This article is a transcription of a talk given to the S.A. Military History Society by Mr V.E. Solomon in November 1972. Mr V.E. Solomon is a lecturer in the Department of Economic History at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.
Most visitors to Hartbeespoort Dam have no doubt noticed a cross standing prominently on a small koppie a mile or two on the Johannesburg side of the dam. The cross is a monument to General Hendrik Schoeman who lived in the area and whose homestead is now submerged beneath the dam. A few years ago the inscription on the cross was roughly obliterated by some religious zealot or political enemy or perhaps a mere vandal. The text, freely translated from Afrikaans read:
'Melancholy is the path of the peacemaker:
Remember Hess . .
Remember Petain . .
Remember Christ .'
General Hendrik Schoeman was vilified by his own countrymen as a Hands-upper'.
Depending on the individual point of view, the Boers during the South African War are regarded as determined, desperate or even foolhardy men, stubbornly persevering with a war in which they must inevitably have succumbed to the might of Britain. Whatever the opinion, admiration cannot be withheld from men who stood together to the moment of final tragedy, the 'bitter end' at Vereeniging. Theirs is indeed a heroes' tale.
However there is another side to the story . .
From the turn of the tide, following Roberts's great flanking movement
and the occupation of Bloemfontein and Pretoria, fatalism and war-weariness
seemed to grip a large section of the Boer rank-and-file, and even some
of the higher ranking officers. The bulk of the Boer forces were not, of
course, regular soldiers, inured to the fortunes of war and taking defeat
or victory philosophically; furthermore, their attitudes were affected
by divided political loyalties existing before the war. These facts, together
with personal animosities and the Boers' free-and-easy discipline, contributed
to the tendency to opt out of the fighting once the euphoria of the early
victories had evaporated. In addition the series of proclamations, issued
by Lord Roberts, were strong temptations to the less-committed or the less-educated
Imagine the effect of proclamations such as these:(1)
February 1900: 'The fight is against the Boer government -- Boers staying peacefully at home will not be molested.'
March 1900: 'Burghers who lay down their arms and take an oath to abstain from further part in the war will be given safe conduct to their homes and will not be made prisoners-of-war or deprived of their property.'
May 1900: 'Those taking the oath will be guaranteed freedom from molestation and their personal safety.'
Many took advantage of these overtures but not enough to suit the British command. Resistance to the British advance continued, and sterner measures were promulgated:
1st June 1900: Inasmuch as the Orange River Colony was now British territory, having been annexed, all inhabitants thereof found in arms would be treated as rebels.
16th June 1900: In view of the continued raids on the railway line, and on other communication facilities,
'. . . now therefore I, Frederick Sleigh, Baron Roberts, of Kandahar and Waterford, KP, GCB, GCSI, GCIE, VC, Field-Marshal, Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty's Troops in South Africa, warn the said inhabitants and principal civil residents that, wherever public property is destroyed or injured . . . they will be held responsible for aiding and abetting the offenders. The houses in the vicinity of the place where the damage is done will be burnt and the principal civil residents will be made prisoners of war.'
Whatever might be thought of these proclamations as legitimate weapons of war, they must have exerted great pressure on the families and friends, of the fighting burghers and, indeed, on the burghers themselves, to seek to bring about a cessation of active operations, in order to spare their families and property.
The nadir of Boer fortunes, in an organised military sense, came with the fall of Pretoria. The Boer armies had by now dwindled to a mere 7 000 men; and the decision of the Transvaal government not to defend the capital had a profound and dismaying effect on the simple burgher. It was at this stage that President Kruger and his senior officers wavered in their determination, and only the iron resolve of the Free State President averted a bid for peace.
The week following the fall of the city saw the low-water mark of Boer morale and a grim process of disillusionment took root among the ordinary burghers. These men, who had expected so much of their commanders, now discovered that the reputations of these leaders had been won in Kafir wars or battles long ago, and that they were not up to the demands of modern warfare; that the Boer military organisation was the most loose, unmilitary and inefficient imaginable; that it led to the slaughter of the brave; the skulking with impunity of those who felt so inclined; the cancer of 'leave of absence' and the certain failure of almost all movements that required co-operation between the commanders; that their Commandant-General was powerless to punish high officers who had committed the most criminal blunders and who continued in their commands only to commit more fatal blunders still. These burghers, in a word,
'had lost faith in their organisation, they had lost faith in most of their officers, and - what was ugliest - they had lost faith in themselves.'(2)With all this, it was not surprising that a spirit of defeatism and 'end-the-war' grew in the Boer ranks. The absence of discipline in the normal sense among the commandos facilitated surrender by those who saw no further purpose in fighting or who were not sufficiently endowed to grasp the deeper issues involved in the war itself. Be that as it may, defections were rife, and the course of the war was henceforth to be increasingly marked by alienation between those who meant to fight to the bitter end and those who saw things in a different light. Mutual suspicion, recrimination and bitterness were to continue for the remaining years of the struggle.
The British, shrewdly or out of increasing exasperation with the continuance
of the war after the fall of Pretoria, tightened the screw on the waverers.
As Roberts saw the end of the war recede, so did the measures he adopted
to compel the fighting burghers to submit increase in severity. On 14th
August 1900, thus, he issued a proclamation that
'. . . all buildings and structures on farms on which the scouts or other forces of the enemy are harboured will be liable to be razed to the ground; Boer families on farms must acquaint Her Majesty's forces with (sic) the presence of the enemy upon their farms: failure to do so will be treated as aiding and abetting the enemy.'
Despite remonstrances from the Boer Commandant-General, Louis Botha, Roberts went on a month later to declare that
'Inasmuch as the war is degenerating into operations carried on in an irresponsible manner by small and in very many cases insignificant bodies of men,'he would use every means to bring it to an end, and be forced to resort to measures that would be ruinous to the country and bring endless suffering to the burghers and their families. The longer the guerilla war continued, the proclamation pointed out ominously, the more vigorously would these measures be enforced.
