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Philip J Sampson.

The capture of De Wet, the South African rebellion, 1914 online

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majority of one in the Transvaal Provincial Council.
They promptly proceeded to use that majority in
vigorous fashion, lashing into blind paroxysms of rage
the conservative Dutch element, to whom anything
like advanced legislation when it has to be paid for
is anathema.

Echoes of the doings of the Labour party in the



THE CAPTURE OF DE WET 5

Provincial Council filtered into the country districts,
but always cleverly put to the not very well-informed
country people, as due to the " verdomde British "
of course studiously ignoring the fact that a vast
number of Dutch workers had voted to put the Labour
party into power. To the people away back it was
represented that the British had obtained possession
of the Government, were going to tax the land or
take their farms away from them, and they must be
ready to " upsaddle."

Those who lived in Pretoria during that period will
know how often the town was invaded by bearded
farmers, who held earnest and secret talks. They
had their " indabas " at private houses, but they
frequently took their coffee at well-known coffee-
houses in and near Church Street and Beyers oft-
times was in their company.

Beyers' attitude towards the British never had
been in doubt. To everybody in the Transvaal he
had been known ever since the Boer War as an im-
placable enemy, with a particularly venomous tongue.
Did not General Botha and the first Transvaal Parlia-
ment make him Speaker of the House in order to
keep his venom under control ? And, by the same
token, upon the establishment of the Union, when
the Speakership of the Union House of Assembly
went to Sir James Molteno, by right of seniority,
General Beyers was again carefully given a post
which it was thought would effectually gag him
against political harangues. To make assurance
doubly sure, they gave him a gorgeous uniform, made
him (a solicitor) Commandant-General of the Union



6 THE CAPTURE OF DE WET

Forces, and gave him a salary equal to that paid to
other members of the Cabinet. Beyers knew prac-
tically nothing about scientific military work. The
great point was that it effectually closed his mouth.
It did not close his thoughts, however, for it is now
realized that his trips to Europe at the expense of a
grateful country, to learn something about modern
military science, and particularly his visit to the
Swiss manoeuvres as the guest of the Kaiser in the
autumn of 1912, resulted in the crystallization in his
brain of something more than the art of war. Beyers
was very susceptible to anything in the nature of
flattery, and the Kaiser's patronage proved to be
very much in the nature of strong wine to the young
and inexperienced Union Commandant-General. It
must not be forgotten that Beyers paid a second visit
to Europe in 1913, and it was while he was away
that the great strike troubles occurred. He returned
just at the close of that industrial upheaval, in
February, 1914, in time to see the streets of Johannes-
burg filled with burghers armed with splendid new
rifles, which General Beyers told them they might
retain as showing the gratitude of the Government
in suppressing the strike ! As a result, something
like 60,000 rifles were distributed to the backveld
Dutchmen. For what purpose ? There may have
been no ulterior motive in handing over such a large
number of rifles to one section of the community.
Whether Beyers was the direct instigator of the gift
or not, it was he who made the announcement, and
the British element began to suspect him from that
moment. They felt, rightly or wrongly, that it was



THE CAPTURE OF DE WET 7

a direct incentive to a rising at some future date,
especially with a man of Beyers' known sentiments
as chief of the army. He never had made any secret
of his opinions, and at the time of the strike his
manner of speaking had a touch of acerbity abouib it
that, to careful observers, carried the elements of
danger. For instance, it was hardly the acme of
wisdom or conciliation to tell the British workers
that, if they did not like the conditions, there were
plenty of ships at the ports, and they could get out
of the country! This and other statements, added
to the gift of the rifles, brought Beyers under sus-
picion, and from that time onwards it was freely
predicted that there would be trouble at the first
opportunity, especially as the British element was
practically unarmed.

This, then, is the man whom from February on-
wards we find visiting all parts of South Africa,
inspecting the various units of the Defence Force,
conferring with the various Commandants and Field
Cornets. One wonders how much poisonous inter-
pretation upon current political events (the aims and
objects of the Labour party in the Provincial Council,
for instance) can be attributed to his tongue ? This
much is certain: that more than one of the men who
came into Pretoria for these mysterious meetings
with Beyers and others made no secret of their
intention to " upsaddle " before long.

