With the Boer Forces - Howard Hillegas

The War Presidents

The real leader of the Boers of the two Republics was Paul Kruger, their man of peace. His opinions on the momentous questions that agitated the country and his long political supremacy caused him many and bitter enemies, but the war healed all animosities and he was the one man in the Republics who had the respect, love, and admiration of all the burghers. Wherever one might be, whether in the houses on the veld or in the battlefield's trenches, every one spoke of "Oom Paul" in a manner which indicated that he was the Boer of all Boers. There was not one burgher who would not declare that Kruger was a greater man than he was before he despatched his famous ultimatum to Great Britain. His old-time friends supported him even more faithfully than before hostilities began, and his political energies of other days became the might of his right arm. Those who opposed him most bitterly and unremittingly when it was a campaign between the Progressive and Conservative parties were most eager to listen to his counsels and to stand by his side when their country's hour of darkness had arrived. Not a word of censure for him was heard anywhere; on the contrary, every one praised him for opposing Great Britain so firmly, and prayed that his life might be spared until their dream of absolute independence was realised.

Sir Charles Dilke once related a conversation he had with Bismarck concerning Paul Kruger. "Cavour was much smarter, more clever, more diplomatically gifted than I," said the Prince, "but there is a much stronger, much abler man than Cavour or I, and that man is President Kruger. He has no gigantic army behind him, no great empire to support him. He stands alone with a small peasant people, and is a match for us by mere force of genius. I spoke to him—he drove me into a corner." Kruger's great ability, as delineated by Bismarck, was indisputable, and a man with less of it might have been President and might have avoided the war, but only at a loss to national interests. The President had one aim and one goal, his country's independence, and all the force of his genius was directed toward the attainment of that end. He tried to secure his country's total independence by peaceable means, but he had planted the seed of that desire so deeply in the minds of his countrymen that when it sprouted they overwhelmed him and he was driven into war against his will. Kruger would not have displaced diplomacy with the sword, but his burghers felt that peaceful methods of securing their independence were of no avail, and he was powerless to resist their wishes. He did not lead the Boers into war; they insisted that only war would give to them the relief they desired, and he followed under their leadership. When the meetings of the Volksraad immediately preceding the war were held, it was not Paul Kruger who called for war; it was the representatives of the burghers, who had been instructed by their constituents to act in such a manner. When the President saw that his people had determined to have war, he was leader enough to make plans which might bring the conflict to a successful conclusion, and he chose a moment for making a declaration that he considered opportune. The ultimatum was decided upon eleven days before it was actually despatched, but it was delayed eight days on account of the Free State's unpreparedness. Kruger realised the importance of striking the first blow at an enemy which was not prepared to resist it, and the Free State's tardiness at such a grave crisis was decidedly unpleasant to him. Then, when the Free State was ready to mobilise, the President secured another delay of three days in order that diplomacy might have one more chance. His genius had not enabled him to realise the dream of his life without a recourse to war, and when the ultimatum was delivered into the hands of the British the old man wept.

Paul Kruger


When the multitudinous executive duties to which he attended in peaceful times were suddenly ended by the declaration, the President busied himself with matters pertaining to the conduct of the war. He worked as hard as any man in the country, despite his age, and on many occasions he displayed the energy of a man many years younger. The war caused his daily routine of work and rest to be changed completely. He continued to rise at four o'clock in the morning, a habit which he contracted in early youth and followed ever after. After his morning devotions he listened to the reading of the despatches from the generals at the front, and dictated replies in the shape of suggestions, censure, or praise. He slept for an hour after breakfast, and then went to the Government Buildings, arriving there punctually every morning as the clock on the dome struck nine. He remained in consultation with the other members of the Executive Council and the few Government officials, who had remained in the city, for an hour or more. After luncheon he again worked over despatches, received burghers on leave of absence from the front and foreigners who sympathised with his people's cause. He never allowed himself to be idle, and, in fact, there was no opportunity for him to be unemployed, inasmuch as almost all the leading Government officials were at the front, while many of their duties remained behind to be attended to by some one. Kruger himself supervised the work of all the departments whose heads were absent, and the labour was great. His capacity for hard labour was never better demonstrated than during the war, when he bore the weight of his own duties and those of other Government officials, as well as the work of guiding the Boer emissaries in foreign countries. Added to all these grave responsibilities, when the reverses of the army grew more serious, was the great worry and the constant dread of new disasters which beset a man who occupies a position such as he occupied.

