The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Published on the Website of the South African Military History Society in the interest of research into military history

The Siege of Potchefstroom

A Military Episode of the 1880-1881 War

(By the late Colonel R. W. C. WINSLOE, C.B.)


SINCE publication in serial form was commenced in the Potchefstroom Herald of "The Siege of Potchefstroom," many requests have been made for the printing of the late Colonel Winsloe' s thrilling story as a booklet-hence this record of the historic event in which British troops played such a heroic part As a military feat the episode merits a high place in the annals of South Africa - it stirs the imagination and calls up feelings of justifiable pride in the pluck and perseverance of those gallant men, who for three long months endured great privations, in pursuance of their determination at all costs to uphold the honour of the Flag and the highest traditions of the British Army. There have been few more splendid incidents in the history of the Transvaal. and this little booklet is issued in the hope that it will assist in making the episode more widely known among those who admire heroism and chivalry. Colonel Winsloe and many of the soldiers who fought with him have gone to their rest; but visitors to Potchcfstroom will do well to inspect the scene of their Siege activities and pay tribute at the Memorial to the noble dead.


The cover of the booklet

In December, 1880, my regiment was quartered at Pretoria, the Capital of the Transvaal, and seat of Government. At this time we were beginning to speculate on the probability of an early move towards the sea-coast, to which officers and men were looking forward with a degree of pleasure only known to those who had done little else but march about from place to place since their arrival in the country early in the year before.

Late on the afternoon of the 9th December, 1880, in the course of my evening ride, I went into Government House, Pretoria, to pay a visit to Sir Owen Lanyon, the Administrator, when almost the first words His Excellency addressed to me were "Have you seen Bellairs?" Colonel BelIair's, the late Sir 'William Bellairs, C.B., K.C.M.G" was then in command of the troops in the Transvaal. I had not seen Bellairs, but presently that officer came forward, and I soon learned that I was to go to Potchefstroom at once to relieve the officer in command there, who, being the senior officer of the Royal Artillery in South Africa, was required to rejoin headquarters, Pretoria. "When will you be ready?" was the first question. Now was the long-looked-for opportunity come after many years' service, and I answered readily enough "Within a couple of hours, if you wish it!" It was settled that I was to start the next day, and I set off at once to the Commissariat to make arrangements about the conveyance.


The officers in my regiment were unanimous in congratulating me on my good fortune, for an independent command does not often come in the way of us soldiers, and when it does so, is always duly appreciated. It was known that there had been a dispute about the payment of taxes at Potchefstroom, or something of the sort, and there seemed at least a chance of a break in the monotony at Pretoria.

Next morning I left in a buck-wagon drawn by 12 mules, and did the distance, 100 miles, in 48 hours, over a baddish road, with several rivers to cross. During the first night I slept in my wagon, having out-spanned, to rest the animals: but the second was passed in my tent, which proyed pleasanter in all ways.

That stirring events were on the tapis we had little idea. Those in authority alone knew how affairs were progressing, and we soldiers were only anxious to obey orders and keep up the good name our regiment had won in the Zulu and Secocoeni campaigns. A Field Force consisting of two guns and the "N" Battery, 5th Brigade, Royal Artillery; 25 Mounted Infantry of the Royal Scots Fusiliers; 2 Companies of the same regiment; and proportion of the Commissariat and the Medical Staff were already at Potchefstroom, under the command of Major Thornhill, Royal Artillery, and this I was destined to join, relieving the last-named officer. The strength of the force, excluding followers, was 213 all ranks.

The prevailing idea of the hospitable inhabitants I met on the road appeared to be wonderment that I had not been stopped en route, as many parties of armed Boers were at the time on their way to a meeting which was to be held not far off. The place of this meeting was Paardekraal, just about where Johannesburg now stands. "So they let you go," said a man in a "Spider" (American Gig), "They" being an armed party that had just passed. I might have out-spanned at the time, a bit off the road, for I never saw this party, nor did I see any along the road.


I arrived at Potchefstroom early on the afternoon of Sunday, 12th December, 1880, and found that my coming was unexpected; and, of course, all hands were anxious to hear news from Pretoria. I was expected to be the bearer of important secrets of State, to be divulged without delay for the public benefit, and great was the disappointment when I had to confess that I knew as little as they did. My first thought was to look about me and see how the camp was placed with regard to offence or defence as the case might be. A Fort 30 yards square had been commenced, but had made little progress; and I saw that the water-furrow could not long be held with the force at hand, so we set to work at a well which had been commenced, and also at the Fort, which at that time was little more than a shelter trench. This was continued with little interval, on the three following days. The Fort afterwards, for the purpose of defence, came to be reduced to 23 yards square. It should be mentioned that at this time I was indebted for advice to Major M. J. Clark, Royal Artillery, who had been sent to Potchefstroom by the Administrator as special Commissioner.

During this time attempt was made to raise volunteers in the town, but with little success, owing to the unwillingness of the inhabitants, some of whom fearing to lose their Boer customers, and others having no sympathy with the British. Our camp was pitched round an entrenchment, and the horses, mules, and oxen were in a small laager at some little distance.


After dinner we went down the town, to the house of our kind friend, the Consul-General for Portugal, the Chevalier Forssman. This gentleman was a member of the Legislative Assembly which sat at Pretoria, and there we had made the acquaintance of himself and family. Friends dropped in and there was much talk of the coming of the Boers and what was going to happen. The gentlemen were all of opinion that there would be fighting ere long, but we placed no credit to this. The ladies of the family sang to us, and we walked on tho stoep (a sort of verandah without a roof) in the moonlight, and arranged to have a ball in two nights' time in a vacant house close by. Our thoughts were, I am bound to say, a good deal attracted towards the way to amuse our fair friends at Potchefstroom. All things promised well, to our minds, for a pleasant sojourn in the ancient capital of the Transvaal. The town covers a good deal of ground, most houses of the rich inhabitants standing on their own grounds of about 200 yards square. These are mostly thickly studded with fruit trees. Flowers are abandoned, but the hedges of cluster-roses are everywhere to be seen in this, one of the most beautiful parts of the Transvaal.

On the 13th and 14th nothing unusual was observable in the town. We went about our ordinary military duties, and in the evening some of us again went to town, and spent the evening with our friends dancing and walking on the stoep by turns, while the voices of others could be heard singing inside.


On the 15th my predecessor in command was about to take his seat in the post-cart, en route toPretoria, when he caught sight of the Boers entering the town, armed and in force. He was seen coming back to the Fort at full gallop, and we at once knew it was to warn us; so in a very few minutes tents were struck, horses in the ditch, guns roady for action, and the parapet manned. Garrisons were sent to the Landdrost's office and to the Jail, which places previous to my arrival had been Ordered by the Administration to be occupied by the troops in case of necessity. In the evening the family of the Consul-General for Portugal, the District Surgeon and his wife, and several others sought refuge in the camp.

We heard that the Boers had determined to take possession of their Old Capital on the 16th December, Dingaan's Day, the anniversary of their victory over the Zulu King, Dingaan, and we now began to believe it. During the remainder of the day the Boers contended [sic] themselves with patrolling the streets, taking possession of the printing offices, and stopping people who were about; and we thought that after issuing a proclamation they would leave the place. The military were not allowed to act in any way, so we remained in our lines getting things generally in order, and luckily, as it turned out, we made good use of our time.

ON THE 16th

On the 16th our position was as follows: The enemy held the town, with its lines of walls, while we held the Fort, the Jail and the Landdrost's office. The guns were in shallow gun-pits about 2 feet deep at the north-east corner of the Fort facing the Cemetery, which was distant about three hundred yards, was open veId, sloping from the former to the latter, and crossed by a waterfurrow about 150 yards from the Fort. Between the Jail and the Landdrost's Office, a distance of about 300 yards, the place was intersected by walls and hedgerows; and the latter was by no means a nice place to retreat from. We all knew it was not an advisable place to occupy, but I felt bound by the orders of superior authority; and there was no time for remonstrance. The Jail itself was a square building, with walls 20 feet high, standing in comparatively open ground. The Landdrost's office was, on the contrary, surrounded by walls, and houses of thatched roofs. In position therefore, the enemy had every advantage.

The Troops still had no authority to act, and we wondered what was to come next. About 9 a.m. we were breakfasting, sitting on the grass in little groups outside the Fort, tents struck, guns ready for action, the Mounted Infantry's horses saddled, and all ready for anything that might turn up, when a mounted party of 10 Boers, with their rifles at the "carry," came slowly riding past us, at about 150 yards distance. Evidently the intention was to survey our proceedings. This was going a bit too far, so a few Mounted Infantry was sent to inform them that a patrol was not permitted so close to our camp, and to enquire their business.