The territory of the Republics was systematically laid waste. An eye-witness among the British forces was to give a graphic picture of these operations:
'Farm burning goes merrily on, and our course through the country is marked as in prehistoric ages, by pillars of smoke by day and fire by night. We usually burn from six to a dozen farms a day; these being about all that in this sparsely-inhabited country we encounter. I do not gather that any special reason or cause is alleged or proved against the farms burnt. If the Boers have used the farm; if the owner is on commando; if the line within a certain distance has been blown up; or even if there are Boers in the neighbourhood who persist in fighting -- these are some of the reasons. Of course the people living in the farms have no say in these matters, and are quite powerless to interfere with the plans of the fighting Boers. Anyway we found that one reason or other generally covers pretty nearly every farm we come to, and so to save trouble we burn the lot without enquiry; unless, indeed, which sometimes happens, some names are given in before marching in the morning of farms to be spared ... I wish I had my camera ... These farms would make a good subject. They are dry and burn well. The fire bursts out of windows and doors with a loud roaring, and black volumes of smoke roll overhead. Standing around are a dozen or two men holding horses. The women, in a group, cling together comforting each other or hiding their faces in each others' laps. In the background a number of Tommies are seen chasing poultry, flinging stones and throwing themselves prostrate on maimed chickens and ducks, whose melancholy squawks fill the air. Further off still, herds and flocks and horses are being collected and driven off; while, on the top of the nearest high ground, a party of men, rifles in hand, guard against the surprise from the enemy, a few of whom can generally be seen in the distance watching the destruction of their homes.'(3)
This wretched business might be airily waved aside by a comfortable English statesman (Chamberlain: 'The matter is not quite so important from an economic standpoint . . . a farmhouse in the Transvaal is little better than, if as good as, a labourer's cottage in this country.'),(4) but it placed an intolerable strain on the loyalty of many Boers to their own cause. As Smuts recalled it years afterwards,
... the Boers are an intensely domestic people ... husbands and wives, parents and children, are intensely attached to each other, and all to their little house on the veldt - hallowed to them by long years of patient toil, of enduring affection, and of noble memories of trials and dangers overcome.'(5)
The British Blue Books of the time give a depressing account of house after house burnt down and all the property attached to it destroyed, because in some way or other it was succouring the Boers still in the field. With bureaucratic thoroughness the reasons in each case were carefully detailed. The following is a selection:
-- harbouring Boers
-- patrol fired on from house
-- housing supplies for Boers
-- grinding corn for Boers
-- supplying food to Boers
-- two sons fighting after having taken the oath of neutrality
-- used as a barrack
-- son on commando
-- telegraph wire frequently cut
-- a laager on farm not reported
-- the surrounding countryside being laid waste, with an omnibus 'explanation' that seems to have covered all cases:
-- 'By reason of its utility to the Boers.'(6)
With so much at stake, the resolve of many Boers to go on fighting broke, and there were other forces at work inducing individuals to withdraw from the field of battle. In time a significant number of Boers disengaged themselves from active opposition to the British, and by so-doing earned the contempt and hatred of their erstwhile comrades and the opprobrious epithet 'Hands-upper'.
Who were these people? To begin with, we should distinguish between
two main groups - the passive and the active Hands-uppers.(7) Of the first
group little need be said beyond the fact that they were found wanting
in the hour of trial; that they were not cut out to be fighting men and,
having taken the oath of neutrality (of which more later), they withdrew
to their farms and remained there quietly as long as they were able to
do so. It might be said that from a purely physical or perhaps psychological,
point of view, they had proved unequal to the demands of modern warfare
but, having withdrawn from the field, they remained inactive and did nothing
further to damage their country's prospects in the war. There were, of
course, those who, whilst not lacking the ability to keep fighting, seized
the opportunity to withdraw from hostilities for a variety of personal
and petty reasons - the usual band of defeatists and disgruntleds.
It should also be stressed, in passing, that the term 'Hands-upper' refers to those voluntarily surrendering themselves to the British. Those, who were forced to surrender on the field of battle, became prisoners of war and were dealt with as such.
The other main group consists of those - some of them high-ranking officers - who voluntarily took the oath of neutrality because they were convinced that the war was lost and that further resistance was not only useless but would be disastrous for the Boer nation. These Hands-uppers did not only surrender but strove, to greater or lesser degree, to bring the war to an end. For many of them the future was to be a nightmare of divided loyalties, broken ties and ultimate humiliation. While some were moved by the highest motives, all were subjected to the withering scorn of those men still in the field and their families; alas, even of their own kindred. Unhappily there were others who surrendered for ignoble reasons, such as pique at having been accorded relatively junior rank or the lure of financial gain.
The procedure of 'hands-upping' was simple. One simply presented oneself to the authorities and swore the following oath:
'I will not take up arms against the British Government during the present war, nor will I at any time furnish any members of the Republican forces with assistance of any kind, or with information as to the numbers, movements, or other details of the British forces that may come to my knowledge. I do further promise and swear to remain quietly at my home until the war is over.'(8)Having done this, the man might imagine that for him the war was over, but it did not always work out that way. As a recent historian puts it,
'Many of the burghers who ... took the oath ... were confronted by a cruel dilemma. The Boer governments refused to recognise the annexations or to concede to those whom they still regarded as republican subjects the right to contract out of the war. The commandos rounded up those burghers whom they encountered during their operations and swept them back, sometimes by force, into military service. Many an individual was faced with the grim alternative of being treated by the British as an oath-breaker or by his own people as a renegade; and usually it was his own people who presented the immediate alternative more compellingly.'(9)It might be added that the Hands-uppers who went back into active belligerency against the British, could argue, and did, that the failure of the British to protect them against their own compatriots constituted just ground for regarding their oath as no longer binding. Be that as it may, many who took the oath in the earlier stages of the war gradually returned to the commandos, cheerfully or otherwise.
