13. The Die Is Cast
From Part 1 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

ZERO hour was approaching. The Free State was ready. As a member of the Executive said, "The only thing we fear is that Chamberlain will cheat us of war." The commandos were prepared, the burghers with their rifles and ammunition and field rations; the women, bitter and resentful, urging on their men, who were itching and eager to get on the move and drive the English into the sea. They waited only for the rain to start the young grass on the dry veld so that they could graze their horses: they must have rain, for "without his horse the burgher was but half a man." Only one difficulty remained.

Among the members of the Volksraad there was a small party that had opposed Kruger on many occasions and were urgent against immediate war. Some of these were important men. There was Piet Joubert, a broad-shouldered Dutchman with clear eyes and a straight look, whom Kruger had made his Commander-in-Chief because he needed his support. Joubert had grown old, but he was still wise and influential, and he was a great and chivalrous gentleman. The young men, because of his caution, looked on him as "a drag on the wheel." The older men respected his judgment. With him was de la Rey. a noted fighter from old wars, as taciturn, dignified, and aristocratic as a Scotch Covenanter, with kindly black eyes that became piercing at times, a nose like a hawk, and a square beard — a simple man with a streak of religious mysticism in him which cropped out at unexpected times; and he spoke his mind always with a fearless candour which made people afraid of him, so just and direct were his comments.

With them were a few younger men, including Louis Botha, the member for Vryheid, a district away on the Natal border, a muscular man, an athlete, and a well-to-do yeoman farmer who had lived all his time on horseback out on the wide open plains.

They alone had dared to oppose Kruger. They were all honourable men who would have no truck with the bribe-takers and concession-hunters round the President. Many a time Joubert had criticised Kruger for his dictatorial ways, for allowing concessions to be sold, and for not punishing and dismissing the bribe-takers.

And Kruger was not used to opposition. Reitz, his principal adviser as his Secretary of State, would shrivel up if he so much as glared at him. Piet Grobler, his Foreign Secretary, was no more than his private secretary. Smuts he understood. The Executive Council he allowed only to assist him. As to the Volksraad, if it dared to oppose his wishes, he would ram on his top hat and drive up to the House in state in his carriage, which was built like a stage coach, with a liveried coachman driving four horses and two postillions hanging on behind, a guard of mounted soldiers before and behind. He would stump fiercely into his special seat beside the Chairman, and if that was not enough he would get up and beat on the desk in front of him with his enormous fists clenched, and the House would obey his orders.

In all their history the South African Dutch had never before accepted a master. It was a part of their character never to allow that any man was better than his neighbour, and if anyone climbed above the rest they at once set to work to pull him down. Kruger alone, because of the force of his personality, they accepted as master.

The time had arrived for the final decision. The rain might come at any minute. The final decision for peace or war rested with the Volksraad, and Kruger summoned the members to a secret session, each member pledged to silence.

The great hail was like the interior of a church, gloomy, walls panelled in dark wood, windows in coloured glass, seats like pews and set in a semicircle looking towards the Chairman. The high doors were locked and guards set. One by one the members spoke. The majority were for war, and war at once. Most of them were deeply religious men who believed that justice was on their side; that they were defending their homes and their liberty from a great oppressor, from the English; and that the Lord God of Hosts would give them victory. But they were also equally sure that they could defeat the English by the force of their own arms: they had fought and beaten the English in the old days, they boasted, and they would beat them again; there was only a handful of English troops in South Africa, and how could such a handful stand up to the overwhelming numbers of the Transvaal and the Free State combined? They expressed their contempt for the English: they looked down on them as fighters; England itself was decadent, no more a military Power. Some said that the English would not fight: anyway they would not send any more troops to South Africa; the Queen of England would not let her ministers send more troops; she was old and she wished to end her days in peace; the best men in England, Leonard Courtney, John Burns, Campbell-Bannerman, Lloyd George, John Morley, Asquith, Stead the newspaper writer, had all stated publicly that they would prevent the sending of troops: they were influential men and the great mass of the English people were behind them and would refuse to be bluffed by Milner and his master, Joseph Chamberlain.

Moreover, the Dutch of the Cape would rise to help them and the Germans would come to their assistance; the Germans would never allow the English to have complete and sole control of the gold mines. If the worst came to the worst they would threaten to blow up the mines, and then the financiers would also prevent the English Government — the Conservative Government — from attacking the Transvaal, for the financiers could do what they liked with the English Government.

"The time has come," member after member repeated — the Great Day for which they had all waited. All the odds were in their favour: they had only to choose the right minute and then attack and drive the English into the sea and make all South Africa Dutch. They quoted Kruger's dictum: "From the Zambesi to Simonstown, Africa for the Afrikander."

