Wars are about people, not about generals or guns


Wars are about people, not about generals or guns

MAX DU PREEZ writes about a new book based on the diaries of three Free State Boer warriors who ended up in prisoner-of-war camps.


“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” — Ernest Hemingway

SOME 360,000 Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have died in the war in the past 15 months. Some 400,000 fighters have been killed in the recent conflict over Tigray and Ethiopia. More than 40 million soldiers were killed in World War 2.

Statistics. This is how we are informed about wars. Count the bodies and the number of buildings and bridges destroyed. Calculate their dollar value. Appraise the weaponry. Praise/vilify the generals and the politicians.

I have just read a moving book that reminded me that wars are about people. Ordinary people who fight, die, are wounded or traumatised. And for years after, they still paid the price for war.

From now on, when I look at scenes of war in Ukraine and elsewhere, I will think about the people and their trauma rather than who wins and who loses and what power politics are behind it all.

I read Beverly Roos-Muller's Bullet in the Heart: Four Brothers Ride to War 1899–1902 (Jonathan Ball).

It is the story of four Muller brothers from the Eastern Free State who fought for the Orange Free State against the British and were then held as prisoners of war: Michael, Chris, Pieter and Lodewyk, known as Lool.

What differentiates it from other Boer War narratives is that the brothers themselves tell their story: three of the four kept a diary, recording their fears and longings in little notebooks and scraps of paper.

I have a personal connection to the book which I only realised upon reading. My grandfather, Johannes Petrus du Preez, was in the same Ladybrand commando as the Muller brothers and participated with them on 11 December 1899 in the Battle of Magersfontein, where he was captured. He was held with some of them in the prisoner-of-war camp in Simon's Town and later in Ceylon.

There's more: the camp in Simon's Town, Bellevue, is just a few hundred metres from the house I've lived in for the past four years. It is now a nine-hole golf course next to the famous Penguin Beach, where I often go for walks with my dog. And more yet: I knew Michael Muller's grandson, the academic and conflict-resolution practitioner Ampie, who died in 2019, and I have known his brother Piet, a futurist and formerly a journalist, for more than four decades. (The author of the book is Ampie's widow.)

My grandfather was only 22 when war broke out. He farmed in the Ladybrand district and was widely known as Dikkeman, believed to be the most muscular man in the eastern Free State.

Johannes ‘Dikkeman’ du Preez
Johannes ‘Dikkeman’ du Preez

After his return from Ceylon, left without a farm or possessions, he was an active member of the 1914 Rebellion that opposed the Union government's decision to fight alongside the Allies, ie Britain. He was imprisoned in Kimberley for several months.

He married my grandmother, Albertha “Bertie" Tobelina Saayman, also from Ladybrand, in 1917 but died of the Great Flu just a year later, shortly before my father's birth. Grandma Bertie was still alive when my mother died in 1955, and helped raise us for a while.

Back to Bullet in the Heart.

From the brothers' notes and Roos-Muller's explanations, one can construct a clear picture of the typical Boer krygers and how they approached the war. 

The soldiers of the Free State and Transvaal republics were not part of a standing force and had no formal training. The officers, contrary to the case with the British Army, were democratically elected by the men and other officers.

They mostly used their own horses and wore no uniforms; they fought in their own clothes. By the war's end, their clothes were severely worn and some covered themselves with cowhides. There wasn't much logistical support; the krygers mostly got food from farms in the surrounding area. Religion played a huge role in their lives.

They were vastly outnumbered in logistical support, armaments and men: almost 500,000 British troops against only about 88,000 from the two Boer republics.

The Mullers' notes show that war is almost always chaotic and unpredictable.

On 16 February 1900, the day he was wounded, Chris wrote: (Their Dutch/Afrikaans is translated into English in the book.)

The horsemen returned to the hills as the wagons and pedestrians carried on. At the hills, we found our burgers who had been there since the previous day — they were cut off when the enemy passed through to Kimberley. We occupied several hills.

The enemy approached along the river, just like red ants. They shot, but I forbade the burgers to shoot…

The position was dangerous. Some officers from the Transvaal insisted that we should leave this place, which we did. In the meantime, the wagons were outspanned near the river.

We occupied another hill, where we quickly started fighting. The fire from the enemy was tremendous. They were lucky in getting us under the crossfire.

At about one o’clock, I was wounded in the leg, so I had to leave the hill and go to the camp to have the wound bandaged.

Most bitter for the Mullers were Boer warriors who fled or surrendered. Lool writes:

There were still two cannons on the ridge that had to be secured. Some went to fetch the cannons; others loaded the wagons. Others retreated as fast as they could. During all the chaos, I marked the position of our burgers and watched how they were fleeing on all sides. A grave feeling of sadness overcame me, and into my thoughts came, “Look how the Afrikanervolk lost their faith in God.”

Lool's war was shortlived. He was captured on 26 March 1900 while on a reconnaissance mission. He was taken to the POW camp in Green Point. He writes from there:

Then I put the Bible down, and I looked over the blue mountains in the direction of the Free State and oh, the longing for home that burned in my bosom, such that I cannot describe — a longing so strong as I have never felt in my whole life. When I thought about our country and my wonderful home, tears just sprang out of my eyes.

He died of typhus shortly afterwards.

Chris Muller stands to the right.
Chris Muller stands to the right.

Michael was taken to the POW camp in Bermuda, and Chris and Pieter to Ceylon. Their intense longing for their wives and children dominates their diary entries.

The Peace of Vereeniging was signed in May 1902. The Free State and Transvaal republics lost the war for their independence.

Chris and Pieter returned to the Free State in August, and Michael in October 1902.

Their lives and those of their communities were never the same. The war, the British scorched-earth policy, and concentration camps where 26,000 women and children had died left the Afrikaners of the north in abject poverty and deeply traumatised.

The loss of their land, the forced rapid urbanisation, and the poverty that followed left them with an overwhelming sense of insecurity and inferiority, channelled into fervent ethnic nationalism a few decades later.

We know what was born of that.

Perhaps I should quote another famous author, John Steinbeck: “All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.”

♦ VWB ♦

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you!

Speech Bubbles

To comment on this article, register (it's fast and free) or log in.

First read Vrye Weekblad's Comment Policy before commenting.