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Twelve years after fighting against the British during the Anglo-Boer War, Louis Botha went to war on Britain’s side. As prime minister of the Union of South Africa at the outbreak of the First World War, Botha agreed to lead his country on a campaign against the Germans across the border in South-West Africa. But first he would have to deal with a conflict at home. 

Many Afrikaners balked at the prime minister’s decision, and so began a war on two fronts. While Union Defence Force troops gathered on the border and prepared to launch an offensive, a handful of Botha’s former comrades incited an Afrikaner rebellion intent on keeping South Africa out of the war, or worse, siding with Germany. 

Louis Botha’s War is the story of how a former Boer War fighting-general-turned-politician crushed a rebellion, rallied his country’s first united army to fight in harsh conditions and defeated the enemy in the Great War’s first successful Allied campaign. Botha’s actions and these events would determine the fate of South-West Africa, and its relationship with its southern neighbour, for the next eighty years.

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...Adam Cruise did some serious digging...

There are statues of him in Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town, he was the first prime minister of South Africa and Winston Churchill held him in high honour and regarded him as a good friend. Yet Louis Botha is largely forgotten in South African history, and the reason for that is mostly to do with the fact that Afrikaners regarded him as a traitor to their cause.

Adam Cruise did some serious digging when he decided to unearth information on both Botha and his campaign in German South West Africa, which took place 100 years back. Out-of-print books, tidbits on the internet, official military accounts and his own off the beaten track travels in Namibia all helped shed light on both the Boer War general and his largely forgotten war.

Cruise sketches the background, starting with Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in August 1914. The young Union of South Africa, only four years old, was comprised of many antagonistic English and Afrikaans whites, the latter smarting from defeat by the British in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 – 1902 and not in the mood for reconciliation. The country was also rife with racial tension thanks to the Natives Land Act of 1913 which resulted in the formation of the SA Native National Congress. The defence force was weak and inexperienced and prime minister Botha did not appreciate Britain’s rapid request, two days after declaring war, that South Africa should please act against German South –West Africa.

But he did, and this book relates the story of not only the first war fought by a united South Africa, but also World War 1’s first successful campaign. Botha led his men and their horses over endless miles of barren desert, and at one stage even his wife joined the forces on the battle field. In the air, a couple of rickety German aeroplanes were flown by early aviators, but in vain, as  the Germans surrendered in Jul y 1915 to Botha and his party under the shade of a wild syringa tree at Kilo 500.

Photographs, old and new, add to the readable text and the index is detailed and well-compiled. While the title is of particular interest to history buffs and those who revel in military history, readers who know Namibia will also enjoy this tale of remote battle sites while many more will find the story of a man described by Churchill as the greatest general he had ever known, a fascinating one.

- Forgotten by history, revived for centennial recognition: Myrna Robins

...eminently readable...


Post-1994, it is not surprising that the old, white men who were once the focus of scholarly attention have faded from sight. For example, Jan Smuts has been scrubbed from South Africa’s collective memory as easily as his name was dropped from what is now OR Tambo International.

However, as Adam Cruise points out in this eminently readable history of Louis Botha’s involvement in the 1914-1915 annexation of German South-West Africa, some just never featured in our consciousness in the first place. Despite the statue outside Parliament, another at the Union Buildings and a third in Durban with his great friend King Dinuzulu kaCetshwayo, few remember that Botha was modern South Africa’s first prime minister at Union in 1910.

We forget, too, that this brilliant general, who ran the British forces a merry dance during the Anglo-Boer War, later endured Afrikaner opprobrium and an armed insurrection that he had to quash in the middle of his SWA campaign in order to reconcile with the imperial conqueror. Botha is a man long ignored, long written out of the school textbooks, except for his infamous involvement in the passage of the 1913 Native Land Act, which stripped black South Africans of their property rights.

“Botha’s the personification of the middle ground of SA history, the concerned statesman trapped in his times but desperately trying to do well for his nation. Much like most of us middle-of-the-road liberal Saffas who are not stuck in our kraals or behind our ox-wagons hurling abuse at the other camps. We genuinely want it to work for all of us,” says author Adam Cruise.

Cruise does not minimise the loathsome legislative baggage that sullies Botha’s memory, but he does place it in context. “We can never exonerate Louis Botha for the Land Act. But in his mind, reconciliation between the white ‘races’ was paramount and a hurdle that needed to be achieved over everything else. He was essentially a just and fair man and I believe that over time he would have changed his views.”

There is some support for that view in Botha’s long friendship with Dinuzulu, whom he had supported militarily in his quest for the Zulu throne. Dinuzulu was jailed in 1908 by the British for treason, for his role in the Bambatha rebellion. Botha’s first act on becoming prime minister was to pardon him.

Cruise also catalogues a remarkable number of SWA campaign firsts: it was the first war fought by a united SA; it was the last time that a head of state took to the battlefield with his wife; the German defenders carried out the first aerial bombardments; with the formation of the SA Aviation Corps, here sprouted the seeds of the SA Air Force; for the first time motorbike riders replaced mounted dispatch riders; and it was the first SA deployment of armoured cars and anti-aircraft artillery.

Cruise adeptly uses this short, daring campaign to illuminate a much bigger political and military canvas. But what makes this history a delight is the rare insight it gives into the risk-taking Botha. His name may no longer be revered around the globe as it once was, writes author Tim Butcher in the introduction, “but after reading this account of his tactical brilliance and political courage, one could be inspired to think how lucky South Africa has been to sire the greatest of leaders”.

Dusting off a Desert Warrior: William Sauderson Meyer for the Sunday Times

...a highly entertaining and informative read...

