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?

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.