17. Smuts' Raid Begins
From Part 1 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

THE venture appealed to Smuts in every way. The idea was largely his. He was convinced that if encouraged the Dutch of the Cape would rise. He would make a flying raid to test the possibilities and at any rate this would draw off some English troops from the north. That de Wet and Hertzog had failed in their raids, and been ignominiously chased back as soon as they got over the Cape border, did not deter him. He was confident in himself and that where they had failed he would succeed. He had nothing to hold him up. The Transvaal Government did not exist any more in anything but name. He had no family ties. His wife had been interned by the English and was living comfortably and well cared for in a private house in Maritzburg.

He was given the best of everything. De la Rey sent him his picked men, tried and seasoned veterans, each well mounted and well armed, with a pack animal as well as a riding horse. They met in the Western Transvaal in the mountains beyond Johannesburg at the end of July 1901, three hundred and forty men in all. Smuts divided them into four sections, took one himself, another he placed under van Deventer, his second in command, and instructed them all to make across the Transvaal and the Free State as best they could and to rendezvous at Zastron, a township three hundred miles to the south, close to the Orange River and the Cape border—a convenient place frequently used as a base by raiding bands.

His difficulties began at once. Kitchener had just organised a big drive to clear the Free State, and the whole country was full of English troops on the move. Smuts' intentions were known and the English commanders had orders to keep an eye open for him and intercept him. All through, the month of August he dodged and doubled and twisted backwards and forwards avoiding the English columns. In getting across the Vaal River from the Transvaal into the Free State he was on one occasion caught asleep and chased by an English patrol, and got away with difficulty and by hard running and riding. He escaped capture a dozen times, especially round Bloemfontein. Food and forage were difficult, for the English had burned the farms in these areas, driven off the cattle and evacuated the people, and left the whole land bleak and empty except for the patrols. It was not until the end of August that Smuts and his men reached Zastron and then their numbers had been reduced by death and capture to some two hundred and forty.

They were now on the border of the Cape Province. The next problem was to get across the Orange River into English territory. Smuts reconnoitred the banks. It was clear that he was expected. The farther bank was strictly patrolled and every ford watched and picketed. There seemed no way across. The expedition seemed doomed at the start. There was an English column closing in on them from behind. If they were to escape back they must give up the raid and break up into smaller bands and then an old man, one of de la Rey's veterans, trying out a ford which he knew, but which had long been disused as dangerous, found it unguarded.

Kitchener had sent down General French from his staff to stop Smuts. French was taking no risks. He had picketed every ford along the river, including this one. He had just completed a personal inspection to be sure that along the whole bank there was no possible gap, and he had hardly returned to his headquarters on a mountain from where he could see the whole of the river bank, when Kitchener, who needed more troops and was collecting every man he could find, from his office far away in Pretoria, and without consulting French, removed the picket on the disused ford and left a gap. Without that gap Smuts could not have got across, but he took the chance at once. Luck again was with him. Making it in the dark, and wading across with the horses staggering against the current and the water swirling up to their girths, he and his men got across just as the day was dawning.

They were on English soil and raiding into the enemy's country. They moved forward, excited and keyed up. The country was not laid waste as that behind them: the farms were prosperous and full of people.

Smuts intended to march through the middle of the Cape down southwards, aiming at Port Elizabeth, but hardly was he across the river than he was attacked by bands of Basutos, who killed six of his men and thirty horses. His every movement was seen and reported. In some of the farms held by Dutchmen and even those held by Englishmen the people were willing to help him, but there were spies everywhere. The natives and coloured labourers would always betray his presence. His own picture and that of some of his men were printed and broadcast. Every post and picket was warned. Four light columns came after him and whenever he was seen troops converged in on him.

Yet for Smuts it was a great adventure. He changed. He had a book or two in his saddle-bags, a heavy philosophical treatise and a Greek testament, but office work, files, words written on paper were things behind him. He began to live. The natural instincts of the boy and of the young man which he had repressed came out. He remained grim as always. He talked little. When not on the move or sleeping he usually sat away by himself, reading the philosophical treatise. He rarely asked advice of anyone. He gave brief orders and expected them to be obeyed. He kept to himself, but he began to realise, though only vaguely, the possibilities and the stimulation of companionship and comradeship with other men, mostly with men with little brains, and men of whom in Pretoria he would have been contemptuous and with whom he would have become irritated, because they were slower witted than himself. He began to feel the kick and the spur of physical action, spiced with the thrill of danger and combined with the uplift that he was doing something of value, something big and worth doing. The sensation that physical action alone could give when the mind was not always questioning the value of action. Though he never opened himself completely and remained still distant and reserved, this raid filled him with a new and human enthusiasm.

