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With the Boer Forces by  Howard C. Hillegas


 

 

THE GENERALS OF THE WAR

[173] THE names and deeds of the men who led thirty thousand of their fellow-peasants against almost a quarter of a million of the trained troops of the greatest empire in the world, and husbanded their men and resources so that they were enabled to continue the unequal struggle for the greater part of a year will live for ever in the history of the Dark Continent. When racial hatred and the bitternesses of the war have been forgotten, and South Africa has emerged from its long period of bloodshed and disaster, then all Afrikanders will revere the memory of the valiant deeds of Cronje, Joubert, Botha, Meyer, De Wet, and the others who fought so gallantly in a cause which they considered just and holy. Such noble examples of heroism as Cronje's stand at Paarde- [174] berg, Botha's defence of the Tugela and the region east of Pretoria; De Wet's warfare in the Free State, and Meyer's fighting in the Transvaal will shine in African history as long as the Southern Cross illumes the path of civilised people in that region. When future generations search the pages of history for deeds of valour they will turn to the records of the Boer-British war of 1899-1900, and find that the military leaders of the farmers of South Africa were not less valorous than those of the untrained followers of Cromwell or William of Orange, the peace-loving mountaineers of Switzerland, or the patriotic countrymen of Washington.

The leaders of the Boer forces were not generals in the popular sense of the word. Almost without exception, they were men who had no technical knowledge of warfare; men who were utterly without military training of any nature, and who would have been unable to pass an examination for the rank of corporal in a European army. Among the entire list of generals who fought in the armies of the two Republics there were not more than three who had ever read military works, and Cronje was the only one who ever studied the [175] theory and practice of modern warfare, and made an attempt to apply the principles of it to his army. Every one of the Boer generals was a farmer who, before the war, paid more attention to his crops and cattle than he did to evolving ideas for application in a campaign, and the majority of them, in fact, never dreamed that they would be called upon to be military leaders until they were nominated for the positions a short time before hostilities were commenced. Joubert, Cronje, Ferreira, and Meyer were about the only men in the two Republics who were certain that they would be called upon to lead their countrymen, for all had had experience in former wars; but men like Botha, De Wet, De la Rey, and Snyman, who occupied responsible positions afterward, had no such assurance, and naturally gave little or no attention to the study of military matters. The men who became the Boer generals gained their military knowledge in the wilds and on the veld of South Africa where they were able to develop their natural genius in the hunting of lions and the tracking of game. The Boer principle of hunting was precisely the same as their method of warfare and consequently the man who, in times of peace, [176] was a successful leader of shooting expeditions was none the less adept afterward as the leader of commandos.

When the Volksraad of the Transvaal determined to send an ultimatum to Great Britain, it was with the knowledge that such an act would provoke war, and consequently preparations for hostilities were immediately made. One of the first acts was the appointment of five assistant commandant-generals—Piet Cronje, Schalk Burgher, Lucas Meyer, Daniel Erasmus, and Jan Kock—all of whom held high positions in the Government, and were respected by the Boer people. After hostilities commenced, and it became necessary to have more generals, six other names were added to the list of assistants of Commandant-General Joubert—those chosen being Sarel Du Toit, Hendrik Schoeman, John De la Rey, Hendrik Snyman, and Herman R. Lemmer. The selections which were so promiscuously made were proved by time to be wise, for almost without exception the men developed into extraordinarily capable generals. In the early part of the campaign many costly mistakes and errors of judgment were made by [177] some of the newly-appointed generals, but such misfortunes were only to be expected from men who suddenly found themselves face to face with some of the best-trained generals in the world. Later, when the campaign had been in progress for several months, and the farmers had had opportunities of learning the tactics of their opponents, they made no move unless they were reasonably certain of the result.

One of the prime reasons for the great success which attended the Boer army before the strength of the enemy's forces became overwhelming, was the fact that the generals were allowed to operate in parts of the country with which they were thoroughly acquainted. General Cronje operated along the western frontiers of the Republics, where he knew the geographical features of the country as well as he did those of his own farm. General Meyer spent the greater part of his life in the neighbourhood of the Biggarsberg and northern Natal, and there was hardly a rod of that territory with which he was unfamiliar. General Botha was born near the Tugela, and, in his boyhood days, pursued the buck where afterward he made such a brave resistance against the forces of [178] General Buller. General Christian De Wet was a native of Dewetsdorp, and there was not a sluit or donga in all the territory where he fought so valiantly that he had not traversed scores of times before the war began. General De la Rey spent the greater part of his life in Griqualand West, Cape Colony, and when he was leading his men around Kimberley and the south-western part of the Free State he was in familiar territory. General Snyman, who besieged Mafeking, was a resident of the Marico district, and consequently was acquainted with the formation of the country in the western part of the Transvaal. In the majority of cases the generals did not need the services of an intelligence department, except to determine the whereabouts of the enemy, for no scouts or patrols could furnish a better account of the nature of the country in which they were fighting than that which existed in the minds of the leaders. Under these conditions there was not the slightest chance for any of the generals falling into a trap laid by the enemy, but there always were opportunities for leading the enemy into ambush.

