In 1880 the Boers of the Transvaal rose against the British government which had been placed over them in 1877. A short campaign ensued, the British troops were defeated, and the Boers won back their self-government.
In the course of this campaign several British garrisons guarding Transvaal towns were cut off and placed in a state of siege. Of these towns only Potchefstroom capitulated before the end of the war, but in circumstances that caused some controversy. The Prime Minister of Great Britain, Gladstone, made this statement in the House of Commons on the 2nd May, 1881 - "The capitulation of Potchefstroom was obtained. . . by an act of treachery on the part of Cronje, who commanded the besieging force, and who never made known to the garrison the fact that an armistice had been concluded." It is worth examining the circumstances of that surrender and whether the charge of treachery was justified.
After the British had been defeated at the battles of Laing's Nek, Schuinshoogte, and Majuba an armistice was signed on the 6th March, 1881, at Laing's Nek by Sir Evelyn Wood for the British and by Piet Joubert for the Boers. This was brought about largely through the efforts of John Brand, President of the neutral Orange Free State, neither of the belligerents having sued for peace.
The armistice provided for a suspension of hostilities for eight days. Schedule 2 stated: "That Sir Evelyn Wood or his successor is free to send eight days provisions and firewood, but no ammunition, through Boer lines, for all his garrisons in the Transvaal, if he thinks proper to do so. That the Boer officers undertake to pass it to such garrisons, and, equally with the British garrisons, to suspend all hostilities for eight days subsequent to the arrival of the provisions . . "
Schedule 3: "That Piet Joubert undertakes to send notice of the conditions of the armistice at once to the respective garrisons and to the Boer commanders there. That he will use his influence to induce these commanders to allow the withdrawal within the British lines in Natal of all wounded in the aforesaid garrisons."
Thus it was made clear that there would be no armistice in the besieged towns until the provisions arrived. These were despatched from Laing's Nek by ox-wagon within a frw days of the signing.
Piet Joubert wrote a letter to Paul Kruger enclosing the terms of the armistice and requesting him to transmit these to the besieged towns. This letter was received in Heidelberg on the 10th March. Kruger in turn forwarded this letter to Piet Cronje at Potchefstroom, with a covering letter of his own. He made it clear that Cronje was to inform the British garrison of the terms of the armistice but that hostilities were to cease only after the arrival of the provisions, and until such time nobody was allowed to leave or enter the British camp. Cronje received these instructions on the 12th.
On the same day, while he was having copies made for transmission to other parts of the Transvaal, and before he had informed the British garrison, a certain G. P. Mollett arrived from the Orange Free State with a message from President Brand.
It had happened that on the 6th March Sir Evelyn Wood had sent a telegram to Brand outlining the terms of the armistice and requesting him to inform the Boer and British forces at Potchefstroom of these terms. His reason for doing this is not known. Perhaps he thought the news would travel more quickly via the O.F.S. or mistrusted the Boer leaders to carry out their instructions. In accordance with Wood's request Brand wrote two letters, one to Cronje and one to the officer commanding the British garrison which he despatched by messenger. It was these letters which Mollett bore.
In the letter to Cronje Brand reproduced Wood's telegram and asked him that the British commander of the garrison be allowed to receive a letter of similar contents, to be delivered by some person trusted by both sides.
Cronje now apparently became "confused". On the one hand he had instructions from his own government that nobody was to enter the British camp, and now President Brand was requesting that a sealed letter be delivered personally to the British commander. He referred the matter to a local Council of War. This "krijgsraad" decided to request further instructions from the Boer government in Heidelberg. Until they received such instructions the letter from Brand to the British commander would be held in safekeeping and the British garrison remain uninformed of the armistice terms. The request was despatched on the 16th March.
Cronje's decision and that of the krijgsraad are not beyond criticism. Clear instructions had been received from their government which should have been carried out immediately. Brand's request could have been dealt with afterwards. This failure of Cronje to inform the British garrison had several repercussions.
As it happened it was not long before the British force learnt of the armistice through its own resources. By the middle of March Winsloe, the officer commanding, realized that he could not hold out very much longer. His garrison of over 200 had been confined to an uncovered rough earthwork fbrt 25 yards square since 16th December, 1880. Food supplies were very low and of poor quality and he had many sick and wounded to tend.
On the 17th March, therefore, a spy was sent out to obtain news. He returned on the 18th bringing with him "the latest papers", one of which must have been the Staats Courant of the 16th March; this was printed in Potchefstroom and carried the terms of the armistice and Wood's telegram to Brand.
Early in the morning of the 19th Winsloe addressed a letter to Cronje which began, "Sir, it has come to my knowledge that an agreement in regard to an armistice for eight days has been entered into between Maj-Gen Sir E. Wood. . . and Commandant-General P. Joubert", and proceeded to detail the terms of the armistice regarding the delivery of provisions and Joubert's undertaking to have the garrisons informed. He added that he had information that the provisions intended for his garrison had been held up by the Boers outside the town, and ended by writing, "I have the honour therefore to request that you will do me the honour of granting me a personal interview for the purpose of arranging for and carrying out the terms of the agreement."