No man had greater influence over the Boers than Kruger, and his counsel was always sought and his advice generally followed. When the first commandos went to the front it was considered almost absolutely necessary for them to stop at Pretoria and see "Oom Paul" before going to battle, and it seemed to affect the old man strangely when he addressed them and bade them God-speed in the accomplishment of their task. It was in the midst of one of these addresses that the President, while standing in the centre of a group of burghers, broke down and wept as he referred to the many men who would lose their lives in the war. When the Boer army was having its greatest successes Kruger constantly sent messages to his burghers, thanking them for their good work, and reminding them not to neglect thanking their God for His favours. One of the most characteristic messages of this nature was sent to the generals, commandants, officers, and burghers on January 8th, and was a most unique ebullition to come from a President of a Republic. The message was composed by himself, and, as literally translated, read:—

"For your own and the war-officers' information, I wish to state that, through the blessing of our Lord, our great cause has at present been carried to such a point that, by dint of great energy, we may expect to bring it to a successful issue on our behalf.

"In order that such an end be attained, it is, however, strictly necessary that all energy be used, that all burghers able to do active service go forward to the battlefield, and that those who are on furlough claim no undue extension thereof, but return as soon as possible, every one to the place where his war-officers may be stationed.

"Brothers! I pray you to act herein with all possible promptitude and zeal, and to keep your eyes fixed on that Providence who has miraculously led our people through the whole of South Africa. Read Psalm 33, from verse 7 to the end.

"The enemy have fixed their faith in Psalm 83, where it is said that this people shall not exist and its name must be annihilated; but the Lord says: 'It shall exist' Read also Psalm 89, the 13th and 14th verses, where the Lord saith that the children of Christ, if they depart from His words, shall be chastised with bitter reverses, but His favour and goodness shall have no end and never fail. What He has said remains strong and firm. For, see, the Lord purifieth His children, even unto gold, proven by fire.

"I need not draw your attention to all the destructiveness of the enemy's works, for you know it, and I again point to the attack of the Devil on Christ and His Church. This has been the attack from the beginning, and God will not countenance the destruction of His Church. You know that our cause is a just one, and there cannot be any doubt, for it is with the contents of just this Psalm that they commenced with us in their wickedness, and I am still searching the entire Bible, and find no other way which can be followed than that which has been followed by us, and we must continue to fight in the name of the Lord.

"Please notify all the officers of war and the entire public of your district of the contents of this telegram, and imbue them with a full earnestness of the cause."

When the President learned that Commandant-General Joubert had determined to retreat from the neighbourhood of Ladysmith he sent a long telegram to his old friend, imploring him not to take such a step, and entreating him to retain his forces at the Tugela. The old General led his forces northward to Glencoe, notwithstanding the President's protest, and a day afterward Kruger arrived on the scene. The President was warrior enough to know that a great mistake had been made, and he did not hesitate to show his displeasure. He and Joubert had had many disagreements in their long experiences with one another, but those who were present in the General's tent at that Glencoe interview said that they had never seen the President so angry. When he had finished giving his opinion of the General's action the President shook Joubert's hand, and thereafter they discussed matters calmly and as if there had been no quarrel. To the other men who were partly responsible for the retreat he showed his resentment of their actions by declining to shake hands with them, a method of showing disapprobation that is most cutting to the Boers.

"If I were five years younger, or if my eyesight were better," he growled at the recalcitrants, "I would take a rifle and bandolier and show you what we old Boers were accustomed to do. We had courage; you seem to have none."

