38 Comrade Kills Comrade
From The New Nation Falters Part 4 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

THE country was up. It was civil war. Beyers and Kemp were raiding north of Pretoria, close to the capital and in the surrounding country. De Wet was collecting his old fighting men in the Free State. Maritz with German assistance was raiding over the frontier down into the Cape. There were wild reports coming in from every area. Everything was uncertain, in confusion, uproar, and disorder. Though Botha shrank from civil war and Smuts had not believed it possible, this was no time for hesitating. They now realised the facts and set to with all their energy.

Smuts made an appeal to the people. "The Dutch people of South Africa," he said, "feel that their honour has been touched. . . . Out of the last war the Dutch people brought little but their good name. . . . They are not going to allow anyone, no matter how great a part he played in the past, to drag that good name in the mud. . . . We are going to see this through."

Botha called out his old commando leaders and their men. As ever in South Africa, politics depended on personalities, and as de Wet's old fighters would follow him, so Botha's were equally ready to stand by Botha. They came pouring in by the thousand, and with them came the men summoned as the Defence Force, until there were thirty thousand at the disposal of the Government.

Botha took active command in the field, Smuts remained in Pretoria. He had to supply the troops which had already left for German South West, and at the same time to organise and provision from the beginning this force of loose commandos under Botha. At one time he was even short of ammunition for them, until he found a large dump which had lain forgotten in Kimberley. He worked for long hours and at tremendous pressure. He had no time even to go to Irene. His office was always full of staff officers, telephones ringing, orderlies coming and going. Through all this turmoil and hubbub he kept his hand on everything. He pigeon-holed off his work in his mind and made his decisions quickly and decisively. He expected others to be as quick and lucid as himself and he was rough and impatient when they were not. An order given must be carried Out almost before it was given, or he was rampaging.

It was anxious work also, for no one could be sure of the loyalty of any particular commando, or exactly who was friend and who was enemy. It needed courage and grit to carry on the routine under these circumstances, when the next man might be an enemy unknown. As each commando marched in he had it carefully handled to test its spirit. An error, and it might go over to the enemy.

On one occasion a commando rode in and bivouacked close outside Pretoria. Each man had his horse, saddlery, three hundred rounds of ammunition, his rifle, and a week's ration.

Smuts went out to inspect them. Very quickly he realised that they did not want to fight: they were disloyal. Here, close to the capital, they were dangerous. It was just such danger as braced Smuts up. He decided quickly to be rid of them. Falling them in, he explained to them that fine men of their calibre were far more valuable on their farms than fighting: lesser men could do the fighting. They were pleased and preened themselves like peacocks as he complimented them. Then he spoke of a shortage of horses and rifles and offered each man a price for his horse and his rifle: £30 for a horse and £5 for a rifle. They agreed quickly, for the prices were good; they could not resist a bargain; and as they left each man received his money in hard cash there and then and went gladly home, satisfied and pleased. They went home also unarmed and without horses and so were no more a danger.

The first thing was to make Pretoria and the surrounding country safe. Botha made straight at Beyers and Kemp. Beyers was havering. His nerve had been shaken. He was not sure what to do. Botha did not wait, but smashed at him, caught him at Rustenburg, scattered his men, and captured four hundred. Beyers and Kemp, now outlaws, made off westwards to join up with Maritz and the Germans. Beyers was trapped in a bend in the Vaal River, which was in flood. Always a brave man, he refused to surrender and tried to swim the river with his horse, but was entangled in his greatcoat and drowned.

Kemp made off. Botha chased him to Upington and missed him, and he got away to Maritz

Beyers finished: Pretoria safe: Botha turned down into the Free State to look for his old rival de Wet. The " Old Baboon" had found his fighting men ready: he was in control of the principal towns and half the Free State was in his hands.

With six thousand burghers and artillery and his scouts out, Botha went south looking for de Wet. There was news of him from here and there, but he was as elusive as in the old days.

Botha had halted at one place where there was a telegraph office. Suddenly an orderly came running with a message. A staff officer hurried into the telegraph office. A farmer in Mushroom Valley, a valley a little south of Winburg, was calling. De Wet, he said, and his staff were in the valley: they were holding a consultation not two hundred yards away from the farm; he could see de Wet leaning against a telegraph pole giving orders; his men were outspanned in the valley beyond towards the foot of the mountains; they were cooking a meal.

Botha made his plans quickly. He would form his columns into a half-moon round the lower end of the valley. That would leave only one way out by a road which wound its way up the mountains beyond and through a narrow pass. Koen Brits, his best leader, was out on a flank with General Lukin beyond him. The two never got on well. Botha knew and appreciated the value of both, but he knew that the peppery, quick-tempered, exacting Englishman was always at loggerheads with Brits and his eccentric, haphazard ways. The last message he had from Brits, sent by helio, was, "If you don't take that damned Lukin away, I'll shoot him."