Descending from the elevated plane of generalization to the specific,
the case of General Hendrik Schoeman, whose name is commemorated by the
district of Schoemansville around Hartbeespoort Dam, is revealing.(10)
About sixty years of age at the outbreak of the war, he caused trouble on Impati mountain at the battle for Dundee, and departed in high dudgeon for Pretoria where he persuaded Kruger to appoint him to the command of the Free Staters at Colesberg. Again he interfered to his side's disadvantage at a decisive juncture in the war. After the fall of Pretoria he surrendered to General French and promised to take no further part in the hostilities. Blandly he sat on his stoep and watched the skirmish at Silkaatsnek a month later. He was subsequently arrested by Commandant Coetzee, the victor of that engagement, for refusing to serve again, this time as an ordinary burgher. He was delivered to State Attorney Smuts who sent him to Barberton for trial on two counts: for having taken the oath of neutrality and for having discouraged burghers from further resistance. The charges were however withdrawn, apparently under pressure from influential quarters and, in any event, French soon occupied Barberton, whereupon Schoeman, being found there in the wake of the retreating Boers, was allowed to return to his farm, only to find it burnt to the ground.
The British had taken his absence as evidence of his disloyalty. He moved to Pretoria but, a little later, he seems to have been prevailed upon to act as an intermediary to take messages from influential Boers in the capital to the fighting burghers in the field, presumably impressing on the latter the folly of further resistance.
This episode is not altogether clear but, in company with an English captain, who seems to have been acting as his escort to Rustenburg, he was again taken captive and incarcerated in Pietersburg for many months, to be finally brought to trial on a charge of high treason. On this occasion he was less lucky: the court upheld the charge, and he was sentenced to death but, on account of some dispute about the constitution of the tribunal, the sentence was not immediately enforced, and he was still languishing in the Pietersburg gaol when the town fell to the British forces. Released again, he returned to his home in Pretoria. Alas! his tribulations were in vain for, soon after his homecoming, he and some friends were blown to smithereens when a lyddite shell, which he had brought back from Colesberg and which graced his parlour, exploded when it was used as an ashtray - an occurrence which pious Boers saw as the 'finger of God on a traitor'.(11)
Another example serves to show the depth of bitterness between 'Hands-upper' and 'Bittereinder' and how the latter had no scruples in 'smelling-out' the former. Commandant Vilonel, who had fought at the battle of Biddulphsberg, was elected Veggeneraal. Although he had rendered outstanding services in the field up to this time and was highly regarded by the burghers, he declined to accept the post, stating quite openly that, in his opinion, the war could not last much longer and that he had decided to surrender and take the oath. (He seems, however, to have had rather more personal reasons than those he stated. He was a lawyer in civilian life, and learning that his office was threatened with destruction which would involve the loss of his clients' papers, he decided to quit.) His commando let him go, as they felt that, in this frame of mind, he would be of no use in the war, but rather the reverse. His example seems to have caused others to waver, and a certain Veldkornet kept in touch with him in order to arrange his own 'hands-upping' in due course. The matter came to light, and the hapless Veldkornet was forced to draft a false letter to Vilonel in which a place and time were set for the transaction. When Vilonel and a British officer showed up at the rendezvous, they were prompdy seized. After due trial Vilonel was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, but he managed to escape in a subsequent skirmish between his captors and the British. He will come to light again in this account in a new guise.(12)
The Burgher Peace Committees
Shortly after his assumption of the supreme command at the end of November 1900, Kitchener set about the formation of the 'Burgher Peace Committees', composed of influential Boers from among those who had already taken the oath. The story of these committees of 'collaborationists' (as they would have been called in our own day) forms one of the saddest episodes in the 'Hands-uppers' history.
Kitchener, anxious to bring to a speedy end the unfinished war he had inherited from the too-complacent Roberts, and not obsessed, as was Milner, with the notion of 'unconditional surrender', resolved to encourage the movement towards peace that appeared to be gathering strength among the war-weary burghers. After consultation with prominent Boers who had already surrendered, he issued a proclamation, assuring burghers that, if they laid down their arms, they would be permitted to live with their families in special refugee camps instead of being confined in prisoner-of-war compounds, and that neither stock nor property brought with them would be confiscated. These assurances did not, however, produce the anticipated results. On the contrary they relieved the fighting burghers of worry with regard to their families who would now be the responsibility of the British, and enabled them to continue the struggle without distraction.
Kitchener, however, was not deterred. Under the presidency of Meyer de Kock of Belfast, a Peace Committee was formed, whose purpose was to impress upon the commandos still in the field the hopelessness of continuing the struggle and the wisdom of a general surrender. A meeting of surrendered Boers was held at Pretoria on 21st December 1900, and was addressed by Kitchener who promised every assistance to the Committee in its task of converting its countrymen to its views. The speech, printed in both Dutch and English, was widely circulated and the Committee in order to expedite matters, appointed emissaries to visit the commandos and explain the new situation.
The consequences were disastrous, both for Kitchener's hopes and for the envoys personally. They were arrested and tried for high treason and, in some cases, were sentenced to death, although most of these sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment. As the commandos were constantly on the run before the British forces, the prisoners usually managed to escape from custody sooner or later.
