The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 5 No 2 - December 1980

The Siege of Pretoria, 1880-1881

by Rob Jordan

Editors' note. The fate of the 94th Regiment at Bronkhorstspruit came as a great shock to the British in Pretoria - perhaps not so much the event itself but the disaster to British arms. In fact shots had already been fired in anger in the vicinity of Pretoria before the news of the Bronkhorstspruit debacle reached the capital. The news of the Bronkhorstspruit disaster so shattered Colonel W. Bellairs, commanding British troops in the Transvaal, that he dropped all plans he had made earlier, on receipt of the news that the Boers had reinstated the Transvaal Republic, for sending out two small field columns against the Boer host and even his plan for defending Pretoria itself.

Under the authority of martial law he hustled the whole civilian population out of their houses and into the military camp half a mile south west of the town and another separate defended enclosure nearby, between the Loreto Convent and the gaol, known as the Convent Redoubt. All edibles were commandeered and stored within the lines while the five thousand souls bunkered down to await relief from Natal. For defence Bellairs had five companies of infantry (four from the 2/21st Royal Scots Fusiliers and one from the 94th), a troop of Mounted Infantry, sixty Royal Artillerymen with two nine pounders and an assortment of other guns from the Colonial stores, plus units from the Commissariat and Medical Corps, all told about 700 regular troops. Of Volunteer forces there were 433 Pretoria Rifles and two mounted corps - the Pretoria Carbineers and Nourse's Horse, altogether 640, making a total, with the regular troops, of 1 340 combatants. Two forts were built on the range of hills south of the town. The military camp itself was a barely defensible conglomeration of huts and buildings and Bellairs relied heavily on the forts, the mounted men, and the artillery, to keep the enemy at bay, but the onslaught by six thousand bloodthirsty Boers, so dreaded after Bronkhorstspruit, did not materialize. After a few days British patrols ventured forth cautiously and found they could roam for miles around the town unopposed.

In the Boer capital of Heidelberg Piet Joubert embarked on full hostilities after hearing of the clash with the 94th at Bronkhorstspruit and sent men to besiege all the Transvaal outposts, but unlike the smaller garrisons at Rustenburg, Potchefstroom, and elsewhere, no concerted attack was launched against Pretoria - he was content merely to blockade the large number of troops there and prevent them interfering with his strategy in other sectors.

D.J. Erasmus was appointed Assistant Commandant General and sent from Heidelberg to command the pitifully few besiegers surrounding the town in laagers positioned a considerable distance from it. The first encounter occurred on the 28th of December when a large mounted patrol from the camp flushed out a number of Boers from the 'Red House' laager ten miles to the south. Shots were fired, two volunteers were wounded, and one Boer was killed, before the patrol drew off. Bellairs gathered a large force for a full attack on the same position the next day placing Colonel Gildea of the Fusiliers in command. Bellairs had the good sense to recognize that his own talents lay more in the sphere of administrative staff work than in leading men in battle, and wisely left the fighting to his energetic subordinate. Before dawn on 29 December a force of infantry, mounted men, and artillery, totalling four hundred, moved towards the 'Red House' laager. Gildea however was so anxious to post men along his line of retreat, undoubtedly with the recent disaster to the 94th fresh in mind, that his striking force was sadly depleted by the time he approached the laager, but the mounted volunteers were still with him and eager for action. Seeing Boers retreating they galloped forward to take their cattle and rode straight into a trap; other Boers had stayed behind under cover and received them with a volley, checking the advance and wounding four. The volunteers extricated themselves with difficulty and Gildea brought his force back to camp, explaining lamely that his purpose had been reconnaissance, not assault. In later actions he proved far more confident and aggressive.

