to Roberts. The effects of this action on the commandos in the field were devastating. On this De Wet wrote: 'No words can describe my feelings when I saw that Cronjé had surrendered, and noticed the result which this had on the burghers. Depression and discouragement were written on every face. The effects of this blow, it is not too much to say, made themselves apparent to the very end of the war.'(31)
The devastating psychological effect of Cronjé's surrender on the burghers was never to be erased. Once more De Wet presents us with a report on the situation within the Boer ranks. '(Cronjé) never realized that it (his surrender) would be the cause of the death of many burghers, and of indescribable panic throughout not only all the laagers on the veldt, but even those of Colesberg, Stormberg and Ladysmith. If the famous Cronjé were captured, how could any ordinary burgher be expected to continue his resistance?'(32) Needless to say De Wet was not the only Boer who registered his feelings towards Paardeberg. Viljoen, who heard the news while he was on a commando at Modderspruit, reported: 'Cronjé's surrender had had a most disheartening effect on them (the men); there was in fact, quite a panic among them.'(33) Viljoen also reported that a council of war was held at Glencoe Station shortly after Cronjé's surrender where many officers believed that the Boer forces should be pulled back in order to defend their own borders.(34) It is quite obvious that the burghers were now frightened to the point of panic. This is also confirmed by another burgher, Deneys Reitz, who reported that 'the whole universe seemed to be toppling about our ears'.(35) It is not difficult to see that Roberts's victory was not only military, but also psychological, one which was to affect the rest of the war. Roberts had turned the tide of battle in favour of the British.
This opinion is shared by Roberts's critics and supporters alike. Writing in the official history of the war, Maurice stated: 'The struggle, it is true, lingered on for another two years, but the hoisting of the signal of surrender in Cronjé's laager and the victory of the 27th on the Tugela mark the final disappearance of Kruger's and Steyn's power for offence and ensured the triumph of the British flag in South Africa.'(36) Another interpretation, although not as glowing as Maurice's, comes from Rayne Kruger. According to this contemporary South African historian, 'If Paardeberg was not exactly a Waterloo it was a blow to the Boers far greater than either side had yet suffered, and the more disastrous because it fell on the side least able to bear it.'(37) 'The Times', which had disagreed with Roberts's choice of destroying Cronjé, was equally quick to see the results of the general's strategy. It acknowledged: 'For the Boers, Paardeberg was a terrible blow from which they never recovered.'(38)
Roberts's strategy had been successful and the Boers were in despair. The leaders of the Republics did not foresee a bright future and their thoughts turned to securing a way by which they could retain what they already possessed. After Paardeberg Kruger and Steyn looked to Europe and the United States for assistance but it was too late. Nobody would help the Boers now that Roberts had recaptured what had previously been lost. For as Paul Kruger so astutely commented: 'The English have taken our Majuba Day away from us.'(39)
Nevertheless, the defeat of Cronjé did prompt the Boers to ask for outside help in order to bring the war to a close before the British could destroy the Republics. Previous to Roberts's victory there had been talk about some European powers intervening on behalf of the Boers, but after Paardeberg the only country to continue this policy was Russia. In early March, when Kruger and Steyn offered a cease fire in exchange for recognition of their Republics' independence, Lord Salisbury refused because the British did not fear European intervention, and they knew Paardeberg was the beginning of the end for the Boers.
While the Boers were failing to arouse international sympathy for their cause, and while most commandos were in panic, Roberts halted his march at Paardeberg. Instead of taking advantage of the situation and moving on to Bloemfontein, Roberts was compelled to mark time. The official historian believed that Roberts had no choice since he needed replacements for the horses lost during the march to Paardeberg and the assault of February 17. Needless to say there were other reasons for the delay. Roberts realized what lay in front of him, and before he marched from Paardeberg to Bloemfontein he wanted his forces to be in excellent shape. While they waited for the arrival of more horses the troops were reorganized and re-equipped. Furthermore, Roberts felt that he was depending too much on the railroad lines to Kimberley, so he needed time while the lines through Norval's Pont and Bethulie were brought back into service.
