General De La Rey


General Jacobus Herculaas de la Rey (22 October 1847 – 15 September 1914), known as Koos de la Rey, was a Boergeneral during the Second Boer War and is widely regarded as being one of the strongest military leaders during that conflict.He is generally regarded as the bravest of the Boer generals during the Second Boer War and as one of the leading figures of Boer independence. As a guerrilla, his tactics proved extremely successful. De la Rey opposed the war until the last, but when he was once accused of cowardice during a Volksraad session by President Paul Kruger, he replied that if the time for war came, he would be fighting long after Paul Kruger had given up and fled for safety. This proved to be the case.

Born on the family farm Doornfontein in the Winburg District of the Orange Free State, he was the son of Adrianus Johannes Gijsbertus de la Rey and Adriana Wilhelmina van Rooyen. De la Rey was a Boer of Spanish, French Huguenot and Dutch descent.His grandfather, a school teacher and the patriarch of the De la Rey family in South Africa came from Utrecht, Netherlands. After the Battle of Boomplaats, the family farm was confiscated by the British and the family trekked into the Transvaal and settled in Lichtenburg. As a child De la Rey received very little formal education. The De la Rey family moved once again, this time to Kimberley after the discovery of diamonds. As a young man, De la Rey worked as a transport rider on the routes serving the diamond diggings at Kimberley.


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De la Rey married Jacoba Elizabeth (Nonnie) Greeff and the couple settled on Manana, the Greeff family farm. Manana had belonged to Jacoba's father Hendrik Adriaan Greeff, the founder of Lichtenburg. Later De la Rey bought the farm Elandsfontein. They had twelve children and they looked after another six children who lost their parents. De la Rey 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 prematurely patriarchal appearance. His sister Cornelia was married to Pieter Van der Hoff who was a nephew of Dirk Van der Hoff, founder of the Dutch Reformed church in RSA.De la Rey fought in the Basotho War of 1865 and Sekhukhune's War of 1876. He did not take a very active part in the First Boer War, but as field cornet in the western Transvaal, he took over Piet Cronje's Potchefstroom siege (1880 -1881) 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 General Piet Joubert, he opposed Paul Kruger's policies against the uitlanders, the foreigners who flocked to the Transvaal gold-rush, and warned it would lead to war with Britain.
  • Battle of Kraaipan, 12 October 1899.

On the outbreak of war, De la Rey was appointed one of Piet Cronjé's field generals. De la Rey led an attack that resulted in the first shots of the war being fired at Kraaipan in an attack on a British armored train that was on its way back to Kimberley from Mafeking. The train was derailed and after a five-hour fight, the British surrendered. This incident made De la Rey famous, but exacerbated his conflicts with the cautious and unimaginative Cronjé, who sent him to block the advance of the British forces moving to relieve the Siege of Kimberley.

  • Graspan on 25 November 1899.

Lieutenant General Lord Methuen, commander of the 1st Division, was tasked with raising the Boer siege of Kimberley and moved his force by rail to Belmont station in the northern Cape Province. On detraining they came under fire from a small force of Boers led by Commandant J. Prinsloo on Belmont Kopje; by the next morning the British were in position to shell, then charge, the hill, despite some losses. The Boers retreated to their horses at the back of 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 the Boers occupied several koppies, but with no better luck, as they were similarly forced off by artillery and infantry charges. The way lay open for Methuen's force to the Modder (Mud) River crossing, where the Boers had blown up the railway bridge.

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  • Battle of Modder River, 28 November 1899.

Having realized that the traditional Boer tactic of fighting from higher ground exposed them to the superior British artillery, De la Rey insisted that his men and Prinsloo's Free-Staters dig in on the banks of the Modder and Riet Rivers, the first use of trench warfare in the war. The plan was to hold fire until the British had approached close enough for the Boers' advantage in rifle fire to take effect, while making it difficult for the full force of the British artillery to be used. In the early hours the British troops advanced across the plain unopposed, but Prinsloo's men opened fire at long range, the troops took cover and the artillery pounded the Boer trenches. A series of British rushes pushed the Free-Staters back across the ford, and only a counter-attack led by De la Rey enabled the Boers to hold the field until dusk, when they slipped away. De la Rey was wounded and his son Adriaan was killed; he blamed Cronjé for failing to send reinforcements.

  • Magersfontein,
  • 11 December 1899.

After the Boers were forced back from the Modder River, the British spent some time repairing the Modder River bridge, while De la Rey had his men entrench on flat ground at the base of the Magersfontein hill. His controversial tactic was vindicated on 10 December when the hill was intensively shelled to no effect. Before dawn the following day, the crack Highland regiments were ordered to advance in close order. They alerted the defenders by stumbling across wires hung with tin cans and were soon pinned down. After nine hours taking heavy losses, including the brigade commander, Major General Wauchope, without managing to advance at all, they finally broke and retreated in disorder. The battle caused public mourning in Scotland and Methuen was sidelined; the relief of Kimberley would be entrusted to Lord Roberts.


Nevertheless, Magersfontein and the disasters on the Tugela River were the nadir of the British campaign and, thereafter, with massive reinforcements from all over the Empire, they gradually fought their way back. At Paardeberg (1900-02-08), while De la Rey was away rallying resistance to Major General French's advance in the Colesberg area of the Cape, the hapless Cronjé was trapped by Roberts and surrendered with his entire army. Bloemfontein was taken on 13 March 1900, Pretoria on 5 June; Kruger fled to Portuguese East Africa.Only a hard core of Boers were willing to remain in the field. De la Rey, Louis Botha and other commanders met near Kroonstad and laid down a new strategy of guerrilla war. 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, Donkerhoek and other places, and inflicting large losses of men and material on the British at Ysterspruit on 25 February 1902, where enough ammunition and supplies were captured to reinvigorate the Boer forces.


