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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Why take the British side? February 7, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history, World War One.
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Reitz had fought against the British at Spion Kop

This is the second part of a series that starts here.

When the First World War broke out, many Boers sympathized with the Germans more than with the British—even though the consequence of the Boer War (1899-1902) was that they were all now British citizens.  Many truly hated “the English” with a vengeance, still dreaming that their independent republics—the Transvaal, the Orange Free State—might somehow be restored to them.

Deneys Reitz had fought the British from the very beginning to the very end of the war, from the age of 17 to 20.  Following the Treaty of Vereeniging in June, 1902, he went into exile in Madagascar rather than pledge loyalty to King Edward.  Yet, in WWI, he not only fought in Germany’s African colonies with the army of the British-aligned Union of South Africa, he went out of his way to journey as a volunteer all the way to Europe and join the British army on the Western Front.  What made him change his thinking?

When Reitz went to Madagascar, he tried to start a business conveying goods by ox cart.  But he ran into endless problems.  The steep roads through the mountainous jungle weren’t suited to ox convoys.  The heavy wagons tumbled off precipitous paths and broke through the planks of rickety bridges.  The enterprise became a financial disaster, and he couldn’t pay the wages of his wagon drivers.

Madagascar highland plateau

He was also suffering from severe malaria.  Quite often he had to rest in the jungle for days, drenched in sweat, his teeth chattering with fever.  Pursued by creditors and wracked by illness, he decided to flee Madagascar.  On a strange and delirious journey, aboard a succession of boats that bumped along the African coast, he finally resolved to go home to South Africa, though none of his family were there.  His father had gone to Texas—having read admiringly of George Washington successfully fighting the British—and his brothers were scattered far and wide.  He was barely alive by the time he got back.  When at last he arrived at the Pretoria train station, he collapsed unconscious on the platform.  A former comrade, Ben Coetzee, recognized him, and he was taken to the home of his former commando leader, Jan Smuts.

He was back in Pretoria by December 1903, according to information I have obtained from his family, but Reitz seemed later embarrassed at having abandoned his decision to go into exile in a fairly short time.  He was vague about the timeframe in his account in Trekking On, and in his third book, No Outspan, he referred to “eking out a precarious existence for some years” in Madagascar.  He needn’t have been embarrassed.  It was financially and physically impossible for him to stay in Madagascar or to strike out on a new course anywhere else.

Jan Smuts in the Boer War

It took him several years, convalescing at the Smuts household, to fully recover from the malaria.  Eventually he took up the study of law, and he left Pretoria in 1908 to start his own practice.  During those years in Pretoria, he had contact not only with Smuts but with Louis Botha, who had been Commandant-General of Boer forces during the war.  Botha would become the first prime minister of the newly created Union of South Africa in 1910.  Smuts and Botha took the stance that South Africa could only move forward in a changing modern world by way of cooperation between citizens of English and Dutch descent.  (Blacks were of course invisible in this picture and would remain so for many years.)  During the peace talks in 1902, those two had maintained a more conciliatory position than their crusty compatriot Christiaan De Wet.  By that final stage in the war, the Boer population was literally starving and many of the women and children had been put in concentration camps.  In the face of this reality, the stubbornness of De Wet was something like an impossible, mystical state.

Louis Botha in the Boer War

When Reitz returned from his exile, the malaria became a barrier that separated two parts of his life.  From the adventures of war and exile, he didn’t go into a different mode of activity but actually into unconsciousness.  Out of this time of shapeless existence, new ideas were able to form.

In looking for the reasons for his change of heart, some might say that in those years he “came under the influence” of Smuts and Botha.  But that isn’t really quite right.  Of course he listened to what they said, and it’s clear from his writings that he agreed with the substance of it.  Yet there was something already in him that predisposed him not to live in the past—not to live out his years wishing the old days of the Boer republics could come back.  He’d always been a skeptical person, unsentimental, having no taste for the mystical, the emotional, the hysterical.  He risked his life for abstractions like independence, but once he’d made up his mind on any course, his approach became quite practical.  He was an interesting combination of things: an idealist with a lot of common sense who was willing to put up the ultimate fight.

# # #

The sheet music shown below is for a song called “Farewell to the Vierkleur,” written by Francis William Reitz, the father of Deneys Reitz and formerly the state secretary of the Transvaal Republic.  The Vierkleur was the four-colored flag of the Transvaal. On the occasion of the signing of the Treaty of Vereeniging, F.W. Reitz had ceremoniously buried the Transvaal flag, tears in his eyes.  (The illustration shows the Transvaal flag on the right and the Orange Free State flag on the left.)

"Varwel aan de Vierkleur"


1. Soldier's Mail - February 14, 2010

Great to read thoughtful material regarding the Boer War and the integration of some of the Afrikaner protagonists into the British world in spite of themselves. Can’t wait to read what you have to say about about the experience of one soldier being weighed against an entire war in the case of Reitz. You might also be interested in Soldier’s Mail which posts letters on the same date they were written from the American front in the Great War. The resonance seems to be very much the same.


Jenny - February 14, 2010

Thanks so much for your comment, Rich. I’ve taken a look at Soldier’s Mail, and I see that the site has a great amount of fascinating material and also some interesting-looking links. I look forward very much to exploring further.

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