After the President had encouraged the officers, and had secured their promises to continue the resistance against their enemy he wandered about in the laagers, shaking hands with and infusing new spirit into the burghers who had flocked together to see their revered leader. When several thousand of the Boers had gathered around him and were trying to have a word with him the President bared his head and asked his friends to join him in prayer. Instantly every head was bared, and Kruger's voice spread out over the vast concourse in a grand appeal to the God of Battles to grant His blessing to the burgher army. The grey-haired old man was conspicuous in a small circle which was formed by the burghers withdrawing several paces when he began the prayer. On all sides there spread out a mass of black-garbed, battle-begrimed Boers with eyes turned to the ground. Here and there a white tent raised its head above the assemblage; at other points men stood on waggons and cannon. Farther on, burghers dismounted from their horses and joined the crowd. In the distance were Talana Hill, where the first battle of the campaign was fought; the lofty Drakensberg where more than fifty years before the early Boer Voortrekkers had their first glimpses of fair Natal, while to the south were the hills of Ladysmith of sombre history. There in the midst of bloody battlefields, and among several thousand men who sought the blood of the enemy, Kruger, the man of peace, implored Almighty God to give strength to his burghers. It was a magnificent spectacle.

He had been at Glencoe only a short time when the news reached him that the burghers in the Free State had lost their courage, and were retreating rapidly towards Bloemfontein. He abbreviated his visit, hastened to the Free State, and met the fleeing Boers at Poplar Grove. He exhorted them to make a stand against the enemy, and, by his magnetic power over them, succeeded in inducing the majority to remain and oppose the British advance. His own fearlessness encouraged them, and when they saw their old leader standing in the midst of shell fire as immobile as if he were watching a holiday parade, they had not the heart to run. While he was watching the battle a shell fell within a short distance of where he stood, and all his companions fled from the spot. He walked slowly away, and when the men returned to him he chided them, and made a witty remark concerning the shell, naming it one of "the Queen's pills." While the battle continued, Kruger followed one of the commandos and urged the men to fight. At one stage of the battle the commando which he was following was in imminent danger of being cut off and captured by the British forces, but the burghers fought valiantly before their President, and finally conveyed him to a place of safety, although the path was shell and bullet swept.

He returned to Bloemfontein, and in conjunction with President Steyn, addressed an appeal to Lord Salisbury to end the war. They asked that the republics should be allowed to retain their independence, and firmly believed that the appeal would end hostilities, inasmuch as the honours of war were then about equally divided between the two armies. To those who watched the proceedings it seemed ridiculous to ask for a cessation of hostilities at that time, but Kruger sincerely believed that his appeal would not be in vain, and he was greatly surprised, but not discomfited, when a distinct refusal was received in reply.

Several weeks after the memorable trip to the Free State, President Kruger made another journey to the sister-republic, and met President Steyn and all the Boer generals at the famous Krijgsraad at Kroonstad. No one who heard the President when he addressed the burghers who gathered there to see him, will ever forget the intensity of Kruger's patriotism. Kroonstad, then the temporary capital of the Free State, was not favoured with any large public hall where a meeting might be held, so a small butcher's stand in the market-square was chosen for the site of the meeting. After President Steyn, Commandant-General Joubert, and several other leading Boers had addressed the large crowd of burghers standing in the rain outside the tradesman's pavilion, Kruger stepped on one of the long tables, and exhorted the burghers to renewed efforts, to fight for freedom and not to be disconsolate because Bloemfontein had fallen into the hands of the enemy. When the President concluded his address the burghers raised a great cheer, and then returned to their laagers with their minds filled with a new spirit, and with renewed determination to oppose the enemy—a determination which displayed itself later in the fighting at Sannaspost, Moester's Hoek, and Wepener. Kruger found the burghers in the Free State in the depths of despair; when he departed they were as confident of ultimate victory as they were on the day war was begun. The old man had the faculty of leading men as it is rarely found. In times of peace he led men by force of argument as much as by reason of personal magnetism. In war-time he led men by mere words sent over telegraph wires, by his presence at the front, and by his display of manly dignity, firm resolution and devotion to his country. He was like the kings and rulers of ancient times, who led their cohorts into battle, and wielded the sword when there was a necessity for such action.

