The Free State city of Bloemfontein’s history dates back to 1846, when the British Major H.D. Warden established a military post in the central Transgariep (later known as the Orange Free State, OFS). Given the town’s central geographical position in what is today South Africa, Bloemfontein was of strategic importance, and British soldiers were stationed there – mostly in Queen’s Fort. In 1854 the OFS became independent as a Boer republic, with Bloemfontein as its capital and headquarters of its military forces.
In this article Bloemfontein as military headquarters in the second half of the 19th century is discussed and analysed, with the emphasis on the years 1889 to 1895, when F.W. Reitz was the OFS’s fifth president, i.e. after J.P. Hoffman, J.N. Boshof, M.W. Pretorius and J.H. Brand. By 1889 the OFS was well-established as a state. But how well were the state’s military forces organised and equipped? What did Reitz do to improve matters? And: To what extent was Bloemfontein’s military infrastructure improved in those years? These and related matters will be discussed in the article. After all, soon after Reitz resigned, war clouds started to gather in southern Africa, and in 1899 M.T. Steyn, who succeeded Reitz as OFS president, took his country into war against Britain, on the side of his fellow Boer republic, the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek (ZAR), as the Transvaal was then known, i.e. during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902.
The history of the OFS’s State Artillery is central to the article. After the British withdrew from the Transgariep in 1854, the new OFS was militarily very vulnerable, in particular with regard to the protection of its eastern border with Basotholand (the present-day Lesotho). While J.P. Hoffman was the OFS’s first president (1854–1855) there were cordial relations with the Basotho. But this soon changed, and three OFS-Basotho Wars followed (1858, 1865–1866 and 1867–1868). The OFS’s State Artillery was established in 1857, when J.N. Boshof was the president of the OFS. It is shown how the State Artillery developed under Boshof and under his successor, J.H. Brand, and how this work was continued by Reitz. When Captain (later Major) F.W.R. Albrecht was appointed as the Artillery’s commanding officer in 1880 it was the dawn of a new era in its history. Albrecht was a Prussian who had served in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871. He transformed the OFS State Artillery into a very professional and capable military unit. Several new field artillery pieces (guns) were bought; training was improved; new uniforms were acquired, and an Artillery Band was established. This band played an important role in Bloemfontein’s social and cultural life. The State Artillery’s headquarters in the Bloemfontein (ex-Queen’s) Fort was also modernised and expanded.
The Artillery’s history is closely linked to that of Bloemfontein and its people, as will be shown in the article. Another, but lesser known, military unit’s history (also closely linked to Bloemfontein) is that of the President Brand Rifles. It was established in 1888, i.e. shortly before Reitz became president, and functioned as an independent unit until shortly before the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War. The President Brand Rifles consisted of volunteers, and also had its own band.
In the light of the fact that not much has been published on the topic thus far, the article is based primarily on contemporary newspaper articles, archival sources and government publications. Apart from dealing with military units and their equipment, the article also has a strong cultural-history dimension, because the uniforms of the military units are discussed, as well as their military bands (and interaction with the Bloemfontein community) and architecture (with special reference to Queen’s/Bloemfontein Fort).
In the course of the second half of the 19th century the OFS’s armed forces were gradually expanded and better equipped, but when the Anglo-Boer War broke out in October 1899 the state was, strictly speaking, still ill-prepared for the struggle that followed. The OFS State Artillery played a small but meaningful role in support of the country’s other forces, but at Paardeberg the largest portion of the Artillery (including their commanding officer and most of their guns) fell into British hands when the Boer force of General Piet Cronjé surrendered on 27 February 1900 after a ten-day siege. On 13 March 1900 the British forces, commanded by Lord Roberts, captured Bloemfontein unopposed. Hereafter the town would once again house the British military headquarters.
The article clearly shows that although the OFS’s State Artillery was gradually expanded in the course of the second half of the 19th century and all the state’s presidents, including F.W. Reitz, took a keen interest in the defence of the OFS, it did not save the Boer republic from British conquest in 1900. However, until the British occupation of Bloemfontein in March 1900 the capital city did play an important role as military headquarters, and as such also in the republican war effort. Today (2021) Bloemfontein is still the headquarters of a number of prominent units of the South African National Defence Force, while the Queen’s/Bloemfontein Fort, as well as a number of other structures, remind us of a bygone era.
Keywords: F.W.R. Albrecht; Bloemfontein; Free State State Artillery; military reviews; President Brand Rifles; Queen’s/Bloemfontein Fort; F.W. Reitz