General De Wet – For Remembrance and Friendship

Posted on December 19, 2014 by Cape Rebel

From No Outspan
by Deneys Reitz

We moved into Namaqualand.

This vast tract lies south of the lower Orange. Much of it is barren and rainless, and it is inhabited by Boer farmers ever on the rove in search of grazing and water. They are a fine, hardy type, and I renewed acquaintance with many of them who had been under arms with us against the British in the old days. They are devoted to Namaqualand, and to them it is fair and beautiful, though not many others would think so.

Nevertheless, there is a fascination here that grows on one, and I had learned to respect its hard-bitten people during the days of fighting and adventure I had spent among them.

We journeyed as far south as Van Rhynsdorp, the little village that had served as our headquarters in 1902. I saw the graves of comrades who had been killed, and I saw the place where I had helped to execute the spy Colaine.

At every town and village I had to deliver a speech, for politics was the ruling passion. For our farmers it takes the place of theatre, the cinema and sport. It is the national pastime, like bull-fighting in Spain.

When at last we struck the railway line, there was a batch of correspondence awaiting me. Among the letters was a request from General Christian de Wet, asking that I should visit him. I had fought against him in the 1914 Rebellion, but I liked and respected the old warhorse, so I started out to see him.

When I was a boy he was a member of the Free State Volksraad in the republican time. He once entered Bloemfontein at the head of an armed force to protest against the building of a railway line from the coast, for he held the view – not altogether without subsequent justification – that this dangerous innovation would facilitate an invasion by the British.

In 1899, during the first month of the Anglo-Boer War, he made a name for himself by surrounding and capturing a large force of British troops near Ladysmith in Natal. I was in that battle, and we took over a thousand prisoners. This exploit had brought him into prominence and when, before long, disasters fell thick upon us, he was appointed Commandant-General of the Free State.

By that time we had been driven from Natal, Bloemfontein was occupied, and all seemed lost. But Christian de Wet rose superior to misfortune. Aided by President Steyn, my father’s successor, he rallied our disheartened commandos, and when the tide of the invasion rolled north, he remained in the rear and conducted a brilliant guerrilla campaign. He held out against tremendous odds, and his raids and forays and escapes, his feats of endurance and courage, won him an international reputation, generously endorsed by the British themselves.

In 1912 there sprang up the feud between the supporters of General Botha and General Hertzog, and De Wet supported the latter. At the beginning of the Great War he went into revolt. Because I was a Freestater and because my father had been President of the Free State, he had expected me to join his movement; and he was bitter because I took up arms on the side of the Botha government. We defeated him at Mushroom Valley, and he was captured after a long chase. He was imprisoned, but General Botha sent him back to his farm on parole, and there I now found him.

I was shocked at his appearance. Instead of the square, virile figure I had known, there stood before me a haggard, shrunken man. His beard was ungroomed, his laces dragged on the ground, and his clothes hung loosely on an emaciated body. His hands were swollen with some disease, and he tottered in his gait as he came to greet me. I placed him in a chair and asked why he had summoned me, but he was unable to say. He sat with his hands pressed against his forehead, trying vainly to remember, and I had to go off with the question unsolved.

I like to think that, knowing his end to be near, in his darkened mind had come the wish to say a last word for remembrance and friendship, before he trod the common road. He died shortly after, and we decreed him a State funeral. He is buried at the foot of the National Monument in Bloemfontein.

Posted in English