Book extract: ‘Louis Botha: A Man Apart’ by Richard Steyn
Author has written acclaimed books on Churchill and Smuts
Richard Steyn’s books, Jan Smuts: Unafraid of Greatness and Churchill and Smuts: The Friendship, have won him a loyal readership. In Louis Botha: A Man Apart (Jonathan Ball Publishers, R260), he again brings to life another contentious figure in South African history. Times Select offers an extract of the book:
Louis Botha impresses world leaders at Versailles
On 11 January 1919, two months after the Armistice that ended WWI, Louis Botha and Jan Smuts left London for Paris as members of the official British delegation, led by the prime minister, David Lloyd George. A week later, the first formal meeting of some 70 representatives of the victorious Allied powers took place. South Africa was regarded as having an independent status among the ‘Allied and Associated Powers’, within the framework of the League of Nations, whose covenant had been drafted by Smuts. Besides Marshal Foch of France, Botha and Smuts were the only delegates in Paris who had actually faced the enemy in the field [in German South-West Africa].
In his Memoirs of the Peace Conference, Lloyd George recorded that there were three men present in Paris ‘whose names will ever be associated with the history of South Africa – General Botha, General Smuts and Lord Milner – who in 1919 stood for a peace out of which every punitive element should be purged.’ He noted that Milner had not been in favour of conciliation at Vereeniging, but had now joined his former antagonists ‘in resistance to that spirit of relentlessness which would humiliate the vanquished foe and keep them (sic) down in the dust into which they had been cast by their complete overthrow’.
Of these three noteworthy men, Lloyd George declared, ‘Botha was the most striking personality in terms of his physical appearance, in strength of character and in his general impressiveness. He was one of those men whose presence you feel in a room even when they are silent. He attracted attention without making any effort to do so.’
The two prime ministers’ high regard for each other was mutual. Writing to Buxton from Paris, Botha said of the British Prime Minister, ‘the more I see of David Lloyd George, the more admiration I get for his ability, personality and strength of character. To my mind he is the outstanding figure at the Peace Conference.’
The mood in Paris was vengeful. The British wanted to see Germany severely punished but not destroyed; Clemenceau’s French, who had borne the brunt of the war, were determined not to let Germany rise again; while at home the Americans were retreating into isolationism. Article 231 of the Treaty, the ‘War Guilt Clause’, forced the Germans into admitting that the war had been all their fault. ‘This isn’t a peace,’ declared Marshal Foch presciently, ‘it’s a ceasefire for 20 years.’
Botha and Smuts were far from satisfied with the political and economic reparations the victorious Allies intended to impose upon Germany. In a cable to [Governor-General ] Buxton from Paris, Botha complained that some of the peace terms were impracticable of execution, and others were in the nature of ‘pinpricks and therefore unnecessary’. ‘No one can accuse us of being pro-German, but our idea has been to defeat the Germans and then give them a Peace which will result in lasting peace and ... save the world from a similar catastrophe to that which has just passed,’ he wrote. (Domestic political considerations would also have weighed heavily on his mind. An election was due in 1920, and he knew that he and Smuts would have to defend the terms of the treaty to a partly pro-German electorate.)
South Africa’s prime minister also interceded in the debate over whether or not to arraign the German emperor and his senior officers before an international court. ‘Hang the Kaiser’ and ‘Squeeze the Germans until the pips squeak’ were popular cries throughout Britain at this time. In his remarks, Botha explained that after the Anglo-Boer War, the return of peace had been greatly enhanced by a policy of not prosecuting rebels. As long as war criminals were to be ‘smelt out’, he declared, Europe would know no peace.
A British participant in the discussions, George Barnes MP, wrote in his reminiscences that Botha’s intercession over the treatment of Germany had lingered in his mind. ‘Botha was a great man’, thought Barnes, ‘Never made long speeches but his presence in any gathering could be felt. What little he had to say was always to the point; and always on the side of a long and generous view of things.’ Twenty years earlier, the Kaiser had turned Botha and his colleagues away when they came to seek help. Now one of the three supplicants on that occasion was pleading for clemency to be shown him in Paris.
Botha was opposed also to a triumphal entry by the victors into Berlin. ‘My soul has felt the harrow’, he declared; ‘I know what it means’. Robert Lansing, the US Secretary of State wrote the following about South Africa’s leader: ‘Botha was essentially logical and unemotional in whatever he said or did. The enthusiasm of the visionary made no headway with him. Reason and facts were what appealed to him. He looked forward to the final judgment of men, and not to the temporary popularity which a policy might gain under the stress of existing conditions, or the passing emotions of an aroused public opinion. He possessed that foresight which sees the end at the beginning and prevents the adoption of a course which may be disastrous, or unwise, or of doubtful expediency.’
From a South African perspective, a remarkable aspect of the Paris talks was the cordiality that sprang up between Botha and his former bete noire, Lord Milner, now Britain’s colonial secretary. Smuts had long ago made his peace with the once-hated Milner, serving alongside him in Britain’s war cabinet. In the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, Botha found himself seated next to Milner, who happened to share his views about war reparations from Germany.
During the rowdy exchanges at the plenary session, the German-born and –educated Milner was having difficulty in putting across the argument that Germany should be treated forgivingly, when Botha rose to his feet. Speaking slowly in Afrikaans, which Milner was able to understand, he added his voice to the colonial secretary’s appeal for clemency. He did not know of anyone there besides himself and his colleague Smuts, said Botha, who had gone through the experience of a war in which all had been lost – government, flag, country, all. ‘You cannot, you must not destroy a nation; you cannot, you must not take vengeance on a whole people and punish them so as to make it impossible for them to recover or even to exist.’
Touching Milner lightly on the shoulder, Botha continued. ‘Seventeen years ago my friend and I made peace at Vereeniging. It was a bitter peace for us – bitter hard. We lost all for which we had fought for three long years and had made untold sacrifices. For us there seemed to be nothing left; but we turned our thoughts and efforts then to saving our people; and they – the victors helped us. It was a hard peace for us to accept ... but it was a generous peace that the British people made with us. And that is why we stand with them today side by side in the cause that has brought us all together. Remember, I say to you, there was no spirit or act of vengeance in that peace; we were helped to rise again and were placed on equal terms, and today I feel that our people have proved themselves worthy of that trust and that opportunity.’
Lloyd George wrote that it was difficult to convey the power of General Botha’s deliverance ‘by a mere summary of the words and the attractive and compelling personality of this remarkable man. The President [Woodrow Wilson] told me immediately afterwards that it was the most impressive speech to which he had ever listened.’