The Boer generals also had the advantage of [179] having excellent maps of the country in which they were fighting, and by means of these they were enabled to explain proposed movements to the commandants and field-cornets who were not familiar with the topography of the land. These maps were made two years before the war by a corps of experts employed by the Transvaal Government, and on them was a representation of every foot of ground in the Transvaal, Free State, Natal, and Cape Colony. A small elevation near Durban and a spruit near Cape Town were marked as plainly as a kopje near Pretoria, while the British forts at Durban and Cape Town were as accurately pictured as the roads that led to them. The Boers had a map of the environs of Ladysmith which was a hundred times better than that furnished by the British War Office, yet Ladysmith was the Natal base of the British army for many years.

The greater part of the credit for the Boers' preparedness must be given to the late Commandant-General Piet J. Joubert, who was the head of the Transvaal War Department for many years. General Joubert, or "Old Piet," as he was called by the Boers, to distinguish him from the [180] many other Jouberts in the country, was undoubtedly a great military leader in his younger days, but he was almost seventy years old when he was called upon to lead his people against the army of Great Britain, and at that age very few men are capable of great mental or physical exertion. There was no greater patriot in the Transvaal than he, and no one who desired the absolute independence of his country more sincerely than the old general; yet his heart was not in the fighting. Like Kruger, he was a man of peace, and to his dying day he believed that the war might have been avoided easily. Unlike Kruger, he clung to the idea that the war, having been forced upon them, should be ended as speedily as possible, and without regard to the loss of national interests. Joubert valued the lives of the burghers more highly than a clause in a treaty, and rather than see his countrymen slain in battle he was willing to make concessions to those who harassed his Government.

Joubert was one of the few public men in the Transvaal who firmly believed that the differences between the two countries would be amicably adjusted, and he constantly opposed the measures [181] for arming the country which were brought before him. The large armament was secured by him, it is true, but the Volksraads compelled him to purchase the arms and ammunition. If Joubert had been a man who loved war he would have secured three times as great a quantity of war material as there was in the country when the war was begun; but he was distinctly a man who loved peace. He constantly allowed his sentiments to overrule his judgment of what was good for his country, and the result of that line of action was that at the beginning of hostilities there were more Boer guns in Europe and on the ocean than there were in the Transvaal.

General Joubert was a grand old Boer in many respects, and no better, more righteous, and more upright man ever lived. He worked long and faithfully for his people, and he undoubtedly strove to do that which he believed to be the best for his country, but he was incapable of performing the duties of his office as a younger, more energetic, and a more warlike man would have attended to them. Joubert was in his dotage, and none of his people were aware of it until the crucial moment of the war was passed. When he [182] led the Boers at Majuba and Laing's Nek, in 1881, he was in the prime of his life—energetic, resourceful, and undaunted by any reverses. In 1899, when he followed the commandos into Natal, he was absolutely the reverse—slow, wavering, and too timid to move from his tent. He constantly remained many miles in the rear of the advance column, and only once went into the danger zone, when he led a small commando south of the Tugela. Then, instead of leading his victorious burghers against the forces of the enemy, he retreated precipitately at the first sign of danger, and established himself at Modderspruit, a day's journey from the foremost commandos, where he remained with almost ten thousand of his men for three months.

Joubert attempted to wage war without the shedding of blood, and he failed. When General Meyer reported that about thirty Boers had been killed and injured in the fight at Dundee, the Commandant-General censured him harshly for making such a great sacrifice of blood, and forbade him from following the fleeing enemy, as such a course would entail still greater casualties. When Sir George White and his forces had been im- [183] prisoned in Ladysmith, and there was almost a clear path to Durban, Joubert held back and would not risk the lives of a few hundred burghers, even when it was pointed out to him that the men themselves were eager to assume the responsibility. He made only one effort to capture Ladysmith, but the slight loss of life so appalled him that he would never sanction another attack, although the town could easily have been taken on the following day if an attempt had been made. Although he had a large army round the besieged town he did not dig a yard of entrenchment in all the time he was at Modderspruit, nor would he hearken to any plans for capturing the starving garrison by means of progressive trenches. While Generals Botha, Meyer, and Erasmus, with less than three thousand men, were holding the enemy at the Tugela, Joubert, with three times that number of men to guard impotent Ladysmith, declined to send any ammunition for their big guns, voted to retreat, and finally fled northward to Colenso, deserting the fighting men, destroying the bridges and railways as he progressed, and even leaving his own tents and equipment behind.

There were extenuating circumstances in con- [184] nection with Joubert's failure in the campaign—his age, an illness, and an accident while he was in laager—and it is but charitable to grant that these were fundamentally responsible for his shortcomings, but it is undoubted that he was primarily responsible for the failure of the Natal campaign. The army which he commanded in Natal, although only twelve or thirteen thousand men in strength, was the equal in fighting ability of seventy-five thousand British troops, and the only thing it lacked was a man who would fight with them and lead them after a fleeing enemy. If the Commandant-General had pursued the British forces after all their defeats and had drawn the burghers out of their laagers by the force of his own example, the major part of the history of the Natal campaign would have been made near the Indian Ocean instead of on the banks of the Tugela. The majority of the Boers in Natal needed a commander-in-chief who would say to them "Come," but Joubert only said "Go."

