IT was the middle of May 1902 when Smuts left Cape Town by train. He had come from Port Nolloth on an English troopship. For a week he had lived in an English battleship lying off Cape Town. Everything possible had been done for his comfort. Everywhere he had been treated by the English with great courtesy, even exaggerated respect. He was not, however, hoodwinked by this. He knew that the courtesy was ordered from headquarters, to get him into the right frame of mind for peace-making. He was polite, but even more uncommunicative and silent than usual. He went on to the train quietly and drew down the blinds of his compartment so as not to be stared at He was as full of fight and as pugnacious as usual. He expressed' his strong disapproval of an officer who had published a bad photograph of him. On the train there was a mess, where he dined with the English officers. On one occasion he disliked the food, sent the soup away as unfit for officers, reprimanded the cook, and behaved as if he were in charge, instead of being the guest.
At Matjesfontein Station, General French came to see him. French, though normally as downright and as brusque as Smuts, was, under orders, friendly and mild. He tried to pick Smuts' brain, but Smuts did not relax at all, and the two did not agree.
When the train stopped at Kroonstad, Kitchener came to see him. Kitchener wished to make an effect: he rode up as the General commanding all the English troops in South Africa, mounted on a black charger with his staff round him and a bodyguard of Indian cavalry in full uniform.
Smuts was not impressed. He was not an Asiatic, to be taken in with a little pomp. Such things, uniforms and shows, carried no weight with him. Kitchener came into his coach. He was very friendly, and they talked pleasantly. Kitchener spoke of the uselessness of further fighting, urged that the Dutch should make peace now, and that fighting would only mean a slow grinding of the Republics into the dust. Smuts did not commit himself. He talked little, but he taxed Kitchener with wantonly burning the farmsteads. Kitchener defended his action, but spoke not as a conqueror but almost apologetically, though by all military law he was fully justified. Smuts turned on him sharply and accused him of murdering the men of his commando by shooting them summarily if found in English uniform. Kitchener replied that the wearing of English uniform by the Dutch had been a breach of the laws of war. Smuts' men had repeatedly escaped capture and death by masquerading in English uniform as English soldiers. He had issued a proclamation as a warning, though there had been no call on him to do so. On one occasion at least an English officer had been murdered by men of Smuts' commando. A man called Duncker, dressed in the uniform of a 17th Lancer, had been cornered by a patrol. He had shouted out, "Don't fire; we are 17th Lancers," and then shot a Captain Watson and got away. Smuts was a lawyer, and a lawyer trained in England in international law, and he at least ought to have know the rules of war and to have kept his men in hand. Smuts' reply that "They had to wear khaki or go naked," brought the answer that if they could not fight without breaking the rules of war they should stop fighting or take the consequences without complaining. Kitchener had excellent replies, but Smuts was determined to show that he was not a defeated enemy but an equal, and to put his opponents in the wrong.
At Standerton he left the train and for several days trekked into the veld to a rendezvous fixed by Botha to which had been called the representatives of the Transvaal commandos in the field. For six weeks the Transvaal and Free State Governments had been negotiating with the English and they had agreed that the commandos should each elect a representative and, that the representatives should appoint thirty delegates for each of the republics, who should meet at Vereeniging and discuss the possibility of peace.
When Smuts arrived most of the representatives were already present. He quickly realised the facts. The men who had assembled were in a pitiable condition, emaciated, in rags, starved, and they were the leaders and the pick of the Dutchmen in the field. His commando had suffered in the Cape, but they had lived in luxury compared with these men. A talk with them and with Botha and the other leaders convinced him that, though their spirit and courage were high, they had almost reached the limit of physical effort and endurance. They were all being slowly and steadily strangled by the weight of the English. The English Government and Kitchener were themselves eager for a conference and for peace, but they were also ready to fight on. The fact remained that the commandos had reached the limit; they were defeated: they must make peace. If they persisted in fighting they would, not only as a fighting force but as a nation, be wiped out. That was the fact and Smuts accepted it and faced it squarely. Without looking back or hesitating he put all his efforts into backing Botha to get peace.
The delegates met at Vereeniging on the 15th May—two parties, thirty delegates from the Transvaal, led by Schalk Burger, who acted for Kruger away in Europe, Botha and de la Rey, and thirty from the Free State, led by Steyn, de Wet, and Hertzog. Smuts had not been elected a delegate, but Botha took him as legal adviser on the Transvaal delegation.
The high steppe through which the Vaal River ran was as bleak and dreary as any part of the veld. On this plain near the bank of the river where there was the village of Vereeniging, Kitchener had ordered a tent to be pitched for each of the two delegations and between them a larger tent for the conference.
To this the delegates came—stubborn, grim-featured men, bedraggled and weary, but made more stubborn and grim by their hardships and defeat.
The proceedings were opened solemnly with prayer, and then the delegates spoke. There was no mincing of words; they were rough men used to saying what they thought without respect of persons. Most of them knew deep down in their hearts that they must surrender, but could not bring themselves to agree that this was the end of all their efforts, their agony, and their belief. A few were die-hards who preferred death and the destruction of the country before surrender.
The debate surged and flowed backwards and forwards as delegate after delegate spoke. Botha made a report on the Transvaal: the starvation; the lack of every necessity; the strangle-hold of the English; the need for peace if they were to continue to exist at all. De Wet, always full of boastings, replied with many big words that if they had the courage they could carry on indefinitely: he and Steyn were fiercely against all surrender. Hertzog split verbal hairs and was vague; de la Rey, with his great prestige behind him, spoke wisely and simply for peace. Many of the delegates with religious earnestness spoke of this as a holy war, of trusting in God, of relying on His help, until an old back-veld burgher interrupted them. "God is on our side, you say? We asked for God's answer. He has answered. His hand is stretched out, not for us, but against us." Some spoke of intervention from Europe and the rising of the Dutch of the Cape. Smuts cut in with expert knowledge and told them that no intervention would come from Europe and that "a general rising in Cape Colony was an impossibility."
Tempers began to heat up. The delegates were divided into two parties. The Transvaal, led by Botha, for peace; the Free State, led by Steyn and de Wet, for war, and war to the end, even to destruction.
At the critical moment, Reitz suggested a compromise: let them treat with the English for peace, but let them demand their independence and in return offer to cede the goldfields to the English, make a defensive alliance with England, and allow her to control their dealings with other nations.
Knowing that ultimately they must surrender, looking for some way to ease their pride, some explanation of their actions, explanation which they could give their men on the commandos, to the nation, to their relatives, and to be passed down to future generations, the delegates took the suggestion eagerly. They drafted out a resolution on these lines and appointed a special committee, consisting of Botha, de la Rey, and de Wet, with the lawyers Hertzog and Smuts as their advisers, to proceed to Pretoria and negotiate "on this basis, and, if this basis was ruled out, on any lines they thought fit." They had passed the responsibility on to other shoulders.
The committee took the draft resolution and went to Pretoria. None of them, and least of all Smuts, believed that these proposals would be accepted or even considered by the English, but they knew their own people and that they had in reality, though it had not openly been stated, been given a free hand to get the best terms they could. They would bluff as long as they could. They would fight for these resolutions one by one and so get better terms than otherwise.
Kitchener and Milner welcomed them, but promptly refused to accept the proposals. Milner would consider nothing until they had agreed to the loss of their independence and to accept the supremacy of England. The Dutchmen began to haggle and bargain. They quickly realised that Kitchener and Milner were at cross-purposes and they worked on this.
The idea of the English Government had been that Kitchener should act the part of the stern soldier demanding harsh terms, while Milner as the administrator who was to rule the country in the future should tone down those terms, appear to be the more sympathetic, and, when the time came for him to take over control, the Dutch should look on him as their friend.
But Kitchener would not play his part. He appeared solid and hard. He was in fact a bundle of nerves held down by an iron will. He resented Milner taking part in the negotiations at all and he could not conceal his resentment. He went behind Milners' back and talked privately with the Dutchmen outside the conference and with the journalists. He wanted peace at almost any cost. He was prepared to make almost any concessions provided he could get away out of South Africa, away from this place which had been the grave of the reputations of so many men. Milner stood for a sound peace on which the future could be built. Again and again when a difficulty arose, Kitchener did not support Milner, until often Milner felt as if he was negotiating not with the enemy but with Kitchener, who should have been his loyal colleague.
Smuts cleverly played up to Kitchener and against Milner. Again, as at Bloemfontein, it was a battle of character and brain between these two men, but Milner was hindered by Kitchener's disloyalty. Smuts used clever arguments, split hairs, twisted phrases, used clever ruses, but, while Kitchener often acquiesced, Milner saw through these and pinned Smuts down:
Smuts—seeing the possibility of creating unending difficulties in the years to come—suggested a general agreement, but to leave details to be threshed out later. "No need of final clauses," he said. Kitchener was sympathetic. Milner refused point-blank. He had the type of mind that was absolutely honest and without subterfuge and always cool and collected. He wanted things exact and concrete, all square and above board, so that later there could be no doubts and no squirming out. "I am certainly not," he said, "going to give up an explicit basis for a vague proposal." Kitchener grew irritated. "Leave Lord Milner out of this job," he said to Botha, taking him aside. "You and I can manage this satisfactorily." But Milner would not budge, nor would he be left out. "If a bad peace is to be made, it must be made over my political corpse," he said. "The obvious principle seems to be that the man who is going to run the show should arrange the conditions. If Lord Kitchener is going to make the bed, let him lie in it, and not me."
The discussions grew more sour and violent. On Smuts the effect of Milner was that of a rival on a dog. He was like a terrier walking round on his toes, his hackles up, looking for trouble. De Wet was as firmly against any peace as before. Kitchener could not make peace without Milner's agreement.
Late one night the conference came to a deadlock: neither Milner nor Smuts would give way; when Kitchener, taking him by an elbow, drew Smuts quietly out of the room on to the stoep of the house. For a while the two walked up and down in silence in the darkness.
At last Kitchener said, "Look here, Smuts, there is something on my mind that I want to tell you. I can only give you my opinion, but my opinion is that in two years' time a Liberal Government will come into power and it will grant you a constitution for South Africa."
"That is a very important pronouncement," replied Smuts. "If one could be sure of the like of that, it would make a great difference."
"As I say," repeated Kitchener, "it is only my opinion, but honestly I do believe that that will happen."
It was a queer piece of disloyalty by Kitchener to his colleague, but it settled the deadlock, for the Dutchmen ceased to be obstinate: a draft agreement on Milner's lines was rapidly prepared and the committee left, to place it before the delegates at Vereeniging.