BY JINGO - Colonial History & Wargames Page



By Dennis Bishop

The weather must have been oppressing as a small patrol of five German Schulztruppen entered the encampment called Warmbad that was occupied by the tribe of the Bondelswart in Deutches Sud-West Afrika on October 25, 1903. As rivulets of perspiration leaked burning into his eyes from under his gray campaign hat, Lieutenant Jobst probably searched the camp for the leading headman of the dusky people clothed in a mixture of European and traditional dress. He could not know that by his extralegal attempt to exert the German authority to settle a minor dispute over the loss of a ram between two tribes would ignite a flame of rebellion throughout the German colony.

Lieutenant Jobst must have thought that, although the German had no responsibility in settling internal native disputes, his five "corn-blue" clad European soldiers in his patrol would overawe the encampment and settle the minor situation without a problem. As the Germans drew their horses up in front of the lodge of Kaptien (chief) William Christian, nothing should have happened as 500 poorly armed Herrero gathered.

Then the unthinkable then occurred. It is unknown what words were exchanged, or who fired the first shot; but in a sudden burst of gunfire Lieutenant Jobst, Sergeant Snay, one enlisted man and Kaptien Christian lay dead or dying. Nearby, another German soldier bled from a wound, but managed to escape with the only unaffected soldier to spread the word of the affair.

Years of repression, the selling of almost all of their traditional lands to Europeans and finally the violent death of their principle chief were all reasons enough to set the fire of insurrection among the Bondelswarts. They resolved that they would not allow the Germans to disarm their warriors and dispossess them of the last of their homelands by placing them on reserves. The kaptiens also had no doubt that their actions could bring about the total annihilation of their people. They decided that it would be better to die fighting.

Miles away to the north, at the German capitol of Windhoek, German Imperial Governor Colonel Theodor Leutwin received the news of the Warmbad incident. He must have realized the dilemma presented by the Bondelswart rebellion. His only available four European mounted companies and one artillery battery were spread thinly throughout the colony. These few troops would have to put down the rebellion quckly while protecting the European and indiginous people not in rebellion.

Leutwin's first act was to issue a proclamation that the Bondelswart province was under martial law. He then offered rewards for the capture or death of the Bondelswarts involved in the "Jobst Incident" ad offered a 2000 Mark reward for the new Bondelswart kaptien's head. He erroneously gambled on the German presige and lack of unified Herero leadership when he issued orders in the north for the combat elements of I Kompanie (Windhoek), II Kompanie (Omaruru), and III Kompanie (Keetmanshoop) to move south upon the Bondelswarts. Then Colonel Leutwin left to personally supervise the field operations. This left only IV Kompanie and I Batterie in the north of the c olony with the scattered small garrisons from the other companies.

Interestingly, it was not the Herero who first saw the opportunity for armed conflict after Leutwin departed. It was the German colonists. Leutwin was known among the Herero as "Majora" and they depended upon him to restrain the German colonists. As soon as Leutwin had departed the colonists began to spread rumors and to physically abuse the Black natives.

The German colonists had much to gain from provoking an armed conflict. Once the "baboons," as the colonists referred to the Herero, were removed, the whole of the colony would be open to development and exploitation. Not dealing with humans, the "paternal care" of the whip was liberally employed. Even murder of Hereros was excusable in the German civil courts. Although assaults and murders were civil problems, rape became a social enigma.

The question before the German courts was whether the rape of Black women was to be considered bestiality or rape? Worse yet, German society was faced with dealing with the question of whether the children born as a result of these rapes to fatherless families were more human or animal? The nightmare of racism had begun in the German colony in a Darwinian setting where only the strongest could survive. The tropical heat melted reality with surrealistic and man with animal as the courts decreed that the problem was the result of "tropical frenzy."


"Now I must kill the white people even if I die." Samuel Maharero, Supreme Chief of the Herero 1904.

