The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

The Lion of the West : de la Rey

by John Bleloch

De la Rey was born near Winburg in the OFS in 1847.
His father was involved as a commandant in the battle of Boomplaats. The burghers were defeated by Sir Harry Smith and their farm was forfeited. He moved his family to a farm near Womaranstad where DIR grew up with his 5 brothers and sisters. He developed rheumatic fever at the age of 12 years but recovered fully in a year.

In his late 20s he met Jacoba Greeff daughter of Hendrik Greeff on whose farm the town of Lichtenberg was proclaimed.They married and as a successful farmer and big game hunter he amassed enough money to purchase the farm Elandsfontain on the Western outskirts of Lichtenberg. They had 12 children and the farm was home to them for 38 years.

At the time of his marriage Jacobus Herkulaas DIR was a fine figure of a man- 6 foot 1 inch in height with a patrician cast of black bearded countenance.He was an expert horseman and fine shot. He was always neatly dressed and had his suits tailered by Garlicks in Cape Town. He was abstemious as far as food and drink was concerned and had a pleasing affable personality endowed with an earthy sense of humour.

He was elected a veld-cornet at the youngest age recorded of 19. He became an Elder of the Church and Native Commissioner for the Western Tv!. In 1893 he became a member of the Volksraad representing Lichtenberg and spent a great deal of time in Pretoria somewhat neglecting the farm. This gap was ably filled by Jacoba his wife known to most as Nonnie. She was a constant source of support to him.

He had very little formal education but learned to read and write.His main source of inspiration was the bible, a compact volume of which he carried with him at all times.

He had some experience of warfare serving commandoes ranged against the Basutho in 1865 and Sekukuni in 1876. He served under Cronje in Potchefstroom as a commandant in 1881 and was active in the defeat of Jameson in 1896. He was against war and was a moderate but after the Jameson Raid he knew that war was inevitable. He was puzzled that a country like Great Britain would consider fighting a war in order to secure some of its own people {uitlanders} citizenship of the Tvl. And concluded that GB was after the goldfields.

The Second Anglo Boer war started in October 1899. De la Rey was promoted to veg-general and posted to the Western Tvl under Commendant General Cronje and as his adviser.

Kimberley and Mafeking were besieged despite De la Rey opinion that sieges were futile waste of men and resources. He crossed the Tvl Cape border to inflict damage on the railway from Kimberley to Mafeking. This and his 800 strong commando did, destroying an armoured train and wounding several British soldiers, firing the first shots of the war.This was ironic considering his anti-war beliefs.

He and his men then joined De Wet besieging Kimberley.

Buller with 2 divisions arrived in the Cape and ordered Methuen to advance up the railway to relieve Kimberley with 8 000 men and18 guns.

Methuen met Jacob Prinsloo with his men occupying the summit of the hills East of the railway in battle at Belmont. Methuen and his army prevailed and Prinsloo retreated. De la Rey joined and took command of the Boers at this time. He deployed his men again on the summit of hills on either side of the railway. Again superior artillery fire and steady advance of Methuen's infantry dislodged the Boers and De la Rey was forced to retreat.

After these 2 battles De la Rey came to the conclusion that it was a mistake to deploy his men on the heights for the reasons that the modern artillery could readily aim their fire on the crests and when the infantry advanced up the hillside they were protected to a great extent by the bulk of the hillside. In the battle of Modder river he entrenched his men along the banks and in front of the river. The Boer fire pinned the British down for the whole day and so mauled them that they required a week's rest to recover and assimilate reinforcements. In the same way De la Rey entrenched his men 100 to 200 yards in front of the foot of the range of hills at Magersfontein, inflicting severe casualties on the Highland Brigade in their opening night march towards the Boers. The whole British force was pinned down on the plein below Magersfontein for the whole following day. Methuen could see no way through to Kimberley and retreated to the Modder river.
This was the 3rd severe defeat inflicted during the famous black week

Roberts and Kitchener were sent out with a further division to take Buller's place as commander of the Western front in the Cape and Buller moved to command the Natal front only.

