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   Chapter 32 No.32

Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 25742

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The Last Proclamation

I now impressed upon my officers as forcibly as I could the importance of intercepting the communications of the enemy by blowing up their trains. A mechanical device had been thought of, by which this could be done. The barrel and lock of a gun, in connexion with a dynamite cartridge, were placed under a sleeper, so that when a passing engine pressed the rail on to this machine, it exploded, and the train was blown up. It was terrible to take human lives in such a manner; still, however fearful, it was not contrary to the rules of civilized warfare, and we were entirely within our rights in obstructing the enemy's lines of communication in this manner.

Owing to this, the English were obliged to place many more thousands of soldiers along the railway line, in order to keep the track clear. Even then, the trains, for a considerable time, could not run by night. The English soon discovered how we arranged these explosions, and the guards carefully inspected the lines each day to find out if one of these machines had been placed beneath the rails. We knew that one had been found and removed, whenever we saw a train pass over the spot without being blown up. This, however, only made us more careful. We went to the spot which we had fixed upon for the explosion, hollowed out the gravel, placed the machine under the sleeper, and covered it up again, throwing the gravel that was left to a good distance from the line. After this, the guards could not discover where the machine was placed. They trebled the troops on the line in consequence.

The month of July had passed, and we wondered what August held in store for us. The customary fights of the different commandos still went on; here five, here ten, here thirty of the English were killed, wounded or made prisoners. If these numbers had been put down they would have mounted up to a considerable total; but the war was not of such a nature that an office could be opened to record them. Reports of battles were sent to me, and after I had allowed them to accumulate for three or four weeks, they were sent to the different Vice-Commandants-in-Chief for their general information, and then torn up.

Many reports and much correspondence concerning the beginning of the war have been preserved. I gave them to a trustworthy friend with instructions to bury them, but do not know where he placed them, as he was taken prisoner later on, and I have never been able to find out where he was sent to. These documents are of great value, and ought to be published.

I was on the farm of Blijdschap, between Harrismith and Bethlehem-my English friends, Generals Knox, Elliott and Paget, with their Colonels Rimington, Byng, Baker, etc., etc., will not have forgotten where Blijdschap is-when I received a letter from Lord Kitchener, enclosing his Proclamation of the 7th of August, 1901.

This proclamation was as follows:

"By his Excellency Baron Kitchener of Khartoum, G.C.B., K.C.M.G., General Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty's forces in South Africa; High Commissioner of South Africa, and Administrator of the Transvaal, etc.

"Whereas the former Orange Free State and South African Republic are annexed to His Majesty's possessions;

"And whereas His Majesty's forces have now been for some considerable time in full possession of the Government seats of both the above-mentioned territories, with all their public offices and means of administration, as well as of the principal towns and the whole railway;

"And whereas the great majority of burghers of the two late Republics (which number thirty-five thousand over and above those who have been killed in the war) are now prisoners of war, or have subjected themselves to His Majesty's Government, and are now living in safety, in villages or camps under the protection of His Majesty's forces;

"And whereas the burghers of the late Republics, now under arms against His Majesty's forces, are not only few in number, but have also lost nearly all their guns, and war requisites, and are without proper military organization, and are therefore not in a position to carry on a regular war, or to make any organized resistance against His Majesty's forces in any part of the country;

"And whereas the burghers who are now still under arms, although not in a position to carry on a regular war, continue to make attacks on small posts and divisions of His Majesty's forces, to plunder and to destroy farms, and to cut the railway and telegraph lines, both in the Orange River Colony and in the Transvaal and other parts of His Majesty's South African possessions;

"And whereas the country is thus kept in a state of unrest, and the carrying on of agriculture and industries is hindered;

"And whereas His Majesty's Government has decided to make an end of a situation which involves unnecessary bloodshed and devastation, and which is ruining the great majority of the inhabitants, who are willing to live in peace, and are desirous of earning a livelihood for themselves and their families;

