from ‘the War Illustrated Deluxe’ volume IV page 1164
'How Botha Saved the Union in South Africa'

The Story of the Back-Veldt Revolt

general Botha on horseback - from a French magazine illustration


When war broke out in August, 1914, the position in some of the back-veldt districts of the Union of South Africa was disturbing. For in those places the agents of Germany had long been spreading the idea that when the time came for the overthrow of the British Empire by German hands, a larger South African Republic would be created with the help of the Teutons.

Meanwhile a fierce and decisive struggle was going on between General Botha and General Smuts on the one side, and General Hertzog and ex-President Steyn on the other side. Between them was General Delarey, with Christian de Wet and Beyers trying to win Delarey over to active rebellion. The situation was much complicated by personal feelings of disappointed ambition on the part of Generals Hertzog and De Wet.

While party politics were in this confused condition, the Imperial Government was troubled about German Southwest Africa. It was absolutely necessary to attack this enemy colony. Its mighty wireless station at Windhoek, and its port of Swakopmund, made it a great danger to our shipping. It was known that a system for coaling German commerce raiders had been arranged at Cape Town, where German agents had a carrier-pigeon scheme of communication with German South-West Africa. The large number of soldiers retained in German territory after the Herrero war, many of them having settled down as soldier-farmers in the old Roman manner, was fair proof of German intentions.

General Botha entered into an agreement with the Imperial Government for the withdrawal of the Imperial troops, and undertook that the South Africans would out of their own resources launch an expedition into German territory. He revealed his plan at the opening of Parliament on September 9th, 1914. After relating the agreement made with the Imperial Government for the invasion of German South-West Africa, General Botha said:

To forget their loyalty to the Empire in this hour of trial would be scandalous and shameful, and would blacken South Africa in the eyes of the whole world. Of this South Africans were incapable. They had endured some of the greatest sacrifices that could be demanded of a people, but they had always kept before them ideals, founded on Christianity, and never in their darkest days had they sought to gain their ends by treasonable means. The path of treason was an unknown path to Dutch and English alike.

In answer to this speech, General Hertzog moved an amendment to the effect that any act that would lead to an attack on German territory in South Africa would conflict with the interests of the Union and the Empire. General Botha's Government, however, won a decisive victory by a majority of ninety-two votes against twelve votes.

So deep and widespread was the effect of the speeches of Generals Botha and Smuts that the leaders of the revolt became desperate. Parliament rose on Monday, September 14th, and on the following dav Beyers wrote a letter of resignation of his position of Commandant-General of the Defence Force. The letter was written the day before it was dated, and a copy was given for immediate publication, so that it would be read by the people before the original letter reached General Botha and General Smuts in Cape Town. But by means of the Press censorship the Government prevented the publication of the letter until September 21st, when it was published together with the reply of General Smuts as Minister of Defence.

The letter of Beyers was not a mere resignation of his office and rank, but a practical declaration of war against the British Empire. But before this correspondence was published General Beyers made his first open stroke against the Government and failed. He had been actively engaged in organising rebellion weeks before he resigned his command. In the plan of operations which he drew up for the Government, and through the officers he appointed to carry out these pretended plans, he was treacherously arranging a large concerted scheme of operations in which the German force was to take part. His chief difficulty was to win over General Delarey, the leader of the Boers of the Western Transvaal. About a thousand armed Boers of Delarey's district were encamped at Potchefstroom, and as General Delarey returned from Cape Town on September 15th, he met General Beyers and arranged to motor with him that night and visit the camp of the Boers of the Western Transvaal.

The two generals left Pretoria by motor-car about seven o'clock in the evening, and took the road that led them through the mining city of Johannesburg. It .happened that a gang of bandits, known as the Jackson gang, had been terrorising for several days the Witwatersrand Reef. On the afternoon of September 15th they had been traced to a house in the suburbs; but on an attempt being made to arrest them, they shot dead one of the detectives and escaped in a motor-car. The armed police patrols were then ordered out on all the highways leading to Johannesburg, and instructed to stop and examine all motor-cars, and fire at once if their challenge were ignored. After nightfall a motor-car resembling that of the Jackson gang was challenged at the east end of the city, as it went along at high speed with a powerful headlight. Again it was challenged twice as it flashed through the western end of the town. For a fourth time it was challenged by the western boundary. One of the policemen then fired at the wheel of the car in order to disable it, but the bullet ricochetted and struck General Delarey, killing him instantly.

At three o'clock in the morning General Beyers telephoned to his fellow-conspirators, reporting the accident to Delarey, and explaining that he could not come. There was something like a panic amid the plotters. Colonel Kemp, who had sent in his resignation at the same time as General Beyers, withdrew it. Over the grave of Delarey, and in the presence of General Botha, Beyers proclaimed that he had no intention of causing or advising rebellion. Yet the next day, acting with General de Wet and other conspirators, he held a meeting at Lichtenburg and tried to win over the country Boers who had come to the funeral of their dead leader. Beyers and De Wet began by condemning in violent language the policy of General Botha.