The death of General Joubert in Pretoria, on March 26th, was sincerely regretted by all South Africans, for he undoubtedly was one of the most distinguished men in the country. During his [185] long public career he made many friends who held him in high honour for his sterling qualities, his integrity, and his devotion to his country's cause. He made mistakes—and there are few men who are invulnerable to them—but he died while striving to do that which he regarded the best for his country and its cause. If dying for one's country is patriotism, then Joubert's death was sweet.

When war-clouds were gathering and the storm was about to burst over the Transvaal Piet Cronje sat on the stoep of his farmhouse in Potchefstroom, evolving in his mind a system of tactics which he would follow when the conflict began. He was certain that he would be chosen to lead his people, for he had led them in numerous native wars, in the conflict in 1881, and later when Jameson made his ill-starred entry into the Transvaal. Cronje was a man who loved to be amid the quietude of his farm, but he was in the cities often enough to realise that war was the only probable solution of the differences between the Uitlanders and the Boers, and he made preparations for the conflict. He studied foreign military methods and their application to the Boer warfare; he evolved new [186] ideas and improved old ones; he planned battles and the evolutions necessary to win them; he had a natural taste for things military.

Before all the world had heard the blast of the war-trumpet, Cronje had deserted the peaceful stoep and was attacking the enemy on the veld at Mafeking. A victory there, and he was riding at the head of his men toward Kimberley. A skirmish here, a hard-fought battle there, and he had the Diamond City in a state of siege. Victories urged him on, and he led the way southward. A Magersfontein to his wreath, a Belmont and a Graspan—and it seemed as if he were more than nominally the South African Napoleon. A reverse, and Cronje was no longer the dashing, energetic leader of the month before. Doggedly and determinedly he retraced his steps, but advanced cautiously now and then to punish the enemy for its over-confidence. Beaten back to Kimberley by the overpowering force of the enemy, he endured defeat after defeat until finally he was compelled to abandon the siege in order to escape the attacks of a second army sent against him. The enemy's web had been spun around him, but he fought bravely for freedom [187] from entanglement. General French was on one side of him, Lord Roberts on another, Lord Kitchener on a third—and against the experience and troops of all these men was pitted the genius of the Potchefstroom farmer. A fight with Roberts's Horse on Thursday, February 15th; a march of ten miles and a victorious rear-guard action with Lord Kitchener on Friday; a repulse of the forces under Lords Roberts and Kitchener on Saturday, and on Sunday morning the discovery that he and his four thousand men in the river-bed at Paardeberg were surrounded by forty thousand troops of the enemy—that was a four days' record which caused the Lion of Potchefstroom merely to show his fangs to his enemy.

When General Cronje entered the river-bed on Saturday he was certain that he could fight his way out on the following day. Scores of his burghers appealed to him to trek eastward that night, and Commandant-General Ferreira, of the Free State, asked him to trek north-east in order that their two Boer forces might effect a junction, but Cronje was determined to remain in the positions he then occupied until he could carry all his transport-waggons safely away. In the [188] evening Commandants De Beer and Grobler urged the general to escape and explained to him that he would certainly be surrounded the following day, but Cronje steadfastly declined, and expressed his ability to fight a way through any force of the enemy. Even late that night, while the British troops were welding the chain which was to bind him hard and fast in the river-bed, many of Cronje's men begged the general to desert the position, and when they saw him so determined they deserted him and escaped to the eastward.

Cronje might have accepted the advice of his officers and men if he had not believed that he could readily make his way to the east, where he did not suspect the presence of any of Lord Roberts's troops. Not until the following forenoon, when he saw the British advance-guard marching over the hills on the south side of the river, did he realise that the enemy had surrounded him and that he had erred when he determined to hold the position. The grave mistake could not be rectified, and Cronje was in no mood for penitence. He told his men that he expected reinforcements from the east and counselled them to remain cool and fire [189] with discretion until assistance came to them. Later in the day the enemy attacked the camp from all sides but the little army repulsed the onslaught and killed and wounded more than a thousand British soldiers. When the Sabbath sun descended and the four thousand Boers sang their psalms and hymns of thanksgiving there was probably only one man who believed that the burghers would ever be able to escape from the forces which surrounded them, and that man was General Cronje. He realised the gravity of the situation, but he was as calm as if he had been victorious in a battle. He talked cheerily with his men, saying, "Let the English come on," and when they heard their old commander speak in such a confident manner they determined to fight until he himself announced a victory or a defeat.

On Monday morning it seemed as if the very blades of grass for miles around the Boer laager were belching shot and shell over the dongas and trenches where the burghers had sought shelter. Lyddite shells and shrapnel burst over and around them; the bullets of rifles and machine-guns swept close to their heads, and a few yards distant from them were the heavy explosions of ammunition- [190] waggons set on fire by the enemy's shells. Burghers, horses and cattle fell under the storm of lead and iron, and the mingled life-blood of man and beast flowed in rivulets to join the waters of the river. The wounded lay groaning in the trenches; the dead unburied outside, and the cannonading was so terrific that no one was able to leave the trenches and dongas sufficiently long to give a drink of water to a wounded companion. There was no medicine in the camp, all the physicians were held in Jacobsdal by the enemy, and the condition of the dead and dying was such that Cronje was compelled to ask for an armistice. The reply from the British commander was "Fight or surrender," and Cronje chose to continue the fight. The bombardment of the laager was resumed with increased vigour, and there was not a second's respite from shells and bullets until after night descended, when the burghers were enabled to emerge from their trenches and holes to exercise their limbs and to secure food.

