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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

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Deneys Reitz in WWI/ German East Africa. March 11, 2010

Posted by Jenny in history, military history, Uncategorized, World War One.
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Askari soldier. Von Lettow published this account in 1920

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

The “Congo Act” of 1885, agreed between the European imperialist powers, stated that the African colonies would remain neutral in the event of a European war.  Yet this neutrality lasted only eight days after the event commonly accepted as the start of WWI, the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia. On August 5, 1914, troops from the British Protectorate of Uganda attacked German outposts near Lake Victoria.  A few days later, two British vessels bombarded Dar es Salaam, the capital of German East Africa.  And so began a conflict that lasted, amazingly, until several days after the Armistice.

Perhaps that should not be considered surprising.  According to the demonic logic of the First World War, any potential antagonists would become actual, and any parties attached to those antagonists by way of alliances would also participate.  So we had the Western Front, the Eastern Front, but also many “sideshows,” of which German East Africa was one of the strangest, most interesting conflicts.

Deneys Reitz fought in German East Africa from February 1916 until January 1917.  He had just come from the conflict in German South West, and when that was concluded he volunteered to put in his time on the eastern side of the continent.  Then, also voluntarily, he embarked for the Western Front.  The next post in this series will explore Reitz’s personal experiences in “German East”; the current post gives a bit of the background.

Von Lettow and Schnee

At the outbreak of WWI, Governor Heinrich Schnee of German East Africa preferred to maintain neutrality.  But the commander of the “Schutztruppe” in the colony, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, had his own preference, which was to respond to the British provocations quickly and aggressively.  Though Schnee was his superior, von Lettow disregarded Schnee’s wishes and raided into British territory near Kilimanjaro (in British East Africa) and up into Uganda.  His troops consisted of 260 Germans and 2,500 Askari, or “native” soldiers.  Because of Schnee’s opposition, von Lettow was never to have an army of adequate size throughout the whole war.

On Lake Victoria, a month after their initial attack, the British defeated the German “navy.”  It was a battle between two British lake steamers and a German tugboat mounted with a pompom: a microscopic version of the larger British-German conflict.

In early November, at the hands of von Lettow, the British suffered an embarrassing defeat at the town of Tanga, the coastal terminus of a rail line running from the vicinity of Kilimanjaro. British troops outnumbered German by a ratio of 8 to 1, but von Lettow’s forces, charging with bayonets, emitting wild war cries, and blowing bugles, sent the British regiments fleeing.  To make matters worse, the British ran into swarms of angry bees.  You can read more about the battle here.

Battle of Tanga

I must forge ahead here, and describe only the most major highlights, if this post is not to become too long!  South Africa entered the picture when General Jan Smuts was given command of the British forces in early 1916.  He replaced General Horace Smith-Dorrien, who had become ill.  Essentially, Smuts’ strategy was to push from the north and take control of the central railway in German East.  This he accomplished by September 1916.  Although von Lettow was a genius at guerilla warfare, so was Smuts, who had fought a guerilla campaign throughout the second half of the Boer War.  And Smuts had far more troops at his disposal.  Therefore, von Lettow’s forces simply melted away into the jungle, again and again, allowing Smuts to advance but never to win a battle.

By late 1916, with control of the northern half of the colony but a decisive victory nowhere in sight, Smuts was steadily replacing his South African, Rhodesian, and Indian soldiers with Askaris to match the German ones—men who had far more resistance to the many local diseases (especially malaria), more experience with the difficult terrain—and those were the men who were to remain in place until the end of the war.  Smuts himself departed in January 1917 to join the Imperial War Cabinet in London.

The British established garrisons in the south and engaged in continual skirmishes.  Jacob van Deventer, who’d served very creditably under Smuts in the Boer War, tried for a big offensive in mid-1917.  He succeeded in pushing back von Lettow’s troops, but the German commander put up fierce resistance at Mahiwa, where British casualties reached 2,700 compared with 519 German.  For this, von Lettow was promoted to “Generalmajor.”

Fighting extended into Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi as the war churned along; the Belgians had become involved by mid-1916 to protect their own territorial interests.  Always on the move, von Lettow retreated into Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) in late 1917 but eternally evaded capture.  His challenge was always one of obtaining adequate supplies and fending off disease—those of his men who weren’t already “salted” from previous bouts of malaria took big doses of quinine that they called “Lettow’s Schnapps.”   In one of the more bizarre episodes of an already peculiar war, the German high command attempted in November 1917 to deliver supplies to von Lettow by way of a L-59 Zeppelin.  The dirigible made it as far as Bulgaria, but the mission was aborted because conditions were impossible for the crew, who were slowly freezing to death.

The story finally ends in Northern Rhodesia, where von Lettow occupied the town of Kasama.  One day later, he was informed of the signing of the Armistice, a distant event in lands far, far away.  He formally surrendered in Abercorn on November 23, 1918.

Von Lettow's surrender. Drawing by African artist.

Von Lettow was given a hero’s welcome upon his return to Germany in March 1919.  It was one of the few bright spots for his home country.

Parade, Berlin, March 1919