AWAY in Europe the Allies were in great danger, for England was weakly led; and if England failed them they would all be defeated. To win the war needed strong, passionate leadership, with a man leading who had the instincts of a dictator: able to decide, prepared to take risks, act, drive, and smash his way to victory.
The Prime Minister of England, Mr. Asquith, was faltering. In the Cabinet was Mr. Lloyd George. He saw the danger, the lack of energy, the muddle and confusion and waste, when the leader could not lead. He believed in himself. He hustled Mr. Asquith out of office and himself in. One of the first things he did was to invite the Dominions to send representatives to an Imperial War Conference; and he invited Louis Botha to come as Prime Minister of South Africa.
Botha refused. He wished to stay with his own people in South Africa: they needed watching and guiding. He did not wish to go to England. "The British Ministers," he said, "will find Dominion Premiers a d—d nuisance fussing about, and not of much practical value." But Smuts might like to go. Smuts liked that sort of thing and it would be quite a good thing if someone else took over German East Africa: Smuts needed a holiday; the criticism of his handling of the campaign was increasing.
Smuts accepted without hesitation. He had had enough German East. The malaria from which he suffered kept coming back in bouts and made him very weary and depressed. The campaign, he told others, was over. His work was done and there was only the clearing up, which other men could do; and he hurried back to Cape Town to prepare.
Smuts left South Africa in March 1917. He left in a volley of curses. Hertzog and the Nationalists made the best use of their chance. He was off to England, to his English friends; off "home," they sneered. They revived van Rensburg's prophecy: "I saw the English leaving Africa ";—the English troops were gone already—" a vulture flew back, which was Botha, but Smuts went with the English and came no more." The Dutch of the back-veld believed the prophecy and believed that Smuts had gone to mix them up in the war that England was fighting. "South Africa," they said, "is too small for our Jannie."
Smuts retaliated: "We have done our duty. No one can accuse us of being small or petty," he said. ". . . We have followed in the steps of the Voortrekkers and the Pioneers. I trust South Africa, instead of being petty, gnawing at its own entrails . . . will become the great country which is its destiny."
His enemies set up a great outcry: "Smuts dares to compare himself to the famous Voortrekkers, with the founders of South Africa!" They named him the "Reincarnation of Rhodes," and recalled the blood and ruin that had come to the Dutch from Rhodes and his great ambitions. "Jannie too," they said, "must have an empire, must have the world"; and a blaze of fury against him ran across South Africa as he left.
Smuts arrived in London in a whirlwind of applause. Those responsible for war propaganda had seen his value. Here was a one-time rebel who had fought against England and he was coming to help England in the hour of her great need: he was coming because he realised that England stood for justice and right against German tyranny and brutality. He was, moreover, the first successful Allied general in the war, for he had swept the Germans wholesale out of Africa. Subtly, with all their skill, they built up a reputation round Smuts which made even his friends in South Africa gasp. The newspapers proclaimed him " The conquering hero . . . come to kindle new enthusiasm and new confidence. ... The most considerable figure in Greater Britain. . . . The destroyer of the German power in Africa." Lloyd George introduced him as "one of the most brilliant generals of the war." Admiral Fisher suggested he should take command in France. Winston Churchill followed up with "A new and altogether extraordinary man from the outer marches of the Empire."
Smuts always appeared to dislike publicity, and yet he was always in the public eye.. He refused newspaper interviews yet the reporters got their interviews. He shut himself away yet no public man had so many photographs of himself published: of himself, stem-faced, of set purpose; in his cap and gown as a student, book in hand; as a pugnacious state-attorney; in his fighting kit as a raider; in his office, signing a document, surrounded with books; in his house, a child on his arm; but, above all, as a general in uniform, jaw set, map in hand. He avoided the limelight, and yet almost unconsciously, more by instinct than by intention, again and again he backed into the limelight, into the full glare of publicity.
