My Reminiscences of the Anglo Boer War

In 1895 the political clouds gather thickly and grew threatening. They were unmistakably in their potent. War was meant, and we heard the martial thunder rumbling over our heads.

The storm broke in the shape of an invasion in the shape from Rhodesia on our Western frontiers, a raid planned by soldiers of a friendly power.

However one may endeavour to argue the chief cause of the South African war to other issues, it remains an irrebuttable fact that the James Raid was primarily responsible for the hostilities which eventually took place between Great Britain and the Boer Republics.

Mr. Rhodes, the sponsor and dens ex machina of the Raid, could not agree with Mr. Paul Kruger, and had failed in his efforts to establish friendly relations with him. Mr. Kruger, quite as stubborn and ambitious as Mr. Rhodes, placed no faith in the latter’s amiable proposals, and the result was that fierce dislike was engendered between the two Gideons, a racial rancor spreading to fanatical lengths.

Dr. Jameson’s stupid raid is now a matter of history, but from that fateful New Year’s Day of 1896 we Boers date the unfortunate trials and discomfort to which our poor country has been exposed. To that mischievous incident, indeed, we directly trace the struggle now terminated.

Germania deserved the death sentence pronounced upon their leaders at Pretoria for high treason it is not for me to judge.

I do recall, however, what an appeal for mercy there went up, how piteously the Transvaal Government was petitioned and supplicated, and finally moved “to forgive and forget.” The same faction who now press so obdurately for “no mercy” upon the Colonial Afrikanders who joined us, then supplicated all the Boer gods for forgiveness.

Meantime the Republic was plagued by the rinderpest scourge, which wrought untold havoc throughout the country. This scourge was proceeded by the dynamite disaster at Vrededorp (near Johannesburg) and the railway disaster at Glencoe in Natal. It was succeeded by a smallpox epidemic, which, in spite of medical efforts, grew from sporadic to epidemic and visited all classes of the Rand, exacting victims wherever it traveled. During the same period challenges occurred in Swaziland necessitating the dispatch of a strong commando to the disaffected district and the maintenance of a garrison at Bremersdorp.

On September 1899- to be precise- the afternoon of the 28th the messenger of the House came to me with a note and whispered, “A message from General Joubert, Sir: it is urgent, and the General says, it requires your immediate attention.”

I broke the seal of the envelope feeling less bold.

General’s Joubert’s mandate was couched as follows:—

“You are hereby ordered to proceed with the Johannesburg commando to Voklsrust to-morrow, Friday evening, at 8 o’clock. Your field cornets have already received instructions to commandeer the required number of burghers and the necessary horses, wagons, and equipment. Instructions have also been given for the necessary railway conveyances to be held ready. Further instructions will reach you.”

Previous to my departure next morning I made a hurried call at Commandant General Joubert’s office. The ante-chamber leading to the Generalissimo’s “sanctum sanctorum” was crowded with brilliantly uniformed officers of our State Artillery, and it was only by dint of using my elbows very vigoursly that I gained admission to my chief-in-command.

The old General seem to feel keenly the gravity of the situation. He looked careworn and unhappy: “Good morning, Commandant,” he said, “aren’t you away yet?”

I explained that I was on my way to the railway station, but I thought before I left I’d like to see him about one or two things.

“Well, go on, what is it?” General Joubert enquired, petulantly.

“I want to know, General Joubert,” I said, “whether England has declared war against us, or whether we are taking the lead. And another thing, what sort of general have I to report myself to at Volksrust?”

The old warrior, without looking up or immediately answering me, drew various cryptic and hieroglyphic pothooks and figures on the paper before him. Then he suddenly lifted his eyes and pierced me with a look, at which I quailed and trembled.

He said very slowly: “Look here; there is as yet no declaration of war, and hostilities have not yet commenced. You and my other officers should understand that very clearly, because possibly the differences between ourselves and Great Britain may still be settled. We are only going o occupy our frontiers because England’s attitude is extremely provocative, and if England see that we are fully prepared and that we do not fear her threats, she will perhaps be wise in time and reconsider the situation. We also want to place ourselves in a position to prevent and quell a repetition of James Raid with more force than we exerted in 1896.”

Ben Viljoen, 1906

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