On paying a visit to Bloemfontein, one of the attractions to visit is the military museum known as Queen's Fort. Built to protect Bloemfontein, the fort houses artifacts and exhibits from the First World War to present-day military actions in South Africa.
At one of the fort's look-out points there is an interesting old muzzle-loader gun. This is a smooth-bore nine pounder which was manufactured between 1760 and 1820. It was brought out from Great Britain to South Africa for use on the eastern frontier and today there are two similar guns at Fort Frederick in Port Elizabeth. Four such guns were brought to Bloemfontein between 3 September and 19 October 1848 and placed on the four corners of the newly completed Queen's Fort. They were manned by 25 members of the Royal Artillery under the command of a Lieutenant Singer.
With the abandonment of the Orange River Sovereignty by the British, these four Warden guns were presented as a gift to the newly-founded Orange Free State Republic; presumably, they were too heavy and cumbersome to take back to the Cape.
At the first session of the Free State Volksraad in 1854, a salute was to be fired by a Warden gun and the Batavian flag hoisted following a signal to be given at the Raadzaal. Charles Warden, the acting commandant of the Queen's Fort, stood beside the barrel of one gun, ready to hoist the flag. Unfortunately, he looked away at the moment that the signal was given and did not see it. The gunner fired the gun, much to the acting commandant's astoundment and Warden suffered permanent damage to his ear as a result. In his bewilderment, he hoisted the flag upside-down and this was taken by many to be a sign of bad luck for the new republic.
In 1857, President M W Pretorius of the Transvaal Republic laid claim to a part of the Free State. This claim was disputed and war seemed inevitable. The two opposing forces met on the northern Free State plains. One of the Warden nine-pounders, named 'Ou bietjie Vrij staat', was mounted on ox-wagon wheels with great effort and this gun escorted the Free State forces. It was to fire the shot to signal the commencement of the attack by the Free State forces. According to one J H L Kock, however, the gun had 'influenza in die bas' ('influenza in the barrel'), due to old age, and it failed to fire three times. After the third attempt, the opposing forces decided to talk about their differences rather than fight and thus the 'Ou bietjie Vrijstaat' saved the day. (It is interesting to note that this whole incident is not mentioned at all in four of the primary sources on this issue - The Friend, 6 June 1857; Muller's Oude tijden in de Oranje-Vrijstaat; Hofstede's Geschiedenis van den Oranje-Vrijstaat; and Theal's History of South Africa. According to The Friend, the Transvalers were not eager to fight and, seeing the gunner ready to discharge the gun, at least four men, including Paul Kruger, rushed forward with white flags to talk peace.)
At the beginning of the term of President Brand, there were three guns on the comers of the fort, the fourth having been removed. Two of these guns were in a working condition. By the end of the 1870s, one gun was reported to be lying neglected between the boulders of the Fort.
When Paul Kruger visited Bloemfontein on 5 October 1887, a salute was fired from the Fort, described in the Express as 'de gewone donderende saluutschoten van het Fort' ('the usual thunderous firing of the salute from the Fort'). With the first shot, Bianca Reitz, the young wife of Chief Justice and later State President Reitz, who was sick in bed, died. It is quite possible that the Warden gun was not to blame - at that time, the Free State Artillery was using far more modern artillery and, as shown above, most of the Warden guns were in a state of neglect. None of the Warden nine-pounders remained on the parapets of the fort and two guns were being used as ornaments at the entrance to the fort.
In 1884, Charles Warden took one of the guns to Harrismith, where it was placed in front of the City Hall. Today it stands in front of the Commando Office. In 1900, Lord Roberts took two of the guns to Britain as war booty. A photograph taken in Cape Town in 1900 shows that one of the Warden nine-pounders, on its original carriage, was amongst guns captured from Cronje at Paardeberg.
The Warden nine-pounder in Harrismith, which now stands in front of the Commando Office, is still on its original garrison-stand. It bears the Royal monogram of King George III and the weight of 1 620 cwt. Both the calibre and the British Government property mark appear on the carriage. In the case of the gun still in Bloemfontein, which was restored in 1999, the monogram is partly filed off. The weight of this gun, which is used to fire a salute at noon on Fridays, is marked as 1 617 cwt.
Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home pageSouth African Military History Society / email@example.com