Speeches

Commando

by Trevor Emslie

In his poem Little Gidding, T S Eliot said the following: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

So let me begin, as it were, at the end. Deneys Reitz wrote the original journal – from which Commando was in the late 1920s, when he was a Member of Parliament in opposition, extracted and re-written in English – in Madagascar in 1903, after the end of the Anglo-Boer War.

At the end of the war, Deneys’s father, F W Reitz, who had been Secretary of State of the Transvaal Republic, and before that Chief Justice and then President of the Orange Free State Republic, signed the Peace Treaty in his official capacity, but refused to sign an undertaking to abide by the peace terms in his personal capacity. Of this Deneys, who was with his father at the time, having accompanied General Smuts to the peace talks at Vereeniging, says:

“I had no very strong convictions on the subject, but I had to stand by him, so I also refused to sign, and was told that I would be put across the border, which troubled me little, as I was eager to see more of the world.”

They were given two weeks to wind up their affairs in Pretoria, although they were unable even to enter their own house, which was occupied by a British officer and had sentries posted outside. Then they were obliged to leave the country.

Commando ends as follows:

“As we were waiting on the border at Komati Poort, before passing into Portuguese territory, my father wrote on a piece of paper a verse which he gave me.

It ran:

South Africa

Whatever foreign shores my feet must tread,

My hopes for thee are not yet dead.

Thy freedom’s sun may for awhile be set,

But not for ever, God does not forget.

And he said that until liberty came to his country he would notreturn.

He is now in America and my brother and I are under the French Flag in Madagascar.

We have heard of my other two brothers. The eldest has reached Holland from his prison camp in India, and the other is still in Bermuda awaiting release.

Maritz and Robert de Kersauson are with us in Madagascar. We have been on an expedition far down into the Sakalave country, to see whether we could settle there.

General Gallieni provided us with riding-mules and a contingent of Senegalese soldiers, as those parts are still in a state of unrest. It was like going to war again, but all went quietly, and we saw much that was of interest – lakes and forests, swamps teeming with crocodiles, and great open plains grazed by herds of wild cattle. But for all its beauty the island repels one in some intangible manner, and in the end we shall not stay.

At present we are eking out a living convoying goods by ox-transport between Mahatsara on the East Coast and Antananarive, hard work in dank fever-stricken forests, and across mountains sodden with eternal rain; and in my spare time I have written this book.”

While he was in Madagascar, Deneys Reitz received a letter from General Smuts’s wife in which she said that her husband, together with Generals Botha and Hertzog and other Boer leaders, were at work rebuilding their country from the ruins of war, and that if South Africa under British rule was good enough for them, it was good enough for him.

Stricken with malaria, this letter turned his thoughts strongly homeward, and after an adventurous trip home he managed to make his way back to Pretoria.  He says the following in his second book, Trekking On:

“I reached Pretoria at sunrise with a fresh bout of fever upon me, which left me so weak that I had only strength to crawl to the Burgher Park, where I lay in a stupor for some hours. Later on I found myself back on the platform of the railway station with a knot of people gathered around me. Then a man recognised me. He must have set to work at once, for soon a Cape cart drove up, into which I was lifted, and I woke to find myself in bed, in the home of my former chief, General Smuts.

In No Outspan he says:

“For the next three years he and Mrs Smuts kept me in their own home and for their help and understanding in those dark days I have not sufficient words of gratitude.”

He continues in Trekking On:

“For nearly three years General Smuts and his wife kept me by them, nursing me back to health of mind and body. During that time I slowly shook free of malaria, and entered an office to study law. Our family seemed in a bad way. My father lay ill far off in America, and his wife and seven small children were in straitened circumstances. My eldest brother, Hjalmar, having returned from his prison, was now in Holland, struggling in poverty to complete his studies, and my brother Joubert was on a fever-stricken plantation on the west coast of Madagascar. My younger brother Arend had after many vicissitudes reached Table Bay, where he was working as a dock hand. Thus, in common with thousands of others, we experienced the aftermath of war.”