On seeing our Mounted Infantry approach, the Boers turned their horses and rode away at a trot. The Mounted Infantry followed as far as the first road, which entered the town, when they were fired upon from behind a wall close by. About a dozen shots wore fired, when the Officer commanding the Mounted Infantry dismounted some of his men and returned the fire, with the result of severely wounding one of the enemy's patrol. The "Retire" was immediately sounded, and we got within our entrenchments. The two nine-pounders were hastily surrounded with a few mealie sacks, and a few of the same were placed round the ditch to protect the horses. The ladies were protected in the same way, and we awaited the next turn in eyents. We were not kept long in suspense, for shortly afterwards the Boers entered the Market Square in force, and fired upon the garrison of the Landdrost's office, which was situated in the square. Tho attack now became general, the enemy opening fire from the line of walls, and throwing out a right and left attack on our position. The head of the right attack got behind the walls of the Cemetery, but was soon driven back by the fire of our guns. This broke up the attack of the main body, which retired towards the northern end of the town. Quickly we went to work and, with the Jail, which was about half way between the Fort and the Landdrost's office, were soon hotly engaged with the rebels, who occupied the neighbouring gardens and houses. They came well out into the open and attacked the Fort, but apparently our fire was too much for them, for after about 20 minutes they retired, repulsed on all sides, and having lost a good number of men and horses. Cronje, their leader, who we were afterwards informed, had two horses killed under him, was afterwards well-known to us as General Cronje, commanding the Burgher Forces, Traansvaal Division. Divided counsels evidently prevailed in the enemy's ranks, for had they attacked with anything like determination, we should have had our work out for us, the guns being almost entirely in the open had a specially bad time of it. But such soldiers as those of No. 5, Royal Artillery, to all appearances, cared little for bullets, and only made an inward vow not to be made targets of again if pick and spade could prevent it.


The strength of the enemy on this occasion was about 800 mounted men. Afterwards on the 1st of January, their numbers increased to about 1,400, and towards the end, when reinforcements were sent to Laing's Nek, they never fell below 400. They were exceedingly well armed; generally with the best West-Richards rifle, the favourite arm amongst the Boers. Many had Double-Express rifles, and a few carried explosive bullets, about the using of which protest was made without effect. One of our men had the flesh blown from his arm by one of these shells, and their explosions were frequently heard at night. During the greater part of this, the first day of active hostilities, heavy fire was going on throughout the position generally, and we worked all day and night, and for many nights after, in strengthening our defence. In the end the Fort became a really strong work, as indeed the searching and accurate character of the enemy's fire required it to be. Every night during the whole of the siege of 95 days we worked at the parapet, as the heavy rains often brought down the work of the day before. Sandbags got rotten, and the enemy's fire, combined with this, sometimes brought them down with a run, and we had to wait until darkness set in before we could repair the damage. This night-work was very risky, as the enemy fired with wonderful accuracy in the darkness. They were able to come quite close to us without being observed, as the grass stood always very high. The mealies in the cattle fields had towards the end grown quite ten feet high, and this was inconvenient for us. During the early part of the siege, while the parapet was still low, moving about was anything but pleasant, and the artillery was kept fully employed in clearing the enemy out of the trees with shrapnel, and from the house-tops, where they never ceased to establish themselves. One gentleman, who was well-known to us, and whose house was carefully marked, had all his crockery smashed, and some of his best drawing-room furniture destroyed. That taught him a lesson, and he retired from his dwelling for the remainder of the siege. We had the pleasure of meeting him at dinner before we left Potchefstroom. On the 16th December twenty-one women and children and five men came to us and asked for protection, which was given them.

On the 17th firing was going on from all the positions most of the day.


On the morning of the 18th, communications which had been established with the Landdrost's office by flag signal was stopped and we got no news of what was going on there. About 10 a.m. to the surprise of everyone, the Union Jack was seen to be hauled down from the top of the Landdrost's office, and a white flag appeared in its place. Many were the speculations as to the cause. Few guessed the real one, viz., that the officer in command had been forced to surrender. A letter brought by a flag-of-truce informed us that the garrison had surrendered unconditionally to the enemy, the position, never a good one, having become untenable. We learned before this, by flag signal, that Captain A. L. Falls, of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, in command of the Landdrost's office garrison, had been killed, and some others wounded. We sympathised much with the officer in command that he had been compelled to give up the post he so well defended. We replied to this letter that the surrender of the Landdrost's office garrison did not concern the other positions held by His Majesty's troops, and arranged a truce until 4 p.m. for the carrying out of the retirement. During this time we worked like fiends in strengthening our Fort, and well it was we did so, for shortly before the hour named the enemy opened a tremendous fire while the White Flag was still flying, with the result of severely wounding one of our men at the Jail. This act of treachery on the part of the enemy had no excuse, and had a bad effect on our men. It was now decided to abandon the Jail, and the officer in command there received orders during the afternoon, by flag signal, to retire on the Fort on seeing a lantern on the parapet. This was shown after dark, and the garrison noiselessly retired in skirmishing order, carrying their wounded on stretchers made with rifles. Evidently the Boers did not anticipate this move, and it is strange to us that it was not observed, for the place was closely invested on three sides. The casualties at the Jail were one man killed and three wounded. We were glad to have our comrades back, as they had a bad time of it. We knew the place could not have held out much longer. The upper walls were made of sun-dried bricks, through which bullets penetrated with ease. The lower loopholes could hardly be used with effect, since the Boers fired with the greatest accuracy through them at the short range.


Our water supply now became a source of considerable anxiety; we suffered greatly from want of water at this time, especially the private soldiers, who, being hard worked, required most. Three pints a man a day for all purposes was the allowance. And only those who have been reduced to this quantity can realise how little it is for men who were working hard day and night. As I said before, we had commenced digging a well, and none of us will ever forget how anxiously we watched the work as it progressed. We sank to a depth of 30 feet, sixteen of this through rock, and yet the yield was absolutely nothing - only a nine-gallon cask each night, and this more than half thick mud. For three nights we managed to water our horses and mules and fill our water-carts by sending them to the fountain-head, above the place where the water had been cut off the day before. Our procedure was something like the following:- The water-carts started from the rear of the Fort after dark, attended by a small escort of 25 mounted infantry, and 30 soldiers went as a covering party, the remainder of the garrison standing every man in his place on the parapet, and the artillery at their guns. On the return of the water-carts, the horses went out, about one-third at a time. Some of the horses were watered at the water-furrow, before it was cut off, but on each occasion we lost some of them, and also had some men wounded. It will be understood that at this time the place was not closely invested. It was an anxious time for us, however, while these parties were away at a distance of 1,200 yards. As the operation had to be repeated several times, it took the greater part of the night. The rumblings of the water-carts could plainly be heard by us on the parapet, and also, no doubt, by the enemy. It seemed strange to us that they did not seize the water at the fountain-head, which they could easily have done. It soon became apparent that this operation could no longer be performed, as the enemy were seen going in the direction of the water. It now became a question whether the horses and mules could be kept.


On the 19th December the animals had been without water for 48 hours, and the supply for the troops was nearly gone. Shortly after dark a storm came on, and sufficient water was caught to supply men and animals until the 21st. Until this day the well still showed no signs of yielding a sufficient supply. Horses and mules had been 36 hours without water, and evidently could not hold out much longer. They were therefore, turned adrift, and, as they galloped off to the water, were caught by the enemy. There were 76 horses, nearly all magnificent black Australians; and 121 mules. We kept a valuable mare the property of Lieutenant C. F. Lindsell, Royal Scots Fusiliers, and she survived the whole siege, although twice wounded. This mare afterwards broke her back on the top of the Biggersberg, while being thrown for the purpose of extracting a bullet received during the siege.


On the afternoon of the 21st it again rained heavily and enough water was caught to last another three days. The original well still showed no signs of yielding, so I offered twenty-five pounds (25) to the first party of men who succeeded in finding water. A number of squads of men started digging, one of which found water at a depth of 15 feet. It filled to the top in no time, so we placed a barrel in it, half filled with sand and charcoal, thus our greatest necessity was secure. The old well filled up with surface drainage, but was of no use for drinking purposes. I have dwelt thus long on the question or water, as it was everything to us - on it depended our existence.

Very many of our horses and mules were killed, as it was a very painful sight to see the poor animals suffer. Always at night we had to drag the carcases to a distance, which alone entailed a considerable amount of labour, and on some occasions loss.

On the 29th a flag-of-truce appeared, and the bearer handed to our messenger a printed paper containing a proclamation of the Transvaal Republic. On these occasions our messenger generally returned with a pipe in his mouth, and was the object of envy by everyone, as we had nothing to smoke the whole time we were in the Fort. I always sent the same man, a Sergeant, and he would always give his friends a bit on his return.

A soldier does not often forget to share with a comrade, and the Sergeant, being a favourite with the Boers, generally got some tobacco given him. He was one of my best men, an old Hibernian soldier, and from first to last exerted himself to the utmost in keeping the young hands in good humour, singing continually such songs as soldiers like, and particularly on the wettest and most unpromising days.


On the 1st of January the enemy commenced a fierce attack on our position, bringing into action a ship's gun, throwing a ball of about 5 pounds weight. With this they pounded us merrily, until silenced with our nine-pounders. This we were able to do at first, but later on they used to surround their gun with wool-sacks or sandbags, and roofed it in, making it difficult to silence. Having immense command of labour, they were able to do anything they chose. The fire on this morning was terrific, and was delivered from loop-holed walls, trees and house-tops, so that it could only be silenced in detail by artillery fire. The garrison kept under cover for upwards of an hour and a half. While this was going every man sat at his post, rifle in hand, singing part songs to while away the time, whilst the ladies joined in the refrain. The buglers assisted in this, and the men were much amused at the vigour of the enemy, while we replied not a shot, waiting for a rush at the Fort, which was every moment looked for. When the commotion ceased, our time came, and we "let them have it" as they went home to breakfast. The uselessness of this, however, soon became apparent, so we sounded the breakfast bugle, the duel coming to an end. Our loss on ihis occasion was not great, but every now and then one of our comrades fell, shot through a chink in the sandbags. The loss of one of our number was, in truth, only to be compared to that of a personal friend.

