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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Defeat of the rebels. February 22, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history, World War One.
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Free State scenery

This is the fourth part of a series that starts here and alternates with other posts.

Deneys Reitz was practicing law in Heilbron in the Free State, where nearly every citizen other than himself supported the rebellion.  On the morning of October 23, 1914, a man came to his office to warn him that the district commandant, David van Coller, was coming that night to take the town on behalf of De Wet, and that Reitz was to be shot in his own back yard.

Fortunately, Reitz had a very fast horse on which to escape.

Think of a cowboy galloping along, glued to the saddle, but change the cowboy gear to a regular man’s suit and hat, and change the saddle and bridle from Western to English, and you’ll have the idea of a Boer on his horse.

Reitz had grown up on horseback, jaunting off across the veld on long hunting expeditions with his brothers.  He fought the Boer War on horseback as well, and grieved when one after another of his faithful companions (as he thought of them) died along the way, wounded or starving or dropping from disease.  In Heilbron he had a horse named Bismarck, “one of the best in the country,”* and his African servant Ruiter had a fast Basuto pony—a tough, nimble breed that over the years 1899 to 1902 became the envy of the English.  When Reitz explained to Ruiter that they would be going for a bit of a ride, Ruiter replied that “we had the legs of any animal in the district.”  I quote the exact words because both the expression and the situation come out of a world that’s entirely extinct.

Typical image of Boers on horseback

Two other loyalists joined them at dusk, reporting that “all the countryside had risen, and mounted bands were patrolling in every direction.”  They rode silently out of town, found a hollow to hide in, and the next morning peeked over a hill to discover 70 armed men doggedly waiting for Reitz to ride over a nearby railway crossing.

From this point it becomes a good old-fashioned chase scene on horseback.  Off down the highway—pursuers thundering behind—reach rail depot—mail train comes in—Reitz and his two friends jump on the train—Ruiter leads their three horses off to an agreed meeting point.  Two themes come into play that will be familiar to readers of Commando.  One of the themes is that of “blossoming into field rank”—first Reitz learns that his chief foe has suddenly become a general, but then he himself abruptly becomes a commandant.  The other is that Reitz continues with his lifelong record of ridiculously good luck.  He not only escapes unscathed, but his band of followers magically grows from two to thirty to two hundred and fifty.  Incredible, but all true.

Reitz and his newly formed commando next join forces with a well-known figure named Coen Brits, famous for maintaining his military competence while completely pickled in alcohol.  Their assignment from Louis Botha is to chase down Christiaan De Wet, who is up to his old tricks, roaming the central Free State with a band of 5000 troublemaking men.  Botha has exchanged his prime minister’s hat for his general’s one and is personally leading his army into combat, a circumstance of course utterly impossible in today’s world.

The rebels have altogether about 12,000 men, but the loyalists number 32,000, of whom fully 20,000 are Boers who no longer subscribe to hatred of the British.  When Botha arrives in the northern Free State with a good chunk of these men, Reitz and his followers split off from Coen Brits to join Botha’s army, and they corner a body of rebels at a bend of the flooded Wilge River.

By early December the rebels are done in.  Maritz is defeated by Jacob van Deventer at Upington and escapes into “German West.”  (He lives until 1940 and becomes an ardent supporter of Hitler.)  Beyers drowns in the Vaal River while attempting to elude government forces, while the remains of his followers join forces with Kemp.  The men with Kemp then trek across the Kalahari Desert in an attempt to join Maritz in German West, but many die of thirst.  Some of the survivors of the Upington battle, and some of Kemp’s men, are involved in an abortive attack with German forces on the innocent little South African town of Kakamas—it is the only German invasion of a British Commonwealth town in all of WWI.  Most eventually return to surrender.

Sad is the story of what happens to De Wet.  Reitz described it best: Coen Brits had captured De Wet.  He had collected a number of motor cars, and with these wore down De Wet’s horses, until they could go no further.  When I heard how the obstinate old guerilla leader had been run to earth by the help of mechanical contrivances, I was almost sorry, for it spelt the end of our picturesque South African commando system . . . it would no longer be possible for mounted men to play hide-and-seek across the veld, and the good old days were gone for ever.

Botha was forgiving toward the rebels and let most of them simply go home.  Some of the leaders received fines or short terms of imprisonment.  De Wet was jailed but soon released to his farm on parole.

Now, it was time to invade German West.

*All quotes from Trekking On.  In The Trilogy of Deneys Reitz, Wolfe Publishing, Prescott AZ, 1994.

Deneys Reitz. Photo courtesy of Conrad Reitz.



1. Heather Vallance - February 25, 2010

I came across an article published shortly after the Jameson Raid, speculating about the consequences of a possible move to the Netherlands as consul by Denys’ father. The theme was that all other countries accepted the Transvaal as an independent country – all, except for the Empire. I must find the link and send it to you.

2. Jenny - February 25, 2010

Heather, great to hear from you! Yes, I’d be interested in that. Actually, I’m not too surprised that any nation other than Britain would have recognized the Transvaal, considering that many were of course traditionally competitors with Britain (France, Germany). There was most likely no official position on the part of the U.S. That would have been interesting–the U.S. had ties with Britain, but many Americans felt sympathy for the Boers, and some U.S. volunteers actually travelled to Africa to fight alongside them. There were some U.S. newspapers that reported on the war, and Howard Hillegas of one of the New York newspapers travelled with De Wet.

3. Arnold van Dyk - February 26, 2010

Hi Jenny
First time I read your blog.I knew Prof Barnard well and he often hosted the Friends of the War museum on our “uitstappies” about the numerous aspects of the war.We surely will miss him!!Pity I missed you on your visit to our country.I stay in Bloemfontein and would have enjoyed to show you Deneys’s world.I have a very useful collection on the anglo boer war and the Friends are currently busy preparing a number of lectures on the guerilla phase with the 110th comemmoration in mind.

Jenny - February 26, 2010

So glad you visited my blog. I truly wish I could return to South Africa and attend some of the events you are talking about. I had a wonderful trip there in 2005. I remember so well how helpful people were, Prof. Barnard being one of them. He was extremely generous with his time and answered many questions. I do hope to go back sometime, but I don’t think it’ll be this year. Thanks for your comment.

arnold van dyk - February 26, 2010

Thanks for your reply.I have more than 5000 books,pamphlets and memoribilia on the war.If you have any other specific interests on the war-dont hesitate to ask!!

Do you know Prof. Louis Changuion?He would certainly be willing to help with any information regarding American involvement as he is a real expert on that issue.
How do I order your book?My son is visiting SA for the world cup and would be able to bring it with.

4. Jenny - February 26, 2010


Thanks for your generous offer to share information. If I pursue the topic of American involvement in the war, I might ask you for Prof. Changuion’s contact info. My writings on the subject are at this point truly a “labor of love,” because I never was able to find a publisher for my manuscript, “Transvaal Citizen.” U.S. publishers rejected as too obscure, British because I had no scholarly background on the subject, and South African because (I think) they felt an American couldn’t possibly understand the subject! (I did get some friendly responses from publishers in SA, but no acceptance.) So that is one of the reasons I started this blog, so that I could share my ideas and writings with the public in some other form. I enjoy the subject so much that I am happy to continue my research just to explore it further. I could perhaps send you a chapter or two of “Transvaal Citizen” by email if you are interested.

arnold van dyk - February 27, 2010

Certainly I would be more than interested.Prof Barnard told me once that there is a lot of information on his schoolfriends from Grey College in the original script- would love to see that!!The school has a very strong Reunion Committee and it might be worthwile pursuing that avenue-you never know!Which publishers have you actually approached?With your permission I will see what I can do.Was the Reitz family not interested?
In the meantime I would love to read whatever you are willing to send me

Jenny - February 27, 2010

Arnold, I am going to respond by email.

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