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Three Years' War By Christiaan Rudolf De Wet Characters: 22498

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Peace Negotiations

General De la Rey, who, as a Member of the Transvaal Government, had to be present at the coming deliberations, accompanied the President to Klerksdorp, where they arrived on the 9th of April, and found the Transvaal Government already there awaiting them.

The two Governments held their first meeting in the afternoon of the same day. The South African Republic was represented by:-Vice-States-President S.W. Burger; Commandant-General Louis Botha; Secretary of State F.W. Reitz; General De la Rey; Ex-General L.J. Meijer; and Mr. J.B. Krogh. Although not a member of the Government, the States-Procureur, L. Jacobsz, was also present.

On behalf of the Orange Free State appeared:-States-President M.T. Steyn; Commander-in-Chief C.R. de Wet; Vice-Commander-in-Chief Judge J.B.M. Hertzog; States-Secretary W.J.C. Brebner; and General C.H. Olivier.

It was decided that no minutes should be taken. Accordingly, I am only able to give a summary of the proceedings.

The meeting having been opened with prayer, the Vice-President of the South African Republic said that the fact that Lord Kitchener had sent in a copy of the correspondence between the Governments of the Netherlands and England, was looked upon by himself and his Government as an invitation on the part of England to the two States to discuss the matter dealt with in that correspondence, and to see if peace could not be concluded. Before, however, the meeting could make a proposal, it would be necessary to hear what the state of affairs really was.

Thereupon, firstly, Commandant-General Louis Botha, then I, and lastly, General De la Rey, gave a report of how matters stood.

President Burger now asked whether an interview with Lord Kitchener should be asked for, and (in case Lord Kitchener acceded to this) what we were to demand, and what we should be prepared to sacrifice. He went on to ask President Steyn what he thought of the proposal which the Transvaal had made to the Free State Government in the October of the previous year.

President Steyn answered that he was still of the same opinion as in June, 1901, when the two Governments had agreed to stand by Independence. If the English now refused to grant Independence, then the war must continue. He said that he would rather surrender to the English unconditionally than make terms with them.

The remainder of the day was occupied in listening to speeches from State-Secretary Reitz and President Burger.

On the following day the speakers were:-L.J. Meijer, J.B. Krogh, myself, State-Secretary Reitz, and Judge Hertzog. The last-named made a proposal, which was seconded by General C.H. Olivier. This proposal, after it had been subjected for revision to a Commission, consisting of the two Presidents, Mr. Reitz, and Judge Hertzog, was accepted on the following day. It ran as follows:-

"The Governments of the South African Republic and of the Orange Free State, having met, induced thereto by the receipt, from His Excellency Lord Kitchener, of the correspondence exchanged in Europe between the Government of His Majesty the King of England, and that of Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands, referring to the desirability of giving to the Governments of these Republics an opportunity to come into communication with their plenipotentiaries in Europe, who still enjoy the trust of both Governments:

"And taking into consideration the conciliatory spirit which, as it appears from this correspondence, inspires the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and also of the desire therein uttered by Lord Lansdowne, in the name of his Government, to make an end to this strife:

"Are of opinion that it is now a favourable moment to again shew their readiness to do everything possible to bring this war to an end:

"And decide, therefore to make certain proposals to His Excellency Lord Kitchener, as representative of the Government of His Britannic Majesty, which may serve as a basis for further negotiations, having in view the achievement of the desired peace.

"Further, it is the opinion of these two Governments that, in order to expedite the achievement of the desired aim, and to prevent, as far as possible, any misunderstanding, His Excellency Lord Kitchener should be asked to meet personally these Governments at a time and place by him appointed, so that the said Governments may lay before him Peace Proposals (as they will be prepared to do), in order that, by direct conversation and discussion with him, all such questions as shall arise may be solved at once, and also that this meeting may further and bring about the desired result."

A letter was now written to Lord Kitchener (who was at Pretoria) enclosing the above Proposal, and signed by the two Presidents.

In the afternoon the two Governments met again, to consider what proposals they should make to the British Government. After a lengthy discussion, it was decided, on the proposal of General De la Rey, seconded by States-Procureur L. Jacobsz, that the matter in hand should be entrusted to the Commission, which consisted, as I have already said, of the two Presidents, States-Secretary Reitz, and Judge Hertzog: and the next morning this Commission handed in the following report, which was accepted by the meeting:-

"The Commission, after having taken into consideration the wish of the meeting, namely, that proposals should be drafted (in connexion with the letter of yesterday, signed by the two Presidents, to His Excellency Lord Kitchener) for eventual consideration by His Excellency Lord Kitchener, proposes the following points:-

"1. The concluding of a Treaty of Friendship and Peace, including:

"(a) Arrangements re a Customs Union.