In South Africa his own people gave him little applause. They respected—and suspected—his brains and his mental agility. They attacked his actions, and usually put the worst interpretations on all he did. They never pretended to like him, and they did not applaud him. In South Africa he was just Jannie Smuts, son of old Jacobus Smuts of Riebeek West; the clever, unpleasant boy of the family, and everybody knew all about him without any delusions; that was all there was to it.
In England he was given all the applause a man could want. He was given honours, decorations, praise, degrees, receptions, dinners—one even in the gallery of the House of Lords; and to this applause he responded eagerly. He played his part as a believer in England's great qualities and in the justice of her fight—and also as the victorious general, the conqueror of German East Africa. He gave an interview which was broadcast by all the newspapers. "The campaign in German East Africa may be said to be over," he said. "What is delaying the absolute end is the fact that March and April are the heavy rainy season. After April the Germans will have to surrender...the campaign will be brought to an end by the native battalions which I have trained."
But here a difficulty arose. Hoskins away in German East Africa found that Smuts had left him only the broken-down wreckage of an army: men, animals, rifles, guns, transport, medical services, all worn out; and with that a bad position and an undefeated enemy in the most difficult of country.
Hoskins was experienced in the country and a trained officer. He had been Inspector-General of the King's African Rifles. He realised he must start and build up everything, right from the foundations; that Smuts had left him nothing but trouble; and he sent in demands for stores, horses, oxen, lorries, rifles, guns, and reinforcements—an immense list. The War Cabinet were staggered, for had not Smuts said that he had all but finished the campaign and the men he had trained could end it off in a month or two? Smuts was vague when asked. Hoskins must be wrong. Better if Hoskins went elsewhere and Deventer, who understood this sort of thing, took over. Deventer would easily settle with von Lettow.
So Hoskins departed, and Deventer took command, and month after month Deventer chased von Lettow without result, so that in the end the Germans were stronger than ever, doing much damage in Portuguese territory and in British Rhodesia as well as in German East, and were unbeaten; and Deventer's demand for supplies and arms ultimately far exceeded those sent in by Hoskins. But by that time the War Cabinet were busy on other things, and Smuts was established in the public eye in England as the successful general.
Once more he had his photograph taken as the stem-faced commander in uniform, and it was published, signed, with the inscription, "Let us have faith that Right is Might, and with that faith as an end try to do our Duty." Crowds came to hear him when he spoke. He told them that the British Empire was not founded on might, but on moral principles . . . on freedom, equality, and equity. . . . "Fifteen years ago," he said, "I fought against the British Empire . . . for liberty and freedom. I am fighting for the same things to-day," and his audiences, who had become weary of the stock phrases of the English politicians and doubting their own cause, listened to Smuts using the same stock phrases and went away uplifted, full of new fighting spirit and of moral indignation against Germany.
Smuts had been deliberately eulogised for propaganda purposes, but as soon as he attended the meetings of the Imperial War Conference he showed his value. Not oppressed by the immediate pressure of events around him, he looked at everything from a different angle, and he judged and advised wisely and quietly. He was clear and quick, energetic and vital, so that he stood out as an exceptional man at those meetings, and as the Conference came to an end Lloyd George determined he would keep him for other work.
Early in the war an English army under General Murray had been sent to Egypt to protect it from the Turks. Asquith had agreed with Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff at the War Office, that this army under General Murray was to defend only Eygpt and the Suez Canal. But as soon as Lloyd George became Prime Minister he gave orders that General Murray should attack and push the Turks back out of Palestine: he wished to pin the Germans down in France and "to knock out the props" on which they depended, of which one was Turkey. Smuts had expressed his complete approval of this policy. He considered that the Allies were too tied to the front in Europe.
General Murray tried to push the Turks back and failed. Lloyd George decided to replace him, and offered the command of the army in Egypt to Smuts.
