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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ Farewell to a brother. March 20, 2010

Posted by Jenny in Boer War, military history, World War One.
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(l. to r.) Front: Deneys, Atie.  Back: Hjalmar, Jack, Joubert. Photo courtesy of Conrad Reitz.

(l. to r.) Front: Deneys, Atie. Back: Hjalmar, Jack, Joubert. Photo courtesy of Conrad Reitz.

This is the seventh part of a series that starts here and alternates with other posts. The last post described the historical background to German East Africa in World War One.  This one concerns the personal experiences of Deneys Reitz as he fought in German East.

Of the five sons of Francis William Reitz and Blanca Thesen, the four oldest had fought in the Boer War.  Deneys and Joubert, aged 17 and 18 when war was declared, spent much of the first year of the war side by side, sharing a tent, galloping next to each other over the veld, crouching together in a trench as the “khakis” came running with their bayonets.  There was a period of several months when all four of the brothers managed to stick together.  But the large invisible currents of the war swept them off in different directions, and Joubert was captured by the British and sent to prison camp in late 1900.  He remained there three years.

In German East Africa, in 1916, Deneys and Joubert had been so little in contact for many years that it was a surprise for both of them when they crossed paths on the Mgeta River north of the Central Railway.  As it turned out, they were to encounter each other once more in German East, and that would be the last time they would ever see each other.

Both of the brothers had come to German East voluntarily, out of a sense of duty.  Deneys described his view of it:

General Smuts assumed command of the campaign, and he left South Africa in December 1915.  I decided to go too.  I had no animus against the German people, but I thought then, as I think now, that a victorious Germany would have been a disaster to human liberty.  Also, my chief was going and, further, I could not hang back while so many of my countrymen were moving forward to an adventure in the wilds of Africa.*

He joined Smuts on the south side of Kilimanjaro, where the general had his troops waiting for the rains to end before moving south along the Pangani River toward the Central Railway.  For a while Reitz enjoyed all of the sights that today’s visitors pay thousands of dollars to see on tourist safaris:

Within this charmed circle lie game-covered plains, and swamps and jungles and impenetrable forests.  There lie the snow-capped peaks of Kibu and Mawenzi with their base in the tropics and their summits wrapped in eternal ice and snow.  There is Mount Meru like a basalt pyramid to the east, and there are lakes and craters, and a network of great rivers, with strange tribes and beautiful scenery…

Mount Meru

But Reitz was always restless by nature, and when he heard of a contingent pushing ahead to join Jacob van Deventer in a preliminary advance, he immediately decided to join it.  They caught up to van Deventer at Kondoa Irangi, having learned that his men had captured a company of the German Askaris.  Reitz ran into Jack Borrius here—an old pal from the Boer War.  Borrius was the first to give Reitz the news that Joubert was also serving in German East: Jack and Joubert had a connection from the days both had been sent into prison camp by Manie Maritz.

If Reitz was looking for immediate action, he did not find it.  A great proportion of van Deventer’s troops were laid up with malaria, they were short of supplies, and the rains and the muddy roads were holding them up.  For the next two months Reitz stayed put, holding a position on the left flank of van Deventer’s line.  Conditions were less than ideal.  As Reitz described it, “Food was scarce and sometimes lacking altogether, and cold biting rains, varied by oppressive heat, prevailed much of the time.”

The problem was getting artillery like this 15-pounder down the muddy roads

The fighting consisted of sporadic skirmishes with a largely invisible opponent.  As described in the last post, von Lettow’s forces were severely outnumbered, so his strategy was to avoid frontal combat in favor of picking off a few British troops here and there, then dissolving again into the bush.  He was willing to let disease and supply problems work their damage on his enemy.  Reitz wrote humorously of a little 6-pounder German gun that would appear at random points around the British lines, get off a few rounds, then disappear again.  The men took to calling it “Big Bertha.”

In July the Germans retreated to the south and van Deventer pushed forward after them, moving south into dry scrub country, with Smuts advancing behind him.  Two mounted regiments engaged the Germans at the wells of Tissu-Kwamedu.  As the Germans surrendered, Reitz encountered a familiar figure:  it was Joubert, serving as a sergeant with the 3rd Mounted.  Joubert had been suffering from fever and had only just returned from hospital, which explained why they had not seen each other before.  He looked haggard and ill.  “He had much to say of how he had fared in the past, of Maritz’s treachery, and of his long months in a German prison camp in South-West.” The brothers were to be in the same vicinity but not again in contact for several months.

There were further skirmishes at Hanetti and Mei-Mei, but outnumbered as they were, the Germans could not make a stand, and before long the British side had control of the Central Railway.  Van Deventer’s forces advanced from Dodoma eastward along the rail line to join Smuts at Morogoro.  The Germans did as much damage as they could as they retreated, by means of rifles, mines, and even at one point a 4.1-inch naval gun mounted on a railcar.  Again and again, when the British cordon tightened, the Germans “filtered away like water through a sieve,” as Reitz described it: the enemy generally set up a new position from some bush-covered rise and resumed their fire in short order.

Morogoro during the war

They had left behind the dry country and entered complex tropical terrain that harbored a new enemy: the tsetse fly.  The horses sometimes stayed alive for weeks after the bite, but always succumbed sooner or later.  “The mortality amongst the horses was one of the saddest features of the East African expedition.  More than thirty thousand of these dumb gentle brutes died here, and that part of me which loved and understood horses somewhat died too.”

