Jacobus Hercules de la Rey was the sixth child of Adrianus Johannes and Adriana (van Rooyen). He was born near Winburg on 22 October 1847. After the Battle of Boomplaats, the British confiscated their farm so the family trekked to the Lichtenburg district in the western Transvaal. Like many others, as a young man he took up transport riding to and from the new diamond fields around Kimberley. He married Jacoba Elizabeth Greeff, and the couple settled on the farm Elandsfontein. They had ten children.
He fought in the Basotho War of 1865 and the war against Sekhukhune in 1876. He did not take a very active part in the first Anglo-Boer War (1881), but as field cornet in the western Transvaal, he took over Cronjé's Potchefstroom siege when Cronjé fell ill. (It was here he observed that men tied down in a siege could not be effective in promoting a victory).
De la Rey was elected commandant of Lichtenburg district and became a member of the Volksraad in 1883. A supporter of General Piet Joubert's progressive group and a political opponent of Paul Kruger, he disapproved of Kruger's attitude to the Uitlanders (immigrants who came to the Reef after gold was discovered in the Transvaal) and he was against inviting armed conflict with Britain. Nevertheless, he helped to capture the Jameson raiders. When speakers in the Raadzaal called for war, De la Rey condemned it as premature, unsound and unnecessary. Angrily Kruger denounced this attitude as cowardly, only to be answered by De La Rey comparing the relative strength of the British Empire and the Boer republics.
Despite his misgivings about war with Britain, De la Rey did his duty. Kruger sent his ultimatum, and when war was declared, De la Rey was appointed as one of Cronjé's field generals, a relatively junior position. Soon afterwards, De la Rey achieved international fame through a series of victories, notably in the first action at Kraaipan.
His relationship with Cronjé was uneasy from the start. Though Cronjé was no fool, he was dogmatic, lacking in imagination, and tended to procrastinate. It was not long before they were at loggerheads over military strategy. De la Rey criticized Cronjé's penchant for pitched battles and sieges. Cronjé refused to take the initiative and sent De la Rey as a combat general to join the forces besieging Kimberley and then to head off Lord Methuen's advancing army.
At Belmont De la Rey covered General Prinsloo's retreat to Graspan, then they fell back to the Modder River. There, he realized the old Boer method of defending from the crest of a koppie made them clear targets and their downward fire was less telling. He believed Boer bullets would be devastatingly effective if they fought from level ground, taking the advantage of surprise.
Immediately, his 3,000 burghers began to dig into the banks of the Riet, east and west of the Modder Bridge, the first time trench warfare was ever used. On 28 November, Methuen's forces walked into the trap. As the battle raged De la Rey ranged back and forth encouraging his men, until his son, Adriaan, was mortally wounded and he himself was wounded in the shoulder. Cronjé ordered De la Rey to abandon the Modder line. When he reluctantly called off the fight to withdraw to the Magersfontein hills, they left behind 50 Boers to the 500 British killed or wounded. De la Rey blamed Cronjé for his lack of support and a bitter argument broke out about the tactics to be used at Magersfontein. Cronje brushed aside De la Rey's advice to entrench his men in front of the Magersfontein hills. In desperation, De la Rey telegraphed President Steyn, who conferred with Kruger, who sent Steyn in haste to have Cronje's defensive strategy overruled. The Boers built stone and earth breastworks all along the hard ground of the Magersfontein ridge and carefully camouflaged with vegetation then like foxes, the Boers went to earth. On December 11, Major-General Andrew Wauchope's crack Highlanders, marching in closely-packed array, thrust into a wire hung with tins. Its clattering alerted the Boers. A thunderous volley broke the Scottish brigade, leaving Wauchope among the dead. After nine hours, Methuen gave up the struggle and withdrew to the Modder, leaving the Boers as victors with little over 236 dead and wounded. British losses were 902 dead and wounded.
Though Magersfontein's success was largely De la Rey's brainchild, he did not himself see action there. He had gone off toKimberley to inspect the Boer forces, and when he returned it was too late to do anything but vent his chagrin that he had not been able to push the Boers into harrying the retreating British. Nor was he at Paardeberg on February 18 when Roberts cornered Cronjé's cumbersome wagon-train, because he had been sent south the previous month to the Colesberg area to counter the advance of General French's cavalry. During this time, he worked to turn the Boer commandos into a striking force to disrupt the railways. But this came to nothing when the commandos were called up to extricate Cronjé's men at Paardeberg. By the time he and 1,000 men arrived there, Cronjé had surrendered.