When all the rest had spoken, de la Rey rose. He spoke for the group in opposition and he spoke with his usual pithy, brief, direct candour. He was against rushing into war. He told the President and the Volksraad that this talk of driving the English into the sea was empty blather: England was a great Power, a monster perhaps, but a Power, and would not be defeated so easily; nor could they count on Germany or any other nation coming to their help. He was for a completely Dutch South Africa, but this was not the moment to rush into a war to get that end. Let them wait and time would help them....

Before he could finish, Kruger, grasping the desk in front of him, hauled himself up on to his feet, interrupting de la Rey with a great growl. He beat on the desk with his gnarled fists. He was furiously angry. His voice boomed and roared with passion as he denounced de la Rey and the critics of immediate war as cowards. He insulted de la Rey, his patriotism, his honesty, and his courage.

De la Rey remained quiet and still to the end, with the peculiar sense of stillness that was his. Then he spoke, and as he did so his black eyes flashed and his voice became icy with contempt. "I shall," he said, and his voice cut like the east wind, "I shall do my duty as the Volksraad decides," and then, turning to Kruger, where he sat up in his special seat beside the Chairman, and speaking directly at him as no man had dared to speak to Kruger for years, "and you will see me, old de la Rey, in the field fighting for our independence long after you and your party, who make war with your mouths, have fled the country."

For a while there was silence in the Volksraad. Then the motion was put to the vote. The voting was for war, as soon as the best opportunity arose. The decision for that was left with the President. Kruger, with Reitz and Smuts, the fanatical Afrikanders, had won. With an invocation calling on the Lord God of Battles to act as arbitrator in the struggle ahead, Kruger closed the Volksraad and the members hurried away each to his own district to prepare the commandos.

Reitz, with his usual impulsiveness, promptly prepared a curt ten-line ultimatum to England, saying that the Transvaal was tired of negotiating, and declaring war forthwith. He wished to send it off at once, but Smuts tried to hold him back. Fischer, as soon as he heard of the ultimatum, telegraphed from Bloemfontein begging for delay. Neither he nor Smuts was as impulsive as Reitz, but both exceedingly crafty and shrewd, and they pointed out that with a little more time they could jockey England into the wrong instead of themselves being the aggressors. When Reitz persisted Joubert put his foot down: as Commander-in-Chief he needed more time; the old commando system had been good enough for the small native wars, he said, but it would not do for a big concentration, and he must create a new organisation. He insisted on more time until Reitz gave way, and once more with Kruger and Smuts worked for time. They held up replies to dispatches from England. They made counter-proposals with no intention of carrying them out. The Liberals in England, with John Morley and Leonard Courtney still ignorant of the facts, pointed to these as proofs that the Transvaal authorities were searching for a last-minute compromise. They were, in fact, working desperately to get ready for war, and the ultimatum lay waiting in a drawer to be dispatched the minute they were ready.

They concentrated the main force of the burghers on the Natal frontier and sent some to the west to Mafeking; established depots; distributed arms and ammunition; dispatched spies into Natal and the Cape to watch troop movements and inspect bridges and points of vantage; accumulated gold by holding up the export from the mines and by taking fifteen pounds from every citizen of the Transvaal; and increased rolling stock by commandeering all trucks that came over the frontier from the Cape.

For many weeks, for months, Milner had warned the English Government, but in the play of the complicated tactics of home politics South Africa had become no more than a pawn, and they held their hand. At last and suddenly, they realised that war was on them and that they were unprepared. There were only a few troops available in Natal. They started to prepare. They sent reinforcements from India — the reinforcements that Milner had asked for months before, and which he maintained would, if they had been sent out earlier, have prevented war altogether.

It was too late. The time was come. Reitz and Smuts realised that at last the English were waking up and they must act before more troops could reach South Africa. The rains had begun to fall. There was grass on the veld. Joubert was ready. For a minute old Paul Kruger sat back to think, and hesitated. Reitz and Smuts pressed him not to tarry, now that the decision was made. Steyn of the Free State also was eager to be at it. At last Kruger gave way, gave instructions to Reitz on the 9th October to sign and send the ultimatum, which demanded that all troops on the borders of the Republics should be instantly withdrawn, and all troops which had landed in South Africa during the last years should be re-embarked and no more allowed to land. It gave forty-eight hours for a reply. Two days later England refused to accept the terms, whereupon Kruger ordered Joubert to move forward with his massed commandos into the English colony of Natal. The die was cast. It was war.