The Boers' cannon became defective on Tuesday morning, and thereafter they could reply to the continued bombardment with only their rifles. Hope rose in their breasts during the day when a [191] heliograph message was received from Commandant Froneman; "I am here with Generals De Wet and Cronje," the message read; "Have good cheer. I am waiting for reinforcements. Tell the burghers to find courage in Psalm xxvii." The fact that reinforcements were near, even though the enemy was between, imbued the burghers with renewed faith in their ability to defeat the enemy and, when a concerted attack was made against the laager in the afternoon, a gallant resistance followed.

On Wednesday morning the British batteries again poured their shells on the miserable and exhausted Boers. Shortly before midday there was a lull in the storm, and the beleaguered burghers could hear the reports of the battle between the relieving force and the British troops. The sounds of the fight grew fainter and fainter, then subsided altogether. The bombardment of the laager was renewed, and the burghers realised that Froneman had been beaten back by the enemy. The disappointment was so great that one hundred and fifty Boers bade farewell to their general, and laid down their arms to their enemy. The following day was merely the repetition of the routine of former days, with the exception that [192] the condition of the men and the laager was hourly becoming more miserable. The wounded clamouring for relief was in itself a misery to those who were compelled to hear it, but to allow such appeals to go unanswered was heartrending. To have the dead unburied seemed cruel enough, but to have the corpses before one's eyes day after day was torture. To know that the enemy was in ten times greater strength was disheartening, but to realise that there was no relief at hand was enough to dim the brightest courage. Yet Cronje was undaunted.

Friday and Saturday brought nothing but a message from Froneman, again encouraging them to resist until reinforcements could be brought from Bloemfontein. On Saturday evening Jan Theron, of Krugersdorp, succeeded in breaking through the British lines with despatches from General De Wet and Commandants Cronje and Froneman, urging General Cronje to fight a way through the lines whilst they would engage the enemy from their side. Cronje and his officers decided to make an attempt to escape, and on Sunday morning the burghers commenced the construction of a chain-bridge across the Modder [193] to facilitate the crossing of the swollen river. Fortunately for the Boers the British batteries fired only one shot into the camp that day, and the burghers were able to complete the bridge before night by means of the ropes and chains from their ox-waggons. On Monday morning the British guns made a target of the bridge, and shelled it so unremittingly that no one was able to approach it, much less make an attempt to cross the river by means of it. The bombardment seemed to grow in intensity as the day progressed, and when two shells fell into a group of nine burghers, and left nothing but an arm and a leg to be found, the Krijgsraad decided to hoist a white flag on Tuesday morning. General Cronje and Commandant Schutte were the only officers who voted against surrendering. They begged the other officers to reconsider their decision, and to make an attempt to fight a way out, but the confidence of two men was too weak to change the opinions of the others.

In a position covering less than a square mile of territory, hemmed in on all sides by an army almost as great as that which defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, surrounded by a chain of fire from [194] carbines, rapid-fire guns and heavy cannon, the target of thousands of the vaporous lyddite shells, his trenches enfiladed by a continuous shower of lead, his men half dead from lack of food, and stiff from the effect of their narrow quarters in the trenches, General Cronje chose to fight and to risk complete disaster by leading his four thousand men against the forty thousand of the enemy.

The will of the majority prevailed, and on February 27th, the anniversary of Majuba Hill, after ten days of fighting, the white flag was hoisted above the dilapidated laager. The bodies of ninety-seven burghers lay over the scene of the disaster, and two hundred and forty-five wounded men were left behind when General Cronje and his three thousand six hundred and seventy-nine burghers and women limped out of the river-bed and surrendered to Field-Marshal Lord Roberts.

In many respects General Cronje was the Boers' most brilliant leader, but he was responsible for many serious and costly reverses. At Magersfontein he defeated the enemy fairly, and he might have reaped the fruits of his victory if he [195] had followed up the advantage there gained. Instead, he allowed his army to remain inactive for two months while the British established a camp and base at the river. General French's march to Kimberley might readily have been prevented or delayed if Cronje had placed a few thousand of his men on the low range of kopjes commanding French's route, but during the two days which were so fateful to him and his army General Cronje never stirred from his laager. At Magersfontein Cronje allowed thirty-six cannon, deserted by the British, to remain on several kopjes all of one night and until ten o'clock next morning, when they were taken away by the enemy. When he was asked why he did not send his men to secure the guns Cronje replied, "God has been so good to us that I did not have the heart to send my overworked men to fetch them."