'I found this book to be a really interesting read. The central figure of General Louis Botha was a man Winston Churchill described as the greatest General he had known. Certainly the campaign he led in South West Africa (SWA) appears from this well researched and well written account by Adam Cruise to have been almost faultlessly conducted.The intriguing insights into this incredibly difficult campaign, against a well entrenched German army, are captivating. The book gives more that just a needed understanding of the SWA campaign, but also of the politics of South Africa in the wake of the Boer War in which England proved to be a merciless aggressor. Botha thus had to fight a political and physical battle in his home country whilst waging war against a determined and well disciplined German foe. The insights into the vast and harsh environment.of SWA are also intriguing and give a perspective on the later war to follow in Angola against SWAPO and the Russian backed Cuba. Altogether a highly entertaining and informative read.' - LookOut, 5th February, 2015


A visitor to modern South Africa could be forgiven for knowing nothing about Louis Botha. Prominent statues of him might still stand in front of the Union Buildings up on the high veld in Pretoria and the National Assembly in Cape Town at the other end of the country, a thousand miles away to the south-west, but today they are mostly ignored. They have about them more than a whiff of Ozymandias, Shelley’s lament to the passing power of a leader who once styled himself King of Kings and yet whose broken stone likeness lies askew in the desert, the forlorn, double-edged invocation still legible on the pedestal: `Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'

  And what works did Botha achieve. The turbulent modern history of South Africa’s fight against racial inequality can rightly make uncomfortable the lauding of senior white figures from the ancien régime but in Botha perhaps an exception can be made.

  From humble rural, Afrikaner beginnings that seeded in him a connection with the land of South Africa as pure as any, he rose to prominence fighting the British during the Boer War 1899 to 1902. Famous for out-thinking his better supplied, funded and equipped enemy, it was guerrilla commanders such as Botha who helped establish the myth of the resourceful, dogged, indeed, noble Afrikaner `commando’ outwitting the flat-footed British soldiers in the remotest South African platteland.

  Then, in an act of remarkable statesmanlike transformation, just twelve years later he raised an army to fight alongside the British when the First World War broke out in 1914. He would die a committed Anglophile.

  It was an evolution that would win him huge respect in Europe where he was invited to take part in the Paris peace negotiations following the Armistice and win him the eternal respect and friendship of Britain’s great wartime leader, Winston Churchill. Yet it was an act that would tarnish him forever with the traitor’s mark of Cain in the eyes of many anti-British Afrikaners back home in South Africa, the so-called `bitter-enders’ unwilling to come to terms with Britain’s eventual victory in Boer War.

  It is this dispute over `betrayal’ that has led in part to his story being largely forgotten today. The narrative of the struggle against apartheid tends to put all whites in the same single, homogenous, racist block yet the reality of history is that single blocks rarely exist. There are fault lines, margins, places were subtlety and nuance agglomerate and this is perhaps why a richly complex South African figure like Botha is passed over today.

  Adam Cruise goes a long way to putting that right with his excellent new book, Louis Botha’s War. It is in part a work of military history, an account of the 1914-15 campaign by South African forces led by Botha that dislodged German troops from the arid, thirsty wastes of what was known in the colonial era as German South-West Africa but is today called Namibia. But it also gives new life to our understanding of a key and complex international figure from the start of the 20th century.

  That some of his views can today be regarded as reactionary, even racist, should not be forgotten. It was under his premiership that the Natives Lands Act of 1913 was passed, a law that stopped black South Africans from being able to own land in all but very limited areas, a keystone to ensuring white minority rule in the country long before apartheid was legally codified in the 1950s and 1960s.

  But to pillory one man for an attitude that seeped through entire social cohorts would be wrong. It is much more important to understand what a difference he made in the context of the time that he lived, and this is where Cruise’s book really comes alive.

  South Africa as a united nation was just four-years old when Botha took the momentous decision to invade South-West Africa on behalf of Britain, many outsiders doubting whether such a new entity could even field an effective army. Many of the soldiers were Afrikaners who had fought against Britain in the Boer War with not quite the same magnanimous mindset of forgiveness as Botha, now serving as Prime Minister. Cruise relates how the invasion brought anti-British republicanism to the fore, leading to a rebellion at home that had to be put down by Botha’s loyalists before the war could be successfully prosecuted against Germany across the border.

  This led to the first – and last – time South Africa was invaded by a foreign power when a German detachment managed to cross the frontier, egged on by a minority of Afrikaners with such strong hatred of Britain they would later embrace Nazism. But, as Cruise argues convincingly, this was more a case of an incursion in search of water and supplies, rather than a serious attempt to seize territory.

  Botha was not the sort of Prime Minister to run a war from his office, forward deploying into German-held terrirtory to such an extent his bodyguards gave up trying to rein him in. At one point, he came within a whisker of being captured, insisting on taking operational command to an extent that would be inconceivable in our modern age of pampered world leaders.

  Careful culling of all the best sources on the campaign, Cruise tells of the `firsts’ associated with the 1914-15 South-West Africa campaign: the first time South Africa deployed armoured cars, the first time airplanes were used to bomb enemy positions, the first time motorbike outriders replaced horsemen, the first German target to be successfully taken by the Allies in the Great War (a consular building on the Caprivi strip). You will read a story of derring-do, of troops trekking for days on a diet of biltong and biscuit, of Botha’s indomitable wife rushing north to nurse her husband back to strength during the campaign, of forces who dared to traverse the Kalahari desert in full battle order.

  But mostly, you will get to know better a man who, rather like Nelson Mandela later in the century, was willing to adapt, compromise and change, all in the name of peoples putting their differences behind them. Botha’s name might no longer be revered around the globe but after reading this book with its account of his tactical brilliance and political courage in the deserts of Namibia, one could be inspired to think how lucky South Africa has been to sire the greatest of leaders.

- Tim Butcher, Author of Blood River, Chasing the Devil, and The Trigger