Even though Roberts could not continue on to Bloemfontein because of lack of horses, there were those who have persisted in condemning him for the delay. First it was pointed out that the longer Roberts kept his men at Paardeberg the more water they drank from the polluted Modder River, resulting in an epidemic of enteric. The critics contend that Roberts lost more men through enteric than he would have if he had assaulted the laager, or had immediately proceeded to Bloemfontein.(40) While I cannot agree with these contentions as they are purely assumptions, there is much room to criticize Roberts for his mishandling of his troops water-supply.
The second criticism levelled against Roberts over the delay at Paardeberg stems from the regrouping of the disheartened Boer forces. The critics contend that Roberts, by his delay, allowed the Boer forces to reorganize themselves and prepare for the defence of Bloemfontein. This is only partly true as the Boer forces never regained the position they held before Paarde berg. True, it would probably have been quite easy for Roberts to march on Bloemfontein right after Cronjé's surrender, but this was impossible because of the insufficient number of horses. But, even with the delay, Roberts nearly enacted another Paardeberg.
While the British were bivouacked at Paardeberg the Boers had regrouped whatever forces they could muster and were preparing to stop Roberts at Poplar Grove (Modderrivierpoort) on the road to Bloemfontein. But Roberts was also prepared, and he had a plan that might have brought the war to an end. He knew that the British would never again get an opportunity as they did at Poplar Grove because it was here that about 6 000 depressed burghers had converged in response to Cronjé's plight. They were completely demoralized and in no way fit to do battle with Roberts's recently victorious army. Victory looked easy, and such a victory would have been of great significance considering that Kruger and Steyn were at Poplar Grove.
Roberts believed in adhering to a successful plan, so once again he prepared to outflank the Boers, surround them, and pound them into submission. But because of the poor condition of his horses and the slowness of French's manoeuvre, Roberts was robbed of another Paardeberg.
As at Paardeberg the cavalry was supposed to outflank the enemy and cut off his retreat, but French failed to do this and the Boers escaped to fight another day. Although French was not entirely to blame for the slowness of the cavalry's movements considering the condition of the horses, he is guilty of delaying the start of the march by one hour, and the later halt of forty-five minutes because of his dislike of night marches. Because of French's delays other units, such as Kelly-Kenny's, had their timing upset and the element of surprise was lost. The Boers, realizing they were about to be surrounded, hastily retreated. Both critics and supporters of French joined to condemn him for his slowness,(41) and they all agreed with 'The Times History' that'. . this was not one of French's successful days'.(42)
There is no doubt in my mind that it was at Poplar Grove and not Paardeberg that the British lost their chance to bring the war to a quick end. Roberts's strategy had paid off at Paardeberg and it would have reaped larger benefits at Poplar Grove had his plans not gone astray because of French. As reported by De Wet, the Boers were ill prepared for another of Roberts's strategic manoeuvres: 'Again I was confronted with the baleful influence of Cronjé's surrender. A panic had seized my men. Before the English had even got near enough to shell our positions to any purpose, the wild flight began.... It was a flight such as I had never seen before, and shall never see again.'(43)
Considering the Boers' disheartened attitude, their failure to obtain outside help, Lord Salisbury's refusal to recognize the independence of the Republics, and the recent victories of Roberts, and of Buller at Ladysmith, a Boer surrender at Poplar Grove would have produced a disaster unparallelled in the war.
After the rout at Poplar Grove on March 7, Roberts pushed aside all resistance and arrived at Bloemfontein six days later. He had marched his victorious army over 700 miles of treacherous terrain in twenty-nine days. After capturing Bloemfontein, Roberts once again brought his army to a halt in order that it might be re-equipped and reorganized. The stop-over lasted about forty-five days, and Roberts was once again condemned for giving the Boers time to regroup and strengthen their forces. There is no doubt that the Boers were, as the German General Staff observed, able 'to recover from their shattered condition, and to assemble again',(44) but considering the state of the British forces, Roberts again had no other choice but to call a halt to the march.
