The “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” installation at the Tower of London. Photo: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

The First World War in Africa has been all but ignored – it’s time to remember it

How many of the vast sea of poppies at the Tower represented the contribution of the South African forces who died in the campaign to take the German colony of what is today Namibia?

The ceramic poppies commemorating the dead of the First World War are being removed from the Tower of London. Each of the 888,246 flowers represented a member of the British or Colonial armed forces killed during the conflict.

With British focus so firmly on the trench warfare for which the war is so rightly remembered, the other conflicts that made this a genuinely “world war” have received little, if any, attention. How many British school children have been instructed on how the Japanese fought alongside the Royal Navy, or captured German islands in the Pacific?

The war in Africa has also been all but ignored. Just how many of the vast sea of poppies at the Tower represented the contribution of the South African forces who died in the campaign to take the German colony of what is today Namibia? Yet the fighting in what was then German South-West Africa had major repercussions for the entire region.

In August 1914, just days after Britain declared war on Germany, the South African prime minister, Louis Botha, sent a telegram to London offering to assist the war effort. On the face of it this was an extraordinary decision. Botha had only signed his own peace treaty with Britain 12 years earlier, at the end of the Anglo-Boer war – the most costly conflict Britain had fought since the fight against Napoleon. Yet here this Boer war general was offering troops to his former imperial enemies.

By the end of August the first shots had been fired along the Orange River, the boundary between South Africa and Namibia. The conflict should have been a push-over. Germany had only 5,308 Schutztruppe – or protection forces – in the colony. South Africa’s newly formed Union Defence Force mobilised a force more than ten times this size – with over 67,000 men.

But the fighting the vast, desert terrain was intense.

The South Africans managed to lose the first confrontation. At the oasis of Sandfontein they ran into well-organised German forces who managed to force the ignominious surrender of the South African officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Reginald Grant.

Although no more than a setback, the battle for Sandfontein, just north of the Orange River, had major repercussions. Many Afrikaners were already deeply unhappy about supporting the British when the Germans had assisted then during the Boer war. Now they saw their opportunity.

Manie Maritz, in charge of troops in the Northern Cape, was ordered to mobilise his forces. But instead he contacted the Germans across the border and won their support for transforming South Africa into an independent Boer republic.

Other Afrikaner Generals joined the revolt. General Christiaan Beyers – the Commandant-General of the Union Defence Force – was among the rebels. “It is sad that the war is being waged against the ‘barbarism’ of the Germans,” Beyers wrote in September 1914. “We have forgiven but not forgotten all the barbarities committed in our own country during the South African War.” His reference to the deaths of 26,000 Afrikaner women and children in the British concentration camps during the Boer war resonated with many of his people.

It took the Union forces until February 1915 to bring the rebellion to a halt. The rebels were treated with kid gloves: rather than being put before a firing squad for treason they were given prison sentences and soon released. Botha knew better than to turn them into martyrs. Despite this the rebellion left a permanent scar on the Afrikaner psyche, with many hard-liners continuing to blame Botha and his colleague General Jan Smuts for siding with the British.

The South African forces, once fully mobilised, soon dealt with the German troops and on 9 July 1915 they surrendered. Botha declared martial law and – leaving a strong garrison – returned to South Africa to plan the campaign in east Africa.

The Namibia campaign was, of course, only a side-show compared with the war in Flanders. But it threw up some fascinating elements, which have been highlighted in a new book by Gordon McGregor and Mannfred Goldbeck.

These include:

  • The role of the one section of Namibia’s black community, the Basters, who raised a company of 176 men to protect their own area. When the Germans attempted to force their participation in the wider conflict they revolted, leading to clashes between the Schutztruppe and the Basters.
     
  • A company of black troops from the German colony of Cameroon helped guard prisoners and mounted patrols – sometimes riding oxen, since most horses had been requisitioned by white soldiers.
     
  • There were clashes along the Namibia-Angola border. Germany attempted so resupply its forces in Namibia overland via the Portuguese colony, but Portugal, in line with its treaty obligations with Britain dating back to 1386, intervened to halt the convoy. Fighting erupted, with skirmishes continuing until early 1915.
     

The longer-term fallout from the war transformed southern Africa. Namibia became a South African mandate territory, under the League of Nations. When the United Nations attempted to end this, Pretoria resisted and it was only in 1990 that the country finally gained its independence.

For South Africa the bad blood engendered by the Namibia campaign lingered on.

Resentment against Smuts, South African Prime Minister in 1919 and then again in 1939, was intense. General Smuts served in the Imperial cabinets during both World Wars, fuelling Afrikaner accusations that he had sold out to the British. It was among the reasons the National Party came to power in 1948, bringing with it the system of apartheid. 

“The First World War in Namibia, August 1914- July 1915” by Gordon McGregor and Mannfred Goldbeck is published by Gondwana History in Namibia

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

GETTY
Show Hide image

The NS Podcast #164: Summer, splits and social mobility

The New Statesman podcast.

This week, Helen and Stephen explore Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal among different parts of the Labour membership, discuss Sarah Champion's return to the shadow-cabinet, and question the value of social mobility as an aim for the Left. You also ask us: When will Labour’s turmoil end? And what do we think about More United? (Helen Lewis, Stephen Bush).

You can subscribe to the podcast through iTunes here or with this RSS feed: http://rss.acast.com/newstatesman, or listen using the player below.

And if you're craving yet more NS podcastery, you can watch Helen and Stephen host a live recording at this summer's London Podcast Festival. Tickets available here

Want to give us feedback on our podcast, or have an idea for something we should cover?

Visit newstatesman.com/podcast for more details and how to contact us.