When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, the eyes of the world turned towards the great events which were unfolding in Europe as the Imperial German Army swept across Belgium and France and the allied armies of France, Belgium and the British B.E.F retreated towards Paris. This was, however, a truly global conflict which would also embrace the colonies of all the warring nations. In eastern and western Africa, British and German colonists found themselves on different sides and hostilities immediately broke out over terrain that was wild, difficult to traverse and inhabited by dangerous animals. In the west, Germany occupied the country now known as Namibia—a dry, barren desert landscape that favoured neither army. The outset of this campaign was complicated by a doomed rebellion by radical Boers who sought to ally themselves with the German cause in hopes of regaining some of the autonomy lost as a consequence of the Anglo-Boer War concluded a decade or more previously. Eventually, an expeditionary force was mounted under the command of former Boer leader Louis Botha (now a British army general) which was transported by sea to the German colony. This Leonaur Original book contains two first hand accounts by soldiers who served and fought in German South-West Africa; the first, by a former South African policeman who became a member of Botha’s Mounted Bodyguard and the second an account of the activities of the Imperial Light Horse. Together these accounts offer an essential view of mounted troops in this little reported but fascinating side-show theatre of the greater conflict.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
One of the galloping horses had collapsed suddenly, and lay kicking. Its rider picked himself up, ran forward a few paces, and flung down again. The troops on the railway line halted automatically.
A whistle blew and No. 3, just ahead of us, trotted off in a cloud of sand. No. 2 picked up a signal from somewhere, and moved off the line to the left. Still we waited, torn with impatience. Ah! A mounted figure rode out of the press of horsemen ahead. Followed the sound of a whistle, faintly heard, and our turn, had come.
What a breathless scurry that was to where the “old man” was superintending affairs with his very best parade manner. I can see him now, one hand thrust deep into a breeches pocket, a pipe clamped firmly in the angle of his jaw, and that damned enigmatical smile of his, half hid by the drooping moustache. I know, should he chance to read these lines, that he will forgive the adjective. Many phrases that are not included in the vocabulary of nice, polite people are sometimes used by common soldiers as terms of endearment, and anyway, his smile was—enigmatical. When he praised—occasions so rare as to be almost negligible—it was there. And it was there when he blamed, which, not unnaturally perhaps, he often did. When, as at the present, the squadron was under fire, the smile grew almost animated.
“Number four!”—the old man used to drawl his words of command as though he liked the sound of them—“number four, action ri-ight!” We were down and were handing our reins to the horse-leaders before he had got rid of the order.
“This way, men!” Our troop officer was scrambling down the slope in the direction of the firing, and we plunged after, charging our magazines as we ran.
“There they are!” Two horsemen were galloping obliquely, across our front at about eight hundred yards range. They were unmistakably Germans, and we flung ourselves down and opened fire. At the third shot, fired I think by a sergeant who was sitting down to it a few yards to my right, one of the figures collapsed forward on to his horse’s neck, but recovered and hung on somehow, and at about eleven hundred yards they disappeared behind the shoulder of a sand-hill.
The sound of an occasional shot still came up to us from the sand below, but the “fun” must be nearly finished, for No. 3 Troop, on the rocks above and behind us, had ceased fire. They knew, could see, what was going on, whilst we, who were within a hundred yards of what must have been, to judge by the number of shots we had heard, quite a brisk little scrap, could see absolutely nothing. We scrambled on, hoping desperately that everything was not yet over.
We were on the fringe of the sand now, and were beginning to see things. A man—I recognized him as belonging to No. 1—was there, walking aimlessly about. He was hatless, he had no rifle, and he limped as he moved. A few yards beyond him was his horse, and from where it lay a yard-wide spoor of blood ran down to the sand-hills, a full hundred yards away. “Mind the chap in the sand!” It was the hatless one who was shouting. “Oh, mind the chap in the sand!” There were several men “in the sand.” As far as I could see they looked perfectly harmless.
One of them was lying flat on his back, with his legs and arms grotesquely out-flung, and as I looked there occurred a phenomenon. From behind him there uprose a third hand and arm that waved frantically for some moments and then stopped and seemed to wait. Nothing happened, and the rest of the man that belonged to the spare hand and arm rose to his feet and stood with both arms upheld above his head—our first prisoner. Ah, well! The “fun” was over now, and we could turn and reckon up the cost.
At the edge of the granite lay a man—one of our men—shot through the heart. Another man was kneeling over him, his head down to the other’s breast as if listening for sound of life. With one hand he had commenced to loosen the other’s collar; in the other he held, loosely, the strap of a water-bottle. They were brothers, these two men, and—they were both dead. Another—mortally and hideously hurt—was holding his wound with both hands. He was calling out too, I remember. A fourth was being carried up towards the railway line. His leg was shattered at a few inches above the knee, and as he passed he made some joking allusion to his “rotten luck”—he was the man wounded earlier in the morning at Grasplatz. Twenty minutes later they came down and told us that he, too, was dead.
One of the few kind things of war is the little time given to one to think. There are, of course, memories that one carries away—memories of men writhing in agony; of men whom one had known and liked making bestial noises while they died; of horses shattered and maimed, and looking pitifully bewildered in their pain. But the pictures are mercifully vague, blurred. The brain, at such times, is too drunken with excitement to do more than record the bare facts.
And of the remainder of that day, my memory can tell me no more than that, at some hour after dark, we got back to Luderitzbucht, that it rained for some time ( a fact unforgettable of G. S. W. ); that some of the R.L.I, came up from somewhere .and helped us to bury the Germans; and—that is about all. But stay! There is one other picture that is clear—that of a dark-moustached, debonair man lying propped up against a rock; blood mostly as to the breeches of him (he was shot through the thigh), and utter unconcernedness as to all the rest of him, from his cheery smile to the cigarette that he airily waved to illustrate some point or other to the man who was bandaging him. This was Captain De Meillon, Chief of the Intelligence. His grave is somewhere out there in the desert (he was shot dead some months later near the Aus Nek), and our easy task it is to keep his memory green; easy because—well! he was a fine soldier, but a finer friend.