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A German Soldier in South West Africa: Recollections of the Herero Campaign 1903-1904—Peter Moor’s Journey to South West Africa by Gustav Frenssen, With a Short Account of the German South West Africa Campaign by Francis J. Reynolds
The Herero campaign from the perspective of one of the invaders
Germany’s late development as a modern nation meant it missed the opportunity to colonise the most desirable parts of the world. In the ‘scramble for Africa’ Germany managed to secure a foothold in the east of the continent and also in the west, in the region that is present day Namibia. This inhospitable and difficult country was, of course, already in the possession of several indigenous tribes including the Herero and Namaqua among others. German settlers instituted a policy of land grabbing which ignored the claims and possessions of the indigenous tribes and armed resistance inevitably broke out. The Germans responded ruthlessly with a policy of virtual extermination. The natives fought an effective guerrilla war with, at one point, up to 19,000 German troops engaged until the conclusion of operations in 1908. This book contains a very unusual account of a young volunteer soldier’s experience of this rarely described campaign of the early years of the twentieth century. Readers should note this is not an account from the Herero perspective. Appended to give historical context to this account is a short history of the campaign in South West Africa, 1915, during the First World War.
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At that same moment, I saw something at my side fall heavily, as a log falls. When I had fired, I saw that Behrens was lying there in convulsions. I sprang diagonally forward behind the next bush, with others following, dropped on one knee, and delivered a furious, rapid fire in the direction of the smoke at some dark thing which was moving behind the bush. I don’t know how many times I fired. Then my other comrade, who was kneeling beside me, fell, and in falling dropped his gun. He groaned aloud. I threw myself down and fired quickly in order, as had been previously arranged, to call the attention of other comrades to where I lay hard pressed. They sprang up, threw themselves down at intervals and shot as I was doing at an enemy of whom we saw nothing but little clouds of smoke here and there among the bushes.
We were lying like logs. Close by me was an under officer whose left arm was bleeding badly. He had propped his gun on a dry branch and was firing at short regular intervals. Bullets were coming from in front and both sides. Now I saw something strange coming at us. In a mass, it lay and kneeled and slipped through the bushes. I saw no single individual, only a group. It came quite near, and the balls splintered the bush around me. I shouted as loud as I could: “Here, this way!” I almost think that we could have held our own in that place till re-enforcements had arrived, but just then came the command from the captain, “Keep low and fall back!”
I sprang up with four companions and ran back one or two bushes and flung myself down again. Three of us reached there; one, who was hit as he was leaping, stumbled and fell. He tried to creep after us, moaning piteously. I lay and shot over him and moved a little to one side because he was raising his arms in agony. Again, we sprang up, and while on the run, the man next me clutched at his breast, let his gun fall, leaned sideways against a bush, and while still standing said, with a look at me: “Give my brother the book.” Then he fell heavily and did not stir again.
I could not search for the book, for at that moment as I turned to shoot, I saw here and there in the grey-green bushes, strange men in cord uniform rising like snakes out of the grass. Glancing around me, I saw that I was alone. Then I sprang up and in three or four leaps joined some other soldiers, who were now going forward stooping, and turned and knelt among them to shoot. I saw not far from me a black, half-naked figure like an ape, holding his gun in his mouth, and climbing with hands and feet into a tree. I aimed at him and screamed aloud for joy when he fell down the trunk.
When I wanted to fire again and was bending my forefinger, my hand suddenly became powerless. I got very angry and looked at it in a rage. Then I saw blood running out of my ragged sleeve and I felt that my arm from the elbow down was wet. I heard a dull, wild screaming and calling of the enemy in a half-circle around me. There was no one near me anymore. I recalled then the words which my father had so often said to me, “When you stick your nose into anything, you forget everything else.” I crept hastily back for a little distance on all fours, and then springing up, ran on in a crouching position.
There was still one man running near me, all hanging over to one side, with his body bleeding. I seized him under the arm as we ran, but he fell groaning on one knee and bent together as he knelt. I took his gun so that it might not fall into the hands of the enemy. My own I had thrown over my shoulder. I ran on in this way and came, with my comrades, who were pressing forward, into a clearing.
There I saw the old major standing straight and placid in the middle of the place, with some officers and men about him. Sections kept breaking through from the other side of the road and dispersed themselves at a motion of his hand round about him in the clearing, and throwing themselves upon the ground fired at the enemy. Behind the men who had come up running came the cannon in all haste; in obedience to his motion they were turned about just in front of him and were fired over the companies lying in front, into the enemy.
Near a revolving cannon both my guns fell from my grasp, my knees lost their strength, and I collapsed. I looked in despair at my bloody arm. While I was cowering there, I reached for the roll of bandage that I had in my coat and I managed to get it; but when I wanted to tie it around my arm, the blood would not stop and a sailor helped me. Some wounded men were already lying and kneeling there, and others with faces drawn with pain came creeping up and lay down behind the cannon, which were firing steadily.
Soon after, when the ammunition wagons and ambulances came galloping up, I stood up and tried to pull along a chest of ammunition which had been knocked open with axes. I could help only for a while, I don’t know how long, for suddenly my knees, which I had held firm by main force, gave way under me. I slunk back again to the other wounded men and sat with them, stemming with my left hand the blood which was pouring from my wounded arm. Sometimes I would look up; and when I did, I always saw the old major searching the whole clearing with his eyes.
The other men stood or lay in a half-circle around the wounded and the sick—who had been removed from the wagons and were lying indifferent with flushed faces under their blankets—and fired furiously at the enemy, who were pressing up close. They came so near that I saw them. Most of them wore the uniform of our home guards; but some had European summer suits on and some were half naked. Their limbs seemed remarkably long, their motions remarkably smooth and tortuous. They slipped and glided and leaped through the bush toward us. Two or three times the artillery fired with shrapnel. It roared through the air like a cataract; than it rattled and crackled, and the enemy gave way. In this way our men, lying and standing about us, held out for two hours against a wild onslaught, but were unable to advance a step.
Finally, however, they began to press forward in the bush, forced back the enemy, and pushed their way to the place where we, the rear company, had fought, hoping probably to find some who still lived; but they were all dead and stripped. They brought in the bodies and laid them in a semicircle under a tree. I, with some others, started toward them; I wanted to see my two dearest comrades once more, but we were hurried back that we might not see the pitiable sight. Some comrades were already digging a grave; others were barricading the camp, for we were to spend the night here.
Toward evening, as the sun was setting, the dead were laid in the ground; twenty men fired over their open grave; the old major talked of the Fatherland and God, and of death and the Easter faith. I sat sore and half beside myself, leaning against the side of a wagon by the wounded, some of whom were talking softly, others sighing painfully, others sleeping from exhaustion or lying in a stupor, and one or two already gasping in death. Gehlsen, who also had a flesh wound in his arm, sat near me, and they brought us some rice and a cook-pan cover full of water, about a pint. I would gladly have drunk three quarts, but far or near there was no water. I felt very forlorn and suffered torturing homesickness.