Remarkable People

ID #5192

Koos de la Rey, Fighting General, Anglo-Boer War, South Africa.

Jacobus Herculaas de la Rey (1847-1914), was a general during the Second Anglo-Boer War and is widely regarded as being one of the finest military leaders during that conflict. As a guerrilla, his tactics proved extremely successful. De la Rey opposed the war until the last, but when he was accused of cowardice, he replied that he would be fighting long after all those clamoring for war had given up. This proved to be the case.

Born on the farm Doornfontein in the Winburg district, he was the son of Adrianus de la Rey and Adriana van Rooyen. He was a Boer of Spanish, French Huguenot and Dutch descent. His grandfather was a teacher and patriarch of the family who came from Utrecht, Netherlands. After the Battle of Boomplaats, the farm was confiscated and the family settled in Lichtenburg.

As a child De la Rey received little formal education. After the discovery of diamonds the family moved to Kimberley. As a young man, he worked as a transport rider on routes to the diamond diggings. He married Jacoba Greeff and the couple settled on Manana, the Greeff family farm. Manana had belonged to Jacoba's father Hendrik Greeff, the founder of Lichtenburg. Later he bought the farm Elandsfontein. The couple had twelve children and looked after another six orphans. He was deeply religious and a small pocket Bible was rarely out of his hand. He had formidable looks - a long neatly trimmed brown beard and a high forehead with deep-set eyes that gave him a patriarchal appearance.

De la Rey fought in the Basotho War of 1865 and the Sekhukhune War of 1876. He did not take an active part in the First Anglo-Boer War, but took over at the Siege of Potchefstroom when Cronjé fell ill. He was elected commandant of the Lichtenburg district and became a member of the Transvaal Volksraad in 1883. A supporter of the progressive faction under Piet Joubert, he opposed Paul Kruger's policies against the uitlanders (foreigners) who flocked to the Transvaal during the gold-rush, warning that it would lead to war with Britain.

At the outbreak of war, De la Rey was appointed one of Cronjé's field generals. At Kraaipan he led an attack on a British armored train on its way to from Mafeking to Kimberley. The train was derailed and the British surrendered. This incident made De la Rey famous but exacerbated his conflict with the cautious and unimaginative Cronjé, who sent him to block the advance of the British forces moving to relieve the Siege of Kimberley.

Methuen, commander of the 1st Division, was tasked with raising the Boer siege of Kimberley and moved his force to Belmont station in the Northern Cape. On detraining they came under fire from a small force of Boers led by Commandant J. Prinsloo on Belmont Kopje. The next morning the British were in position to shell, then charge, the hill. The Boers retreated to their horses behind the koppie and fell back to Graspan, rejoining the larger force of Free-Staters and Transvaalers under the command of Prinsloo and De la Rey respectively. Here they occupied several koppies but were forced off by artillery fire and infantry charges. The way lay open for Methuen's force to the Modder (Mud) River crossing, where Boers had blown up the railway bridge.

Realizing that the Boer tactic of fighting from higher ground exposed them to artillery fire, De la Rey insisted that his men dig in on the banks of the Modder and Riet Rivers -- the first ever use of trench warfare. The plan was to hold fire until the British were close enough for the Boer advantage in rifle fire to take effect while making it difficult for artillery to be used against them. In the early morning British troops advanced across the plain unopposed. However Prinsloo's men opened fire at long range, the troops took cover and artillery pounded the Boer trenches. A series of British rushes pushed the Free-Staters back across the ford, and only a counter-attack by De la Rey enabled the Boers to hold the field until dusk, when they slipped away.

After the Boers were forced back from the Modder River, the British spent some time repairing the bridge. De la Rey had his men entrench on flat ground at the base of Magersfontein hill – a controversial tactic which was vindicated on 10 December when the hill was intensively shelled without effect. Before dawn the following day, crack Highland regiments advanced in close order. They alerted the defenders by stumbling across wires hung with tin cans and were soon pinned down. After heavy losses they broke and retreated in disorder.

Magersfontein and disasters on the Tugela River were the nadir of the British campaign and thereafter, with massive reinforcements, they fought their way back. While De la Rey was rallying resistance to French's advance in Colesberg, Cronjé was trapped at Paardeberg and surrendered with his entire army. Bloemfontein and Pretoria were taken on 13 March and 5 June 1900 respectively, after which Paul Kruger fled to Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique).

Only hard-core Boers were willing to remain in the field. De la Rey, Louis Botha and other commanders met near Kroonstad and laid out a new strategy for the war based on guerilla tactics. The Western Transvaal fell to De la Rey, and for the next two years he led a mobile campaign, winning battles at Moedwil, Nooitgedacht, Driefontein, and Donkerhoek and inflicting large losses on the British. Enough ammunition and supplies were captured at Ysterspruit on 25 February 1902 to reinvigorate the Boer forces. At Tweebosch on 7 March 1902 a large part of Methuen's rear-guard was captured, including Methuen himself.

Albeit ragged and often hungry, de la Rey’s men roamed over vast areas and tied down thousands of British troops. He had an uncanny knack for avoiding ambush, leading many to believe that he was advised by the “prophet” Siener van Rensburg who accompanied him. Despite some reverses, such as the Battle of Rooiwal, De la Rey's commandos remained in the field until the end of the war.