As Roberts later told the Royal Commission on the war: 'I was most anxious to continue the operations onwards to Pretoria, but it was impossible for me to leave Bloemfontein until the southern portion of the Orange Free State had been fairly well cleared of the enemy; until a sufficient number of days' supplies had been collected at Bloemfontein; until enough troops had been brought up to enable me to advance with a front wide enough to prevent my flanks being turned; until additional transport had been organized; and until the cavalry, artillery and mounted infantry were properly mounted.'(45)
As he told the Commission, Roberts was faced with many problems. According to 'The Times History' the most important problem was the railroads, considering that the British were deep in enemy territory and all contact with the outside was maintained via railroad. Roberts, therefore, had to wait for additional men to guard the lines and, as he moved deeper into the enemy's lands, his needs increased. If Roberts could not control the rail lines he would be unable to feed or re-equip his army, and might be cut off deep in alien territory. Although there were lines from East London (402 miles from Bloemfontein), Port Elizabeth (450 miles away), and Cape Town (750 miles away), they all converged on one track at Springfontein, 90 miles to the south-west of Bloemfontein. Along this single line came all the supplies, horses and men needed by Roberts's army. Once the transportation facilities were repaired and restocked, the required materials of war began to arrive. But Roberts was hindered, not only by the limited amount of material that could be transported along the single line for the march to Pretoria, but also by the need to bring in food and medical supplies to feed his troops and combat the enteric epidemic while they were bivouacked in Bloemfontein.
Attempts by Roberts to prepare his forces for the march to Pretoria were drastically weakened by the epidemic. For some reason he did not issue orders to combat the pollution of the Modder River. At first Roberts paid little attention to his medical officers' reports that Bloemfontein lacked proper hospital facilities(46) but, when his men began to die at the rate of fifty a day, it became obvious to everyone that something had to be done to rectify the situation. As the polluted waters of the Modder took their toll, more and more trains carried in medical supplies instead of the needed materials for the march to Pretoria. As troops became sick they had to be replaced by new recruits and once again valuable time was wasted.
Roberts knew he had to stop at Bloemfontein but he did not know his stay was going to be so long. Days became weeks and weeks became a month, and still his forces were not prepared to march. The frustrations of the halt were shared by soldier and general alike as both itched to move on, but all realized that it would be catastrophic to go deeper into enemy territory without acquiring a strong base. All phases of the operation had to be reorganized since the British were no longer only concerned about moving forward; they were now conquerors and had to pacify the country behind their advancing army.
Once again Roberts's critics pointed out that the Boers should have been pursued and destroyed. It was known that the enemy's morale was extremely low, burghers were deserting en masse, and many were aimlessly wandering along the veld without any idea where their commandos were operating. There was a growing division between Free Staters and Transvaalers, and the cry for peace was getting louder.
But when Roberts continued his march in early May, the Boers were once again ready to do battle. True, they would have been in a desperate state if the British had been capable of pursuing them, but on the other hand they might have achieved great successes if Roberts had pursued them without first safeguarding his base of operations and rebuilding his army. With a 'new' army of over 70 000 men and 178 artillery pieces, Roberts marched out of Bloemfontein, swept through Johannesburg, and entered Pretoria on June 5, 1900. Those Boers who chose to challenge the British were either captured or pushed aside. Their active numbers were reduced to about 15 000 and the war seemed to be at an end. Who can say what would have happened if Roberts had not halted at Bloemfontein, but it is clear that his preparations were not in vain. Of the march to Pretoria, the American strategist Mahan commented: 'The sustained momentum of this advance, achieved in very little over a month, testifies at once to the solidarity of the preparations of the British leader ...'(47) But contrary to Roberts's belief the war did not end; instead it carried on for another two years. Some historians have blamed Roberts for the continuation of the war, but I believe this attitude is quite unfair. It is my contention that if one considers the military tactics used by the Boers in the field, the obvious weaknesses within the British Army, and the terrain of South Africa, the war would have lasted much longer without Roberts's services. It is true that the war did not end when Roberts sailed for home, but we cannot hold him entirely responsible for these events as do his critics. One such critic is Rayne Kruger whose estimate of Roberts's worth is far from complimentary: 'Only once did he defeat - at Paardeberg where Kitchener's ferocity, French's dash, Cronjé's pig-headedness and a river in flood brought the Boers to bay; and even then his preference for siege methods instead of a renewal of Kitchener's pitched battle gave the Boers in the Cape Midlands time to escape, promoted the spread of enteric, and caused the long delay at Bloemfontein which enabled De Wet to discover a method of resistance destined to make the new war possible.'(48)
