The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging



Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 2 - December 1971

THE VERDICT OF HISTORY
Reflections on the possible influence of "Siener" van Rensburg's visions on General J.H. "Koos" de la Rey and some of the results

Correlated by J.G. Orford and read to members of the Western Transvaal Branch of the S.A. Military History Society at Stilfontein on 17 May, 1971

Oom Niklaas van Renshurg, the "Siener", was in a sorry state when his Veldcornet and some of the men of his Commando found him. He had been missing all night. He looked as though he had passed through the portals of hell. Grim, almost desperate, he declined to explain his absence. Had he done so, in front of the members of his Commando, they would have said that he was mad. Calmly and sympathetically his Veldcornet extracted the information he required from him. What had happened, what had he seen, he asked? In biblical language, part prose, part poetry, the "Siener" told of his vision. He had seen his Commando passing into caves beyond Pretoria. Behind them came great crowds of women and children, fleeing from burnt down houses. He saw great devastation and misery. What he had actually seen was the defeat of the Boer Nation. This event occurred in 1899, outside Kimberley, and at that stage, no one had thought that the British would employ methods such as those that the "Siener" described but they did.

In appearance the "Siener" was small in stature, with a bushy black beard; he was then about 37 years old and was a farmer. What was unusual about him were his eyes, which immediately attracted attention, for they were a focal point, almost three dimensional. His colleagues both feared and respected him, and for these reasons, conferred the title of "Oom" on him, usually reserved as a sign of respect for a much older man.

This incident was brought to the notice of General De la Rey, who, at once, became interested in him, and arranged for the "Siener" to remain with his Commando. General De la Rey, though not well educated, was possessed of an active, shrewd and inquiring mind. Inclined to the psychic, he was also a deeply religious man, who believed that God would guide and direct him in whatever direction destiny had decreed he was to follow. De la Rey was anything but a fool. He had no time for fools, and he possessed naturally the gift, which usually only comes after long periods of study and training, of being able to sum up the quality of a man after only a short period of contact or conversation with him. One of the reasons given for General De la Rey's success, was his ability to "smell out" or sense traitors in his midst, a quality which ensured the internal security of his forces. Even at this time De la Rey's star was still to ascend to greater heights. He was popular and respected, an example in battle to his men, fearless, yet gentle and considerate; a man who would not tolerate atrocities to prisoners, yet who could be, and was, ruthless when he had to be. He had voted against making war on Great Britain, but being overruled, accepted the majority decision, though he personally hated war. This "Tough Patriot" and "A Prince among Men" was in later years to be used as a tool by others, as well as being influenced by the visions of the "Siener" in the direction required by those other persons. I have mentioned these matters at this stage because it has been suggested that the "Siener", even at this early stage, had decided to hitch his wagon to the De la Rey star.

Indirectly these two men, connected by a psychic affinity, were to become an instrument which was to influence the life and affairs of a third party -- Lt. General Lord Methuen, whom General De la Rey was to meet in battle for the first time at Modder River. De la Rey and Lord Methuen were involved in a number of skirmishes and battles but, subsequent to the war they developed a mutual respect and a liking for each other, which were to last until General De la Rey's death in 1914.

First photo

General J.H. "Koos" De la Rey

I have on my desk a little pamphlet called "Lord Methuen -- uitoorlê deur Generaal Koos De la Rey -- Die held van Wes-Transvaal", written by B. Spoelstra, and first published in 1919, when these events were still fresh and accurate in the minds of those concerned or interested in them. On page 12 we find the following paragraphs which I have translated: "It appeared that the words of Oom Niklaas van Rensburg, the old prophet, would turn out correctly. Concerning the convoy (Methuen's) which came from Vryburg he said -- 'I see a red bull coming from the direction of Vryburg. His horns are pointing forwards. He is eager to fight. He is brave and strong but, when he arrives at Barberspan, his horns hang lower. His determination is failing and he begins to feel discouraged. But it will go even worse with him because, when he arrives at the Harts River, he will be completely dehorned. He will be unable to butt. He must be disarmed then'." The "Siener" also saw the Boers walking about between the British guns and wagons. He was thus convinced that the Boers would beat the British force.