One thing was particularly noticeable - during the siege, and that was the Boers have a great regard for themselves, never allowing us to have a good look at them the whole time. They could have taken the Fort over and over again, and at any time by day or night - it would have been uncomfortable to try, but they could have done it easily.


I venture to say that on few occasions in the history of lhe British Army have officers and men been more closely associated than during this siege - officers came to know their men; men came to know their officers, and each learned to put his trust in the other and to work together. A good feeling was observable always, and we thought ourselves hard to beat, which I hope we would have been if the Boers had ever ventured to rush the Fort.

As I said before, this would have been an easy task, for the grass stood the height of a field of corn around us, which would have enabled the enemy to come very close to us without being seen. Many times we tried all we knew to burn it, but without effect, as it was growing the whole time. Cronje told me afterwards that had he known what the Fort was like, he would have stormed it. The truth of the matter is, the Fort was very much stronger than he thought it was, as we worked day and night the whole time in making it so. Large numbers, of course, would have made an attempt, as I believe the Boers at one time intended. Their plan, we were afterwards told, was to get 2,000 Kaffirs to come straight at us, and then the Boers were to come on when we were exhausted, or very few of us left.


It would have been a cowardly thing to do, but I was told this myself in Potchefstroom. At that time, however, the Kaffir chiefs were too loyal to fight against us. Now we cannot say that we left them to the mercy of harder task-masters. One Kaffir Chief sent to me to say that he was coming with 3,000 men to relieve me, but his letter did not reach me till after the capitulation. This Chief was lately in England and I wish I could have shaken him by the hand.

It may be interesting to learn something of our daily routine. At about 7 a.m. all breakfasted, Officers in their little mess-place, the men sitting about anywhere that they could find room. Then the Terreplein of the Fort was swept, or scraped with spades in wet weather, and the drainage of the place looked to. On a report being made I went round and had a general look at affairs. The work executed by the enemy during the night was discussed, and our work for the day settled upon. This, of course, greatly depended on what the rebels had been doing during the night, as we were pretty well surrounded by their works; and they were continually at something new. The doctor attended to the sick and wounded; and the Commissariat officer went about his duties. Previous to this every man placed his rifle and ammunition at its place in the parapet, the men off duty generally being free to look after their own affairs. All then soon settled down into general quietness, unless anything happened to prevent it, which was too often the case. A certain number of men were told off daily to keep off the enemy's fire, and they soon acquired great accuracy in shooting, the ranges having all been taken previous to the investment. About 5 p.m. the Guards mounted, but the sentries were not posted till after dark, after which not a word was spoken above a whisper, or a light allowed, unless on very urgent occasions when required by the doctor.


Once an amputation had to be performed at night, and the scene will not easily be forgotten by those who witnessed it. It was pitch dark, and silence reigned supreme, as usual, in our little community, when the doctor began his share of the night's work, which, of course, required a light. This made visible to the enemy the upper part of the tent, and, as a matter of course, they directed their fire on it. The operation to be performed was the taking off of an arm above the elbow. Bullets were whizzing through the tent-top, while the patient, who, by the way, was my servant, lay on the amputating table. The operation was successfully performed, the patient being under chloroform. Strange to say, no one was hit. Glad we were when the man recovered, for he was a great favourite. He is now a pensioner, and, I hope, honoured in his native town, as he should be, for he was a gallant young fellow, having sent in his name every time volunteers were called for during the siege. He received the wound while holding a basin for me to wash my hands before dinner. The bullet struck him between the wrist and the elbow. As it was a nasty wound, he was put to lie down in the hospital tent, and while there, a round shot came in and shattered his elbow. The operation had to be put off until night, as our doctor wished for the assistance of the district surgeon, who was one of our refugees, and who at that time lived in the magazine. It was considered inadvisable to cross from the magazine to the Fort in the daytime, unless in case of absolute necessity, the Sap at this time having, to say the least of it, becone risky.


One of our chief industries was the making of sandbags, for the manufacture of which we cut up every tent, and, indeed, everything else that was possible to convert to such use. The wounded and convalescents were chiefly employed on this work, and they were presided over by an Irish Sergeant, who was indefatigable in providing these, one of our principal requirements.

Many thousands of bags were made, but we were sometimes at our wits' end how to know to get enough of them. I never entered into the subject of how they were made, but just ordered a certain number to be ready by night, and, as sure as night came, there they were in rows ready to be counted. It reminded us of counting the game after a battle, but was much more interesting.

About an hour before dark we dined, after which we sat discussing our day's work, and often talking of the army that was coming to our relief and scatter the Boers to the four winds. Alas this was destined never to come off, but lucky it was for us that we always believed it until the end, when we were roughly and suddenly deceived. Soon after dinner the ladies would retire, when there was saying Good-Night, often unnecessarily prolonged, I believe, and, as an Irish member of our party would say, in perfect silence.

If any of my readers happen to be of the fair sex they would understand now much assistance would be required in getting through a hole about two feet by 1.5 feet. From the amount of care with which the ladies were helped to get into their "stronghold," as the soldiers named the ladies' department, I believe some of the younger members of our flock were impressed with the belief that our charges were suffering from lameness. To have gone over the top of this would haye been highly dangerous, as bullets continually struck the topmost bags. The ulsters of the ladies showed many bullet holes, from having been left on the top of the stronghold, which was only five feet high.


On dark nights a few sentries were placed in pits, dug for the purpose, and sandbags were placed around to make the shelter safer. The pits were approached by small zig-zag trenches, but on moon light nights these outlying sentries were withdrawn, and we trusted to those on the parapet. At Guard-mounting, the officers for Night-watch were told off, the period of duty being two hours at a time. These officers always remained in the centre of the Fort and had sole charge of the "ship" for the time being. There was a chair of state for the officer on duty, and the ground for the orderly bugler. All others except the sentries, slept peacefully, while the enemy kept up a pretty steady fire all night. The writer of this kept watch from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m.; other officers by roster, and at the later hours, and sometimes earlier, we all fell into our places and remained there till daylight, and prepared breakfast.

A party was told off nightly to work on the parapet. Lieut. K. E. Lean had charge of this party, and in it he took the greatest interest. As I mentioned before, the fire from the town was wonderfully accurate during the night, and there was always too much of it to make exposure on the parapet pleasant.


At night the native drivers and leaders bailed water out of the ditch, as this on two sides could never be done at any other time. The stench from these ditches was now and then indescribably awful. But, luckily, as I take it, the wonderful climate we were in, and the fresh open-air life we led, neutralised the effect of this poison, and we suffered, I think, less from this than might have been expected. We were a very merry and happy party, all hands working willingly and cheerfully to one end; and no doubt this, too, had its effect. Most of us were very sick however and for long times. Still, all did their work, though at times hardly able to walk, and troubled as little as possible our kind doctor, who himself was not always as fit as he wished to be.

Now and then thoughts of home and those loved ones there would come over us, and we knew that our case was better than theirs. But such-like thoughts were so often rudely dispelled by the work in hand that they seldom lasted long. Occasionally we had an artillery duel in the middle of the night, and then would come the musketry, until both sides were tired with this interruption of their repose.

Once, and once only, was the alarm sounded without cause during the night, and on this occasion every man was in his place on the parapet before the bugle had finished sounding. The men were then told that this would not be done again for practice, and praise for their smartness in turning out was not withheld. Every man slept with his rifle and ammunition at his right hand, and each night the officer on duty went round to see this order complied with.


On the night of the 3rd January we occupied a small magazine as an outpost and held it until the end of the siege. It was situated about 200 yards from the Fort, and in a good position for adding to our defence. But the enemy never relaxed in their endeavours to take it, having at the last succeeded in sapping up to within 80 yards of the Fort, and erecting there a large and well-constructed work which completely commanded the fort. On this work our artillery had no effect. Many a time the enemy pounded our magazine with their gun, and burst the wall and roof. We therefore built an earth-work communicating with it into which the garrison went when necessary. Lieut. C. F. Lindsell, Royal Scots Fusiliers, was the commander of this outpost, and he had with him 20 picked men of the mounted infantry - a more determined lot it would be hard to find. The place was by no means a bed of roses, but my mind was easy while they were there, as I knew my men.

The enemy, having practically unlimited command of labour, sapped round us in all directions, keeping us fully employed in defending our work. The question of defilading our works was a troublesome one throughout, involving much labour to the garrison. We had 17 mule and ox wagons, but these were standing outside the Fort, many of them at a distance. We determined to make use of some of them as traverses, and admirably they answered the purpose, for they enabled us to command our parapet without anything like the loss we should have had without them, and also made moving about more agreeable. The difficulty, however, was to get hold of them, which was accomplished by sending out a man at night to creep up to a wagon and attach a chain to it, and by adding chains until they reached the ditch we dragged the wagons close to the Fort, took them to pieces at our leisure, carried them into our Fort, and finally placed them in a zig-zag fashion across the Fort. The wagons were then filled with earth as high as it could naturally stand, and filled sandbags were then placed on the top to a suitable height.

The Fort contained 322 men, women and children, and was only 25 yards square inside. We had also inside: - 5 ox wagons placed as traverses; 5 bell tents for the sick; 1 bell tent for surgery purposes; 1 hospital marquee for commissariat stores; 1 ammunition cart; and last of all, the "Stronghold" - so it will seem we were closely packed.


