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Military History Journal - Vol 3 No 5

Should the strategy of Lord Roberts be judged by the victory at Paardeberg or by the subsequent delay at Bloemfontein?

Some comments by ‘Cuidich ‘n Righ’

Mr Ernest Gilman’s paper under this title (Military History Journal, Vol 3, No 3, June 1975) makes thought-provoking reading, even should one disagree with of his views and conclusions. Many of his statements should not, however, pass without some comment or amplification, and what follow are but a few.

There is little doubt that Cecil Rhodes exerted some influence on the overall strategy and conduct of the earlier stages of the Western Campaign and, one suspects, made a thorough nuisance of himself in the process. It is not clear whether he held the threat of a Black uprising per se over Roberts’s head should Kimberley not soon be relieved, or whether he hinted at the possibility of unrest amongst the Black mineworkers in the town, unemployed because of the closure of the mines. There is usually a difference between straight industrial unrest and the more usual, politically engendered uprising. Rhodes was very possibly behind the scarcely-veiled threat conveyed to Lt-Col Kekewich (Kimberley’s garrison commander) on 8 February 1900 by some of the leading citizens of the town that, unless Kimberley was very soon relieved, he should surrender it to the Boers. By that date, Lord Roberts had already decided to recommence operations for the relief of Kimberley and, when Kekewich signalled news of the surrender threat to him on the 9th, it came only as an additional irritation.

Gen Buller’s hare-brained scheme to lay a railway line from Heuningneskloof to Bloemfontein (through enemy-held territory almost all the way) was a follow-up of his earlier railway ideas. As far back as December 18, 1899, he had suggested to Lord Metbuen that a loop railway line be laid round Gen Cronje’s Magersfontein defences so as to by-pass them. It seems Methuen was not impressed as he did not react to this suggestion, even though Buller had advised the War Office of it. Buller then expanded on his original idea by advising the War Office that he had issued instructions for the line to be laid via Jacobsdal to Bloemfontein (Buller to Secretary of State for War, telegrams of 23 and 24 December 1899). Meanwhile, Lord Roberts had been appointed Commander-in-Chief in South Africa (in place of Buller) and had sailed for Cape Town, learning of Buller’s railway schemes only when his ship called at Gibraltar. In a cable sent from there, Roberts expressed his misgivings about the feasibility of Buller’s plan and suggested to the Secretary of State for War that Lt-Col E.P.C. Girouard (a Canadian, and Director of Railways in South Africa) should go in to the whole idea more thoroughly pending his own arrival in South Africa (telegram of 27 December 1899). After landing at Cape Town, Roberts turned the scheme down flat for the very good reasons quoted by Mr Gilman. Buller may well have been upset by this, but no evidence is given substantiating the statement that Buller criticized Roberts on this score.

The statement, '.... his guidance of the Orange River crossing he (Roberts) skirted one of the largest concentrations of Boer forces ever organised during the war’, leaves one a little mystified. British troops, destined to take part in the renewal of operations for the relief of Kimberley, crossed the river at the only feasible and practicable place, ie at Orange River Station (British-held since before the war), and most did it by train. There was no guidance of their crossing. A reading of Lord Roberts’s despatches of the time (South Africa Despatches, Vol 1, (1) and (2), London 1901) may bring the rest of the quoted statement into perspective. Briefly, Roberts’s plan was to split the opposing Boer forces between the Southern Free State and the Northern Cape, keep them guessing as to his intended line of advance, and then to strike in between them to relieve Kimberley and isolate Gen Cronjé whom he intended to defeat and capture. To this end, he staged an obvious build-up of troops at Modder River Station, thus forcing Cronjé to remain at Magersfontein with a sizable force blocking the direct route to Kimberley. At the same time, Roberts routed many of the British reinforcements arriving at Cape ports to the Noupoort-Middelburg (Cape) area and stepped up the tempo of operatoins towards Colesberg, hoping thus to draw as many Boers as possible into the Southern Free State (Roberts was well aware of President Steyn’s fears of an advance through the easy Southern Free State country direct on Bloemfontein). How well this deception plan worked is a matter of history.