Pressed for definite information, two replies might
be ascertained. The Labourite would be told that
his period of rejoicing at being in power in the
Provincial Council would soon be at an end, as the



8

burghers meant to wipe him out of existence; they
were not going to be ruled by British, with their
hateful land taxes and the upsetting of the old order
of things. Others blamed Botha and Smuts, and
said if they were strong men and were regardful of
their duty to " Land en Volk " (land and people),
they would end it, and put a stop to these dangerous,
new-fangled, Socialist ideas. It was quite true that
Botha had said that " he would not allow Socialism
in the country," but he had done nothing to stop
it except put down the strike by force. That cer-
tainly was the way to treat these " foreign adven-
turers," as the good patriot Hertzog properly called
them, but clearly Botha and Smuts were not firm
enough with them, otherwise there would be more
prosperity in the country, and " our people " would
not have to work on the roads as labourers doing
kaffir's work at 3s. 4d. a day !

There were half a dozen reasons fermenting in the
minds of the discontented section of the rank and file,
any and all of which were used by astute leaders to
keep up a feeling of resentment against the Govern-
ment and the position of affairs generally. The only
definite grievance that can be traced is the personal
one that Hertzog had been turned out of the
Cabinet, and Botha would not reinstate him, nor
resign.

Matters were in this nebulous stage when the clouds
began to drift across the European horizon. General
Botha had gone to Rhodesia to get a brief respite
from the frightful strain he had gone through in con-
nection with the industrial upheaval and the sub-



sequent session of Parliament, where passions had
been unloosed, and the Premier and the Government
had received much punishment at the hands of the
Labourites and Hertzogites, not to speak of such
candid friends as John X. Merriman he of the biting
phrase and caustic tongue. In fact, the Government
had been riddled, had gone down considerably in the
estimation of the public, and there was a vague
feeling that they had lost the confidence of the
country, and were hanging on to office merely for
the sake of the loaves and fishes. So General Botha
went off to Rhodesia to rest and gather strength for
a great campaign throughout such parts of the
Union as seemed to have been undermined by the
Hertzog influence. Apparently there was nothing
more in the situation than the promise of a particu-
larly piquant political fight, with the prospect of
Labour capturing all the towns, as a result of the
Government's methods of handling the strike, and the
Hertzogites swamping the country (or a considerable
part of it) through reasons mainly personal, partly
racial, and backed up by that vast body of inarticu-
late discontent found in every country, and known
generally as " ag'in the Government."



CHAPTER II

Outbreak of the European War Effect upon Dutch opinion
The Government challenged Curious Lichtenburg story
Delarey and the prophet Van Rensburg Visions of the
bulls Suggestions of sedition First official statement
Imperial troops leave Defence force called up Germans
cross frontier Expeditionary force rumours Division of
opinion Hertzog Party congress Pretoria seething with
sedition Beyers and the troops " Boer and Briton will
stand together " Pro-Germans at work.

UPON the declaration of war on August 3, General
Botha cut short his tour, hurriedly returned from
Rhodesia, and immediately announced his intention
of postponing indefinitely his proposed anti-Hertzog
tour in the Free State.

The hurried departure of Imperial troops from
Potchefstroom and Pretoria to Capetown, en route
to Europe, the panic-stricken shutting down of the
De Beers, Premier, and other diamond mines, were
startling in their suddenness, but appeared to the
public as perhaps exaggerated evidences of the
probable effect of the crisis in Europe. There can
be little doubt, however, that such incidents had
their weight in influencing the minds of a certain
section of the community. The departure of the
Imperial troops certainly was a prime factor, and
one frequently heard the remark in Pretoria : " If
the Boers ever intend to rise, now is their chance."

10



11

For a week or ten days after the outbreak of war
the attitude of the Government itself gave rise to
considerable misgiving among the Loyalists, for not
a word would they utter indicating whether they
intended to support the Imperial Government or not.
To be quite frank, there was considerable alarm felt
both in Pretoria and in Johannesburg that they did
not mean to " play the game." This feeling was
intensified by the publication of cables from England
announcing the receipt by the British Government
of loyal messages of support from all the other
Dominions and Dependencies. The absence of any
such message from South Africa caused much dis-
quietude, and not a little chortling among the pro-
Germans. The Pretoria morning paper put the
British misgivings into plain words, and asked the
Government to declare its position with relation to
the crisis.