Our ladies, as we called them, were a great care to us. Their behaviour in danger and privation was admirable, and not to be surpassed. Never could I have believed that tender women could have done as they did. They came into the Fort with only what they stood in, and, of corse, suffered unheard of hardships. A shelter made of mealie sacks, 9 feet square and 5 feet in height, had been made for them, in which was a small hole in the bottom, to enable the ladies to creep in. In this shelter they lived for upwards of three months, never coming out without permission being first obtained, and then only into a small shelter adjoining, in which we had our meals. Here we were comparatively safe from bullets, although they occasionally came in, but when the rebels got their gun to work in the rear of our position and took our front parapet in reverse we were forced to take down the "stronghold," and I began to wonder what next to do for the safety of our charges. The sacks would have been no protection against gun-shot, therefore, when the gun was in action we placed the ladies in a dug-out hole, and at night, when it seldom fired, they slept in the tent. This tent was riddled with bullet holes. There was not an inch square in any of the tents without a bullet hole, consequently the women and children got terribly wet, and this was the case everywhere. The "stronghold" had a wagon-sail roof, propped up by a couple of tent-poles. This, however, got so full of bullet holes that when it rained the water entered in torrents and drenched everything within. When this happened at night the occupants had to get up and huddle into a corner, cover themselves with a bit of canvas to keep their clothes dry, and then wait for daylight.

It so happened that we were on the sky-line, and, consequently, visible on all but the darkest nights. All night long the bullets would appear through the roof of the ladies' lodgings, often sending splinters of the tent-pole over them, but never a word was said. They seemed always to have the utmost confidence in their defenders.


The blow came at last, however. One died, a young wife stricken with typhoid fever, and things wore a different aspect in the Fort that day. All, to the youngest drummer, were sorrowful: rough men seemed subdued at the loss of this pretty young face from our midst. We signalled to the enemy and asked that a coffin might be made in the town, and next morning one came, filled with the most lovely flowers. These were the gifts of relatives, who obtained the permission of the authorities to send them. Some roots of stephanotis and other flowers were there also, and these we placed on the coffin before lowering it into the grave. A black dress for the mother, and some ribbons of the same colour for the sisters were thrown aside by our antagonists. Why, we could never tell, as they could not have done harm to anyone. The interment took place immediately, in full view of the enemy, a truce for one hour having been arranged for the purpose. Our watches were not in the best of order, perhaps, or probably none of us looked for them, for while filling in the grave a round shot reminded us that time was up. We were inside our entrenchments quickly enough, and our guns in action, forgetting for the moment the work on which we had been engagod. Thus it was with us always. Trifles were set aside, and it was well that it was so. So ended one of the saddest incidents of the siege.

Once only was one of the ladies wounded, and this happened towards the end, when want of exercise was telling badly on them. Our doctor had been continually impressing on me the necessity of their taking exercise, and so, after much solicitation, and also much doubt as to the result, I gave them leave to walk about the Fort one afternoon with their father when there was less firing than usual. Hardly had they gone out of our mess-place when I heard a scream at my elbow, and there was one of the youngest girls lying on the ground. I thought she was killed, but on examination the wound proved slight, and in a few days it healed. The bullet struck her in the back of the neck and just missed the spine. After this, the wish for a constitutional was not so general.


On the 7th of January we had a night adventure. The enemy had been working hard for some nights behind a Cemetery wall about 360 yards distant, and we wished to find out what they were at. Volunteers, as usual, were plentiful. An officer and six men were chosen to go and have a look at the Boers at close quarters, and a hazardous business we all knew it was likely to be. The cemetery is a large enclosure some 300 or more yards square, and we knew that the walls on the near side were always occupied at night, and that on the far side watched by a large covering party. The night was pitch dark and perfectly still when the small party set off by a circuitous route on their voyage of discovery, and we in the Fort stood every man ready to cover the retirement of our comrades. They were a long time getting there, and we were beginning to wonder what had hecome of them when suddenly we heard our men fire a volley. Then came the sound of a revolver; then two more volleys. Then there was considerable commotion, in which we joined, for we knew our party were retiring, and it was a long time before we were on anything like friendly terms again, for I believe the enemy thought we were most of us out there. They certainly showed that they had no lack of ammunition, and it was pretty hot for a time. In the midst of it all our party returned unhurt. They had crept up to the wall unseen, and at 50 yards distance had fired three volleys into the enemy, who were working in a trench, with their rifles lying near, and, we suppose, could not find them in the darkness and confusion. The situation was not altogether an enviable one for the Boers, and we guessed that they would keep a better look-out for the future.


On the 16th of January, by flag-of-truce, a letter reached us from the husband of one of our lady refugees, who had managed to get into the town from his farm in the country to claim his wife, and the lady was allowed to leave to join her husband. Later on such procedure was not allowed, for towards the end of the siege, I asked for the ladies to be allowed to leave, and it was refused, the enemy well knowing we were running very short of provisions. Such is war sometimes, but the fact was that our enemy was content to starve us out. I was always one of those who said they would never attempt to storm the Fort, and it turned out that I was right. Numbers, of course, would have done it easily, and many of us wondered that the attempt was not made after the 1st day of the siege. During this truce, which, as usual, only lasted a few minutes, a discharged German soldier jumped up on the top of the Boer entrenchment and called out to ask how I was getting on, hoping I was unwounded, etc., and said:- "Tell the Colonel he would never have held out so long if he had not been a German." Well, I am not a German. The man apparently took me for one of my brothers, with whom he had served in the Army of the Fatherland.


By the messenger who carried the Flag-of-Truce came a letter in telegraphic cypher purporting to come from Colonel Bellairs, commanding the troops in the Transvaal, informing me that he had come to our relief and would be with us next morning. We were to go out next morning and a great fight was to take place. The Boers were to be driven away. The trick was a clumsy one, and we paid no attention to it. The signal failed, or we never saw it. But, sure enough, next morning, in the drenching rain, we heard heavy firing in a wood about a mile off, the cannon being also heard. The enemy got their morning's amusement for nothing. They must have had some trouble in trying this, for the rain could not well have been heavier. We saw them coming home, many of them got up in Red Coats for our benefit, so we gave them a shell or two to quicken their movements. This precious document, I was afterwards told, was concocted at Heidelberg, but it did little credit to its author.

On the 22nd of January, a trench which the enemy had opened about 200 vards in our rear threatened to become troublesome so I determined to take it. Volunteers were called for, and I selected Lieut. Dalrymple-Hay, one sergeant, and ten men for the storming party. They went out in the most dashing manner, in broad daylight, across the open veld. Three men fell before they Ieft the Fort a few yards, and one of these died of wounds a few days later. There were 18 of the enemy in the trench, of whom eleven fell as they were running away, four were taken prisoners, the remaining three escaping. Our party was under a tremendous cross-fire while charging this trench, which was kept down as much as possible, every rifle we could muster being in use. We succeeded in exchanging the four Boers for four of our own men who had been taken prisoners at the Landdrost's Office on the 18th December.


Directly our men came back one of the enemy appeared carrying a huge Geneva-Cross Flag. This man proved to be a doctor sent to attend the wounded. We hoisted a white flag, and he came up looking anything but happy. He had been in fear of his life all the way out, lest we might fire on him. We sat down under a wagon outside the Fort and had a pleasing chat, while our doctor attended the wounded. The Boer physician was an old acquaintance, we having known him formerly at Standerton as a photographer, and from this place he told us he had been summoned to Potchefstroom, to attend the Burghers there. That he had such faith in our doctor was evident, for he never troubled himself with his wounded men, but sat and talked with us. He presented me with a handsomely carved pipe, and I had my first smoke for over a month. For this and previous other delinquencies we afterwards heard he was put in irons by the Boer Commander. On coming out of the Fort two months later he showed us his hand minus a finger, which loss had occurred from our fire. We were sorry for this, for he was there against his will, and was not fighting against us. We lent the enemy stretchers to take away their wounded, and next morning they were returned with fruit for our wounded, and also some carbolic acid, which our doctor had asked for. We thanked the Boer commander by letter, and so this affair ended. Civilities like this take the sting off warfare, and I must say for the Boers that they were never hehind hand in such things. They are a fine manly, sturdy race, such as I should like to live among. Who can blame them for fighting for their independence? We, at least, never did.


About this time we began to think of the relief column, each making his calculations as to the probable time of its arriyal, and, need I say, this widely differed. There was, however, one point on which we all agreed, and that was in our trust and belief in Sir George Pomeroy Colley, who we knew would strain every nerve to reach us. There was something about Sir George that inspired soldiers, and those of us who knew him caught the contagion. His was a courteous, soldierly manner that would have gone a long way with people like the Boers. Great was our grief when afterwards we heard of the death of this distinguished officer, and such of us who had dear ones at home did not forget to think of those he had left, and who had to temper their grief only with the remembrance of how nobly he fell.

A look-out party had been organised under an officer. All the hill-tops within view were watched day and night for signals and the best measures at our disposal were taken for answering any that might be made. A heliograph was constructed out of a looking-glass and kept always ready. One night, just as I was "turning in," the look-out man called me. Rockets were seen on the top of the Swartz Kop; the relieving force was on the road and would be with us in two days. All turned out to see the welcome sight - ladies in their ulsters and wounded from their beds. They had better have slept. These signals certainly looked like rockets, and for a time we were deceived.