As soon as he was ready, Roberts quickly moved the bulk of the British forces facing Colesberg by rail to Graspan and Enslin where they were joined by troops who had moved south overnight from Modder River Station. South of Colesberg, Gen Clements was left with barely enough troops to keep up a pretence that there was still a sizable British force in that area. Roberts then struck eastwards into the unprotected Western Free State, swung north and bypassed Magersfontein with his cavalry to relieve Kimberley. By the time Generals de la Rey and Schoeman, in the Colesberg area, realised what was happening, it was too late and Roberts was heading eastwards behind them towards Bloemfontein in pursuit of Gen Cronjé. It is not clear from Mr Gilman’s account which large concentration of Boer forces Lord Roberts skirted. Between them De la Rey and Schoeman had about 6 000 men in the Colesberg area (the ‘Times History’ gives a higher figure, but Maurice’s estimate is conservative and probably more correct), whilst Cronje had about the same number under his command, but spread across some 40 km of front between Langberg (west of Magersfontein) and Jacobsdal.

In the paper under discussion the British cavalry force, which intercepted Gen Cronjé at Paardeberg, is reduced to a mere detachment. It consisted of Col Broadwood’s 2nd Cavalry Brigade, reinforced by the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabineers) and supported by two batteries of Royal Horse Artillery - in all about 1 500 men and 12 guns. It was, nevertheless, outnumbered by almost three to one by Cronjé’s force which, at this juncture, was almost entirely on foot since most of his men had lost their horses. On a point of geographical fact, Paardeberg is about 21 miles (38 km) south-east of Kimberley and not 47 miles to the south, as stated in Mr Gilman’s paper. Broadwood’s brigade started out at 3 a.m. on 17 February from Alexandersfontein (9 km south-east of Kimberley) and reached Paardeberg at about 11 am. the same morning. They could hardly have ‘galloped’, even had their horses been fit enough to do so.

There was indeed a breakdown in telegraphic communication between Lord Roberts’s headquarters (near Jacobsdal) and Kimberley on 16 February, owing to the field telegraph cable having been cut to pieces the previous night by Cronjé’s wagons fleeing eastwards from Magersfontein and Bosjespan. Facts do not indicate that French was unaware of the position of the main British force on 17 February. He knew perfectly well it was in the Klip Drift area and would be pursuing Cronje to Paardeberg that day. His diary records that he received a written instruction from Lord Kitchener at about 10 pm, on 16 February, ordering him to intercept Cronjé at Koedoesrant Drift (a few miles upstream from Paardeberg) the next day. In the same instruction Kitchener added that he would be pursuing the retreating Boer force with Col Hannay’s Mounted Infantry Brigade and the 6th Division. French noted in his diary that Kitchener’s force reached Paardeberg at about 6 p.m. on the 17th and that Colvile’s 9th Division arrived during the same night.

Lord Kitchener’s unco-ordinated and disastrous attacks during the second day of the Paardeberg battle have been amply criticized and commented on in most authoritative accounts. There is little doubt that Kitchener was right in deciding to attack, but it is patently obvious that he did so without due consideration, and underestimated badly the problems involved in co-ordinating simultaneous attacks along both flanks of a flooded river, particularly when his communications were not what they should have been. Maj-Gen Smith-Dorrien is interesting on this point (Memories of Forty-eight Years’ Service, London. 1925).

