The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 5 No 2 - December 1980

The Besieged Towns of the First Boer War, 1880-1881

by M. Gough Palmer

Editors' note. The garrisons occupying the seven towns, Pretoria, Potchefstroom, Rustenburg, Marabastad, Lydenburg, Standerton, and Wakkersroom played a significant part, to a greater or lesser degree, in their own way, with fortitude, courage, and determination, during the period of the war. Articles dealing with the sieges of Pretoria and Potchefstroom have preceded this article on the fortunes and privations of the remaining towns.


The garrison at Lydenburg originally consisted of the 94th Regiment, but with the exception of a small detachment, the regiment was withdrawn on 5 December, 1880.

The remaining troops consisted of 54 non-commissioned officers and men of the 94th, a Sergeant and 7 Sappers, RE, eight NCOs and men of the Commissariat and Hospital Corps, with Surgeon Falvey in medical charge, and Conductor Parsons in charge of supplies. Lieutenant Walter Long, a 24-year old junior officer of the 94th, was placed in command, and on receipt of instructions from Pretoria immediately set to work to strengthen the defences. He constructed a fort by erecting stone walls between a number of thatched-roofed huts which were covered with tarpaulins.

An underground magazine was constructed in which over 200 000 rounds of ammunition, left behind by the 94th, was stored. Three months supply of preserved meat, eight months' flour for bread making, and ample supplies of groceries and vegetables provided for a lengthy siege.

On 23 December Long was visited by Dietrich Muller who said he had been deputed by the Boer Government to demand the immediate surrender of the garrison which was refused by Long.

The Boers took up a position two miles off on the road to Middelburg on 3 January, 1881 and commenced their attack on the 6th. Two hundred and fifty men entered the town and proclaimed the Republic, again calling on Long to surrender, which he again refused to do. The Boer force was now estimated at between 500 and 600 men. Approaching to within 250 yards (228 m) of the fort they opened fire, continuing for about 3 hours without harming the garrison. A cannon opened fire on the fort on 8 January but the shells passed harmlessly over. Later a second gun was used against the garrison which caused damage.

Conductor Parsons was prominent on several occasions, leading parties to dislodge the Boers from posts too close to the Fort, crawling up to the 'Old Dutch Laager' and throwing a lighted hand grenade into the camp, causing a stampede, and, on another occasion, he tried to lay a mine but was discovered and obliged to fall back under heavy fire.

On 23 January the water supply was found to be running short and the garrison was placed on short ration until a heavy rainfall on 8 February afforded relief.

On 4 March the enemy successfully set fire to the thatched roofs of the fort. On the morning of 10 March, two men appeared under a flag of truce bearing a letter from Alfred Aylward, formerly editor of the Natal Witness (who had joined the Boer forces), offering favourable terms of capitulation, to which Lieutenant Long replied that he would continue to defend the Fort until he received instructions to the contrary.

On 23 March the Boer Commandant sent in under a flag of truce a copy of the Natal Mercury describing Sir George Colley's defeat and death, and the terms of the armistice, but hostilities continued until 30 March, when Lieutenant Baker of the 60th Regiment arrived with despatches confirming the terms of peace. The siege lasted eighty-four days. Casualties were four killed, including two volunteers, and nineteen wounded.


Marabastad is situated some 165 miles (265 km) north of Pretoria and was the most northerly post of all the places invested by the Boers. It had been established as a military station largely to maintain supremacy over the large native population, estimated to include some 50 000 fighting men.

Captain Campbell, with two Companies of the 94th Regiment, arrived at Marabastad in February, 1880. On 29 November orders were received to march one of the Companies at once to Pretoria. The garrison of some 60 men, under the command of Captain E.S. Brook, remained at the Fort.

On 29 December news of the disaster at Bronkhorstspruit was received, and he was instructed to defend the Fort against attack, in which regard he took immediate steps. The garrison was augmented by some 30 European volunteers and a detachment of Transvaal Mounted Police (natives), about 50 in number, under the command of Captain Thompson. Further entrenchments were made, and a well was sunk, which provided sufficient water throughout the siege.

On 11 January, 1881 a threatening letter was received from the Boer Commandant Barend Vorster. On 19 January a mounted patrol of 15 Police, under Captain Thompson, and 10 volunteers, under Conductor Stoll, were sent to reconnoitre the Sandspruit Laager occupied by the Boers but were attacked by a superior force, suffering one man killed and four wounded.

On 17 March two guns were used against the garrison causing damage to the defences which were repaired during the night. The natives in the district remained loyal to the garrison. At the outset, the Chiefs were ordered to keep quiet and not to engage in the hostilities. Nevertheless they helped by sending in supplies of corn and mealies at night and passing messages through to Pretoria.

On 22 March Captain Brook was informed of the armistice. On 2 April, after an unusually hard fight, a large party of Boers under a white flag was seen approaching. It was established that peace had been arranged, Captain Sampson having arrived with despatches from Pretoria to that effect.

The casualties suffered by the garrison were 5 killed and 8 wounded.


