General Christiaan Rudolph de Wet

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.