Physically, he changed completely. From the thin, scraggy, cadaverous, ill-natured-faced young man he grew muscular and with meat and muscle on his bones. Like so many weakly children, he had no inherent disease, and, from his parents he had inherited a sound constitution, the constitution of peasant ancestors, who lived near to the soil. He developed out. He became strong and sturdy. From sallow complexioned he became red faced from the sun and the wind in the open. His weight increased to twelve stone, and he grew a yellow mane of a beard, with side-whiskers as well, and he stepped out rather than slouched, as he had done in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

But above all he was a leader with an independent command, and he realised that these men, whether they liked or disliked him, relied on his judgment, trusted his decision, acted on his orders without question, and looked to him to lead them. The realisation of this developed him. He became self-reliant, and he learned a mastery over himself which he had lacked as the irritable, arrogant, pushing young lawyer, suddenly promoted to Attorney-General in Pretoria.

Crossing the Free State to the rendezvous at Zastron had been difficult, but now only in the Cape Colony did Smuts' real difficulties commence. Driving off the Basuto bands which had attacked him, he started to work southwards. Almost at once the rains began, and with them came piercing cold winds, often full of sleet and ice. In whichever direction he went, he met English patrols and was forced to fight or dodge and twist and often to make up into passes and mountain peaks, where the mists were bitterly cold and his men were nearly frozen to death and the horses died under the strain. They had no transport or reserves, only what they carried on them. They lived in mud and rain, in utter discomfort, without covering, and without, not merely the luxuries of coffee and tea and sugar, but the barest necessities. Once they marched sixty hours without rest and food, and fought off an attacking patrol. If they rested for a few hours, they were tracked out by English scouts and forced to move again to save themselves.

Once they ate some wild vegetable and half of them, including Smuts and Deventer, were poisoned and lay groaning and retching on the ground. An English column was hard on their track and there was no time to lose. The rest tied the sick men across their horses like sacks of corn and alternately drove the horses on and beat the advancing English back. Smuts, in agony, begged to be left behind, but they would not listen to him. After a while the shaking of the horses forced the sick men to vomit up the poison and they could stagger along by themselves, and the commando got to safety.

As time went on their clothes became rags. When they wounded or captured an Englishman, they stripped him and also the dead, but otherwise they had no means of replacing their rags. They used any piece of cloth or hide for patching, and grain sacks found in deserted farms-cutting holes for their heads and arms—for coats. Their boots fell to pieces and they wrapped pieces of hide round their feet, which were cut and blistered, and the threadbare blanket which each man carried they wore over their heads and shoulders. The horses became gaunt skeletons, weary-legged, lame, just stumbling along. They ran out of ammunition and sometimes the only fresh supply they could get was by searching the tracks after an English column had passed, and picking up such cartridges as the soldiers had dropped.

They kept doggedly on, but they became depressed. They could stand much hardship, but they had not seen the sun for days, only driving rain and mist—and without sun they ceased to be men. They could find no fuel for cooking or warmth, for everything was water-logged. Many were wounded. They had no medicine or bandages. Their worst cases they left for the English to pick up. The rest kept going. Even some of the worst-one man with his eye shot away, the socket a clot of dried blood, and his left hand mangled to a pulp by a bullet and become gangrened—preferred to drag along. Lack of sleep was worse than lack of food. It became an unendurable physical torture. They became querulous. They spoke against Smuts. He was the leader, true, but he never consulted with them as did other commando leaders and he never told them his plans or intentions. All this marching seemed a waste. He had told them that the Cape Dutch would join them. They were not joining them. What was the use of it all?

They had come to the end of their tether. They were a pathetic band of dispirited and reluctant men, wearily dragging along, with their enemies closing in on them. They took refuge in some mountains from where they could see the country round. The English were all across behind them, so that they could not escape back. They could see that there was a line of English in front of them barring their way to the south, and in the plain below was a light railway with a train bringing up more English troops. They stopped. Some lay full length, others kneeling, with their foreheads on the ground, like Moslems at prayer, their horses drooping beside them. But Smuts kicked them up; pushed them relentlessly on; no resting: they must get on; he would not let them give in. Suddenly they saw a squadron of English cavalry, the 17th Lancers, encamped in neat tents in a valley below: their road must go through that valley.