Cronje was absolutely fearless, and in all the battles in which he took part he was always in the most exposed positions. He rarely used a rifle, as one of his eyes was affected, but the short, stoop-shouldered, grey-bearded man, with the long riding-whip, was always in the thick of a [196] fight, encouraging his men and pointing out the positions for attack. He was a fatalist when in battle, if not in times of peace, and it is told of him that at Modder River he was warned by one of the burghers to seek a less exposed position. "If God has ordained me to be shot to-day," the grim old warrior replied, "I shall be shot, whether I sit here or in a well." Cronje was one of the strictest leaders in the Boer army, and that feature made him unpopular with the men who constantly applied to him for leaves-of-absence to return to their homes. They fought for him in the trenches at Paardeberg not because they loved him, but because they respected him as an able leader. He did not have the affection of his burghers like Botha, Meyer, De Wet, or De la Rey, but he held his men together by force of his superior military attainments—a sort of overawing authority which they could not disobey.

Personally, Cronje was not an extraordinary character. He was urbane in manner and a pleasant conversationalist. Like the majority of the Boers he was deeply religious, and tried to introduce the precepts of his religion into his daily life. Although he was sixty-five years old when [197] the war began he had the energy and spirit of a much younger man, and the terrors and anxieties of the ten days' siege at Paardeberg left but little marks on the face which has been described as Christlike. His patriotism was unbounded, and he held the independence of his country above everything. "Independence with peace, if possible, but independence at all costs," he was wont to say, and no one fought harder than he, to attain that end.

When the Vryheid commandos rode over the western border of their district and invaded Natal, Louis Botha, the successor of Commandant-General Joubert, was one of the many Volksraad members who went forth to war in the ranks of the common burghers. After the battle of Dundee, in which he distinguished himself by several daring deeds, Botha became Assistant-General to his lifelong friend and neighbour General Lucas Meyer. Several weeks later, when General Meyer fell ill, he gave his command to his compatriot, General Botha, and a short time afterward, when Commandant-General Joubert was incapacitated by illness, Botha was appointed to assume the responsibilities of the commander-in- [198] chief. When Joubert was on his deathbed he requested that Botha should be his successor, and in that manner Louis Botha, burgher, became Louis Botha, Commandant-General, in less than six months.

It was remarkable, this chain of fortuitous circumstances which led to Botha's rapid advancement, but it was not entirely due to extraneous causes, for he was deserving of every step of his promotion. There is a man for every crisis, but rarely in history is found a record of a soldier who rose from the ranks to commander-in-chief of an army in one campaign. It was Meyer's misfortune when he became ill at a grave period of the war, but it was the country's good fortune to have a Botha ready at hand to fight a Colenso and a Spion Kop. When the burgher army along the Tugela was hard pressed by the enemy and both its old-time leaders, Joubert and Meyer, lay ill at the same time, it seemed little less than providential that a Botha should step out of the ranks and lead the men with as much discretion and valour as could have been expected from the experienced generals whose work he undertook to accomplish. It was a modern representation of [199] the ploughman deserting his farm in order to lead in the salvation of Rome.

Thirty-five years before he was called upon to be Commandant-General of the army of his nation Louis Botha was born near the same spot where he was chosen for that office, and on the soil of the empire against whose forces he was pitting his strength and ability. In his youth he was wont to listen to the narratives of the battles in which his father and grandfather fought side by side against the hordes of natives who periodically dyed the waters of the Tugela crimson with the blood of massacred men and women. In early manhood Botha fought against the Zulus and assisted Lucas Meyer in establishing the New Republic, which afterward became his permanent home. Popularity, ability, and honesty brought him into the councils of the nation as a member of the First Volksraad, where he wielded great influence by reason of his conscientious devotion to duty and his deep interest in the welfare of his country. When public affairs did not require his presence in Pretoria, Botha was with his family on his farm in Vryheid, and there he found the only happiness which he considered worth having. The [200] joys of a pastoral existence combined with the devotion and love of his family were the keystone of Botha's happiness, and no man had a finer realisation of his ambitions in that respect than he. Botha was a warrior, no doubt, but primarily he was a man who loved the peacefulness of a farm, the pleasures of a happy home-life, and the laughter of his four children more than the tramp of victorious troops or the roar of cannon.

There are a few men who have a certain magnetic power which attracts and holds the admiration of others. Louis Botha was a man of this class. Strangers who saw him for the first time loved him. There was an indescribable something about him which caused men looking at him for the first time to pledge their friendship for all time. The light in his blue eyes seemed to mesmerise men, to draw them, willing or unwilling, to him. It was not the quality which gained friends for Kruger nor that which made Joubert popular, but rather a mysterious, involuntary influence which he exerted over everybody with whom he came in contact. A man less handsome, of less commanding appearance than Botha might have possessed such a power, and been considered less [201] extraordinary than he, but it was not wholly his personal appearance—for he was the handsomest man in the Boer army—which aroused the admiration of men. His voice, his eyes, his facial expression and his manner—all combined to strengthen the man's power over others. It may have been personal magnetism or a mysterious charm which he possessed—but it was the mark of a great man.