"(b) " re Post, Telegraph and Railway Union.

"(c) Granting of the Franchise.

"2. Demolition of all States Forts.

"3. Arbitration in any future differences which may arise between

the contracting parties; the arbitrators to be nominated in equal

numbers from each party from among their own subjects; the said

arbitrators to add one to their number, who is to have the casting


"4. Equal rights for the English and Dutch languages in the schools.

"5. Reciprocal amnesty."

The same morning a letter enclosing this proposal was sent to Lord Kitchener, after which Judge Hertzog and Commander Louis Botha addressed the meeting.

After the latter had finished an address of great importance, General Wilson, who had the command at Klerksdorp, entered the room where the meeting was being held and stated that Lord Kitchener was prepared to grant us an interview, and that we could travel to Pretoria that very evening.

Accordingly, on the evening of the 11th of April, we went to Pretoria, where, on the following morning, we met Lord Kitchener and handed in our proposal.

Lord Kitchener wished for a proposal of a very different character from that of the two Governments; but as it would not have been proper for them to make any proposal injurious to Independence, the Presidents declared that they could not do so, and asked him to send to the English Government the proposal which they had already laid before him. Lord Kitchener at last acceded to this request, and the following telegram was accordingly sent to England:

From Lord Kitchener to the Secretary of State.

"Pretoria, April 12th, 1902.

"The Boer Representatives desire to acquaint His Majesty's Government with the fact that they entertain an earnest wish for peace, and that they, therefore, have decided to ask the British Government to bring hostilities to an end, and to proceed to formulate a Treaty of Peace. They are ready to accept an Agreement, by which, in their opinion, all future wars between them and the British Government in South Africa may be avoided. They think that this aim can be attained if provisions are made in relation to the following points:-

"1. Franchise.

"2. Equal rights for the Dutch and English languages in Educational matters.

"3. Customs Union.

"4. Demolition of all the forts in the Transvaal and Free State.

"5. Arbitration in case of future disagreements, and only subjects of the parties to be arbitrators.

"6. Mutual amnesty.

"But in case these terms should not be satisfactory, then they wish to know what terms the British Government will give them, so that the result which they all desire may be attained."

On Monday, April 15th, Lord Kitchener sent to the two Governments a copy of the following telegram, which he had received from the Secretary of State:-

From Secretary of State to Lord Kitchener.

"London, April 13th, 1902.

"His Majesty's Government shares with all its heart in the earnest wish of the Boer Representatives, and trusts that the present negotiations will lead thereto. But they have already declared in the clearest manner and have to repeat that they cannot take into consideration any proposals which have as basis the sanction of the Independence of the former Republics, which are now formally annexed to the British Crown. And it would be well if you and Milner were to meet the Boer Representatives, and make this plain to them. You must encourage them to make fresh proposals which we will willingly receive."

In this telegram, as the reader will have observed, the name of Lord Milner is mentioned. Up till now we were dealing with Lord Kitchener alone, but at our next conversation the first-named was also present.

Both Representatives of the British Government insisted that we should negotiate with them, taking the surrender of our Independence for granted. We could not do so. We had repeatedly told Lord Kitchener that, constitutionally, it was beyond the power of our Governments to discuss terms based on the giving up of Independence. Only the nation could do that. Should however, the British Government make a proposal which had, as a basis, the temporary withdrawal only of the Independence, then we would lay this proposal before the nation.

Thereupon the following telegram was drawn up and dispatched:-

From Lord Kitchener to the Secretary of State.

"Pretoria, April 14th, 1902.

"A difficulty has arisen in connexion with the negotiations. The representatives declare that, constitutionally, they are not entitled to discuss terms which are based on the surrender of their independence, as the burghers alone can agree to such a basis. If, however, His Majesty's Government can propose terms by which their independence shall be subsequently given back to them, the representatives, on the matter being fully explained to them, will lay such conditions before the people, without giving expression to their own opinions."

The reply to this was as follows:-

From the Secretary of State to Lord Kitchener.

"London, April 16th.