Small wonder that he was a follower of Smuts for the rest of his life.

Finally, as far as “the end” is concerned, he states:

“In 1908 I convinced General Smuts that I could at last fend for myself again, so I said goodbye to him and to his wife, the two people to whom I owe most in the world, and with a few law books and the political idealisms which he and General Botha had taught me for my chief possessions, I set out to earn a living.”

Deneys Reitz went on to become the commander of a Scottish regiment in the First World War; then he became a cabinet minister, first under Botha, and later under Smuts; he was Deputy-Prime Minister during the Second World War; and when he died in London he was South Africa’s High Commissioner in London. His father became President of the Union Senate after 1910; soon after he came home from the First World War, Deneys married Leila Wright, who became South Africa’s first woman Member of Parliament and a leading campaigner for women’s rights; and thus the Reitz family returned to political prominence, rising from the aftermath of war as the phoenix from the ashes.

I referred a moment ago to Deneys Reitz’s return to Pretoria, where he fainted from malarial fever and woke in bed in the home of General and Mrs Smuts on their farm at Irene, outside Pretoria.

What to me is remarkable about this episode is that, contained in his knapsack, was the original Dutch manuscript from which Commando was eventually written and published. How fortunate we are that it did not get lost along the way, as might so easily have happened.

What is also remarkable is the fact that Deneys Reitz was not only an incredibly fearless, brave and daredevil fighter on commando, one who seemed to court danger, yet survived against all the odds, but that he was also a gifted writer who was able to write about his experiences so wonderfully and so skilfully. For, in my opinion, Commando is an incredibly skilfully written book. The skill lies in its apparent simplicity and in its understatement. As many who have tried will know, it is very difficult to write with such compelling simplicity that the reader is spurred on and finds it difficult to put down a book that reads more like an adventure story than a catalogue of war.

No only does he write so well, but his eye seems to have taken in more than one would expect from the average seventeen-year-old school-leaver. For Deneys was seventeen when he went on commando, four months after having matriculated at Grey College in Bloemfontein in June 1899. He was officially too young to go to war, but President Kruger personally arranged for Commandant-General Joubert to issue Reitz with a mauser rifle – the very one we have here today – because, as he said, “I started fighting when I was younger than that”.

What Kruger in fact said to Deneys Reitz was the following:

“Piet Joubert says the English are three to one – Sal jij mij drie rooi-nekke lever?” (In English, will you deliver me three rooineks?)

A precocious young Deneys answered boldly: “President, if I get close enough, I’m good for three with one shot.”

If you read Commando, you will see that President Kruger got a good return on his investment in Deneys Reitz, who probably accounted for thirty times three rooinekke.

Be that as it may, Deneys was twenty-one years old when he wrote the Dutch original of Commando. He had not been to university, nor had he done a course in creative writing, such as is now offered at many universities. But he was well-schooled in literature, for he says of his upbringing in Bloemfontein that:

“Both my grandfather and my father had returned to South Africa with a deep love of Scotland and Scotch literature, and at our home scarcely a night passed without a reading from Burns or Scott, so that [when he was in Scotland with his family as a young boy] we felt as if we were among our own people.”

Thus it was that he writes of an incident after a skirmish in the Magaliesberg during the guerrilla phase of the war:

“On my way down the gorge I found two wounded officers beside the track, one with his thumb shot away and the other with a broken arm. As I came up I heard one of them remark: ‘Here comes a typical young Boer for you,’ and they asked me whether I understood English. I told them ‘Yes’, and the man with the thumb said: ‘Then will you tell me why you fellows are continuing the war, because you are bound to lose?’ I replied: ‘Oh, well, you see, we’re like Mr Micawber, we are waiting for something to turn up.’ They burst out laughing and the one said: ‘Didn’t I tell you this is a funny country, and now here’s your typical young Boer quoting Dickens.’

Thomas Packenham, in an introduction to an earlier edition of Commando, which he said had sold more copies that all other books on the Anglo-Boer War put together, said the following:

“Reitz had the uncanny knack of living through the war as though leafing through the pages of an adventure story.”

