Lord Roberts had spent the week following the mass Boer surrender at Paardeberg reorganizing. His horses had been in a shocking state and the rapid advance had outrun his supply chain. By 7 March 1900, however, he was on the move again. General de Wet commanded a Boer force reckoned to be in the region of 14,000 men with 20 guns holding blocking positions in the area of Poplar Grove, perhaps forty miles from Kimberley and fifty miles west of Bloemfontein. The positions were in a run of kopjes on either side of the Modder River, extending perhaps 25 miles in all.[i]
Roberts’ plan for engaging these defences was simple but, given the state of French’s Cavalry Division, overly ambitious. Seeking to repeat the trick which had isolated Cronje at Paardeberg, French’s horsemen would push round to the republican left in a wide arc, cutting off their retreat as the infantry divisions assaulted them frontally.[ii] Though French had received remounts which brought his number of horses up to 5,655, many were of poor quality, others were sick, and there was also a general shortage of fodder. French declared that his division was ‘quite inadequate for the purpose’[iii] but did his best in any case. However good the British cavalry horses had been, it is doubtful that the trap could have worked. French set off at 3am on the 7th, reaching Kalkfontein farm by 7am.
At the first sign of Imperial troops, however, de Wet’s Boers began to abandon the Poplar Grove position and, by 7:30, his disordered men were streaming away toward Bloemfontein. President Kruger, on a morale-boosting visit to the front, joined the panic-stricken retreat in his Cape cart,[iv] rather unsportingly giving orders to his escorting ZARPs to shoot the horses of any burghers who tried to follow his flight.[v] Talk about leading by example. The appearance of French’s cavalry on their flank had terrified the Boers, and in their haste to get away, they abandoned large quantities of ammunition, cooking utensils, food, and tents.[vi] As one reporter put it:
‘De Wet had been for at least ten days preparing the position from which he was ready to defy the whole British Army. He had, in fact, abandoned it on the mere approach of the Cavalry Division; he had not only abandoned it, but had only narrowly escaped from it with his guns and his transport wagons, and these last got off at the expense of a considerable portion of their loads, and only by the devoted bravery of a small part of his force.’[vii]
Unfortunately French’s cavalry was in no shape to effectively pursue the fleeing republicans, and the day saw only small skirmishes here and there, with losses on both sides of only about fifty.
Wars are not won by retreating though; de Wet desperately tried to rally his demoralized forces for a last stand before Bloemfontein. At Abram’s Kraal, some 35 miles from the capital, de Wet, de la Rey, and Kruger himself tried to stop the rout. In scenes which are glossed over by most modern histories, witnesses recalled that Kruger was almost frantic as he moved among the fleeing Boers: ‘he lifted his heavy stick against the fugitives whom no one seemed able to check; at last he ordered the ZARPs to shoot anyone who attempted to flee.’ It was to no avail though; the ZARPs would not shoot and the retreat continued in a cloud of dust.[viii] Some were made of sterner stuff, however, and de Wet managed to establish a defensive line on three kopjes, the central one being on a farm called Driefontein, while one flank rested on the Modder River.[ix] His forces had been reinforced by a commando under his brother Piet de Wet, and some 1,000 ZARPs under de la Rey.
On Steyn’s orders, de Wet rode back to Bloemfontein to assist in preparing the capital for defence, while the 9th was spent siting entrenchments and organizing the forces there.[x] Some have attempted to explain away the fact that the republicans didn’t force the British to fight for their capitals because towns were meaningless to the Boers as they had already cleverly decided on a course of guerrilla warfare. Steyn’s and de Wet’s frantic attempts to fortify Bloemfontein give a lie to this self-serving claim.
De Wet returned to the Driefontein position on the morning of the 10th to find his troops in a state of complete disorder. Of the 380-strong Ladybrand Commando, 265 had simply gone home, while another unit of 163 had only 17 men left at the front. The Boer army was disintegrating before de Wet’s eyes. Nevertheless, the timely arrival of his brother’s commando and the ZARPs still allowed the position to be held in some strength, and de la Rey had been busy in de Wet’s absence. Federal artillery consisted of two Krupp 75mm guns and a pair of 15-pounders, the latter being two of the guns captured at Colenso three months earlier.[xi]
Elements of the Cavalry Division encountered the Driefontein defences early on the 10th and alerted the 6th Infantry Division. The British had not fallen into the trap of frontally assaulting the position, and finding the cavalry working around his flank, de Wet was forced to hurriedly redeploy his force to counter this threat. At about midday the 18th Brigade launched their attack, taking their objectives with ease as the Boers had fallen back. At 2pm, the infantry assaulted the main republican positions, with the men of the Essex Regiment driving the burghers before them at bayonet point. De Wet wrote bitterly of his men that ‘once more panic seized them; leaving their positions, they retreated towards Bloemfontein, now again only a disorderly crowd of terrified men blindly flying before the enemy’.
Total British casualties at Driefontein were 438, including 87 killed. Predictably enough, the official federal casualty figures were typically implausible: just seven killed, apparently. Despite the republican propaganda machine’s usual poppycock (poppycock which is eagerly lapped up by modern-day True Believers), a war correspondent who had been there throughout the battle recorded a very different story:
‘…the Boer loss was heavier than either side had (so far as was known) suffered up to that date. We buried 170 Boers on the two ridges, and 42 were later found and buried on the nek where our guns had caught them in retirement. Our loss in actual killed at Magersfontein amounted to 171, at Colenso to 135.’[xii]
A neighbouring farmer would later claim that a ‘great number’ of Boers had also been left unburied.[xiii] Despite what the correspondent claimed, it would seem likely that the British lost more men at Spion Kop, but either way, de Wet’s defeat at Driefontein was a very heavy one.
With de Wet’s force thus shattered, the way to Bloemfontein was open and Roberts made his formal entry into the capital of the Orange Free State on 13 March. Despite the defence plans of de Wet and Steyn, nothing could stop the fleeing burghers and no attempt was made to defend the city. Unlike the Imperial troops who stoically endured months of siege to defend villages like Mafeking and Kuruman, thousands of Boers kept on trekking, passing through Bloemfontein in their desperation to escape. Steyn himself had fled on the 12th, setting up a new capital in Kroonstad. Rather than facing house-to-house fighting, or weeks of siege warfare therefore, the Imperial forces marched through streets decorated with bunting and were greeted by cheering crowds.[xiv]
Needless to say, the Battle of Driefontein is hardly known, however – the reason for this collective amnesia is, of course, that it was a proper thrashing in which the much lauded De Wet was thumped, and thus didn’t fit into the way the Apartheid regime wanted to portray the war… and indeed how many, even today, are desperate to portray the war.
[i] Selby, p. 187
[ii]Holmes, p. 97
[iii]Ibid, p. 98
[iv] Selby, p. 187
[v] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 106
[vi]Maurice & Grant Vol. 2, p. 201
[vii] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 108
[viii] Selby, p. 188
[ix]Maurice & Grant, Vol. 2, p. 209
[x]Ibid, p. 210
[xi]Ibid, p. 211
[xii] Maydon, French’s Cavalry Campaign, p. 112
[xiii]Maurice & Grant, Vol. 2, p. 229
[xiv] Selby, p. 188