16. Defeat Looms
From Part 1 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

THE Dutch army was destroyed, the commandos scattered up in the Lydenburg mountains and in odd corners of the Transvaal and the Free State. President Kruger, now physically very decrepit, had been shipped away to Holland. The Transvaal and the Free State were overrun, their capitals captured. The land was full of English troops. The burghers were losing hope: many of them were surrendering and taking an oath of neutrality. Many of the remainder were ready to do the same. Kruger sent a message urging all to fight, but it had little effect: the fighting spirit, the exaltation, was gone out of them.

For a while even Botha thought of peace, but he saw that the terms were too hard. The other leaders, especially those from the Free State, were for fighting to the end. He realised that they must keep the spirit of resistance alive at all costs, encourage the people to stand fast, prevent the commandos from breaking up completely. So long as they did not give in, there was hope.

Collecting each as many of the tough irreconcilables as were ready to fight on or to be killed before they would surrender, and without any general plan of campaign, the leaders attacked the English whenever they saw the opportunity.

To collect men was not easy. Many refused to join up again. They had had enough. They wanted only peace and to go back to their farms. Many wished to remain neutral, but the commando leaders often forced them to come out, flogged any who dared to talk of peace, and confiscated their property.

Botha himself carried on to the east of Pretoria. De Wet and James Hertzog, a Judge of the Free State, each with a body of Free Staters, worked separately southwards and attempted to raid into Cape Colony. Beyers, a brave and skilful leader, moved up and down the Transvaal, always on the move and making sudden attacks on the English whenever he got the chance. Stout-hearted de la Rey, fighting on as he had told the Volksraad he would at that meeting when they had voted for war, went to the south of Pretoria into the Western Transvaal. Smuts joined de la Rey.

The time for office work, for splitting hairs of legality, for writing dispatches, for words and documents, was passed. The lean-faced, scraggy-bodied, insolent young lawyer put all these behind him. He had tasted the thrill of direct action that day he had marched out to Irene with five hundred men to cover the evacuation of Pretoria and he had broken from his legal tradition and his whole training when he had told the burghers to loot the stores in the town and when he had taken the money out of the Treasury and the banks. Now he took a book or two for reading and a rifle, a bandoller of ammunition, his old clothes, a slouch hat, and rode out into the open veld to fight.

Almost at once he showed a remarkable ability as a raider. He was as physically brave as he had been insolently brave before Kruger and the old men in Pretoria. He was as crafty and as full of ruses in attacking isolated detachments of English troops as he had been in fooling Conyngham Greene and wasting time. And old, wise, gallant de la Rey, the cleverest of all the Dutch leaders, who seemed to smell out as if by instinct the best chances and the best routes, taught him the art and the tricks of raiding. Together they raided now a convoy sent with a weak escort, capturing all the stores, killing many of the escort before help could get to them, burning the wagons, and capturing a thousand oxen; now attacking a town where the garrison was weak and misplaced; and now driving the English off a ridge close by the gold mines themselves.

But these were little successes which did not affect the real issue — and there were many failures. Hertzog was greatly respected by his men, but he was no great raider, and he was chased with little trouble out of Cape Colony. De Wet, though he had started out with fifteen hundred, was so harried that he was unable to do any damage and returned with less than half his followers. The English held all the land. Lord Roberts had gone back to England and Lord Kitchener was in his place, and he had set out steadily to clear up methodically and ruthlessly by cutting the country up into sections with barbed-wire fences and concentrating the women and children into camps. The Dutch used their farms to hide in, to refit themselves, and as intelligence centres. Their women helped them. Often dressed as civilians and breaking the laws of civilised warfare, they fired into the backs of unsuspecting English troops who had passed them and left them as non-combatants. When this occurred Kitchener burned their farms and also the farms of the men out raiding and especially of those who had sworn neutrality and broken their word. And he harried all with quick-moving bodies of mobile troops.

But Kitchener wanted a quick peace. War as an organised affair was one thing, but to clear up this vast country of raiding bands was work that he disliked and that would bring him no credit. He made a move for peace. Milner, as his political adviser, expressed his disapproval. He considered it premature and that it would only encourage the enemy. Kitchener persisted. Botha accepted and the two met at the town of Middleburg. Kitchener took his Chief of Staff, General French. Botha took Smuts.

They negotiated, looking for possibilities, but found none. Botha demanded that the independence of the Free State and the Transvaal should be recognised in some way. Kitchener refused. Kitchener would have conceded much: he was "heartily sick of the whole affair and he wanted to get away"; but he knew that the English Government would never agree to this. Milner was firm, even rigid, for he believed that if they were weak now this war would have to be refought very soon. The Dutch must recognise the supremacy of England. Botha requested that the Dutch who were English subjects and had joined him should be pardoned: Milner would give no promise. Kitchener offered to stop burning the farms of men out fighting if Botha would leave alone the Dutch who were British subjects, those who did not wish to fight, and those who wished to remain neutral. Botha refused. "I am entitled," he said, "to force the men to join me or to burn their farms, confiscate their properties, and leave their families on the veld."