The citizens of Pretoria endeavoured to give the
Government a lead by holding a huge mass meeting
on the Church Square. Dean Gordon and the Mayor
(Mr. Andrew Johnston) voiced the feelings of the
Loyalists in no uncertain terms, and the huge meeting
assured the Government of their unswerving support
and loyalty. There was no opposition of any kind,
and the people of Pretoria appeared to be unanimous.

This was all very correct and proper, and gave the
loyal section an opportunity of expressing their feel-
ings, in case there might be a few in the capital who
doubted the strength of the loyal sentiments there.
There is not the slightest doubt that the silence on
the part of the Government helped to spread un-



12 THE CAPTUKE OF DE WET

easiness among the Loyalists, and to encourage the
disaffected. The presence in the town of hundreds
of Germans and others who made no secret of their
sympathies and hopes; the burning down of the
mobilization stores at the Imperial military stores
at Eoberts Heights, following upon the burning down
of the mobilization stores at Potchefstroom; and the
covert looks and hints among those whose loyalty
always had been a doubtful quantity, caused a tense
feeling steadily to arise.

Just about this time strange stories began to filter
into Pretoria concerning unrest in the Lichtenburg
district, not far from Pretoria, to the West; but a
peremptory order from the omnipotent Press Censor
kept the public in complete ignorance of a most
remarkable movement then in progress. The facts
can be told now. The day before war was declared,
Commandant F. G. A. Wolmarans, of that district,
went round among the burghers preaching sedition,
told the burghers they would soon be hoisting the
Vierkleur (the old Transvaal Republican flag), and
then they were going to march to the German border
to get ammunition. The day after, when Britain
declared war, there was tremendous excitement in
the Lichtenburg district, caused not so much by the
statements of Wolmarans, as by the calling to re-
membrance of the prophecies of Van Rensburg. Who
was Van Rensburg ? Well, he was a great friend of
General Delarey, with whom he served during the
Anglo-Boer War, attaining considerable fame as
a prophet by his alleged divinations concerning the
whereabouts of the British troops, with the result



THE CAPTURE OF DE WET 15

that lie more than once enabled Delarey to come
upon the British unexpectedly, or avoid carefully laid
traps for his capture. He had such a hold over the
credulous burghers, that if " Oom Niklaas " told
them there were or were not any British in the
neighbourhood, they implicitly believed him, with-
out troubling to look for themselves ! They were
not to know that the prophet's reputation was chiefly
due, not to the gift of the Spirit, but to the fact that
he had at his command a very efficient service of
native spies. However, from that time till to-day
Van Rensburg had lived up to his reputation, more
especially as he had foretold, by means of a mystic
vision, the conclusion of that war and the signing of
peace.

This ancient gentleman, in fact, suffers from a
form of cerebral excitement known as " seeing
visions "; and in a country where witchcraft still is
a potent force, it is not surprising that he had a large
following, not omitting Delarey. In fact, they were
the closest of friends, and while Delarey admired the
wonderful gifts of the prophet, the prophet was never
tired of prophesying great things of his old friend
Delarey. Van Rensburg was a great dreamer, and
not only were his visions passed on from mouth to
mouth, but the old man had put down hundreds in
a great book, for remembrance. There was one that
was well known among the Dutch in his neighbour-
hood, and it was to the effect that he had seen the
number " 15 " on a dark cloud, from which blood
issued, and then Delarey returning without his hat.
Immediately afterwards came a carriage covered



14 THE CAPTURE OF DE WET

with flowers. The prophet could not interpret the
dream, but opined that it meant something very
high and splendid for Delarey.

Then there was another of his old dreams, of many
years previously, which the excited burghers now
recalled, concerning the bulls. The vision was to the
effect that Van Rensburg saw seven bulls engaged in
furious conflict. There was a red bull, a blue bull, a
black bull, a grey bull, and bulls of other tints repre-
senting the various nations of Europe. How the
prophet knew them by their colours, no one but himself
knows, but he satisfied himself that the grey fellow
was Germany, that the red bull was Britain, and the
black bull France. And, behold, they had terrific
fights, and after much gore the black bull went under,
also the red bull, and all the other bulls, save the
grey bull.

