A Pandora’s Box (blessings and evils) – Jan Smuts was that proverbial paradox. When you opened him up, there was good and bad.
He was a South African and Commonwealth statesman who embraced hard-line racial segregation before seeking a measure of compromise. A barrister who was twice South African Prime Minister, he was criticised for being ‘a committee of one’.
Smuts was an advocate of the (British) Commonwealth, but embraced the imperialist notion of a ‘civilising mission’. On the other hand, he favoured international cooperation and pushed for the setting up of the League of Nations.
Perhaps most contradictory of all, he was a rebel leader during the Second Boer War, who then waged war on South African rebels and became a leading British Imperial commander during the First World War.
Born 150 years ago, on 24 May 1870, in Cape Colony, Smuts became a believer in ‘holism’ (the constructing of unities), which presumably underpinned his support for the British Empire and the League of Nations. But Smuts himself does not come across as a ‘whole’, more a series of disconnected, and sometimes contradictory, fragments.
He favoured segregation in his own homeland (hardly ‘holistic’), yet also advocated creating another homeland elsewhere, one for the Jewish people. A racist in South Africa, then, and a Zionist in the Middle East.
Smuts could be a mystifying mix of errant outbursts – for example, declaring there was no danger of war in 1939 – and insightful thoughts – as when he explained the failure of the League of Nations in November 1943: ‘What was everybody’s business in the end proved to be nobody’s business. Each one looked to the other to take the lead and the aggressors got away with it.’
In 1891, Smuts headed to England to study law at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he was a brilliant student. (In 2018, it was erroneously reported that a bust and portrait of Smuts had been ‘toppled’ by students as the #RhodesMustFall campaign claimed another high-profile victim.)
What was the truth about the man, and how effective was he as a military leader?
The Second Boer War (1899-1902)
The First Boer War, fought between Britain and the Boers (or Afrikaners) of South Africa, was fought in 1880-1881, when a rebellion of the Transvaal saw it achieve independence, following a spectacular Boer victory at the Battle of Majuba Hill, under the terms of the Pretoria Convention.
But the settlement did not last. A second, much bigger war (1899-1902) was sparked by the ill-conceived Jameson Raid. Ostensibly at issue was the status of British Uitlanders (foreigners), who had flooded into the Transvaal in response to the late 19th-century mining boom. The real issue was the interests of British mine bosses, who wanted to break free of subjection to the Boer government in Pretoria.
On the eve of war, it was Smuts who wrote the Boer ‘manifesto’, A Century of Wrong, a call to arms that lambasted the British for their colonial misdeeds.
The Boers launched a pre-emptive strike in October 1899, and December saw major British defeats, leading to further troop deployments under first Frederick Roberts, then Herbert Kitchener.
Smuts believed that the Boers had had an opportunity to finish the war quickly by invading Cape Colony and triggering a wider Afrikaner rebellion across South Africa, but the younger commanders were frustrated by ‘torpid old Boer generals’.
Britain was not prepared to end the war after early setbacks – as in 1881 – because major interests were now at stake. Troops were poured into the country and the Boers soon faced daunting odds.
Besieged towns were relieved, and when the Transvaal capital Pretoria was captured in June 1900, Roberts peremptorily declared the war ‘over’.
But it was not over. The Boers commenced a two-year guerrilla campaign that would eventually see 400,000 British and Imperial troops deployed and a counter-insurgency offensive that would involve scorched earth, concentration camps, hundreds of miles of blockhouses and wire fences, and mass sweeps of the veldt to corral the Boer commandos.
Rebel and guerrilla
It was during the Second Boer War that Smuts showed his grasp of logistics and communications, plus the value of propaganda (using the bitterness resulting from mass mortality among imprisoned Boer families to stiffen morale).
When war commenced, he had had no formal military training, yet frequently visited the front to assess the situation for himself. It was on one of these forays that he first met Churchill, who had been reporting for The Morning Post, describing early on how the British had underestimated their foe (one Boer being ‘worth three to five regular soldiers’).
Churchill was captured after a British armoured train was ambushed and the two men met, although perhaps never spoke. (Churchill subsequently escaped, on 12 December 1899, when he scaled his prison wall.)
By mid-1900, Smuts was operating with Koos de la Rey (1847-1914), a Boer commander, politician, and leading advocate of Boer independence. Smuts, nearly a quarter-century younger, no doubt picked up fieldcraft from the senior man.
De la Rey had been involved in those December 1899 British setbacks, including the Battle of Magersfontein (11 December), when his orders to entrench enabled the Boers to withstand a bombardment and break up a British infantry assault with massed rifle-fire.
The British resurgence under Roberts and Kitchener almost drove the Boers from the field. One of the last pitched battles of the war was at Diamond Hill, where Smuts participated in a spirited last stand.
