Jan Smuts in the Boer War

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The life of Jan Smuts
Early life 1870–1895
Transvaal 1895–1899
Boer War 1899–1902
British Transvaal 1902–1910
The Old Boers 1910–1914
See Jan Smuts for a complete profile.
See Second Boer War.

Jan Christiaan Smuts, OM (24 May 1870 – 11 September 1950) was a prominent South African and Commonwealth statesman and military leader. He served as a Boer General during the Boer War, a British General during the First World War and was appointed Field Marshal during the Second World War. In addition to various Cabinet appointments, he served as Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919 to 1924 and from 1939 to 1948. He played a leading part in the post war settlements at the end of both world wars, making significant contributions towards the creation of both the League of Nations and the United Nations.

This article is about Jan Smuts' role in the Second Boer War, from the outbreak of war in 1899 until the Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902. In the disastrous early stages, Smuts served in Pretoria, far behind the front line. Necessity soon thrust Smuts into the guerrilla campaign that followed. To him was entrusted the responsibility of infiltrating the Cape Colony, and persuading the Afrikaners there to stir up trouble. Although this failed, the United Kingdom soon came to the negotiating table, whereupon the two sides reached a compromise, negotiated by Smuts.

An Inauspicious Start[edit]

The War Begins[edit]

On 11 October 1899, the two Boer republics declared war on the United Kingdom. Immediately, commandos, armed with German rifles and artillery, and trained by the best European officers, marched into Natal and the Cape Colony. The hawkish Smuts, though, saw no service in the early stages of the war. His battlefield was Pretoria, where he served as President Paul Kruger's right-hand man. He wrote dispatches to generals, published propaganda, organised logistics, and liaised with Transvaal diplomats in Europe. With the initial successes of the war, came much of the credit for it.

After the defeats inflicted upon the Boer forces at Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Paardeberg, the British forces, considerably outnumbering the Boers, flooded across the Orange River, and into the republics. The government of the Transvaal fled from Pretoria to convene in Machadodorp. These reverses hardened Smuts' resolve. He ordered the destruction of the gold mines, which he saw as the only British objectives, but this action was blocked by a local judge. Smuts raised an army of 500 men as quickly as he could, and demanded the banks be emptied and their reserves be placed on a train for Machadodorp. The train carrying Smuts, his soldiers, and all the Transvaal's gold was the last to leave Pretoria before the town fell, only hours later, to the British Army.

The Guerrilla War[edit]

With every Boer town in the hands of the British, President Kruger in exile in the Netherlands, and formal resistance at an end, the British extended an offer of peace to the Boers. Acting in the name of Kruger, Smuts rejected the terms, and urged the generals to fight on. He described to Louis Botha a manner of guerrilla warfare, which would be suited to the vast expanses of the Veldt. Botha, Barry Hertzog, Christiaan De Wet, and Koos de la Rey each commanded commando forces to raid the British positions across South Africa.

Smuts served with de la Rey, raiding British supply trains across the western Transvaal. Smuts soon proved himself to be an excellent soldier, brave but intelligently so, and acutely aware of the limitations of their small force. The small force of 500 men evaded an army forty times its size, and severely weakened the supply lines of the entire British Army in South Africa. These successes were small, though, in the scale of the conflict. Whereas de la Rey and Smuts were wildly successful in their region, Botha and Hertzog (leading the two largest armies) found it difficult to replicate the tactics and success of their compatriots. Gradually, the British built a system of forts, concentration camps, and armed patrols, and cut the country up with great lines of barbed wire and trenches.

As it became harder to evade their armies, the Boers ran out of success. The generals met in secret, and discussed peace. Botha and Smuts decided that they had greatly underestimated the resolve of the British politicians, and sent a telegram to Kruger to ask for his advice. He responded, without the full knowledge of the dire situation in which the Boers found themselves, to fight on. The Orange Free State's two representatives, Steyn and De Wet, derided the suggestion of peace. In the end, they resolved to launch one last attack, and turn the conflict on its head. For this operation, they chose Smuts.

