The First World War in 261 weeks

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024 Christiaan de Wet and his double loyalty

Christiaan de Wet

Christiaan de Wet

Not all Boers side with the British

It is Sunday 6 December 1914. It is the 24th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Pope Benedict XV makes an appeal for a Christmas truce.

Dunkirk in France and Veurne in Flanders are shelled by the Germans from a great distance.

The Germans start a new battle around Warsaw.  

Near the Falkland Islands four German ships carrying 2,200 men are wrecked: the end of naval hero Maximilian von Spee.

Austrian general Oskar Potiorek has to sound the retreat in Serbia.

The Austrians also suffer heavy losses near Kraków.

In Great Britain Nicholas Ahlers is convicted. The naturalized German is said to have helped Germans in England return to the Heimat for military service in the beginning of the war.

Turkish troops in Mesopotamia are driven back by the British.

The French government returns from Bordeaux to Paris.

The Germans bit their teeth to pieces on Ypres.

And in South Africa Christiaan Beyers drowns when on the run, while another Boer rebel spends his days behind bars: Christiaan de Wet.

October 2000 a group of people gathers at the foot of the statue of General Christiaan de Wet in the middle of the Netherlands. The co-operative of Dutch and South Africans had decided to pay hommage to the Boer warrior who had distinguished himself from other soldiers by ‘shrewdness, perseverance and strategic insight’, as stated on the Roepstem, the website of the co-operative.

Various scouting groups in the Netherlands still bear the name Christiaan de Wet. Several streets are also named after him. And then there is that statue on the Hoge Veluwe, a vast nature reserve. It is made by sculptor Joseph Mendes da Costa who was commissioned by Mr and Mrs Kröller-Müller. The Kröller-Müllers combined a passion for modern art with sympathy for the Boers.

They proved to be Apartheidproof, all these tributes for an advocate of the Dutch descendants in the southernmost part of Africa.

***

In the first week of December 1914 Christiaan de Wet is under lock and key. He is a rebel, caged by his own government in South Africa. A sentence of six years for high treason awaits him, but in six months’ time he will be a free man again. In his cell De Wet must have realized that as a Boer he will always be condemned to the Brit. Three times he opposed the anglicization of his country by force of arms, demanding strict discipline of the ‘burghers’ of whom he was in command. De Wet led in battle during the First and Second Boer War, which the Afrikaners rather call the First and Second Freedom War. Especially his last struggle, in the first months of the First World War, was doomed to fail.

Who were the Boers? Descendants of the Dutch who took root around Cape of Good Hope in the seventeenth century, where Jan van Riebeeck had put up his replacement post for ships of the Dutch East India Company. When the British arrived at the end of the eighteenth century, the Dutch colonists moved on. The Great Trek took them northeast. Then Boer republics such as Transvaal and Orange Free State lodged there.

In 1880 the British decide to annex the territories of the Boers. We are in the era of modern imperialism. Her Majesty’s Africa should extend between Cape and Cairo. Boers fit just as little in this scheme as the German colonists in the southwest of Africa.

The First Boer War of 1880-1881 does not bring the British the desired result. A second armed conflict will be needed to force the Boer republics into the Union of South Africa. There are more interests than purely imperialist ones at stake.  The British have set their eyes on the goldmines of the Boers. In the British press stories have appeared about the disgraceful treatment of English-speaking labourers in the Boer republics. And there is a political motive to deal with the Boers, their approach to German Southwest Africa, present-day Namibia.

In the Second Boer War (1899-1902) the Afrikaners fight the British troops of Lord Roberts, who will die very old on 14 November 1914 while inspecting the Indian troops on the western front in France. The battle Roberts is fighting with the Boers in South Africa around the turn of the century is unprecedentedly cruel. Farms are burnt down according to the scorched earth policy, the livestock thinned out. The concentration camp phenomenon emerges. The grim resistance of the Boers makes the British lock up their wives and children in camps. A comparison with the extermination camps of the nazis does not apply, but the 26,000 dead in fifty British concentration camps is really quite something.

The experience the British troops gain against the Boers will be of help to them in 1914 when stopping the Germans in Belgium and northern France. But the Second Boer War was not useful for public relations. Worldwide, but also at home in England, there is disgust about the ruthless imperialism displayed by the British at the expense of the Boers. In keeping with it is the admiration for the unyielding Boers, especially of their bloodbrothers in the Netherlands.

It takes the British three years to crush the Boers, after which the Treaty of Vereeniging was signed in 1902. As acting president of Orange Free State –  Marthinus Theunis Steyn, the actual foreman, has fallen ill – Christiaan de Wet contrecoeur put his signature to the treaty. He would rather have continued the fight. In ‘The Battle between Boer and Brit’ (official English title ‘Three Years War’) he recorded his wartime experiences on board the boat that took him and his companions Louis Botha and Koos de la Rey to Europe to raise funds for the reconstruction of his country.