Some, however, were not so fortunate. They were flogged by irate commandants; one, Morgendal, was apparently shot by the order of or, at any rate, with the connivance of Christiaan de Wet, and the chairman of the Central Peace Committee, Meyer de Kock, was incarcerated in Roos Senekal, tried and condemned to death. This sentence was not commuted. General Ben Viljoen later recorded the last tragic events:
'At this (i.e. the death sentence) he turned deadly pale, and some minutes passed before he had recovered from his emotion. He then expressed a wish to write to his family, and was conducted under escort to a tent, where writing materials were placed before him. He wrote a long communication to his wife, which we sent to the nearest British officers to forward to its destination .. Next day we were attacked by a detachment of General Kitchener's force from Belfast. This kept me busy all day, and I delegated two officers to carry out the execution. At dusk the condemned man was blindfolded and conducted to the side of an open grave, where twelve burghers fired a volley, and death was instantaneous. I am told that De Kock met his fate with considerable fortitude ... '(13)
Repulsed by the fighting Boers, the Peace Committee now turned its attention to the Dutch in the Cape Colony, in the hope that influential men there might be persuaded to play a part in bringing about peace.(14) A party, consisting of Piet de Wet (brother of Christiaan), F. van Niekerk and C. L. Botha, went with Kitchener's blessing to Cape Town and spoke to the Chairman of the Kongres of the Afrikander Bond, pleading with him to enlist the support of the Bond in ending the war, by making it plain to the fighting Boers that they could expect no substantial aid from the Cape Colony and that the war must be brought to a speedy end if the Afrikaner nation were to be saved from extinction. The Bond declined to be drawn, however, whereupon the delegation turned from the secular to the spiritual leaders of the Cape Dutch. The venerable Andrew Murray, the first of these to be approached, imposed the now-impossible condition that the Republics be permitted to retain their independence. The delegation then approached the Moderator of the N.G. Kerk in the Cape, J. H. Hofmeyer, to whom they set out their viewpoint with touching eloquence:
(Translated) 'As loyal and faithful burghers, we were obedient to our governments when they declared war and called upon us for military service, and we fought bravely; but when we saw that the fight was lost, that our capitals were occupied and that our governments were dissolved ... we deemed all further continuance of the struggle useless and helpless, as serving only to destroy our country and to annihilate our people - yes, a fight against the Lord of Hosts Himself, who had decided against us, and a fight against ourselves, our women and children who must suffer under it. Faithful to our consciences, according to God's Word, we could not further assist in the desperate and suicidal guerilla war, and we have brought ourselves to surrender our arms to the lawful conqueror, as we could honourably do after an heroic resistance of 15 months.
There is a strong peace party which has been joined by most of the members of the Volksraad and the Uitvoerende Raad and the chief officials ...; (whereas, in Christiaan de Wet's party) there is not a single member of the Uitvoerende Raad or a head official, and only four out of sixty members of the Volksraad.
... Come and see our misery, come and see our destroyed farms, our famished, half-starved and ragged women and children, and help us from the certain destruction that threatens us and our people if this suicidal war is continued ... Help us to save our people frum absolute extinction.'
Sad to relate, this appeal too fell on deaf ears. The delegation now turned, desperately, to what seemed the last tenuous hope - the Boer prisoners of war then being held at Cape Town. It was suggested to Milner that influential men from among these prisoners be sent to the refugee camps, there to attempt to prevail upon the women to appeal to their kinsmen still in the field to come in and surrender; also that those prisoners who were leaning towards peace be parted from their irreconcilable brethren and placed in separate 'Peace Camps' in order to free them from victimization. The latter suggestion found a ready response from the British authorities who created a new camp at Simonstown that was soon to house some 800 prisoners who were for peace. These passed a unanimous resolution urging that, in the interests of the Afrikaner population, the struggle should cease as speedily as possible, and calling on Steyn, Schalk Burger and Christiaan de Wet to bring an end to hostilities.
Sub-committees of the 'peace movement' were being formed at various
centres, in the Free State particularly, and these added their voice to
the growing chorus for peace. Here are two examples that reflect the depth
of feeling prevailing on the issue:
'We are acquainted with the bitter tears which are daily being shed ... thousands live in exile, and it is terrible to think how many wives will never see their husbands again, and how many young children cry in vain and bitterly for the voice of their parents. (from Bethlehem).' 'If our people still in the field could only understand what they are yet causing, and what great misery could be spared by their acting humbly and surrendering ... (from Winburg).'
However, all of these well-meant efforts of the Peace Committees came to naught; in fact, the women for whose sake the appeal was purportedly being made became, if anything, more relentlessly uncompromising in their attitude to the British conqueror.
But, if they made no positive contribution towards the ending of the
war, the men of the Peace Committees were nonetheless responsible for a
hint to the British that was to be fraught with the most momentous consequences
for their own nation:
'The General-Commanding-in-Chief is desirous that all possible means shall be taken to stop the present guerilla warfare. Of the various measures suggested for the accomplishment of this object, one which has been strongly recommended, and has lately been successfully tried on a small scale, is the removal of all men, women and children, and natives from the Districts which the enemy's bands persistently occupy. This course has been pointed out by surrendered Burghers, who are anxious to finish the war, as the most effective method of limiting the endurance of the guerillas ...'
In this manner did the Hands-uppers, with no doubt the best of intentions, sow the seed that was in time to grow into the most fateful and far-reaching episode in the South African War - the introduction of the Concentration Camps. It is not the intention to dwell on this subject here, but it should be noted as another potent factor in the growing estrangement and antipathy between Hands-uppers and Bittereinders.
The National Scouts
The sanguinary war went on apace and Kitchener, in a vigorous move to dampen down further resistance, resorted to the severe Proclamation of August 1901 that threatened any Boer leaders still in the field after 15th September 1901 with perpetual banishment from South Africa, while the ordinary burghers were to be held liable for the upkeep of their families in the concentration camps. It was Kitchener's first and happily, last attempt to win the war by means of an official edict.
