Japie Greyling Child Hero, Capt. Seely's Account

J. E. B. Seely
J. E. B Seely is remembered in South Africa as the commander that placed the 10-year-old Japie Greyling (1890-1954) against a wall in front of a firing squad, threatening to have him executed if he did not provide information about the Boer forces in the area. The boy refused to cooperate, and was freed. Several memorials still exist in South Africa today, attesting to the remarkable story.

Below is his account of the event in his book FEAR, AND BE SLAIN, ADVENTURES BY LAND, SEA AND AIR


IN April, in the year 1900, I was commanding a squadron of the Hampshire Yeomanry attached to General Rundle’s Eighth Division. It so happened that Lord Kitchener—whose cooks I had stolen before we started on a wild gallop, which he accompanied, through Prieska to the Orange River-had arranged with me to mount a party of scouts who, he said, knew the whole country from De Aar junction to Harrismith.

Having provided the horses I was in special relationship to these scouts, and they were attached to my little command. We arrived at Thabanchu a few days after the disaster when the redoubtable De Wet came clean through our lines to surround and capture some of our most famous regiments and battalions. De Wet had disappeared with his prisoners and his booty, but still a few parties of men would approach our lines and fire at us at night. Mounted infantry from Bloemfontein, the capital of the Orange Free State, joined up with us, and we moved off to the east towards Basutoland. We had no tents at this time and slept under the stars. It was bitterly cold at night, indeed, the temperature often fell ten degrees below freezing point; but at this high altitude -six thousand feet above the sea—the sun was of astonishing power at midday. Two months after the episode I describe I actually saw infantrymen laid out in a dead faint from the heat on the side of a track, while my pony was trying to beat a hole through the thick ice in the spruit alongside the road in the vain endeavour to get a drink of water.

I was rolled up in a blanket one of these bitter nights, with my head inside the saddle to keep off the cold south wind, when a man appeared in the moonlight and said in a whisper : “Is that Captain Seely ? " “I said : Yes, who are you?’” He sat down near me and replied: “I think you know me; I am the Intelligence Officer of the Eighth Division.”

Intelligence Officers have a hard time with the British Army. Everyone laughs at them; nobody believes any thing they say. A classical friend of mine said at the time that their description as Intelligence Officers was based on the Latin saying " Lucus a non lucendo," the explanation of the joke being that" Lucus " is the Latin word for a particularly dark grove, supposed to be derived from the opposite of “ Lucendo," a tense of a word meaning " dazzling light."

In the highest ranks at the head of this service we have had a series of men of great capacity, culminating in one whose brilliant intuitions made him by common consent the greatest Intelligence Officer of the late war. It is pathetic to remember that in that war the ordinary Intelligence Officers were given special badges, green hats, and green tabs. All of us in the front line knew quite well that the basis of intelligence was that nobody should know who was collecting information. He might be a private, a corporal, a colonel, or a general ; but, above all, his function must be unknown. We all knew that we British people had a supreme advantage in intelligence work, in that we had more people than were to be found in any other country whom we could trust in this dark business, without any fear of their selling themselves to the enemy. To our amazement, we saw a band of officers, invested with special badges, announcing not only to our own army, but to all the spies whom we knew to be in our midst, that they were the particular persons designed to secure secret information. Perhaps there was some reason for this odd proceeding; but we never found it.

However, in this case, the Intelligence Officer had intelligent information. He was, in fact, a man of the highest intelligence and the greatest quality, as his subsequent career has proved-Sir George Aston. He whispered in my ear that news had just reached him that the commandant of the biggest Boer commando opposed to us was in a farm about twenty miles away, having gone there to meet his wife and his youngest son, a lad of about twelve years of age. He was a kinsman of Wessels, that heroic man who had led the storming party which captured Majuba Hill in the first Boer War. It was known that not only was he a skilful commander who had played a leading part in the Natal campaign, but that he was also one of the Boer leaders who was of one mind with Botha, Delarey, Smuts, and Hertzog in being determined to continue the struggle, even should Pretoria be captured, as opposed to Prinsloo and others, who believed that peace should be made at the first opportunity.

