36 Civil War Looms
From The New Nation Falters Part 4 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

MEANWHILE the disagreement, which had grown when Hertzog went out and formed the Nationalist Party, had increased into a schism. It was a quarrel between Dutchmen, for the English took little part, but it split the country from top to bottom. It had ceased to be merely political but had become a personal dispute, so that in every township in the Transvaal and the Free State, and where there were Dutch in Natal and the Cape, it divided the people into two camps—some for Botha and a nation of English and Dutch equal and united, and others for Hertzog, with Dutch and English separated and the Dutch in control.

As the weeks went by the quarrel became more virulent. Men of Hertzog's party—and the women even more—became so bitter that they would not deal with those of their neighbours who followed Botha and Smuts. If they met in the street they either glared at each other without speaking or turned their backs. A local seer, van Rensburg, who was celebrated for his prophecies, stumped the back-veld saying that he saw the English leaving and with them went Botha and Smuts, but from amongst them a vulture flew back and that was Botha, but Smuts came back no more. Many believed him. At public meetings the two parties interrupted each other, brawled, and often came to blows.

From this stage Dutchmen went easily from words to deeds, from arguments and ill-looks to taking their rifles. De la Rey expressed the general feeling when he had said, "Nowadays people talk too much. Take your rifles"; and all through the Free State and the Transvaal men began to talk of fighting each other.

Suddenly, six thousand miles away in Europe, Russia was at war with Germany; France and England joined in. Other nations followed them, and all Europe was at war. The volcano had blown the top off and was in full eruption.

In South Africa the people, especially the Dutch, were only vaguely interested. They sat in the cinemas and watched the newsreels showing the German advances and the retreats of the English and French. Europe was a long way away. This was no affair of theirs: a topic for discussion and very little more.

But very soon it came nearer. Even before England declared war Botha had telegraphed to London that South Africa would look after its own safety and any Imperial troops could be withdrawn. Ten days later he announced in Parliament that he had agreed to attack the Germans in their South West African colony, conquer the country, and destroy the big wireless station which they had erected at Windhuk.

His announcement was promptly opposed as unwise and unnecessary. "If we do not conquer German South West Africa," he replied, "the English will do it with Australians and other troops. It is ours, and it is our affair."

"England," said Smuts, "has treated us well, given us back our liberty, and now she needs our help. . . . There are German battleships in South African waters and they threaten our trade. They are in communication with Germany through the wireless station in the south-west. . . . The British Government has said, 'There is work for you to do,' and I ask Parliament to let us do it. It is a duty we owe to ourselves also. The Germans are bad neighbours."

From Parliament the discussion spread rapidly through the country and became hot and angry. Many of the Dutch did not want to fight the Germans and certainly not to help the English. They looked on the Germans as half-brothers and they had no quarrel with them. Some did not want to fight anyone. Others were ready to fight in self-defence, but not in some distant country far from their homes. Others strongly objected to being called up under the new Defence Act and forced to go, and suspected that their horses would be commandeered. There were German agents all through South Africa who worked on these ideas and spent good money liberally.

There were in addition many Dutchmen, especially in the Free State, who still craved for a republic. They had never given up hope even after Vereeniging. They had waited for a chance, when England might be in difficulties, to strike once more and win back their old republics. They looked on Botha and Smuts as sold to the English. But here was the chance. The Germans were almost in Paris. The French Government was on the run. The English Army was reported to have been wiped out. Strike now, they said, and win back liberty.

Steyn and Hertzog saw their chance also. It was a chance to throw Botha and Smuts and their English friends out and take control themselves. Keeping well in the background, taking no decisive action, they worked to this end.

Beyers, the Commandant-General of the Defence Force, was opposed to the expedition. He had been to Germany, watched the Germans on manoeuvres, and was convinced they would win the war. He had told Smuts that he disagreed, and Smuts, disliking his criticism, had at a staff meeting in Pretoria snubbed him openly. He had old grievances against Smuts and Botha: they had left him out of their Government when he thought he should have been a member: they had promised to make him Speaker of the House and had failed to do so. He was sore against them, and now Hertzog played on his vanity and ambition. Hertzog hoped that if he could persuade Beyers to resign, he could break up the Defence Force, create a crisis, and throw out the Government. How far Hertzog was actively for the Germans was doubtful, but Smuts spoke of him as "almost a German advocate."

De Wet too was out for trouble. The old fighter was cantankerous and full of prejudices and he would do anything to spite Botha and Smuts.

North of Pretoria, in charge of the big training camp at Potchefstroom, was a Major Kemp, who stood in with Beyers, and on the German border was Maritz, Smuts' old assistant in the South African war who had become a follower of Beyers, and was in command of that area.