The interpretation of such a simple dream was
obvious. Germany was some day to prevail over
France and Britain and Russia and all the countries
of the earth ! Putting this with the mysterious
dream of Delarey and the fateful "15," it was quite
clear that the day had now come whereof their fathers
had told them. Did the intelligent people of the
Lichtenburg swallow this " cock-and-bull " story ?
Only too willingly, and when Commandant Wol-
marans and Field Cornet I. E. Classen announced
that a meeting would be held at Truerfontein on
August 15, they no longer had any doubts, and joy-
fully prepared for the great day.

Van Rensburg, having done so well, dreamed some
more. He dreamed that it was "all up " with the



THE CAPTURE OF DE WET 15

Union Government and with General Botha and
General Smuts; both would run away, for he had in
a vision seen the English leave the Transvaal and
trek to Natal, and when they had gone far away a
vulture left them and flew back to the Transvaal.
That was Botha ! As for Smuts, he would rush
away to England to his friends the British, and he
would never come to South Africa again. The man
who would be at the head of affairs would be one
who " represented the Godhead " (a God-fearing
man). There would be no bloodshed; all would be
done peaceably and in good order, for the time of
the prophecy was come to pass when they would see
the " sifting " of the British and the Dutch the
British on the one side and the Dutch on the other ;
the Union Jack pulled down, and the old Vierkleur
restored to its place ; and Delarey was to be one of the
Lord's instruments of deliverance from Botha, Smuts,
and the British.

For a week the secret excitement was intense in the
way-back farms of the Lichtenburg and Rusten-
burg districts, with German secret agents going about
among the burghers, stirring them up with specious
promises and flagrant lies. Van Rensburg was
dreaming dreams at high.pressure, and working over-
time at the business; while dear old Delarey was
apparently walking about as though a Sunday-
school treat was in progress, and he was to be the one
to say grace. In view of the fact that the burghers
were being instructed to " upsaddle," with rifle,
blankets, all the ammunition they possessed, and food
for at least ten days, it promised to be a picnic on



16 THE CAPTURE OF DE WET

quite a large scale. When the gleeful burghers
asked where they were going after the meeting, they
were told (according to the sworn testimony of one)
that they would first move on to Johannesburg under
Delarey, and resistance might be expected before
they were able to take the place. Others were told
that they would proceed direct to Potchefstroom, to
join up with the commandoes of that district and
proclaim a Republic.

A pretty plan if it could have been carried out,
but the Government got to hear of it as Govern-
ments do get to hear of these secret movements
and a peremptory message was sent to Delarey to
present himself at Pretoria and give an account of
the secret doings in his district. Now, Delarey is, or
rather was, a Botha man, and when he arrived in
Pretoria it is not too much to say that " Oom Louis "
gave him a severe talking- to. The writer saw Delarey
later in the day, and was struck by his woebegone
appearance. He looked like a man who had had a
very bad time and was exceedingly sick of himself
for this was on the 14th, and the great day was set
down for to-morrow. That great to-morrow came,
but when Delarey went out he was accompanied by
the great little " Sammy " Marks, the richest and
tightest financier in South Africa. What arguments
" Oom Louis " and " Sammy " Marks used between
them there is nothing on record to show, save the
fact that the 800 burghers then and there assembled
heard no fiery speech, no talk about independence,
or marching on Johannesburg or Potchefstroom, but
it was very much like a Sunday-school oration after



THE CAPTURE OF DE WET 17

all. They were to go home and be good boys. If
the Government wanted them in connection with the
events in Europe, they would be called up in the usual
way. The burghers did not know what to make of
it at all; they listened in stony silence, and when
Delarey moved a resolution of confidence in the
Government, they voted for it without emotion.
But they grumbled and swore loudly enough on their
way home at being made fools of in this way.

Thus ends phase number one of the rebellion; con-
ceived in secret, it died stillborn.