"And whereas it is only just that steps should be taken against those who still resist, and principally against those persons who are in authority, and who are responsible for the continuance of the present state of disorganization in the country, and who instigate their fellow citizens to persist in their hopeless resistance against His Majesty's Government;

"I, Horatio Herbert Baron Kitchener, of Khartoum, G.C.B., K.C.M.G., General Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty's forces in South Africa; High Commissioner in South Africa, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, proclaim and make known as follows:

"All Commandants, Veldtcornets and leaders of armed bands-being burghers of the late Republics-still resisting His Majesty's forces in the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal, or in any part of His Majesty's South African possessions, and all members of the Government of the late Orange Free State and of the late South African Republic, shall, unless they surrender before the 15th September of this year, be banished for ever from South Africa; and the cost of maintaining the families of such burghers shall be recoverable from, and become a charge on, their properties, whether landed or movable, in both Colonies.

"GOD SAVE THE KING.

"Given under my hand at Pretoria, the seventh day of August, 1901.

"Kitchener, General,

High Commissioner of South Africa."

I answered Lord Kitchener very carefully in the following words:-

"Excellency,-

"I acknowledge the receipt of your Excellency's missive in which was enclosed your Proclamation, dated the 7th August, 1901. I and my officers assure your Excellency that we fight with one aim only-our independence, which we never can or will sacrifice!"

It would have been childish to fear that letter and that Proclamation. From the short answer which I sent to Lord Kitchener, the reader will clearly see the opinion that I and my officers held concerning it: "Bangmaak is nog niet doodmaak,"[98] as our proverb says.

It was curious to see how this Proclamation was taken by the burghers. It had no effect whatsoever. I heard many burghers say that it would now be seen whether the officers had the cause of their country really at heart or not, and whether they were themselves to surrender and lay down their arms before the 15th of September. I must here declare that I know of no single case where an officer in consequence of this proclamation surrendered; on the contrary, when the day fixed by Lord Kitchener for the surrender had passed, the burghers had more reason to trust in their officers than before; and I can assure my readers that if at the beginning of the war we had had officers of the same kind as we had towards the end of the strife, it would have been easier to have maintained discipline.

September the 15th was thus fixed upon by Lord Kitchener as the last day on which we should have an opportunity of surrendering. The President and Commander-in-Chief of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State returned answer that they would still continue the war, and subsequent events put a seal to their answer.

Three battles were fought-one by General Brand at Blakfontein, another by General De la Rey in the west of the Transvaal, and yet another by General Botha at Itala, all in the month of September.

President Steyn sent Lord Kitchener a long letter, in which he showed most clearly what the causes of the war had been, and what was the condition of matters at that time. The letter was as follows:-

In the Veldt, August 15th, 1901.

To His Excellency, Lord Kitchener, etc.

Excellency,-

I have the honour to acknowledge the receipt of your Excellency's letter, dated Aug. 7th, 1901, enclosing your Excellency's Proclamation of the same date.

The conciliatory tone of your Excellency's letter encourages me to speak freely, and to answer it at some length. I have noticed that not only your Excellency in your letter asserts, but that also responsible statesmen in your country assert, that the declaration of war from the South African Republic, and the inroad on the British territory, had been the cause of the war. I hardly believe it necessary to remind your Excellency that, in 1895, when the South African Republic was unarmed and peaceful, and had no thought but that their neighbours were civilized nations, an unexpected attack was made on them from the British territory. I do not consider it necessary to point out to your Excellency that the mad enterprise-for surely the instigators of it could not have been sane-miscarried, and the whole body of invaders fell into the hands of the South African Republic. The South African Government, trusting in the integrity of the English nation, handed over to His Majesty's Government all the persons whom they had taken prisoner, notwithstanding that, in conformity with international law, these persons had merited death.