During the war President Kruger suffered many disappointments, endured many griefs, and withstood many trials and tribulations; but none affected him so deeply as the death of his intimate friend, Commandant-General Joubert. Kruger and Joubert were the two leading men of the country for many years. They were among those who assisted in the settlement of the Transvaal and in the many wars which were coincident with it. They had indelibly inscribed their names on the scroll of the South African history of a half-century, and in doing so they had become as intimate as two brothers. For more than two score years Kruger had been considered the Boers' leader in peaceful times, while Joubert was the Boers' warrior. The ambition of both was the independence of their country, and, while they differed radically on the methods by which it was to be attained, neither surpassed the other in strenuous efforts to secure it without a recourse to war. The death of Joubert was as saddening to Kruger, consequently, as the Demise of his most dearly-beloved brother could have been, and in the funeral-oration which the President delivered over the bier of the General, he expressed that sense of sorrow most aptly. This oration, delivered upon an occasion when the country was mourning the death of a revered leader and struggling under the weight of recent defeats, was one of the most remarkable utterances ever made by a man at the head of a nation.

"Brothers, sisters, burghers, and friends," he began,—"Only a few words can I say to you to-day, for the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. We have lost our brother, our friend, our Commandant-General. I have lost my right hand, not of yesterday, but my right hand since we were boys together, many long years ago. To-night I alone seem to have been spared of the old people of our cherished land, of the men who lived and struggled together for our country. He has gone to heaven whilst fighting for liberty, which God has told us to defend; for the freedom for which he and I have struggled together for so many years, and so often, to maintain. Brothers, what shall I say to you in this our greatest day of sorrow, in this hour of national gloom? The struggle we are engaged in is for the principles of justice and righteousness, which our Lord Has taught us is the broad road to heaven and blessedness. It is our sacred duty to keep on that path, if we desire a happy ending. Our dear dead brother has gone on that road to his eternal life. What can I say of his personality? It is only a few short weeks ago that I saw him at the fighting front, humbly and modestly taking his share of the privations and the rough work of the campaign like the poorest burgher, a true general, a true Christian—an example to his people. And he spoke to me then and even more recently; and, let me tell you, that the days are dark. We are suffering reverses on account of wickedness rampant in our land. No success will come, no blessings be given to our great cause unless you remove the bad elements from among us; and then you may look forward to attaining the crowning point, the reward of righteousness and noble demeanour. We have in our distinguished departed brother an example. Chosen, as he was, by the nation, time after time, to his honourable position, he had their trust to such an extent that everything was left in his hands; and he did his work well. He died, as he has lived, in the path of duty and honour. Let the world rage around us, let the enemy decry us, I say, Follow his example. The Lord will stand by you against the ruthless hand of the foe, and at the moment when He deems it right for interference peace will come once more. Why is the sympathy of the whole world with us in this struggle for freedom? Why are the strangers pouring in from Europe to assist to the maintenance of our beloved flag, to aid us in the just defence of our independence? Is it not God's hand? I feel it in my heart. I declare to you again, the end of our struggle will be satisfactory. Our small nation exists by the aid of the Almighty, and will continue to do so. The prophets say the closed books shall be opened, the dead shall arise, darkness be turned into light; nothing be concealed. Every one will face God's judgment throne. You will listen to His voice, and your eyes shall be open for the truth of everything. Think of the costly lives given by us for our cause, and you will rally to the fight for justice to the end. Brothers, to the deeply bereaved widow of our Commandant-General, to his family, to you all, I say trust more than ever in the Almighty; go to Him for condolence; think and be trustful in the thought that our brother's body has gone from amongst us to rise again in a beautiful and eternal home. Let us follow his example. Weep not, the Lord will support you; the hour of all our relief is near; and let us pray that we may enter heaven, and be guided to eternity in the same way as he whom we mourn so deeply. Amen."