It was during this Lichtenburg incident (on
August 12) that the Government issued its first
statement concerning the war and its attitude therein.
It did not convey all the information that the Loyal-
ists wanted as to that it was delightfully vague
but at any rate it conveyed the hint that South
Africa would soon be asked to do something. As
being the first statement of the Union Government
after the outbreak of war, the document is worth
preserving. It is as follows :

" At the suggestion of the Union Government after
the outbreak of war, His Majesty's Government
decided to remove the Imperial troops at present in
South Africa, and the Union Government at once
undertook the responsibility of safeguarding the
defence of the Union in every possible way. In order
to carry this undertaking into effect, it now becomes
necessary for the Union to organize and equip an
adequate force for the purpose of taking the place
of the Imperial troops, and preparing for any con-
tingencies that may occur. For this purpose the
Government propose not only to rely upon the

2



18 THE CAPTURE OF DE WET

Union Defence Force proper, but to afford an oppor-
tunity of other suitable citizens not at present belong-
ing to the Defence Force, who so desire, to volunteer
for active service in South Africa during the con-
tinuance of the present war. Notice in regard to this
important matter will be issued from the Defence
Department in due course, and the Government have
no doubt as to the response which will be given. At
the proper time Parliament will be called together to
consider the action of the Government, and to make
provision for the necessary extra expenditure. In the
meantime, the Government are taking every precau-
tion to ensure, as far as possible, the continuance of
normal conditions within the Union, and to deal
with the numerous special problems which are arising.
They feel assured of the active support of the people
of South Africa, of whatever race or political com-
plexion, and hope that the result will be the safe-
guarding of the abiding interests of our common
country."

Events followed each other in rapid succession.
On August 19 the 12th (Pretoria) Regiment was
called up immediately for continuous training, and
almost simultaneously the regiments of Johannesburg
and the Witwatersrand went into the camp of train-
ing at Booysens, near Johannesburg. On the 22nd
what may be described as the " town " units in all
parts of the Union were called out. The only sig-
nificance to be drawn from this fact is that there
was every necessity for making these men efficient in
their drill as soldiers particularly the infantry
whereas the burgher (mounted) regiments are natural
cavalry, and are better if left to fight according to
their own methods. Naturally enough, people asked



THE CAPTURE OF DE WET 19

each other the reason for all these martial preparations.
The answer was provided by the publication of the
news that on August 21 a German force had crossed
the frontier from German South-West Africa at Nakob,
and had proceeded to entrench themselves; while on
the 24th Boer farmers had been attacked at Schuit
Drift on the Orange River, and had been forced to
take refuge on one of the islands in the river.

On the same day (24th) the Government issued a
proclamation, announcing its intention to call out
the National reserves in certain districts. From this
date can be traced a marked change of tone through-
out the country. There was one section, including the
British to a man, that openly rejoiced at the prospect
of " having a go " at the Germans in " German South-
West," and they promptly adopted a suspicious, and
in many cases a hostile, attitude towards all Germans
and German sympathizers. There was another and
much smaller section which, while professing loyalty
to the State and the Flag, deprecated an attack
upon our " peaceful " neighbours. This division of
opinion was not very patent in Johannesburg, where
the intense loyalty of the population is a thing to
wcnder at and admire, considering its cosmopolitan
character, but it could be felt in places like Bloem-
fontein, Pot chef stroom, and Pretoria. Pretoria,
especially, was saturated with it, and the streets and
coffee-houses grew more crowded than ever with
visitors from the country stern-faced men whose
solemn faces presaged no light-hearted acceptance
of the Government's call for all the able-bodiedf men.
All sorts of rumours were flying about, and in this



20 THE CAPTURE OF DE WET

instance rumour did not lie, for there can be no doubt
that the crisis was cleaving through the ranks of the
Dutch like fire through the veld. There were serious
gatherings going on day and night, deputations to
the Government, remonstrances, threats even of
refusal to serve if any attacks were made upon the
Germans beyond the Union frontier. This seemed
to be the attitude of those who afterwards came
to be known as Beyers' men. It was also that
of the Hertzogites, who, with daring cunning, con-
vened a congress of the party in Pretoria at this


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Online LibraryPhilip J SampsonThe capture of De Wet, the South African rebellion, 1914 → online text (page 2 of 19)