The Great Flank March to Bloemfontein, 11 February-13 March 1900

1900 saw a new British commander arrive in South Africa. On 10 January 1900 Field Marshal Lord Roberts had landed at Cape Town. He had been appointed to replace Sir Redvers Buller in the aftermath of “Black Week”, a period that saw three major British defeat in six days. Since then the situation had hardly changed. Buller was still stuck in southern Natal, Kimberley and Ladysmith were still besieged.

Roberts arrived in South Africa with a plan. Some time before the Boer War had even started he had developed a plan for an attack on the Orange Free State from the vicinity of Mafeking. After the events of 1899 he had moved the starting point south to Colesberg. This was the basically the same plan that Buller had hoped to implement on his arrival.

Once in South Africa Roberts realised that he would have to relieve Kimberley. While the town itself was of little importance, it did contain Cecil Rhodes, one of the richest men in the world, and very aware of his own importance. Even from besieged Kimberley he still had considerable influence.

Roberts altered his plan to combine the attack on the Orange Free State and the relief of Kimberley. He concentrated as much of the army as possible on the Modder River, where the last attempt to relieve Kimberley had ground to a halt. The Boer commander at Magersfontein, Piet Cronjé, facing Roberts's new army, remained convinced that no British commander would risk leaving the railway, and that Roberts intended to make a frontal assault on the increasingly strong Boer lines at Magersfontein. He was entirely wrong.

Roberts intended to march south east, cross the Riet River, and then turn east to march across the veld to Bloemfontein. While his infantry was marching east, the cavalry would turn north, cross the Modder River twenty miles east of the main Boer position and dash into Kimberley. Roberts expected Cronjé to abandon the Modder River position and rush east in an attempt to defend Bloemfontein, or risk being cut off.

The plan began well. On 11 February the cavalry Division under Sir John French left the camps on the Modder River. The next day they crossed the Riet River, and the following day the Modder. After resting for a day on 14 February, while an infantry division caught up with them, they then swept through a gap in a Boer line north of the river. That evening French entered Kimberley, and the siege was over.  

This left Cronjé in a very vulnerable position. All of his preparations had been made on the assumption that the British would attack along the railway. It took him most of the day on 15 February to decide what to do. When he finally issued orders, it was for a move east back towards Bloemfontein. Even now he was not aware that the Orange Free State capital was Roberts’s true target.

This move put Cronjé’s men in great danger. Their move east was detected by the British on 16 February, and French ordered to intercept them. The next morning Cronjé camped on the north bank of the Modder River at Paardeberg. At about midday the camp was surprised by French. By this point the British cavalry was only 1,200 strong, but the Boers failed to take advantage of this, and allowed themselves to be pinned down while British reinforcements were rushed up from the south.

Lord Roberts was temporarily out of the picture with a chill. On 18 February his chief of staff, Major-general Lord Kitchener, took command, and ordered a frontal assault on the Boer positions. The attack was badly handled by Kitchener and ended in a heavy defeat. British losses were 320 dead and 942 wounded, the highest suffered on any single day during the war.

The disaster forced Roberts from his sickbed. On 19 February he took personal command at Paardeberg. He decided not to risk another frontal assault and instead embarked on an artillery bombardment. Conditions within the Boer camp were terrible, but still Cronjé refused to surrender. De Wet made a brave attempt to come to Cronjé’s aid, but all he could really do was sit outside the British lines and avoid capture. Finally, on the morning of 27 February, with the British getting closer and closer to his lines, Cronjé and 4,000 burghers surrendered to Roberts.

The sudden collapse of the Boer position around Kimberley, combined with the surrender at Paardeberg, took the heart out of Boer resistance in the Orange Free State, at least for a short period. A new defensive line was formed at Poplar Grove, under Christiaan De Wet, but when Roberts launched an attack on that position on 7 March the Boers simply turned and fled.

The British encountered more determined resistance at Driefontein on 10 March. De Wet had been joined by De La Ray. They had a force of at most 1,500 men, but managed to hold off an attack by three British columns for most of the day. Only when darkness fell did panic sweep the Boer lines once again, and the position was abandoned.

Bloemfontein was now open to capture. The Boer leaders were determined to fight for their capital, but their men ignored them and continued to retreat. On 13 March the Orange Free State capital surrendered to the British. That afternoon Lord Roberts made a formal entrance into Bloemfontein. After all the embarrassments and defeats of 1899, Lord Roberts had achieved his first main objective in just over a month. To many in Britain it looked as if the entire war would soon be over.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (2 March 2007), The Great Flank March to Bloemfontein, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_great_flank_march.html

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