"With great astonishment we have received the message from the Boer leaders, as contained in your cable. The meeting was arranged in accordance with their desires, and they must have been aware, from our repeated declarations, that we should not be prepared to consider any proposal based on the revival of the independence of the two South African States. We, therefore, were justified in believing that the Boe

r representatives had abandoned all idea of Independence, and that they would make terms for the surrender of the forces still in the Veldt. They now declare that they are not constitutionally in a position to discuss any terms which do not include the restoration of their Independence, but they ask what conditions would be made if, after consulting their followers, they should abandon the claim for Independence. This does not seem to us a satisfactory way of expediting the end of the hostilities which have caused the loss of so many lives and so much money. We are, however, as we said before, desirous of preventing any further bloodshed and of accelerating the restoration of peace and prosperity in the countries harassed by the war, and we empower you and Lord Milner to refer the Boer leaders to the offer made by you to General Botha more than twelve months ago, and to inform them that-although the great decrease which has lately taken place in the forces opposed to us, and also the further sacrifices involved by the refusal of that offer, would justify us in dictating harder terms-we are still prepared, in the hope of a lasting peace and reconciliation, to accept a general surrender in the spirit of that offer, with such amendments with regard to details as might be agreed upon mutually."

It was quite self-evident that the Governments could not accept this proposal of the British Government, because by it the independence of the Republics would be sacrificed.

President Steyn pointed out emphatically that it lay beyond our right to decide and conclude anything that would endanger the independence of the two Republics. The nation alone could decide on the question of independence. For this reason, therefore, we asked if we might consult the people, and it was agreed by Lord Kitchener and Lord Milner that we should go back to our commandos and hold meetings in every district, in order to learn thus the will of the nation. It was further agreed that at the meetings of the nation representatives should be chosen who, on the 15th of May, 1902, at Vereeniging, should inform the Governments what course the nation desired them to take.

On the 18th of April Commandant-General Louis Botha, General De la Rey, and I left Pretoria, provided with a safe conduct for ourselves and for anyone whom we should appoint, and proceeded to our different commandos.

I went first to the burghers of Vrede at Prankop, where I met General Wessel Wessels with his commandos on the 22nd of April. The nation was in a very miserable condition, suffering from the want of all necessaries, and living only on meat and maize, which food was also exceedingly scarce, and would only last for a few months more. Notwithstanding this, the burghers decided, to a man, that they would not be satisfied with anything less than independence, and that if the English would not accede to this they would continue to fight.

Mr. Wessel Wessels, Member of the Volksraad, was elected as chairman, and Mr. Pieter Schravezander as secretary. The representatives chosen were Commandants A. Ross, Hermanus Botha, and Louis Botha (son of Philip Botha).

My second meeting I held at Drupfontein, in the district of Bethlehem, on the 24th of April, with the burghers under the command of Commandants Frans Jacobsz, Mears, and Bruwer. Mr. J.H. Naude was made chairman, and Landdrost J.H.B. Wessels secretary. It was unanimously decided that independence had to be maintained, and Commandants Frans Jacobsz and Bruwer were chosen as representatives.

The next meeting I held on the 26th of April, at Tweepoort Farm, with the commandos under General Michal Prinsloo. Mr. Jan Van Schalkwijk was chosen as chairman, and Mr. B.J. Malan as secretary. Here also the votes were unanimous, and General Michal Prinsloo, Commandant Rautenbach, and Commandant J.J. Van Niekerk were elected as representatives.

After that on Roodekraal Farm. I met the burghers under Commandants Cilliers, Bester, Mentz, and Van Coller. The chairman was B.W. Steyn (Member of the Volksraad), and the secretary Mr. S.J.M. Wessels. Here again it was unanimously decided not to surrender the independence, and Commandants Mentz, Van Coller and Bester were the representatives chosen.

The fifth meeting I held with the commandos under General Johannes Hattingh, on the 1st of May, on the Weltevrede Farm, under the chairmanship of Mr. Jan Lategan, Johannes C. Pietersen being secretary. As representatives we chose General Hattingh and Commandant Philip De Vos. The voting was unanimous that the independence should be maintained.

On the 3rd of May I held my sixth meeting, with the commandos under General C.C. Froneman, at Schaapplaats. Mr. Jan Maree was chairman, and Mr. David Ross secretary.

The result was the same as at the other meetings, and General Froneman, Commandants F. Cronje and J.J. Koen were chosen to represent the commandos.

From there I went to Dewetsdorp, where I met, on the 5th of May, General George Brand's commandos. Mr. C. Smith acted as chairman, and Mr. W.J. Selm as secretary; the representatives chosen were General Brand and Commander J. Rheeder; and the burghers were equally determined to keep their independence.

I went on to Bloemfontein, and thence by rail to Brandfort, and afterwards to the Quaggashoek Farm, where, on the 11th, I held my eighth meeting, with the commandos of C.C.J. Badenhorst. The chairman was Mr. N.B. Gildenhuis, and the secretary Mr. H.M.G. Davis. The elected representatives were General Badenhorst and Commandants A.J. Bester and Jacobsz. This was my last meeting, and it also decided on maintaining the independence.

