Francis Parsons and The Battle of Paardeberg in the Boer War

Left: Captured guns after the battle. Right: Major-General Sir John French
Left: Captured guns after the battle. Right: Major-General Sir John French

Francis Newton Parsons risked everything to help the wounded and displayed courage above and beyond the call of duty on numerous occasions during his army career.

After attending Sandhurst, Parsons was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Essex Regiment of the British Army in 1896. He served during the Second Boer War and won his Victoria Cross in 1900. He died far too young, in the line of duty, at the tender age of 24.

Parsons had been sent to South Africa to fight the combined armies of the South African Republic and the Orange Free State.

The Battle of Paardeberg was fought near Paardeberg Drift, on the banks of the Modder River.

Boer forces had Kimberley under siege because it was an important diamond mining center and was seen as a relatively soft target. The Afrikaaners surrounded the town, but they did not attempt an assault on it straight away. The hesitation allowed Lieutenant General Lord Methuen, in command of the British forces, the opportunity to reinforce the settlement.

The lead up to the battle was interesting from a tactical standpoint. One of the initial engagements of the war had taken place a year earlier: the Battle of Modder River. Instead of occupying the high ground, as they usually did, Boer General Koos de la Rey directed his men to dig trenches on the south side of the Modder and Riet Rivers.

The tactic had halted the British and eventually led to their defeat at the Battle of Magersfontein; a defeat the British forces were keen to avenge.

The Boers left their laager, an improvised camp, at Jacobsdal as they were in danger of becoming besieged themselves. Another Boer General, Cronje, marched them back towards the Modder fords.

However, it was not easy as the British 6th Division harried them along the way. They reached the crossing at Paardeberg Drift before a contingent of 1,500 British mounted troops caught up with them.

The South African general formed another laager and dug in on the banks of the river. It was a decision that left historians scratching their heads. Boer forces under Christiaan De Wet were only 30 miles away to the south, while Chief Commandant Ignatius S. Ferreira was about the same distance to the north.

Pontoon bridge built by the British over the Modder River in 1899;
Pontoon bridge built by the British over the Modder River in 1899;

Cronje could have escaped the British as they had inadequate cavalry, but then the British made a similarly bad decision. Despite possessing 15,000 men and enough artillery to destroy the Afrikaans forces, Lieutenant General Herbert Kitchener ordered the troops to make a series of frontal assaults against the laager. They were cut down like flies. Not a single British soldier got within 200 yards of the Boer lines.

On the morning of February 18, on the south side of the Modder River, a British soldier was wounded and fell to the ground in an area devoid of cover. As he tried to crawl towards cover, he was hit again by the Boer sharpshooters.

Without thinking about his own safety, Parsons rushed to Private Ferguson’s side and dressed his wounds. He twice went to the river to fetch water for the injured soldier and then carried him to safety, all under heavy fire.

The Boer General Piet Cronje surrenders to the British after the Battle of Paardeberg;
The Boer General Piet Cronje surrenders to the British after the Battle of Paardeberg;

The Boers were men who had grown up shooting and riding for their very existence. They were incredibly skilled marksmen. It is a wonderful testament to Parsons’ courage that he underwent such an ordeal to save a fellow soldier’s life.

Unfortunately for Kitchener, the rest of the battle did not go as well as Parsons’ feat of heroism. After one day of combat, 24 officers and 279 men lay dead on the field. 59 officers and 847 had sustained wounds. The day became known as Bloody Sunday.

Not only that, but Kitchener allowed the hill to their southeast to be taken by De Wet, which changed the strategic position of the battle entirely. However, the Boers could not exploit their advantage.

Fearing British reinforcements, De Wet withdrew his men. Cronje refused to abandon his laager, which finally became subject to heavy bombardment. After Canadian forces advanced at night and took the Boer commander by surprise, he surrendered with over 4,000 men and 50 women. It was 10% of the Boer’s whole army.

Parsons was killed in action on March 10 in Dreifontein, during a course of action in which he again displayed conspicuous gallantry.

Russell Hughes

Russell Hughes is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE