The peace was signed, the war was over; but Smuts shrank from going back to his commando to tell his men the truth. Before he left he had given them a hint that the news was bad, but it was characteristic of him that, though he was often brusque and did not realise or appreciate how he hurt other people's feelings, he could not tell his men the facts and see the disappointment in their eyes. When they had heard that he was going to a peace conference they had been jubilant: they had been sure that England had caved in, had asked for the peace conference, was going to give way, was going to hand them back their country; they never conceived that they were beaten.
It had been arranged with Kitchener that each commando leader should tell his own men, explain the conditions, and then in his presence each man should hand over his arms to an English officer and sign a declaration of submission. Smuts dreaded the duty, to have to face his men, to have to tell them that they were defeated and that they must submit.
For many of the commando leaders it was even worse. Their men had elected them as representatives to the peace conference and given them strict instructions not to surrender: they were to vote only for complete independence, or to fight on. How were they to face their men, their angry followers, and explain and persuade them? Botha was outwardly calm, but inwardly he was wrought up and torn with intense, tearing emotion. As the leader he had to control his emotions and to persuade the others to an action which his judgment showed him was a necessity, but against which his whole being rebelled. Now he had to persuade those who had trusted him and fought beside him. De Wet refused to go on with it. He spoke to his men and then left. He could not stand the pain of watching them submit.
In all commandos the men were sullen. At first many disbelieved. When they knew the truth some became truculent: they broke their rifles and flung the pieces down in front of the English officers, or refused to submit and preferred to be deported away out of South Africa. Those who submitted showed, not that they were glad to be quit, though they gladly accepted the good English rations, but that they had been crushed into subjection by brute force alone, and their spirit was unbroken. They remained obstinate, unbroken — and unbreakable.
With their sullenness was a great grief, not only of the fighting men but of the whole people, the women even more than the men. They were a simple, religious people: they had staked all for their liberty and their independence; their God had deserted them; they mourned their lost independence as parents might mourn for a child and they refused to be comforted; and in their mourning there was also a savage anger.
They went back to find their farms burnt, their cattle and horses gone, the country empty, cut up with lines of barbed wire, houses fallen down. The English were rebuilding these for them, but the English had destroyed them and what the English had left the Dutch commandos had ruined. They were bitterly angry against those of the Dutch who had fought for the English, angry with the Cape Dutch who had not come to their help; bitter that some twenty thousand of their women and children had died of disease in the English concentration camps; and they blamed their leaders, especially Botha and Smuts, for having surrendered at all.
The submission of the burghers, none the less, was carried out thoroughly, and when it was finished Smuts went back to Pretoria and started to practise again as a barrister. He held no official position: he was only a private individual, but his reputation as State Attorney of the last Transvaal Republican Government and as a leader from the war stood high and work came his way. He was capable, efficient, and exact, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the law, but he was not a great pleader — " a fair pleader," the Law Journal tactfully called him — nor had he the makings of a great lawyer, so that except for a few celebrated cases he was rarely briefed in important actions.
Physically, the war had made a man of him. He had outgrown the scraggy, unhealthy-looking youth who had stalked ill-naturedly about the streets of Johannesburg and who had treated Kruger's old advisers with arrogance. He had become strong and stocky in body. His face was weather beaten and his health was robust. So changed was he that when he went to see his father the old man did not recognise him. Smuts pretended to be a messenger bringing news of himself; then he owned up, but even then old man Jacobus sat looking at him doubtfully and would not believe his eyes until Smuts produced some more definite proofs.
He was not, as were many of the other Dutch leaders, financially hard pressed. His practice brought in some steady money; he handled one or two lucrative land cases and his father sent him help.
But he went back to office work with his old grim concentration. He forced himself to work, for he had to fight himself, and he was overwhelmed with depression so heavy that it bore him down, as some immense weight on the shoulders, deep into the black waters of a great despair. Despite its discomforts, its hardships, its bestialities, and its monstrous cruelties, the war, the leading of his men, the physical effort, had been for him an inspiration with the spur of high endeavour in it and of adventure. He had been uplifted, exalted in a great cause. As some Crusader dreaming to free Jerusalern from the infidel, so he would release South Africa from the English. The spur, the inspiration, the sense of adventure, the high endeavour, were gone, and in their place was the flat drag of peace, of plodding the "weary road back to habitual self." Office routine and drab ties and necessities had replaced physical action and the life out under the sun and the stars and the wind of the open veld. Reaction swept down over him and with it a feeling of utter uselessness, of utter helplessness, of complete defeat, which if he had allowed it, would have numbed his will and his character. He would have drowned in his own self-pity.
Against this he fought. A fierce resentment burned up through him, resentment against the enemy, the English, but bitterest against the arch-enemy, against Milner, the man who had slighted him before Kruger at Bloemfontein, the Imperialist who had stood against him and Botha at Middleburg, and who had hardened the terms at the peace conference.
Milner was now High Commissioner, the ruler and the almost autocratic ruler of the Transvaal and of all South Africa. His staff consisted of young men whom he had picked from the English universities and whom he had brought out to show the Dutch how to organise and rule their own country. "Milner's Kindergarten," they were known as, and they were much the same as the precious young men whose drawling accents and supercilious ways Smuts had so hated at Cambridge. To walk in Pretoria, to see everything controlled by the English, and these young men in the offices, in his offices, in the office President Kruger had used, the room on the corner of the Square with the dado of small roses, and Milner either here or in Johannesburg, stiff, haughty, patronising, drove Smuts into a blind fury which his utter helplessness only increased until he was half throttled by the claustrophobia of a proud man of a proud race held down by force. "We have been the freest people on earth," he said. "We are chained down."
He became high-strung and nervy. His house was on a hill some way outside Pretoria. He often worked late in his office in the town and had to return in the dark. A friend was surprised to find that he was nervous; that the Smuts who bad been quite fearless in a hundred tight corners in the war and exposed himself recklessly was afraid of and dreaded that journey and was convinced that one night he would be murdered on his way home.
And at home his resentment got fresh fuel to keep it alight, for his wife was even more resentful than he was. She hated the English. She would have nothing to do with them. No word of English might be spoken in the house. The English flag flew over Pretoria, but she saw to it that when her time came to bear a child an old Transvaal Republican flag was unfolded over her bed.
For Smuts it seemed there was no future. He craved for political work. He wanted power: he had none. He was shut out. Foreigners, the victorious enemies, ruled his country, and ruled it as they saw best. He had dreamed dreams and had great ambitions: they had become as dust in his mouth. His position was far from secure. The newspapers attacked him if he did anything. Milner and his staff looked on him as an "irreconcilable," a man to be watched: given the chance, they would have pounced on him and deported him, so that he had to walk delicately. He took no part in politics or public life. Except for his work on his briefs and in the Courts he shut himself away, stayed at home, reading, moping, or pottering about in his garden. "We are so miserably weak," he wrote to a friend, ". . . so utterly helpless. . . . We go down to ruin....I see no ray of light in the future."
All through the middle months of that year, of 1902. Smuts was sunk in depression. There was no place for him. His abilities were not required. His restless energy, his ambitions, his urge for work, his schemes, his craving for power, his instinct to control and direct, to be in the centre of affairs, had to be roped and corded down. He was out of it, shut out by those he hated most, by English officials. He was strangled for the need of something worth doing. Being human he saw the plight of his country through the eyes of his own misfortunes. He could see "no ray of light in the future."
He was lonely also. Rhodes was dead, buried up on a peak in the mountains of Rhodesia: Rhodes, a torch which had been blown out by a gust of folly, but which had lit many lamps before it had been blown out. Away back in his mind, Smuts had kept his hero-worship of the Colossus and of the ideals of Rhodes. Kruger was as good as dead, a sunken old man away in exile in Europe. Most of the others were gone. Reitz had refused to submit to the English and had been deported with his family. Piet Grobler was with Kruger. At the conference at Vereeniging the Dutch delegates had commissioned Botha, de la Rey, and de Wet to go to Europe to establish contact with sympathisers and to collect funds for relief, and they had set out shortly after peace was signed.
The three generals had left with high hopes. At the Cape the Afrikander Bond had given them a great send-off. In Holland, France, Belgium, and Germany, they were received with acclaim and especially in England, where they were treated as heroes. Everywhere they went in Europe they were greeted with applause, dinners, and receptions, which they refused, saying that they had come to mourn and as beggars, and not to rejoice. When they landed they were offered addresses of welcome and unlimited sympathy, but little practical help or money. The French, the Germans, and the Belgians were ready to shout against the English. They would open their mouths wide but kept their purses closed and did not help the Dutch of South Africa. Many of their friends, especially financiers in France and Germany, advised them to accept the position and rely on the magnanimity of the English. Disappointed and disillusioned they returned before the end of the year to South Africa.