The British, now numbering 70 to 80 thousand men with over 100 guns, moved North to lift the Kimberley siege and captured 4 000 Boers with Cronje at Paardeberg. Roberts entered Bloemfontein on 13th March and remained static for 7 weeks. The Boers retreated to Kroonstad where a decision was reached to continue the war by fighting as Guerillas and to avoid set piece battles against the British Juggernaut army.

De la Rey was promoted to commandant general of the Western Tvl. He and de Wet in the OFS waged a successful guerrilla campaign but the commandoes were gradually weakened by the scorched earth and concentration camp policy introduced by Roberts in mid 1900 and pursued relentlessly by Kitchener. De la Rey managed to elude Kitchener's many pursuing columns, but lack of logistical support from the farms eventually tipped the scale against the Burgers and peace was signed in May 1902 De la Rey returned to his farm with Nonnie and rebuilt the house which was destroyed by the British. He, de Wet and Botha visited England and the Continent to raise funds to help revive the shattered republics. De la Rey visited Ceylon to persuade Boer POWs to return to South Africa. He was chosen as one of the delegates sent to Durban to lay the ground work for the Act of Union in 1910. Botha became prime minister with Smuts as minister of mines. He was involved in subduing the rioters in the labour unrest of 1914.

War was declared against Germany in September1914 and the British government asked Botha as prime minister of SA [which was] a member of the British Commonwealth, to invade SWA and push out the Germans. Botha agreed and called a special meeting of parliament where the decision to invade was passed by 98 votes to 12. This irked many Afrikaners as they were not keen after the Anglo-Boer War to join hands with the British against Germany. De la Rey in particular felt that his close friends and colleagues Botha and Smuts had turned against their people and himself.
De la Rey abstained from voting and returned to Pretoria to meet Beyers.

The situation at this time was that Beyers, C-in-C of-the UDF, had sent in his resignation on the 15th of September, the day of the vote. Kemp in Potchefstroom, in command of the training of 4 regiments of mounted infantry had also resigned his commission on the same day. Manie Maritz, in charge of a military training camp on the SWA-Tvl border, had met the Germans and offered his support.

De la Rey had evolved a plan, possibly influenced by the prophet Nikolaas van Rensburg who had seemed to influence him with his many prophecies, couched in allegorical terms, frequently particularly during the ABW. This plan involved gathering a body of mounted armed Afrikaners who would ride with him through the Tvl via Krugersdorp to Pretoria gathering large numbers of supporters on the way. He was determined that no shots would be fired. This was to be merely a show of strength revealing the will of the Afrikaner people. On arrival in Pretoria, Botha would be installed as leader of an independent state.

Back in Pretoria. De la Rey persuaded Beyers to travel to Potch[efstroom] in Beyer's grey Daimler. They left Pretoria at 9 pm. It so happened that on this night, the police had set up armed road blocks to capture William Foster and his gang. He was a robber who had killed 2 police, an inspector and a bystander. De la Rey and Beyers knew nothing of this gang.

When the grey Daimler reached Orange Grove the driver Wagner was challenged. Beyers who thought the block had been set up to arrest him as he had resigned as C-in-C of the UDF that day. He ordered Wagner not to stop. The piket let them through as they were lookingfor a black saloon car with three men and a woman. Several pikets challenged them on their way through to Langlaagte stationwhere one of the police fired a shot after the accelerating car. The bullet ricocheted off the road through De la Rey's heart, killing him.

There was a huge outcry over this. Beyers, Kemp, De Wet and Maritz rose in armed revolt. Martial law was declared and the rebels hunted down by the UDF. Kemp and deWet and others were imprisoned but released by 1916. Beyers was drowned while attempting to cross the Vaal river and Maritz escaped through SWA to Angola.

De la Rey was considered by both sides to be one of the best generals in the ABW. He became famous for his exploits at Modder river and Magersfontein and his actions in the guerrilla phase of the war. He was unofficial leader of the Afrikaner people, particularly in the Western Transvaal [where he was regarded as] the Lion of the Western Transvaal.

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 12 September 2013

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