Only a hard core of Boers were willing to remain in the field. De la Rey, Louis Botha and other commanders met near Kroonstad and laid down a new strategy of guerrilla war. 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, Donkerhoek and other places, and inflicting large losses of men and material on the British at Ysterspruit on 25 February 1902, where enough ammunition and supplies were captured 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, his men roamed at will over vast areas and tied down tens of thousands of British troops. De la Rey 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 in April 1902, De la Rey's commandos, numbering up to 3,000 men, remained in the field until the end of the war.


De la Rey was noted for chivalrous behaviour towards his enemies. For example, at Tweebosch on 7 March 1902 he captured Lieutenant General Methuen along with several hundred of his troops. The troops were sent back to their lines because de la Rey had no means to support them, and Methuen was also released since he had broken his leg when his own horse had fallen on him.


To counter the guerilla campaign the British - under first Roberts and then Kitchener - adopted a scorched-earth counter-insurgency policy. This involved sweeping the country bare of everything that could give sustenance to the Boer guerrillas, including women and children, and included the destruction of crops, burning down 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 reached an extreme whereby 50% of the population of Boer children under 16 died. Such attritional tactics slowly eroded the will of the Boer fighters still in the field, and ultimately they realised that the costs exceeded the cause; there would soon be little left for them to fight for. The British interned tens of thousands of blacks in appalling conditions in the concentration camps as well, while on the other hand the Boers suspected other Blacks of sympathising with the British and of betraying the whereabouts of guerillas, leading to harsh reprisals.


The British offered terms of peace on various occasions, notably in March 1901, but Botha rejected the idea. Lord Kitchener requested that De la Rey meet with him at Klerksdorp on 11 March 1902 for a parley. The two enemies formed a bond of friendship which gave De la Rey confidence in the sincerity of the 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 and urged peace. The belligerents signed the Treaty of Vereeniging on 31 May 1902. De la Rey and General Botha visited England and the United States later in the same year. The Boers, promised eventual self-government (granted in 1906 and 1907 for the Transvaal and Orange Free State respectively), received £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 the impoverished Boers whose families and farms had been devastated. In 1903 he was in India and Ceylon, persuading the prisoners of war interned there 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 (1903), which was translated into English as "A Woman’s Wanderings and Trials During the Anglo-Boer War" translated by Lucy Hotz, and published in London (1903).


In 1907 De la Rey was elected to the new Transvaal Parliament, and he was one of the delegates to the National Convention which led to the Union of South Africa in 1910. He became a Senator and supported Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister, in his attempts to unite Boer and British. An opposing faction led by Hertzog wished to establish republican government as soon as possible and resisted co-operation with the British, while promoting an increasingly bitter racism that would come to 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 the government forces and the strikes were put down, but a dangerous atmosphere had formed.

With the outbreak of the First World War, a crisis ensued when Louis Botha agreed to send troops to take over the German colony of South West Africa (now Namibia). Many Boers were opposed to fighting for Britain and against Germany. Also, many were of German descent and Germany had been sympathetic to their struggle so they looked to De la Rey for leadership. In Parliament he advocated neutrality and stated that he was utterly opposed to war unless South Africa was attacked. Nevertheless he was persuaded by Botha and Jan Smuts not to take any actions which might arouse the Boers. De la Rey appears to have been torn between loyalty to his comrades-in-arms, most of whom had joined the Hertzog faction, and his sense of honour.


Siener van Rensburg attracted large crowds with accounts of 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. The excited Boers took this as a sign that De la Rey would be triumphant, but van Rensburg himself believed the dream warned of death.

On 15 September 1914 an old comrade General C.F. Beyers, Commandant-General of the armed forces, resigned his commission and sent his car to fetch De la Rey from Johannesburg to Pretoria as he wished to consult with him. The two generals then set out that evening for Potchefstroom military camp where General JCG Kemp had also resigned. They encountered several police roadblocks but refused to stop; the roadblocks had in fact been set to capture the Foster gang. At Langlaagte the police fired on the speeding car and a bullet struck De la Rey's back, ending his life; his last words were dit is raak ('It hit'). He returned to his Lichtenburg farm as van Rensburg had predicted. Many Boers were convinced he had been deliberately assassinated, while 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 the senior officers in protest at the attack on South West Africa. The theory of a government assassination holds sway to this day.

Not long after De la Rey's funeral the short-lived Maritz Rebellion broke out and De Wet; Beyers; General Maritz, commander of a force on the border of the German colony; Kemp; and other Boer veterans took up arms again but most of the army remained loyal and the rebellion was swiftly put down by Botha and Smuts. The rebels were pardoned just two years later by Botha in the interests of national reconciliation. While De la Rey would probably have been quite capable of taking to the field again at 67, it seems unlikely he would have gone against his word, especially as he had played such a leading role in bringing about the peace of Vereeniging.

De la Rey was buried in the Lichtenburg graveyard, 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 foundation in 1902. The Voortrekkers movement placed a small memorial to him on his farm. De la Rey's equestrian statue on the De la Rey square of Lichtenburg's city hall, was sculpted by a town resident, Hennie Potgieter