Some of us dreamt that night that we heard the bag-pipes coming down the Heidelberg road to the town, to the tune of "The Campbells are coming." Next morning, looking over the parapet was as hazardous as ever, and a helmet on the top of a bayonet soon reminded us that discretion was the better part of valour. For us such disappointments as these did not signify, but for our wounded soldiers it was different. They could only Iie on their beds and wonder who would be the next to join them. Our wounded did very well until the last ten days or so of the siege, when every wounded man died. The place becume so unhealthy that gangrene set in, and there was no hope for anyone. My servant was the last man to recover.


On the 23rd January about 30 mule and ox drivers left the Fort at night by their own desire, and we were glad of this relief to our commissariat. Some of these poor fellows were shot by the Boers in escaping, and a very few came back unable to get away. On the 4th of February, a flag-of-truce brought us a copy of the "Staats Courant" (Transvaal Government Gazette), of the 2nd February, containing an account of the action fought near the Ingogo by the troops under the command of Sir George Colloy, which did not tend to raise our hopes of immediate relief. This was, of course, sent to discourage us by our adversaries, who at this time no doubt expected our capitulation daily. We sent by the bearer a message to the Boer Commander to the effect that we should be pleased to receive a copy of the paper regularly, but I am afraid he must have thought we were poking fun at him. On this occasion the Boers did not allow their messenger to remain longer than half-a-second, just time to hand in the letter and go away.


Our Sergeant, who was a good deal of a wag, generally managed, however, to have a word or two, when something like the following would pass:-
Boer: "When are you coming out?"
Sergeant: "Oh, never! We like it so much! We have plenty to eat and drink. When are you coming to take the Fort'?"
Boer: "When our best men come we are coming to rush the Fort. GeneraI Colley is not coming."
Sergeant: "Good-Bye. Thanks for the tobacco."
Boer: "Good-Bye."

The sergeant would come back looking the picture of good humour, and the soldiers would gather round him to hear the lates from the town. He would sit down and the soldiers would gather round him to hear the latest from the town. He would sit down and gather a lot of men round him and tell them marvellous tales, all invented for the occasion, but serving to amuse, and that was what was wanted. All the garrisons were in the open the whole of the time. This was very trying, as it was the rainy season. That and the hot weather come together in this part of Africa. The bell-tents were dug out for a depth of about 18 inches, and in one of these a round shot smashed the thigh of one of our poor fellows who was wounded, and shattered the arm of another. The latter was the man the amputation of whose arm I described before .. I mention this to show how round shot finds its way into apparently impossible places. The tents at last were not enough for the siek. It was necessary, therefore, to put infectious cases elsewhere. To accomplish this we had to dig holes in the outside wall of the ditch, and there put the worst cases. A brother of one of the ladies died of typhoid fever in one of these holes, and it was a sad sight to see one of the sisters sitting day and night therw watching her sick brother. We did all we could for them, and that was little enough.


After the first few Sundays, at least during the day-time, little shooting went on, on the Sabbath, and by mutual consent we left each other alone. I always read the Church of England service to our little mess, whiIe Captains read morning prayer to their men on the parapet. Our Commissariat Officer, who was one of the brave defenders of Rorke's Drift, read the Roman Catholic service to men of that faith.

That we had a few sympathisers in the town was evident, for on Sunday afternoons we several times saw a whole family come out from behind a wall and wave their handkerchiefs to us, and this we took to be a friendly greeting, as no douht it was. We could hear the singing in the Dutch Church in the town on Sundays, and in the the churches the Boers used to collect on Sunday nights and sing for an hour or so, sure of being undisturbed, as they always were.

We sent away a number of letters during our captivity, but to only one did we receive an answer. This was a letter I sent to the Officer Commanding in the Transvaal on the 16th December, and to which I received an answer about six weeks afterwards. In this we were informed of the disaster of the 94th at Bronkhorst Spruit. Also I sent a few Ietters to "The Times" newspaper, and to my home in Scotland, none of which reached their destination. These letters were taken out by Kaffirs, who crept out, after dark, and with the exception of one, who I know was caught and his message read, we never heard what became of them.


Twice only did Europeans succeed in getting away. On the first occasion two returned half-starved, having been unable to cross the Vaal River, 12 miles off, and on the second occasion two brothers Nelson succeeded in reaching the Head-quarters of Sir Evelyn Wood at Newcastle in Natal. These gentlemen swam the VaaI near De Wet's Drift and reached Newcastle through the Orange Free State, by way of Kroonstad and Harrismith.

We knew nothing the whole time of what was going on outside and often wondered what our friends would think of our silence. On reaching Ladysmith on the 2nd May we found two sacks full of letters awaiting us. I myself received 13 from my home in the North, not to mention many others.

For food we were badly off the whole time. All our cattle were lost on the 17th December, and we had no fresh meat during the whole of the siege except nine cows, which we captured during the first few days. We were so closely invested that not an ounce of food got into the Fort during the siege. On Christmas day we intended having roast horse instead of roast beef for dinner, but it turned bad, and at the last moment had to be rejected by our chef, so we had to content ourselves with something less succulent. We went on reduced rations on the 19th December (the 4th day of the siege), and further reductions were made from time to time. On the 11th January we began to issue one-half pound of malies (Indian corn) three times a week, in lieu of the same quantity of biscuits; and on the 22nd of January this was made a daily issue. These mealies were the food of the horses and mules. On the 15th March we were reduced to one pound of mealies, and a halfpound of Kaffir-corn (MilIet) daily, with a quarter of a pound of preserved meat on alternate days, and nothing whatever else. Tea, coffee, sugar, salt, rice, biscuits, and indeed, everythmg else was exhausted long before, and, having to work hard, we were weak from having to exist on this kind of food. But, notwithstanding, health was fairly maintained. The mealies and Kaffir-corn were pounded by the men, and when boiled, were comparatively nutritious. The husk was only partly got rid of, which made us all ill. We, however, baked excellent bread for the sick from a smaII store of flour, but no one else got any except the ladies, who had a small quantity. This gave out sometime before the evacuation. This bread was baked in a hole in the parapet, and no better oven could be found.


Dysentery and diarrhoea were always prevalent, and all contracted one or the other. Towards the end of the siege there was a great deal of enteric fever, and a few cases of scurvy. When our beef-tea was finished we made a substitute from preserved Australian beef, but it gave little nourishment. To keep off scurvy, the men were ordered to boil grass and young mealie stalks in their food, which was undoubtedly very beneficial.

Our wood came to an end on the 15th January, when we began to burn our wagons, but for which we should have been in a bad way. We burned the whole of the wagons except five, which we used for traverses inside the Fort. We were, fortunately, able to keep the ambulance wagons, water carts, and ammunition carts. These, too, would have gone had we remained much longer. The Boers were entitled to keep the ambulance, but, as we wanted it for our sick, they lent it to us, and we returned it after passing through the Orange Free State. I have always felt much indebted to the Boer Commander for his courtesy to us, and really nothing could exceed the pleasant manner in which everything was conducted with the Boer leaders during our brief stay at Potchefstroom after the capitulation.

All tarpaulins and everything we could lay hands on were cut up to make sandbags, only a few pieces being reserved to cover ourselves on rainy nights. With this exception, all of us were in the open day and night during our time in the Fort. This was the rainy, as well as the hot, season.

After the first few dews we had no tobacco, which caused many men to smoke tea-Ieaves, coffee corns and mealie leaves. A smoking mixture composed of the two first-named was quite the rage at one time. Soon, however, it got out of favour, and we contented ourselves by occasionally looking at our pipes. We saw that they were ready for action when the time came.

We had a few gallons of rum, which was served out in wet weather on five or six occasions. Our chief drink was water, of which we had plenty after our welI got into working order.

On the 20th March we had only the following left, nothing else of any kind that was eatable being in the place:-

Mealies, whole, 1,600 lbs. Kaffir-Corn, whole, 5,006 lbs. All damaged, howeyer, having been three months in the parapet.

Preserved meat, 241bs.; Rice, 16 lbs.; Erbswurst, 40 rations. These had been reserved for the sick.


The silence at night, coming as it did soon after dark, was irksome, especially as we had little in the shape of diversion. One of my officers, a Lieutenant of Artillery, seemed to feel this unaccustomed quietude, for he would come to me sometimes and say: "Would you allow me just to give a screech?" "Yes," I would say, "but first tell the sentries, or they might take a fancy to shooting you!" This done; he would get on the top of the parapet and commence a series of most unearthly yells. The Boers, notwithstanding this performance, would promptly open fire, while we lay low and amused ourselves by listening to the commotion. He was down from the parapet in a moment, feeling all the better for his exertion. Occasionally the men would put a lantern on the top of a pail in the night, which always raised a commotion in the enemy's lines, for they would fire incessantly on us. Every night we communicated with the magazine by means of lanterns, and very useful this kind of signalling was found to be.

Amongst our many requirements was a Union-Jack, which was made in the gun-pits by men of the Royal Artillery. The Artillery were allowed to retain it, and it was in possession of the "N" Battery, 5th Brigade, Royal Artillery, until the battery was broken up some years ago. It was made from coat linings, and has a good number of bullet-holes to show. It displayed its folds on our parapet for exactly two months - a visible sign that the little garrison had some life left, and could still do something for the honour of their Queen and the Army to which they were so proud to belong. A few years ago the "N" Battery, 5th Brigade, Royal Artillery, was marching somewhere near Windsor when the Queen took the opportunity of inspecting it, and a few days after, I am proud to say, Our Most Gracious Majesty was pleased to inspect the Flag at Windsor Castle.


