When South Africa fought the Germans

Rodney Warwick writes on the battle of Sandfontein, South West Africa, September 26 1914

In late August 1978 I was on a troop train bound for Grootfontein in Namibia on route to the Border War. I was just eighteen years old and it was a relief being out of the oppressive and abusive atmosphere of the Bloemfontein infantry camp where I had spent the previous eight months.

I still recall my intense interest in the orange/brown/grey Namibian landscape of koppies and semi-desert. I was aware of the country's colonial past; that South African troops, including my grandfather, had wrestled the then South West Africa from its German rulers in the First World War in what was militarily a markedly successful campaign of territorial conquest.

I was on that train, partly because that situation remained, and partly because the Cold War was playing out on the Namibian border, where the South West African People's Organisation' armed wing PLAN (People's Liberation Army of Namibia), supported by Moscow, were engaged in a guerrilla war against the SADF.

Being a keen newspaper reader as well as a history enthusiast I had known since my early high school years that national service would inevitably come my way and that service on the "Border" was likely. Eight months in the army had brought home to me very forcefully that Afrikaner nationalism was the predominant culture of this institution. English-speaking conscripts were often made to feel very unwelcome although friendships still developed across language/cultural lines and some degree of camaraderie too.

It was a kind of rite of passage, I guess, which the majority of white males then accepted, but not all particularly enjoyed. In any case we were all effectively the pawns of Afrikaner nationalist politicians who had no personal military service histories and of whom many, not least then Prime Minister John Vorster and Defence Minister P.W. Botha, had been hostile to South Africa's entry into the Second World War. Vorster had in fact even been a pro-German Ossewabrandwag "General" and together with other neo-Nazi malcontents interned for part of the war by the Smuts government.

That said, the SADF despite damage inflicted upon it by the lunatic nationalist and mediocre 1950s defence minister Frans Erasmus, still had some expert soldiers at the helm. These included SA Defence Chief General Constand Viljoen, an Afrikaner nationalist through-and-through but a brave and skilled soldier, Army Chief Jannie Geldenhuys whose father had served in the Union Defence Force (UDF), the SANDF's distant predecessor during World War Two; and, SA Air Force Chief Bob Rogers with a magnificent World War Two record. Rogers had "stuck it out" while Erasmus was clowning around in years gone by, alienating and forcing into resignation outstanding Afrikaner and English-speaking officers alike, who had served in the war but chose not to gatkruip the new minister and his toadies.

It was a measure of Erasmus's incompetence and foolhardiness that when he was finally shunted into another cabinet portfolio in 1960 by Prime Minister Verwoerd - that of police - he nearly set Cape Town ablaze in March of that year. The post-Sharpeville march to the city by a PAC-supporting crowd of thousands could easily have turned into a disaster. Erasmus purportedly told police commander Colonel Terry Terblanche to use force against the black crowd, which thankfully the intelligent and experienced policeman never did - choosing instead to negotiate, much to Erasmus's fury.

Times were very different when my grandfather, in 1914 a sergeant in one of the South African Mounted Rifles (SAMR) artillery batteries, had served in the UDF. Back then the permanent force combat component was small: Five SAMR regiments had been reconfigured from the various colonial mounted police units, along with the Cape Mounted Rifles (CMR) - the old Cape Government's only regular military unit.

In the post 1910 Union, Defence Minister Jan Smuts had clearly envisaged the SAMR brigade as a means to cope with militant white miners, potential Afrikaner republican rebellion and black uprisings - most particularly in the Eastern Cape where the CMR was based, but also Zululand. Two SAMR regiments were stationed at Pietermaritzburg and Dundee respectively.

In time of war the UDF's numbers would be swelled by the traditional British South African town based Active Citizen Force regiments like the Transvaal Scottish or Cape Town Highlanders, but a larger proportion would come from the UDF's other Citizen Force component, the rural Rifle Associations, effectively the revived Boer Commandos of 1899-1902.

The defence force of this time was therefore a compromise of British South African colonial formations; British military culture, and the traditional Afrikaner formation of mounted militia armed by the state. There was not an overall commander: Former Boer general Christiaan Beyers commanded the Active Citizen Force and former Cape Colony Defence head Brigadier-General Timson Lukin headed the permanent force of the SAMR regiments; both men fell directly under Minister Smuts.

