General Ben Viljoen (1868 – 1917)
One of the lesser known Boer generals, and in my opinion, the most underrated. Benjamin Johannes Viljoen had a humble upbringing. Born in a cave in the British Cape Colony in 1868, he spent his childhood roaming the veld on horseback, but received a thorough education from his mother.
In 1890 he moved to Johannesburg, where he spent the following decade as an officer in the mounted police. This was by no means a peaceful time for the Transvaal, and he was involved in several campaigns against rebellious black communities, as well as the suppression of the fateful Jameson Raid in 1895, which would spark a strong anti-British sentiment among the burghers, Ben Viljoen included. Also skilled with the pen, he had numerous articles published in a local newspaper, written in high Dutch, which were described by the New York Times as being “best understood and appreciated by the Boer”. After relocating to nearby Krugersdorp he became a leading spirit in a fiery band of Dutchmen chiefly celebrated for their anti-British sentiments, which had gained the town the unenviable nickname of “Devilsdorp”.
When war broke out between the Transvaal and the British Empire on the 11th of October 1899, Viljoen was called up for military service as an officer, and enjoyed brief fame for having coined the quote “Vertroue in God en die Mauser” (faith in God and the Mauser rifle). He led the Johannesburg commando and eventually rose to the rank of Assistant Commandant-General of the Transvaal forces, taking part in the invasion of Natal, siege of Ladysmith, and many of the major battles including Elandslaagte, Colenso and Spioenkop. He did not care much for his conservative and deeply religious elderly superiors, and later defended in his memoirs that the war might have taken a very different turn had not the old generals seen every reverse as God’s will and punishment, and rather allowed the younger officers to have a say in matters of strategy. His most famous moment came with the successful capture of a British naval gun nicknamed Lady Roberts, after the attack on the Helvetia garrison in December 1900. A lengthy poem was written by the State-Secretary Mr. F. W. Reitz to celebrate the feat: (this is part of it in translation)
«Hurrah for General Muller, hurrah for Ben Viljoen,
They went for ‘Lady Roberts’ and caught her very soon.
They caught her at Helvetia, great was Helvetia’s fall!
Come up and see ‘The Lady,’ you Ooms and Tantes all.
It was a Christmas present (they made a splendid haul),
And sent ‘The Lady Roberts,’ a present to Oom Paul.
It cheered the poor Bush-lancers, it cheered the ‘trek boers’ all,
It made them gladly answer to freedom’s battle call.
Lord Roberts gave up fighting, he did not care a rap,
But left his dear old ‘Lady,’ who’s fond of mealie-pap.
Of our dear wives and children he burned the happy homes,
He likes to worry Tantes but fears the sturdy Ooms.
But his old ‘Lady Roberts’ (the lyddite-spitting gun),
He sent her to Helvetia to cheer the garrison;
He thought she would be safe there, in old Smith-Dorrien’s care;
To leave the kopjes’ shelter the Boers would not dare.
Well done, Johannesburgers, Boksburgers, and police,
Don’t give them any quarter, don’t give them any peace;
Before the sleepy “Tommies” could get their stockings on,
The forts were stormed and taken, and all the burghers gone.
We took 300 soldiers, provisions, and their guns,
And of their ammunition we captured many tons.
‘This is guerilla warfare,’ says Mr. Chamberlain,
But those we have bowled over will never fight again»
After the capture of the gun, he informed her former owner in a letter:
«I have been obliged to expel “The Lady Roberts” from Helvetia, this lady being an “undesirable” inhabitant of that place. I am glad to inform you that she seems quite at home in her new surroundings, and pleased with the change of company.» To which General Smith-Dorrien replied:
«As the lady you refer to is not accustomed to sleep in the open air, I would recommend you to try flannel next to the skin.»
In January 1902 ended his days in South Africa, after his commando was ambushed and sent to Saint Helena as prisoners of war. When the war ended in May of that year, it was stated in the peace treaty that only burghers who would swear an oath of allegiance to their new king would be allowed to return to their homes and remain in South Africa. Ben Viljoen was one of those who preferred exile, and, having left his wife, went on to live in the USA, where he first toured universities with lectures on guerilla tactics and mounted infantry, and later joined the peculiar “Boer War Circus” at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. His memoirs, My Reminiscences of the Anglo-Boer War, became a popular book at the fair. He was also involved in the Mexican revolution, where he for a while held the post of guerilla tactics advisor to Francisco Madero and Pancho Villa.