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A Handbook of the Boer War

Cronje's laager at Vendutie Drift


After

sunset Cronje broke up his camp at Klip Kraal Drift and trekked along the right bank. At midnight he passed half of his transport over to the left bank at Paardeberg Drift, himself going on to Vendutie Drift, where the remainder, with the women and children against whose presence in camp De Wet had vainly protested, joined him next morning.

So far he had done well, and even when his rearguard at Paardeberg was fired on by an advanced brigade of mounted infantry which had been pushed on by Kitchener, he did not lose confidence; although he was surprised that the British, "who could not march," had overtaken him.

To De Wet and especially to Ferreira, whom he knew to be not far off, he looked for help, and even without them he believed that he would be able to cross Vendutie Drift.

Ferreira was indeed not far off, but an obstacle suddenly sprang up between him and Cronje, and the aspect of it was so alarming that he withdrew in the opposite direction. The obstacle was French's attenuated Cavalry Division which, in obedience to Kitchener's summons, had left Kimberley before sunrise that morning, and after a march of twenty-six miles had reached the spot indicated by Kitchener for the heading of Cronje. As the Boer wagons were about to cross Vendutie Drift the shells of French's Horse Artillery began to fall upon them. The convoy was thrown into confusion, the oxen stampeded, Cronje

was entangled and bewildered, and but for the gallant exertions of some foreign officers in the service of the Boers a fatal panic might have ensued. The advance guard under De Beer was reinforced from the main laager, and a demonstration made against the left flank of the cavalry; and although French held on, his position remained insecure and even precarious until the arrival of the infantry on the following morning. With a handful of tired, hungry, and unsupported horsemen he not only frightened Ferreira, whose force outnumbered his own, off the field, but also paralysed and prepared for destruction the army which had beaten Methuen and had held Magersfontein for two months.

[Illustration: Paardeberg.]

Next day, February 18, at 3 a.m. began the ten days' operations to which the name of the Battle of Paardeberg has been somewhat inaccurately given. Paardeberg is a prominent hill on the right bank of the Modder, four miles W.S.W. of the battle centre, Cronje's laager at Vendutie Drift, and lies on the extreme edge of the elliptical arena on which the battle was fought. It seems to have been chosen as the official word because the hill was the only distinctive physical feature shown on the banks of the river in the incomplete surveys of the time, and because the alternative would have been Stinkfontein, a farm near the field of battle. The Battle of Vendutie Drift would have been a more correct term.

The Modder forms the major axis of the ellipse, which it enters near Koodoos Drift and leaves at Paardeberg Drift, and like most South African rivers runs in a deep channel between banks intersected by the tributary dongas which the rains have scored in the soft soil, and which afford almost the only shelter from artillery fire. The whole area is commanded by the surrounding kopjes and ridges.

Cronje, though urged to break out of his laager on the night of February 17, refused to move. It is probable that he might have effected his escape if he had abandoned his transport. An active force led by a determined man could have wriggled out under cover of the night, and joined one or other of the commandos which were known to be hovering. Cronje was in communication with Ferreira; he had sent to Bloemfontein for help; and De Wet was known to be on his way from Koffyfontein. But instead of making an effort to save himself he fatally trusted to relief from outside. He did not realize that Vendutie Drift was not a Magersfontein which he could hold indefinitely, or that during the last few weeks the British Army had been greatly increased. One result of his obstinacy was the desertion of several hundred Free Staters, who had not served very willingly under the leadership of a Transvaaler. Most of them returned to their homes.


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