Then they advocated that all their fellow-countrymen serving in the Defence Force should refuse to go on active service if the commandos were called out in accordance with the Defence Act.

On the day when Beyers and De Wet began to preach their subtle scheme of passive resistance. General Botha called for volunteers, and announced that he would lead the South Africans against the Germans in person. By this brilliant masterstroke he rallied the whole British population and a large majority of the Dutch to the support of the Government.

On September 26th a small force of South African Rifles, with a section of the Transvaal Horse Artillery, under Colonel Grant, was trapped at Sandfontein by a couple of German battalions. The South African gunners fought till every man of both gun crews was either killed or wounded, and their ammunition had run out.

It was afterwards discovered that the disaster had been brought about by the treachery of Lieutenant-Colonel S. G. Maritz, who had been placed by General Beyers in command of the Union forces in the north-west territory. General Smuts ordered the traitor to give up his command and to report himself to headquarters. Maritz thereupon issued an ultimatum, dated October 8th, in which he demanded to meet General Hertzog, General de Wet, General Beyers, Kemp, and Mullcr. He stated that if he were not allowed to receive instructions from these men he would attack Colonel Brits' force and invade the Union. He added that, in addition to his own troops, he had German guns and German soldiers, and that he had signed an agreement with the Governor of German South-West Africa, ceding Walfish Bay and other portions of the Union territory in return for a guarantee of the independence of the South African Republic.

General Botha's reply was a proclamation of martial law throughout the Union. Maritz had arrested all his officers and men who were unwilling to join the Germans, and had sent them as prisoners into German territory. Colonel Brits, with the Imperial Light Horse, at once flung himself on the traitor, and the civil war opened on October 15th, with the result that Maritz was soon driven over the German frontier; and there can be little doubt that if General Hertzog had at once publicly repudiated the action of the traitor, the disruptive warlike movement among the Dutch would have been checked. But General Hertzog and Mr. Steyn, the former President of the Orange Free State, after closely consulting together, refused to denounce the rebellion.

De Wet seems to have fancied that General Hertzog was behind the movement of rebellion, and being already himself compromised by Maritz's reference to him, he gathered a commando, and broke out in revolt on October 21st, 1914. Three members of the Union Parliament came out in arms, and a member of the Defence Council, Mr. Wessel-Wessels, went over to the rebels, together with several ministers belonging to the seceders from the Dutch Reformed Church. The rebel leaders had about 10,000 men in detached groups in the Western Transvaal and the Northern Free State. In their original plan, Beyers, De Wet, and Kemp were to converge with their commandos, effect a junction, and then march westward and join with a force under Maritz from German Southwest Africa. The Germans arranged to bring the artillery and ammunition, in which the rebels were deficient. After being properly munitioned, organised, and reinforced by some thousands of German troops, the rebel army was to march on Pretoria.

The extraordinary personal influence of Botha and the energy and resource of Smuts enabled them to command the situation. In a few weeks they had 40,000 men in the field. General Botha never gave the traitors a moment's rest. General Beyers with his commando was acting round Rustenburg on Tuesday, October 27th. General Botha in person came up in the morning and drove the rebels in headlong rout the whole day.

Colonel Lemmer attacked Beyers' commando near the Vet River on November 7th. Though Beyers in person led the rebels, he was heavily defeated. Most of the fugitives went on to Hoopstad, from which town Beyers tried to join De Wet.

By this time the poorly-organised forces that De Wet had collected in the northern districts of the Orange Free State were the only source of anxiety to the South African Government. But every centre of revolt had been masked by strong Union forces, concentrated with remarkable speed and secrecy by General Botha. For some days negotiations went on between De Wet and other Free State leaders, while the Government refrained from action in the hope of avoiding more bloodshed. De Wet, however, was too much inflated with pride in his own talent for war to lay down his arms. But on December 1st, Commandant Brits surrounded De Wet and the rest of the small commando at a farm at Waterburg, about a hundred miles west of Mafeking. The rebel party, numbering fifty-two men, surrendered without firing a shot, and the former commander-in-chief of the Orange Free State forces was confined in prison pending his trial, which resulted (in June, 1915) in a sentence of six years' imprisonment without hard labour and a fine of 2,000.

General Bevers remained in the northern districts of the Orange Free State with about seventy men, till at last, after an engagement near Bothaville on December 7th, he split his party into two small groups. With one of these he fled towards the Vaal River along the tributary stream of the Zandspruit. He was pursued by Captain Uys and Field-Cornet Deneker, with a small loyalist force. At daybreak on December gth the rebels were trapped in the angle between the Zandspruit and the Vaal, and after a sharp fight of fifteen minutes Beyers, with some of his men, tried to swim their horses across the Vaal to the Transvaal. They were fired on, and it was seen that Beyers fell from his horse, but managed to grasp another animal by the tail. This horse was swimming back to the Free State side. The arch-traitor was drowned before anvbody was able to rescue him.

By Christmas the warrior Prime Minister of South Africa was able to enjov a week's holiday at his farm, in preparation for the arduous and difficult campaign in German South-West Africa, which is described elsewhere.


general Botha


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