Fort Wonderboompoort, Wonderboompoort Nature Reserve, Pretoria, Gauteng
Fort Wonderboompoort, together with the other three forts built at the same time, is today a historical symbol. It stands as proof of events that played a crucial role in the history and shaping of our country and the city of Pretoria. Even though some of the forts are in ruins (such as Fort Wonderboompoort), they remain as evidence of the pride, perseverence and love with which the people fought for their country and independence, and to protect their people, families and homes. Even though the forts were never used in battle, they were built with the intent to stand strong against an onslaught of an enemy that attempted to break the nation's courage and spirit, and take away all that was important to them.
Current known heritage status
Fort Wonderboompoort is a National Monument (declared in 1987), and is owned by the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality. The council's Museum Division keeps it in a neat condition.
The forts of Pretoria played a small role in a big part of our country's history, and remain today as reminders of these events that shaped our environment into what it is today. Seeing as the forts did not play such a big part in the Anglo-Boer War, there is not as much known about them as one would like. The following is what could be gathered.
History and build-up
The history of Pretoria starts all the way back in 1855. Pretoria was named after Andries Pretorius – a national Voortrekker hero of the Battle of Blood River and major role-player in the negotiations for the independence of the Transvaal. His son, Marthinus Pretorius, also a Voortrekker leader and more importantly, founder of Pretoria, decided to honour his father in this way.
According to Van Vollenhoven (1992), the founding of Pretoria marked the end of the Great Trek.
It is clear (and almost all sources agree), that the forts were built due to a paranoia that was sparked by the failed Jameson Raid of 1895 (Panagos, 2004).
The raid was led by Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, with the aim to support a potential uprising of the “Uitlanders” in Transvaal, caused by their alleged mistreatment by the Boer government. Although abortive, the raid had brought the British within nineteen kilometers of Johannesburg and the slow process of assembling the commandos and execution of the operation revealed serious deficiencies in the defense of the Boere (McGregor, 2010).
Decision to fortify Pretoria
The Jameson raid caused the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek to seriously consider the defense of the Transvaal, and particularly that of its capital city – Pretoria.
The government was restless about the growing number of "Uitlanders" (foreigners) on the Witwatersrand, and, to add to their unrest, maps of Pretoria were found in the trunks of a British spy, Captain Robert White (Van Vollenhoven, 1993). According to Van Vollenhoven (1992), it was also known that the Reformers had a supply camp near Irene, and were planning on invading Pretoria on 27 December 1896.
Commander-General Piet Joubert stated his fear of a march on Pretoria repeatedly, until he was given the order to protect the roads between Johannesburg and Pretoria on 1 January 1896.
Several steps were taken to defend the capital city: weapons training was ordered; more and better field artillery was purchased; but the biggest step taken was the forts that were built.
Former French artillery officer Leon Grunberg drew up a defense plan for Pretoria, relying on eight armoured turrets manned with artillery. Strategic locations for these were identified as: Schanskop, Kwaggaspoort, Daspoortrand, Magaliesberg-West, Wonderboompoort, Derdepoort, Strubenkop and Klapperkop (Van Vollenhoven, 1993).
However, Grunberg’s turrets were found to be inadequate, but the plan of two German engineers (Adolph von Dewitz and Heinrich C. Werner) to build forts was accepted. According to a report by Von Dewitz, the fortification scheme would not only provide protection for Pretoria, but also turn it into a base from which future operations could be launched against the enemy.
It was decided that only four forts would be built, due to a lack of funds. Town engineer E. Lutz and Lieutenant P.C. Paff were also consulted in this matter. On 24 March 1896, the plan to build forts on Klapperkop, Schanskop, Daspoortrand and Wonderboompoort was approved by the Executive Council of the ZAR.
The building of the forts
Fort Schanskop, Fort Wonderboompoort and Fort Klapperkop were designed by the two German engineers Von Dewitz and Werner from the company Schneider and Krupp (also suppliers of artillery equipment to the ZAR). Architect Christiaan Kuntz and building contractor Celso Giri also had a part in the building of these forts. Fort Daspoortrand was built on the design of Grunberg. Consequently, the three German-built forts had corresponding designs, while Fort Daspoortrant differed from them (Van Vollenhoven, 1992).
All four of the forts were earthen redoubts, and earthen protective ramparts were built to shelter the bombproof rooms below. According to Panagos (2004), this idea was derived from European-style fortifications of that time, which originated in the town of Plevna during the Turko-Russian war of 1877.