During the late 1990s I studied the German South West Africa (GSWA) campaign for a Master's thesis at UCT and focussed upon the virtually forgotten battle of Sandfontein of 26 September 1914. I made several visits to this site where a century ago, a UDF detachment of 246 white soldiers and 57 coloured and black auxiliaries, under Lieutenant-Colonel Ronald Grant, unsuccessfully battled a German force ten times their number. Given recent media commentary on South Africa and the Great War centenary, and particularly the role of blacks and whites, the Sandfontein battle and burial of UDF dead is a story worth recalling.

Smuts was at the centre of initial planning in executing the SA government's affirmative response to a British government request for the seizure of the German territory. South West Africa contained radio masts at Windhoek, Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, which were capable of communicating British shipping movements to other German African colonies and Berlin. Besides the recently formed National Party under General J.B.M. Hertzog, the South African Party government of Louis Botha received parliament's assent for assisting Britain - including the support of General Koos De La Rey in the Senate. However, amongst Afrikaners there was less enthusiasm in some communities for fighting the Germans and there is little doubt the SAP government's decision played a role in precipitating the Afrikaner Rebellion later that year - but of course that is another story.

GSWA would initially be invaded from three geographically disparate points - west from a sea landing at Luderitz and east from the desert border directly west of Upington. The middle thrust to advance upon the German garrison at Warmbad was entrusted to the brigade of five SAMR regiments under Lukin. The only water available between the Orange River and Warmbad were wells at the foot of the Sandfontein koppie; the capture of which were absolutely essential to any military operation entirely dependent upon horse and mule transport.

Grant's detachment was to occupy and if necessary defend this crucial position until the rest of the SAMR Brigade arrived. While British South African regiments would land at Luderitz, the advance from Upington was to be under the hardliner bittereinder Manie Maritz; a former Boer War general now a lieutenant-colonel in the UDF. A good proportion of Maritz's ACF troops, like him were veraciously anti-British; yet strangely Smuts had not only entrusted his old Boer comrade in arms with an important military post, but was also expecting him to support Lukin by drawing off some of the German forces.

The SAMR brigade was shipped from Cape Town to Port Nolloth. However, logistical support available was meagre and Lukin's advance on the German colony from the coast became ill-co-ordinated, bedevilled by limited rail capacity and formidable distances. There existed scant reliable intelligence of enemy intentions. This was compounded by Smuts' insistence that an early thrust across the river was imperative.

By the Sandfontein battle's dawn there were around 1000 SAMR troops positioned along three drifts astride a remote 37 kilometre stretch of the Orange River; 2000 mounted troops at Steinkopf or still in rail transit from Port Nolloth, or plodding over waterless desert from the rail head to the drifts. The SAMR's unarmed 650 black members' were scattered amongst these groupings, their duties largely associated with the hundreds of horses, mules and numerous wagons transporting provisions and ammunition.

Map of the Orange River Cape/German South West Africa border indicating the action at Sandfontein (Source: Collyer, J.J., The Campaign in German South West Africa, 1914-15, Government Printer, Pretoria, 1937.)

Grant's detachment marched out from Raman's Drift on the night of 25 September to reinforce a small advance guard already at Sandfontein. His men were drawn out of two squadrons from the 1st SAMR regiment and two thirteen pounder guns of the ACF Transvaal Horse Artillery. His SAMR men were all former CMR troopers who in peacetime had been based at King Williams Town, Umtata and many tiny posts across the Transkei, policing the Xhosa in the aftermath of the numerous nineteenth century frontier wars. The twenty kilometre all-night trek with mounted infantry, ten wagons and the two field guns covered soft sand between rocky defiles. Rifleman Wessels was lost in the dark and assumed a deserter - in fact he was captured by Germans shadowing the strung-out column.

The unforgiving topography around Sandfontein can be appreciated visually on Google Earth here.