In justifying Lord Roberts’s refusal to continue the attack on Cronjé’s Paardeberg defences, a useful phrase in James’s biography of the Field Marshal has been taken as a convenient hatpeg, viz that Roberts had ‘nearly the entire trained fighting strength of the Empire’ at Paardeberg. Unqualified acceptance of a sweeping statement of this nature should be treated with some reserve and, in this instance, Buller had more seasoned troops facing Botha’s Tugela defences in Natal (about 27 000 men) than Roberts had at Paardeberg on the same date. On 19 February Roberts had roughly 23 000 men in the Paardeberg area and, of these, nearly a third were ‘green’ reinforcements only recently arrived in the country. The overcrowded state of the field hospitals is given as another reason for Roberts’s unwillingness to renew the attack and, faced with the possibility of further heavy casualties, this may well be true. Field hospitals at that time were little more than holding centres for sick and wounded on their way to base or general hospitals, and were designed to handle 100 cases at a time. In fact, the number of field hospitals which would normally have accompanied Roberts’s divisions had been reduced by almost a quarter, and the number of ambulances likewise, the official ‘Report of the Royal Commission on the Treatment of the Sick and Wounded in South Africa (British Blue Books CD453)’ is revealing on this point. Furthermore, the programme for the evacuation of casualties had been seriously upset by the flooded state of the drifts between Paardeberg and the nearest railhead at Modder River Station. Added to the unexpectedly high casualties on 18 February was the steadily increasing number of typhoid (enteric) cases of which more later.

A curious statement is made in the paper that, by Lord Roberts’s acceptance of Gen Cronjé’s surrender on 27 February, the British took the offensive for the first time in the war! Not only is this statement contradictory within itself, but, one wonders what Lord Methuen had been doing between 21 November and 11 December 1899 or Buller in Natal, at intervals between December 1899 and the actual date of Cronjé’s surrender, or even Roberts himself, for that matter, from 11 February onwards. Further on in the same paragraph, it is asserted that the outcome of the Paardeberg battle stifled all desire by a third power to intervene on the side of the Boers. Which third power? As the question remains unanswered one can only guess that it might have been France, Germany or Russia, all of whom had been talking about intervention but, in the light of subsequent events, it seems doubtful whether intervention would ever have got beyond the talking stage. Still further down in the same paragraph comes the interesting statement that British ‘communications with Magersfontein were tightly secured’. There appear to be no records indicating that the bare veld and rocky koppies at Magersfontein were ever of more importance than their being the scene of an earlier British defeat, even less that the place was ever a centre of communications. One wonders on what grounds this statement is based.

Gen de Wet's book is cited freely as giving one of the best insights into Boer feelings and actions regarding the Paardeberg battle, probably without the realisation that De Wet can scarcely be classed as an unbiased observer or commentator, or that much of what is written in his book should be treated with some reserve. In his own memoirs Cronjé is biting in his comments on some of De Wet’s doings before and during the Paardeberg battle and, with the wisdom of hindsight, one cannot help but agree with some of his remarks. There can, in any case, have been little love lost between these two men.

In the light of what Mr Gilman has written, a few brief comments on the Paardeberg battle may not be inappropriate. It is known that at least two groups of mounted Boers got clear away from Cronjés laager during the night of 17/18 February, with or without his knowledge and approval. During the night of 24/25 February, Cronjé sent out the remaining men who still had ridable horses (about thirty all told) and, in heavy rain, they succeeded in getting through the British lines. For the rest there was little hope after the second night in the river, once the Boer position had been completely surrounded. It is believed, however, that a number of Boers, in ones and twos, made their way out during the siege and that several were either captured or gave themselves up.

