1899 - 1902

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THE SIEGE OF PRETORIA


As may be remembered, Sir Owen Lanyon's proclamation announcing martial law was read, and the town handed over to the military government. Colonel Gildea  (introduced by Colonel Bellairs) acted as Commandant of the Garrison, Major F. Mesurier, R.E., was in charge of the Infantry Volunteers, and Captain Campbell, 94th Regiment, filled the post of Provost-Marshal. Sympathisers with  the Boers were ordered to leave the place on pain of being handed over to the Provost-Marshal to be dealt with by military law.

It was decided to evacuate the town, and form two laagers, one at the camp, and one between the  Roman Catholic Church and the jail. In the camp the women and children were to be placed, while the Infantry Volunteers garrisoned the convent laager. Within the convent, women and children were packed tightly as sardines,  while the nuns turned out on errands of mercy. All night and all day, scarcely stopping to eat a mouthful, men worked, sandbagging windows and doors, building barricades and defences of various kinds. Waggons were sent round to  gather ~l families within the shelter of the camp. Rich and poor, good and bad, some 4000 souls, were herded together in tents for their protection. Here they remained for three months, enduring hardships of the most  variegated and worrying kind, and loyally waiting for the relieving column that never came.

Descriptions of the rations served out to each man daily are not appetising: Bread, I¼ lb., or biscuit, 1 lb.; coffee, ¥? oz.; sugar,  2½ oz.; meat, 1¼lb.; tea, ¥? oz. ; and salt, ½ oz These were reduced as the siege proceeded. The meat was trek beef, a leathery substitute for steak, and the biscuits were veterans, having "served" in  the Zulu and Sekukuni campaigns, and now being nothing better than a swarm of weevils. Life in Pretoria was enlivened by occasional sorties against the Boer laagers, where the enemy was supposed to number some 800strong. The  laagers were distributed at distances of four and eight miles from the town, and were connected by a system of patrolling, which rendered communication from within or without almost impossible. A few messengers (natives)  occasionally came into the town, but these were mostly charged with the delivery of delusive messages invented for special purposes by the Boers. There was an ever-present difficulty-that of keeping the natives in check. Many  examples of Boer cruelty to these poor blacks are recorded, and they naturally shuddered at the prospect of once more being delivered over to the rule of the sjambok.

Mr. H. Shepstone, the Secretary for native affairs, took  immense pains to keep 'things quiet among the various chiefs. He said he had but to lift his little finger, and the Boers would not hold the field for a couple of days. Almost every native he knew would be in arms, and by sheer  weight of numbers would overpower the Boers. Several of the chiefs sheltered refugees, and Montsiwe gathered his force in the hope that he would be allowed to come to the relief of Potchefstroom. Government reports regarding  the loyalty of the natives were numerous, and the natives' longing to come to the assistance of the British in fighting their ancient oppressors was obvious. The subsequent desertion of these people whom Great Britain had taken  under her wing, is one of the most grievous of the many grievous things that accrued from the exercise of British "magnanimity." Sir Morrison Barlow and Sir Evelyn Wood both agreed that the natives were "British  to a man!" They were thoroughly sick of Boer cruelty, and the Kaffirs and Basutos had learnt to look to Great Britain for a reign of peace. Rather than again be ruled by the Boer despots, they were ready to spill the last  drop of their blood, and only the high principled, almost quixotic action of the British officials prevented the utilisation in extremity of this massive and effective weapon of defence. Besides the garrison in Pretoria there  were other forts defended by soldiers and loyalists, forts which were none of them taken by the enemy. These were Potchefstroom, Rustenburg, Sydenburg, Marabastad, and Wakkerstroom. The fort of Potchefstroom was surrendered  during the armistice by fraudulent representations on the part of the Boers.

The absorbing topic of the time was naturally the future of the Transvaal. Hope warmed all hearts and helped every one to keep up a fictitious air  of cheerfulness. All thought that the rebellion would serve to strengthen the British in their determination to establish an effectual Government in the country and promote an enduring peace. The suspicion that the territory  would' be given back would have come on these hoping, waiting, and longing sufferers like a blast from the pole. Fortunately it was not given to them to foresee the humiliating end of their staunch endurance. Anathemas long and  deep were sounded at the mention of Dr Jorissen, who was looked upon as the fuse which set alight the rebellious temper of the Boers.