Labour used in the building of the fort was made up of mostly black labourers and the rest were Italians. Also, the steel used in the construction of the forts came from Germany, and Dutch and German experts were consulted in the technicalities of the fort, such as electricity. All those involved in the construction of the forts took an oath of secrecy.
The four forts were all completed by 1898.
Fort Wonderboompoort, after being completed at a total cost of 49 000 British Pounds, was handed over to President Kruger on 4 September 1897. Financial assistance was received from the German Bank in Berlin (Van Vollenhoven, 1993).
The forts were the most modern structures of their time, and were consequently also equipped with the newest technologies regarding communication. They were also supplied with electricity and running water.
Pentagonal in shape, Fort Wonderboompoort was built with stone from the surrounding environment. As already mentioned, the inspiration for the fortifying earthen ramparts was derived from European-style fortifications of the time. The fort also has strong German influences, seeing as the engineers responsible for its design and construction were German. The fort could accommodate a garrison of 30 men, but was never manned to the full.
Fort Wonderboompoort was the second fort to be taken into use. The officer in charge was Lieutenant J. Wolmarans (McGregor, 2010).
Not a single shot was fired in the forts (in action).
Fort Wonderboompoort’s location enables it to control the northern entrance into the city of Pretoria. Together with the other forts, all important access points into the city were covered. Along with Fort Daspoortrand, the fort would also aid in the control of the western access route.
The fort had the newest communication mediums installed: telephones, and telegraph lines. There was also a telegraph connection to to the Commandant-General’s office.
Water and Electricity
The fort, like all the others, had a machine operator with black helpers who was in charge of the water and electricity supply. Fort Wonderboompoort’s machine operator was Michael August Sauer.
A steam-driven pump station was used to supply the fort with running water. Water was pumped from the Apies River (Van Vollenhoven, 1993) and stored in a reservoir under the ammunition room.
In the machine room, there was also a parrafin engine used to generate the electricity to light up the fort and power the searchlights installed (Ploeger, 1968). The electrical lighting cables were laid in July 1899 by Siemens and Halske.
Grunberg and Leon took it upon themselves to provide the three forts they built with lightning rods after the completion of the forts. These were ordered from a French firm, Arsene Boivin.
Defense and Architecture
Labour used in the fort building consisted mainly of black people, while the rest were Italians. Dutch and German experts were employed for the technical aspects of the fort, while black labourers did the construction. Steel used in the construction process came from Germany, while stone from the surrounding area was used.
The entrance to the fort is a double entrance gateway with large steel doors running on tracks on the ground. This provides additional protection to the fort. The space formed by the two gates is triangular. Attacks from any direction could be warded off with the use of the revolving guns on the fort ramparts. Loopholes were built into the walls to prevent infantry attacks. The pentagonal shape of the fort accommodated the possibility of good frontal firing. Trenches and barbed wire entanglements were employed to enhance the defenses. Rooms (casements) were fortified and made bombproof by a covering embankment. Ramparts were built around the fort to further improve its defenses.
The fort contained the following spaces: entrance gates, stables, officers' quarters, provisions stores, soldiers' quarters, machine room, telegraph room, kitchen, hospital, ammunition store (and reservoir), cannon positions and a drainage furrow [see image at bottom of page for layout]. There is a big open space in the centre of the fort.
Other features of the fort include a substantial earthen ramp sloping up to the top of the fort. It is possible to walk the perimeter of the fort on the northern side. From here, being on raised ground, the fort had a clear view of the surrounding landscape, making it possible to see the approaching enemy.
Initially eighteen gunmen of the Transvaal Staatsartillerie (army) were stationed in the fort, along with a 75mm Creusot gun (better-known as the “Long Tom”), a 37mm Maxim-Nordenfeldt cannon and a Martini-Henry Maxim. Their service in the fort only lasted for about two and a half years before they were gradually withdrawn to where they were needed more (Panagos, 2004). On 5 June 1900 there was only one gunner manning the fort (Van Vollenhoven, 1993). The weapons were also removed with the gunmen.
Hand-over to the British
The forts were gradually evacuated and disarmed, and were thus unmanned by the time the British marched into Pretoria. The reason for this was that men and artillery were needed in the field.
On 4 June 1900 (Panagos, 2004), the British, under command of Field Marshal Lord Roberts, fired upon both Fort Klapperkop and Schanskop, but fire was not returned. When it was apparent that the forts were unmanned and Pretoria unprotected, the town was declared an ‘Open City’ on what is today known as Proclamation Hill. Pretoria was occupied without resistance on the 5th of June 1900.
On inspection by the Royal Engineers, the British were impressed with the forts' construction, particularly with its independent water supply. They improved on a few weak points, after which the forts became a part of the Royal Engineers’ defenses of Pretoria, manned by British garrisons for another two years.