In his memoirs Gen Cronjé says that, during that first night in the river, some of his officers suggested abandoning the wagons and the few women and children so that the fighting men could make good their escape, and admits that he refused to consider the idea. It seems that he was relying on outside help (principally, from De Wet, and from Ferreira and the commandos till recently at Kimberley), realizing no doubt that with at least 4 000 men on foot he would not get very far before again being overtaken by British cavalry, unless friendly forces were at hand to keep them at bay. At that particular stage there was no sign of either De Wet or Ferreira, or of any other Boer help and, convinced that assistance from his fellow-countrymen would not be long in coming, Cronjé decided to stay where he was. De Wet never got anywhere near Cronjé’s position and, even when he held Kitcheners Kop for a brief 24 hours, there were still British troops between him and the river. Cronjé would have had to fight his way across some 5 km of open, coverless plain to reach De Wet’s briefly held position. With well-trained and disciplined men Cronjé might well have succeeded in getting most of them through at night, but his men were neither well-trained nor disciplined. De Wets attempts at rescue, courageous in themselves but poorly supported by the commandos under Vilonel, Steyn and Philipus Botha, were futile, and he must have known it. Cronjé certainly did and, when his officers and men later all but mutinied, he had no alternative but to surrender.

Lord Roberts’s delay at Paardeberg after the Boer surrender on 27 February is discussed at some length in the paper, and the shortage of horses is given as the main reason for it. This does not, however, quite agree with Roberts’s own stated reasons as set out in his despatch (No. 3) written immediately after the battle. There had indeed been heavy losses in horses, some 1 700 between 11 and 28 February but, in his evidence before the Royal Commission, French gives a lower figure, having apparently taken into account some 200 horses supplied to his division in Kimberley and a number captured from the Boers. Roberts’s stated reasons were that he wished to make time for the cavalry and artillery horses to get fit again after a period on short rations, and to build up supplies of foodstuffs and ammunition before continuing his march to Bloemfontein, and felt that six days would suffice. De Wet’s capture of a supply convoy at Waterval Drift on 16 February had deprived the British of a week’s rations for men and horses; the men had been on half rations of ‘biscuits and groceries’ for over a week by 28 February, and the horses had been getting a daily ration of only 1½ lbs (0.68 kg) of grain instead of their accustomed 12 lbs (5½ kg), and there was very little grazing. Gen French noted in his diary on 2 March, almost with glee, that full rations for the horses had been restored that day. It was too late, and only four days before the Poplar Grove action, and no horse can recover in that time from a longish period of underfeeding, or acquire a state of physical fitness (‘condition’) they did not have, even before operations commenced. On this point it should be noted that most of the British cavalry and artillery horses had not yet recovered from the effects of being cooped up on board ship, without exercise for three weeks, before being put to hard work on unaccustomed food in the intense heat and dryness of the Northern Cape area where grazing was sparse and good water in limited supply. The results were near-catastrophic and long-felt, and were fully demonstrated at Poplar Grove by the slowness of cavalry movement and the fact that the artillery horses could barely move the guns.

Far more serious were the results of the food shortage on the men, many of whom were almost as unacclimatized as the horses and, in their weakened state, they were probably more susceptible to typhoid infection than might otherwise have been the case. Mr Gilman deals at some length with the typhoid epidemic and is unsparing in his condemnation of Lord Roberts on this score. Some known facts are relevant. Dr H.H. Tooth, a physician specialist attached to Lord Roberts’s forces at the time, made a study of the epidemic and his findings were published in a paper read to the Clinical Society in London on 8 March 1901 (Vol XXXIV of the Clinical Society’s Transactions) and a copy of his paper is in possession of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley. Some of his observations are interesting and are given below. He noted that there were known incidences of typhoid during December 1899 in the Boer-held town of Jacobsdal, upstream on the Riet River from the confluence of that river and the Modder where Lord Methuens camp was situated. The first recorded cases of typhoid at the Modder River Station camp were those of four Grenadier Guardsmen admitted to hospital on 23 December 1899, but Tooth does not suggest that the Jacobsdal infection was necessarily responsible for spreading the disease in Methuens camp since not only were both the Modder and Riet Rivers polluted, but so were the few wells in or near the camp area. Furthermore, typhoid was at that timne endemic in the Northern Cape during the summer months and medical statistics kept in Kimberley (nowhere near Methuen’s camp) are ample proof of this.. Very little was known about typhoid at that time and anti-typhoid inoculations were still in the experimental stage and ineffective. In any event, inoculation was not then a requirement in the British Army, and the chemical sterilization of drinking water in the field almost unknown.