The commandos under the Commandants Van der Merwe and Van Niekerk (Vredefort and Parijs), Flemming (Hoopstad), Nagel (part of Kroonstad), and General Nieuwouwdt (Fauresmith, Philippolis, and Jacobsdal), were visited by Commander-in-Chief Judge Hertzog, Member of the Executive Council. At meetings held with these commandos the following representatives were chosen:-General Nieuwouwdt, and the Commandants Munnik Hertzog, J. Van der Merwe, C. Van Niekerk, Flemming, A.J. Bester, F. Jacobsz, H. Pretorius, and Veldtcornet Kritzinger.

At these meetings also the burghers were unanimous in their decision not to give up their independence. I must add that Commandant H. Van Niekerk was chosen as representative of the bodyguard of President Steyn. It had been agreed with Lord Kitchener at Pretoria that if the chief officers of a commando were chosen as representatives, then there would be an armistice between this commando and the English during the time the officers were absent at the meeting at Vereeniging. It was also decided that Lord Kitchener should be informed of the date of the departure of such officers.

This was done. I sent the following telegram on the 25th of April to Pretoria:-

"To His Excellency, Headquarters, Pretoria:

"At meetings held in the districts of Vrede and Harrismith and in that part of Bethlehem east and north-east of the blockhouse lines of Fouriesburg, Bethlehem, and Harrismith, General Wessels and the Commandants were duly chosen as representatives.

"I have decided that all the representatives shall leave their different commandos on the 11th of May, and therefore, in accordance with our mutual agreement, I shall expect an armistice to be granted to the different commandos from that date until the return of their commandants from the meeting at Vereeniging, on or about the 15th of May.

"I should be glad to receive Your Excellency's sanction to my request that each Representative should have the right to take one man with him.

"Your Excellency will greatly oblige by sending a reply to Kaffirsdorp in the district of Bethlehem, where I am awaiting an answer.


General Commander-in-Chief, Orange Free State.

Bethlehem, April 25th, 1902."

To this I received the following answer from Lord Kitchener:-

"Imperial Residency, Pretoria,

April 25th, 1902.

"To General de Wet, Kaffirsdorp.

"In answer to your message, I agree altogether with your demands that during the absence of the chosen Representatives from their commandos, from the 11th of May until their return, such commandos shall not be troubled by us. I also agree that every Representative, as you propose, shall be accompanied by one man.

"I shall also be glad if you would send an officer, at least two days before the Meeting, in order to let me know about the number, and the necessary arrangements for the treatment of the Representatives at this Meeting.

(Signed) "KITCHENER."

On the 11th of May I sent a telegram to Lord Kitchener, in which I said that, as all my generals and chief officers had been chosen as Representatives, the armistice must begin on the 11th of May. The telegram was as follows:-

From General de Wet to His Excellency Lord Kitchener.

"Pretoria, May 11th, 1902.

"The following chief officers have been chosen as Representatives for the commandos of the districts: Hoopstad, Boshof, and parts of Winburg and Bloemfontein,-districts to the west of the railway line.

"1. General C. Badenhorst.

"2. Commandant J. Jacobsz.

"3. Commandant A. Bester.

"It thus appears that all my generals and chief commanding officers are chosen as Representatives to attend at the Meeting of Vereeniging, on the 15th inst., and according to our mutual agreement at Pretoria, an armistice will be given from to-day (11th May, 1902) in all districts of the Orange Free State up to a date which shall be agreed upon after the close of the Meeting at Vereeniging. Any answer, previous to noon of the 11th inst., will reach me at Brandfort.


Orange Free State Armies."

In answer to this I received the following telegram:-

"Imperial Residency, Pretoria,

May 12th.

"To General de Wet, Brandfort.

"I have given orders, according to our Agreement, that from to-morrow, the 13th inst., all commandos, whose leaders or chief officers have been chosen to attend the Meeting at Vereeniging, shall be exempted from being attacked by my columns during the absence of their leaders, in so far as such commandos withhold from offensive operations. But that does not imply that outposts cannot be taken prisoner in case they should approach our lines.


It was rather surprising to me that Lord Kitchener, in this telegram, spoke only of an armistice beginning on the 13th of May, because in his telegram of the 25th he had agreed that there should be an armistice from the 11th of May. I heard also from officers of Heilbron, Vrede, and Bethlehem, whom I met, on the evening of the 14th of May, at Wolvehoek Station, that the English columns had operated in their districts on the 11th, 12th, 13th, and 14th. My order was that my officers should not operate, but should retreat, if the enemy should unexpectedly operate on the 11th. On the above-mentioned dates houses were burnt down, cattle carried away, maize and other grain destroyed, burghers taken prisoner, and (in one instance) shot.

Such a misunderstanding was very regrettable, and all the more so because we were never indemnified for the damage thus done.

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