But September 15th came and went and the Boer commandos were still at large. It was now that the Hands-uppers initiated another fateful move. Viewing the continuing guerilla operations as hopeless and wanton folly, they approached the Commander-in-Chief with the offer to abandon their 'neutrality' and to fight on the British side with levies raised from their surrendered compatriots. The offer was readily accepted and immediate arrangements were made for the formation of units of what would be known as the NATIONAL SCOUTS in the Transvaal and the ORANGE RIVER COLONY VOLUNTEERS in the former Free State. (Hereafter they will be referred to generically as 'National Scouts'.)
The Scouts were raised mainly through the agency of two former Boer generals, (Andries) Cronje and Celliers - men who had fought right well in their day, but who were now convinced that further resistance was unavailing and must be brought to an end as swiftly as possible, even if this meant the drastic step of taking up arms against their own people. (Of course, it does not follow that those who joined the Scouts were invariably actuated by the same high motive.) Organized in 'wings' of 50-100 men, with British officers in overall command but with Boer officers acting under their orders, the Scouts signed on for six months at a time; remuneration was at first in the dubious form of loot-money, with extra 'gifts' for special services, but was after a few months placed on the sounder foundation of a regular pay scale, although the 'gifts' continued. In any event, the immediate reward was apparently not the only one that the Scouts were led to expect. Unofficially, it seems, it was suggested to them that they might look to a privileged position in the society that would emerge after the war, a prospect that, at the least, would appeal to those who feared by now the result of a Boer victory for themselves. Burghers were promised preference in the allotment of lands; officers were led to hope that they would hold high office in the new regime.
The Scouts perhaps were intended to serve a less directly military purpose; they might well have the effect of irrevocably maintaining the split that had developed in the Boer body politic during the war so far, and thus prevent the formation of a solid Afrikaner bloc after the war's end. By creating a body of men unequivocably attached to the British, and thus irremediably tainted in the eyes of their fighting compatriots and of the passive Hands-uppers, a schism might be opened in Boerdom that would play straight into the hands of the British section in South Africa. It is certain that the distinction was publicly drawn between collaborators and irreconcilables; in the concentration camps, separate sections were allotted to the families of National Scouts. When the camps were full, an exception was made in the case of Scouts' families, who were also treated differently in that they might bring their cattle with them; some separate camps, for Scouts and their families alone, were established (e.g. at Meintjeskop in Pretoria); and Scouts were employed as camp guards and general factotums.
The leaders, however, found it harder work than they had thought to recruit Scouts. By the war's end there were only some 2 000, but although the actual number of fighting Scouts was not large, the addition of guides, other scouts, transport riders and so on brought the total of Boers directly engaged in the British military effort to 4 500 - a not insignificant figure for the small nation involved.
Prominent Boers acted as the Scouts' commanders; Cronje and Celliers have already been mentioned, and we must add Vilonel and Piet de Wet, Christiaan's brother. The Scouts acted primarily as 'eyes' and raiders rather than as regular troops, but they nonetheless were engaged with their kin on several occasions, notably at Bothasberg, Yzerspruit and Boschmanskop, all in the early months of 1902.
As may be imagined, the belligerent Boers conceived a deadly hatred for these 'traitors' and threatened to shoot out of hand any who might fall into their clutches. One of them later gave a brief but graphic description of such an encounter:
In the P.O.W. Camps
'The base traitors were at one time our brothers in arms; they feasted with us out of one porringer; enjoyed success and bore misfortune with us; and now for gold they have turned against us. They are so hated for their perfidy that the blackest oaths of vengence are registered against them. They will never receive quarter ... Time will no more erase the black from their souls than it will the blue from the heavens ...
The other day (I heard of) a fight to the death with some National Scouts who had stolen out from the enemy to visit their wives or sweethearts ... The men of the 'wacht' ... followed their tracks and at sunrise four National Scouts were at bay in a deserted house. They knew the mortal nature of the quarrel and did not even offer to surrender. The besiegers directed their fire to windows and doors, and approached behind cover of a garden wall. The wretches responded to every challenge only with bullets. They did not seem to have the steady aim of conviction, but possessed all the determination of despair, and that calm courage which comes only when there is no hope and no escape. Even when the besiegers gained the walls of the house, the inmates showed no intention of surrendering. There were among them a father and two sons, and they kept up their fire even after the thatch had been lighted and the whole house was full of smoke. When the roof fell in, the wretches, stifled and scorched, plunged through the windows only to be riddled with bullets. Their bodies were left to be disposed of by their widows and relations and such friends as were indifferent to the stigma attaching to such an undertaking.'(15)
In the Bermudas, for example, the numbers that changed their status from prisoner to Hands-upper were such that they were domiciled on an island of their own; while, on St. Helena,(16) the 'swakkelinge' or verraaiers were ostracised and even assaulted by the irreconcilables, so that eventually they had to be placed in what their sterner brethren referred to derisively and contemptuously as the 'jamkamp' because its inmates were given jam with their bread. The impression got around that those who took the oath of loyalty would be given preference in the ultimate repatriation; and by June 1901 some 300 on this island had so sworn, to their compatriots' scorn. The irreconcilables now launched a paper war against these waverers, and also resorted to intimidation to prevent further desertions -- the ringleaders of the 'verraaiers' were threatened with violence, and some of the threats were carried out, the hut of the premier 'verraaier' being razed to the ground; whilst a large number of them had to be given refuge by the camp authorities to prevent further incidents. As they left the main camp with their few pitiful belongings they were heartily jeered and booed by those remaining behind. The camp was now rife with suspicion - irreconcilables were on the lookout for potential Verraaiers or Oorloopers, and every man viewed his brother somewhat askance. The Oorloopers who possessed the moral courage to move over to the Jamkamp in broad daylight would be mocked as they passed through the gates: but some of the loudest hisses came from those who planned to slip out surreptitiously that very night. Two friends would go to sleep in a hut six feet by six feet; but in the morning one would be found to have deserted during the night. One night, twelve men bedded down in their tent; in the morning there was a solitary survivor. In one rather pathetically amusing case, a small hut that the prisoner had been permitted to construct for his use, was carried away by natives, with the occupant crouching inside, while bully-beef tins and ribaldry rained down on it from his contemptuous fellow inmates. Irreconcilables would present themselves to the camp authorities as Oorloopers in the hope of finding out the names of those who were planning a change. Those in the Jamkamp vindictively disclosed to the authorities the little stratagems employed in the main camp to defeat the censorship and other regulations.