The early part of Botha's career as a general was fraught with many difficulties, the majority of which could be traced to his lack of years. The Boer mind could not grasp the fact that a man of thirty-five years could be a military leader, and for a long time the Boers treated the young commander with a certain amount of contempt. The old takhaars laughed at him when he asked them to perform any duties, and called him a boy. They were unable to understand for a long time why they should act upon the advice or orders of a man many years younger than they themselves, and it was not until Botha had fought Colenso and Spion Kop that the old burghers commenced to realise that ability was not always monopolised by men with hoary beards. Before they had these [202] manifestations of Botha's military genius hundreds of the burghers absolutely refused to obey his commands, and even went to the length of protesting to the Government against his continued tenure of the important post.

The younger Boers, however, were quicker to discern the worth of the man, and almost without exception gave him their united support. There was one instance when a young Boer questioned Botha's authority, but the burgher's mind was quickly disabused, and thereafter he was one of the Commandant-General's staunchest supporters. It was at the battle of Pont Drift, when General Botha was busily engaged in directing the movements of his men and had little time to argue fine points of authority. The general asked two young Boers to carry ammunition to the top of a kopje which was being hard-shelled by the enemy. One of the Boers was willing immediately to obey the general, but the other man refused to undertake the hazardous journey. The general spoke kindly to the Boer, and acknowledged that he would be risking his life by ascending the hill, but insisted that he should go. The Boer finally declared he would not go, and added that Botha was too [203] young to give orders to men. The Commandant-General did not lose his temper, but it did not require much time for him to decide that a rebuke of some sort was necessary, so he knocked the man to the ground with his fist. It was a good, solid blow, and the young Boer did not move for a minute, but when he rose he had fully decided that he would gladly carry the ammunition to the top of the kopje.

After General Botha demonstrated that he was a capable military leader he became the idol of all the Boers. His popularity was second only to that of President Kruger, and the hero-worshippers arranged for all sorts of honours to be accorded to him after the war. He was to be made President, first of all things; then his birthday anniversary was to be made the occasion of a national holiday; statues were to be erected for him, and nothing was to be left undone in order that his services to his country might be given the appreciation they deserved. The stoical Boers were never known to worship a man so idolatrously as they did in this case, and it was all the more noteworthy on account of the adverse criticism which was bestowed upon him several months before.

[204] General Botha's reputation as a gallant and efficient leader was gained during the campaign in Natal, but it was not until after the relief of Ladysmith that his real hard work began. After the advance of Lord Roberts's large army from Bloemfontein was begun myriads of new duties devolved upon the Commandant-General, and thereafter he displayed a skill and ingenuity in dealing with grave situations which was marvellous, when it is taken into consideration that he was opposing a victorious army with a mere handful of disappointed and gloomy burghers. The situation would have been grave enough if he had had a trained and disciplined army under his command, but in addition to making plans for opposing the enemy's advance, General Botha was compelled to gather together the burghers with whom he desired to make the resistance. His work would have been comparatively easy if he could have remained at the spot where his presence was most necessary, but it was absolutely impossible for him to lead the defensive movements in the Free State without men, and in order to secure them he was obliged to desert that important post and go to the Biggarsberg, where [205] many burghers were idle. Telegraph wires stretched from the Free State to Natal, but a command sent by such a route never caused a burgher to move an inch nearer to the Free State front, and consequently the Commandant-General was compelled to go personally to the Biggarsberg in search of volunteers to assist the burghers south of Kroonstad. When General Botha arrived in Natal in the first days of May he asked the Standerton commando to return with him to the Free State. They flatly refused to go unless they were first allowed to spend a week at their homes, but Botha finally, after much begging, cajoling, and threatening, induced the burghers to go immediately. The Commandant-General saw the men board a train, and then sped joyously northward toward Pretoria and the Free State in a special train. When he reached Pretoria Botha learned that the Standerton commando followed him as far as Standerton station, and then dispersed to their homes. His dismay was great; but he was not discouraged, and several hours later he was at Standerton, riding from farm to farm to gather the men. This work delayed his arrival in the Free State two days, but he secured the entire commando, and [206] went with it to the front, where it served him valiantly.

The masterly retreat of the Boer forces northward along the railway and across the Vaal River, and the many skirmishes and battles with which Botha harassed the enemy's advance, were mere incidents in the Commandant-General's work of those trying days. There were innumerable instances not unlike that in connection with the Standerton commando, and, in addition, there was the planning to prevent the large commandos in the western part of the Transvaal, and Meyer's large force in the south-eastern part, from being cut off from his own body of burghers. It was a period of grave moment and responsibilities, but Botha was the man for the occasion. Although the British succeeded in entering Pretoria, the capital of the country, the Boers lost little in prestige or men, and Botha and his burghers were as confident of the final success of their cause as they were when they crossed the Natal border seven months before. Even after all the successive defeats of his army, Commandant-General Botha continued to say, "We will fight—fight until not a single British soldier remains on South African [207] soil." A general who can express such a firm faith in his cause when he sees nothing but disaster surrounding him is great even if he is not always victorious.