The place where this doughty warrior was said to be was known to the spy who had brought the information. It was probable that at least one of the scouts whom Kitchener had added to my command would know the way by moonlight. The approximate position could be seen on the very rough maps that we had. Could I get twenty volunteers and an officer to attempt to capture this man?

All this the Intelligence Officer told me in a whisper while I lay with my back against the wheel of the Cape cart. I whispered back to him that it should be done; that we would start in twenty minutes, and that he must send his man to my Cape cart on foot within that time and I would provide him with a horse. Then Aston crept away in the darkness. As soon as he was gone I woke up Christopher Heseltine, my second-in-command, who was sleeping against the other wheel of the Cape cart, told him I was going on a reconnaissance with twenty men and an officer, and that he would be in command of the squadron during my absence. I next awakened Smith, my orderly, and told him to saddle my pony and his own. I found one of my subalterns, Bobby Johnson (now Sir Robert Johnson, Master of the Mint), and said he must get his troop saddled at once for a special reconnaissance. Then I went to Kitchener’s mysterious men. They had a loose organization; but there was a man calling himself a sergeant-major who said he had with him a man familiar with the country to the north of where we lay. The moon was in the third quarter and was just rising. It was the strangest thing to move about in the incredible silence and peace of a night on the High Veldt, giving these instructions for what was no doubt a pretty desperate enterprise. The whole thing was well done. Except for Bobby’s troop, the horses were not disturbed and all the men except those whom Bobby had silently summoned remained fast asleep. My horse, together with the rest, was led away two hundred yards north of the camp, and also a pony for the Intelligence Officer’s man. Kitchener’s scout met me at the appointed place, a sharp-pointed rock which could be seen in the rising moon, and told me that he knew the farm quite well, and had often been there.

It was about two o’clock when we started. The scout said that the farm was at least thirty miles away. I knew then that it was almost hopeless to surprise the farm before daylight. Still, we must try. We moved off silently at a slow walk, I leading with Kitchener’s scout and the Intelligence man behind me. We crossed a spruit and then started to canter. There was no track. The grass was long, and more than once the horses fell into the ant-bear holes which covered the High Veldt. How ever, we made good progress, and Bobby, who rode up to me at intervals, reported that the horses had still plenty of go in them after we had covered about twenty miles. Then we came to a deep ravine—not an ordinary spruit, but more like the score in the country made by a big Scottish burn. It took us a long time to get over it; but when we came up on the other side, the spy told me that we were within three miles. Kitchener’s scout pointed to a little kopje with some trees just appearing below it and said : “Yes, that is the farm."

I knew that the fact that we could see it so clearly in the dawn must mean that we would fail in our purpose. Still there was nothing for it but to go forward as quickly as we could on the off-chance that the faithful scouts that all Boer commanders had ever at their disposal might for once be asleep. I had arranged for the horses to be watered at the bottom of the gorge and to be off-saddled for a quarter of an hour. I had seen some of them rolling on the sandy edge of the spruit-a sure sign that they were good for another twenty miles. Some of the horses, however, I saw to be nearly all in. The men, who had no idea of the purpose of this swift night march, were all bright, alert, and fearless. We assembled just under the lip of the gorge while I explained to them what we meant to do, namely, to encircle the farm, the top of the trees of which they could see, and capture one of the most redoubtable leaders. I told them that, if we succeeded, our return to our own lines would be safe, because no one could know that we had come, for none could have observed us in the darkness, and the only witnesses would be our captives.

