General de Wet
1854 - 1922
By Stephen Dunkley
When over four thousand Boers under the command of General Marthinus Prinsloo gave themselves over to the General Hunter at Surrender hill on the 20th of July 1900, General De Wet who at the time was Commandant General for all Free State forces had this to say “Horrendous, murder against the government and the nation”
I recently came across a very interesting book on General De Wet and found him to be a fascinating man whose fame came to an ignominious end in 1914. Born Christiaan Rudolf de Wet in 1854 he is probably still to this day regarded as the most romantic of the Boer Generals: a daring guerrilla leader who’s exploits thrilled locals and the world alike. Like many of his contemporaries, his education was patchy, mostly from part time teachers who visited the farm from time to time. What De Wet lacked in education he more than made up for with common sense, natural leadership abilities and an instinctive understanding of people. At fourteen when his mother died he took responsibility with his father for running the farm and at twenty seven was the acting Commandant of Heidelberg. He took part in the first Boer war battle of Laings nek where he commanded two hundred men, this however like many other Boer men was not his first taste of battle, for at the age of eleven he had ridden out to do battle with the Basuto.
The courage that was to make de Wet a legend was already visible in the 1st Boer war and at Majuba he was one of the first to swarm the flat topped peak and defeat some of Britain’s best soldiers. A few years after the first Boer war that he moved in to politics and was elected to the Transvaal Volksraad, soon after he moved to the Free State he was elected to its Volksraad. De Wets politics could be described as progressive, even liberal, his achievements as a political leader were marked by his strong efforts in developing the transport system, especially the railways. At the start of the second Boer war in October 1899 both he and his son Kotie were called up as privates to the Heilbron Commando, after its commandant fell ill De Wet was elected in his place and found himself in charge of six hundred men.
His first success was an attack on British possessions near Ladysmith with only half of his Commando at the end of the engagement two hundred British troops had either been killed or wounded another nine hundred captured with the added bonus of one thousand rifles and twenty cases of ammunition being seized. President Steyn of the Free State was highly impressed and soon after De Wet was notified of his appointment as Fighting General under Piet Cronje. After Cronje’s surrender at Paardeberg De Wet found himself faced with an enormous task of having to stop General Lord Roberts and his massive advance. Despite huge efforts by both De Wet and De La Rey at Rietfontein and Abraham’s kraal the British advance on Bloemfontein could not be stopped. Soon after the occupation of Bloemfontein De Wet told his men to take leave and re group in ten days time. General Joubert berated him for this to which De wet replied, “I cannot catch a hare with unwilling dogs”. The men who reassembled were the toughest of the lot and De Wet knew that with the men he wanted and the freedom to conduct a war the British would at first not know how to counteract he would become a law unto himself. After a number of sweeping raids against the British that showed what could be achieved with a highly motivated mobile force he became the commander of the Free State forces, totalling about eight thousand men who concentrated on destroying supply lines, disrupting communications and using devastating hit and run tactics. After what was probably the most successful raid in the whole war, that saw his force attack three garrisons at the same time and kill or capture over seven hundred British soldiers and capture provisions valued well over one hundred thousand pounds, Lord Kitchener was determined to break De Wet’s resistance and raised a massive force to hunt him down.
By June 1900 Bethlehem was the only town of any consequence that had not been occupied by the British, fifty thousand troops under the leadership of five Generals descended on the town. For two days De Wet and his large force of men stood firm, however the forces ranged against him were to great and he together with President and Mrs Steyn as well as their entourage travelling with him headed towards the Brandwater basin, while the British rested and re-grouped the Boer forces debated amongst each other whether or not they should defend the basin or make there escape.
De Wet was against the defence of the basin as he felt it could become a trap eventually De wet with over two thousand men and President Steyn were to slip passed the British near to Retiefs Nek in the direction of Kroonstad. De Wet had decided that they needed to escape from this trap so that he and his men could keep fighting.
Not many people are aware “I certainly was not” That his brother Piet had in fact surrendered to the British on the 19th of May 1900 and offered Lord Roberts his assistance in persuading other Boer fighters in the field to do the same “including his brother” when he tried to persuade Christiaan to do the same in a long letter defending his actions. De Wet flogged the man that brought the letter and sent him back with a message that he would shoot Piet “like a dog” if he caught him. De Wets attacks continued during the war and together with his Chief scout Danie Theron became part of Afrikaans Folklore. He may have continued his war of attrition indefinitely, tying up a large British force, had it not been for many Burghers tiring of the war and to put on a united front he decided to agree and sign the treaty of with other Boer leaders, this he signed as an acting member of the Government of the Orange Free State
In July 1902 De Wet left for Europe to raise funds for the Boer cause and while on this trip wrote a best selling book called “Die Strijd tusschen Boer en Brit” Upon his return fro Europe he again entered politics, the old soldier spirit In him and his strong nationalist feelings led him and his six sons to join a commando with the object of protesting against the countries involvement in the first world war. The Memel Commando was one of the first to take up arms and seventy men accompanied General Christiaan De Wet who had come to live on a farm just outside the town, to Vrede. Towns were occupied and property damaged, before government forces of Louis Botha and Jan Smuts got the upper hand and In a couple of skirmishes near Winburg in early November. Of the eleven thousand rebels, one hundred and ninety were killed, eleven from Memel.
De Wet was on the run again, he managed to evade his pursuers until late November 1914. After he was captured and was jailed at The Fort in Johannesburg, he was charged with high treason in June 1915, he was found guilty and sentenced to six years imprisonment and a two thousand pound fine, six months later he was reprieved and the fine paid for by sympathisers. Broken mentally and physically, he withdrew from politics and spent his last years in poverty and pain that many say was a pitiful decline for the old fighter. He died on February the 3rd 1922 and was buried at the foot of the Woman’s Monument in Bloemfontein, despite the over-riding political issues De wet was given a state funeral. Telegraphing his widow on the day of his internment Prime Minister Jan Smuts wrote kindly of De Wet saying: “A prince and a great man has fallen today”