Better off on his Own[edit]

The Raid on the Cape[edit]

The plan asked for Smuts to lead an army of 340 men into the Cape Colony, as stealthily as possible. From there, he would attempt to draw support from the Afrikaners of the Cape, and instigate a general rebellion against the British government in Cape Town. For Smuts, just getting near British territory would be tough, as Kitchener had recently launched a major campaign to rid the Orange Free State of commandos, and, especially, of Smuts. Smuts escaped capture by the British no fewer than a dozen times, and his forces rendezvoused on the border after a month, with only 240 men left.

Once in the Cape Colony, Smuts' raiders were cut off from their homeland. They were harried by Briton and Basuto alike, and were weakened by disease and starvation. Those that were worst wounded or sick were left to be captured by the British. The men turned against Smuts, but he urged them onwards, always optimistic that the tide would turn. It did, when they encountered a cavalry squadron at camp, and ambushed them, taking their horses, food, uniforms, guns, ammunition, and luxuries. With this success came their own self-belief again. For the next few months, the raid was highly successful in distracting and tiring the British.

For all this, the aim of the raid was never to distract and tire, but to incite an insurrection of the population. Despite their success at distracting and disrupting, hardly a single local nationalist Afrikaner took up arms against the British, and Smuts realised that no such small raid would succeed in achieving such a grand objective. In fact, many western cape nationalist Afrikaners supported the British. Smuts decided to establish a headquarters and command as if he were the head of an army. He made the Hex River Valley his home, and sent his men far and wide to enlist and to forage. Soon, his army numbered three thousand, mostly local 'Boer' farmers.

He decided to launch a final attack, to bring the British back to the negotiating table, and to force an agreement in favor of the Boers. He threw every man into an attack on the copper-mining center of Okiep. His force surrounded the town, but could not attack the garrison head-on. In a show of bravado, Smuts packed a train with explosives, and attempted to detonate it in the town, blowing it sky-high. Although this attempt failed, it proved his resolve to fight through any means. As soon as possible, the British offered Smuts a peace conference, to be held at Vereeniging, to discuss a final peace treaty and resolution. Although not achieving its original objective, the raid had been a rousing success.

The Treaty of Vereeniging[edit]

To Vereeniging, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State sent thirty delegates each to meet the British. Whereas the Transvaal and the Orange Free State had been ravaged by the war equally as thoroughly, only the Transvaal delegates wanted peace. The Boer commandos knew that President Steyn, General De Wet, Hertzog, and the 27 other Free State delegates would rather fight to the death than sign a treaty of surrender. Thus, when they elected the representatives of the Transvaal, they chose men of peace, and not war heroes. Smuts was not elected, but Louis Botha appointed him to be the chief legal advisor to the Transvaal delegation. In this way, Smuts took a key role in debating the complex legal and semantic arguments.

During the debates, Smuts used his knowledge of both military and legal aspects, of government and of academia, to guide the delegation. His mastery of English, of Afrikaans, and of High Dutch allowed him to speak before others, and, unlike at Bloemfontein, no man dared to speak over the one who had so successfully attacked the Cape. Smuts' dominance of the table at Vereeniging allowed the doves in the Transvaal delegation to win. Francis William Reitz, tabled a compromise, ending the war, allowing the two republics limited sovereignty, and calling for slimmed down delegations to meet in Pretoria to negotiate with the British. Reitz knew that the British would reject the proposal, but he also knew that the greatest stumbling block to a resolution wasn't the deputation from London, but that from Bloemfontein. Thus, the Transvaal needed to buy time, with smaller parties involved, to negotiate fully with the Free State representatives.

At Pretoria, the British deputation was led by Baron Kitchener and Baron Milner, who could hardly have been more different. Smuts and Kitchener had mutual professional respect, and talked alone, avoiding the interjection of administrators, such as Milner. Moreover, both Kitchener and Smuts had seen the futility of the war, which had descended into little more than mutual murder. Bilaterally, Smuts and Kitchener negotiated a settlement that suited the Free State representative, De Wet.

Hence, on 31 May 1902, the Treaty of Vereeniging, a document that was mostly written by Jan Smuts and Lord Kitchener on their own, was signed by representatives of the United Kingdom, the Orange Free State, and the South African Republic.