I also do not consider it necessary to remind your Excellency that after an honest judge had condemned the leaders of this expedition to imprisonment, the most prominent of them were not compelled to serve the whole of their time, but, previous to its termination, were liberated for various most insufficient reasons. Neither need I remind your Excellency that when a Parliamentary Commission was nominated, to investigate the causes and reasons of the said expedition, this Commission, instead of investigating the matter, would not allow the proofs to come to light, and that, when the Commission, notwithstanding the high influence at work during its sitting, had found the chief conspirator, Mr. Rhodes, guilty, and had reported him as such to Parliament, Mr. Chamberlain, who was one of the members of the Commission, contradicted his own report[99] by defending Mr. Rhodes.

Your Excellency will have to acknowledge that the South African Republic as well as the civilized world was perfectly justified in coming to the conclusion that the Jameson expedition, which we first believed to have been undertaken by irresponsible persons, and without the cognizance of His Majesty's Government, was well known, if not to all, yet still to some members of His Majesty's Government. I need not remind your Excellency that since that time, not only has no reasonable indemnity been paid to the South African Republic, as was at that time promised, but also that the Republic has been harassed with despatches and threats concerning its internal Government. I also need not tell your Excellency that outside influence was used in order that memorials to His Majesty's Government might be drawn up concerning alleged grievances, so that His Majesty's Government might have the desired opportunity of interfering with the inner policy of the South African Republic.

As I have said, I do not think it necessary to remind your Excellency of the above-mentioned facts, because I am of opinion that they are well known to you. I, however, should like your Excellency to be good enough to pay attention to the following facts:-

When, at the time of the circulation of the last-mentioned Memorial, I could see that a certain party was working hard to involve the British Government in a war with the South African Republic, I stepped into the breach, and endeavoured, by bringing the parties together, and by using my influence with the South African Republic, to induce the latter to give in to the demands of His Majesty's Government in order to maintain the peace.

I succeeded in getting the Transvaal to yield, not because I was of the opinion that the English Government had any right to make such demands, but only in order to prevent bloodshed. When the British Government was still not satisfied, then the South African Government made concession after concession to

the ever-increasing demands made upon them, until at last there came a request that the law on franchise should be laid before a Commission. On the behest of the British Agent in Pretoria, the South African Republic made a proposal granting far more than was demanded by the High Commissioner. As this proposal was not accepted by His Majesty's Government, who made yet further demands, the South African Republic withdrew their proposal, and declared themselves willing to accept England's proposal to lay the law before the Commission. The British Government then closed all correspondence, and wrote to the South African Republic saying that they would make their demands later on. In other words, the British Government then gave to the South African Republic an ultimatum, and it was clear that they were only prevented from commencing the war at once by the fact that they had not then landed sufficient troops in the country.

The Orange Free State Government then again came to the rescue, in order to attempt at the last moment to avoid the war, and cabled through the High Commissioner direct to the British Government, asking for information as to the nature of the demands which were to be made upon the South African Republic; which cable, to my sorrow, was never sent in its entirety. The only answer to my cable was the continual arrival of transports of troops from all quarters of the globe, which were massed, not only on the frontier of the South African Republic, but also on the frontiers of the still friendly Orange Free State. Then, when the South African Republic saw that England had no intention of repairing the alleged grievances, but had only brought them up as an excuse for depriving the Republic of its independence, they requested that the troops might be taken from their frontiers, and that all disputes might be settled by arbitration. This happened about three weeks after the British Government had issued their ultimatum, and about one month after the Orange Free State Government had received a wire asking them to remain neutral, thus clearly giving them to understand that the British Government intended to make war on the South African Government. This telegram was sent to the Orange Free State because they knew that the latter had made a defensive alliance with the South African Republic since the year 1899.