General De la Rey was accustomed to ask the "Siener" for his prognosis before any battle, and it is probable that the sight of the "Siener" influenced the outcome of this particular battle. The battle of Tweebosch followed. General De la Rey's veterans charged the convoy and British infantry, firing from the saddle. Lord Methuen's force was overwhelmed and he was wounded. In spite of opposition from his men, De la Rey sent Methuen to hospital at Klerksdorp.

Second photo

Lt.-Gen. Lord Methuen

In February, 1900, the "Siener" was with General Cronje's laager which was surrounded at Paardeberg. He was among some others who escaped through the gap, before it was closed, and joined up with Generals Botha and De Wet, who were waiting outside to support Cronje's attempt to break out.

The "Siener saw many visions most of which were concerned with bulls or buck, and, though he was not always right, he was often exceedingly accurate. The "Siener" never interpreted his own visions, but left others to do so. Thus, when things did not turn out as they should have done, or might have done, the fault was not his, but that of the interpreter.

In the Blue Book issued by the Union Government on 26th February 1915: "Report on the Outbreak of the Rebellion and the Policy of the Government with regard to its Suppression", the following account is given:

"The Seer was Nicolaas (Niklaas) van Rensburg of Lichtenburg (actually Wolmaranstad), a simple and illiterate man. He was a prophet, not without honour in his own country. On many occasions he has given proof positive of the possession of extraordinary powers of prevision, so men said and believed ... It is certain that he had a great hold on the imagination of thousands of his people. During the Anglo Boer war, some Commandos, when Van Rensburg was in the laager, neglected all precautions. If Oom Niklaas declared that the English were not in the neighbourhood, it was a waste of energy to post sentries and keep a look-out."

An extraordinary and, apparently quite authentic, vision, correctly foretelling certain events, leading to the conclusion of peace, had established his reputation. His fame spread throughout the land, and everywhere strange tales were told of his wonderful gift. His reputation had, strangely enough, not diminished since the war. This was perhaps due to several causes. He never attempted to exploit his gift, and impressed most of those who came in contact with him with his apparent sincerity. If he duped others, it seemed that he also duped himself. Moreover, and this was perhaps the secret of his continued success, his visions were always symbolic and mysterious, possessing an adaptability of character that was truly Delphic. Indeed his hearers were compelled to put their own interpretation upon his visions. The "Siener" seldom pretended to understand or explain them himself.

General De la Rey took a great interest in the "Siener" who had belonged to his Commandos during the Anglo Boer War. Van Rensburg had the greatest admiration for De la Rey, and had frequently hinted to the circle that great things were in store for him. One of his visions had been well known to General de la Rey for some years. The "Siener" had beheld the number 15 on a dark cloud from which blood issued, and then General De la Rey returning home without his hat. Immediately afterwards came a carriage covered with flowers. What these things portended, Van Rensburg could not say. He believed that they signified some high honour for the General.

Polly, the General's daughter, told me that she was present when the most famous of the "Siener's" prophecies was made. Both she and her father accepted that the vision of the General, without his hat, implied that he would be dead, for this was the "Siener's" usual interpretation of such events. General de la Rey was to die on the 15th September, 1914, and incidentally 1914 also adds up to 15.

Had it not been for the "Siener", President Steyn, seeking medical assistance from General De la Rey's doctor who was, at the time, with the General, would have been captured. In another vision, the "Siener" saw "two men with a letter and carrying a white flag, arriving from the direction of Kroonstad to negotiate peace". General Hertzog, who was present on both occasions confirmed that the two visions were correct and extraordinary. One of the "Siener's" last recorded visions was a detailed description of General Botha's death and funeral when there was no reason to suspect that the General's end was near. The "Siener" died on his farm Rietkuil, district Wolmaranstad, on the 11th March, 1926.