The enemy, however, never directly attacked the town. They contented themselves with  attempting to steal cattle and skirmishing, and generally harassing those within. Such fights as these were mainly due to British initiative, and these were not fraught with success to us. Of this period it is pitiful to write.  British valour and endurance were exhibited to the uttermost, and many gallant actions at different sorties might be recorded. So also might be given, did space allow, many instances of Boer cunning and Boer treachery-notably  the acts of firing on the flag of truce, and on ambulance waggons. There can be no doubt that the firing on the flag of truce by the Boers was intentional. Their own explanation of the cause of this uncivilised proceeding may  be taken for what it is worth. It appears that their troops were divided in opinion-that one party wished to continue fighting while another wished to surrender Hence the exhibition of double-dealing which had so confounding an  effect on their enemies, and so convenient a one for themselves. The Boers on the Majuba Hill fired on a flag of truce, the attack at Bronker's Spruit was made under cover of the white flag, and delay at Ingogo, to cover their  movement from shelter, was gained by means of the same vile expedient.

When the news of the British reverses at Laing's Nek and Majuba reached Pretoria there was general consternation. But, as yet, none knew of the crushing  blow that was still in store. On the 28th, 102days after the hoisting of the Republican flag at Heidelberg, there came the almost incredible news that a peace had been concluded involving the surrender of the Transvaal  to the Boers. At first it seemed impossible that the British Government.

I could have consented to leave its loyal supporters in the terrible position in which they now found themselves. All who had sat patiently through  trouble and trial, working with might and main, suffering from endless ills, in peril of their lives, and deprived of property and home, now joined in one heartrending wail of woe and disappointment. The consternation that  followed the announcement of the ignoble surrender is thus described by Mr. Nixon, who 'was an eye-witness and sharer of the general grief and humiliation.

"The scene which ensued baffles description. The men hoisted the  colours half-mast high. The Union Jack was pulled down and dragged through the mud. The distinctive ribbons worn round the hats of the men as badges were pulled off and trampled underfoot. I saw men crying like children with  shame and despair. Some went raving up and down that they were Englishmen no longer; others, with flushed and indignant faces, sat contemplating their impending ruin, 'refusing to be comforted'. It was a painful, distressing,  and humiliating scene, and such as I hope never to witness again. While I write, the remembrance of it comes vividly before me; and as T recall to mind the weeping men and women, the infuriated volunteers, and the despairing  farmers an4 storekeepers, half crazy with the sense of wounded national honour, and the prospect of loss and ruin before them, my blood boils within me, and I cannot trust myself to commit to paper what I think. The lapse of  two years has but deepened the feeling which I then experienced. The subject may perhaps be only unpleasant to people at home, but to me personally, who have seen the ruin and dismay brought upon the too credulous loyalists,  the recollections it stirs up are more bitterly mortifying than words can describe."

Mr. Rider Haggard, who at this time was at Newcastle, has also recorded his experiences on the unhappy occasion. He says

"Every  hotel and bar was crowded with refugees who were trying to relieve their feelings by cursing the name of Gladstone with a vigour, originality, and earnestness that I have never heard equalled; and declaring in ironical terms  how proud they were to be citizens of England-a country that always kept its word. Then they set to work with many demonstrations of contempt to burn the effigy of the right honourable gentleman at the head of her Majesty's  Government, an example, by the way, that was followed throughout South Africa." Talking of the loyal inhabitants in the Transvaal on whom the news burst 'like a thunderbolt,' he explains that they did not say much-because  there was nothing to be said I They simply packed up their portable goods and chattels, and made haste to leave the country, "which they well knew would henceforth be utterly untenable for Englishmen and English  sympathisers." Here was another great trek-a pathetic exodus of British loyalists whom Great Britain had betrayed. Away they went, these poor believing and deceived people, to try and make new homes and new fortunes, for  as soon as the Queen's sovereignty was withdrawn houses and land were not worth a song, and their chances of earning a living were now entirely over, on account of their mistaken loyalty.

The condition of the town is thus  described in a journal of the period :-"The streets grown over with rank vegetation; the water furrows unclean and unattended, emitting offensive and unhealthy stenches; the houses showing evident signs of dilapidation and  decay ; the side paths, in many places, dangerous to pedestrians-in fact, everything the eye can rest upon indicates the downfall which has overtaken this once prosperous city. The visitor can, if he be so minded, betake  himself to the outskirts and suburbs, where he will perceive the same sad evidences of neglect, public grounds unattended, roads uncared for, mills and other public works crumbling into ruin. These palpable signs of decay most  strongly impress him. A blight seems to have come over this lately fair and prosperous town. Rapidly it is becoming a 'deserted village,' a 'city of the dead."