De la Rey and De Wet were ordered to thwart Roberts's advance on Bloemfontein, but, despite actions at Abrahamskraal and Driefontein, the British marched into Bloemfontein. In March, Commandant-General Piet Joubert died, and Louis Botha was made Commandant-General of the Transvaal. De la Rey became his assistant. He tried in vain to prevent Roberts from entering Johannesburg, fighting at Langlaagte and Kliprivier before withdrawing to defend Pretoria. On 5 June 1900, Pretoria surrendered. De la Rey showed exceptional military talent at the battle of Donkerhoek on 11-12 June; but, with the Boers in full retreat, he was obliged to fall back on Balmoral, too. Conventional war ended as the Boers regrouped in small mobile commandos. By this time, the British were in full command of the Magaliesberg north of Johannesburg, but De la Rey got the better of General French at Boekenhoutskloof before breaking through the Silkaatsnek Pass on 11 July to familiar territory in the western Transvaal.
Towards the end of October, Boer leaders met at a farm called Cypherfontein to hammer out a strategy for extending the third phase of the war. After the fall of Pretoria, many disheartened Boers had returned to their farms and it was difficult to persuade them to take up arms again. Nevertheless, De la Rey successfully reformed his men and inspired them to become a redoubtable guerrilla fighting force, sending some to sow and reap, others to protect herds, and yet others to help the women and children who were fleeing from place to place trying to evade capture by the British columns. With Roberts's strategy of farm-burning working against them, they ambushed British supplies, making off with grain, horses and ammunition. His famous tactic of 'stormjaag' cost the enemy many losses. He earned the soubriquet, 'Lion of the West' by striking blows at railway lines, depots, bridges and other vulnerable points. On 13 December, De la Rey, Smuts and C.F. Beyers charged a British camp under General Clements at Nooitgedacht gorge in the Magaliesberg, forcing them to leave behind a cargo of ox-wagons as they abandoned camp. Clements lost 637 dead, wounded and taken prisoner.
During the first months of 1902, Kitchener sought to induce surrender by erecting a vast network of blockhouses and barbed-wire fences and by using scorched earth tactics to destroy farms and farmhouses capable of succoring the Boers. The pressure intensified as British columns stalked the guerrillas in the hope of capturing their leaders, but De Wet and De la Rey were elusive. Conditions were desperate when on 25 February 1902 De la Rey ambushed a British column at Ysterspruit and with a lighting strike captured a mighty booty of ammunition. Morale was restored and De la Rey's belief in ultimate victory firmed.
At Tweebosch, on 7 March 1902, Methuen tried to encircle De la Rey but was himself captured with 600 men. It would have been easy for the embittered men to finish off their chief opponent, because it was impossible for them to support prisoners and they had no means of tending to Methuen's injuries (he had been shot and his leg had been fractured). De la Rey was still grieving for the loss of his son and his men were pressuring him to execute the general. Instead, he treated the British general with utmost civility and sent him back to his own lines - a chivalrous gesture unrivalled during the war. To avenge the embarrassment of Tweebosch, Kitchener launched a devastating onslaught from Klerksdorp, but De la Rey again slipped through his net.
On 11 March 1902, De la Rey was summoned to Klerksdorp for preliminary peace negotiations, and then he joined the other Boer leaders at a conference with Kitchener at Pretoria. Here, Kitchener paid tribute to De la Rey, and in these unlikely circumstances a permanent bond of friendship was established between the two former enemies. De la Rey returned to the western Transvaal to inform his men that the British were demanding unconditional surrender. On May 15, representatives from every commando in the Transvaal met at Vereeniging, but the debate was inconclusive. Generals Botha, De Wet, Smuts, and Hertzog were appointed to continue a second round of talks with Kitchener and Milner at Pretoria.
Negotiations began on May 19 and the delegates reported to their men on the 29th at Vereeniging. Argument focussed on acceptance or rejection of the British conditions and the Boers were deeply divided. De la Rey spoke little but his presence carried weight. He said he and his men were resolved not to give up their independence, but with everything sacrificed it seemed fruitless to waste more lives when their survival as a nation was at stake; the end had come. Finally, De la Rey and Botha persuaded De Wet to agree to peace for the sake of the nation. On 31 May 1902, the peace document was signed at Pretoria. Afterwards, De la Rey went personally to his commandos to inform them that the war was over. The burghers reluctantly disbanded and returned to their ruined farms galled by the loss of their cherished independence.
