In 1899, aged just seventeen Deneys Reitz, son of the ex-President of the Orange Free State and then State Secretary of the South African Republic, took up his rifle and joined the Boer Army to fight for his country.
Reitz describes that he had no hatred of the British people, but “as a South African, one had to fight for one’s country.”
He could ride and shoot with the best of them, so he was quickly assigned to a Boer Commando Unit—one of the highly mobile light cavalry units that were driving the British crazy.
Today the word “commando” conjures a picture of daring special forces raids, but originally it was the Boer word for a mobile column of fighting men. Reitz was fortunate to be present at nearly every one of the major battles of the war.
His own narrative brings us a vivid, unforgettable picture of mobile guerrilla warfare, especially later in the war as General Smuts and men like Reitz fought on, braving heat, cold, rain, tiring horses, and lack of food, clothing, and boots.
His descriptions of war and adventure have come to be regarded as among the best in the English language.
His three books, Commando, Trekking On and Outspan are published as a trilogy in “Adrift in the Open Veld”. This new edition has been edited and published by our speaker Trevor Emslie.
The most well-known of the three is “Commando”.
The brilliance of his storytelling is its simplicity, directness and understatement.
“Commando” is written with a sophisticated detachment remarkable in a 21-year-old. His love of horses, his loyalty to his father, his brothers and comrades, his addiction to a life of adventure, his passion to preserve the wild game of South Africa and his devotion to his sons with whom he shared the lore of the bushveld and fishing in False Bay are all unravelled in this fascinating story of adventure and struggle.
J. C. Smuts summed it up best in his preface: “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 tells the simple straightforward story of what the Boer War meant to one participant in it.”
After the fighting was over in 1902, Reitz chose to live in Madagascar rather than remain in South Africa under British rule.
But his exile did not last. His old commander, J C Smuts, talked him into returning to his homeland to help build the new dominion. To this task, he brought the courage and leadership he had learned as a commando, eventually becoming a Member of Parliament, Cabinet Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and South African High Commissioner to London.
During this time, he also studied law and founded “Deneys Reitz” which was to become a major South African law firm.
When World War 1 swept across the globe, he fought bravely alongside the British against the Germans, first in Africa and then on the Western Front, rising to command a battalion.