Early in his life Kruger formed an idea that the Boers were under the direct control of Providence, and it displeased him greatly to learn that many petty thefts were committed by some of the burghers at the front. In many of the speeches to the burghers he referred to the shortcomings of some of them, and tried to impress on their minds, that they could never expect the Lord to took with favour on their cause if they did not mend their ways. He made a strong reference to those sins in the oration he delivered over Joubert's body, and never neglected to tell the foreign volunteers that they had come into the country for fighting and not for looting. When an American corps of about fifty volunteers arrived in Pretoria in April he requested that they should call at his residence before leaving for the front, and the men were greatly pleased to receive and accept the invitation. The President walked to the sidewalk in front of his house to receive the Americans, and then addressed them in this characteristically blunt speech: "I am very glad you have come here to assist us. I want you to look after your horses and rifles. Do not allow any one to steal them from you. Do not steal anybody else's gun or horse. Trust in God, and fight as hard as you can."

Undoubtedly one of the most pathetic incidents in Kruger's life was his departure from Pretoria when the British army was only a short distance south of that city. It was bitter enough to him to witness the conquest of the veld district, the farms and the plantations, but when the conquerors were about to possess the capital of the country which he himself had seen growing out of the barren veld into a beautiful city of brick and stone, it was indeed a grave epoch for an old man to pass through. It hurt him little to see Johannesburg fall to the enemy, for that city was ever in his enemy's hands, but when Pretoria, distinctly the Boer city, was about to become British, perhaps for ever, the old man might have been expected to display signs of the great sorrow which he undoubtedly felt in his heart. At the threshold of such a great calamity to his cause it might have been anticipated that he would acknowledge defeat and ask for mercy from a magnanimous foe. It was not dreamt of that a man of almost four score years would desert his home and family, his farms and flocks, the result of a lifetime's labour, and endure the discomforts of the field merely because he believed in a cause which, it seemed, was about to be extinguished by force of arms. But adversity caused no changes in the President's demeanour. When he bade farewell to his good old wife—perhaps it was a final farewell—he cheered and comforted her, and when the weeping citizens and friends of many years gathered at his little cottage to bid him goodbye he chided them for their lack of faith in the cause, and encouraged them to believe that victory would crown the Boers' efforts. Seven months before, Kruger stood on the verandah of his residence, and, doffing his hat to the first British prisoners that arrived in the city, asked his burghers not to rejoice unseemingly; in May the old man, about to flee before the enemy, inspired his people to take new courage, and ridiculed their ideas that all was lost.

Whether the Boers were in the first flush of victory or in the depths of despair Paul Kruger was ever the same to them—patriot, adviser, encourager, leader, and friend.

It was an easy matter to see the President when he was at his residence at Pretoria, and he appeared to be deeply interested in learning the opinions of the many foreigners who arrived in his country. The little verandah of the Executive Mansion—a pompous name for the small, one-storey cottage—was the President's favourite resting and working place during the day. Just as in the days of peace he sat there in a big armchair, discussing politics with groups of his countrymen, so while the war was in progress he was seated there pondering the grave subjects of the time. The countrymen who could always be observed with him at almost any time of the day were missing. They were at the front. Occasionally two or three old Boers could be seen chatting with him behind Barnato's marble lions, but invariably they had bandoliers around their bodies and rifles across their knees. Few of the old Boers who knew the President intimately returned from the front on leaves-of-absence unless they called on him to explain to him the tide and progress of the war.

According to his own declaration his health was as good as it ever was, although the war added many burdens to his life. Although he was seventy-five years old he declared he was as sprightly as he was twenty years before, and he seemed to have the energy and vitality of a man of forty. The reports that his mind was affected were cruel hoaxes which had not the slightest foundation of fact. The only matter concerning which he worried was his eyesight, which had been growing weaker steadily for five years. That misfortune alone prevented him from accompanying his burghers to the front and sharing their burdens with them, and he frequently expressed his disappointment that he was unable to engage more actively in the defence of his country. When Pretoria fell into British hands Kruger again sacrificed his own interests for the welfare of his Government and moved the capital into the fever-districts, the low-veld of the eastern part of the Transvaal. The deadly fever which permeates the atmosphere of that territory seemed to have no more terrors for him than did the British bullets at Poplar Grove, and he chose to remain in that dangerous locality in order that he might be in constant communication with his burghers and the outside world rather than to go farther into the isolated interior where he would have assumed no such great risks to his health.

Mr. Kruger was not a bitter enemy of the British nation, as might have been supposed. He was always an admirer of Britons and British institutions, and the war did not cause him to alter his convictions. He despised only the men whom he charged with being responsible for the war, and he never thought to hide the identity of those men. He blamed Mr. Rhodes, primarily, for instigating the war, and held Mr. Chamberlain and Sir Alfred Milner equally responsible for bringing it about. Against these three men he was extremely bitter, and he took advantage of every opportunity for expressing his opinions of them and their work. In February he stated that the real reason of the war between the Boers and the British was Rhodes's desire for glory. "He wants to be known as the maker of the South African empire," he said, "and the empire is not complete so long as there are two Republics in the centre of the country."

Whatever were the causes of the war, it is certain that President Kruger did not make it in order to gain political supremacy in the country. The Dutch of Cape Colony, President Steyn of the Free State, and Secretary Reitz of the Transvaal, may have had visions of Dutch supremacy, but President Kruger had no such hopes. He invariably and strenuously denied that he had any aspirations other than the independence of his country, and all his words and works emphasised his statement to that effect. Several days before Commandant-General Joubert died, that intimate friend of the President declared solemnly that Kruger had never dreamt of expelling the British Government from South Africa and much less had made any agreement with the Dutch in other parts of the country with a view to such a result. It was a difficult matter to find a Transvaal Boer or a Boer from the northern part of the Free State who cared whether the British or the Dutch were paramount in South Africa so long as the Republics were left unharmed, but it was less difficult to meet Cape Colonists and Boers from the southern part of the Free State who desired that Great Britain's power in the country should be broken. If there was any real spirit against Great Britain it was born on British soil in Cape Colony and blown northward to where courage to fight was more abundant. Its source certainly was not in the north, and more certainly not with Paul Kruger, the man of peace.

President Steyn, of the Orange Free State, occupied even a more responsible position than his friend President Kruger, of the Transvaal. At the beginning of hostilities, Steyn found that hundreds of the British-born citizens of his State refused to fight with his army, and consequently he was obliged to join the Transvaal with a much smaller force than he had reckoned upon. He was handicapped by the lack of generals of any experience, and he did not have a sufficient number of burghers to guard the borders of his own State. His Government had made but few preparations for war, and there was a lack of guns, ammunition, and equipment. The mobilisation of his burghers was extremely difficult and required much more time than was anticipated, and everything seemed to be awry at a time when every detail should have been carefully planned and executed. As the responsible head of the Government and the veritable head of the army Steyn passed a crisis with a remarkable display of energy, ingenuity, and ability. After the army was in the field he gave his personal attention to the work of the departments whose heads were at the front and attended to many of the details of the commissariat work in Bloemfontein. He frequently visited the burghers in the field and gave to them such encouragement as only the presence and praise of the leader of a nation can give to a people. In February he went to the Republican lines at Ladysmith and made an address in which he stated that Sir Alfred Milner's declaration that the power of Afrikanderism must be broken had caused the war. Several days later he was with his burghers at Kimberley, praising their valour and infusing them with renewed courage. A day or two afterward he was again in Bloemfontein, arranging for the comfort of his men and caring for the wives and children who were left behind. His duties were increased a hundred-fold as the campaign progressed, and when the first reverses came he alone of the Free Staters was able to imbue the men with new zeal. After Bloemfontein was captured by the British he transferred the capital to Kroonstad, and there, with the assistance of President Kruger, re-established the fighting spirit of the burgher army. He induced the skulking burghers to return to their compatriots at the front, and formed the plans for future resistance against the invading army. When Lord Roberts's hosts advanced from Bloemfontein, President Steyn again moved the capital and established it at Heilbron. Thereafter the capital was constantly transferred from one place to another, but through all those vicissitudes the President clung nobly to his people and country.