Cronje replied declaring himself ready to abide by the agreement in accordance with the instruction of his Government. He denied that the provisions had been held up near Potchefstroom and promised to inform Winsloe as soon as they did arrive.
Winsloe replied requesting an interview for the purpose of confronting Cronje with certain documents. Cronje consented and a meeting was arranged for noon that day (19th).
The meeting took place, but before entering a tent to commence formal discussions Winsloe read out to Cronje the terms of the armistice and Wood's telegram to Brand and demanded to know why Cronje had not passed on this information to himself. Cronje stated that "something had occurred" requiring him to obtain fresh instructions from his Government. In reply to a further question from Winsloe he again denied knowledge of the whereabouts of the provisions meant for the garrison. They then entered the tent and began negotiations.
Winsloe proposed that the armistice declared in Natal be made to apply at Potchefstroom at once, before the arrival of the provisions. Cronje said he had orders forbidding such a move. After some parleying Winsloe asked for a 24-hour truce to allow himself time to discuss the situation with his officers. This was granted him.
Winsloe appears not to have accepted Cronje's assurances that the provisions were not close at hand, or his promise that they would be allowed to pass freely to the British garrison. Lieutenant Hay, one of Winsloe's officers, described the situation in a pamphlet published after the war, "We learnt that it was hopeless to expect the Boers to allow provisions to come into us." Winsloe and his officers agreed unanimously to capitulate and evacuate the fort under certain conditions.
The following day (20th) Winsloe placed his offer before Cronje and an agreement was reached. The British were to abandon their positions "with all military honours", private property to be retained but their two artillery pieces and their rifles to be surrendered. All ammunition was to be kept but handed over to the Orange Free State for safekeeping until after the war. The British troops were to be on parole not to take part in the present hostilities again. They were to be escorted to the Orange Free State by a Boer force, from where they could make their way to Natal.
This agreement was signed on the 21st March and the siege of Potchefstroom came to an end. Two days later the war ended with the signing of peace terms at O'Neill's cottage, Laing's Nek.
No unbiased person could describe Cronje's behaviour as treachery. Admittedly he did not immediately inform Winsloe of the armistice terms and for this he can be criticised, but even had he done so the mere knowledge would not have helped Winsloe much. There was no obligation on the Boers to suspend hostilities until the provisions for the garrison arrived, and these were nowhere near at the time, in fact they arrived only long afterwards, having been delayed by swollen rivers.
Winsloe apparently did not trust Cronje. When he learnt that Cronje had withheld the news of the armistice from him, albeit on some excuse, he no doubt concluded that the provisions would be similarly withheld, despite Cronje's assurances. After the defeats in Natal he knew he had little hope of being relieved in the near future. Only one sensible course remained open to him - to capitulate under as favourable terms as possible and save as many of his garrison as he could.
The capitulation raised a little storm of controversy during which Cronje came in for much vilification, although it was hardly his fault if Winsloe had doubted his word and surrendered as a result.
On the 29th March Lord Kimberley, Secretary of State for the Colonies, addressed a telegram to Sir Evelyn Wood enquiring into the circumstances of the surrender and whether Joubert had complied with the terms of the armistice.
On the 8th April Wood met the Boer leaders at Heidelberg who, in his own words, "apologised for Cronje's dishonourable conduct in withholding the terms of the armistice from the Potchefstroom garrison, and they begged to be absolved from any complicity in the act, which they desired should be undone as soon as possible by the surrender being cancelled, and the arms and ammunition returned." They also offered Wood the opportunity of restoring the garrison to the Potchefstroom fort.
This action of the Boer leaders was taken before they had heard Cronje's report. It is probable that they were not in possession of all the facts and were merely trying to placate Sir Evelyn Wood. And there is no doubt that Wood needed placating. He was in command of a British army which had been beaten and humiliated by the Boers in battle and then prevented from avenging itself by the opening of peace negotiations. The Boer leaders were making sure that Wood was given no possible cause for complaint or any pretext for re-opening hostilities.
Wood agreed that the surrender be cancelled and the guns and rifles returned, but declined the offer to re-garrison the town. Lord Kimberley, however, insisted on the latter being carried out.
Plans were made for a force of British troops to march to Potchefstroom with a strong escort, to hoist the Union Jack there to demonstrate that the surrender had been caneelled, and then return to Natal. In Newcastle Wood arranged to have two Boers kept hostage while this force was marching through the Transvaal, and a third Boer to travel with the force itself as insurance against attack, and to act as guide. These precautions were taken in spite of assurances from the Boer leaders that no harm would come to the troops.
The new 'garrison' and escort set out for Potchefstroom at the end of May and arrived on the 15th June without incident. It camped there for three nights and then returned to Natal. Thus was wounded British pride soothed.
Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home pageSouth African Military History Society / firstname.lastname@example.org