After dark, on the 8th March, I was informed that a Dutchman had been captured, and that he wished to see me. I was taken to a lonely part of our magazine sap, and there, sure enough, was our friend, or rather, spy, ,as I took him to be and have always thought him. We were left alone in the darkness, and the man began his tale, of which I could make nothing, as he trembled so that he could hardly speak. Perhaps he had heard of the ferocity of the "Rooi Badges," or Red Coats, as the Boers called us, and expected nothing better than instant annihilation. I thought we were quite alone, but found that one of my officers deemed that a little company might he desirable, for, thinking I heard a movement behind me, I looked around, and there was the sentry with his bayonet within an inch of the man's neck. This finished matters, for he could not speak at all now, so thinking, I suppose, that deeds were better than words, he stood up, much to my astonishment, discovered to me that he was tobacco all over, literally from headl to foot. The tobacco was made up like a rope, about an inch in diameter, and was wound about his body. His pockets also were stuffed with the same. The sentry now dropped his rifle, and we "unrolled" the Dutchman, making him turn round and round until he was giddy, and in less than no time, as the saying goes, we were weighing the precious weed into portions and distributing it all round. By way of reward for this thought of our wants we handcuffed him there and then, and chained him to the wheel of a wagon for the night. There he remained always, except in the day-time, when he had more liberty. A glass of Hennessy's 3-star from the hospital store, soon loosened his tongue, when he was handed over to one of our refugees, who spoke Dutch, and the number of questions he had to answer was appalling. He told us many things which turned out to be true afterwards, amongst them the intended attack on the Fort, which took place two days afterwards. The man could have had no reason for coming to us unless he was paid by the enemy for doing so, and was, I suppose, passed by the sentries, as we were very closely invested. The tobacco was intended to soften our hearts. The man also brought me, as an offering, a spoonful of salt in a paper.


Well, on the morning of the 10th March, as our spy had foretold, the enemy commenced a general attack on our position, which lasted until sunset. Their gun, which was placed about 700 yards from our rear face, was well protected by sandbags and piles of wood, and was supported by the fire of about 70 rifles in shelter pits dug on each side of it. On this occasion the gun fired about 83 round shot, 40 of which struck our work, scattering things in all directions, and making matters generally unpleasant. We placed the ladies in the commissariat marquee, the floor of which was deeply dug out on one side, and there they remained until the turmoil was over. For the want of something better to do, our men amused themselves for a long time by signalling to the enemy the striking-places of the shots from their gun. The fire that they drew, however, caused this amusement to be stopped, much to their disappointment. I do not know what the enemy could have thought of this frolic, but, to tell the truth, situated as we were, anything in the shape of amusement was welcome. One would have thought that they had now no ammunition left, but next morning the attack was renewed, with more men supporting the gun. On this day the gun fired 47 rounds, of which 25 struck the Fort. The rifle fire on this day was very trying, coming as it did by volleys from all four sides at uncertain intervals, not to speak of the dropping fire going on all day from the trenches. These volleys must have been regulated in some way by signal, otherwise the enemy themselves would have suffered. The wonder is that it did not wind up by a rush on our position. Our casualties on these two days were not heavy when the tremendous fire is considered. Towards the evening, when we thought the day's work was over, We sat down to dinner in our usual mess-place. Hardly had we sat down when a round shot came in amongst us and covered the party with earth. For a few minutes we thought "Now they are coming," and the men went to their places in the parapet. They sat down again, thinking this was the last for the night, and, having finished dinner, I got up and was standing near. We had been sitting on a bank of earth, with our backs to the wall of sandbags, and the ladies of our party were on the next seat to me. Well, I had left the place only a few yards when a round shot came and knocked away the sandbags just where my head had been, and missing the two ladies by less than a foot. This was the last for the night. We made it very unpleasant for the enemy going home, just by way of saying good night.


On the 17th of March, finding things coming to a crisis, I determined to send our spy into the town, and offered him 100 to go there and bring me the latest news. He got there, no one could tell how, and at daybreak the next morning, the 18th March, there was, somewhat to our surprise, a pocket handkerchief flying on the top of his house - a preconcerted signal given by his wife to let us know of his arrival. One thing is to be remembered, and that is, the grass was very high, and it was by no means impossible to creep through the Boer sentries, as we had proved on former occasions. His house was on the outskirts of the town, within view of the Fort and our spy had pointed it out to us before leaving. He returned that night, and the news he gave us made it clear that the game was up. We had a consultation at once, and there was but one opinion as to the line to be taken. We had nothing more to eat, and our sick were dying for want of nourishment. Late that night I wrote a letter to the Boer Commander proposing a meeting, sending it off at sunrise next morning, 19th March, by a flag-of-truce. After some delay and a couple of letters on both sides the meeting was arranged to take place at noon. Some time before the hour appointed up went a white flag, and we hoisted another in return. Presently some mounted men appeared - a Boer rarely walks - and along with them a Scotch Cart, the unloading of which we watched with much interest, and spied amongst the contents a hamper. What feelings did not that hamper give rise to? I know some of us had visions of "French!" This the Boers call all wine except Cape brandy. Perhaps the thoughts of others were directed towards "Square Face," as they call Holland's Gin in this part of the globe. As it turned out afterwards both of these were present, as were also biscuits and cigar! Our servants had been polishing up in an astonishing manner all the morning, and we marvelled at each other's appearance as we mustered to confront our antagonists at the water-spruit, where the tent for the interview had been pitched. I know I gave a considerable sum for a doubtful pair of "Peel's Patent" to wear at that meeting. W turned out in a way that would have done no discredit to St. James' Street. Even cigarettes were not wanting, our spy having brought us some the night before. One man said to me: "How are you all so clean when you come out of that hole?"


Well, at the appointed time we sauntered down to the tent with the most nonchalant air, in order the better to conceal the true state of affairs. A Colonial marquee had been pitched at the water-furrow, about, 120 yards from the Fort, and there we shook hands for the first time with the men who shortly before had been trying all they knew to assist us into a better world. They certainly looked as if they had been having a worse time than we had, to say the least of it. After preliminaries outside, we entered the tent and settled down to business. A cigar and a glass of "French" now took the place of the cigarette, and the conference began. The Boers contented themselves by saying "No" to everything we advanced. Therefore, to make headway was not easy. They handed us an agreement ready for signature. By the terms of this the officers were to be free, and were to keep their weapons and private property. This, it was expressly stated, was in consideration of the way we had fought our position, and of our treatment of the Boer wounded. Of the rest: horses, foot, artillery, and civilians were to be prisoners of war, and everything in the Fort was to be surrendered to the Transvaal Republic. They were, however, wrong in this, for on the next day we really dictated terms to them. Our antagonists knew they had us in their power, that we were very close to starvation, and thought that they had only to dictate terms for us to accept, but they were mistaken, for we got many things that at first they refused to listen to. They would have given a good deal for the ammunition of the two nine-pounders, but they did not get it nevertheIess. Seeing something desperate must be done, I got up and announced my intention to go back to the Fort, and we all left. After having gone a short distance the Hollander interpreter came running after us and said that General Cronje wished us to go back again. This I refused to do, but said: "If General Cronje will come himself and give sufficient reason, we might, go back!" Cronje came out and we went back. I gave them no time to say much, as all was so unsatisfactory I at once got up and gave my ultimatum, viz.: "That I would hold out to the last extremity, then send notice to send away non-combatants, when I would fire 300 shells into the town, burning it if possible, and would also fire 200,000 rounds of ammunition (neither of which I had) and then surrender!" We then went away, but not before agreeing to meet next day at noon - to give time, perhaps, to consider the question of the conflagration.


Next day we met again, this time with the addition of the President of the Volksraad, I taking another officer to balance numhers. Finally, after a tremendous palaver, we came to an agreement. By the provisions of this we were to march out with the Honours of War, with out Flag flying. Officers were to retain their arms and private property, none of us were to be prisoners of war, and the private property of the soldiers was to be kept by them. The Boers tried hard to make us give up our 33 civilians, including our spy, who would probably have been shot as a preliminary, but they reckoned without their host. We took all our civilians, except the Forssman family, who made their temporary home in the Free State, into Natal with us. We kept all ammunition for field guns, but surrendered the two nine-pounders, the rifles and the miscellaneous property in the camp. The field guns and rifles were afterwards given back to us when the capitulation was cancelled. On the 21st March we met again and signed the treaty. So ended the "battle of words," much to our advantage, under the circumstances, I think most people will say.