We can add that he also had an uncanny recall, and the uncanny knack of writing about his experiences as though he were telling an adventure story with amazing skill.

One might ask what the differences are between Commando and the original journal, apart from the language in which they were written. Michael Reitz, Deneys’s grandson, who is busy with a translation of the original journal, said the following in an introduction to a recent re-publication of an Afrikaans version of Commando:

“Both Commando and Reitz’s original journal show little ill-will towards the British soldier, but the journal contains a number of stinging comments on the suffering and destruction caused by the war. These remarks are always subsidiary to the main narrative, but they contain a note of angry contempt and were omitted from the text of Commando. When the manuscript of Commando was prepared, the author was a Member of Parliament and former cabinet minister. While wanting to give a true account of his experiences during the war and of the nature and courage of the men beside whom he fought, he would have seen no purpose in reviving recent hurts.”

The fact that Deneys was the son of the Transvaal State Secretary did, on occasion, present him with special incidents to relate, such as when – in Pretoria for a few days to give evidence at a trial – he came across Winston Churchill in the company of his father. Churchill, who was a prisoner in Pretoria, asked Reitz senior to read some articles he had written and, if there was nothing wrong with them, to send them on to the newspaper for which he was a war correspondent. At home that night Reitz senior pronounced the prisoner to be a clever young man, and Deneys – writing in 1903 – declared that this was not far off the mark in the light of Churchill’s subsequent escape. Of course they met several times in later years, when both had become prominent politicians, but this was written when Reitz was a twenty-one year old in exile and could have had no inkling of what lay ahead.

In his third book, No Outspan, Reitz does however relate the following incident in 1935:

“We attended the House of Commons and we were taken to a hundred and one places of interest. I was twice summoned to Buckingham Palace and twice I donned a top hat and a morning coat, in which unaccustomed garb I had audience of His Majesty King George V.

He told me he kept both my books [Commando and Trekking On] at his bedside in Windsor Castle and he offered to confer on me the Distinguished Service Order. I was unable to accept this owing to a law the Nationalist Government had passed in 1926 prohibiting Union subjects from receiving decorations. I saw the Prince of Wales at St James’s Palace once or twice. He seemed more highly-strung than ever and I little dreamed that, in a measure, I was to sit in judgment on him in time to come.”

By virtue of his parentage, Deneys grew up at the centre of the affairs of both Boer republics. Moreover, his father’s sister was married to W P Schreiner, who was Prime Minister of the Cape Colony during the first part of the war and was the brother of the renowned writer, Olive Schreiner, who was ardently pro-Boer and was placed under house arrest by the British in Hanover in the Karoo. F W Reitz himself was an early writer of popular Afrikaans poetry and, as already mentioned, there was an enjoyment and an appreciation of literature in the family home.

Part of Commando’s charm, if that is the right word, is the fact that it is written so entirely without rancour. Early in the book, Deneys writes:

“Looking back, I think that war was inevitable. I have no doubt that the British Government had made up its mind to force the issue, and was the chief culprit, but the Transvalers were also spoiling for a fight, and, from what I saw in Pretoria during the few weeks that preceded the ultimatum, I feel sure that the Boers would in any case have insisted on a rupture.

I myself had no hatred of the British people; from my father’s side I come of Dutch and French Huguenot blood, whilst my mother (dead for many years) was a pure-bred Norwegian from the North Cape, so one race was much like another to me. Yet, as a South African, one had to fight for one’s country, and for the rest I did not concern myself overmuch with the merits and demerits of the quarrel. I looked on the prospect of war and adventure with the eyes of youth, seeing only the glamour, but knowing nothing of the horror and the misery.”

While Commando deals in the main with the hardships and adventures of the young Reitz, he adverts skilfully and unobtrusively to the tragic quality of the war. He describes the scene in Natal on the morning after war had been declared:

“As far as the eye could see the plain was alive with horsemen, guns and cattle, all steadily going forward to the frontier. The scene was a stirring one, and I shall never forget riding to war with that great host.”

