Anglo-Boer (Transvaal) War

Start Date End Date
1880-12-16 0181-03-14
Conflict at Rustenburg and Potchefstroom
The first shots of the war between Britain and the Transvaal Boers were fired in Potchefstroom on 16 December 1880. Three years previously the local population had accepted British annexation of the Transvaal with apathetic acquiescence. However, many Boers resented their lost independence although Sir Owen Lanyon, the administrator, doggedly insisted that the Boers would never rebel. Britain maintained a military presence in the Transvaal dispersed in small garrisons at Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Rustenburg, Standerton, Lydenburg, Marabastad and Wakkerstroom and a larger army could be brought in from Natal if necessary.  Lanyon believed that these measures were an adequate deterrent to any uprising, but eventually his autocratic colonial government provoked the Boers into open defiance. In December 1880, at a mass meeting at Paardekraal, a Declaration of Independence was drawn up with the intention that this be presented to Lanyon in Pretoria.

 The Boers had no standing army, but at short notice every adult male could be mustered, equipped with his own horse and rifle and provisioned with home-made rations in his saddle-bag. They wore no military regalia and were organized locally into regional commandos under elected officers. Lax discipline and egalitarian decision-making was compensated for by bush craft, marksmanship, equestrian skill and a pious confidence in the justice of their cause. The Boer plan was to immobilize the colonial army in the Transvaal by besieging the garrisons at each outpost, while the majority of the commandos gathered on the border in order to withstand any invasion from Natal. Two of the sieges, Potchefstroom and Rustenburg, took place in what is now the North West Province.

When, on 15 December 1880, a commando of about 500 Boers led by Commandant Piet Cronje brought the hand-written Declaration of Independence from Paardekraal to be printed in Potchefstroom (where there was a printing press) before transmitting it to Lanyon, the local garrison was caught ill prepared. Lieutenant-Colonel Winsloe commanded 200 Royal Scots Fusiliers, 60 wagon drivers and a small artillery squadron with two field guns. When the commando arrived, the garrison occupied a still-incomplete earth-walled fort, while 30 men (including ten prisoners released to assist with the defence) held the town gaol about 300m away. A third contingent tried to defend the Landdrost's office, the seat of colonial government in the town. Before long, the rest of the town was in Boer hands. That evening, sixteen pro-British civilians, including some women and children, sought refuge in the fort. They arrived without supplies or additional clothing expecting the Boers to leave Potchefstroom the following day to deliver the printed Declaration to Lanyon in Pretoria. This did not happen, a siege began, and they were all to be trapped in the fort until early March 1881.
Far from evacuating Potchefstroom, the Boers re-enforced their position and opened a relentless fusillade (except on Sundays) that lasted until the end of the war, more than three and a half months later. After just two days the men holding the Landdrost's office capitulated and were taken prisoner.
Not long afterwards, the position of the defenders of the gaol became untenable, and they joined their comrades in the fort, increasing the total number of soldiers and civilians behind the mud walls to 296.
The fort was a small enclosure of 25m square, with no shelter except a small hospital tent, which was soon shredded, and the defendants were constantly exposed to the weather and incessant sniper fire. Initially, the walls were less than 2m high, but working after dark, the men managed to increase their height slightly, and a small sandbag enclosure was erected to protect the women. As the weeks passed, their suffering intensified. They had dug a well for fresh water, but dysentery spread through the camp, killing soldiers and civilians. The recovery and survival of the growing numbers of sick and wounded was hampered by inadequate rations and constant exposure to heat and rain. By the end of the siege almost a third of all the defendants were incapacitated – 31 dead and 54 wounded.
In the rest of the town the tedium of the siege tested the patience of the Boers and Cronje's frustrations at the refusal of the fort to surrender turned to malice, for which he was later much criticized. For example, he refused to allow sick and dying women to leave the fort. He compelled prisoners-of-war and black employees of British sympathisers to dig trenches under fire from the fort, and several were killed before the garrison realised they were their own people. So determined was Cronje to obtain an unconditional surrender, that he withheld from the garrison the news of the armistice that had been signed after the British defeat at Majuba in Natal. Even after a messenger brought the formal conditions of the armistice, which included the lifting of the siege, he forbade the message to be delivered.
On the ninety-ninth day of the siege with food and ammunition about to be exhausted, Winsloe was obliged to negotiate a truce with Cronje and laid down his arms. 

The investment of Rustenburg by Boer commandos did not begin until 27 December, 11 days after the war began, and Captain Daniel Auchinleck and his small garrison of 72 men and six civilian volunteers were able to prepare their defences more thoroughly. Deep trenches were dug around the fort, which was similar in shape and size to that in Potchefstroom, and explosive mines were laid around its perimeter. Although they defenders of Rustenburg suffered the same privations as those at Potchefstroom, they were not hampered by non-combatant civilians whom the Boers allowed to remain unmolested in the town provided they paid a "war tax". Before the siege began an offer by the BaFokeng chief Magato to assist the garrison was turned down on instructions from Lanyon and Kruger later sent an armed envoy to Magato to ensure his neutrality.
In the course of the siege Auchinlek was repeatedly wounded in the face and legs and at one stage temporarily had to relinquish his command. After a few days, however, he resumed command and, bandaged and half blind, he lead sorties out of the fort to drive the Boers from their forward positions. In January 1881 Marthinus Ras, an enterprising local farmer, constructed a home-made field gun. It failed to have any serious effect and eventually the breech exploded. A second cannon built by Ras was completed for the closing days of the siege, but it was equally ineffectual. Both weapons are today preserved in museums.
Unlike Potchefstroom the Rustenburg garrison learned of the armistice in Natal on 14 March but Sarel Efoff, commandant of the Rustenburg Boers, refused to lift the siege but the defenders remained in good health with only three wounded and on 30 March 1881 Auchinleck led his men undefeated from the fort – a small triumph in otherwise overwhelming British ignominy.    

South Africa's North-West province: A Guide to its History and Heritage. © 2017

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