The Maple Leaf
Vol. 16, Issue 02
The Battle of Paardeberg - Canadian victory in South Africa
Soldiers of the Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry's Second Battalion cross Paardeburg Drift during the Boer War.
Hailed as a great feat of colonial arms at the dawn of the 20th century, the soldiers of 2nd
“Special Service” Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment of Infantry (RCRI) accepted the surrender of over 4,000 battle-hardened Boers at Paardeberg Drift, South Africa, in February 1900.
The British declared war in South Africa for numerous reasons, not least of which was the discovery of rich diamond and gold deposits in the area. Canada, politically torn between ethnic-linguistic lines to support or sit out the conflict, sent over 7,000 soldiers to support British arms in the southern hemisphere.
The warfighting practiced by the Boers challenged 19th century British military doctrine.
The Boers, descendents of 17th century Dutch colonists, outgunned, out-shot and out-manoeuvred the British Army, who viewed their adversaries contemptibly as a rabble.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
The Boers knew the landscape like the back of their hand and used this knowledge to their advantage. They were also supplied the best weapons from their unofficial German government sponsor.
Although the Battle of Paardeberg was Canada’s first victory in an overseas war, less well-known is that of the six RCRI companies engaged in the final attack, panic ripped through the ranks and four companies retreated from the field, leaving their comrades to salvage the situation.
After marching 28 to 32 kilometres per day for a week and during the hottest month of the year – temperatures ranged from 40°C to 50°C – the Canadians suffered the punishing effects of dehydration.
The column arrived at the edge of the Modder River. Entrenched well beyond was General Piet Cronje and his Boer Army and it was at this juncture of the campaign – to take the Boer capital at Bloemfontein - that the Canadians were ordered to attack.
The RCRI came under fire over several kilometres out. To their credit, the Canadians improvised tactics by moving closer to the Boer position through fire and movement. Coming to within 400 metres of the Boers, the Canadians were pinned for the remainder of the day.
The results were appalling. The Boers used their Mauser rifles to great effect, killing 18, wounding 63, and reducing the RCRI’s effective strength by nine percent.
The British and Canadians spent the next eight days skirmishing and entrenching their positions, determined to defeat their enemy through a siege.
Although the Boers were well-armed, they hadn’t planned on defending against a sustained siege. Low morale gripped the Afikan (African) troops, undoubtedly swayed by the presence of their families within their camp.
Sensing an advantage, British Field Marshall Frederick Roberts ordered the assault.
The RCRI formed the leading force with British troops in support. At 2 a.m., the Canadians crept forward. After 45 minutes of unimpeded advance, Boer piquets opened fire and the battle was on. For 15 minutes, a hot exchange between the two opposing forces ensued.
But without warning, four of six assaulting companies fled the field. After the war, soldiers recounted the horrifying experiences of the initial assault and these thoughts gripped their minds in the midst of this final offensive. They returned to the cover of their siege trenches apparently hearing the order “retire and bring back your wounded”. The two remaining companies continued to fire sporadically, deceiving their enemy as to the true nature of the Canadian retreat.
As the guns fell silent, the Boers crept out of their trenches to investigate. They were met by the combined fire of the two remaining companies. By sun-up, the Boers waved the white flag surrendering to the Canadians.
Heroes of the Empire
In an instant, a legend was born. When the British commanders lauded the Canadians as the heroes of the Empire, the soldiers participating in the fight were somewhat embarrassed by the headlines.
Yet Paardeberg was the first British victory in the Boer War. And the Canadians’ role in the victory was immediately seized by the British who used it as a tool for greater imperial involvement in South Africa.
Although Paardeberg opened the road to a conventional surrender of the Boers later that spring, some Boer military leaders in the field chose to wage war in a strung-out partisan insurgency. It was a bitter period in British and Canadian military history.
But at the end of February 1900, Canadians and the British Empire exulted in the RCRI’s victory at Paardeberg.