Although the Herero uprising had been doubtlessly planned in advance, the moment to act came very quickly. It was a significant event that Samuel Maherero was able to succeed in soliciting the support of most of the Herero kapteins in the revolt. The disunited and fiercely independent tribes rose as one. This was something that no one, not even Leutwin, thought possible. Eighty thousand Herero had declared that they would rather die fighting than live under the German tyranny any longer.

The ultimate goal of the revolt was to drive the Germans out of Southwest Aftrica. The first objective of this goal was to undermine the German military ability to protect the colony by attacking outposts and garrisons, as well as the German transport and communication systems. Once the military had been neutralized, the second objective was to attack the 267 German plantations and farms. The Herero kaptiens reasoned that if the German settlers were demoralized and left the colony, the military units would follow. This made sense as they thought that the military had only been in the colony to protect the colonists.

However, the attacks upon the German farms presented a "double-edged sword." Samuel Maharero knew his genocide oriented enemies well and he did not want to accept the responsibility for the deaths of German missionaries and civilians that would provide the Germans with the excuse needed to enter into an orgy of killing anyone with darker skin. So, the Herero kaptiens agreed to regard only armed German men as the enemy. Maharero also did not wish to fight the Boers, British, or other Black African tribes. He felt that all these peoples held a common cause with the Herero in expelling the German influence from the colony. If only the Herero kaptiens had to protect their own dependents and other peoples, and conduct a two-phase military operation, it might have been easier. However, once the farms were attacked, the Herero would find themselves in possession of a vast amount of wealth captured from the farms including 42,000 cattle, 3000 horses and 210 sheep and goats. These herds also had to be protected.

During the days that the Herero kaptiens finalized their plans, Maharero opened a diplomatic front in search for allies in what can only be considered a "race war." In a series of letters and with embassies he must have contacted the Ovambo tribes on the northern border of the colony, although there is no evidence to this. He did contact the Orlam and Hottentot chiefs. He pleaded with Kaptien Hermanus van Wyk of the Baster tribe and Kaptien Hendrik Witbooi of the Hottentot tribe to join the rebellion. His pleas fell on deaf ears. Both tribes chose to stand with the Germans at that significant moment.


On January 12, 1904 the Hereros launched their first attacks on the German farms, forts, towns and the hated Ovati railroad. It took only ten days for the Herero to seize all of Hereroland and to burn to the ground most of the German farms. Between 125 to 150 German colonists and soldiers were killed and only the German fortified towns remained under loose sieges. These were the blackest days for the Germans.

For personal political reasons, Leutwin minimized the problem in the colony to Berlin. He repeatedly sent dispatches to the Foreign Office that there were enough resources in the colony to put down the rebellion. However, upon arriving at Swakopmund on the Southern Front, he was notified that Kaiser Wilhelm II had charged the Army Chief of Staff, Count von Bulow, with supreme command over all operations in Sud-West Afrika. Count von Bulow issued the redundant order that hostilities were to be commenced against the Herero.

As Leutwin surveyed his situation, it must have seemed doubtful considering that he was in the south of the colony with the bulk of his small army while the main action was occurring in the northern part of the colony. However, even this situation was better than it should have been due to the aggressive actions of the German junior officers. Most of the northern part of the colony was in flames, but the two most important towns of Okhandja and Windhoek were intact and besieged. Of these, Windhoek was the most important because it was the administrative center of the colony with 1000 Germans, a small fort and the only major magazine of ammunition.

Leutwin could not know that during his absence that Herero warriors under Supreme Kaptien Samuel Maharero had ridden through the town of Okahandja unmolested during the night of January 10-11. It is reasonable to believe that Maharero led this raid as it was near his home and the warriors were focused not upon attacking the fort or town, but camping to the southwest near the railroad bridge at Osana to interdict any German reinforcements.