There had already been earlier skirmishes between the SAMR and German troops; Rifleman George Hartley had been shot dead by a German officer at the Raman's Drift police post as the Union troops advanced. On 16 September, hundreds of kilometres to the east at the tiny SAMR post at Nakob - the site today of the border post and rail crossing - Afrikaner Vrykorps mounted men and Germans had attacked and killed a Union corporal while capturing others. The Vrykorps were Afrikaner farmers in GSWA now openly siding with the Germans - a route that Maritz had already taken.

The German commander Colonel Joachim von Heydebreck had skilfully manoeuvred two thousand mounted troops around the vast terrain to attack Sandfontein from four different directions; having now no concerns that Maritz would interfere in his plans. The German colonial forces knew the area well, having thereabouts fought a merciless war against the Nama-Bondelswarts during 1903-1907.

A prominent Bondelswart leader Abraham Morris, still sought by the German authorities, guided Grant's men to Sandfontein, but fearing execution if captured, Morris thereafter slipped away. (In 1922 the region was again conflict-ridden when the Bondelswarts rebelled over a tax dispute and Morris was one of many casualties during this uprising's crushing by UDF ground troops and aircraft.)

As Grant's men arrived German artillery commenced firing from distant koppies across the vast western plain. The two Transvaal Horse Artillery guns uncoupled and swung into action; the white gunners and black auxiliaries demonstrated significant courage in fighting back from such an exposed position with ammunition being rushed across from inconveniently parked munition wagons. A German shell burst killed Battery Sergeant-Major Harris and UDF artillery casualties rose; by noon both guns were out of action.

With the sun burning down on the iron stone koppie the SAMR riflemen scattered across its perimeter were unable to reach the wells, but remained well ensconced against any frontal assaults. One German infantry charge across the deep sand resembled the suicidal tactics of the European Western Front, resulting in 51 year old Major Emil Von Rappard and several of his troops being killed. Von Heydebreck was not willing to risk further valuable men; for the entire afternoon the koppie was bombarded by German artillery, blasting to pieces the over 200 UDF horses tethered on the west slope and killing or wounding several SAMR members huddled behind their sangars. 

SAMR officer Lieutenant Donald Scott later wrote of how: "the summit appeared like an active volcano. The shells burst in salvoes of four at a time, emitting flames and smoke of various colours in such quantities that portions (of the summit) were quite invisible to those below", causing "rocks of enormous size (being) flung in all directions and dozens of boulders sent rolling down the slopes, placing the defenders at the base of the kopje in every danger of being crushed to death." Today shrapnel shards still litter the koppie.

The top of the Sandfontein koppie today looking west and north west where German artillery fired from - note rock fortifications. (Author's collection)

With ten guns in action against none, surrounded and under such heavy shelling, the situation was hopeless for the exhausted, thirsty UDF men. Two relief efforts by Lukin from the drifts were beaten back by well sited German troops. By 5.30pm Von Heydebreck's troops crawled to within two hundred metres on the koppie's slopes while some German guns were re-positioned at six hundred metres. Grant now wounded and fearing a pointless loss of life from a bayonet assault in the dark raised the white flag of surrender. Scott recorded how men from both sides then rushed together to quench their raging thirst at the wells as if never a shot had been fired.

The rock sangar (schanze) at the top of Sandfontein koppie today where Colonel Ronald Grant and his staff viewed the battle below. (Author's collection).  

The UDF men were captives until liberated in mid-1915 by triumphant South African forces - after the crushing by the state of the Afrikaner rebellion in the Northern Cape, eastern Free State and western Transvaal. The Germans had even attacked Upington in support of their Afrikaner rebel allies in early 1915, before being routed by UDF forces including the Cape Field Artillery - the only time this country's borders have ever been breached by a conventional military force.

Afrikaner Boers in their commandos served in their thousands during the GSWA campaign; following Louis Botha and scores of commando leaders well known from the 1899-1902 war. It was this rather than any particular affection for the British Empire that prompted their participation. White English-speaking South Africa soldiers like my grandfather of course felt very differently, being entirely loyal to the British connection; but Louis Botha was a remarkable uniting factor amongst both white language groups. He is today a forgotten figure in South African history. 

