43 Smuts Recalled
From The New Nation Falters Part 4 of Grey Steel by H.C. Armstrong

SMUTS himself lived as hard as his men. He ate the same food, went as hungry and short of sleep, and was as ill as they were. He had malaria, filled himself up with iron and arsenic and quinine, and forced himself to keep going.

He took many personal risks, and was often foolhardy; he did not realise that the commander of a large force had no right to risk himself as if he were leading a small raiding party. He would get up well in front, often ahead of his advance troops, and even of his scouts. His staff tried to keep him back, but that made him angry and petulant, and he pushed on the more. At the crossing of one small river there was a fight. He was up with the front line and through the river with the first men, under fire.

On another occasion he went so far forward that a German patrol cut him off and he had to run for safety, and he got away down the back of a hill with his clothes ripped by the thick thorn of the brush and his face and hands cut with the sharp boulders.

For every mile his men marched he did five. He seemed never to be at rest. When the column halted he went ahead reconnoitring, and then he would sit down with a pad of paper on his knees and without hesitation write out his orders in easy, flowing English, as if he were comfortably sitting at a desk in his study.

Yet he found time to do many personal acts of kindness.

He would himself carry out cups of tea to his guard. He would stop on the march to ask tired men how they fared, and more than once he hoisted a sick man on to his horse and walked beside him until they came to an ambulance.

But at last, out of sheer necessity, he was forced to halt and rest his men. The delay made him fret. He must be up and doing. It was time, he decided, that Deventer pushed on from Kondoa Irangi. He was in excellent signalling communication with Deventer, but that was not enough: he must go himself; see for himself; do it himself, and leave it to no one else. He drove off by car across the difficult and dangerous country, where he might be captured anywhere by enemy patrols, up northwards and then across the Massai Desert, and down to Kondoa Irangi, saw Deventer, explained what he wanted, and hurried back, a journey of some five hundred miles.

Deventer pushed down to the railway, took Dodoma, and was astride the main line.

Away in Pretoria, Botha was acting as Minister of Defence. He was troubled at Smuts' methods. He was constantly nervous that Smuts would do some foolish act and there would be a disaster. Men coming back invalided told harrowing tales, and were bitterly critical of Smuts. The Opposition asked awkward questions. The German forces were some six hundred Germans and six thousand askaris, natives—and no South African thought much of natives. Smuts had twice that number of white men, the best and sturdiest young fighting South Africans, and Indian and African troops as well. How was it, they asked, that he could not finish off this handful of Germans with their natives? And why these enormous losses of wounded and sick—already twelve thousand South Africans had been invalided back? These criticisms were not easy to answer, especially as there were reports of white South Africans being beaten in straight fights by natives, of bad tactical handling, and that the diseases from which the troops had suffered so severely were "due to lack of food and to the great exertions demanded, as much as to the unhealthy climate."

Repeatedly Botha begged Smuts to go slow and not outrun his transport or leave his lines of communication unprotected. "Smuts," he said on one occasion, "is a pernicious optimist. He often gets himself into a tight fix for the pleasure of fighting his way out."

He tried to keep Smuts on the right lines. When he received a plan from Smuts, he would spread a map out on the floor of his office, forbid anyone to disturb him, lie down at full length, and study the details, absorbed, sometimes for hours. He had a flair not only for visualising country which he could see before him, but also for visualising it from a map. Several times he realised that Smuts was heading for a disaster. Then he would send him another plan of his own in a friendly, tactful telegram, and Smuts would usually adopt it. More than once from his office, away in Pretoria, he saved Smuts from walking into trouble.

But he grew more and more nervous as Smuts went tearing ahead, ignoring the advice of his staff and the experts, his lines of communication lengthening, and getting no nearer to finishing the Germans. Parliament was in recess. He wired Smuts that he would come and see him. Smuts was delighted. He trusted Botha and listened to him as he trusted and listened to no other man.

Botha found things as he expected. Over half of Smuts' fighting troops were already off the strength and hundreds were going down daily. One thing was clear. All the white men must be evacuated and replaced by Indians and Africans at once. White men were not able to stand up to the climate and, unless this was done quickly, there would be trouble in South Africa, for the people there would not tolerate these enormous casualties without compensating results. Having settled this and given Smuts all the advice he could, Botha returned to his work in Pretoria.

Two weeks later Smuts advanced down to the railway and entered Morogoro. Between him and Deventer, von Lettow was skilfully manoeuvring his men up and down the railway. Deventer drove him again to the south and joined hands with Smuts. The main railway was in their hands.

Smuts held the main railway on which were all the principal German towns and depots, but he was no nearer the defeat of von Lettow and the German forces. He must push on after his enemy. There was even more difficult and disease-infested country ahead. He sent Deventer down to Iringa and himself advanced by the Uluguru Mountains towards Kissaki.

In the thick, steaming jungle round Kissaki, von Lettow had dug trenches and made barricades and waited. Smuts, hoping to catch him here, sent forward his columns. He meant to direct the operations himself and he had kept the details to himself. He rarely told even his staff what he intended to do. Unfortunately, as he came up his car broke down. There were no horses handy. He raged, but there was nothing to be done. The British columns advanced without co-ordination. Von Lettow struck at them separately and beat them back, and then, having given his men new courage, evacuated and once more drew out southwards.

Smuts saw that for all his marching, his rushing ahead regardless of losses of men and animals and material, he had failed. He had visualised finishing the campaign with a few sweeping blows. He had delivered the blows, but at nothing, into the air; and the enemy was still there. He had marched through great tracts of country, but only what he and his men stood on was conquered. Round them was bush and forest so thick that an army of the enemy might have passed at a few hundred yards and he not know it. All he had left was the tattered bits of his force: half the men disabled; all the white men invalided or sent home; thirty thousand horses, oxen, and mules dead; the roads littered with broken wagons and lorries; no reserve of food, ammunition, or men; his communications haphazard, constantly threatened, and easily cut.

He tried a piece of bluff. He sent von Lettow a stern summons to surrender, but the astute German was not taken in. He knew the position and that Smuts was bluffing, and that "as far as force was concerned, Smuts had reached the end of his resources," and he politely, but bluntly, refused.

Once more the torrential rains came and Smuts was forced to stand fast at Kissaki until December. Then he pushed his limping, weary troops on another fifty miles across the Rufiji River, but with no clear objective except to find the elusive Germans; when in mid-January of 1917 orders came from Botha for him to return at once to Cape Town, as he was needed for other work.

With a sigh of relief he handed over to one of his divisional commanders, General Hoskins, and hurried to Cape Town.

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