Then came the switch to guerrilla warfare, the Boer commandos now engaging in hit-and-run attacks through- out East Transvaal (under Louis Botha), the Free State (Christiaan de Wet and J B M Hertzog), and West Transvaal (de la Rey assisted by Smuts).
School of war
Schooled by de la Rey, Smuts embraced the new approach, his small band of guerrillas taking on the far more numerous British forces.
British forces were harassed and attacked whenever possible, the opportunity always being taken to replenish supplies of ammo, sugar, tobacco, and so on from vanquished enemy units.
The summer of 1901 saw what was arguably Smuts’ most daring expedition, when he took his 350 or so men into the Cape, both to see if there was any chance of garnering more recruits for the Boer cause and to divert British attention from the main theatres. The Cape was also the only territory remaining where scorched earth had not been implemented, so there was greater chance of subsisting off the land.
Smuts’ Cape sortie has been regarded as a classic of its kind. With 362 hand-picked men at the start, the 31-year-old commander embarked on an eight-month, 2,000-mile adventure that locked down a British force of some 35,000 men charged with running him and his band to ground (he had a price of £1,000 on his head). Smuts’ force, always punching above its weight, would grow to 3,000 to 4,000 men.
One difference between the Boers and British was that the former sent senior officers on reconnaissance missions, whereas the latter relied on juniors, who often lacked the experience to make sound assessments. Smuts habitually went into the field to see for himself (a practice he repeated in both world wars.)
At the beginning of January 1902, Smuts took his guerrilla tactics a stage further, ordering his subordinates to split each commando into smaller units, reasoning that this would enable them to disperse throughout the Cape, thereby locking up larger numbers of British troops, but also making it easier for the Boers to live off the land.
The Boers were in no position to retain prisoners, so captured men were relieved of anything useful, then sent packing. Infiltrating British positions, striking hard, and then vanishing became more difficult as chains of blockhouses and barbed-wire were constructed. And, in the end, Smuts failed in his ultimate ambition of fomenting a Boer uprising in Cape Colony.
The Siege of Okiep April/May 1902
The Boers assiduously avoided set-piece engagements in the second phase of the war, though there was one notable exception when Smuts sought to capture the copper-mining town of Okiep, which he hoped might force an end to hostilities. The town and its satellite villages (Springbok and Concordia) were all British-held. Springbok, about three miles distant was to be invested first, then Concordia, and finally, the jewel in the crown, Okiep.
Smuts’ stop-at-nothing mentality was on show when he tried to employ a train packed with explosives to force his way in (a ruse that failed).
The defences were based around blockhouses, and the attacks involved chucking home-made hand-grenades into them. These caused the outlying defences to fall.
Okiep proved a tougher nut, however, with the redoubtable Colonel Shelton adamant he would hold out no matter the cost. Smuts was left, in the end, with blockade tactics, once his direct assaults had failed.
There was strategy underlying this set-piece. Smuts wanted to capture the copper fields, thereby forcing the British to send valuable troops from Cape Town to Okiep, drawing them from away from other areas, leaving Cape Town vulnerable. Call it a diversion or a feint. But Okiep was held and relieved, and it turned out to be one of the last actions of Boer forces during the war.
Smuts (a lawyer by training) played a lead role in negotiating the Treaty of Vereeniging that ended the war, telling the Boer delegates, ‘Perhaps it is God’s will to lead the people of South Africa through defeat and humiliation to a better future and a brighter day.’ (No doubt he had only white South Africans in mind.)
In the end, the Boers had been overwhelmed by force of numbers, with 400,000 British ranged against just 18,000 Boers by the end of the war. Smuts was one of those who accepted that the Boer position had become hopeless and that it was time to try to get the best terms possible. Churchill was among those on the other side pushing for a generous peace.
When a new Liberal government came to power in Britain in 1906, the West Ridgeway Commission was appointed to ponder constitutions for the Orange Free State and the Transvaal if granted self-government. The Commission decided that the conundrum of the ‘native franchise’ should be left up to the ‘self-governing’ (that is, white-ruled) colonies to determine.
The years between the end of the Boer War and the start of the First World War saw Smuts move into politics, entering South Africa’s House of Assembly in 1907, and playing an important role in the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910. He also set up the Union Defence Force in 1912 (which would become the South African Defence Force after his death).
The British Government was being canny when it passed the South Africa Act in 1909, leading to the creation of the Union of South Africa. There was strong feeling that war with Germany was coming, and South Africa would be important to the defence of Britain and its Empire.
When war broke out, South Africa was divided between those supporting Britain (including Smuts and Louis Botha) and others who viewed the war as an opportunity to achieve greater independence while the mother country’s attention was elsewhere. There was also much pro-German sentiment among the Boers.
The Maritz Rebellion September 1914-February 1915
As a one-time rebel, Smuts now found himself in the role of poacher turned gamekeeper. When Britain declared war on Germany, South African leaders expressed their willingness to defend their own country and even to undertake offensive operations against the Germans in neighbouring South-west Africa.
