Friday, January 10, 2014

Koos de la Rey and the Boer War: South Africa 1899-1903
 Boer General Koos De La Re
Mike Scruggs

In 1652, the Dutch East India Company began settlement of an area near the Southern tip of Africa, the present site of Cape Town.   South Africa was very sparsely settled before the Dutch came, peopled only by small, scattered tribes of Khosian speaking Bushmen.  Desiring to populate and profit from their new colony, the Dutch government began to offer free passage and incentives to attract more settlers. In this new wave of immigration, the Dutch were joined by many French Huguenots, Germans, and some Swiss. Later they would be joined by a smaller contingent of Scots.

  What most of these new settlers had in common were strong Calvinist religion and a  desire for freedom.    These Boers (Boer is the Dutch word for farmer), especially after the British takeover of the Cape during the Napoleonic Wars, began migrating into the interior frontier. After 1836, this mass-migration to the frontier and away from British rule became known as the “Great Trek.”  The Boers developed into a distinct nation and spoke a highly differentiated dialect of Dutch, which they called Afrikaans.

Their strong Calvinist faith and frontier experience developed in the Boers an independent and nationalist spirit highly skeptical of centralized, bureaucratic government, whether Dutch or British.  Two Afrikaaner Republics developed from these frontier people, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.  The Afrikaaners considered themselves a distinct people and were ready to defend their republics against any threat, whether from the Bantu, who had been migrating into the republics from the North, or from the British.

The Boer Republics, however, were a threat to British ambitions and dominance in South Africa.  In 1877 the British were able to annex the two nearly bankrupt republics, which were at least temporarily helpless to resist.  In 1880, however, the Boers rose in rebellion and achieved a remarkable military victory over the British at Majuba Hill.  A newly elected, Liberal government in Britain granted the two Afrikaaner Republics a limited, but acceptable independence.  The British tolerance of two Afrikaaner Republics was not to last long, however.  In 1887 gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand.  Thousands of foreigners, mostly English, immigrated into the Transvaal.  This was allowed by the Transvaal due to lack of its own resources to develop the gold mining industry.

 Within a few years of this new shock of immigration the European population of the Transvaal was roughly 50% British.  Not willing for their hard-won independence to be undermined and the Transvaal Republic to revert to British control because of this mighty wave of English immigrants, the Boers denied political franchise to these newcomers.  The Orange Free State recognizing that their existence was also threatened allied themselves with their sister republic.

The immigrant (“uitlander” in Afrikaans) franchise issue provided the British with a “righteous” excuse to undermine the two Afrikaaner Republics. When Cecil Rhodes became the Governor of the Cape Colony in 1890, the British began to agitate on the franchise issue in the Boer Republics and to undermine them at every opportunity. This culminated in a conspiracy in 1896 by Rhodes and Dr. Leander Starr Jameson for a Rhodes financed cavalry force to ride into the Transvaal with 500 men and stir an “uitlander” revolt against the Boer government in the Transvaal.   The conspiracy was, however, not tightly held, and the invading force, which was composed predominantly of Rhodesian policemen, was met by the Boers and quickly defeated and captured.  This was a considerable embarrassment for the Empire. Relations were thereafter very tense. In 1899 the British issued an ultimatum demanding the Transvaal repeal all legislation restricting the rights of foreigners and that they cease importing weapons from Germany. The Boers demanded that the British remove the high concentration of troops on their borders. The Boers, realizing a British invasion was immanent, preempted the initiative.   As the Boers were advancing to their preemptive attack on the British at Mafeking, a cavalry detachment led by Koos de la Rey intercepted a British armored train headed to that city.  De la Rey’s cavalry captured its cargo of guns, munitions, and supplies, and tore up the tracks in its front. Neither de la Rey nor most of the Boers wanted war, but war it would be from 1899 to 1902.

Besides the demand for English political franchise in the Transvaal Republic, the British fought for mine owners and mining interests, tax revenues, and avenging the humiliation of Majuba, but ultimately and most importantly their motive was the growth, dominance, and stability of the British Empire.  The Afrikaaners simply fought for independence, the right of self-determination.  The British military strategy was to overwhelm the Afrikaaners with vast numbers of well-equipped and well-supplied troops and to devastate the Afrikaaner economy with a scorched earth policy designed to undermine civilian as well as military support for the war. The British employed not only a vast number of troops (448,000 by 1902), but some of their best trained and most highly esteemed and decorated regiments, such as the Gordon Highlanders. Churchill, who was a news correspondent in South Africa during the war, called the Gordons “the best regiment in the British Army, probably the best regiment that ever was.”  Also involved were an impressive array of other elite Scottish regiments: The Black Watch, the Royal Scots (senior regiment of the British Army), the Argylls, the Grey’s (elite cavalry distinguished at Waterloo), the Seaforths, etc.  The British also made considerable use of Irish, Australian, and Canadian regiments.  The number of British troops involved was almost equal to the total Boer population of the two republics.

Against some of the most elite troops of the British Empire and outnumbered more than five to one, rode almost every Boer man from 16 to 60 and over that could mount a horse and fire a weapon. Despite their overwhelming advantage in numbers and equipment, the British also followed a deliberate policy of economic warfare against the civilian population, killing livestock, burning crops, barns, etc. and interned many civilians as well as POW’s in concentration camps.  The Boer strategy was to make things so painful and frustrating to the British that they would quit the field.  In this hope they had the encouragement that not all in Britain and the British Parliament supported the war.

