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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ German South West Africa. February 27, 2010

Posted by Jenny in military history, Uncategorized, World War One.
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Victor Franke, commander of German forces and the foe in "German West"

This is the fifth part of a series that starts here and alternates with other posts.

Reitz never saw combat in “German West.” His role was to establish contact between different parts of the South African army across hundred miles of arid, uninhabited country.  It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the communications problem.  In this case we have to put aside not only modern ideas of electronic communication based on satellites or towers, or the not-so-modern concept of the telephone, but even the 19th century invention of the telegraph.  With long sections of telegraph lines destroyed by the Germans, Reitz established contact by riding for days in a given direction until he came across someone he could ask if they happened to have seen a large body of South African troops.

He had done similiar work for Jan Smuts 1901-1902 in the Karoo.  In December 1914, at the close of the Maritz Rebellion, Reitz was to join Smuts’ staff near Luderitzbucht, one of two ports along the 900-mile coastline of “German West.”  But first he had to spend a couple of months “clearing up his district” around Heilbron.  What that really meant was chasing across the veld after a few die-hard rebels (most of whom he knew personally), persuading them one way or another to hand over their rifles and ushering the worst troublemakers into jail.

Around March 1915, having completed this task, he embarked on a transport from Cape Town to Luderitzbucht.  Smuts was in charge of the southern army (6,000 men in the field at that point), which was dealing with German forces in the part of the country closer to South Africa, while Louis Botha had the northern army (12,000 men), which was now heading inland from Walvis Bay to the capital city of Windhoek.  (As during the 1914 rebellion, Botha was comfortably playing the dual role of prime minister and general engaged directly in combat.)  Two more South African columns were riding across large, bleak expanses of desert from the Orange River and the Kalahari to join the southern army.  Against these four inexorably converging groups stood about 8,000 German troops in the field.

The map shows the four South African columns converging on German South West Africa

Reitz caught up with Smuts at Aus, 100 miles across the Namib Desert from Luderitzbucht.  Smuts’ immediate objective was to prevent local German forces from retreating northward and reinforcing their comrades near Windhoek.  But his army had arrived on the scene a little too late, and the enemy was already getting away along the rail line that created a thin corridor of habitation running up and down along the central plateau.  Smuts had sent a detachment of 800 under Duncan McKenzie to try to forge ahead and cut the Germans off.

Namib Desert

The enemy had booby-trapped the country as they retreated.  Wells had been poisoned and mines planted not only along the road and railway line, but at odd places among buildings.  Devices were set to explode when a doorknob was turned or the wick of a kerosene lamp was lit.  This was a form of warfare new to Reitz, and he thought it unreasonable.  “As far as the wells were concerned we could not complain, for warning notices had been left, but to bury infernal machines in a place they had given up was new to us.”* He soon lost his beloved horse Bismarck when a mine exploded among an infantry company and spooked the horse so badly that it bolted off into the desert, never to return, when Reitz dismounted to help the wounded.

Smuts sent Reitz off to find out how McKenzie’s detachment had fared.  He was accompanied by James Leisk, a government official and “old acquaintance” of Reitz.  This was a recurring theme: Reitz seemed to know half the white population of South Africa, partly because it was a thinly settled country where the same family names popped up again and again, and partly because he had a special gift for friendship.  His conversation, full of humor and anecdote, served as a kind of social glue.  He and Leisk, after four days of riding and shooting antelope for food, found McKenzie’s men at Gibeon Town.  McKenzie had arrived just too late to cut off the Germans, but with a lunge at the rearguard managed to take 150 prisoners and capture substantial supplies.