The enmity continued while the war lasted; and even peace brought no end to the mutual distrust and hostility. The prisoners were now naturally called upon to take the oath of loyalty to the Republics' new Sovereign; but even here differences arose between them concerning the wording of the oath. Some were for taking the oath in the form it was drafted, thereby 'recognising' (so it was argued) the annexation of the Republics before the treaty of Vereeniging, while others refused to do more than align themselves with the terms of that treaty. The former group, who had after all come through the war as loyal republicans without becoming Hands-uppers, were now belaboured by the extremists, who indeed seem to have been in the majority, and who made life so unpleasant for the others that at this late stage they were forced to betake themselves to the Jamkamp. The feelings of the extremists could hardly have been soothed by the sight of the inmates of the Jamkamp leaving the island on 26th June 1902, having been given the promised priority, with a band playing and the Union Jack waving high over them. Even such heroes as General Cronje and General Ben Viljoen were now the subject of their fellows' execration for having signed the 'annexation' oath. There was free talk of the captain being first to leave his sinking ship.
So the poison of mutual distrust, suspicion, aversion and bitterness ran its course among even those burghers who had stood loyally together in the camp to the bitter end. Men, who had endured privation and disappointment in their country's service, were now rounded upon because of a miserable scrap of paper.
The bitter end
The bitter end had come for the fighting Boers too. At Vereeniging in May 1902 the Volksvertegenwoordigers met in solemn assembly to decide their country's fate.
The story of their deliberations, pregnant with drama and pathos, has
often been told.(17) What concerns us here is the fact that it was eventually
decided to conclude peace on the very same grounds that the Hands-uppers
had for so long been advocating. A few extracts from the addresses made
at the meeting will show this quite clearly:
General Botha: It has been said that we must fight to the bitter end, but no one tells us where that bitter end is. Is it there, where everybody lies in his grave or is banished? If we act upon that view, we become the cause of the death of our people ... Then there are also some of our own people, who have taken up arms against us and, if matters go on as at present, there will shortly be more Afrikaners fighting against us than for us.So the very selfsame arguments that the Peace Committees had raised some eighteen months before, were now being advanced to justify the conclusion of terms with the British; being advanced, too, by the men who, in terms of Kitchener's Proclamations, were liable to perpetual banishment. But these Proclamations were now tacitly ignored. The British recognised, as the legitimate representatives of the Boers, the fighting men assembled at Vereeniging, while the Hands-uppers, some of whom at least had had the greater foresight and had acted for the same reasons as the speakers at Vereeniging, were relegated to the outer darkness. It was a cruel irony of fate.
General de la Rey: It is argued that we must fight to the bitter end ... It must be borne in mind that everything -- cattle, goods, money, man, woman and child - has been sacrificed. There are men and women who wear nothing more than plain skins on the naked body. Is this not the bitter end? Therefore I think that the time for negotiating has now arrived.
Schalk Burger: If I am convinced that by the continuance of the war we dig a grave for our people for ever and aye, can I then vote for the continuance of it? I say it is my holy duty to stop this struggle now that it has become hopeless, and not to allow one more man to be shot, and not to allow the innocent, helpless women and children to remain any longer in their misery in the plague-stricken Concentration Camps ... it is better to bow to a foreign flag and to save our people, than to continue and to allow our people to be entirely exterminated.
General Smuts: We are not here as an army, but as a people; we have not only a military question, but also a national matter to deal with. No one here represents his own commando. Everyone here represents the Afrikaner people, and not only that portion which is still in the field, but also those who are already under the sod and those who will live after we have gone. We represent, not only ourselves, but also the thousands who are dead and have made the last sacrifice for their people, the prisoners of war scattered all over the world, and the women and children who are dying by thousands in the Concentration Camps of the enemy; we represent the blood and the tears of an entire nation.
They all call upon us, from the prisoner of war camps, from the Concentration Camps, from the grave, from the field, and from the womb of the future, to decide wisely, and to avoid all measures which may lead to the decadence and extermination of the Afrikaner people ... Comrades: we decided to stand to the bitter end. Let us now, like men, admit that that end has come ...
After the war
The division within Afrikanerdom continued unabated after the war's end. 'Loyalist' businesses were boycotted; officials of the new governments were not recognised by Bittereinders if they had a Hands-upper background; Bittereinders and Hands-uppers vied for control of the compensation moneys promised in the Peace Treaty and a running debate, marked by increasing acrimony, took place between the two groups as each endeavoured to prove that its viewpoint had meant most for the nation in the end, the Bittereinders arguing that their prolonged resistance had been the means of procuring relatively lenient terms for the Colonial rebels, and the Hands-uppers retorting that the deaths taking place in the Concentration Camps while hostilities continued had far surpassed the number of rebel lives possibly saved.