Dr Tooth noted also that the extremely dry, hot, windy and dusty conditions in the Modder River camp, coupled with swarms of flies normal in this area and the unavoidable use of open pit latrines, were all conducive to the spread of infection. The river, nevertheless, was the main source of trouble. He remarked that filtering and boiling the river water had proved impracticable since the available filters became choked with mud and slime within ten minutes, and boiling water over open fires for so many men, and then cooling it in the heat and dust, was almost an impossibility. Other than the river water and the totally inadequate supply of almost equally polluted well-water, there was no water to be had.

As the number of troops at the Modder River camp increased so typhoid spread until, by the time the advance to Kimberley commenced, hospital admissions became an almost daily occurrence. At that stage, however, the outbreak had riot yet reached epidemic proportions. As the normal incubation period for typhoid in a healthy person is between two and three weeks, it seems that the men who succumbed to it at Paardeberg carried the disease from the Modder River Station camp, and then spread it further. There can be no doubt that the spread of the infection received fresh impetus at Paardeherg by use of the Modder River water (the only supply available in sufficient quantity), especially since the British waterpoint initially was perforce downstream from the fetid conditions in Cronjé’s laager where many of the Boers themselves were typhoid carriers and later succumbed to the disease. The Royal Engineers blasted their way through layers of calcrete and rock to sink wells (the ‘Diary of Work of the 7th Field Coy, RE is relevant), but even when they succeeded in finding water there was never enough.

When the advance to Bloemfontein recommenced, Lord Roberts had no alternative but to march along the line of the Modder River, polluted as it was, since it provided the only certain source of water in an otherwise hot and arid country for so large a body of men, horses and draught oxen. Gen Cronjé had intended following the same route for precisely the same reason. When Roberts reached Bloemfontein the town’s normal water supply from the Modder River at Sannaspos, 32 km away, had been cut and the only available water was from wells in the town itself, and both Tooth and the ‘Times History’ noted that most of these were polluted. Nominal supply was soon restored but, after the action at Sannaspos on 31 March, it was again cut during most of April. Recourse had again to be made to the polluted town wells; new wells were sunk but some of these also soon became polluted. The whole problem was intensified by the ordinary British soldier himself, well disciplined as he was, taking an almost perverse delight in drinking water he had been expressly forbidden to touch! Can Lord Roberts be justly condemned out of hand, as he is by the statement that ‘for his failure to regulate the drinking water front the polluted Modder River there can be no defence’?

Turning to the Poplar Glove action it is difficult to accept the unsubstantiated statement that Roberts then ‘knew that the British would never again get an opportunity as they did at Poplar Grove ...‘ All he knew was that the Boers were holding a front almost 38 km (21 miles) in extent, and guessed their strength to be in the region of 14 000 men. A shattering defeat of so large a force (assuming his guess to be correct) would certainly have had a devastating effect on Boer morale, especially after the Paardebemg debacle, but, how was Roberts to know this would be the only opportunity? Can one compare the Brandwater Basin operations some four months later?

Planning and executing an enveloping movement round one flank of the static defensive position at Poplar Grove can hardly be compared tactically with the interception operation carried out by French at Paardeberg where he headed off and brought to bay a long straggling column of moving men, wagons and animals. Yet this comparison is made by saying that Roberts used the same tactics at Poplar Grove as he had at Paardeberg, and this is not true. It is correctly stated that French commenced his 27 km approach march towards the southern flank of the Poplar Grove positions an hour late, and the reason is given by Maurice (Vol II, pp 192, 195). It seems that Roberts must have altered his starting time after French had left his order group the previous afternoon, and nobody had told the cavalry commander of the change. In his diary of 6 March, French noted that he had ordered réveillé for 2 am. next morning, and that his division was to march off an hour later, and that is exactly what it did. On the point of French’s dislike of night marches, there seems to he counter evidence to the effect that he was unpopular in his division because of his preference for them!