Beyers sent out word to prepare for revolt. The decision to attack the German colony had brought the quarrel between the two parties to a head.

Beyers and Kemp arranged the details. De Wet was ready. Maritz was away on the German. border, and in touch with the Germans. Only one thing was needed, and that was to persuade de la Rey to join. De Wet could bring out the fighting men of the Free State, and de la Rey could raise the Transvaal.

Beyers used all his influence with de la Rey. Always very religious, the old man had become abnormal. He talked with spiritualists and attended séances; and he was under the influence of van Rensburg, who had told him that the Dutch were in bondage and he was elected to save them.

Beyers and his friends told the old man that they were there to liberate the Dutch, until they had almost persuaded him to join them, but his family were against his being mixed up in any rebellion. They disliked and feared van Rensburg. They blamed the seer with his weird prophecies for throwing the old man off his balance. Mrs. de la Rey maintained that having signed his word at Vereeniging her husband must stand by his word and his loyalty. When Beyers sent messengers she drove them away. When the old man still wavered, one of his daughters took charge of him. She never left him, even sleeping in his room; eventually she took him into Pretoria to Botha and Smuts, and then, overcome by the strain, she collapsed in a faint, and Smuts and Botha carried her out of the room.

There was a study in Botha's house in Sunnyside which looked out on to the garden, where there was a palm tree, and the roses were already in bloom. It was a little plain room with a chair or two, some trophies hung on the walls, and a leather-topped writing desk. Here, all one late evening and night, Botha and Smuts reasoned with de la Rey. But reason was useless, for the old man was convinced that the hand of the Lord was on him that his time had come to save the people, the Dutch, out of the power of the English. They read passages from the Bible with him and searched the Scriptures for help. They knelt with him in prayer and asked for guidance.

This was no play-acting. Botha and Smuts rarely demonstrated their religion, but both had been brought up strictly by religious mothers, and in times of crisis such as this, when the issues were so great, so vital, the training of their childhood came automatically to the surface. The issues were great and vital, because they knew that if de la Rey went out into the veld, thousands of men from the Transvaal would follow him and there would be civil war, with Dutchmen killing Dutchmen. De la Rey was beyond argument, beyond where they could reach him with words. He had gone out into the twilight where the mind does not know whether it is of this world or of the spiritual, and they prayed for divine help to save him, and to save South Africa and their people from the disaster and tragedy of civil war.

After a while de la Rey became more normal. He listened to what they said. Botha pleaded with him. "Oom Koos," he said, using the term of affection by which de la Rey was known, "Oom Koos, you may be right, but I will not believe that God, even to save His people, will direct you by the way of dishonour, and the road you take is the way of dishonour."

De la Rey hesitated and became doubtful. At last he agreed to wait until he was given more light.

But Beyers came back. This time he had a definite plan for revolt. In the camp at Potchfestroom there were sixteen hundred men, all well armed. If he could get de la Rey to come to the camp the men would rise. They would then seize the railway, march on Pretoria, proclaim a republic, and so start the revolt. Maritz was to advance into the Cape, bringing the arms and money supplied by the Germans, and de Wet would raise the Free State.

Beyers chose the 15th October, for van Rensburg said a fifteenth was favourable. On that date the Government had their hands full. They were all in Cape Town, a thousand miles away, and troops were to leave for German South West Africa on that day.

Still de la Rey hesitated. Beyers realised that he could not be sure of raising the Transvaal without the old man. Again he used all his influence, and de la Rey went to Johannesburg to talk with him, and still he was undecided, torn this way and that with doubt, pulled now to one side, now to the other, unable to make up his mind what was right. At last he went up to his bedroom in the hotel, and kneeling down opened his Bible at random. It opened at the prayer of Solomon in the second book of Chronicles. For a while he read, and then he rose contented. As he came down the stairs those who waited below in the hotel hall for him, the men who were scheming to use him for their own political ends, saw that his face was shining with a great light, as if he had heard a Call.

He was always a man of few words. He said nothing of his intentions or what he had decided. That evening he drove out of Johannesburg with Beyers in a car by the western road towards the camp at Potchefstroom, where Kemp and the others were waiting for them. It happened that the police were looking for a gang of highway robbers and had picketed every road with orders to stop all cars. One picket on the outskirts of the town challenged their car. Beyers, not knowing of the highway robbers and thinking that his plot had been discovered and he was being arrested, told the chauffeur to drive on. A policeman fired at the car as it drove away. The bullet hit the road, ricocheted up, struck the back seat, broke up, and a small piece hit de la Rey. The old man fell sideways. He said nothing. He neither sighed nor groaned. His spirit fled easily out of him. This was the Call he had heard.

"He came," said his wife very quietly, when they told her of his death, "he came to where his road parted into two. He did not know which to take, so God called him away."

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