Using Kruger's criticism as an outline let us review Roberts's actions in the field. Was Roberts wrong in not continuing the attack against Cronjé's laager? I do not believe so as the disaster of February 18 proved only one thing; that there was no guarantee that a second or a third assault would have crushed Cronjé'. On the contrary, if one takes into consideration how well the burghers were entrenched, it is quite possible that the British would have suffered numerous casualties. One can only speculate, but how can we measure the results if the British had suffered another setback? On the other hand, we do know how Roberts's victory at Paardeberg affected those involved in the war. Did Roberts's necessary delay at Paardeberg allow the Boers to escape, or did they escape because of the subsequent events at Poplar Grove? What effect would a significant British victory at Poplar Grove, according to Roberts's plan, have had on the war?
On this particular point H.E. Prevost Batteraby, a participant at the battle, wrote in his book, 'In The Web of War': 'A great opportunity was wasted, a great success foregone, a piece of perfect planning and of exquisite calculation came to nothing... Those all too ready with censure should have been here to witness how great the little man who leads us took the upset of his conception, and the vanishing of an action which might have left the Free State at his feet. He stood there with the quiet smile on his face when many another man would have been mad with anger, knowing well where the blame should be laid, but not speaking a word of it as he twisted his moustache. "In war you can't expect everything to come out right" was all he had to say... '(49)
For his failure to regulate the drinking of water from the polluted Modder River there cannot be any defence, but to say that the epidemic was Roberts's main reason for stopping at Bloemfontein is ridiculous.
Roberts had no choice but to stop at Bloemfontein. If he had failed to establish a base for his supplies and to secure his lines of communications, all his victories might have been lost.
Roberts was also hampered by the overcautious Buller. He refused to attempt to break through the Boer lines and move north in order to link up with Roberts's army. Sir Redvers feared stiff opposition from the enemy in the Tugela area and he refused to be responsible for the additional loss of British lives which would result from such an offensive act. But the facts do not agree with Buller's evaluation of the enemy's strength. Boer Colonel Reitz noted: 'Had the British fired a single shot at this surging mob... everything on wheels would have fallen into their hands.'(50) Such information was not unknown to the British as shown by the following report given by a general on Buller's staff. According to General N.C. Lyttelton: 'The Boers, ... dispirited by defeat, encumbered by a huge train of wagons, the Sunday River in flood behind them with only one bridge, were at our mercy.'(51) Furthermore, he noted: 'Few Commanders... have so wantonly thrown away so great an opportunity.'(52) A fellow officer, General Lord Rawlinson, predicted: 'The enemy instead of being caught in bulk, would break up into small parties and take to guerrilla warfare, which it will cost much time and blood to defeat.'(53) Without Buller's help, Roberts had to extend his wait in Bloemfontein, and because of the structure of the British army at that time, Roberts could not order Buller into action.*
The British were ill-prepared for the type of warfare practised by the Boers. For Roberts to achieve what the critics envisaged would have meant a complete change in British military policy. As long as the railroad system was weak and there was land in which to move about, the Boers were free to perform strategical retreats. Roberts could only use what was available at the time and, considering all problems involved, he achieved great successes.
One cannot agree with critics such as Rayne Kruger when he writes: 'No general has ever been as overrated in England's history, or any country so grilled.'(54) When the British needed a victory it was Roberts who gave it to them.
*Editor's note: This is a remarkable statement. Roberts was not only Buller's senior in rank, but had superseded him as Commander-in-Chief in South Africa.
