The Pretoria Forts

As a direct result of the abortive Jameson Raid of 1896, the Volksraad of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek realised that they would have to make far better arrangements for the defence of the Transvaal and, in particular, Pretoria. The raiders had penetrated to within nineteen kilometres of Johannesburg. Although General Piet Cronje had succeeded in trapping them at Doornkloof on 2 January 1896 and forcing their surrender, the assembling of the commandos and their supply of weapons and victualling during that operation had been slow and had revealed serious deficiencies. Lord Wellington would have said that ‘ … it was a close-run thing!’

Thus, the Volksraad set about purchasing modern rifles and improving the commando system. Firstly, they ordered more regular wapenschauws at which members of each wyk, aged sixteen years and upwards, were going to be trained to use their newly acquired Martini Henry rifles – and, at a later date, Mausers – on proper rifle ranges, several of which were built at major centres such as Pretoria. and Johannesburg, etc. The claim that a Boer father would hand a twelve-year old a musket and one bullet and then expect him to shoot his supper and that this was the reason why Boer riflemen were far better shots than the British soldiers, was now a legend. Secondly, the Volksraad looked into the question of purchasing better field artillery and approached the French and German firms of Schneider and Krupp respectively for the purchase of modern up-to-date field guns.

However, their biggest expenditure for defence was to be on the construction of eight forts at Pretoria and a single fort at Johannesburg. The ZAR’s Executive Council took the decision to build the forts in March 1896. The Johannesburg Fort was built around the existing prison on Hospital Hill. It was a novel design produced by a military engineer, Mr G H Winsen, and built by local contractors. It was intended to hold in check any rebellious movements or organisations in the town, giving the commandos time to assemble.

The Pretoria forts, however, were designed and built by the same contractors who had supplied the artillery equipments to the republic, namely Schneider and Krupp. When it became evident that the cost of all eight forts was going to be excessive, the decision was taken to build only four: Klapperkop, Schanskop and Wonderboompoort to be built by Krupp; and Daspoortrand to be built by Schneider. The steel used in the construction came from Germany, one firm being NION HORST and the other ROECHLING. (There may have been others).

All four of the Pretoria forts were earthen redoubts with bombproof rooms placed under the earth-protected ramparts. This design had stemmed from a remarkable siege which had taken place at the town of Plevna during the Turko-Russian War of 1877. A part of the Turkish Army, under the command of Osman Pasha, had rushed forward to Plevna in order stop the Russian advance. Here Osman had found a few antiquated stone forts and he proceeded to strengthen these with eighteen hastily thrown-up earthen redoubts. On the arrival of the Russian Army at the town, the stone forts were soon reduced to rubble by the Russian artillery, but the earthen redoubts proceeded to hold out for nearly five months before Osman Pasha surrendered. By that time, Russia was prepared to sue for peace. The Continental military engineers had noted, with interest, the ease with which the earthen ramparts had absorbed the Russian shot and shell. This had set a style of fortification in Europe which would lead to the adoption of this design for the Pretoria forts. All four forts were completed by 1898.

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