Misconception 3 of World War 1 in Africa: South West Africa

One often hears about the South West Africa campaign of World War 1 being a lightening campaign in which the South African forces took 6 months to bring the German forces to heal. However, this is not quite accurate.

The campaign against South West Africa actually started on 12 September 1914 after the South African Parliament gave permission for South African troops to leave the Union and actively participate in the war other than defend the Union borders. This was in accordance with the Defence Force Act of 1912 which saw the formation of the Union Defence Force. The discussions in Parliament been delayed until the incoming Governor General, Sidney Buxton, had arrived in the country which he did on 7 September 1914. He wasted no time in getting down to business and Parliament met on 8 September 1914. Debates took place until 11 September when the House voted to allow troops to serve outside the country. Part of the argument put before them was that German forces had invaded the Union at Nakob on the border – a point the Nationalist representative, JB Herrtzog disputed claiming the Jan Smuts, Minister for War had manipulated the map for his own purposes. The  exact border line was rather vague according to the 1909 Act of Union as it was hoped that South Africa’s borders would be extended to incorporate neighbouring territories at some point.

Permission having been obtained for troops to invade the neighbouring German colony, the Government wasted no time in getting things moving. Therefore, on Saturday 12 September he first moves were made across the Orange River at Ramans Drift and on Monday morning 14 September, troops were embarked for an invasion of German South West Africa through coastal attacks at Luderitzbucht. The Battle of Sandfontein was fought on 26 and 27 September where the South African forces were defeated (see Atwell’s 1920 account; others such as Rodney Warwick and Ian van der Waag have recently written on the battle).

Whilst the forces were invading the German colony, on 15 September, SG ‘Manie’ Maritz and General Beyers objected to attacking their German neighbours due to the support Germany had offered during the Anglo-Boer War. This resulted in armed rebellion starting a month later after Koos de le Rey had accidentally been killed. (Volstaat vs general version of rebellion) Maritz offered his forces the opportunity of siding with him or being arrested and becoming German prisoners. The rebellion in effect put the campaign against German South West Africa on hold although those forces already in place on the border remained in place whilst Prime Minister Louis Botha and loyal South Africans worked to bring the rebels to book. This they managed by the end of November and following a period of repositioning and thinking during which Botha decided personally to lead the South African forces against the German colony, activity began on 26 December 1914.

What is interesting about these months when South Africa was experiencing its rebellion, is that the Germans in South West Africa did not retaliate against the Union but rather concentrated on internal affairs and General Franke took the opportunity to invade Portuguese Angola and attack Naulila. The German colonial office had instructed that the colony was not to get involved in the rebellion so that there were no grounds for Germany being accused of being the antagonist.

It is the campaign post this period of non-action which is regarded as the campaign against South West Africa giving rise to the idea that it took the South Africans six months to defeat the Germans. Technically, however, the campaign had started in September 1914 and continued during the rebellion with Maritz’s force defecting to the Germans. It was because of the rebellion, that Louis Botha insisted on the 1915 election taking place.

The rebellion, campaign against GSWA and the Angolan conflict all require further study but thankfully there are researchers (esp German, South African, Namibian and Portuguese) working on these topics, we just have to be patient…

From my post on the numbers game

South Africans served in German South West Africa 1914-1915
43,402 whites including 3,397 in administrative roles
295 whites died
318 whites wounded
Reference: statistics and Official History

South Africans who rebelled in 1914 = 11,472 of which some 52 joined the German forces
190 rebels were killed
300-350 rebels wounded
30,000 loyal South Africans, of which
132 loyal South Africans killed or died of wounds
242 loyal South Africans wounded
Reference: SA Official History of the war

Against German forces

Population in 1912 = 14,816 Europeans of whom 9,046 were of military age
Native population = 80,900

Germans surrendered: 204 officers and 3,166 other ranks
Reference: Official History


3 thoughts on “Misconception 3 of World War 1 in Africa: South West Africa

  1. Pingback: A fact you can’t eVoid | Anne Samson - Historian

  2. Pingback: Review: Louis Botha’s War: The campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-1915 by Adam Cruise | Anne Samson - Historian

  3. Pingback: Review: The First World War in Namibia 1914-1915 by Gordon McGregor & Mannfred Goldbeck | Anne Samson - Historian

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.