Botha decided to get Brits back to the centre. Lukin must ride hard round the mountains and close that road as it went through the pass. Once that was done, de Wet was trapped inside.

Botha always took with him an expert telegraphist, and as soon as he came to a convenient place, and especially when he was working out a plan, he would tap in on the wire and talk with Smuts in his office in Pretoria. He tapped in now. The telegraphist called through on the tapper and then read out the replies.

"Is that you, Jannie?" asked Botha. "Now listen. De Wet is in Mushroom Valley. Here is my plan," and he gave details of the positions and how the columns were to close in. "What do you think of the plan?"

"Why are you bringing Koen Brits back?" asked Smuts. "It will make for confusion and waste time."

"Because he and Lukin don't get on and they may leave a gap."

"Better like this," and Smuts outlined a perfect plan, provided that each commando moved with the precision of a machine.

"But I tell you," repeated Botha, "Lukin and Brits don't work well together. Their personalities clash."

By now Smuts was impatient. "Why keep on bothering about personalities? Give the orders to close round de Wet and tell them to get on and get him."

Botha shrugged his shoulders and let it go. Brits remained next to Lukin, and Botha sent out his orders to march at once, and in order to save time instructed each column to pass on the orders to the next.

The columns closed in quickly. The timing was excellent and Lukin should be across the road. De Wet was in the valley all right. Botha opened fire with artillery at long range and advanced on him. De Wet struck back. He was revengeful and tigerish. He had just heard that his son had been killed in a skirmish and he urged on his men to fury. They fought fiercely and there were heavy casualties on each side, and then de Wet's men broke and made up the valley. Beyond it the mountains towered up, shimmering with heat under the blazing sun, crags and precipices, black shadows, and the road, a white ribbon, twisting its way up to the pass.

Botha watched the dust of de Wet's men above the road. He waited for Lukin to open fire and hold them up. There was no sound. De Wet's column was through the pass and out into safety beyond. The dust of his horses settled again. He had got away.

Lukin had not got there in time. He had not got the orders from Brits until too late, and only then got them by chance.

Smuts had seen the fight as a chess-game on a board. He had not considered personalities, he had not realised how they counted: an army was to him a machine, and so de Wet had escaped.

But the fight in Mushroom Valley had broken de Wet. His men began to scatter. With the rest he made off westwards across the Free State and down the Orange River, trying to get to Maritz and the Germans. Full tilt after him Botha sent Koen Brits. Nearly trapped near Paardeberg, de Wet turned north away up into the immense and barren desert of the Kalahari. Brits collected some motor cars and kept on his track. At last, when he was left with only a handful of men and without water or food, he was surrounded and captured.

De Wet was finished. The fire was gone out of him. The square-stanced, muscular, rock-like old guerilla fighter, the man they had nicknamed the Baboon for his strength and agility, was broken in body and spirit. All the boast was gone out of him. He was condemned by court-martial to a short term of imprisonment, but released almost at once; but from then on faded out of the life of the country.

To Botha, this civil war, this killing of old comrades, was a nightmare, and he was frank and open in showing his emotions. When before Ladysmith they told him that twelve men of his old commando had been killed, he cried out sharply, as if suddenly he had been stabbed, "Not that! Not that!" When, after the fight with de Wet in Mushroom Valley, he saw lying dead, face upwards, two of the men who had fought beside him at Colenso, he stood for a while staring up the valley, his eyes full of tears and his face working, and he wept openly before those who stood round him. All through the months when he was putting down the rebellion, chasing and killing his old comrades because of their folly, he was as one out of whose life had gone all the joy. He became suddenly old and worn; the spring had gone out of his step and the light out of his eyes.

Smuts showed no signs of distress. He worked at top speed with tremendous vigour, concentrated only in defeating the rebels, untouched apparently by personal considerations; and when they brought him the news that Beyers was dead, he was at his table in his office with staff officers round him. He sat up, suddenly rigid, covered his eyes with his left hand, took a piece of notepaper from in front of him, and wrote quickly. Finishing the note, he put it in an envelope, addressed it, and, without looking up or taking his left hand from his eyes, held it out abruptly, and in a curt, harsh voice said, "See Mrs. Beyers gets that at once. She must not get the news officially. She must have it from a friend."

That was Smuts. Moved to his depths as deeply as Botha, yet he must hold himself in rigidly and hide his emotion. Imprisoned in the hard shell he had constructed round himself, he could not and he dared not relax or let anyone come close to him, or let them see his pain. So that Botha seemed lovable and human and Smuts curt and harsh.