One of those, who joined General De la Rey's Commando on the Colesberg front, was Arthur Barlow. In his book, "Almost in Confidence", he gives several interesting accounts of the Boer Foreign Legion which comprised small groups of Germans, Hollanders, Irishmen, Scandinavians, Frenchmen and Americans who joined Boer Commandos. "The Scandinavians (Finns, Norwegians, Danes and Swedes) fought under the redoubtable Johan Flygare, a little man with a pointed beard. His second-in-command was Eric Stolberg. Flygare and his men had fought at Mafeking where he made much of his own personal bravery and issued numerous indents for revolvers and much more ammunition than had been received. They fought at Magersfontein where they clashed with the Highland Brigade, who got in among them with bayonets. Twenty-two men were killed, 19 wounded and two taken prisoner. Though several escaped, the brave band was wiped out".

The Irish contingent was led by an Irish-American, Colonel John Blake, who had, as his second-in-command, Major John McBride. Though McBride lived to tell the tale of the Boer War, he ended his days in front of a British firing squad during the Irish Easter Rebellion. The Germans paraded under Adolph Schiel, and with them was Count Harra Zeppelin, the man who invented the Graf Zeppelin which bombed London in World War I. There was also a number of Frenchmen, some of whom died with General Count Georges de Villebois-Mareuil when he attacked Boshof in April 1900. He was the only foreigner to become a Boer General. Some of the foreigners, who fought to the bitter end, were Jack Hindon, a Scot, and a deserter from the British Army; Lotter Kunze (German); Henri Slegtkamp (Hollander); Robert de Kersanson (Robert the Frenchman) who was one of General Smuts' leading intelligence men, and who received the DTD; Wolf Segal, a Polish Jew who was on General Hertzog's staff and Herman Judelwith, a Russian Jew, who was killed on an island in the Orange River while fighting with the Cape Rebels.

Also at Kimberley at this time was the gallant Gideon Scheepers who was later shot by the British.

When General Botha had crushed the rebellion, Christiaan de Wet and others were lodged in the Bloemfontein gaol, charged with high treason. The spirited de Wet was revolted by the prison food and refused to wear prison clothes. It was at this stage that the "Siener" Niklaas van Rensburg re-appeared. The vision he had previously seen was as follows:
1. The figure 15 against a dark cloud from which blood flowed.
2. General de la Rey without his hat.
3. A yellow box sent by the Government to Lichtenburg.
4. A dark cloud over the town of Lichtenburg.
5. A wagon with many beautiful flowers.

 The explanation given was:
1. The date on which the national cause would commence was the 15th of an unknown month.
2. General de la Rey would hasten back from Cape Town.
3. A box full of money would be sent secretly by the Union Government to assist De la Rey to carry out his object.
4. The Republican flags would be raised by General de la Rey.

 When the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging was signed, several Generals, in arguing that the treaty should be signed, said that when England got into trouble, a chance would be given the Boers to regain their independence. Generals Botha and Smuts sided with Britain; General De la Rey followed them, but remained a nationalist and a staunch Republican at heart, and General de Wet made it quite clear that his feelings were wholeheartedly on the other side. He naturally had his supporters and followers, not the least of whom were Kemp, Maritz and Beyers. By 1914 General De la Rey, the most influential and respected Boer in the Western Transvaal, was a tormented soul who believed that he was to lead his people to the new Republic. He was fully prepared to do this, and to die doing it if necessary, but he was not prepared to use force or advise bloodshed. A "wapen protes" was as far as he was prepared to go and, wherever he spoke, he counselled caution and restraint. His actions were of great importance to Botha and Smuts.

The "Siener's" prophecy was correct, but it was only correct because of a pipe, and a matter of changed places. Had this not happened Beyers, and not General De la Rey, would have died.

Aunt Polly told me the story: "My father arrived from Cape Town on the 15th September, 1914, and at his hotel found a message asking him to contact General Beyers as a matter of urgency. The two men met, and that evening they set off together by car towards Potchefstroom. General Beyers had resigned his commission and appointment as Commandant-General, and had received several threatening letters. He said that he was in fear of his life, and wanted to spend a lew days with General De la Rey on his farm.