To return to Sandfontein: UDF fallen amounted to 15 dead and around 50 wounded, included those killed in the relief attempts; German fatalities being 14 with similar other casualty numbers to their opponents. Eight years later in 1922, after the Bondelswarts revolt, military authorities reflecting the racial attitudes of the time, authorised the formal reburying the white UDF dead at Warmbad. The black and coloured auxiliaries were left buried in a common grave; a sketch map and correspondence from the Namibian archives marks this spot's approximate positioning, clearly citing no attempt was made to open it.

While the white soldiers originated from across the Cape and beyond, the black auxiliaries were largely recruited from the Eastern Cape where the 1st SAMR had been based. The names of these Xhosa-speaking men killed in a war started in Europe were passed to the magistrate at Komga for conveyance to their kin. One of the coloured wagon drivers killed was William Cross whose father at 57 Robins Road, Salt River in Cape Town received a telegram stating full military honours had been accorded to his son - an unlikely situation given the strong German racial attitudes.

Several black and coloured prisoners of war from Sandfontein later died of wounds and harsh treatment in German captivity; the final number of their dead is difficult to estimate with precision. Only in 1999 was a Commonwealth War Grave's Commission stone placed alongside the white troops' graves in Warmbad inscribed with five names; but there were certainly others. Today at Sandfontein the German graves, rock fortifications and scattered war debris remain. But an important war centenary project remains: The common grave at Sandfontein where the black and coloured UDF members lie should be located and appropriately marked. While after a century, some kind of South African memorialisation should be erected to those who fought in this forgotten African theatre of a global war.

As we move into the First World War centenary, which has received little local media attention, it is worth reflecting back on 1914 within this country. The South Africa of then was barely a coherent nation; the "white Union" having just occurred in 1910. Yet strangely, although with significant difficulties, the Union or at least its military forces, ultimately presented something of a united front during the Great War; although admittedly this pertained more to the two main white communities and the Cape Coloured grouping, while the black African contribution was confined to military labour only.

South Africa's dominant political identity and national symbolism of 1914 was defined through its status as a Dominion within the British Empire. Such was a consequence of our colonial history although it certainly fully represented a significant part of the then white and Cape Town Coloured groupings' feelings. The colonial link includes my own family's "African origins" as British settlers in late nineteenth century Natal; a heritage which I remain entirely comfortable with.

Despite the innumerable white versus white and black/brown versus white conflicts of the nineteenth and previous centuries, scores of Afrikaners would serve alongside white English-speaking South African troops in the German South West and East Africa campaigns; while the Coloured Cape Corps would be mustered under white officers as an Imperial infantry battalion in Tanganyika against the Germans and their black askaris, besides later fighting the Turks in Palestine.

The bitterest fighting and the highest South African World War One casualties occurred in France and most particularly at Delville Wood and Marriềres Wood, involving General Lukin's largely white English-speaking 1st SA Brigade, which included my great-uncle Lance-Corporal George William Warwick. My maternal grandfather, then Lieutenant Algernon Sparks served in the German East African campaign with the SA Mounted Rifles 5th Artillery Battery. I am sure many readers can equally re-discover and quote their own South African family histories amongst forebears who fought in the First World War and who from generation to generation have passed down medals and other artefacts besides innumerable family tales.

The story of the South African Native Labour Corps in World War One regarding the troopship Mendi's tragic sinking has justifiably received plenty of official attention since 1994. But during the war centenary this event should not result in other South African cultural groupings' First World War sacrifices being ignored or played down during state commemorations.

My concern is that the government and South African media have for so long been immersed in contemporary racial slanging matches and racially toxic political battles, that such could impact upon a balanced and worthy commemoration of all South Africans who participated in a global war a century ago against German militarism and its allies. But also, the overall First World War events dwarf the contributions of individual countries, let alone small ones like South Africa. Educationists and the media also have an opportunity to demonstrate how the war completely changed the course of twentieth century history.

The SA Military Veterans Association should make the effort to properly research and commemorate the Sandfontein battle of September 1914; not least including the appropriate marking of the coloured and black graves. Over the next four years there will be plenty of other opportunities in present-day Tanzania, Namibia and France to acknowledge where South Africans were involved on the First World War battlefields within these countries. 

Dr Rodney Warwick PhD MA (UCT)

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