They had reached an impasse. As a last effort French took Smuts out on to the stoep of the house. French realised that Smuts was the main difficulty. He spoke English fluently, but Botha knew only a few words. While Botha was inclined to compromise, Smuts was rigid and unyielding. If Smuts could be persuaded, then there would be peace. As they paced up and down French tried to persuade him, explained the uselessness of further fighting, and that the inevitable result would be the victory of England. It would be best to stop now, he argued, while the Dutch could get good terms and before the country was completely ruined. But Smuts would not give back one inch. "And why will you not agree? " asked French. "Because," replied Smuts, sticking out his chin, "because I am right." It was characteristic of him that having once chosen a line he would not listen to any other point of view. He shut his mind to what he did not want to know. His mind would run in the one track he had chosen, and nothing would make him see things from a new angle or change his opinion.

The conference broke up. The English continued to clear up steadily and ruthlessly, burning farms and clearing the country of everything that might be of value to the enemy. The Dutch raided, darting in and out; ruining farms also and forcing unwilling men to join up or to take the consequences. Between them they laid waste and ruined the whole land.

Gradually and steadily the English closed in, crushing the Dutch — the whole country was cut up by barbed-wire fences and controlled by forts and patrols — so that at last Botha called a meeting of the leaders to a secret rendezvous in a farm. Even this was not easy: to avoid the English patrols each man had to travel by a separate route, by little-known paths, and in the dark.

As soon as they had arrived Botha and Smuts with de Wet and many more sat down to sum up the odds and to consider whether they should make peace or continue to fight.

They had no hope except in themselves. All their calculations, and especially those of Smuts, had been incorrect. He had misjudged the English: they were far more vigorous and stout-hearted than he had suspected from their drawling, casual manners. All had expected the English to tire, but they were not tiring but rather becoming more energetic as the strain increased. All had expected that Morley and his Liberal supporters would have been able to do something: though the Liberals were doing England and her prestige and her good name some harm, they were giving no effective help to the Dutch. In the same way they had been convinced that the Germans would have interfered, but the Germans had indeed made a definite agreement with Kruger to help him against England. It was now clear that they did not intend to carry out that agreement. In fact, with the agreement in one hand, the Germans had come to terms with the English and sold the Transvaal to them in return for a free hand in Samoa and in other places.

The truth was evident. They had only themselves to rely on and they were in a bad way: their men were jaded and weary of war; numbers said openly that if it could not be successful quickly it would be better to give up and save what was left; they were in rags and often without boots — often no food except mealie pap cadged from the natives; coffee made out of roots; their horses starved; nowhere to get help, for their farms were burned and their families locked away in some concentration camp; their ammunition running out.

Botha and Smuts agreed for peace. Smuts had sent a telegram, through the consul for Holland in Pretoria, to Kruger in Europe, telling him the facts, black as they were, and asking his advice. Kruger telegraphed back to fight on. Steyn and de Wet would not hear of peace. They and all the Free State, said Steyn, would fight to the bitter end. When Smuts spoke of peace, Steyn turned on him in a fury, but Smuts explained that he too did not want peace, nothing was farther from his mind: his move was a calculated one, a diplomatic one; they needed peace, a breathing space, he said, a short peace; they could then refit for war and when England was in difficulties elsewhere, in India or Europe, they could attack her again. Steyn and de Wet would not listen to that. They knew men better than Smuts. They knew that if they once made peace, the momentum would be gone out of the burghers and they would not come out again for war.

All realised that they were in a desperate position. The flame of enthusiasm with which they had marched out and attacked Natal was gone, but with the dogged obstinacy, the unbreakable persistency of the South African Dutch, they voted dourly, solemnly, without enthusiasm, for war, war against all odds, war without surrender, war to the bitter end. Clothes, arms, ammunition, they must get by raids on the English. Food they must find somewhere. They would fight on.

And there was one hope left — to raise rebellion in the English colonies. Natal was useless: it was all English, but the Cape was full of Dutch related to themselves, ready to rise if they got the chance. If the commandos could raid deep down into the Cape, to where no raiders had as yet penetrated, the whole might rise, and they might yet beat the English.

For this venture they chose Smuts. He believed it was possible and had chances of success. He had shown skill and speed when with de la Rey. He was young and vigorous and his home was in the Maimesbury district, the centre of the Dutch population: he knew the people and the country. They instructed Smuts to collect a commando and raid into the Cape.

It was a last, despairing effort. So close were the English round them that when Steyn and the members of the Free State Government were travelling, an English patrol pounced on them, captured all of them except Steyn, who escaped into the darkness dressed only in his night-shirt and leaving behind him in his baggage his correspondence, including the letters he had from Smuts.