18. The Raid Ends (see Map)
From Part 1 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

BUT Smuts saw that he must reconsider his plans. He had now travelled through and beyond the midlands of Cape Colony, outmarched and fought with various English flying columns and patrols in a number of skirmishes. He had penetrated far enough south to threaten the port of East London, and from the mountains he had seen, in the far distance, the lights of Port Elizabeth and the grey-blue haze beyond, which was the Indian Ocean. His handful of men had, under great physical difficulties, raided through a large area of enemy territory and were able and willing to continue. But his main object in coming had not been to fight the English but to stir up the local Dutch in the midlands, to blow on the embers of their discontent until they kindled and the whole of Cape Colony flared up in rebellion. And the local Dutch, though some had helped and sympathised, had not—except for a few men who had joined the commando—risen in revolt, or even stirred in protest; nor did they show any signs of rising.

Smuts had, in fact, misjudged the potentialities of a raid. To raid across this country was a great feat of physical endurance, calling for fine leadership and dogged courage among the men; but in such a raid the difficulties lay not so much with the raiders as with the English who had to intercept them. The areas of the Cape were immense: communications hardly existed; the country was broken and mountainous; the raiders had friends and relations always ready to help them, hide them, and to show them the way; many of the raiders talked English and knew the country well; they wore civilian clothes and had only to hide their rifles to become innocent non-combatants and pick them up again to become combatants once more; at times they masqueraded in English uniforms, so that it was as difficult to locate and hold them as to catch quicksilver in a stream running over a gravel bottom. As an Australian trooper was heard to say, "A big dog with a thick coat has a hell of a job flea-catching, but I'll be b— if I see why the flea gets all the b— credit." Botha had more than once expressed his surprise that the raid-leaders had not effected more and his chagrin that the English had dealt with the raids with such skill.

A raid was not going to rouse the Cape Dutch into rebellion. Many of them had a sentimental sympathy with their Dutch brothers in the Transvaal and the Free State, but many had not; and considerable numbers had volunteered to fight for the English and not against them: they had no great quarrel of principle with their English neighbours. Those who might have come out would not because they had no horses: the English had taken their horses and no Dutchman was going raiding on his own flat feet and without his horse. Moreover, whereas in the Transvaal and the Free State there was grazing for animals on the veld, in the Cape there was little grazing, and most areas were covered with low scrub where a horse could find no provender. Further, if they came out they became rebels, to be shot at sight, their property confiscated, and their families sent to a concentration camp. They had seen what had happened in the Transvaal and the Free State, and there were fifty thousand English troops in the Cape. They had no intention of rising because a few fellow Dutchmen from the Transvaal came, harried and chased and running for their lives, raiding across their lands and calling on them to rise.

Smuts realised this and decided to change his plans. He would make to the west towards Malmesbury and up to Calvinia. In those areas there were no railways, few roads, and very few English troops, and these would find it more difficult to track and harass him. The people were more dourly Dutch, and these might rise. There were, moreover, round Calvinia a number of Dutch bands raiding, and especially one under Maritz, a police corporal from Johannesburg, which were doing much damage to the English. He decided to co-ordinate these bands into one force under himself.

When Smuts was in a scheme it must always be on a grand scale, nothing petty and small—a united South Africa with Rhodes, an all-Dutch South Africa with Kruger, a war to defeat the British Empire and drive the English into the sea, a rebellion of the whole of Cape Colony to win the war. Now he schemed with these raiding bands and such volunteers as joined him to make an army and use it as a fighting force, not merely for raiding but to strike a definite blow.

He set off without delay. The English were hot on his trail. He crossed the Cape Town— Johannesburg railway with an English column close behind him, but as he went northwards into the bleak country towards Calvinia, the pursuit slackened off, and without trouble he marched into the mountains which lie between Calvinia and the shore of the Atlantic Ocean and, in a valley deep in a wild range above the Oliphants River, made his headquarters.

Few English troops came this way; so he was able to work unmolested. He sent his men out raiding long distances to locate the bands and to bring their leaders in to him, so that he could get their news and consult and plan with them. He found Maritz with six hundred men and made him a general. The military title was as haphazard as the organisation of his force. As often in an unorganised force, big titles were given for small positions. Smuts himself had been made a general when he set out on this raid with only three hundred and fifty men. He collected arms, ammunition, forage, stores, and spare animals and made depots for them in convenient and secret places along the Hex Valley, for use against a time of need. He sent out armed parties: some to Calvinia and the villages beyond it to rouse the people and to get recruits; others to attack any English columns or convoys which passed through the area. One raided so far south that the men saw Table Mountain and created a panic in Cape Town, and there were long paragraphs of descriptions in the London and local papers. Another went into the Malmesbury and Riebeek West area.