Immediately after war was concluded Louis Botha, Christiaan de Wet, and De la Rey went to Europe to collect funds for impoverished widows and children. In 1903, De la Rey travelled to India to persuade a number of diehards still in the prison camps to swear allegiance to the British Crown, then he returned to rebuild his life on his devastated farm. Throughout the war, his wife and family, like many others, had wandered from place to place in an effort to evade being captured. She wrote a book about their wanderings: Myne Omzwervingen en Beproevingen Gedurende den Oorlog (1903). It was also published in English. Although De la Rey was a member of the Het Volk party and supported Louis Botha, he withdrew from the public eye until his election in 1907 to the self-governing Parliament of the Transvaal.
At the advent of Union De la Rey was one of the delegates to the National Convention. After Union, he was a nominated Government senator and in 1912, when the Defence Council was established, he and his old friend, Christiaan De Wet, were appointed to it. Though De Wet supported Hertzog, De la Rey continued to support Botha, albeit uneasily, and he tried unsuccessfully to heal the breach between Botha and Hertzog. During the 1914 industrial unrest on the Rand, he was given command of the Government forces, which swiftly suppressed the strikes, but tension continued to grow as war loomed and conflicting loyalties were once more put to the test.
De la Rey broke with Botha over supporting the British at the outbreak of World War I and openly expressed his desire for the restoration of the Boer republic.
On August 2nd many burghers congregated at Siener van Rensburg's house where the seer told them he had seen a vision of a world on fire, bulls fighting, and blood pouring from a dark cloud on which could be seen the number '15'. He said he 'saw' De la Rey returning home bare-headed in a carriage decked with flowers. He believed the dream warned of death, but the burghers interpreted the flower-decked carriage as a vision of honour and triumph for De la Rey and the dark cloud as a symbol for Treurfontein because it means 'well of sorrow'.
The burghers waited expectantly for August 15 when they were to meet at Treurfontein where they hoped De la Rey would call them out to rebellion. But on August 12 Smuts and Botha ordered De la Rey to Pretoria where he was persuaded not to incite the Boers to action. On September 9, Parliament in Cape Town voted in favour of supporting Britain in the war. Two days later Parliament resolved to invade South West Africa. De la Rey made a speech stating that he was willing to fight if the Union was attacked, but he was 'utterly opposed' to taking part in the war under any other circumstances; then he hastened north by train to Johannesburg.
On 15 September, General Beyers resigned his commission and his appointment as Commandant-General, and then sent his grey Daimler to Johannesburg to fetch De la Rey to Pretoria for discussions. That evening Beyers and De la Rey set off in the car bound for Potchefstroom military camp where they were to meet General Kemp, who had also resigned his commission. The generals were edgy. Taking a circuitous route round Johannesburg to allay suspicions, they came across several police patrols and accelerated away despite signals to stop. Ironically, the police activity was not intended for them. That morning the notorious Foster Gang had murdered a detective and had made their escape in a similar car. Police had been ordered to stop all cars and to shoot if necessary. At Langlaagte, they encountered another police patrol. The generals again ordered their driver to accelerate and the car crashed through the police barrier. A trooper fired. The ill-aimed bullet hit the ground and ricocheted inwards penetrating De la Rey's heart. With the words "Dit is raak!" (I'm hit) he died in the arms of Beyers.
General Kemp and other officers waited on at Potchefstroom because the general's arrival was to have signalled the outbreak of rebellion. In the morning, news of the death of De la Rey reached the camp. Although there is little doubt that their hero's death was accidental, many Afrikaners believed De la Rey had been deliberately assassinated. After a service at Pretoria attended by almost every dignitary of note, De la Rey was buried on his farm at Lichtenburg. Exactly as Siener van Rensburg had predicted, a flower bedecked horse-drawn carriage carried the bare-headed body of De la Rey. The crowd assembled at his graveside was tense with emotion as the hearse came to a standstill; but Beyers's funeral oration pacified them for the moment. He denied that they had been about to incite a rebellion and confined himself to expressions of tribute to the general. The next day, however, Beyers, De Wet, Kemp and others addressed a large crowd at Lichtenburg where a resolution was adopted protesting the invasion of South West Africa by South African forces and demanding their recall. Shortly after this, protest meetings were called throughout South Africa. On 19 October, the short-lived South African Rebellion began.