But he adds:

“It has all ended in disaster, and I am writing this in a strange country, but the memory of those first days will ever remain.”

Describing events a little later in the Natal campaign, he writes:

“I joined Isaac Malherbe and others sitting round the fires cooking their supper, and, watching the light fade away over the distant Darkensbergen, I chatted for a quiet hour with men who were mostly dead next morning.”

His tone is almost nonchalant, but the tragedy of war was certainly not lost on him. He refers in passing to the herding of Boer women and children into concentration camps, and states that this, the burning of farmsteads and the killing of livestock, only stiffened the resolve of the fighting men to continue the guerrilla phase of the war. But the pace of the action carries the reader past that aspect of the war, and it is mostly on reflection that the extent of the destruction becomes manifest.

Probably the most riveting story in Commando is Reitz’s account of his chance meeting with Smuts’s commando, and their incursion into the Cape Colony in the dead of winter, harried by British troops trying to head them off and stop them in their tracks. Reitz himself was at one stage wearing only a gain bag with holes made for his arms, and leather sandals, his clothes having rotted away, and they trekked for days and nights on end, without sleep, through freezing rain, across the mountains of the eastern Cape, until, at their last gasp, they managed to overpower a group of the 17th Lancers and thereby obtained fresh weapons, ammunition, food, horses and clothes, and were able to continue their journey into the Cape Province to within sight of Port Elizabeth, and thence to the north-west Cape, which they controlled virtually unopposed by the end of the war.

During this incursion, Reitz at one stage became separated from his comrades, had his horse shot from under him, and made a run for it under fire from British troops. Through great skill and great good luck, reminiscent of the escape of Rob Roy from the English (for those who have seen the film Rob Roy), he managed to hide in a rivulet until dark, and limped away on foot, alone, into the night. He writes of this as follows:

“I felt proud of my successful ruse, but there was little else pleasant to contemplate. I lay in the bracken like a hunted rabbit; my foot throbbed painfully; my companions were gone, and so was the commando; my horse was dead and my saddle and belongings were in the hands of the enemy.

As thinking did not mend matters, I rose at length, and limped off in the dark.

After about an hour, I heard the sound of a hymn and the wheeze of a harmonium, such as stands in almost every Dutch farmhouse, and knew that I was nearing friends. When I knocked at the door there was a hush at first, for in these disturbed times a visit late at night mean military requisition, but then I heard a shuffle of feet and the door opened.

A whole family was peering from within. When I told them who I was, they almost dragged me into the house, so eager were they to help. I must have looked very dishevelled, for the women wept with pity while removing the boot from my sore foot, and during the more painful process of extracting a thorn, nearly an inch long, that had run into the palm of my hand when I was thrown from my horse that afternoon. They fetched hot water and tore up clean linen for bandages; a meal was laid, with coffee, and the kindly people almost quarrelled for the right to serve me, so keen was their sympathy, although they knew that it might mean for them fines and imprisonment. Having attended to my wants, they took further counsel. It was agreed that I could not remain here, for even if the continuous patrols did not ferret me out for themselves, my presence was certain to be reported by the coloured farm labourers, who all over the Cape sided with the British. As I assured them that I was well able to walk, it was decided that I must continue westward on the off chance of coming up with General Smuts, who might be held up somewhere. It seemed a forlorn hope, but as there was the risk of an enemy detachment coming by at any moment, I made ready to start as soon as my boot had been sufficiently repaired.

The head of the family, a patriarch of seventy, insisted on acting as my guide during the first stage of the journey and firmly refused to waive the right in favour of his sons, who offered themselves. A grain-bag was packed with food, and after an affecting leave-taking, the old man and I set out. We trudged along, hour after hour, until his strength gave out and I made him turn back, his voice shaking with emotion as he wished me God-speed.”

As luck would have it, he met up with his companions lying asleep in a kloof before dawn, having recognised the hoof marks of one of their horses in the moonlight, and was able to continue with them on foot.