A week later, on 5 January 1881, a foraging party to a farm nine miles east of the town spotted another Boer laager three miles further off among the Zwartkoppies in a bend of the Pienaars river. Bellairs again decided to attack and the following morning 462 men set off under cover of darkness. The Pretoria Carbineers under Captain Sanctuary and guided by Corporal W. Struben performed a remarkable feat in riding round the laager undetected and taking up position behind it to cut off the Boer retreat, but at first light they foolishly betrayed their presence and drew fire. Gildea pushed ahead hurriedly with the main attack but the forty Boer defenders under Veldcornet Hans Botha held their ground tenaciously until overwhelmed. Two Boers were killed, three wounded, and fifteen taken prisoner; the rest had ridden away while a flag of truce was flying. Gildea wasted no time in withdrawing to camp as more Boers were riding in from other laagers to investigate. This was the only time during the siege that an attack was pushed to a successful conclusion but the cost to the garrison had been high - six men dead, twelve wounded - and the Boers had inflicted more than three times their own losses on the attackers, a grim warning for the future. Assistant Commandant General Erasmus was criticized after the defeat and replaced by Hendrik Schoeman. It appears that Schoeman inculcated greater alertness among the besiegers and set up a system for distant laagers to communicate by means of signal fires but the records of the Boer command are so meagre it is difficult to assess his contribution accurately. He certainly did nothing to change the essentially defensive tactics.

Ten days after the Zwartkoppies action, Gildea attacked yet another Boer laager - on the Daspoortrand at Elandsfontein nine miles west of the town. Nourse's Horse made fine progress driving in the Boer left flank and Gildea was preparing a final assault when Schoeman arrived with a hundred men just in time to prevent another defeat. Gildea broke off the attack and returned to his base, chased all the way by the Boers. Two men had been killed, eight wounded, and seventeen horses disabled, while the Boers had six men lightly wounded. After this Bellairs saw no point in further costly attacks and remained inactive for a month, allowing nothing more than minor skirmishes. One wonders how a resourceful man, more aggressively inclined, like Baden-Powell, would have behaved - with broken hilly ground north and south of the town, the Boers extended over great distances and numbering less than half the garrison the situation was ideal for a quick strike at one point and an ambush of the reinforcements who were bound to ride in from other laagers. The garrison's artillery gave them a tremendous advantage but Bellairs was content to keep the peace. The wisdom of this policy was confirmed to his own satisfaction on the 7th of February when the Boers passed in news of Colley's defeat at Laingsnek in Natal; any relief column must now be greatly delayed and Bellairs considered it more important to husband resources than to harass the Boers.

Colonel Sir Owen Lanyon took a completely opposite view and itched to be at the Boers, especially as Colley had sent in a message in January requesting the garrison to distract their attention away from his own force. Although the Laingsnek defeat had altered the picture Lanyon managed to persuade Bellairs to launch one more attack on a Boer position. Before dawn on the 12th of February a force of 614 infantry, mounted men, and artillery, - nearly half the garrison's fighting strength, moved out for a second strike at the 'Red House' laager. The result was a humiliating fiasco. The mounted volunteers failed to storm their objective, a cattle kraal near the laager, and before they could be supported the Boers launched a counter attack on the left flank which demoralized the whole force and wounded Gildea who thereupon ordered an immediate retirement. The Pretoria Carbineers were left to cover the retreat while the regular infantry fell back without having fired a single shot. Fortunately for them the Boers did not press the pursuit closely and the force regrouped at the Six-mile spruit and moved back to camp. One man had been killed and seventeen wounded of whom no less than seven subsequently died. Not one Boer had been hit. Bellairs never crossed swords with them again.

The siege dragged on with the garrison unaware of the dramatic developments on the Natal border. The stock of food lasted well, and only in mid-March when rumours began circulating of another Colley defeat did Bellairs halve the normal ration scale. On the 28th of that month three British officers rode in with despatches about the peace terms concluded in O'Neill's cottage. The civilians were aghast that the Transvaal was to revert to Boer rule, the Volunteers roasted an effigy of Gladstone in frustration, and many families resolved to quit the land.

On the 8th of August the Boer government formally took office but the last British soldier marched out of the Transvaal only after a newly elected Volksraad had ratified the peace terms in October.

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