1. Great Britain, Minutes of Evidence Taken Before the Royal Commission on The War in South Africa
(London, 1903), Vol. I p. 467, Q. 10849. In 1897 the General discussed his plans for fighting a possible war in
South Africa with two junior officers from the Staff College. Edgar Holt, The Boer War (London, 1958), p.172.
2. Ibid., p.461, Q. 10843.
3. German General Staff, The War in South Africa (London, 1904), Vol. I, p.130.
4. Basil Williams (ed.), The Times History of The War in South Africa (London, 1906), Vol. IV, p.548.
5. Royal Commission, Op. cit., Vol. I, p.460, Q. 10843.
6. Sir Frederick Maurice, A History of The War in South Africa, 1899-1902, (London, 1906), Vol.1, p. 412.
7. Royal Commission. Op. cit., Vol. I, p.460, Q. 10843.
8. Count A.W. Von Grave Sternberg, My Experiences of the Boer War (London, 1901), p.114.
9. Christiaan R. de Wet, Three Years War (Westminster, 1902), p.41.
10. German General Staff, Op. cit., pp. 134-135.
11. U.S. Adjutant-General's Office, Report on Military Operations in South Africa and China (Washington, 1901), p.39.
12. The Cape Argus, February 17,1900, p.4.
13. Royal Commission, Op. cit., Vol. 11, p.62, Q. 13131.
14. Ibid., Q. 13140.
15. Sir Frederick Maurice, A History of the War in South Africa, 1899-1902 (London, 1907), Vol.11, pp.104-105.
16. L.S. Amery (ed.), The Times History of The War in South Africa, 1899-1902 (London, 1905), Vol.111, p.424.
17. Philip Magnus, Kitchener: Portrait of an Imperialist (London, 1958), p. 165.
18. Kitchener could have surrounded the laager and starved its defenders out as was eventually accomplished by Roberts.
19. All evidence I have seen proves otherwise.
20. Sir George Arthur, Life of Lord Kitchener (London, 1920), Vol.1, pp. 287-291. This viewpoint
is not shared by the 'generals' in question as most of them were not even consulted on how Cronjé was to be defeated.
21. U.S. Adjutant-General's Office, Op. cit., p.31.
22. Royal Commission, Op. cit., Vol. 11, p.62, Q. 13134.
23. David James, Lord Roberts, (London, 1954), p.293.
24. Amery (ed.), Op. cit., p.448.
25. Magnus, Op. cit., p.170.
26. A.T. Mahan, The Story of The War in South 4frica, 1899-1900 (London, 1900), p.309.
27. Ben Viljoen, My Reminiscences of The Anglo-Boer War (London, 1902), pp.133-144.
28. Ibid., pp.140-141.
29. De Wet, op. cit, p.59.
30. Ibid., p.62.
31. Ibid., p.64.
32. Ibid., p.63.
33. Viljoen, op. cit., p.106.
34. Ibid., p.121.
35. Deneys Reitz, Commando (London, 1929), p.89.
36. Rayne Kruger, Good-bye Dolly Gray (London, 1959), p.248.
37. Amery (ed.), op. cit., Vol. III, p.486.
38. Ibid., p. 487.
39. Arthur, op. cit., p.287.
40. Amery (ed.), op cit., Vol.111, pp. 560-561; Maurice, op cit., Vol.11, p.204;
German General Staff, The War in South Africa (London, 1906), Vol.11, p.204; Charles S. Goldman,
With General French and the Cavalry in South Africa (London, 1902), p.138; Erskine Childers,
War and The Arme Blanche (London, 1910), p.135.
41. Amery (ed.), op. cit, Vol.111, p.569.
42. De Wet, op. cit., p.69.
43. German General staff, op cit., Vol.11, p.44.
44. Royal Commission op. cit., Vol.1, pp. 466-467, Q. 10843.
45. Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers: Correspondence re: South African War 1900, LVI (Cd. 230), pp.783-786.
46. Mahan, op. cit, pp. 315-316.
47. Kruger, op. cit., p. 374.
48. James, op cit., p. 300.
49. Reitz, op cit., p. 300.
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