But, while Hands-uppers as such and Bittereinders might in course of time reach some tolerable reconciliation of their differences, the National Scouts were beneath contempt and beyond redemption and perhaps beyond Christian forgiveness too. After drawing full pay for the month following the conclusion of peace, the units were disbanded, but the men were allowed to retain their ponies, bridles and saddles, and were provided by the authorities with oxen, waggons, tents and rations - concessions, made from the best of motives no doubt, but hardly likely to contribute to ameliorating the feelings of their Afrikaner brethren towards them. Public employment of various kinds, in lowly capacities in the post office, the public works departments and the railways, was found for them. Indeed, the great bulk of the Scouts had been bijwoners in civil life, and would now have found it impossible to return to their places on farms owned by Bittereinders or passive Hands-uppers. For this very reason a special attempt was made by the authorities to rehabilitate these unfortunate people. Land settlements were set up under the management of former (British) officers of the National Scouts, to accommodate bijwoner families. Provided with all necessary farming implements, they were allowed to lease their land, with the promise of ownership after thirty-one years, in return for the cession of 50% of their annual yield to the management. On this somewhat feudalistic basis, an oasis of loyalty to the new regime grew up in the midst of widespread sullen disaffection; but, sad to relate, the experiment was not a success, and collapsed a few years later.
That some haven was needed is borne out by the fact that the ex-Scouts often had to be provided with special protection by the authorities. Despite this, according to reports - for what they are worth - some twenty-two of them were shot dead within two months of peace.
Ostracism did not stop at secular level. The very doors of their Churches now seemed to be closed to them. It may seem strange that the chief opposition to former Hands-uppers after the war should come from the ministers of the Christian gospel; but the explanation may lie in the fact that the Church was the only Afrikaner institution that had survived the official surrender intact and, for this reason, it was the one medium through which Afrikaner society could give vent to its 'official' view on the conduct of the 'afvalliges'.
The war, with its holocaust of destruction in the material sphere, had
not left the spiritual sphere untouched. Division, alienation and bitter
aversion - all too common among the Boers as individuals - was not lacking
in the Church too, so much so that some ministers, who in all good faith
had sought to co-operate with the conqueror, were compelled to resign their
charges on account of the unrelenting hostility of the irreconcilables
within their congregations. The war over, the underlying hatred of the
'unfaithful brethren', largely impotent during hostilities, found a means
of revenge through spiritual humiliation. Hands-uppers who had remained
passive were, to be sure, regarded simply as weaklings who were deserving
of pity; but for the 'joiners' there could be no shadow of justification.
They had given support to the enemies of the people in the time of their
deepest adversity, and for treachery of this hue there could be no palliation:
'Zij schandvlekten met hun laagheid de
eervolle naam van Afrikaner of Boer ...
Zie, daar keeren wij ons in afgrijzen van ... '(18)
It was better, in short, as one of the irreconcilables put it, that the incurable wound be excised from the body of Afrikanerdom than that the whole body should be poisoned. The question(19) came up for official discussion at the Synod of the N.H. Kerk in 1903, and deeply-divided congregations sought the counsel of this highest body of the Church. The matter was referred to the Regskommissie, who submitted the following opinion in reply:
'Uwe Commissie is van oordeel, dat de Kerk het gedrag van personen, die ontrouw geweest zijn aan hunne Regeering en hun Volk in den jongsten oorlog, door het opnemen van wapenen, of anderzins den vijand hulp verleend hebben door woord of daad, als ernstige zonde beschouwt die zij niet onberisp kan laten voorbijgaan, omdat zoodanige handelwijze in strijd is met de plichten van een lid van eene Christelijke Kerk en Staat, en veel lijden, ellende, bitterheid en onvrede daardoor veroorzaakt is. Doch, aangezien er vrede verklaard is en het de roeping van die Kerk is, om de goede te bewerken, zoo beveelt uwe Commissie aan dat ter wille van het heil en den vrede onzer Kerk zoodanige personen ernstig vermaand moeten worden tot bekering en betering, opdat zij weer met vrijmoedigheid in de voorrechten mogen deelen van een lidmaat onzer Kerk ...'
This report was adopted by the Synod but the matter was by no means closed. As may be seen, the resolution was open to more than one interpretation and for the irreconcilables it was altogether too pusillanimous in its approach to, what they considered, a grave moral lapse. Punishment, they argued, was called for and, at the very least, the culprits must be denied the Nachtmaal until they had made public confession of their sin. The ex-Scouts, on the other hand, and even the passive Hands-uppers, refused to accept this censure by the Church of their past conduct. They demanded a special commission to meet them to discuss the matter and, when the debate ended in disagreement, the dissidents held a mass meeting at which they threatened to withdraw from the Church in a body unless their demands were met. These demands seem to have been rather far-reaching. The Church was called upon to repeal the offending resolution which dealt with 'een zuiwer politieke kwestie', to negative the eenzijdige verkiesing van kerkeraadsleden' in order to allow the Hands-upper members fair representation, and to announce the withdrawal of the resolution from the pulpits on three consecutive Sundays and in the news-papers.
Negotiations continued, but it seemed that the breach was irreparable and early in 1904, men began to leave the N.H. Kerk to form the so-called 'Scoutskerk'. By 1906 there were at least six congregations in existence - at Bethal, Ermelo, Heidelberg, Scheerpoort, Standerton and Zeerust.
The British section, for its part, was not averse to entering the dispute,
perhaps scenting good political pickings. Newspapers wrote articles on
the subject, looking wistfully perhaps to the coming split in Boer ranks
that would entrench the dominance of British South Africa. ('Thank God
the schism in the Boer Church has been effected, and the situation saved.')
