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The South African Knight - Sir Jaap

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This is the story of Free State boy, Jacob Louis Van Deventer, from the small town of Ficksburg, which is close to the Lesotho border. Van Deventer played a prominent role on commando in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899/1902 but within twenty years he had been appointed Aide-de-camp to the King George V of England. He held the rank of Lieutenant General in the Imperial Army and for his efforts he was knighted by the King in 1917 His full title read Lt-Genl Sir Jacob Louis Van Deventer K. C. B., C. M. G., D. T. D.. He did however have a very sharp impish sense of humour and he preferred to be known to one and all as ‘Sir Jaap’.

Van Deventer was born in the Free State in 1874 and spent his youth growing up in the Eastern Districts of that Province. He grew into a tall man being just short of two metres tall, which a hundred years ago was considered to be gigantic. In 1896, prior to the outbreak of the war he moved to Pretoria, where he joined the Z. A. R. Staatsartillerie as a gunner, rising within twelve months to the rank of Warrant Officer, all at the age of twenty three. He was one of the few members of the Boer forces at the outbreak of hostilities who had formal military training. Notwithstanding his size and bulk he was very nimble on his feet and his quickness of action soon became legendary in the old Boer republics.

In 1899 at the outbreak of the Boer war Van Deventer was one of the first into action and he stayed in the field for the duration of the war. Legend has it, although there are some historians who cast doubt on the story, that he fired the first shots of the war. The action took place at Kraaipan, just south of Mafikeng with General Da La Rey leading his commando into battle, attacking a British armoured train which was compelled to surrender.

After the battle of Kraaipan the commando was involved at the battle of Modder River where General De La Rey introduced new tactics in the way Boer forces were to operate. Instead of occupying the high ground and withdrawing when the action became too hot, to allow them to fight another day. The new tactics were to stand firm and fight on open ground making use of trenches and siting the Staatsatillerie cannons and machine guns in emplacements. The success at Modder river was such that De La Rey used them to devastating effect a few days later at the Battle of Magersfontein. Being an artillery man Van Deventer was in the thick of things and he soon became a one of the masters in this new style of warfare for the Boers. He was to serve with success at the Battles of Nooitgedacht and Vlakfontein becoming an experienced leader in battle who was well respected not only by his own burghers but also by the enemy.

During his time in the field ‘Sir Jaap’ not only served under De La Rey, but also with other Boer Generals including Piet Cronje and C. F. Beyers. He ended the war with the rank of Commandant serving as 2 i/c to General Jannie Smuts and he played a decisive part in Smut’s commando’s famous dash across country down to the West coast which ended in sight of Table mountain.

Whilst ‘Sir Jaap’ and Jannie Smuts were totally opposite not only in build but also in their outlook on life, they did complement each other, in that Smuts was the deep thinker who could grasp the subtleties of the grand strategy both from a political and a military aspect whilst Van Deventer was very much the doer, a man of action who was the better and more experienced tactician, who hated red tape and being desk bound, being ever anxious to be out and about and after the enemy. General Smuts had great confidence in Van Deventer and it is said that he was the only man with whom he confided regarding his plans.

When General Smuts launched his daring manoeuvre into the Cape Province he split his hand picked commando of just over 350 men into two columns, the one he led and the other under the command of Van Deventer. Their tactics were that they were to operate independently of each other and only join forces once they reached the west coast. Their venture has been described as the most brilliant action of the War. The commando’s covered over two thousand miles and kept more then 35000 British troops fully occupied for many months in the effort to track them down. Deneys Reitz, who in later life was to hold down several cabinet posts as well as being High Commissioner in London, was an eighteen year old member of the commando. He later wrote of these experiences in a book ‘Commando- A Boer Journal of the Boer War’ which became a best seller and describes in detail their adventures from the time they left Vereeniging, through the Free State where they captured a blockhouse at Brandfort, breaking through to the Cape just south of Zastron, travelling through the Eastern Cape close to Uitenhage then up to Sutherland and across to the West Coast. At Lamberts Bay they were involved in the only naval ‘battle’ of the War opening fire on the small British gunboat, H. M. S. Sybille, lying at anchor in the bay. There was only one casualty in this encounter, a Corporal Smallwood who was buried at the Dutch Reformed cemetery in the village.

At a skirmish just south of Vanrhynsdorp, Van Deventer was seriously wounded and at one stage there were fears for his life. In his book, Deneys Reitz describes that ‘they found Commandant Van Deventer huddled on the ground before his horse, badly wounded and in great pain. Blood was pouring out from a bullet wound in his throat and his tongue was so badly lacerated that he could not speak’. Jaap’s strength and fitness pulled him through although his throat was so badly damaged that for the rest of his life his voice was little more than a choking rasp. Shortly after this incident peace negotiations started in earnest, with Smuts being recalled to the Transvaal and Jaap, promoted to Combat-General, was to spend the rest of the war leading the commando in the Northern Cape until peace was declared. He then returned to his family and farm situated on the Crocodile river near Pretoria.