At different times of the war, Reitz encountered or served under Generals Botha, de la Rey, de Wet, Hertzog and Smuts, amongst many others.

Koos de la Rey is widely regarded, together with Christian de Wet, as the greatest guerrilla leader of them all, and Reitz relates the following incident:

“By this time my clothes had fallen from my body, owing to the rains, and my entire wardrobe consisted of a blanket and a pair of sandals, so that, as it was towards the end of March by now, with winter coming on, I felt the cold pretty severely. General de la Rey had noticed my scanty attire, and one morning he walked over to our wagon with a pair of breeches and a coat, a gift I much appreciated, for he could have been none too well supplied himself, but it was of a piece with his natural kindliness and consideration towards all.”

Decades after the war, Deneys Reitz received a letter from Christian de Wet requesting Reitz to visit him. Reitz was a Cabinet Minister in the Smuts government, de Wet a Nationalist, and they had opposed one another during the 1914 Rebellion occasioned by South Africa’s decision to enter the First World War on the side of the allies. De Wet was captured, arrested and convicted of treason, but sent on parole to his farm in the Free State. Reitz writes of this encounter in Trekking On as follows:

“I was shocked at his appearance. Instead of the square virile figure I had known, there stood before me a haggard, shrunken man. His beard was ungroomed, his laces dragged on the ground and his clothes hung loosely on an emaciated body. His hands were swollen with some disease and he tottered in his gait as he came to greet me. I placed him in a chair and asked why he had summoned me, but he was unable to say. He sat with his hands pressed against his forehead trying vainly to remember and I had to go off with the question unsolved.

I like to think that knowing his end to be near, in his darkened mind had come the wish to say a last word for remembrance and friendship before he trod the common road. He died shortly after and we decreed him a State funeral. He is buried at the foot of the National Monument at Bloemfontein.”

Thus fierce loyalties were forged during the Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, and there is no finer account of hardship, loyalty, love of horses, commando campfires and comradeship than is to be found in Commando.

But Deneys Reitz had no part in the leadership and the strategy of the war. His tale is one of the immediacy of commando life, the hiss of bullets, ambush, and desperate escape in the company of brave and determined men. It is a personal story of danger, survival and guerrilla war.

In his introduction to Commando, General Smuts says inter alia the following:

“Colonel Reitz entered the war as a stripling of seventeen years, fought right through it to the end, and immediately after its conclusion wrote down these memories. Of military adventures there is of course full measure. He passed through as varied a record of exciting adventures as have ever fallen to the lot of a young man. Indeed much of what is written in this book with such boyish simplicity may appear to the reader well-nigh incredible. But it is a true story, and the facts are often understated rather than exaggerated. The exciting incidents, the hairbreadth escapes, the daredevilry are literally true, and the dangers he passed through and courted are such as to make his unvarnished record read like one of pure romance.”

He adds:

“This book is a romance of truth; but behind it is a greater personal romance, and behind that again is the even more wonderful romance of South Africa, to whom much should be forgiven for the splendour of her record during a period as difficult as any young nation has ever passed through.”

After Reitz’s death in London in 1944, General Smuts paid tribute to him as follows:

“The passing of Reitz comes as a shattering blow to me. His loss is a national one and will be mourned all over this country which he knew and loved as no other. In him passes one of the greatest South Africans of our generation and he leaves a record of achievement of which South Africa will remain justly proud. But, above all, I remember him as a dear friend and a comrade, the faithful companion through vicissitudes such as few have passed through. He was true, straight, upright, every inch of him, and he leaves a personal memory which I shall treasure all my days.”

Reitz literally saved Smuts’s life during one particular episode during their incursion into the Cape, and these heartfelt remarks of one whose life was saved by a young comrade on commando echo Reitz’s own that General and Mrs Smuts were the two people to whom he owed most in the world.

Let me end at the beginning of Commando.