Then the South African Republic decided that they must defend their frontiers against the enemy who threatened their borders, and I was obliged to take a most painful step, namely, that of severing the bonds of friendship that existed between us and the British Government, and, true to our alliance with the Transvaal, to help the sister Republic. That we were perfectly correct in our surmise that the British Government had firmly decided to wipe out the two Republics has been clearly proved since the breaking out of the war. It was not only made evident from the documents that fell into our hands, although there it was easy to gather that since 1896, that is from Jameson's raid, the British Government was firmly determined to make an inroad into the two Republics: only lately it has been acknowledged by Lord Lansdowne that he in June, 1899, had already discussed with Lord Wolseley (then Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty's troops), the best time at which to make an attack on the two Republics. Your Excellency will thus see that it was not we who drew the sword, but that we only put it away from our throats. We have only acted in self-defence-one of the holiest rights of man-in order to assert our right to exist. And therefore I think, with all respect, that we have a right to trust in a just God.

I again observe that your Excellency reverts to the impossibility of intervention by any foreign power, and that your Excellency interprets our resistance as only based on the hope of such intervention.

With your Excellency's permission, I should like to clear up our position with regard to intervention. It is this: We hope, and still are hoping, that the moral feeling of the civilized world would protest against the crime which England is now permitting in South Africa, namely, that of endeavouring to exterminate a young nation, but we were still firmly determined that, should our hopes not be realized, we would exert our utmost strength to defend ourselves, and this decision, based on a firm trust in a merciful God, is still unshaken in us.

I further notice that your Excellency thinks that our fight is hopeless. I do not know on what grounds this assumption is based. Let us for a moment compare our mutual situations of to-day with those of a year ago, after the surrender of General Prinsloo. Then, the Cape Colony was altogether quiet, and free from our commandos. The Orange Free State was almost entirely in your hands, not only as regards the principal townships, railway lines and villages, but also the whole country, except where Commandant Hasebroek was, with his commando. And in the South African Republic the situation was very similar. That country was also mainly held by you, except in the parts which General De la Rey and General Botha occupied with their commandos, far up in the Boschveldt.

How do matters stand now?

The Cape Colony is, so to speak, overrun by our commandos, and they are really in temporary possession of the greater part of Cape Colony. They go about there as they choose, and many of our nationality and others also are continuing to join us there, and uniting forces with us against the cruel injustice that is being done to the Republics.

In the Orange Free State I willingly acknowledge that your Excellency is in possession of the Capital, the railways, and some other towns not on the railways, but that is all that your Excellency has got. The whole of the Orange Free State, except the parts which I have just mentioned, is in our possession. In most of the principal towns there are landdrosts[100] appointed by us; thus in this State the keeping of order and the administration of justice are managed by us, and not by your Excellency. In the Transvaal it is just the same. There also justice and order are managed by magistrates appointed by our Government.

May I be permitted to say that your Excellency's jurisdiction is limited by the range of your Excellency's guns. If your Excellency will look on the matter from a military point of view then it must be acknowledged that notwithstanding the enormous forces that are brought against us in the field, our cause, in the past year, has made wonderful progress. Therefore we need be in no way discouraged, and, if your Proclamation is based on the assumption that we are so, then it has now even less justification than it had a year ago. I am sorry that anything I say should appear boastful, but the assertions in your Excellency's Proclamation compel me to speak in this manner.

With regard to the 35,000 men which your Excellency says are in your hands, I cannot speak as to the numbers, but this much I will say, I am not referring to those men who were led astray by the Proclamation of your Excellency's predecessor, and so failed in their duty to their Government; nor to those-thank God they are but few-who from treachery or other cause have gone over to the enemy; but of the remainder who have been taken, not too honestly, as prisoners of war, and are still kept as such. Of these I will say that they are either old men and feeble, or young boys not yet of age, who were carried off by force from their farms by your Excellency's troops, and shut up against their will in your Excellency's camps. To say of these therefore, that they are "dwelling peacefully with you," is an assertion which can hardly be taken seriously. I am able to say with perfect truth, that except the prisoners, and the few who have gone over to the enemy, the overpowering majority of the fighting burghers are still under arms. As regards those who have gone over from us to the enemy-a rare occurrence now-I can only say that our experience is not unique, for history shows that in all wars for freedom, as in America and elsewhere, there were such: and we shall try to get on without them.

