De La Rey

Jacobus Hercules de la Rey
1847 - 1914

“De La Rey, De La Rey sal jy die Boere kom lei” these are the words of a popular Bok van Blerk song that had the country in a tizz last year (that being 2008). But who was de la Rey? And what is his claim to fame?

Portraits from the period portray a man of strength, “dark with shaggy eyebrows” wrote the Times History, “Great aquiline nose – mark of old Huguenot or Spanish blood – deeply lined face and a vast bushy beard….he would make a striking model for some warrior prophet of the Old testament”

Respected by his own countrymen and Briton alike, he received the highest of accolades from Milner himself “he is a remarkably fine fellow, and a man, every inch of him: and one of whom any country in the world might feel justly proud”

His story is remarkably similar to that of another Boer hero and close friend de Wet. As a young man he worked as a transport rider that also saw action as many of his generation did in the Basuto wars. He was very religious, but had no real formal education, again like those men of his generation he seemed to have a natural instinct for understanding people and like de Wet he was chosen to visit Europe after the second Boer war and like de Wet would also become embroiled in te 1914 rebellion that was to bring him to an inappropriate end.

He was a fervent Nationalist and two days after war was declared he was amongst the first who fired the first shots. As the military adviser to Pieter Arnoldus Cronje he planned and led the attack at Kraaipan where a train was derailed. On the 28th of November under the command of Cronje fought against the great Lord Methuen at Tweeriviere on the Modder River. De la Rey stated afterwards that he was one of the bravest soldiers England chose to place against me.

His two sons Koos (16) and Adriaan (19) fought with their father and it was at Tweeriviere that Adriaan was mortally wounded, De La Rey although wounded himself he carried his son to the hospital at Jacobsdal, but soon after they arrived Adriaan died. In the same week Lord Roberts son Freddie was to die at Colenso and in later years this drew the two men together.

At Magersfontein De La Rey’s military genius was evident, although he was not at the battle there can be no doubt that the victory was due to him. The construction of a twenty kilometre defence line – part stone sangars, part earthwork fortifications, part trench- rendered the Boers almost invisible. The Times History described the trench making as “One of the boldest and most original conceptions in the history of the war” The theory that De La Rey was in fact the originator of trench warfare and the barbed wire system is not true as this system had previously been used at Modder river and trenches had been used in warfare since the 16th century and British military manuals of the 19th century detail in great length various types of entrenchment. The victory at Magerstfontein had a deep effect on some of Britons elite regiments such as the Black Watch and the Seaforth Highlanders.

His next mission was to halt John Denton Pinkstone French’s advance on Colesburg in january 1900 however he was unable to complete this task as he was sent to Paardeberg to rescue General Cronje, after this incident he was promoted to Assistant Commandant-General for the Western Transvaal. Here he was to have some huge successes in the face of Stiff British resistance and his commando raids in particular troublesome to the British and Lord Methuen in particular was focused on wiping out the Boer General and his men

When proposals for peace were bandied about in June 1901 De La Rey was perhaps one of the most zealous “bittereinders” and he vowed to fight to the last man. With the introduction of Kitchener’s scorched earth policy and the erection of the blockhouse system vast areas of De La Rey’s “hunting” grounds became no go zones. Even with the lands being burnt and the net closing in on De La Rey and his men he still managed to achieve successes, such as the one on February the 25th 1902 when his commando galloped down on the British at Ysterspruit and devastated the British killing fifty eight and seizing half a million rounds of ammunition.

Not soon after, with a force of some seven hundred men he launched an attack on his bitter rival Lord Metheun at Tweebosch. Attacking from the rear he caused panic and a stampede of mules and oxen, many British soldiers fled, it was perhaps one of Britons worst defeats in the guerrilla campaign. Not only was Lord Methuen captured by De La Rey, two hundred men were killed and over six hundred captured. Lord Methuen while a bitter rival was treated with the utmost respect by De la Rey and he was sent to Klerksdorp to receive medical treatment for wounds he had acquired during the battle. A little known fact is that De La Reys wife ‘Nonnie” cooked a chicken with gravy and patties for Lord Methuen.

Kruger himself approved of Lord Methuens release “Boers must behave like Christians to the end, “he declared, hastening to add…….however uncivilised the way in which the English treat us may be”

With peace on the horizon. De La Rey was called to Pretoria and was one of the signatories to the peace treaty, soon after he left for Europe and then to Ceylon to persuade the Prisoners of war to return to South Africa and take the oath of allegiance. In 1908 he was a delegate in the National Convention and he was to become a Senator in the Union parliament. Initially he had supported Louis Botha but when he split from Hertzog in 1914 De La Rey found himself torn between his former comrade and the Union of South Africa

He disagreed with Smuts and Botha when they decided to invade South West Africa as he regarded the plan as one that would only further the British cause. De La Rey had planned a mass armed protest in Pretoria and in September met with an old friend General Beyers and together they travelled by car from Pretoria to Potchefstroom. On the journey they approached a police roadblock and thinking it had been set up to arrest them they ordered the driver to drive through it, there was a shot and the bullet pierced De la Rey’s heart and he died in his old comrades arms.

Many suspected that he had been assassinated, but it would seem that it was a stroke of fate; it was however a strange and bizarre end for one of the Boer wars best Generals. Smuts who had known him intimately acknowledged him as ‘One of the whitest and noblest souls that ever lived”

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