SA’s war before the war: the 1914 anti-WW1 Boer rebellion

The First World War, the “war to end all wars”, made the whole of Europe a theatre of death, human desperation and cruelty, and fierce battles often resulted in almost no advantage for either side at all. In the pre-war period, the rising tide of European nationalism and a heated arms-race, combined with a precarious balance of power between nations, set the stage for a new type of war – a war fought from muddy, overpopulated and barb-wire protected trenches.

Fomenting discontent

When Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, all her dominions were thrown into the fray, whether they liked it or not. Still recovering from the South African War (1899-1902) – a war in which the imperial soldiers used the unbearable conditions of concentration camps to demoralise the Boer forces – many in South Africa fervently opposed supporting the English.

This included several of the Second Boer War’s most respected Boer leaders, who rebelled against General Louis Botha’s decision to join the fight on the side of the British Empire.

Strategic territorial gains

Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, 1919-1924 and 1939-1948. Image (1947) adapted from Yousuf Karsh

The administration of the brand new Union of South Africa, led by Boer General Louis Botha, however, saw advantage in joining the (colonial) African war efforts: taking German held territories could result in expanding the Union’s footprint.

For Example, Botha and Jan Smuts thought that Britain would offer the Portuguese the southern regions of German East Africa in exchange for the southern regions of Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). The latter territory would, they estimated, be transferred to the Union, thereby securing unfettered access to the port of Lorenco Marques. This would guarantee the ex-Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek a strategic route to the sea.

The rebellion

War memorial at the Union Buildings. Image adapted from Hein waschefort

The plans of the South African Party (SAP), however, certainly didn’t sit well with several Boer War veterans who saw the outbreak of the war as an opportunity to gain full independence from the British Empire. Moreover, fighting on the side of the Empire that had, just over a decade earlier, interred Boer women and children in camps specifically designed to create appalling conditions, was hardly palatable to SA’s Afrikaans-speaking nationalists.

The white concentration camps caused the deaths of 4 177 women, 22 074 children under sixteen and 1 676 men unfit for battle. Black concentration camps saw the deaths of an estimated 14 000 – 20 000 people.

An armed conflict between Botha’s loyalists and the rebelling faction (many of whom were ranking officers in the two-year-old Union Defence Force [UDF]) was inevitable. It was no surprise, then, that several of the rebel officers recruited relatively sizeable forces, and joined the Germans in South West Africa (SWA) – the first target of the Union’s military advances.

General Christiaan de Wet (left) mobilised rebels in the OFS. Image by Reinhold Thiele Theodor Seitz (right) served as the Governor of German South West Africa, and provided support to the rebels that crossed the border into the colony. Image source: Archiv DKG, Uni Frankfurt

The International Encyclopedia of the First World War points out,

…dissident Afrikaner nationalist republicans including [the first Commandant-General of the Union Defence Force, Christian Beyers] and many UDF senior officers objected to helping Britain. They resigned their commissions and gathered around apocalyptic Christian prophet Niklaas (Siener) van Rensburg (1864-1926) to plan a rebellion to make South Africa independent. A planned 15 September military coup was derailed when Beyers and Boer military hero Koos de la Rey (1847-1914), travelling by car, ran a police road block and the latter was shot and killed.


By late October [1914] around 11,500 armed Boer rebels had been mobilized by Christiaan de Wet (1854-1922) in the Orange Free State, and Beyers and Jan Kemp (1872-1946) in the Transvaal. They briefly occupied towns and ambushed trains but lacked coordination. Botha rejected imperial assistance and decided to crush the rebels with his force of 32,000 loyalists, mostly Afrikaners.

The aftermath

The Delville Wood South African National Memorial in France. Inscription appears in both Afrikaans and English. Image source: Carcharoth

Given superior numbers and disorganisation between the rebel factions, Botha and Smuts suppressed the rebellion and pressed ahead with their plans, including SA’s involvement in South West Africa, German East Africa, the Middle East and the Western European front. With due consideration to the dynamics of SA’s internal politics and the enduring comradery of old alliances, the administration showed pronounced leniency. Only one of 239 tried rebels received the death penalty for a treason conviction.

The longer term results, however, would be played out after the rebellion – in 1915, feeling the sting of what many considered to be a betrayal, J.B.M Hertzog and his likeminded political cohorts formed the National Party, which, of course, held power continuously for four and a half decades in the second half of the twentieth century.

Caxton Central

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