De la Rey was noted for his chivalrous behaviour towards enemies. For example, at Tweebosch he captured Lieutenant General Methuen along with several hundred troops. The troops were sent back to their lines because De La Rey had no means to support them. Methuen was also released because he had been gravely wounded and De la Rey believed he would die without prompt medical attention.

To counter the guerilla campaign, the British adopted scorched-earth counter-insurgency tactics. They swept the country of everything that could give sustenance to Boer guerrillas, including women and children. It included destruction of crops, burning of homesteads and farms, poisoning wells, and salting fields, and saw non-combatants (Boer families and sympathisers) interned in concentration camps where mortality among the women and children was so high that 50% of Boer children under age 16 died. The will of Boers in the field was eroded by such tactics. Thousands of blacks were similarly interned by the British in appalling conditions. Others suspected of sympathising with the British were harshly treated by the Boers.

The British offered terms of peace on various occasions, all of which were rejected by Botha. Kitchener requested that De la Rey meet with him at Klerksdorp in March 1902 for a parley. The two enemies became friends, which made De la Rey confident of the sincerity of British proposals. Diplomatic efforts to find a way out of the conflict continued and eventually led to an agreement to hold peace talks at Vereeniging, in which De la Rey took part. The Treaty of Vereeniging was signed on 31 May 1902. He and General Botha visited England and the US later that year. The Boers were promised self-government (granted in 1906 and 1907 for the Transvaal and Orange Free State respectively) and awarded £3,000,000 compensation, while acknowledging the sovereignty of Edward VII.

After the war De la Rey travelled to Europe with Louis Botha and Christiaan de Wet to raise funds for impoverished Boers whose families and farms had been devastated. In 1903 he persuaded prisoners of war in India and Ceylon to take the oath of allegiance and return to South Africa. Finally he returned to his own farm with his wife and remaining children. Jacoba had spent most of the war trekking in the veld with her children and a few faithful servants. She subsequently wrote a book about her wanderings: Myne Omzwervingen en Beproevingen Gedurende den Oorlog (My wanderings and Trials during the War) which was translated into English.

In 1907 De la Rey was elected to the Transvaal Parliament and was a delegate to the National Convention which led to the Union of South Africa. He became a Senator and supported Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister, in attempts to unite Boer and British. An opposing faction led by Hertzog wished to establish republican government and resisted co-operation with the British while promoting an increasingly bitter racism that would bear fruit in later years. Serious violence broke out in 1914 when white miners on the Rand clashed with police and troops over the use of black miners. De la Rey commanded government forces and the strikes were put down.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Louis Botha agreed to send troops to take over the German colony of South West Africa (Namibia). Since many Boers were of German descent and sympathetic to their struggle they were opposed to fighting for against Germany and looked to De la Rey for leadership. In Parliament he advocated neutrality and stated that he was opposed to war unless South Africa was attacked. Nevertheless he was persuaded by Botha and Smuts not to take any action which might arouse the Boers. De la Rey appears to have been torn between loyalty to his comrades and his sense of honour.

Siener van Rensburg attracted large crowds with his visions in which he saw the whole world consumed by war and the end of the British Empire. On 2 August he told of a dream in which he saw General De la Rey returning home bare-headed in a carriage adorned with flowers, while a black cloud with the number 15 on it poured down blood. Excited Boers took this as a sign that De la Rey would be triumphant, but van Rensburg himself believed the dream warned of his death.

On 15 September 1914 General C.F. Beyers, Commandant-General of the armed forces, resigned his commission and sent his car to fetch De la Rey from Johannesburg. The two set out for Potchefstroom where General JCG Kemp had also resigned. They encountered several police roadblocks that had been set to capture the Foster gang but refused to stop At Langlaagte police fired at the speeding car and a bullet struck De la Rey in the back. His last words were “dit is raak” (I am hit).

As Siener van Rensburg had predicted, he returned to his Lichtenburg farm. Many Boers were convinced that he had been assassinated – a theory that holds sway to this day. Others could not believe that he would have joined a rebellion, breaking his oath. According to Beyers, the plan was to co-ordinate the simultaneous resignation of all senior officers in protest at the attack on South West Africa. While de la Rey might have been capable of taking to the field at 67, it seems unlikely that he would have gone against his word, especially as he had played a leading role in the Treaty of Vereeniging.

Shortly after de la Rey's funeral the Maritz rebellion broke out. De Wet, Beyers, Maritz, Kemp; and other Boer veterans took up arms but most of the army remained loyal and the rebellion was put down. The rebels were later pardoned by Botha in an act of national reconciliation.

De la Rey was buried in Lichtenburg, where a bronze bust by sculptor Fanie Eloff adorns his grave. De la Rey's home on Elandsfontein was demolished during the Boer War but was rebuilt on the same foundations in 1902. The Voortrekker movement erected a memorial on his farm. De la Rey's equestrian statue in front of the Lichtenburg Town Hall was sculpted by Hennie Potgieter. RSAKDLR

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Last update: 2014-03-02 21:55
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.6

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