"At that time the Foster gang was on the rampage on the Rand. The outlaws had committed several murders, including that of a detective whom they had gunned down in cold blood. The police were instructed to set up roadblocks and to shoot to kill, if they deemed it necessary. The car used by the gang was similar to that in which the two Generals were travelling. They sat at the back of the car and, when they approached the first roadblock, Beyers told his driver, Wagner, to pass through it. At the second roadblock the same thing occurred, but two events followed, which were to prove that the vision of the "Siener" was correct. The two Generals changed places in the back of the car, because General de la Rey wished to smoke his pipe and did not want the smoke to blow into General Beyers' face. The police telephoned ahead and warned the third roadblock of the approach of the car.

"For the third time Beyers ordered his driver not to stop, and the car passed through. A policeman, on duty there, raised his rifle and fired at the rear wheel of the vehicle. The bullet deflected upwards and struck General De la Rey. He lurched forward. 'Dit is raak Chrisjaan', he said, and he died almost immediately. General Beyers got out of the car. He said to the policeman, 'Do you know what you have done? You have killed General De la Rey.' The unfortunate policeman threw down his rifle and cried, 'God have mercy on me.' General De la Rey's body was removed to the Braamfontein mortuary where a post mortem was performed and, on the orders of the Government, his body was embalmed. Some days later his body, in a yellow coffin covered with flowers, was taken by train from Johannesburg to Lichtenburg. There were many ugly scenes at the old Warrior's funeral. Many said that his death had been arranged by Generals Botha and Smuts. A man begged General Kemp for a revolver with which to shoot General Smuts. Many of his old comrades in arms paid tribute to a very gallant gentleman. The coffin was covered by the Republican flags. Just before his death, a wind blew General De la Rey's hat away. It was never found again."

The Rebellion followed. Generals Botha and Smuts proclaimed Martial Law and, calling up the commandos, set about stamping it out, as quickly and with as little loss of life as possible. De la Rey was dead; De Wet was captured; Jopie Fourie, still in uniform was captured, tried by Court Martial and shot. Beyers was drowned in the Vaal River, and Kemp, after a wonderful ride through the desert, was captured on the South West African border. The old prophet went with him.

General Kemp told the following story. He said that before they were captured, he asked the prophet, "And what now? Your prophesies have been wrong." Oom Niklaas was not disturbed. "I had a vision last night ..." he told Kemp who angrily replied, "I am sick and tired of your visions." "Be patient", pleaded the prophet, "last night I saw a red castle. In front of it was a garden with green grass and red flowers. We arrived at the castle. There was no need for us to knock at the door ... As we presented ourselves the door opened. We went inside and found men making food and they gave us clothes and shelter." "Not long after this'', went on Kemp, ''we were all taken to the Fort which is a big gaol in Johannesburg. I noticed that it was a big red building. In front of the edifice was a garden of green grass with geraniums in full bloom. When we prisoners presented ourselves, the door was opened and inside the prison we found men making porridge and they gave us convicts' clothes." Kemp sarcastically asked Van Rensburg whether this was his "Red Castle."

One day I intend going in search of Oom Niklaas van Rensburg's grave. Perhaps I may find new stories to tell. I have often been to Lichtenburg to talk to my old friend, Aunt Polly, who lived in a house filled with history. She showed me many of her father's possessions -- his rifle, the clothes he was wearing when he was shot, his medals, and a top hat given to him by Major Tudor-Trevor, on behalf of a mortally wounded young officer, who requested him to obtain the "best hat money can buy" and give it to the General. The young officer was wounded in a fight near Kaffirskraal, and the General ordered that he was not to be disturbed, and placed his cap over his face to protect him from the sun. I have often been to the General's grave in the churchyard. It overlooks the graves of many British soldiers, who were buried there by his orders. His daughter, Polly, out of her own pocket, paid for his grave and those of the British soldiers, to be kept neat and tidy. Her grave is above that of her father, and on it is the badge of the Regiment De la Rey.