The idea caught the imagination of Smuts: to conquer Palestine, to rescue the Holy Land from the Infidel Turks; to "knock away the prop "—he loved a phrase—and with a spectacular blow bring Germany down; but he discussed it first with Sir William Robertson and found that the War Office were opposed to the whole idea. To the War Office it was a dangerous sideshow. He told Lloyd George this, but Lloyd George at a Cabinet meeting promised he would see him through. "You're afraid of Robertson," said Lloyd George. "Take the command, and if you have any difficulties come to us. We'll see you through." But Smuts calculated that with the War Office against the scheme he would be short-circuited whatever Lloyd George might do, and so he would be left in a backwater; and he was not going to be left in any backwater. He was determined to be well in the centre.
"I have had enough of fighting," he told a Jewish audience. "I shall be of more use in the centre." He was prepared to take the command only if he could do something spectacular and do it quickly and come away.
He telegraphed to Botha for advice. Botha understood Smuts. He knew that Smuts' great ambition was to be considered a great general, and Botha had no delusions about that. He knew that Smuts was an excellent guerilla leader, a fine, bold raider, but no general.
Knowing nothing about the Turks, Botha sent for one of his staff who did.
"Tell me," he said. "Have the Turks any big generals?"
"Surely," replied the officer. "Enver Pasha is there. and many Germans, von der Goltz and others."
"But are they really big generals?"
Yes,'' replied the officer, '' they are."
"Then," said Botha with a smile, " I don't think we had better let our Jannie go against them . . . but I have something else for him. Something more in his line. They want him in the War Cabinet in England." And he sent a telegram to Smuts, a telegram which showed how close and intimate these two men were with each other, for both were sensitive men easily hurt. If anyone else had sent Smuts such a telegram he would have flown into a fury.
"Advise you to refuse," it ran. "We both know you are no general."
Smuts refused the command. General Allenby, a successful cavalry leader in France, was appointed. The rest of the Dominion representatives had left and the Imperial War Council was indefinitely postponed. The English War Cabinet had again taken control. Lloyd George invited Smuts into the War Cabinet.
The appointment of Smuts to the War Cabinet was opposed by other Ministers. Walter Long, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, criticised it, saying that the other Dominions and Colonies might object: Smuts was not even a Member of Parliament in England. To bring a Colonial into the Cabinet! It was unheard of! He was horrified.
From another angle the Liberals attacked Smuts. Mrs. Asquith wrote, begging him not to sit in a Cabinet beside men like Lloyd George, and her friends said, "with Milner, who nearly lost us South Africa, and George Curzon, who thinks of no one but himself." But Smuts cared not at all for the old feuds of Mrs. Asquith, or her quarrels and personal dislikes; he would not be involved in old party squabbles; the war had to be won and he would sit in the Cabinet with anyone who would help to win it. So that Mrs. Asquith was hurt and went among her Liberal friends telling them that Smuts had gone back on them, deserted them, and misled them, when she had thought that he was "as honest and trustworthy as I am."
The ordinary people in England were ready to have him. They were tired of the old rivalries and wranglings and of the old men. Smuts was a novelty and brought hope. He had now a great reputation. He had been made " the hero of the hour." And Lloyd George was determined to have him there, whatever anyone else said.
The two men had much in common. Both were professional politicians, brought up as lawyers. Both were very quick-witted, so that both had a reputation for being over-clever and for being "slim." Both were impatient of delay or opposition, of old men and old prejudices: things decided on must be done and done quickly without the making of objections or difficulties.
Both were unorthodox and despised the formalities and the delays of departments and the caution of civil servants, and trained staff officers.
And in Smuts, Lloyd George had found something he wanted. The admirals and generals said that no man could be a strategist without training and experience, he must be an expert in the art of war; and that Lloyd George was just "a little attorney" and an interfering muddler. This drove Lloyd George to fury. He explained half the war errors by it. "There is no profession in which experience and training count less with judgment and flair imagination, resource, initiative, and flexibility are more essential to success in the vocation of the soldier than in any other," he wrote. And here was Smuts, another "little attorney" who, without training or experience, had run the English generals off their legs in the South African War and who had, he said, conquered German East Africa: a brilliant general, in fact. Together with Smuts he, Lloyd George, would show all the admirals and generals what two "little attorneys" could do—and he used Smuts on every possible occasion.
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