Fall of German South West Africa

From African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa, 1914-1918, by Robert Gaudi (Caliber, 2017), Kindle Loc. 334-359:

German South West Africa—modern-day Namibia—while not Germany’s largest African colony and arguably its least beautiful, was nonetheless the most populous, prized, and dearly won. GSWA’s flat brown, wide-open spaces were well suited to cattle ranching. About 12,000 German colonizers lived a kind of Texas life on isolated ranches, in cow towns and small cities with names like Swakopmund, Grootfontein, and Windhoek, the colonial capital, which boasted substantial half-timbered German-style buildings, beer halls, modern sanitation, electric lights. Windhoek’s powerful Telefunken wireless transmitter facility, which enabled High Command in Berlin to communicate with their commerce raiders and U-boats at sea, was the main British strategic objective in the war in GSWA.

“Coming out of the desert, Windhoek was a revelation, and a great tribute to German colonization,” commented Major Trew, when Windhoek was taken. “The government buildings are most ornate and would have done credit to any city in the world.” The town itself was dominated by an absurd replica of a traditional German castle.

Victorious British Imperial troops also found comfort in the arms of the lonely German women of Windhoek—after the manner of conquering armies from time immemorial. A charming, susslich Viennese beauty known only as Regina ran a private club for officers of the German General Staff that now, suddenly, catered to their British counterparts: Regina remained a German patriot, she insisted—never mind the fortunes of war that at the moment dictated otherwise. And she invited a bevy of similarly patriotic friends for evening dances with British officers to the music of a gramophone. They tangoed, they waltzed. Whatever else they did remains unmentioned. In exchange, Regina and her friends enjoyed the dubious benefits of British military rations and polished off their regimental champagne reserves.

After the fall of Windhoek, the rest of German South West Africa quickly succumbed to a fast-moving campaign described by the Cambridge Military History of World War One as “one of the neatest and most successful . . . of the Great War.” The Germans experienced GSWA’s loss as a painful diminishment of national pride: First because, as historian Edward Paice puts it in his monumental study, World War I: The African Front, “Africa mattered to the European powers at the beginning of the twentieth century.” And second, the British victory rendered worthless the colony’s vicious and hard-won pacification by German forces less than a decade earlier. The high cost of that pacification had been spiritual as well as physical: General Lothar von Trotha’s merciless suppression of the native Hereros would be labeled genocide by later generations—the first such charge laid at the feet of the German people in the bloody century just dawning.

Abandoned German settlements, half buried in sand, their thick plaster and brick walls pockmarked with bullet holes, can be seen in Namibia to this day, bizarrely preserved by the super-arid climate. At Riet and Pforte, Jakkalswater and Trekhopf, rust-free relics of the battles of more than 100 years ago still lie strewn across the brittle surface of the desert.

The German defeat in GSWA in 1915 had followed hard on the heels of lesser but equally painful disasters in German Togoland and the Cameroons.

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Filed under Africa, Britain, Germany, military, nationalism, South Africa, war

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