By the Rt Hon J C Smuts
When Colonel Reitz asked me to write a preface to his book of Boer War memories, I at first hesitated, as I feared that I might be introducing a book in which I myself figured in some degree. However, on reading the manuscript, I find that I am only casually mentioned here and there and have therefore no reason not to comply with his request.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to introduce this book to the reading public. To me it is a wonderful book - wonderful in its simplicity and realism, its calm intensity and absorbing human interest. Here is the book of the Boer War for which I have been waiting for the last twenty-five years and more. Many military books have been written on the Boer War - books full of interest and of valuable material for the future historian; but something else was wanted. The Boer War was other than most wars. It was a vast tragedy in the life of a people, whose human interest far surpassed its military value. A book was wanted which would give us some insight into the human side of this epic struggle between the smallest and the greatest of peoples.
Here we have it at last. There is no strategy and little tactics in this plain unvarnished tale. Wars pass, but the human soul endures; the interest is not so much in the war as in the human experience behind it. This book tell the simple straight forward story of what the Boer War meant to one participant in it. Colonel Reitz entered the war as a stripling of seventeen years, fought right through it to the end, and immediately after its conclusion wrote down these memories. Of military adventures there is of course full measure. He passed through as varied a record of exciting experiences as have ever fallen to the lot of a young man. Indeed much of what is written in this book with such boyish simplicity may appear to the reader well-nigh incredible. But it is a true story, and the facts are often understated rather than exaggerated. The exciting Incidents, the hair-breadth escapes, the daredevilry are literally true, and the dangers he passed through and courted are such as to make his unvarnished record read like one of pure romance. But there is here more than a record of war adventure. We have not only an unforgettable picture of mobile guerrilla warfare, but also an accurate description of life among the Boer forces. It is given, not in an abstract generalized form, but as the actual experience of one particular individual. As we read, we follow a true personal story which is often stranger than fiction. The interest of the story deepens as it moves on from the heavy fighting in the Natal campaign under Botha through the guerrilla warfare under Delarey in the Western Transvaal, to the climax of marching and privation under me in the Cape Colony. The intimate pictures give us the inner truth of the war. We see how human beings react under the most terrible stresses to the passion of patriotism. We see how, under the influence of an ideal - in this case the ideal of freedom - the most ordinary humans material rings true and rises superior to all danger and suffering and privation. And the effect is all the more striking because the story is so simple and unadorned and objective.
This book gives a wonderful personal record. But its wonder does not end with the book. The Boer boy who wrote this book was in the Wordsworthian sense the father of the man of after years. Let me add a few details to bring the account up to date. The boy left the country as an irreconcilable after the conclusion of the Boer War, as he and his family chose not to live under the British flag. He drifted to Madagascar, where these memories were written in the intervals of malaria and transport riding. There a letter from my wife found him, urged him to return and pointed out to him that he was no better than her husband, and if the latter could afford to serve his people under the Union Jack surely his young friend could do the same. The shaft went home; Reitz returned and was nursed back by her to health and peace of mind. He learnt to see Botha's great vision of a united South African people to whom the memories of the Boer War would mean no longer bitterness but only the richness and the inspiration of a spiritual experience. The loyalty of the Boer boy ripened into the broader' loyalty of the South African. And I remember a night on the outbreak of the rebellion in 1914, when Reitz once more appeared before me, this time a fugitive, not from the British, but from his own people in the Free State who had gone into rebellion. Such tricks does high fate play upon us poor humans. He did his duty in helping to suppress the rebellion, and thereafter he served on my staff in the German West campaign, just as he had done in the Boer War; in the German East campaign he rose to command a mounted regiment, and in the later stages of the Great War he commanded the First Royal Scots Fusiliers, one of the oldest regiments in the British Army. He was severely wounded early in 1918, but returned to France in time to lead his battalion in the fierce battles that closed the great drama, and after the Armistice he led his men to the Rhine.
Since the War, he has taken an active part in the public life of his country. He has been a Cabinet Minister and still is a Member of Parliament in which capacity he is serving under me as loyally as he did in the sterner days of which he writes.
This book is a romance of truth; but behind it is a greater personal romance, and behind that again is the even more wonderful romance of South Africa, to whom much should be forgiven for the splendour of her record during a period as difficult as any young nation has ever passed through.
Pretoria, 16th August 1929