In the preliminary pages of the book, Reitz gives the following inscription: “A lamentable tale of things done long ago – and ill done”. The book, which was first published by Faber & Faber in London in 1929, and was a huge success in the midst of the Great Depression, bears the following inscription: “This book is dedicated to my father Francis William Reitz, the only living President of the Old South African Republics.”

There then follows some Latin:  “Victrix causa / Diis placuit / Sed victa Catoni.” I don’t know if there are any Latin scholars in our midst, but my classical skills were utterly unequal to the task of attributing anything meaningful to this small piece of Latin verse. I consulted a colleague at the Bar who had done an honours degree in Latin, and he too was baffled. How then can the ordinary reader be expected to attach any significance to these words?

Eventually my friend Jane Watson, who did Latin for matric about six years ago, consulted her extra-mural teacher, Ray Suttle – Herschel, like many another secondary school, gave up teaching Latin many years ago – and he gave the following explanation:

“This is a line of poetry which Deneys Reitz, a learned man, has quoted from the Roman poet Lucan, who lived from AD 39 to AD 65. The poem is called Pharsalia and is about the civil war fought between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. In it Lucan portrays Caesar as a bloodthirsty ogre, Pompey as a pure patriot, and Cato as the abstract ideal of virtue.

As Reitz was himself involved in a civil war, it is an appropriate source for quotation.

The line from Book I:128 means: ‘If the victor had the gods on his side, the vanquished had Cato [or morality] on his’.”

I know that Paul Murray has spoken to you about Stormwrack, Leipoldt’s Anglo-Boer War historical novel. We worked on Stormwrack together. In Stormwrack, the main characters are critical of the Boers who adventured into the western Cape and persuaded Colonial youngsters into rebellion, knowing that Cape Rebels could be executed for treason, whereas the Transvalers and Freestaters could not as they were not Cape subjects. Leipoldt was, of course, a well-known contrarian, and has been referred to as the apostle of the opposite view. Deneys Reitz makes it clear that the help they received from the Cape Dutch was given spontaneously and willingly, and that there was no need to force the locals into Rebellion. He tells in Commando of how he tried to persuade one of his comrades, Jacobus Bosman, not to enter the Cape for precisely this reason. Deneys writes about this as follows:

“When we told him that we were going to the Cape he said he would come too. As he was one of the Cape rebels who had joined the Boers during their temporary occupation of Colesberg in the beginning of the war, I advised him to stay where he was, for if he were captured on British territory, it would go hard with him. He said he would take the risk, so we enlisted him, but my warning was justified, for he was taken and hanged, as will be seen later on.”

However that may be, even Leipoldt’s characters agree that martial law, or Martjie Louw, declared by the British, was the most effective source of recruitment of Cape Rebels.

It is not my intention to juxtapose Stormwrack and Commando, but I do think that the following should be borne in mind. Stormwrack was written in the early 1930s, when Leipoldt was in his fifties, whereas the original from which Commando was extracted was written in 1903. If one wants to compare the attitudes implicit in Leipoldt’s and Deneys Reitz’s writing, one should read Leipoldt’s contemporaneous poems, such as Vrede-aand and Oom Gert Vertel. When one does this, Leipoldt’s views are probably more strident than those of Reitz; and it can be observed that both would probably have been classed as “Hans-khakis” by the 1930s when they had probably both tired of those who were still beating the Anglo-Boer War drum for political advantage in the SAP versus Nat political warfare.

As I have encountered from veterans of the Second World War, including my late father, Denis, old soldiers often prefer not to speak about the war, and are mostly mindful – as both Reitz and Leipoldt undoubtedly were – of the utter tragedy and calamity that is war.

Yet nearly 110 years after the event, with the passage of time that – as Leipoldt remarks in Stormwrack – does not always heal the scars of civil war, it is nevertheless riveting to read Commando, the account of one who was there, present in the heat of battle, and who was able to write about his hardships, dangers and adventures as no other has ever been able to do.

Commando is truly precious Africana, and its author is a South African of whom we can all be justly proud.

(c) Copyright of Trevor Emslie