South Africans were given a simple message: abide by the peace terms agreed at the end of the Second Boer War. Not everyone did. Some saw an opportunity to re-establish full independence. The primary manifestation of this was the Maritz Rebellion, when 11,500 Boers staged an armed revolt.
Manie Maritz (1876-1940) had fought on the Boer side in the Second Boer War (including alongside Smuts at Okiep) and was a courageous, if ruthless, adversary of considerable physical presence. Maritz now raised an army of 600 men, refused orders to report to Pretoria, and soon afterwards donned German uniform. He was eventually forced to retreat into German South-west Africa.
Smuts worked tirelessly during the rebellion, with the rebels, once captured, treated leniently, as he did not want to create martyrs. Maritz, condemned by the Dutch Reformed Church Synod, which cautioned South Africans against the madness of civil war, fled to Europe – but was later allowed to return to South Africa without penalty.
As well as dealing with internal revolt, Smuts was involved in the South-west Africa Campaign (September 1914- July 1915), in conjunction with Botha. The German colony was overrun in a British-inspired operation primarily aimed at denying the Germans valuable port facilities.
During the campaign, the territory we know today as Namibia was divided in two, with Botha taking the northern zone, Smuts the southern. The fighting was over relatively quickly, with 8,000 Germans losing out to 50,000 South Africans. It was hailed as the first Allied victory of the war. Smuts and Botha were celebrated as conquering heroes and condemned as traitors in almost equal measure.
The East African Campaign
In 1916, Smuts was put in command of the East African Campaign, a series of marches, small-scale battles, and numerous guerrilla skirmishes which continued for the whole duration of the war in the territory we know today as Tanzania.
Smuts, a temporary lieutenant-general (from February 1916), used flanking movements during the campaign, avoiding potentially costly frontal attacks, for which he was criticised as too cautious. Perhaps it was a case of once a guerrilla, always a guerrilla. Perhaps also the ill-fated Siege of Okiep had put him off set-piece actions. But his caution meant the war dragged on.
He had a mixed force of 45,000 troops (20,000 of them South African). He was opposed by German General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck – dubbed ‘the German Lawrence’, since he proved an exceptionally talented and determined guerrilla commander who was increasingly dependent on native African askaris.
Quite quickly, Smuts’ force displaced the Germans from the Taveta Gap, which opened up East Africa, but his further efforts were hindered by the weather (torrential rain), terrain (impenetrable bush), and disease (including malaria, which afflicted Smuts himself).
In spite of these travails, Smuts maintained the upper hand, taking extensive chunks of territory, including the key rail-link, steadily squeezing Lettow-Vorbeck’s room for manoeuvre. He also stayed in the front-line, refusing to expect others to face dangers he avoided; some saw this as unnecessarily reckless.
Victory and after
As a member of the Imperial War Cabinet (from 1917), Smuts advocated renewed attacks on the Western Front and total pursuit of the policy of attrition. He was not alone in thinking that the Western Front was where the war would be won.
He refused the Middle Eastern command – in May 1917 – unless given the resources to guarantee success (the command instead went to Edmund Allenby).
In 1917, Smuts completed a review of British Air Services (the so-called ‘Smuts Report’), which contributed substantially to the decision to set up a single air service. Prime Minister Lloyd George reckoned him ‘the father of the RAF’ (though others would disagree).
Come 1918 and Smuts did make a belated contribution to the Middle Eastern theatre: it was his planning that influenced Allenby’s advance later in that year.
As the war neared an end, Smuts argued for a moderate peace that did not crush Germany (perhaps returning Churchill’s compliment at the end of the Boer War), and was one of the prime movers behind the League of Nations, showing far-sightedness in both regards.
When Smuts said, ‘Europe is being liquidated and the League of Nations must be the heir to this great estate’, he was talking up collective security. But the doves were marginalised by the hawks in the post-war ‘settlement’: the world was carved up by the victorious imperial powers and the stage thereby set for a second world war.
Liberal in world diplomacy he may have been, but Smuts was far from liberal at home. He was as entrenched as any white South African in the post-war era in his views on race and equality, declaring – at the Imperial Conference of 1921 – that inequality lay at the heart of the South African way and was ‘the bedrock of our constitution’.
Twice Premier of the Union of South Africa (1919-1924 and 1939-1948), Smuts died at the age of 80 in September 1950. It would take South Africa another 40-odd years to overturn apartheid and be readmitted to the international system that Smuts had helped create. •
Steve Roberts, an experienced writer for magazines, has been published frequently in MHM. His features have covered subjects as diverse as Edward III, Marshal Ney, and the Siege of Leningrad. Steve is also the author of Lesser Known Christchurch and Lesser Known Bournemouth.