We jumped on our horses, and away we went at a gallop. Everyone who knows the High Veldt will agree that once one is awake there is no moment comparable with the dawn for vivifying horses and men. The country was quite easy and the manouvre was simple. Five men were to gallop round the left of the farm, as we saw it; five round to the right, while the rest of us galloped in. We all had to go as hard as we could. My Arab pony, Maharajah, always rose to the occasion. It was With difficulty that I prevented him outstripping the encircling parties. Even Bobby Johnson’s weedy South African country-bred was inspired by the occasion and his rider’s zeal to keep up with the hunt. We descended into a slight hollow, with the flanking parties getting a bit ahead of us on each side; then we crested a rise, and below us we saw the farm not a mile away. The right-hand flanking party was almost abreast of the farm, while the left hand party was held up for a moment by a small spruit.

I was convinced that after all we had succeeded in surrounding all those who might be in the farm, when I saw three men, or two men and a woman I do not yet know which jump on to horses and gallop away to our left front. Í saw that the left-hand flanking party could not cut them off, so shouted to my men to follow as I pursued. I shouted to Bobby to stay with his ten men in the farm, while I followed the way that the horsemen had gone. Alas! it was of no avail. We arrived at the top of the ridge beyond the farm to see the three horsemen a good mile away, galloping two yards to our one. I sent the faithful Smith to tell both flanking parties to leave a scout at the top of the hills on each side, and rode back to the farm. There I found Bobby with his men and an extraordinarily good-looking Dutch lad of about twelve years of age standing with them. On my way back to the farm I had realized that the hunters had become the hunted, and that unless we could find out where the commando lay we were almost bound to be intercepted and killed, or, worse still, captured.

Kitchener’s scout, of course, spoke the taal, and I had picked up a little of the language, so conversation was quite easy. I said to the boy : “Who are you?” He replied: “I am the son of my father, whom you have failed to capture.”

It was impossible not to admire the fearless demeanour of this South African boy surrounded by twenty of his country’s enemies. I said : “Where has your father gone ?" He replied : “ To rejoin his commando." “I know that,” I said. “Where is his commando? Will you please point to me where it lies?" The boy bent his head down and looked straight at the ground while one might count ten; then he looked up slyly and said : “I do not think I can tell you that.”

I was trustee of my twenty men. I knew that, unless the boy would tell us which way the enemy lay, our chance of returning safely to the British lines was remote, for, after all, we knew there were some four thousand of them round and about us, and the sun would soon rise. So I said to the boy : “ You must tell me, otherwise you will be shot." At that he lifted his head and said : “ No, I don’t think I can."

I wonder if I did right. Nothing on earth would have induced me to hurt a hair on the head of this gallant lad; but I think it was justifiable to attempt to terrify him into speaking the truth and so save the lives of my men. The whole episode took less than three minutes, I said : “Well, if you won’t say, we will put you up against that wall and shoot you.”

I said to the sergeant : “Get out your firing party,” and whispered to him: “ Of course we won’t really shoot the boy."

Two men came forward and put him up against the wall. Six men knelt down and loaded their rifles. I am quite sure that the boy had no idea of the secret instructions that under no circumstances should the men shoot. Then I said to him, as he stood there with his head slightly bent : " Now, tell me quickly where does your father’s commando lie?" He shook his head. I said to the sergeant : “ Load ! " The six men loaded." Ready!” they brought their rifles to the ready,

“Now," I said, “ tell me quickly before they fire."

Then I saw one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen in my life. The boy was transfigured by patriotism and devotion. He lifted his head, looked me straight in the face, put his hands behind his back, and said in a loud clear voice : “ Ich sall ne sag."

I went forward, took the boy by the hand and said : “I hope one day we will meet again."

We jumped on our horses, and although we had a scrap on our return by another route, we were supported by our own people at the critical moment, and with a few casualties got safely back to our own lines.

As long as I live I shall never forget that wonderful moment when love of father, home, and country triumphed over imminent and apparently certain death; nor shall I forget the look in the face of that boy, as with head erect and glistening eyes he said : Ich sall ne sag."


Wikipedia: J. E. B. Seely, 1st Baron Mottistone