It may not be out of place here to relate, as shortly as I can, the story of the Armistice entered into by General Sir Evelyn Wood and Piet Joubert at Mount Prospect on the 6th March, 1881. The Armistice was to extend from the 6th March at noon until midnight the 14th March, 1881. The cause of the Armistice was to give Mr. Kruger time to consider and reply to the proposals made by the late Sir George Colley, and of further proposals which might be entertained between the respective parties with a view to settling different disagreements. Article 2 of the agreement of armistice provided that Sir Evelyn Wood was at liberty to send provisions and firewood, but not ammunition, for eight days, through the Boer lines, to all his garrisons in the Transvaal. The Boer officials engaged to send on such provisions to the garrisons, and the British garrisons were to discontinue hostilities for eight days on arrival of the provisions. Art. 3 provided that Piet Joubert was to make known this agreement of armistice at once to the garrisons, and to the Boer Commanders at such places, etc. On the 6th March, Sir Evelyn Wood, from Mount Prospect, wrote to President Brand, at Bloemfontein, calling on him to sign the agreement of armistice, and asking that the Boer Commander and the Officer in command of the British troops at Potchefstroom be informed, and made to understand that there is no armistice until the provisions have reached the garrisons. This President Brand faithfully carried out, and on the 12th March Messrs. Mallet and Sluymers arrived at Potchefstroom bringing a letter from the President to General Cronje and one to myself, as Commander of the Fort. This letter Cronje refused to deliver, and on the 15th March the Free State Deputation left Potchefstroom, having exhausted their endevours to get the letter delivered at the Fort. On Wednesday, 16th March, the "Staats Kourant" published the agreement of armistice, but this also Cronje withheld from me. On the 18th March I learned some of the above from my spy, who was sent by me into the town the day before. This caused me to write to the Boer Commander, which resulted in the meeting which took place next morning.


In accordance with Article 2 of the agreement, the late Captain Anton, of the 94th Regiment, left Mount Prospect on the 6th or 7th March with provisions for Standerton and Potchefstroom, taking with him the draft agreement. He reached Standerton on the l2th, but could not cross the drift, as the river was in flood. He then went on to Standerton Old Drift, but did not succeed in crossing until about the 26th, onwhich day I was crossing the Vaal River on my way from Potchefstroom to Natal.

On the 16th Captain Mends, of the 60th Rifles, was sent from Mount Prospect with a letter prolonging the armistice to the 18th (4 days) and four days provisions for Standerton and Potchefstroom. Reaching the former place on the 23rd, he found the river in flood, and ultimately crossed it at a drift some miles off, on the 26th. While on the Vaal River on the 20th, he heard that Potchefstroom had fallen,but could get nothing certain until the 30th when he was at Zuikerboschrand River. He then returned to Heidelburg.

After signing the "Treaty of Potchefstroom," the scene changed. All became "couloer de rose."

We went down to the town and looked curiously at the Jail, the Landdrost's office, and other positions, and we were well received by the inhabitants. Bullets had reached them, and shells had missed their mark and falen among them, but they knew we had spared the town and the people in it as much as was possible. Introductions went on all day. There was the Commandant of Schoonspruit, the commandant of Mooi River,


and many others. Why this last-named was so called we do not know to this hour! The commandant of the gun pressed forward for an introduction, and we complimented him on his practice, at which he seemed much pleased. One man was presented to us as "one of our bravest men," and if bravery consisted in stopping bullets he was rightly named, for he had his arm in a sling, one eye covered with a bandage, and a third wound somewhere else. We were invited to breakfasts, luncheons, and dinners, and consumed a quantity of "Dry Monopole" champagne, that was surprising. An invitation to dine at the Royal Hotel with General Cronje was acceptrd. Five of us went to the dinner, and were most hospitably entertained. It was a strange scene, and not easily to be forgotten. There were about 30 at a table - rough, hearty, determined-looking men, of a class to command respect. I speak of the Boers, not Hollanders, who are not good advisers, and on whom the Boers are too dependent. The room was a large one, lined about three deep around the walls by Boers with their rifles, and as many as could see through the windows were there also. We had an excelIent dinner, and went there with the intention of enjoying ourselves, which, in truth, I believe we all did, in spite of little troubles. Our doctor had spoken words of wisdom, counselling moderation, etc., overflowing with sage advice. But none of these he followed himself when time for action came! Many speeches, in Dutch, translated by a Hollander present, of a pleasant, hearty character were made, to all of which a reply had to be given, which took up a good deal of time. Very


were these speeches, and, I fully believe, genuine were the sentiments expressed. The beginning of the end was nearly reached when the Boer Commander, carried away by emotion, wound up in the speech of the evening by proposing to drink, "Success to the Boer arms." I let him have his sweet will, and he resumed his seat amidst tumultuous applause, banging of rifles on the floor, and shouting in the street. The sentiment was rather overpowering, however, even allowing the "Dry Monopole" its due weight, and I saw with alarm the moustache of one of my young Scotch Subalterns positively bristling. I felt thankful that his sword and revolver were in the next room. He looked positive daggers at me, as if I was the real culprit, and I felt that it was do or die with me.


The oration over, I rose, and, after replying to the first part of the speech, told my hearers that the sentiment in the latter part was of a nature to which I could not respond. Anything less like satisfaction at the efforts of an orator it has not been my fate to see, so, thinking to divert the current of their thoughts, I promptly proposed the health of "General Cronje and his officers, who had lately been our enemies, but were now our friends"! Happily, this had the desired effect, and there was some applause and hammering of rifles on the floor. Good feeling culminated when General Cronje gave me his hand across the table, and we drank the toast amidst great excitement from those at the table and the men outside, who seemed fully aware of all that was going on. Our nerves at this time were pretty highly strung, and we were ready for any new adventure, I was, therefore, not surprised at feeling my shoulder touched by a friendly waiter. I put down my hand instinctively, and into it dropped a note, which I read under the table.


This warned me to be careful, as some of the mob outside had determined to shoot me on my way home. This was pleasing news to receive at a festive gathering, and I only hoped that the bullet would miss me and hit - - well, somebody else. After leaving the table, and while in the passage, which was densely crowded, a similar warning was conveyed to me. I said nothing of this to any of my officers, and, knowing a few words of Dutch, I heard General Cronje charging his officers with our safety. I therefore was convinced of the faith of our entertainers. Outside the Hotel I found a buggy waiting to take us home. Two of the chief Boer leaders got into it, and I was invited to sit between them, and two more got up behind, so all that was possible was done to protect us. The rest of my officers were treated in the same kindly fashion. When we got outside it was pitch-dark, and we passed through a dense crowd at a walk, escorted to the Fort by the Boers, and, on arrival there, took leave of them in the most courteous manner. The whole affair was characterised by genuine good feeling, our entertainers doing their utmost to make us feel at home, and I must say they succeeded in this. All our dealings after the capitulation went smoothly, and the Boers seemed anxious that this should be so.


It was arranged that we were to evacuate our position and march from Potchefstroom on the 23rd March. The capitulation, it may he remembered, was afterwards cancelled, and Potchefstroom reoccupied by our troops for a short time. This canceIling was proposed by the Boer Triumvirate, in consequence of the action taken by Cronje in withholding from the garrison, contrary to orders, the terms of the agreement entered into by Sir Evelyn Wood and Piet Joubert on the 6th March, 1881. Had Cronje fulfilled his instructions, affairs would have turned out differently, and the capitulation would not have taken place.

On the night of the 22nd we packed our wagons, and early on the morning of the 23rd "fell in" on the Glacis and marched down to the water-furrow, our Flag at our head, and the bugles playing a march. There was found the Boers 'rawn up - a fine, soldierly lot of men, in number about 400. Previous to marching off Cronje came to me, and with him was a burgher riding a horse, which I was invited to ride. The horses we had bought the day before stood saddled in the ditch. I mounted the horse sent by the Boer General, and my officers mounted those held by their grooms, which most of them then saw for the first time, they having had no time to make choice of animals. There was scarcely a saddle in the lot that had not a bullet-hole through it, and some had several.


At the water-furrow we opened our ranks and laid down our arms, and, soon after, marched off, with part of the Boers as advanced guard, the remainder following behind. Then Cronje made a farewell speech, and his leading men crowded round to grasp our hands and wish us God-speed, no doubt as glad as ourselves that fighting was over. This done, they formed up on each side of the road and saluted us as we marched through their ranks. No troops in any part of the world could have given a more polite a farewell, or behaved mare courteously throughout. Every man, woman, and child was with us in marching from Potehefstroom, except two badly wounded men whom we were forced to leave to the care of the doctors in the town. We continued our march to Vyfhoek, the farm of Captain Baillie, late 7th Hussars, where a halt had been arranged in order to make our arrangements for marching through the Orange Free State into Natal. All the next day we halted there, and met with nothing but kindness from everyone, one Dutchman sending 50 ducks for our hospital, in which we had 23 patients, 15 of whom were wounded.


The day before leaving I rode with one of my officers into the town and visited some of the stores to get some things for the march, including some underclothing, which we were much in want of. These things, the proprietor said, could not be sold, the Boers would not permit it, or something of the sort. We did not understand this, and could get nothing more out of the man, so in the end we had to go away without getting what we wanted. On relating this to our kind host - - for we were all living in his house, - he led us into a room, and there we found everything we had ordered, and many things besIdes, in paper, ready to be packed. His house was turned into a store, but all the things were gifts, freely distributed to all of us. The sick, too, were not forgotten, and I do not believe any soldier went away empty-handed .


One sad duty remained to us before quitting Vyfhoek. And that was the placing in consecrated ground of the remains of our brother officer who fell at the Landdrost's Offiico on the 10th Decemher. A kind friend, the manager of the Standard Bank, had taken the body and buried it in his garden, as the cemetery was not available at the time on acount of its posilion within our lines. His coffin was disinterred by our men and placed in the cemetery. All officers off duty attended to perform this last service of a departed comrade. We had also to bury our two men who had been left, behind the day before, for they, poor fellows, lived onIy long enough to hear our bugles playing us through the town. I do not believe there was a man of our party who did not think of these two, and wish that we had them with us, as we were marching past the hospital where they Iay. Before leaving the churchyard we did all that was possible to the graves of our soldiers who had fallen during the siege, and this work, I am told, was completed by the garrison that went there later.


