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

"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496