They hesitated. This was the end. All other ways were closed to them; when suddenly they realised that the English were not expecting them. It was neck or nothing now. "Get on," said Smuts, "get on at them. We must get those horses or we are done." They attacked desperately, caught the Lancers unprepared, defeated them, chased off those who were not killed or wounded, and then, in a fever of excitement, went through the camp so that when they had finished every man was re-equipped in English uniform, with new rifles, plenty of ammunition, food, supplies of all sorts, good horses, and well-kept saddlery. They had with one blow got back their courage and self-respect and their belief in their leader. They were ready for anything he might want them to do.

And throughout, Smuts remained curiously impersonal. He had little imagination, or realisation of suffering. He had never suffered, so that pain in others or the hideousness of wounds did not strain or tear at his nerves. When seeing, after a fight, some Dutchmen and Englishmen lying dead side by side, his feelings had been not of horror but anger at the waste, a sudden hatred of Joseph Chamberlain and a wish to be able to place these dead beside Chamberlain in his room in England to show him what war meant. He had no physical fear, so that he was never drawn out on the rack of apprehension. He was also utterly and impersonally ruthless.

A Dutchman, Lemuel Colaine, a fine, upstanding fellow from the Cape, joined the commando, saying he wanted his revenge on the English, who had ill-treated him. Actually he came to spy. One night he disappeared and a week after that he led a detachment of English cavalry on to some of Smuts' men while they were asleep and killed and wounded seventeen. Some time later, Smuts attacked an English post, surrounded it, and his men captured Colaine.

Smuts was sitting in a farmhouse near by talking to the farmer and his family in the dining-room when they brought Colaine in. Smuts already knew the details. He called a witness or two to establish Colaine's identity, and then without holding a court, and without any formality, there and then, and without any hesitation, he condemned Colaine to death.

"Take him out and shoot him," he said. Colaine fell on his knees and begged for mercy. The farmer's family ran out of the room in hysterics. Smuts sat looking at the man, his face set; his pale-blue eyes hard as steel, almost grey, and as if sightless with this fixed, impersonal intensity. The man was a traitor, a traitor to the Cause; and that was all there was to it.

"Take him out and shoot him," he repeated shortly, and turned to talk again.

Some Hottentots dug a grave beyond the farm. Smuts allowed a pastor to pray with Colaine. When, however, the man asked to see Smuts again, his guards took no notice. They knew Smuts; they knew it was useless: that he would not change. Quickly, for they were human and hated the work, this cold-blooded killing, they shot Colaine, waited while the Hottentots covered him with earth, and rode away.

And Smuts did not seem to have any limit to his physical and mental energy. When his men were completely done, flung down and collapsed with fatigue, he was at work, planning, scheming, thinking out ways and means. He could sleep when he wished and wake refreshed, and he shed fatigue as his stomach had sturdily shed the poison he had eaten. Though in command of the whole force he would not trust his subordinates to carry out the smallest duties: he tried to do everything himself. He would go forward with the scouts and then return to direct the commando. He took risks and every time came through unhurt. He was never wounded. Once he went scouting with three men. Hours later, he returned on foot, without his horse or his rifle and even without his hat. The party had been ambushed. His companions and all the horses had been killed. He had escaped and walked back quite unconcerned.

His luck was marvellous. Again and again, when he and his men seemed to be surrounded, some local guide or farmer would help them out. Once in the Stormberg Mountains he was caught on a plateau and the English held every path from it and covered all exits with machine-guns. There was a farmhouse in a hollow where the commando had taken cover, but the end was near. The English were only waiting their chance to close in and take them with the least loss possible.

At the door of the farm stood Smuts, talking in a low voice with Deventer, wondering what to do. He had no intention of surrendering. He would fight to the end, and he was arranging how to put up the last fight when from an outhouse came a little hunchback, a cripple, dragging himself awkwardly along on crutches. He knew a way out, he said. As soon as it was dark they hoisted him on to a horse and followed him, down a precipice so steep that the horses would have refused to go had it been daylight, across a bog that was not guarded, and so out to safety once more.

On another occasion, in the nick of time, a Dutch farmer called from a doorway and warned them back as they were riding into an ambush, and yet again a labourer showed them a secret path round the English flank when they were almost hemmed in.

The hardship, the dangers, the strain, only braced Smuts up to greater effort and energy. All the responsibility was his and his men relied on him. He accepted the responsibility with satisfaction. He was not afraid of responsibility and he broadened his shoulders to carry it. He was not cast down like his men by failure nor over-excited when there was a success.