It could be argued that South Africa had few reasons to join World War One on the side of Great Britain. There were certainly those in South Africa who thought in terms of a British defeat in World War One as this would end Britain’s domination of South Africa despite its dominion status as arranged in 1910. There were still many in South Africa who were angered by the Boer War and the subsequent discovery of the concentration camps in which so many died. The Jameson Raid still rankled. Many such as the farmers in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State saw the British as an enemy.


Yet despite these factors the union between South Africa and Great Britain remained during World War One and some such as historian Christopher Falkus believe that it was actually strengthened. He claims that the two men responsible for this were Jan Smuts (pictured) and Louis Bortha – “South Africa’s greatest soldier-statesman” (Falkus) Both Smuts and Bortha wanted to see a united South Africa by the time the war was over “and the extent of their success must rank both men in the forefront of the world’s leaders of the C20th.” (Falkus)


During the First World War, Smuts formed the South African Defence Force. His first task was to suppress the Maritz Rebellion. One major problem faced by the South African government was a rebellion by pro-German forces led by Colonel Maritz, commander of the frontier forces. Bortha carried out the campaign against the rebels but it was organised by Smuts who was Minister of Defence. Smuts later wrote:


“He lost friendships of a lifetime, friendships that perhaps he valued more than anything in life. But Bortha’s line remained absolutely consistent. No one else in South Africa could have stuck it out. You wanted a man for that.”


Next he and Louis Botha led the South African army into German South West Africa and conquered it. In 1916 General Smuts was put in charge of the conquest of German East Africa.


His campaign here was later criticised in terms of the tactics he used against the Germans. Smuts put his faith in outflanking the Germans as opposed to taking them on in full frontal assaults as were being seen daily on the Western Front. His chief intelligence officer was especially critical of Smuts. He believed that these tactics prolonged the campaign and put the men in the field in peril of disease etc.


The rebels surrendered in February 1915. Bortha realised that the situation needed careful handling and only one of the rebels was executed despite the extent of the rebellion. Bortha was also successful in German South West Africa and German East Africa. His campaign in German South West Africa was called “one of the neatest and most successful campaigns of the Great War.” (Falkus)


Smuts was invited to the Imperial War Conference held in London. He arrived in March 1917 and stayed in the UK for the next two-and-a-half years. His knowledge of imperial affairs and tactics and strategy in the western European campaign led to him being nicknamed “Orator of the Empire”. Smuts recommended that the Royal Air Force should have a separate command outside of the army and he helped to bring an end to the strikes being held by Welsh miners. Lloyd George said of Smuts that he was a man “of rare and fine gifts of mind and heart”.


136,000 South African troops fought in the Middle East and on the Western Front. However, a republican movement led by J. B. M Hertzog was gathering support in South Africa. He even opposed a motion by Bortha that God would grant victory to the British against South Africa. At the end of the war South Africa saw an increase in her national prestige but there remained within the country a large and growing number of people who simply questioned the whole imperial connection. The Afrikaner movement grew. However, there were also those who wanted to see a strong union between South Africa and Great Britain and they wanted this to continue after the end of World War One.


November 2012