At Kissaki there was a pitched battle; Reitz was disturbed to see some of the dead of his side lying with their skulls smashed by the Askari.  Apart from the fortunes of battle, there was much hardship, with very little to eat.  “We fought our way through dense forest, mostly along elephant paths, though these sagacious creatures had disappeared, leaving the jungle to mankind and his follies.” At length the Germans vacated Kissaki, but the conflict continued downriver.  By day Reitz and his comrades rarely saw the enemy, but at night they could hear them singing “Deutschland uber Alles.”  It was a time of torrential rain, buzzing mosquitoes, and countless men down with malaria and dysentery—not to mention being surrounded by the rotting corpses of horses dead from the tsetse fly.  But “the fact remained that we had driven the Germans into the wilderness.  The railways and towns were in our hands, and only the remote southern half of their territory was left to them.”

It was October, and the South African troops were being replaced by Indian battalions who would be manning garrisons scattered in the rough south part of the country.  Reitz had been a sort of freelance, not a member of any regiment but nominally belonging to Smuts’ staff.  He expected soon to be discharged: between the lines one can read that he wanted to go back home, though he does not say so.  Much to his surprise, van Deventer summoned him one morning and told him he was to take command of a mounted regiment remaining in the country, the 4th S.A. Horse, and to advance south to Iringa.

Before long, crossing swamps and jungle, Reitz reached a ford of the Ruaha River, and there he found Joubert again, in a shelter made of grass, “in a dying conditionunable to go on.  He was pitifully weak from malaria, but his mind was clear.  He spoke a little of the days when we were boys…”

Ruaha River (in dry season)

Joubert had never had good luck.  “He was a poet and a dreamer by nature, so he did not prosper…” In the Boer War, Joubert had latched onto the idea of being an artilleryman, and in the battle of Ladysmith he had separated himself dangerously from his brother to help the crew of one of the big “Long Tom” guns that was under withering bombardment.  Deneys had run over to try to persuade him to leave his post, but Joubert refused, even surrounded by the damaged corpses of the crew.  When the guerilla phase of the war started, Joubert left his three brothers to stay with a struggling remnant of the Transvaal artillery.  It was probably the relative immobility of the artillery that led to his soon being captured and sent to prison camp in Bermuda.  There he wrote a haunting poem about prison life titled “The Searchlight.”

After the war, he learned that his brothers Deneys and Atie had gone to live in Madagascar, and he attempted to join them.  But he arrived on the far side of the island and became stricken with malaria—indeed, all three of them suffered from malaria there—too weak to make the journey eastward and find his brothers.  Deneys had word of Joubert from a traveller there, but they never managed to connect.

And now Joubert had emerged from nine months of captivity in South West Africa, greatly weakened by starvation but still determined to join the fight against the Germans, “and now he lay broken.  He was taken back to the Union and died there, so I never saw him again.”

Reitz’s regiment penetrated into wild country of steep hills and deep gorges, then, under orders from van Deventer, attempted to encircle an important German camp.  In the rough terrain, the enemy filtered out into the forest through invisible loopholes.  Finally new orders came: the regiment was to return to South Africa.  “We were glad to go.  The campaign had degenerated into something like searching for a needle in a haystack…”

Within a few months, Reitz was on his way to the Western Front.

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

"The Searchlights" (1917), etching by Marc-Henry Meunier


1. Andre Lemmer - September 8, 2010

Thanks for your fascinating blog!
I’ve just read ‘Trekking On’. I presume that when you say Deneys was a ‘restless’ character, you are inferring this from his accounts of his movements etc.? I find from the 1st two books in the trilogy (I still need to get old of No.3)he is curiously reticent about his own states of mind, motivations, feelings, imaginings, fears, hopes, human connections etc etc. I’d like to find out more about the ‘inner man’. I gather that when he was Minister of ‘Native Affairs’ in the Smuts cabinet he was opposed to the pass system used so iniquitously when the Nationalist party came into power after 1948. Is there a Reitz biography extant? If not, why not? I am recently retired – and looking for a fulfilling project. Maybe this could be the challenge I’m seeking?

Jenny - September 8, 2010

Yes, I agree that he didn’t speak much directly of his own feelings, but I think one can get a pretty good sense of his personality and his character (I think of those as distinct entities) after reading him for a while. “No Outspan” is by far the weakest of the three books. It was obviously written in odd moments grabbed here and there, and is full of random experiences jumbled together. It describes the years when he was extremely busy leading a political life, as MP and holding various ministerial posts. It also seems a bit sad, because he seems to have given up aspects of his earlier life that were vital to him, such as exploring wild places on foot and on horseback. One section that I found particularly interesting described a time when he broke free from his responsibilities and went on a very adventurous trip in the Kaokoveld, in present-day Namibia. A biography has been in the works for some years now by a fellow named Marius van Blerck who was acquainted with Deneys’ son Jan Reitz (now dead). Van Blerck is a high ranking executive at Standard Bank and is considered by the family to be the official biographer. As you probably saw on other pages of this blog, I have written a book myself about Deneys’ Boer War years, relating his experiences to ones of other Boer fighters. It has never been published.

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