The casualties during the siege were as follows:-
Killed in action and died of wounds 25
Died of disease   6
Wounded 34
Total 85

These numbers included eight civilians.

Taking into consideration the continuous firing of the most searching and accurate character day and night for 95 days, every bullet directed into a small space of 25 yards square, filled with prople, the marvel is that the loss was not greater.

The casualties in detail were as under:-
Nature of Casy. Offs.N.C.O.'sMen.Civ's.Women.Chldn.Total.
Killed or died of wounds    1     2  19      2    0     1    25
Died of disease    0     1    3      0    1     1      6
Wounded     5     6  40      2    0     1    54
      --    --   ----    --   --   --   ----   ----
Total    6     9  62      4    1     3    85

The above is taken from the official returns, but a good many slight ones were not included in the returns. For instance, the girl who was wounded in the neck was not included. Of these one man was wounded three times, and four men were wounded twice - counting five in the returns instead of eleven.


It is no exaggeration to say that the bullet-holes in our tents numbered several thousand, besides a few round shot. All the hospital tents were completely riddled, and even in the tent where the lady was dying, a round shot struck the pole and covered her with splinters. To give some idea of the gun and rifle fire on one day, I may mention that on the 10th March the enemy had about 70 men guarding their gun. In the interval of loading nearly every one of these discharged a rifle, with the object of keeping down our fire. The gun fired 83 rounds. Therefore, 5,810 rounds (70 x 83) might be estimated to have come from round the gun alone. Besides this a heavy firing was kept up the whole day from the trenches, and a number of volleys were fired into us from all four sides at certain intervals from the sunrise to sunset.

Of the Boer casualties during the siege it is difficuIt to form an estimate. Fifteen burials were known to have taken place in one day. These we had from the best authority, and is all we know for certainty. The Boer leaders in Potchefstroom as in other places, were careful to conceal their losses; and until they dispersed to their homes, the Boers themselves did not know their true losses.


Early on the morning of the 25th March we left our gracious host and set off on our march to Natal, through the Orange Free State, that way being likely to prove more agreeable than through the Transvaal. On the 26th we arrived at De Wet's Drift on the Vaal River, and spent that day and part of the next in crossing the river by the pont or floating bridge. On the opposite hank, in the Free State territory, we halted for two days, enjoying ourselves thoroughly. No more firing or sitting up at night. Nothing but profound repose. We felt like birds let out of a cage, free as the air we lived in. We were entirely in the open, but to that we were accustomed, and really liked it in such a climate as South Africa. Our men made shelters with their blankets, and we officers did the same. The men spent most of the day in the river, washing their clothes and generally enjoying themselves. Letter-writing under a tree took up a good deal of time at the first, and I prepared my report for despatch to head-quarters.


On the 29th we again marched, and arrived in Kroonstad on the 4th April. Here we handed our gun ammunition and smalI arms ammunition to the care of the authorities - as provided for in the treaty made at Potchefstroom - to be retumed to the British Government at the close of the war. We bivouaced by the river among the trees, and received visits without number. We also received invitations to entertainments of all sorts. The Union Jack was displayed all over the town on our arrival, and the people did all in their power to make our stay a pleasant one. One Dutchman hoisted the Flag of the Transvaal Republic, but as we got into the town it was hauled down, some of the people saying we would not like it. A man took the trouble to ride out and tell me this. We were entertained at dinner on the day of our arrival by some hospitable Englishmen, and I must say we spent a very noisy evening. A cricket match was played, which occasioned great excitement, spectators coming from far and near.


On the 11th April we left Kroonstad on our way to Harrismith. On this day also we took leave of the Consul-General for Portugal, the Chevalier Forrsman, and his family. They drove a long way with us on our march, and we shook hands for the last time with the members of this family, with whom we had been so closely associated. Few ladies have had a rougher experience, or gone through one more bravely. We were truly sorry to part, but our roads lay in different directions, so we said goodbye, wondering if we should ever meet again.

We arrived at Harrismith on the 24th April, and remained there three days, resting our sick and making preparations for a fresh start. A ball was got up for us, and we danced until 4 o'clock in the morning. At 8 o'clock that morning most of us were present at a wedding in the English Church, a pretty little edifice on the outskirts of the town. Two hours after this we marched, and crossed the Drakensberg Range into Natal by Van Reenen's Pass, 6,000 feet above sea level, on the 30th April.

On the 2nd May, 1881, we arrived at Ladysmith, having completed our journey all well, and with sick and wounded, who had improved by the march. Here we found tents waiting for us, luxuries we had not known for nearly five months.


The Officers of the garrison were as follows:
Officer Commanding: Major and Brevet Lieut.-Colonel B. W. C. Winsloe, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Officer Commanding Royal Artillery:
Major C. Thornhill, B.A.
Commissariat Officer:
D.A.A.G. W. A. Dunne.

The other Officers were:
Captain A. L. Falls, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers (killed).
Lieut. H. L. M. Rundle, Royal Artillery.
Lieut. P. W. Browne, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Lieut. C. F. Lindsell, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Lieut. K. E. Lean, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers' and
Lieut. J. R. M. Dalrymple-Hay, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers.

Brevet Major M. J. Clarke, Royal Artillery, was in Potchefstroom town as a special commissioner, and on the death of Capt. Falls, at the Landdrost's Office, was the only officer left there.

Corps.Officers.N.C.O.'s and Men.Totals.
Royal Artillery     2        43      45
Royal Scots Fusiliers     4      125    129
Mounted Infantry, Royal Scots Fusiliers      2        24      26
Commissariat     1          7        8
Medical Department     1          4        5
  --    --      ----    ----
Totals:    10      203   213

13191648Eight men, 13 women and 16 children left during the siege.

Conductors.Kaffir Drivers & Leaders.Total.Remarks.
1606148Thirty-nine drivers and leaders left during the siege.

Officers, N.C.O.'s and Men.Refugees.Transport. Total.

Horses.Mules.Oxen. Total.

All these animals, except one horse, had to be turned adrift on the 6th day of the investment.

Mule & ox wagons.Amb. wgns.Water cts.Amm. wgns.TOTAL.


In justice of the little garrison I had the honour of commanding, I subjoin a copy of a District Order issued by the officer commanding in the Transvaal, and with this I close, with what is at least a faithful account of events that will not soon pass from the memory of those who participated in them.

"District Order."
7th April, 1881.

"The Fort at Potchefstroom capitulated on the 21st March, but only when its garrison was reduced to extremity and after as brave a defence as any in Military annals, the troops marching out with the honours of war, and proeeeding through the Orange Free State to Natal. The sterling qualities for which British soldiers have been renowned have been brilliantly shown in this instance, though a long period of privation under very trying circumstances."

"Col. Bellairs begs that Lieut.-Col. Winsloe and the Officers and men under him wiII accept his thanks for the proud and determined way in which they have performed their duty."

By Order.
M. Churchill, Captain,


Extract from the "Western Chronicle and Potchefstroom Budget," dated Wednesday, 21st February, 1906.

The Memorial


"A great improvement has been effected in the tiny cemetery at the Old Fort, where repose the remains of the gallants who fell in the 1881 war. Thanks to the Military Authorities, a party of the 58th Company, Royal Engineers, has been engaged for some time in putting the burial place into order, and in making the precincts more in keeping with the historic and sentimental associations of the little walIed plot. It must be said that the result of the work is highly creditable. A good approach has been made by way of the road leading to the Railway cottages on the East side of the furrow, two bridges have been erected, and the entrance to the cemetery has been put in good order, with whitened stones on either side. Inside the cemetery a fine stone monument, 8 feet in height, has been erected, with a tablet bearing the names of the falIen as follows:-

In Memory
of those of the British
Garrison at Potchefstroom
who died in the war of 1880-81.
Captain A. L. Falls, 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Sergeant Kelvington,Royal Artillery.
Driver Bennett,do.
Driver Crannie,do.
Driver Green,do.
Driver Larkins,do.
Driver Unsworth,do.
Driver Walsh,do.

"C" Company."D" Company.
Corporal J. GartshoreSergeant T. Quegan
Private W. Birmingham Private P. Dobbs
Private W. BoydPrivate J. Jordan
Private J. MullenPrivate A. Laird
Private J. NoblePrivate J. Leishman
Private W. RobertsPrivate W. Kennan

Private J. Watson.
Private J. Bedford Private C. Brownbill
Private W. Grant Private J. Jones

Emily, wife of Dr. Sketchly.
Aleric, son of Chevalier Forssman.
Herbert Talbot Taylor, son of Ruth McIntyre.
One Native, name unknown.

"We congratulate those responsible on a work that reflects credit on themselves and is an improvement in that part of the town."

This booklet was amongst the effects left by my uncle Gordon Bickley who passed away in 2011 and was found in his son Roderick's papers after the latter passed away in September 2019.
Our great grandmother Elizabeth Russell Cameron was in Potchefstroom during the siege and her experiences are described in the general interest diary elsewhere on this web-site

Joan Marsh
March 2020

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /