Martinus Theunis Steyn 1857-1916
Marthinus Theunis Steyn was born at Rietfontein, Winburg on 2 October 1857 and died at Bloemfontein on 28 November 1916. His father was Marthinus Steyn and his mother Cecilia Wessels. He first attended a farm school and then went to Grey College, Bloemfontein. At the suggestion of Judge James Buchanan he continued his education at Deventer in the Netherlands. Before sitting for the admission examination to the University of Leyden he decided on legal training at the Inner Temple in London, where he was admitted early in the 1880’s. In 1882 he was called to the bar.
He now returned to Free State and soon had a flourishing practice in Bloemfontein. On 10 March 1887 he married Rachel Isabella (Tibbie) Fraser. His public career began in 1889 with his appointment as Attorney-General. He rose rapidly through the ranks and on 5 May 1892 he was promoted to first criminal judge. When FW Reitz resigned as president in 1895 Steyn seemed to be the obvious choice for the succession. J.G. Fraser, the other candidate opposed closer cooperation with the South African Republic (ZAR), while Steyn supported it. The Jameson Raid put the result beyond any doubt. Steyn won and was sworn in as president on 4 March 1896. Although he was just 39 years old his decisions and the naturalness with which he adapted to his high position bore testimony to an already mature attitude to life. He also displayed a strong sense of mission and duty.
Closer cooperation with the South African Republic did not exclude cooperation with the rest of South Africa. Steyn believed that, after the Jameson Raid, political feeling in the Cape Colony supported the republics. Sir Alfred Milner, the new British High Commissioner soon challenged this relationship as he was an ardent imperialist. From 1896 onwards he was busy with the strengthening of the loyalty and political cohesion of the English-speaking South Africans and to channeling Uitlander discontent and opposition to Kruger’s government. Steyn, however, considered British imperialism a danger to the independence of the Orange Free State. At a conference in Bloemfontein in March 1897, attended by Pres Kruger, Steyn proposed that they should extend the political alliance of 1889 by adding a clause to the effect that the two governments would consult with each other on all matters that could lead to war with Great Britain. Steyn attempted to persuade the Transvaal government to become more flexible in their policies regarding Uitlander franchise and the dynamite monopoly. In 1899 the situation came to a head when Milner broke off talks with Kruger about the franchise question during the Bloemfontein Conference (31 May-5 June 1899) – a meeting instigated by Steyn.
War was now clearly imminent. On 27 September 1899 he presented to the Free State Volksraad a clear and final report on the negotiations and concluded that he would rather lose the independence of the Free State with honour. During the first months of the war he solved innumerable problems and visited the commandos to encourage his burghers. After the catastrophic surrender of general Piet Cronje at Paardeberg Steyn called on the demoralised burghers to make a determined stand: first at Poplar Grove (07/03/1900) and then at Abrahamskraal (10/03/1900) but without success. On 13 March Lord Roberts entered Bloemfontein. Steyn and the government had left Bloemfontein on the 12th. At Kroonstad Steyn was chairman of a joint Council of War where Kruger and General Piet Joubert were also present. Here they decided to abolish wagons and to employ mounted commandos in future thus giving the Boers increased mobility. The OFS government now had to fall back repeatedly before the advance of Lord Roberts. When Bethlehem fell into British hands on 7 July the seat of the government was “in the field.” Steyn and his executive council now remained with De Wet throughout the war. Steyn often had to intervene when Transvaal wished to open negotiations with the British. In May 1900 he went to Pretoria to encourage a dejected president Kruger. When peace negotiations were mentioned Steyn remained adamant that the war was to continue. At Senekal a deeply upset Steyn heard about Botha’s negotiations with Kitchener at Middelburg (28/02/1901). Although nothing came of this, it was a clear indication that Transvaal’s resolve to continue with the war was again wavering. Steyn met with the Transvaal government at Klipdrif near Vrede and they decided to continue with the struggle. After being informed of another round of negotiation between the ZAR and Kitchener in May 1901 he forcefully protested that the OFS had not been consulted about the meeting with the Transvalers at Waterval. On 31 October 1900 he rejoined De Wet in the Western Transvaal. and returned with him to the Orange Free State. Near Bothaville they almost fell into the enemy’s hands. In December Steyn accompanied De Wet during his first unsuccessful attempt to invade the Cape Colony. He also accompanied De Wet during his second abortive attempt to invade the Cape Colony in 10 February 1901. When his term of office expired he insisted that they should hold a presidential election. Steyn was the only candidate and at Doornberg they solemnly administered the oath of office and reconstituted the executive council. On 11 July 1901, Steyn, through the efforts of Ruiter, his personal servant, managed to evade capture at Reitz. His bodyguard and the members of his government however were captured and he had to reconstitute his cabinet. Steyn’s official replies to British proclamations were legally well-reasoned, and were worded in a way that encouraged the burghers. On 19 March 1900 the President delivered his answer to Roberts’s annexation of the Free State. In this he solemnly declared that the republic of the Free State still existed, despite the so-called annexation. On 7 August 1901 there was another one of Kitchener’s threatening proclamations in which all who did not surrender before 15 September were threatened with banishment and confiscation of property. In Steyn’s reply of 15 August he pointed out to Kitchener his inadmissible methods of warfare. After a few Republican victories towards the end of 1901, e.g. Tafelkop (20 December) and Groenkop (25 December) Steyn joined the commando of General de la Rey at Doornspruit in March 1902 to consult Dr von Rennenkampf about his eyes, which showed the first symptoms of the serious disease that subsequently afflicted him. Here Acting President Schalk Burger informed him that the first steps towards final negotiations for peace were under way. On 9 April 1902 the governments of the two republics met at Klerksdorp. Although his legs were already semi-paralysed, his will remained indomitable. His only condition for peace was the retention of independence. When the governments met Kitchener on 12 April at Pretoria it was decided to summon representatives of the burghers in the field, because only the people, according to the constitutions of the republics, could decide the question of their independence. Kitchener was extremely impressed by Steyn and said of him: “He is head and shoulders above the others, and has great influence.” On 15 May, when he arrived at Vereeniging he was almost totally paralysed. He only attended two meetings but Rev J.D. Kestell and his generals kept him informed and consulted him regularly. On 29 May, he left for Kroonstad where medical attention was available. He resigned as president and was thus spared the bitterness of signing the treaty of Vereeniging. By the time his wife joined him on 11 June 1902 he was completely helpless. With the financial aid of friends they left for Europe to seek medical aid for his condition. For the next three years Prof. C. Winkler and various other physicians treated Steyn. In 1903 he had recovered sufficiently to return home where they settled at Onze Rust. He welcomed self-government in 1907 as the movement for a united South Africa was very dear to him. Steyn was to serve as one of the Free State delegates at the National Convention at Durban in October/November 1908, where he was elected vice-chairman. He exercised great influence both in and out of the conference hall. He was a candidate for the premiership but because of health reasons he declined and retired to his farm. He, however, was not aloof from national affairs. His door was always open and friends and leaders often sought his advice. On 16 December 1913 the National Women’s Memorial for which he, more than anyone else, had worked, was unveiled in Bloemfontein. On 28 November 1916 he died suddenly while addressing the Oranje Vrouevereniging in the Memorial Hall in Bloemfontein. He is buried at the foot of the Women’s Memorial. Christiaan Rudolph de Wet was born at Leeukop in the Smithfield district on 7 October 1854 and died at Klipfontein, Dewetsdorp on 3 February, 1922. His father Jacobus de Wet was married to Aletta Strydom. In 1854 they settled in the Smithfield district where Christiaan was born. As a child he received very little formal education. In 1873 he married Cornelia Kruger. When Transvaal was annexed in 1877 they moved to the Vredefort district, to be on the spot in case of hostilities. He again changed farms before settling in the district of Heidelberg (ZAR) in 1880. When war broke out in 1881 between the ZAR and Britain he took part in the battles of Laingsnek, Ingogo and Majuba. After farming in various districts of the ZAR he returned to the Free State and purchased Nieuwejaarsfontein, formerly his father’s farm. In 1896 he moved to the farm Rooipoort in the Heilbron district. He was elected to the Free State Volksraad in 1889 – a position he held until 1898. In September 1899 he acquired his famous grey Arab, Fleur. With the onset of war De Wet left for the front as an ordinary burgher of the Heilbron command under Lucas Steenkamp. When Steenkamp fell ill De Wet was elected acting commandant. At the battle of Nicholson’s Nek (30/10/1899) he managed to drive the British troops from their positions with only 300 men.
In December 1899 President Steyn appointed De Wet as field-general under General PA Cronje on the western front. De Wet and General J.H. de la Rey tried in vain to persuade Cronje to go on the offensive. Cronje was finally pinned down by Lord Roberts’s forces at Paardeberg. De Wet, however, managed to avoid being caught up in this debacle. Although he managed to help Commandants J. Potgieter and C.C.Froneman to break out from the trap, his attempt to free Cronje failed. Cronje surrendered on 27 February 1900. Steyn now entrusted the command of the Free State commandos to De Wet. On 7 March 1900 he tried in vain to check the British advance on Bloemfontein at Poplar Grove. A further attempt at Abrahamskraal (Driefontein) on the 10th also failed and on the 13th Roberts occupied Bloemfontein. De Wet now disbanded the commandos, with orders to reassemble at the Sand River on 25 March. A new spirit prevailed among the burghers when they reassembled. They were also informed that cowards and deserters would be strictly disciplined. In accordance with the resolution passed at the council of war at Kroonstad (17/03/1900) De Wet urged the burghers to get rid of their wagons as this seriously impeded their progress. From now on he planned and carried out his operations with complete secrecy. Treachery and lack of discipline were greater obstacles to him than the enemy’s superior force. He was a strict taskmaster, demanding total dedication from his burghers. Although he was not always too popular, his unerring certainty when summing up a situation and issuing commands and his uncanny sense of timing and direction, combined with his many successes ensured his men’s complete confidence and support. On 31 March 1900 De Wet dealt the British a severe blow when he defeated Brigadier-General R.G. Broadwood’s forces at Sannaspos near Bloemfontein. After the railway bridge across the Vaal River had been damaged, huge stores of provisions, destined for the British army, accumulated at Roodewal station. De Wet launched a direct attack on the station on 7 June 1900 where he managed to capture supplies worth £ 500 000. To counter De Wet’s operations the British army assembled more than 15 000 men and marched on Bethlehem where De Wet put up a gallant defence. He had to retreat to the Brandwater Basin as the odds were too great. On 15 July De Wet, Steyn and the government managed to escape unscathed from the trap set by the British generals in the Brandswater Basin. General Michael Prinsloo was not as fortunate and had to surrender with 3500 burghers on 30 July 1900 Roberts concluded that he can probably end the war if he succeeded in capturing De Wet. He now initiated a large scale operation known as the “First De Wet Hunt.” About 50 000 men were soon on the trail of the ever elusive Boer general who crossed into Transvaal, and succeeded in shaking of his pursuers by crossing the Magaliesberg at Olifantsnek on 14 August 1900. After a thorough reorganisation of the Boer forces burghers who had taken the oath of neutrality were called up again. De Wet headed the drive in the Free State and through his efforts and encouragement many a Freestater rejoined the commandos. For De Wet the adoption of guerrilla tactics heralded a period of reverses e. g at Frederickstad (20-25 October 1900) and Doornkraal (6 /11/1900) near Bothaville. To relieve the pressure on the Eastern Free State De Wet invaded the Cape Colony. Three columns under General CE Knox took part in the second De Wet hunt. Heavy rains and a flooded Orange River thwarted Wet’s plans. He managed to evade capture and on 14 December he broke through the British lines near Thaba Nchu. At the end of January 1901 he again attempted to invade the Cape Colony. Seventeen flying columns (14 000 troops) now took part in the third De Wet hunt. De Wet finally crossed the Orange on 10 February 1901 but the lack of horses and torrential rain frustrated his plans. On 28 February he returned to the Free State. This second invasion was a dismal failure as he lost the strategic initiative and from then on he would be largely committed to defensive warfare. To bring the war to an end Kitchener had a formidable line of blockhouses built and he started flushing out the Boers in a series of systematic drives. Even these measures proved ineffective against De Wet as he broke through the lines at will. Shortly after inflicting heavy losses on the British forces at Groenkop (25/12/1901) he managed to evade one extensive drive only to be caught up in another. Again he managed to escape. During March 1902 he operated in the western Free State, but the end was in sight. The scorched earth policy and the plight of the women and children in the concentration camps brought the Boers to the negotiation table. Although De Wet was still prepared to carry on with the relentless struggle it was clear that most of the delegates at Vereeniging were opposed to prolonging the war. De Wet signed the peace treaty in his capacity as acting president of the Free State (29-31 May 1902) as Steyn was by then too ill. He then visited the commandos to persuade them to lay down their arms. In July 1902 De Wet, J.H. de la Rey and Louis Botha left for Europe where they raised funds for the reconstruction of the country. While on board the Saxon he wrote his wartime reminiscences” De Strijd tusschen Boer en Brit” (1902), aided by Rev JD Kestell. Back in South Africa De Wet was a founder member of the Orangia Unie. He was Minister of Agriculture after the Orange River Colony was granted self-government. In 1910 De Wet retired from politics and settled on his farm, Allanvale, near Memel. When the First World War started in 1914 De Wet was against Botha’s attack of German South West Africa. The situation was aggravated when Martial Law was declared and men were called up from all over the country. This created the impression that the Government had departed from its undertaking to use only volunteers. De Wet now favoured a form of armed protest which became a reality when the government started with the commandeering of burghers. During a skirmish at Doornberg (8/11/1914 his son Danie and several other rebels were killed. De Wet evaded his pursuers and was finally captured at Waterbury near Vryburg on 30 November 1914. He was held in the Johannesburg Fort. Six months later he was found guilty on a charge of high treason and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment and a fine of £2000 which was soon paid from voluntary contributions. In response to representations made by several influential people the Government granted him a reprieve and he returned to Allanvale on parole. He sold Allanvale and after settling for a few years near Edenburg, he returned to the Dewetsdorp district where he settled on Klipfontein. He died on 23 February 1922 and was laid to rest at the foot of the Women’s Memorial. memorial to those banished to foreign lands There were early Boer military successes against the scattered British. The Boers were able to besiege the towns of Mafeking (defended by troops headed by Colonel Robert Baden-Powell), and Kimberley (defended by troops headed by Lt-Col Kekewich) on the borders of the Transvaal. The major British concentration was in northern Natal under Sir George White. White’s troops, who were dangerously dispersed, were defeated separately, and were besieged in Ladysmith. those sent to St. Helena an Island in the Atlantic Ocean Siege life took its toll on both the defending soldiers and the civilians in the cities of Mafeking, Ladysmith, and Kimberley as food began to grow scarce after a few weeks. In Mafeking, Sol Plaatje wrote, “I saw horseflesh for the first time being treated as a human foodstuff.” The cities under siege also dealt with constant artillery bombardment, making the streets a dangerous place. Near the end of the siege of Kimberley, it was expected that the Boers would intensify their bombardment, so a notice was displayed encouraging people to go down into the mines for protection. The townspeople panicked, and people flowed into the mineshafts constantly for a 12-hour period. Although the bombardment never came, this did nothing to diminish the distress of the civilians. Many of the townspeople, now under siege, sheltered in the local convent, now the Mcgregor museum. Since the mining that occurred there, for diamonds, was open air, the people were not able to shelter in mine shafts. The mine is now known as the Big Hole, a popular tourist attraction in the area. Major British reinforcements were arriving under General Redvers Henry Buller. He originally intended an offensive straight up the railway line leading from Cape Town through Bloemfontein to Pretoria. Finding on arrival that the British troops already in South Africa were under siege, he split his Army Corps into several widely spread detachments, to relieve the besieged garrisons. flag of the Transvaal British commanders had trained on the lessons of the Crimean War, and could adapt themselves to battalion and regimental columns manoeuvring in jungles, deserts and mountainous regions; what they entirely failed to comprehend was the trench fighting and cavalry raids of the American Civil War. The British troops went to war with what would prove to be antiquated tactics, and in some cases antiquated weapons, against the mobile Boer forces with the destructive fire of their modern Mausers, the latest Krupp field guns and their innovative tactics. flag of the Orange Free State The middle of December was disastrous for the British army. In a period known as Black Week (10 – 15 December 1899), the British suffered a series of devastating losses at Magersfontein, Stormberg, and Colenso. At the Battle of Stormberg on 10 December, British General Sir William Gatacre, who was in command of 3,000 troops protecting against Boer raids in Cape Colony, tried to recapture a railway junction about 50 miles (80 km) south of the Orange River. But Gatacre chose to assault the Orange Free State Boer positions surmounting a precipitous rock face in which he lost 135 killed and wounded, as well as two guns and over 600 troops captured. battle scene At the Battle of Magersfontein on 11 December, 14,000 British troops, under the command of Lieutenant-General Lord Methuen, attempted to fight their way to relieve Kimberley. The Boer commanders, Koos de la Rey and Piet Cronje, devised a plan to dig trenches in an unconventional place to fool the British and to give their riflemen a greater firing range. The plan worked and this tactic helped write the doctrine of the supremacy of the defensive position, using modern small arms and trench fortifications. At Magersfontein, the British were decisively defeated, suffering the loss of 120 British soldiers killed and 690 wounded, which prevented them from relieving Kimberley and Mafeking. “Such was the day for our regiment Dread the revenge we will take. Dearly we paid for the blunder – A drawing-room General’s mistake. Why weren’t we told of the trenches? Why weren’t we told of the wire? Why were we marched up in column, May Tommy Atkins enquire….” From the “Battle of Magersfontein,” verse by Private Smith of the Black Watch December 1899. Quoted in, ‘Thomas Pakenham’s “The Boer War,” page 115. But the nadir of Black Week was the Battle of Colenso on 15 December where 21,000 British troops commanded by Buller himself, attempted to cross the Tugela River to relieve Ladysmith where 8,000 Transvaal Boers, under the command of Louis Botha, were awaiting them. Through a combination of artillery and accurate rifle fire, the Boers repelled all British attempts to cross the river. The British had a further 1,126 casualties, and lost 10 artillery pieces to the Boers during the ensuing retreat. The Boer forces suffered 40 casualties. British forces The British suffered further defeats in their attempts to relieve Ladysmith at the Battle of Spion Kop of 19 to 24 January 1900, where Buller again attempted to cross the Tugela west of Colenso and was defeated again by Louis Botha after a hard-fought battle for a prominent hill feature which resulted in a further 1,000 British casualties and nearly 300 Boer casualties. Buller attacked Botha again on 5 February at Vaal Krantz and was again defeated. By taking command in person in Natal, Buller allowed the overall direction of the war to drift. Because of concerns about his performance and negative reports from the field, he was replaced as Commander in Chief by Field Marshal Lord Roberts. Roberts first intended like Buller to attack directly along the Cape Town – Pretoria railway but, again like Buller, was forced to relieve the beleaguered garrisons. Leaving Buller in command in Natal, Roberts massed further reinforcements near the Orange River and on 14 February 1900, he launched a major attack to relieve Kimberley. The city was relieved on 15 February by a cavalry division under Lieutenant General John French. At the Battle of Paardeberg on 18 February to 27 February 1900, Roberts then surrounded General Piet Cronje’s retreating Boer army, and forced him to surrender with 4000 men after a siege lasting a week. Meanwhile, Buller at last succeeded in forcing a crossing of the Tugela, and defeated Botha’s outnumbered forces north of Colenso, allowing the Relief of Ladysmith the day after Cronje surrendered. Roberts then advanced into the Orange Free State from the west, capturing Bloemfontein, the capital, on March 13. Meanwhile, he detached a small force to relieve Baden-Powell, and the Relief of Mafeking on May 18, 1900 provoked riotous celebrations in Britain. After being forced to delay for several weeks at Bloemfontein due to shortage of supplies and enteric fever (caused by poor hygiene, drinking bad water at Paardeburg and appalling medical care), Roberts resumed his advance. He was forced to halt again at Kroonstad for 10 days, due once again to the collapse of his medical and supply systems, then finally captured Johannesburg on May 31 and the capital of the Transvaal, Pretoria, on June 5. (Before the war, the Boers had constructed several forts south of Pretoria, but the artillery had been removed from the forts for use in the field, and in the event the Boers abandoned Pretoria without a fight.) British observers believed the war to be all but over after the capture of the two capital cities. However, the Boers had earlier met at the temporary new capital of the Orange Free State, Kroonstad, and planned a guerrilla campaign to hit the British supply and communication lines. The first engagement of this new form of warfare was at Sanna’s Post on 31 March where 1,500 Boers under the command of Christiaan De Wet attacked Bloemfontein’s waterworks about 23 miles (37 km) east of the city, and ambushed a heavily escorted convoy which resulted in 155 British casualties and the capture of seven guns, 117 wagons and 428 British troops. After the fall of Pretoria, one of the last formal battles was at Diamond Hill on 11 – 12 June, where Roberts attempted to drive the remnants of the Boer field army beyond striking distance of Pretoria. Although Roberts drove the Boers from the hill, the Boer commander, Louis Botha, did not regard it as a defeat, for he inflicted more casualties on the British (totalling 162 men) while suffering around 50 casualties. The set-piece period of the war now largely gave way to a mobile guerrilla war, but one final operation remained. President Kruger and what remained of the Transvaal government had retreated to eastern Transvaal. Roberts, joined by troops from Natal under Buller, advanced against them, and broke their last defensive position at Bergendal on August 26. As Roberts and Buller followed up along the railway line to Komatipoort, Kruger sought asylum in Portuguese East Africa (modern Mozambique). Some dispirited Boers did likewise, and the British gathered up much war material. However, the core of the Boer fighters under Botha easily broke back through the Drakensberg mountains into the Transvaal highveld after riding north through the bushveld. Under the new conditions of the war, heavy equipment was no use to them, and therefore no great loss. In October, President Kruger and members of the Transvaal government left South Africa on the Dutch warship De Gelderland, sent by the Queen of the Netherlands Wilhelmina, which had simply ignored the British naval blockade of South Africa. Paul Kruger’s wife was too ill to travel and remained in South Africa where she died on 20 July 1901 without seeing Paul Kruger again. President Kruger went to first Marseille and then stayed for a while in The Netherlands, before moving to Clarens, Switzerland, where he died in exile on 14 July 1904. By September 1900, the British were nominally in control of both Republics, with the exception of the northern part of Transvaal. However, they discovered that they only controlled the ground their columns physically occupied. The Boer commanders adopted a guerrilla style of warfare. The Boer commandos were sent to their own districts where they had local support and the knowledge of the terrain, towns and district and could live off the land. Their orders were simply to act against the British whenever possible. Their strategy was to strike fast and hard causing as much damage to the enemy as possible, and then to withdraw and vanish before enemy reinforcements could arrive. The vast distances of the Republics allowed the Boer commandos considerable freedom to move about and made it impossible for the 250,000 British troops to control the territory effectively using columns alone. As soon as the British columns left a town or district, British control of that area faded away. The Boers were especially effective during the initial guerrilla phase of the war because Roberts had assumed that the war would end with the capture of the Boer capitals and the dispersal of the main Boer armies. Many British troops were redeployed, and replaced by lower-quality contingents of Imperial Yeomanry and locally-raised irregular corps. However, the British quickly revised their tactics. The British had first erected lines of fortified blockhouses to protect the railway lines. They now built fresh lines of these and linked them by barbed wire fences, to parcel up the wide veld into smaller areas to prevent free Boer movement across the veld. The controlled areas could be regularly swept and “New Model” drives were mounted under which a continuous line of troops would now effectively sweep an area of veld bounded by blockhouse lines, unlike the earlier inefficient scouring of the countryside by scattered columns. The British also targeted everything that could give sustenance to the guerrillas under their “Scorched Earth” policy making it harder and harder for the Boers to survive. British troops swept the countryside, interning women and children in concentration camps, destroying crops, burning down homesteads and farms, poisoning wells, and salting fields. They also established their own mounted raiding columns to follow and relentlessly harass the Boers, and utilised armoured trains to deliver rapid reaction forces in response to intelligence of Boer activity.