At the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, Jaap Van Deventer was one of a number of Boer leaders who accepted appointments in the new Defence Force. At the outbreak of World War One he was stationed at Upington being in command of the North West Cape and holding the rank of Colonel. His generation were men who had had to accept great change in their lives but they were also men with a keen sense of humour. There is a delightful story told of a colleague of Jaap’s, Colonel Britz who was instructed by General Louis Botha, the Prime Minister, to put his command on war footing and to report back that he was ready. Britz’s response was in the affirmative but followed by a question ‘who must he fight - the British or the Germans’. Van Deventer commanded the force which quelled the rebellion under General Manie Maritz forcing them to surrender, a difficult task in that Maritz had been with him and Smuts during their invasion into the Cape Province fourteen years earlier.

General Louis Botha, the Prime Minister then took command of the Defence Force and with the Germans holding the area which is now known as Namibia, South Africa attacked that country. Troops were landed at Walvis Bay whilst Van Deventer travelled overland from Upington with 5000 horsemen leading his men in a well disciplined commando-style operation supported by an efficient support force. The campaign was not easy but with the Germans being both outnumbered and outgunned they finally surrendered. One of the soldiers who took part in the final skirmish of this campaign was Dan Pienaar, who twenty five years later, as Major General Pienaar was to command the 1st South African Infantry Brigade in the North African desert during the second World War.

With the completion of the campaign Van Deventer was promoted to Brigadier-General and his next role was that of commander of the 1st S. A. Mounted Brigade and in December 1915 he left for German East Africa, an area now largely made of the country of Tanzania. The Germans had a strong military presence in the area and they were superbly led by an experienced Prussian officer, General von Lettow-Vorbeck who had spent over 25 years in Africa including a spell on secondment to the Boer forces during the Anglo Boer war. Von Lettow-Vorbeck who had a brilliant military mind together with powerful leadership abilities and a fine understanding of the tactics developed by the Boers in warfare, on his staff he had a number of Boers who were skilled guerrilla fighters who instructed the Germans in their tactics. He used this to his advantage against the British troops stationed in the area. To overcome these problems Britain in 1916 asked South Africa to raise an Army to serve in this theatre of the war. General Smuts was then given overall command of the restructured Allied Army made up of British, Indian, South African, Rhodesian and African troops and with him went Van Deventer and his Brigade.

The next two years in East Africa proved to be a consummate cat and mouse operation for the Allied forces with the enemy under Von Lettow-Vorbeck proving to be a tough opponent. The action lasted throughout much of the war with each side having their successes and setbacks. Deneys Reitz, who was also part of this campaign wrote another of his best sellers ‘Trekking On’ which describes the events in detail.

When Smuts was recalled to lead the South African delegation at the Imperial Conference in London a British General acted for a while in his place but was replaced by Van Deventer who by now had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-General. The British officers and troops were both surprised and then negative at this appointment as ‘Sir Jaap’ spoke English very poorly. There were occasions when it was necessary for ‘Sir Jaap’ to make use of an interpreter to clarify his thoughts with him rasping his orders through his badly damaged throat. His impish sense of humour also did not help as he took every opportunity of reminding the British officers under his command and who had fought in the Boer War that ‘they’ had shot him and were therefore responsible for his speaking difficulties.

Jaap Van Deventer however was first and foremost a fighting man who soon had the support of all his officers and men and he was able to apply far greater pressure on the enemy then was previously possible, being hot on their heels when the armistice was agreed which ended the fighting and the War.

For his efforts Jaap received a knighthood becoming a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath and appointed as an ADC to King George V, a somewhat surprising ending to a military career which had first gained prominence just twenty years before fighting the King’s soldiers. It was at this stage of his life that he relished being addressed as ‘Sir Jaap’. His opponent in East Africa Von Lettow-Vorbeck returned to Germany to a heroes welcome and promoted to a full General. When the Nazi’s came to power he refused to have anything to do with them and became a gardener. In 1953 he visited this country and was welcomed by his former opponents and honoured at a dinner of war veterans.

Sir Jaap retired from the military in 1920 and went back to his farm, but in January 1922 he was appointed as a part-time inspecting officer of the Active Citizen Force. Three months later was recalled to active service to assist in suppressing the Rand Miners revolt and commanded the area from Germiston to Benoni. Sadly later that year he died of heart failure whilst travelling by car at Silikaats-nek, near Hartebeestpoort Dam. He was only 48 years old.

How was he viewed by his contemporaries. One can do no better then quote from two eulogies published just after his death. The first ‘He stood for all that is best and admirable in the Dutch of South Africa. We mourn his death and suffer the sense of irreparable loss’ and ‘ In war and peace none could make him afraid. He loved loyalty more than life, and fought a clean fight and was a staunch friend and kindly man under whom it was a joy to serve. A great South African has gone from our midst’.


  1. The Age of the Generals. - D.W.Kruger.
  2. Jan Christiaan Smuts. - J.C.Smuts.
  3. The Soldiers. - Willem Steenkamp.
  4. The Boer War. - John Selby.
  5. Commando. - Deneys Reitz.
  6. Trekking On. - Deneys Reitz.
  7. Encyclopeadia of Southern Africa. - Eric Rosenthal.
  8. On Route inn South Africa. - B.P.J.Erasmus.
  9. South Africa Military Who’s Who 1452-1992.- Ian Uys.