On one of my visits to Polly, she gave me a little notebook in which, written in pencil, was an appreciation of De la Rey, the man and the soldier, not by one of his friends, but by a British Officer, Major Tudor-Trevor. It is perhaps fitting that his words should end this story, a story of strange events and stirring times. "General Koos de la Rey 1899-1902

How does a man come to be a gallant gentleman? I have met men of all races and of all classes who have merited the description, but their number is not great. It is not education, it is not breeding. It is not civilization, it just happens, like genius. Education, breeding, civilization, all these increase the coverage of what is called culture, but they do not increase the number of geniuses nor of gallant gentlemen in the world. These are, I think, born, not made. Old General Koos de la Rey was one of them. He was a Boer of the Backveld, but the soul in him could not be excelled by any product of Eton and Balliol.

"Perhaps the open veld - the Sun, the Moon and the Stars, with an occasional war thrown in to bring the pupil down to earth again, are as good schoolmasters as any that civilization can offer, if only they have the right material to work on. In General De la Rey's case the material was there, and no education could have improved it, in fact, it might have spoiled it! As a coat of varnish might spoil a sword blade, or the barrel of a rifle. I have often wished that some great painter could have painted him, some Sargent or Frans Hals, who would have brought out the lovable character in that stern old face. There are certain portraits of him exhibited at Wembley. These may be reproductions of his features, but they no more resemble the man himself than "Marseillaise" on a penny whistle, resembles the Battle Hymn of the Republic. No one has ever written an appreciation of the De la Rey. Those who knew him intimately were not the sort who could write."

A book on General De la Rey has been written by Johannes Meintjes - "De la Rey - Lion of the West." Aunt Polly offered the task to me, but this was beyond me, and I accordingly passed it on to a person who produced a worthy account of the great man. To have been connected, even in an indirect way with a book of this nature, was reward enough. Commenting on the disaster at Tweebosch, "The Times History of the War" states - "The responsibility is Methuen's, but the verdict of history upon him will not be too hard ... When the signs of this weakness (his force) appeared, he might have turned back, but that was not his way. In the hour of disaster, he made all the atonement that was in his power, exposing himself freely and giving his men, as he had always given them, a fine example of fortitude."

General De la Rey, being the man he was, did not take vengeance on the wounded Lord Methuen at Tweebosch, as he might have done. He had reason enough to do so, for his own house at Lichtenburg had been' burnt down on Lord Methuen's orders. His wife and children had, since then, lived in the veld with his commando. All his burgers had, through the British scorched earth policy, lost all they possessed. Their homes were destroyed, their stock gone, their wives and children in concentration camps; perhaps alive, probably dead. This was his finest hour, and no one can ever take away the glory that is his. General Koos de la Rey became the hero of the hour. Some time later, while Lord Methuen was in hospital at Klerksdorp, a soldier arrived at the General's laager bearing a parcel and a letter for him from Methuen. The gift was a flask and two mugs to match, actually the property of a friend of the General, to whom it was later returned, and a letter. The letter was short and to the point, and in Methuen's handwriting were these words - "From a General to a very brave General." Lady Methuen also wrote to General De la Rey to thank him for his chivalry on the battlefield. A friendship, which was to last until General De la Rey's death, was forged on the battlefield between these two men. When he heard of General De la Rey's death, Lord Methuen sadly said - "I have lost a brave enemy in war, and a true friend in peace." Behind them "Siener" van Rensburg perhaps smiled to himself and said - "I TOLD YOU SO."

REFERENCES
Arthur Barlow - "Almost in Confidence."
Johannes Meintjes - "De la Rey - Lion of the West."
Spoelstra - "Lord Methuen, uitoorle deur Generaal Koos de la Rey - Die held van Wes-Transvaal."
Private research and anecdotes provided by the Late Colonel (Mrs) de la Rey-Morkel, daughter of General de la Rey.

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