Hart's River (Boschbult)
31 March 1902
By late March 1902, the character of the war had changed dramatically. The British had sectioned off large portions of the veldt with long lengths of barbed wire strung along railway lines, connected by as many as 8000 specially-built blockhouses. More than 23,656 square kilometres of the Transvaal and 27,358 square kilometres of the Orange Free State had been thus enclosed. Some 50,000 troops manned these lines, while another 80,000, all mounted, pursued the Boers, attempting to trap them against the blockhouse lines. There were, however, a number of gaps in the network of blockhouses. One of these was the desert-like western Transvaal, an area half the size of New Brunswick.
The 900-strong 2nd Regiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles had arrived in the region in mid-March 1902, and already had taken part in a major offensive involving 16,000 troops. The operation drove 2500 Boers into the desolate far western reaches of the Transvaal. The British were soon on their trail again. Early on the morning of 3 March, a column that included the 2nd Regiment embarked on a 65-kilometre search for Boers along the bed of the practically dry Brak Spruit, which ran off the much larger Harts River. By mid-morning, the scouts had struck a fresh trail, apparently made by a small number of Boers.
Sensing an easy victory, the column went off in pursuit, leaving the 2nd Regiment to follow, escorting the slow-moving baggage train. Prospects seemed good, but the Boers, in fact, outnumbered the British force, and had the advantage of terrain. The British commander decided to set up a defensive position around a farm called Boschbult. By the time the Canadians arrived with the baggage train, the Boers were beginning to push back the British defences.
All during the afternoon the Boers shelled the camp with artillery, while their riflemen on the surrounding ridges poured down a steady fire. They also made a series of mounted charges during one of which a party of 21 Canadians, under Lieutenant Bruce Carruthers, was cut off by a vastly superior force. Rather than surrender or run, the men fought until their ammunition was exhausted and their position was overrun. 18 of the 22 were killed or wounded. At 5:00 p.m. the Boers suddenly broke off the engagement and withdrew.
The battle was a British defeat. Out of a total force of 1800 men, the British lost 33 killed, 126 wounded, and over 70 missing. Canadian casualties were 13 killed and 40 wounded. With the exception of the first engagement at Paardeberg, on 18 February 1900, Harts River was the bloodiest day of the war for Canada.