The military godfather of Commandant-General Botha was General Lucas Meyer, one of the best leaders in the Boer army. The work of the two men was cast in almost the same lines during the greater part of the campaign, and many of the Commandant-General's burdens were shared by his old-time tutor and neighbour in the Vryheid district. Botha seldom undertook a project unless he first consulted with Meyer, and the two constantly worked hand-in-hand. Their friends frequently referred to them as Damon and Pythias, and the parallel was most appropriate, for they were as nearly the counterparts of those old Grecian warriors as modern limitations would allow. Botha attained the post of Commandant-General through the illness of Meyer, who would undoubtedly have been Joubert's successor if he had not fallen ill at an important period of the campaign, but the fact that the pupil became the superior officer of the instructor never strained the amicable relations of the two men.

[208] General Meyer received his fundamental military education from the famous Zulu chieftain, Dinizulu, in 1884, when he and eight hundred other Boers assisted the natives in a war against the chieftains of other tribes. In a battle at Labombo mountain, June 6th of that year, Meyer and Dinizulu vanquished the enemy, and as payment for their services the Boers each received a large farm in the district now known as Vryheid. A Government named the New Republic was organised by the farmers, and Meyer was elected President, a post which he held for four years, when the Transvaal annexed the republic to its own territory. In the war of 1881 Meyer took part in several battles, and at Ingogo he was struck on the head by a piece of shell, which caused him to be unconscious for forty-two days. In the later days of the republic General Meyer held various military and civil positions in the Vryheid district, where his large farm, "Anhouwen," is located, and was the chairman of the Volksraad which decided to send the ultimatum to Great Britain.

When war was actually declared, General Meyer, with his commandos, was on the Transvaal border near his farm, and he opened hostilities by making [209] a bold dash into Natal and attacking the British army encamped at Dundee. The battle was carefully planned by Meyer, and it would undoubtedly have ended with the capture of the entire British force if General Erasmus, who was to co-operate with him, had fulfilled the part assigned to him. Although many British soldiers were killed and captured, and great stores of ammunition and equipment taken, the forces under General Yule were allowed to escape to the south. General Meyer followed the fleeing enemy as rapidly as the muddy roads could be traversed, and engaged them at Modderspruit. There he gained a decisive victory, and compelled the survivors to enter Ladysmith, where they were immediately besieged. Meyer was extremely ill before the battle began, but he insisted upon directing his men, and continued to do so until the field was won, when he fell from his horse, and was seriously ill for a month. He returned to the front, against the advice of his physicians, on December 24th, and took part in the fighting at Pont Drift, Boschrand, and in the thirteen days' battle around Pieter's Hill. In the battle of Pont Drift a bullet struck the General's field-glasses, flattened itself, and [210] dropped into one of his coat pockets, to make a souvenir brooch for Mrs. Meyer, who frequently visited him when no important movements were in progress.

When General Joubert and his Krijgsraad determined to retreat from the Tugela and allow Ladysmith to be relieved, General Meyer was one of those who protested against such a course, and when the decision was made Meyer returned to the Tugela, and remained there with his friend Louis Botha during the long and heroic fight against General Buller's column. Meyer and Botha were among the last persons to leave the positions which they had defended so long, and on their journey northward the two generals decided to return and renew the fight as soon as they could reach Modderspruit and secure food for their men and horses. When they arrived at Modderspruit they found that Joubert and his entire army had fled northward, and had carried with them every ounce of food. It was a bitter disappointment to the two generals, but there was nothing to be done except to travel in the direction of the scent of food, and the journey led the dejected, disappointed, starved generals and [211] burghers north over the Biggarsberg mountains, where provisions could be secured.

During the long period in March and April when neither Boers nor British seemed to be doing anything, General Meyer arranged a magnificent series of entrenchments in the Biggarsberg mountains which made an advance of the enemy practically impossible. Foreign military experts pronounced the defence impregnable and expressed the greatest astonishment when they learned that Meyer formulated the plans of the entrenchments without ever having read a book on the subject or without having had the benefit of any instruction. The entrenchments began at a point a few miles east of the British outposts and continued for miles and miles north-east and north-west to the very apex of the Biggarsberg. Spruits and rivers were connected by means of trenches so that a large Boer force could travel many miles without being observed by the enemy, and the series of entrenchments was fashioned in such a manner that the Boers could retreat to the highest point of the mountains and remain meanwhile in perfect concealment. Near the top of the mountain long schanzes or walls were built to offer a place of [212] security for the burghers, while on the top were miles of walls to attract and to inveigle the enemy to approach the lower wall more closely. The plan was magnificent, but the British forces evaded the Biggarsberg in their advance movements, and the entrenchments were never bathed in human blood.

When the Boers in the Free State were unable to stem the advance of the British, General Meyer was compelled to retreat northward to ensure his own safety, but he did it so slowly and systematically that he lost only a few men and was able, now and then, to make bold dashes at the enemy's flying columns with remarkable success. The retreat northward through the Transvaal was fraught with many harassments, but General Meyer joined forces with General Botha east of Pretoria and thereafter the teacher and pupil again fought hand in hand in a common cause.


[Illustration]

COMMANDANT-GENERAL CHRISTIAN H. DE WET.