Even the Lieutenant- Governor of the Transvaal entered the lists. At the
end of 1902 he had appointed two ex-ministers, Ds. J. N. Vlok and H. E.
du Plessis, both 'sympathisers' during the war, to the spiritual charge
of the labour colonies at Standerton and Potchefstroom and, when this was
queried by the unfriendly Synod, he replied that
'. . . there was general adoption by the Ministers of your Church of the attitude that a political difference was to be construed as a moral offence and that the so-called offenders in this respect should be ostracised by their neighbours, and denied the sacraments of the Church. It was not unnatural that under these circumstances an appeal to the Government was made by those who on account of political differences had been made to suffer exclusion. It was in answer to this appeal for some means of spiritual ministration that Messrs Vlok and Du Plessis were invited to come and minister to the spiritual needs of the Land Settlements where a considerable number of National Scouts was located. It was impossible at that time to ignore such an appeal.'The Government went further. Not stopping at moral support, it also gave material aid towards the building of the dissident churches. In reply to further protests by the Church, the Lt-Governor pointed out that he regarded the famous resolution as unwise, and hoped that it would be withdrawn; to which the Church had the last obdurate word, remarking that
'... wij blijven volharden in onze overtuiging, dat Uwe Excellentie, evenmin als eenig rechtgeaarde mensch, de handelwijze der National Scouts in den oorlog, beoordeeld naar de wet van God of der menschen, kan goedkeuren.'Whatever might be the feelings aroused towards the Hands-uppers in the economic, social and even religious spheres, it was urgently necessary that the defeated Boer nation be welded together again to present a united front in the political arena. Here too there were the irreconcilables. Ben Viljoen declaimed against 'these wretched men ... without sense of shame ... O day of judgment! the Afrikaner nation will yet avenge your treachery!'; whilst others declined to accept the renegades back even as voting cattle. If the price of victory at the polls were to to be reconciliation with such moral abomination, then the price was too high, and it were better that the Afrikaners continue as a helot race.
And so it bade fair to continue, with every man's hand against the Hands-uppers. But above these seething and ignoble passions was to rise the towering figure of Louis Botha. In a parting address to his staff at the war's end he referred to the great work that now awaited them all - the building up of a nation; and now, almost alone it seemed, he set about the task of binding up the wounds of the crippled Afrikaner people. The 'Conciliation' between Boer and Britain, that was to be a hallmark of the Botha-Smuts policy in the early days of this century, began as reconciliation between Boer and Boer. The Hands-uppers, even the National Scouts - neglected by the government to which they had given their early allegiance, ignored by the British section of the population and cast off and despised by their own people - found the hand of friendship extended to them by the last Commandant-General of the South African Republic. Botha urged that they be treated exactly like blind sheep - an old Boer remedy had been to paint the animals' eyes with caustic fluid - and that when, after due penance, they saw the light, they should be forgiven and welcomed back to the fold. It is significant that the recruiting committees of the new Afrikaner political party, Het Volk, were sometimes composed of like numbers of Bittereinders, ex-prisoners of war and Hands-uppers. Among his weighty achievements, this healing of the divisions in post-war Afrikanerdom must rank as one of Botha's finest.(20)
Nothing, perhaps, illumines better the character of this great South African - who had voted against the war in 1899 but who had gone on to become its most brilliant general - than his treatment of the National Scouts. If there appeared to be one insurmountable stumbling block to Boer reconciliation it was these hapless people. As luck would have it, Boer spies had managed to lay their hands on a complete list of all those Boers who had enlisted in the British service. Soon after the war ended, Botha called for this list in order to discuss its contents with De Wet and De la Rey. Many leaders might have taken advantage of the chance the list gave them for revenge on those who had stabbed Afrikanerdom in the back; but the inherent nobility of Botha and his compatriots rose above such thoughts. For the good of the progeny of the Scouts, if for no other reason, they decided that this dark memory should be erased from the mind of the fledgling South African nation, and the list destroyed. Botha might have been echoing the words of that great American whom he so much resembled:
'We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angles of our nature.'(21)
1. The proclamations are given in J. C. Otto, Die Konsentrasiekampe (Cape
Town 1954) chs. I and II.
2. Hancock & Van der Poel, Selections from the Smuts Papers (Cambridge, 1966) Vol. I, p.548.
3. Capt. L. March Phillipps, With Rimingtan (London, 1901), p.201 (quoted in Otto, op. cit., p.23).
4. Otto, op. cit., p.26.
5. Hancock etc., op. cit., p. 469.
6. Otto, op. cit., p.20.
7. See the discussion in J. Albert Coetzee, Nasieskap en politieke groepering, (Pretoria, 1969), Part IV.
8. G. H. le May, British supremacy in South Africa 1899-1907, (Oxford, 1965), p. 85.
10. The account that follows is taken from Johan Schoeman, Generaal Hendrik Schoeman - was hy 'n verraaier?, (Pretoria, 1950).
11. Hancock etc., op. cit., p.576.
12. The following account is taken from J. H. Brink, Oorlog en ballingskap, (Cape Town, 1941), ch. VII. Cf. Ben Viljoen, My reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War, (London, 1903), ch. 38.
13. Ben Viljoen, op. cit., p.204.
14. The following account and quotations are from Cd. 903, Further correspondenee relating to affairs in South Africa, (HMSO, 1902).
15. R. W. Schikkerling, Commando Courageous, (Johannesburg, 1964), p.376.
16. The account that follows is based on P. J. Nienaber, Boere op St. Helena (die oorlogsdagboek van H. de Graaf), (Cape Town, 1950). Cf. also De Wet Annale no.1, (Pretoria, 1972).
17. Notably in Kestell and Van Velden, The peace negotiations between Boer and Briton in South Africa, (London, 1912), from which the following extracts are taken.
18. Ben Bouwer jnr. in De Volkstem 20.5.1903; quoted in Oberholster below.
19. The following account is based on J. A. S. Oberholster, Die Gereformeerde Kerke onder die Kruie in Suid-Afrika, (Pretoria, 1956), ch. VIII.
20. Le May, op. cit., p.173.
21. Lincoln's First Inaugural Address.
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