Old Jacobus Smuts was there, but sick and much bed-ridden. The old man was still greatly grieved at what seemed to him to be a useless fratricidal war, when the Dutch and the English should be living peacefully side by side. Nevertheless, he sent his son a substantial sum of money to help him on his way.

As there were other bands in the far north, Smuts went personally there across the dreary length of Bushman's Land up to the Orange River, found these bands, and brought them under his control.

Gradually he created a force numbering close on three thousand men in all, most of them local volunteers. It was, however, only the skeleton of a force, for each band worked on its own under its own leader, and with the immense distances between the areas in which they worked and the lack of communications his control was very nominal.

He knew little of what was happening in the main theatres of the war, in the Transvaal and the Free State; but he decided that now that he had a force he must act: he must create some sort of diversion.

Far up in the north, near the frontier of the German South-West Colony, where the Orange River flowed into the Atlantic Ocean, was the town of Ookiep, where there was a group of rich copper mines guarded by an English garrison.

He decided to attack Ookiep and he calculated that the English would be sure to send a relief force to help the garrison, and so he would draw off some enemy troops from other work. And he half planned, but more as a stimulus to his men than as a concrete plan, to wait until the relief force arrived and then make another diversion by a sudden and desperate raid straight at Cape Town itself.

He called in as many men as he could and set off. The country was barren, mainly desert and stony land, and they had to travel long distances for water. He was as tireless and ubiquitous as ever, up with his advance guard, out with his scouts, planning and ordering and directing. He drove in the English outposts round Ookiep and captured some block-houses which protected the roads into the town.

With his usual foolhardiness, he exposed himself. Sometimes he was standing out inspecting a position full in the open, while his men lay under cover. At other times he was up with an outpost or a party about to attack, within a few yards of the English who were shooting direct at him, and yet he refused to take cover. He was never hit, never even touched by a bullet, until he was convinced that he could not be hit, and he became a fatalist, saying: "What will be, will be. It has never happened; so it will not happen."

His plans worked out. As he closed in on Ookiep, the English decided that the copper mines must be saved and the garrison relieved. A large force was got rapidly together in Cape Town and dispatched in transports to Port Nolloth, for Ookiep itself lay some ninety miles inland. The first troops had arrived and were being disembarked. More were coming every day. Spies and scouts brought Smuts the news. The time was coming for his raid, his desperate and hazardous raid, at Cape Town. He decided to withdraw his men from round Ookiep.

Suddenly, without warning, he flared up into one of his fits of sudden ruthlessness, a sudden desire to destroy, even if the destruction was useless, as he had when he tried to blow up the gold mines in Johannesburg. Now he determined to ruin Ookiep.

A branch line ran down an incline into Ookiep. In the town there lived some three thousand people, white and native, as well as the English garrison. Taking two railway trucks, he had them loaded with dynamite and started down the incline. They should have run straight into the town, hit the terminus, exploded, and blown some of Ookiep and its inhabitants sky-high. It happened, however, that there was a siding halfway down the incline where the points were set, and the two trucks ran into the veld and there, in the open and without killing anyone, blew an enormous crater in the ground.

Hardly had Smuts failed in this when he saw coming jogging along over the open in a Cape cart with a white flag over it, two English officers looking for General Smuts. They brought an invitation from Lord Kitchener for him to attend a conference with the other Dutch leaders at Vereeniging, a village on the Transvaal and Free State border and on the Vaal River, to discuss terms of peace.

For a while Smuts did not believe the news. He took the English officers to his quarters and talked with them for a long time. Then he walked away out into the wide veld, which was like a desert and stretched far away to the east. When he came back after many hours, his face was drawn and grey. Out there alone, in the desert, where no one could spy on him or watch his agony, he had fought out his battle with his own soul. He said little. He was even more reserved than usual, even to moroseness. He ordered his men to cease fighting. He gave them a hint, but no more, that his news was bad. He arranged an armistice with the English in Ookiep, and set out under a promise of safe-conduct to Port Nolloth and from there by boat to Cape Town on the way to the peace conference.