French’s halt at Poplar Grove shortly after summrise was to water his horses which, by then, had been ridden for almost four hours. With the prospect of action ahead and some hard riding, he had no option if he expected his animals to last out the morning. As it was, by early afternoon the horses in Broadwoods brigade had been ridden to a standstill and the artillery horses were in no better state. It was unfortunate that the only water in nearly sufficient quantity was found at what turned out to be a near-crucial stage of the battle, and that Broadwood and most of the artillery had been unable to water their horses. In fairness to French it does seem that Roberts had given the Cavalry Division a task beyond the physical capabilities of its horses, and he should have realized this. He nevertheless expressed his satisfaction to French that evening for what the cavalry had achieved (French’s Diary, 8 March 1900).

Mr Gilman poses the purely hypothetical question as to what effect a resounding British victory at Poplar Grove would have had on the outcome of the war and, apart from its doubtful relevance, one must wonder whether the selection of the correspondent of the ‘Morning Post’ (H.F. Prevost Battersby) was the best choice to provide an answer. As a point of interest, in the 29 days between 14 February when the British were at Klip Drift, north of Jacobsdal, and the fall of Bloemfontein on 13 March, Lord Roberts’s troops had marched about 208 km (130 miles) and nowhere near the 1 120 km (700 miles) stated by Mr Gilman. The treacherousness of the terrain is a matter of opinion.

The chronological sequence of events seems to have been reversed in some instances in the third last paragraph of the paper under discussion. Buller certainly dilly-dallied around Ladysmith for some time after the town’s relief, and did nothing till he was finally ordered by Roberts to get moving again. Roberts, however, needed time himself, not only to build up his supplies at Bloemfontein, preparatory to continuing on to Pretoria, but also to pacify the Southern Free State, thus securing his new lines of communication along the Free State railway through Springfontein to Bloemfontein. This task was completed by 1 May only, but he must certainly have hoped that an earlier resumption of active operations in Natal would have drawn off many of the Boer forces he might otherwise have had to encounter en route to Pretoria. Maurice deals with this period in some detail - see his Vol II. pp 261-322, and Vol III, p 38. Editorial comment on Roberts's alleged inability to order Buller into action does not mention that Roberts had been made a Field Marshal on the active list on 25 May 1895, thirteen months before Buller had been made a general. (See Hart’s ‘Army List’ of the period). Why then, does Mr Gilman demote Lord Roberts in the second word of his paper? The quotations from Reitz, Lyttelton and Rawlinson all refer to Buller’s failure to complete his victory at Pieters Hill on 28 February by not pursuing the shattered and retreating Boer forces after that battle, when he finally broke throtmgh time Tugela delences. Buller had earlier, and with some reason, expressed concern over the strength of these positions, but this was before Roberts had even commenced his advance to Kimberley. By the time Bloemfontein was captured the abandoned Tugela defences were well behind Buller, nor, as far as one knows, did he offer them as an excuse for not continuing offensive operations in Natal.

It is unfortunate that Mr Gilman does not appear to have had access to existing copies of many of the original documents, diaries, etc. pertaining to this interesting period of South Africa’s military history. A closer study of a cross-section of some of the histories of the Anglo-Boer War, generally accepted as being authoritatvre, might also have proved profitable. It is a pity too that he appears unacquainted with the geography and general climatic conditions of the area of operations discussed, and particularly as to how the shortage of good water (and inadequate rations for a period) influenced the conduct of the campaign. Finally, is the title of the paper possibly open to argument and, if so, does what has been written cover the subject?

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the McGregor Museum and the Public Library in Kimberley, the Transvaal Archives in Pretoria, and the Public Library in Johannesburg for permitting access to their documents and records in the course of compiling these comments.

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