In the years to follow Alfred Milner, the British High Commisioner, tries to carry through the anglicization with the utmost rigour but this storm dies down when a liberal government takes office in Great Britain. The ambition is now reconciliation. To oblige the Boers, London does not make an issue of shelving civil rights of non-white people. The Boer republics had embedded inequality of races in their constitution, with the bible as underlying document. This line of segregation – apartheid in the language of the Boers – can also be followed in the new South Africa.

Not all Boers are ready for reconciliation with the British, but a man like Louis Botha is quite willing to turn South Africa into a union. In 1912 he even goes so far as to unveil a statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who gave his name to Rhodesia, present-day Zimbabwe. In August 1914 Botha does not find it difficult as prime minister to stand by London in the war, just like the leaders of the four other dominions, Canada, Newfoundland, Australia and New Zealand. Botha promises to deal with the Germans in Southwest Africa. From all over the country men are summoned to take up arms for that purpose.

For his old comrade in arms Christiaan de Wet this all goes too far. After all, the Germans have acted as friends of the Boers in their fight for freedom. De Wet drifts further away from Botha’s court when the police shoots another hero from the Second Boer War on 15 September. General Koos de la Rey ignores a stop signal of the police officers who are on to a gang of gangsters. ‘Dit is raak’, are De la Rey’s last words. ‘It hit the mark’. The police stick to their version of an accident, but to De Wet and his men the explanation is murder by authority of the state.

De la Rey is currently worshipped as a Boer hero even more than De Wet. Bok van Blerk scored a hit in 2007 which also aroused controversy. Van Blerk says that he is against apartheid, but at the same time he is proud of his identity as Afrikaner in the Rainbow nation. Hence this chorus: ‘De la Rey, De la Rey, will you come to lead the Boers? General, general, united we will fall around you.’

De la Rey is already dead when another commanding officer of the Boers, Manie Maritz, goes over to the Germans in Southwest Africa on 10 October. Maritz gives the South African government an ultimatum. If he is not allowed to contact other Boer leaders, among whom Christiaan de Wet, Maritz will invade the Cape Province. The government in Pretoria makes this ultimatum public, which to De Wet is the sign to go into action. In his hinterland, Orange Free State, he forms an army of seven thousand Boers. In Transvaal and Cape Province another five thousand Boers arm themselves.

But also prime minister Louis Botha takes up his old profession. He advances against his former comrades in arms with superior power. De Wet will be finished soon. In the Second Boer War he has always been too quick for the British. Fifty thousand men were after him during the ‘First De Wet Hunt’ in 1900. The Boer Pimpernel, like no other experienced in guerilla-like tactics, had grown into a legend, although he had to share his fame with Fleur, his inseparable Arab horse. Now, in 1914, with another Boer as the enemy, he got the worst in no time.

With De Wet behind bars, the leader of the Boers in Transvaal, Christiaan Beyers, is also defeated.  On the run he is drowned when he wants to cross the river Vaal. Again a week later another Boer leader falls into the hands of the government. Jopie Fourie ends his life before a firing squad because of high treason. He is the only one to suffer this fate. The Boer rebellion is crushed by Boers who have remained loyal to the British. The number of casualties is limited to 192 rebels, among whom a son of Christiaan de Wet who was killed at Doornberg, and 132 government soldiers. At the next elections it will become clear that the discord among the Boers continues. Botha’s party is just a little bigger than the National Party of independent Boers.

When De Wet is released on parole in 1915 – a fine is paid with voluntary contributions of sympathizers – , he retires for good. In the final phase of his life a ‘spirit of peace and quiet’ must have come over him. The warrior inside him stayed behind in prison.

***

Christiaan Rudolph de Wet dies in Klipfontein on 3 February 1922. He is buried near the Women’s Monument in Bloemfontein, where six years earlier Martinus Theunis Steyn, president of Orange Free State, was laid to rest. The English human rights activist Emily Hobhouse designed the group of statues which is central to the monument. She was inspired by the visit she paid to a concentration camp of the British in 1901.

A year before the Great War De Wet had spoken at the consecration of the National Women’s Monument and put his finger on the salient point of the British concentration camps. ‘Today we stand again at the graves of 26,000 women and children. During the war we often heard their songs from the camp. That was the evidence on Whom they built their faith. Let this be the slogan of every mother and child: be loyal to your nation  and your religion.’

Next week: Sir Alfred Ewing

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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