The career of Jan Christiaan Smuts is among the most colourful of those of the Empire's war leaders. From commander of a Boer “commando” he became, on May 24, 1941, a Field-Marshal of the British Army; from a bitter enemy of Britain he became a staunch supporter of the Empire and, as Prime Minister of South Africa, and Minister of Defence, one of its main pillars.
In his 77th year he can look back on a life as statesman, scholar, soldier, scientist, lawyer, philosopher and explorer. Yet Field-Marshal Smuts remains a man of simple tastes, living in an unpretentious house on the outskirts of Pretoria.
Born on May 24, 1870, in a village near Malmesbury, in Cape Province, his father was a prosperous Dutch farmer and his mother of French Huguenot stock. At school he met his two main political rivals – Hertzog and Malan – and at Stellenbosch Victoria College he met Sybella Krige, the girl he was to marry in 1897. Today he calls her “Isie”, and their house is noisy with grandchildren when the family, two sons and four daughters, comes home.
A brilliant scholar, at Cambridge he compressed a two-years' law course into one, became a Bencher of the Middle Temple and, when only 28, State Attorney for the South African Republic. The Boer War interrupted his political career; but it proved his ability as a strategist, and with its termination he once again plunged into politics – the Field-Marshal's first interest. At the other extreme he has a great love of Nature. He still tells his friends about the days when, as a child, he spent hours with a Hottentot shepherd on his father's farm, listening to tales of the veld.
Now he keeps a variety of animals in his private grounds, among them a pet crane, and a year or so ago he had a lion cub. Another of his interests is botany; that, and the study of prehistoric implements and settlements, Smuts says, gives a purpose to the long walks he loves.
When in London in 1943 he went for a ten-mile walk every week-end. But during the week his secretaries were at their desks at 7.30 a.m. - so was Smuts. He still rises at seven a.m. and, in a study lined with books on philosophy, strategy, politics, physics and photography, he works until midnight with only short breaks for meals. Those who handle his documents have no easy task: the Field-Marshal's handwriting is remarkable illegible, and the secretary who typed his book “Holism and Evolution” had constantly to refer to him.
The Smuts entertain little, but the Field-Marshal's friends know him as a brilliant and witty after-dinner speaker. He is a deep thinker, and photography, he declares, clears his mind for another of his hobbies – the study of philosophy.