Although the British were ultimately victorious with many of their regiments distinguishing themselves for valor, they paid an appalling price, more than 21,000 dead from all causes.  The Boers, outnumbered better than five to one, gave such an astonishing and formidable account of themselves in tactics, dogged determination, ingenuity, loyalty, endurance, courage, leadership, and Christian nobility that they should rank among history’s most admired even if defeated defenders of liberty.  The Boers lost about 4,000 men in combat, but the total number of deaths has never been accurately determined.  Very probably the Boers inflicted military casualties against the British in a ratio of about two to one despite being considerably outnumbered and less well supplied.  The Boers, however, suffered indirectly a great many civilian casualties during the war due to the British scorched earth policy and the British use of concentration camps.  The British had no motive but confinement for these camps and no intent to inflict casualties, but nevertheless, according to Afrikaaner sources, approximately 20-25,000 people including about 3,000 blacks perished in the camps due to unsanitary conditions, sickness, inadequate diet, exposure, and limited medical care.  More than 80% of the total were children.  The death rate in the camps was greatly reduced toward the end of the war because of public protest in Britain and influential members of the Liberal Party.

In general, the Liberal MP’s in the British parliament were opposed to the war, while most of the so-called conservative Tories were persuaded to support it for Empire, gold, or the rationalized franchise issue.

Two of the Boer generals, Louis Botha and Jan Smuts (a favorite military personality of Churchill) would later serve with the British against the Germans in World War I and later become Prime Ministers of the Union of South Africa.  But one of the greatest of the Boer generals, Koos de la Rey deserves especially to be remembered for both his remarkable skill and leadership as a cavalry commander and the sterling nobility of his character.  He was Jacobus Herculaas (“Koos”) de la Rey.

  He had no formal military training.  He was a farmer and member of the Boer Parliament (Volksraad).  He possessed a remarkable combination of military and leadership talents and character that bring two of the most revered military figures in American history to mind: Nathan Bedford Forrest and Robert E. Lee. He was remarkably reminiscent of Forrest in the fierce determination, startling success, and brilliant tactics of his cavalry raids.  Like Lee, he demonstrated also to a remarkable degree the ability to command incredible and unwavering loyalty of the Boers by sheer nobility of character. Also like Lee, he projected a soft-spoken air of fatherly authority and wisdom. His Boer troops received neither pay nor regular supplies, but they were dedicated to their cause and confident of their leader.

De la Rey was a reluctant warrior.  He opposed war with the British until it was seen as inevitable and necessary to protect his country. In combat he was also reminiscent of the intensely religious Stonewall Jackson.  He was frequently heard encouraging his troops with “I fear God and nothing else” and “God is on our side.” Despite the British war on the Boer civilians, their concentration camps, and the death of a beloved son in combat, de la Rey insisted on treating captured British soldiers with a near sacrificial degree of civility.  The Boers did not have the material and additional food supplies to sustain prisoners, so after stripping them of weapons, ammunition, and valuable equipment, they simply released them following any medical treatment required.  Though fierce in combat, Koos was not a man of vengeance and would not allow a spirit of vengeance to prevail among his troops.  The Boers themselves knew that if they were captured, they would likely be sent to St. Helena or worse.  The chivalrous Koos de la Rey severely punished any mistreatment of British prisoners.

In March of 1902, de la Rey in a surprise cavalry attack on a British column, killed or wounded 189 British soldiers and captured another 600.  Among the wounded prisoners was his arch foe and nemesis, Lt. General, Lord Methuen. Methuen had burned de la Ray’s own farm, and his son, Adaan, had been mortally wounded by Methuen’s troops.  The British had shot some Boer officers in the past.  Many of de la Rey’s men called for Methuen to be shot.  But the deeply religious de la Rey treated his enemy with the respect he believed all Christian men deserved..  Methuen was sent under a flag of truce, accompanied by a doctor, to the nearest British medical station.  De la Rey even sent Methuen’s wife a message of sympathy, expressing concern for the seriousness of his wounds.

Despite their noble valor the Boers were eventually forced to surrender.  The British were able to inflict a significant military defeat on the Boers in the last month of the war, but the primary reason for surrender was to bring an end to civilian suffering.  Lack of supplies and food had also brought the Boer commando forces near the limit of physical endurance.  The British surrender terms offered to release all prisoners and grant amnesty to all belligerents.  The Boers agreed to and signed these terms in Pretoria on May 31, 1902.  While many in Britain cheered, many in the Transvaal and Orange Free State wept, including de la Rey, his wife, Nonnie, and their six surviving children.  Nonnie de la Rey asked in tears, “Why was all this bloodshed and suffering?   What was the purpose of it all.?”

Although the British won the war they suffered greatly in world public opinion and in their own soul-searching.  The Boers lost their independence only temporarily.  In 1906 and 1907 the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were again granted a limited independence.  A few years thereafter they became political divisions of the Union of South Africa. As previously noted, Boer Generals Botha and Smuts both later became Prime Ministers of the new Union of South Africa.  In 1914 Koos de la Rey was mistakenly shot and killed by police chasing a band of criminals. Ironically, on his death the British honored him more than his Boer countrymen.  The British built a statue of him at the British cemetery on his farm and a hospital was built in his name.  Lt. General, Lord Methuen and his famous commander, General, Lord Kitchener were the first to contribute donations.  The British also honor him by calling some of their elite troops, “commando,” the Afrikaans term for the grass roots militia organization of the valiant Boers. We should not forget the valiant struggle and determination of the Boers, nor Koos de la Rey, a man whose Christian character and convictions should be remembered and honored everywhere.


  1. Great post. I love the education I get here.

    1. Wonderful man. Apparently assassinated by the government later on.

  2. I really enjoy these historical posts. de la Rey sounds like a man worth emulating.

  3. Let us not forget that the asswipe Cecil Rhodes is the one who established the R.I.I.A. in England, which then was instrumental at forming the C.F.R. And as the saying goes, "The rest is History."