The Free State was not as prolific of generals as the Transvaal, but in Christian De Wet she had one of the ablest as well as one of the most fearless leaders in the Republican ranks. Before he was enlisted to fight for his country De Wet was a farmer, who had a penchant for dealing in potatoes, and his only military training was secured when he [213] was one of the sixty Boer volunteers who ascended the slopes of Majuba Hill in 1881. There was nothing of the military in his appearance; in fact, Christian De Wet, Commandant-General of the Orange Free State in 1900, was not a whit unlike Christian De Wet, butcher of Barberton of 1879, and men who knew him in the gold-rush days of that mining town declared that he was more martial in appearance then as a licensed slayer of oxen than later as a licensed slayer of men. He himself prided himself on his unmilitary exterior, and it was not a little source of satisfaction to him to say that his fighting regalia was the same suit of clothing which he wore on his farm on the day that he left it to fight as a soldier in his country's army.

Before the war, De Wet's chief claim to notoriety lay in the fact that he attempted to purchase the entire supply of potatoes in South Africa for the purpose of effecting a "corner" of that product on the Johannesburg market. Unfortunately for himself, he held his potatoes until the new crop was harvested, and he became a bankrupt in consequence. Later he appeared as a potato farmer near Kroonstad, and still later, at Nicholson's Nek [214] in Natal, he captured twelve hundred British prisoners and, incidentally, a large stock of British potatoes, which seemed to please him almost as greatly as the human captives. Although the vegetable strain was frequently predominant in De Wet's constitution, he was not over-zealous to return to his former pastoral pursuits, and continued to lead his commandos over the hills of the eastern Free State long after that territory was christened the Orange River Colony.


[Illustration]

GENERAL PETER DE WET.

General De Wet was at the head of a number of the Free State commandos which crossed into Natal at the outbreak of the war, and he took part in several of the battles around Ladysmith; but his services were soon required in the vicinity of Kimberley, and there he made an heroic effort to effect a junction with the besieged Cronje. It was not until after the British occupation of Bloemfontein that De Wet really began his brilliant career as a daring commander, but thereafter he was continually harassing the enemy. He led with three big battles in one week, with a total result of a thousand prisoners of war, seven cannon, and almost half a million pounds' worth of supplies. At Sannaspost, on March 31st, he swept down [215] upon Colonel Broadwood's column and captured one-fourth of the men and all their vast supplies almost before the British officer was aware of the presence of the enemy. The echoes of that battle had hardly subsided when he fell upon another British column at Moester's Hoek with results almost as great as at Sannaspost, and two days later he was besieging a third British column in his own native heath of Wepener. Column after column was sent to drive him away, but he clung fast to his prey for almost two weeks, when he eluded the great force on his capture bent, and moved northward to take an active part in opposing the advance of Lord Roberts. He led his small force of burghers as far as the northern border of the Free State, while the enemy advanced, and then turned eastward, carrying President Steyn and the capital of the Republic with him to places of safety. Whenever there was an opportunity he sent small detachments to attack the British lines of communications and harassed the enemy continually. In almost all his operations the Commandant-General was assisted by his brother, General Peter De Wet, who was none the less daring in his operations. Christian De Wet was [216] responsible for more British losses than any of the other generals. In his operations in Natal and the Free State he captured more than three thousand prisoners, thousands of cattle and horses, and stores and ammunition valued at more than a million pounds. The number of British soldiers killed and wounded in battles with De Wet is a matter for conjecture, but it is not limited by the one thousand mark.

General John De la Rey, who operated in the Free State with considerable success, was one of the most enthusiastic leaders in the army, and his confidence in the Boers' fighting ability was not less than his faith in the eventual success of their arms. De la Rey was born on British soil, but he had a supreme contempt for the British soldier, and frequently asserted that one burgher was able to defeat ten soldiers at any time or place. He was the only one of the generals who was unable to speak the English language, but he understood it well enough to capture a spy whom he overheard in a Free State hotel. De la Rey was a Transvaal general, and when the retreat from Bloemfontein was made he harassed the enemy greatly, but was finally compelled to cross the [217] Vaal into his own country, where he continued to fight under Commandant-General Botha.


[Illustration]

GENERAL JOHN DE LA REY.

Among the other Boer generals who took active part in the campaign in other parts of the Republics were J. Du P. De Beer, a Raad member, who defended the northern border of the Transvaal; Sarel Du Toit, whose defence at Fourteen Streams was admirably conducted; Snyman, the old Marico farmer, who besieged Mafeking; Hendrik Schoeman, who operated in Cape Colony; Jan Kock, killed at the Elandslaagte battle early in the campaign; and the three generals, Lemmer, Grobler, and Olivier, whose greatest success was their retreat from Cape Colony.

The Boer generals and officers, almost without exception, were admirable men, personally. Some of them were rough, hardy men, who would have felt ill at ease in a drawing-room, but they had much of the milk of human kindness in them, and there was none who loved to see or partake of bloodshed. There may have been instances when white or Red Cross flags were fired upon, but when such a breach of the rules of war occurred it was not intentional. The foreigners who accompanied the various Boer armies—the corre- [218] spondents, military attachés, and the volunteers—will testify that the officers, from Commandant-General Botha down to the corporals, were always zealous in their endeavours to conduct an honourable warfare, and that the farmer-generals were as gentlemanly as they were valorous.


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