As regards the 74,000 women and children who, as your Excellency alleges, are maintained in the camps, it appears to me that your Excellency must be unaware of the cruel manner in which these defenceless ones were dragged away from their dwellings by your Excellency's troops, who first destroyed all the goods and property of their wretched captives. Yes, to such a pass had it come, that whenever your men were seen approaching, the poor sacrifices of the war, in all weathers, by day and by night, would flee from their dwellings in order that they might not be taken.

Does your Excellency realize that your troops have not been ashamed to fire (in the full knowledge of what they were doing) with guns and small arms on our helpless ones when they, to avoid capture, had taken flight, either alone or with their waggons, and thus many women and children have been killed and wounded. I will give you an instance. Not long ago, on the 6th of June, at Graspan, near Reitz, a camp of women, falsely reported as a convoy to your Excellency, was taken by your troops. This was rescued again by us, whilst your troops took shelter behind our women, and when your reinforcement came up, they opened fire with guns and small arms on that camp, notwithstanding the fact that they knew it contained women only.

I can quote hundreds of cases of this kind, but I do not think it necessary, because if your Excellency will take the trouble to ask any soldier who respects the truth, he will be compelled to confirm my assertion. To say that the women are in your camps of their own free will is not in accordance with the facts, and for any one to assert that they are brought to the camps because the Boers are unwilling to provide for the maintenance of their families as it is said that His Excellency the Minister for War has asserted in Parliament, is to make himself guilty of calumny, that will do more harm to the calumniator than to us, and is a statement which I am sure can never meet with your Excellency's approval.

Now, as regards the Proclamation itself, I can give your Excellency the assurance as far as I am myself concerned, that it will make no difference to my fulfilling my duty faithfully to the end, for I shall be guided by my conscience and not by the enemy. Our country is ruined; our hearths and homes are wrecked; our cattle are looted, or killed by the thousand; our women and children are made prisoners, insulted, and carried away by the troops and armed Kaffirs; and many hundreds have already given their lives for the freedom of their fatherland. Can we now-when it is merely a question of banishment-shrink from our duty? Can we become faithless to the hundreds of killed and prisoners, who, trusting in our firmness, offered their lives and freedom for the fatherland? Or can we lose faith in a just God, who has so wonderfully upheld us till now? I am convinced that should we do so, we should be despised not only by your Excellency and all honest men, but also by ourselves.

I will close by giving your Excellency the assurance that no one is more anxious than I to see peace restored, and I am therefore ready to meet your Excellency at any time in order to discuss the terms on which this peace can be arranged; but in order that I may not mislead your Excellency, I have to say that no peace will be accepted by us which imperils the independence of the two Republics, or which does not take into consideration the interests of our Colonial brethren who have joined us. If it is a crime to fight in one's self-defence, and if such a crime is to be punished, then I am of opinion that His Majesty's Government should be satisfied with the annihilation of the country, the misery of women and children and the general desolation which this war has already caused. It is in your Excellency's power more than in that of any one else, to put a stop to this, and by doing so, to restore this unfortunate part of the world to its former happiness. We ask no magnanimity, we only demand justice. I enclose a translation of my letter in order to avoid any misinterpretation of it by your Excellency, as this happened not long ago when a letter which I had written to the Government of the South African Republic, and which at Reitz fell into your hands, was published in such a way that it was nearly unrecognizable, as not only was it wrongly interpreted in some places, but sentences were inserted which had never been written, and other parts were left out altogether, so that an entirely wrong meaning was given to the letter.

I have the honour, etc.,

M.T. Steyn,

State-President of the Orange Free State.

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