At the time that hostilities commenced, the garrison at Rustenburg consisted of a company of 62 men of the 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers (2nd Battalion) with a few men of the commissariat and Hospital Corps. Captain Auchinleck was in charge, and the garrison was augmented by six of the Rustenburg Rifle Volunteers.

On the opening of hostilities, the fort was strengthened and some small mines were laid. On 24 December, 1880 information was received that a Boer Commando of 600 had assembled and they entered the town on 27 December, demanding the surrender of the garrison at the Fort, which was refused. This garrison endured extreme privations and desolating sickness from 27 December 1880 to 30 March, 1881, shut up in a mud fort only twenty-five yards square. There was never a day on which the Boers did not attack.

A trench was thrown up by the Boers close to the fort and it was then that Captain Auchinleck decided to make a sortie on 4 February. Taking 9 men with him, although he had been shot through the face earlier in the day, Auchinleck set forth after dark and having reached a point within 30 yards of the enemy trench, they were fired on. The occupants of the trench were driven out and after a brisk fire opened up on the fort from all sides, the party withdrew, but not before Auchinleck received another bullet through the elbow.

On 14 March, 1881, the Boers notified the garrison of the terms of the truce and on 30 March Lieutenant Ryder of the 60th Rifles arrived from Sir Evelyn Wood's camp with the news that peace had been negotiated. The siege had lasted ninety-three days, during which there were forty-five days of continuous rain. The casualties had been few, namely Captain Auchinleck wounded on four occasions, while three men were wounded, two dangerously.

(Auchinleck was killed in Burma in 1884 while taking part in the attack on the important town of Toungwingyu on the banks of the Irrawaddy River.)


On 20 December, 1880 two companies of the 94th Regiment under Captain Froom were on the way from Wakkerstroom to join their headquarters in Pretoria. After being stopped by a party of Boers, and also being worried about the fate of the garrison at Standerton, he decided to make for that town, the nearest British garrison.

First photo

Standerton, pre-1881.

Major Montague of the 94th arrived at Standerton from Pietermaritzburg on 24 December to take command of the garrison, which consisted of 3 companies of the 94th (7 Officers and 250 men), one company of the 58th Regiment (1 Officer and 75 men), Mounted Infantry and volunteers (40 men), with a few sappers and men belonging to the Commissariat and Hospital Corps. The civilian population numbered 450.

The garrison improvised a heliograph out of mirrors procured locally. They also constructed a large wooden dummy gun which apparently served a useful purpose and kept the enemy guessing. South of the town, the Vaal River formed a natural protection and forts were built on the surrounding koppies and outworks constructed. First shots were exchanged on 29 December.

On 4 January, 1881 the garrison made its first sortie, the intention being to occupy Stander's Kop from where the enemy fire had proved annoying. An attempt to surprise the Boer piquet which occupied this height by day and was supposed to sleep in a farmhouse beneath the hill at night, ended in the raiding party being themselves surprised by a party of Boers.

A second sortie was made by the garrison on 7 February when the mounted men attacked a small fortification occupied by about 60 Boers some two miles away: Reinforcements to the threatened fortification were ambushed by the raiding sortie. On 7 March the garrison repulsed a determined attack made by the Boers from the south.

Officers bearing the official message from Sir Evelyn Wood rode into the town on 25 March, and so ended the siege, which lasted 88 days, bringing to a conclusion a well sustained resistance with casualties consisting of five killed - 2 privates of the 58th, one of the 94th, and two troopers of the mounted volunteers.


During the earlier part of 1880, the Headquarters of the larger portion of the King's Dragoon Guards, as well as the Headquarters of the 58th Regiment were established at Wakkerstroom. In July and August these troops were withdrawn from Wakkerstroom and replaced by one company of the 94th Regiment under Captain Froom. He was relieved on 17 December by Captain H.M. Saunders, with two companies of the 58th Regiment. The garrison strength consisted of 120 men. Volunteers were called for from the town and about 45 men responded.

On 30 January, 1881, the garrison made a successful raid on a farm occupied by the Boers, capturing 150 horses and cattle, plus blankets and provisions. On 22 February a skirmish took place when the Boers attempted to cut off some natives returning to their kraals near the town. During the fight, Private Mayes' horse was shot, and he was wounded and hid in the long grass. Another dismounted man, Private William Bennett, was shot after being knocked off his horse. His leg was shattered and he lay for two hours in the grass until a Boer, having seen the incident, waved a white cloth and planted it near where the man lay to indicate his whereabouts, and that he needed help. A stretcher party was sent out and he was brought into camp, but amputation of his leg was necessary and he died that night.

Having seen Private Mayes fall, Private James Osborne rode straight from cover to the spot - from two to three hundred yards - in front of a line of some 40 Boers. He managed to drag Mayes on to his horse, and slinging Mayes' rifle over his shoulder, and with bullets flying all round - one hit Osborne's rifle - both men and horse escaped. Their comrades had helped by keeping up an accurate fire on the Boers. Private Osborne was awarded the coveted Victoria Cross for his bravery.

On 24 March Lieutenant Gossett of the 95th Regiment arrived, notifying the garrison that peace had been made.

The casualties during the siege were two killed - Privates William Bennett and Owen Byrne - both of the 58th Regiment.


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