An improvement made to Fort Wonderboompoort was the addition of a stone parapet on the east side (Van Vollenhoven, 1992). Overall improvements to the forts included the addition of corrugated iron loopholed parapets (a double skin of iron sheets filled with shingle) for protection of riflemen.
According to Van Vollenhoven (2004), the 16th Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery had placed a 4,7 inch QF gun on a pivot mounting at each fort, after the Peace of Vereeniging. These were removed again in November of that same year.
The British troops also built other, smaller forts to aid in the defense of Pretoria.
The British vacate the forts
The British infantry garrisons remained in the forts after the war, and only left Wonderboompoort and Fort Daspoortrand (by then called West Fort by the British) in 1904. It seems as if these two forts then became part of the townlands again right after the garrisons left in 1904. They were reserved for public use in July of that year, and from then on they were no longer the property of the military. The other two forts were still occupied until 1912, when the rest of the Imperial forces left the Union of South Africa.
The end of the forts and post-war uses
The forts played no effective role in the defense of the capital city, but rather aided in the British retaining the city.
As already mentioned, the forts were still used for military purposes after the war, but were sadly neglected.
By 1938, Fort Klapperkop and Fort Schanskop were declared National Monuments. In 1966, Klapperkop was restored and turned into a military museum. The same was done with Schanskop in 1978.
Fort Wonderboompoort, however (and Fort Daspoortrand), were initially going to be converted into prisons. This never happened. In 1954, ownership of Fort Wonderboompoort was transferred to the then City Council of Pretoria. It was declared a National Monument in 1987, after being partially restored the previous year.
Mystery surrounding the destruction of the fort
Fort Wonderboompoort (and also Daspoortrand) has a mystery connected to it as to the state of ruin it is found in today. The transformation from fort to ruin happened, without anyone noticing, during the Second World War. In 1940, the forts were still as they had been left, but when people returned after the war in 1945, the forts were in ruins.
Naturally, there are many deductions and speculations surrounding this occurrence. On the one hand, it is said that General Jan Smuts (Prime Minister of South Africa) gave the order for them to be blown up to supposedly exclude the possibility of them being used by the Ossewa Brandwag against South Africa, to prevent them helping the Allies during the war.
In support of this theory, Panagos (2004) states that people living in the area heard explosions coming from the hill on which Fort Wonderboompoort stands. Consequently, this has become the most widely accepted reason for the ruination of Forts Wonderboompoort and Daspoortrand.
On the other hand, another theory (also found in Panagos, 2004), remarks that Gen. Smuts would not do something to increase the tension between the parties at that time. According to Panagos, the forts were not destroyed but dismantled, and the explosions came from a quarry to the east of the fort. Panogos supports his theory, saying that there are no signs that indicate explosions, but many that suggest dismantlement. The reason for dismantling the forts was to acquire the high-grade German steel beams used in the construction of the forts. This steel was then supposedly used in the newly established armaments industry of the Union of South Africa to produce armoured cars and guns made of special steel.
Fort Wonderboompoort today
The fort is now derelict and forms part of the Wonderboompoort Nature reserve. The reserve is in the north of the Magaliesberg Mountains in Pretoria. The two main attractions of the reserve is Fort Wonderboompoort and the Wonderboom Tree – a very unusual, very big fig tree discovered in 1836 by the Voortrekkers and considered sacred by local tribes. A picnic area and several hiking trails lead up to the fort.
The fort’s roof is destroyed and walls show signs of decay, but it is still kept in a neat condition by the Museums Division of the Municipality.
Panagos, D.C. 2004. Military History Journal, Volume 13, No 1. [online]
Available at: <http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol131dp.html>
[Accessed 4 April 2012]
- Meyer, A. and Van Vollenhoven, A.C. 1993. Military History Journal, Volume 9, No 3. [online]
Available at: <http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol093am.html>
[Accessed 4 April 2012]
- McGregor, T. 2010. Pretoria’s Four Forts. [online]
Available at: <http://tonymac04.hubpages.com/hub/Pretorias-Four-Forts>
[Accessed 4 April 2012]
- Van Vollenhoven, A. C. 1992. ‘n Histories-Argeologiese Ondersoek na die Militere Fortifikasies van Pretoria (1880-1902). Pretoria: University of Pretoria.
- Ploeger, J. 1968. Die Fortifikasie van Pretoria. Pretoria: Staatsdrukker.
Architect and Engineers
Fort Wonderboompoort: Then
Fort Wonderboompoort: Now
(Images in this category taken Cari Taljaard)