McKenzie’s contingent were aided by Boer farmers in the district who brought in supplies of food.  Boers had long been gravitating to the territory, starting with the “Thirstland Trek” of the 1870s.  It was part of the Boers’ perpetual search for some out-of-the-way place where they could set themselves up and create some tiny republic where the rest of the world would just leave them alone.  As the years went by and the places available became increasingly barren and remote, the Boers grew ever more irascible, pulling up stakes again and again, trekking off once again in their ox wagons.  At the time of WWI, many of the Boer residents of German West had come after the Boer War to escape the terrible plague of the British, but they complained to Reitz that “the Germans had treated them well enough, but there were too many irksome restrictions and too many officials to suit their tastes.”

Now Reitz and a Colonel Muller were instructed to drive north in two “motor cars” to make contact with Botha’s army.  They paralleled the rail line, forging through a dust-colored landscape that was inhospitable to start with—hostile sand dunes, blazing heat—whose inhospitable nature was compounded by manmade destruction—rail lines torn up, wells and water tanks blown to pieces.  Between Marienthal and Rehoboth, water became the defining problem.  Reitz and Muller grew terribly thirsty, and the radiators of their cars went bone dry.  They were saved when they found a patch of tsama melons, which Reitz recognized as a water source, and extracted liquid by gently heating the fruit.

German patrol, South West Africa

This yielded enough water for themselves and their radiators to go on nearly to Rehoboth Station, but here the cars ran dry once again and the two men had to continue on foot.  After walking three hours in the beating sun, their tongues swollen with thirst, they came to a couple of locomotives that had run off a dynamited bridge.  “As we stood gazing at them, I caught a shimmer through the torn side of one of the boilers.  We scrambled hurriedly down, and found a supply of water, providentially unspilt, in a corner of an engine tank.”

They found an old bucket (more of Reitz’s typical good luck) and “cheerfully” carried water back to the cars for their radiators.  (You will find the word “cheerful” quite often in the writings of Reitz.)  And so they motored on to the station where they found another engine with a boiler full of “clear, cool water.” (And you, my readers, perhaps refuse even to drink tap water!)

After another day of travel, through somewhat easier country—the road strewn with cast-off supplies of the retreating German army—Reitz and Muller reached Windhoek and soon connected with Botha.  The town had surrendered.  Botha had fought two battles with the Germans, “and he had brought his troops through the terrible desert belt by a series of brilliant marches that completely demoralized the defence.  I was told that when Hauptmann Franke, the German commander-in-chief, saw the Boer horsemen appearing out of the bush in all directions, with no semblance of order or discipline, but relentlessly hustling his soldiers, he exclaimed bitterly, ‘This is not a war, it’s a hippodrome!’

Here Reitz drops out of the picture, as he did not participate in this conflict, having received orders to return to Smuts’ southern army.  It remained for Botha to bring in more supplies from the coast and to make his final attack on troops that had retreated along the Otavi rail line to the north.  Reitz’s old pal Coen Brits brought his men—now under the designation of the 1st and 2nd Mounted Brigades—all the way up to Etosha Pan and looped around to prevent a German retreat to the southeast.  It is a bit difficult for us to imagine the nature of the terrain.  The pan is a vast area that remains entirely arid most of the year but seasonally acquires a thin veneer of mineral water that attracts wildlife.

Two phases of the Etosha Pan seen from the air

The Germans surrendered unconditionally July 9, 1915.  It was the first permanent Allied victory of WWI and was cheered by British forces on the Western Front when they received the news.  For a much more detailed account of the particular troop movements involved in this obscure chapter of World War One, please visit this article in the journal of the South African Military History Society.

The territory remained in South African hands until 1990, when the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) won a long and grueling war of independence.

Victor Franke remained in the territory until 1920 and spent some years afterwards in Brazil.  According to one source, he suffered from an addiction to morphine.  Unfortunately for him, his experience in Africa was much less successful than that of his better-known compatriot in “German East,” Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck.  We will turn to that campaign next.

*All quotes from Trekking On.  In The Trilogy of Deneys Reitz, Wolfe Publishing, Prescott AZ, 1994.

A 4.7-inch British naval gun in SW Africa--already familiar to the Boers, but that's another story

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