In 1903 there were only 139 German, approximately 900 Hereros, 100 Berg Damaras and 100 Hottentots living in Okahandja. Maharero evidently was unwilling to risk the lives of his warriors in an assault upon the fort. Inside the fort was a small garrison of the I Artillery Batterie and the last twenty men of the I Kompanie under Lieutenant Bergrat Duft from Windhoek who arrived on January 11. It appears that Maharero thought that there would be more German reinforcements that would arrive along the railroad from Windhoek. He must have intended to use Okahandja as "bait" to entice the German relief columns into a series of ambushes.

The Herero returned to Okahandja during the morning of January 12 and, according to German reports, looted, burned and killed the few residents who had not fled to the fort. On closer inspection, this is a difficult assessment to accept. The Herero were south of their traditional grazing lands and remained in and around the town until January 28. With the large Herero population and the duration of the period spent in this area by the hostile Herero, it is more probable that the town provided a supply depot. When the hostile Herero quitted the area about January 28, they might have "looted and burned" houses in the town, but not on January 12. In fairness to the Germans, the nearby burning farms may have made it appear that the town was being burned.

For some reason, probably the inaccessibility of the Namib Desert, Maharero did not place any warriors to contest the railroad line from Swakopmund to Okahandja. It was along this line that Lieutenant Zulow, with a hastily organized company of 100 reservists traveled with 50,000 rounds of ammunition on an armored train. These reinforcements arrived at Okahandja on January 15. This make-shift force secured the defense of Karibib and repaired the rail line opening communications between Swakopmund and Okahandja defeating Maharero's plan.

Samuel Maharero evidently realized his tactical error and adjusted his forces to rectify the situation. When Lieutenant Zulow, who replaced reserve Lieutenant Zurn as senior officer at Okahandja, sent an armored train on January 19 back along the same railroad he had used to reinforce the town, it was discovered that a 200 yard strip of track had been destroyed. He recalled the train. On January 20, he sent the train in another direction to the south and discovered that the same destruction had occurred. This time, however, the Germans were ambushed and lost four men killed and four men seriously wounded.

When the siege was finally broken by the arrival of Captain Franke's IV Kompanie from the south on January 27, the German losses were 15 killed and 15 seriously wounded. The siege had lasted fifteen days. Communication with Swakopmund was finally established when a landing party of sailors from the gunboat Habricht repaired the railroad line between Swakopmund and Okahandja in early February.

Windhoek was a different situation altogether. The Herero considered Windhoek their traditional lands, so there was a strong motive to make the destruction of the fort and garrison a primary objective. There were only 70 German reservists left in the town, but these were enough behind the walls of the fort to dissuade Frederick Maharero (Samuel's son) from attacking the fort. This would become a major factor in what occurred after.

Samuel Maharero had thrown his main force against a phantom German response to relieve Okahandja and had allowed his son to command a smaller force against the most important objective of Windhoek. He must have thought that the isolated garrison of Windhoek would have been easily destroyed. This mistake in judgement lost the Herero the opportunity to achieve a significant military victory that would have disrupted the entire German colonial organization. Instead, it sealed the doom of his people.


" The enemy will have nothing to lose other than his life " Leutwin, 1904

Leutwin patched together a hasty peace with the Bondelswarts and began moving his elite mounted infantry companies north. He believed that it would be much more cost effective for the German government to reason through diplomacy rather than to destroy the Herero rebels through an extended guerrilla war. He had much to base his ideas upon. Six hundred Ovambos had been defeated in their attack on Fort Namutoni by only five Germans. Maharero's attempt to unify all the tribes of the colony under the slogan "Africa for Africans" was undermined by a "wait and see" attitude among the undeclared tribes. Leutwin believed that a peace could be achieved diplomatically should Maharero be given acceptable options.

However, the colonial office in Berlin viewed the Bondelswart negotiation an insult to German national pride. In consequence, the only course open to the Herero was "unconditional surrender." The attitude of the colonists in Deutches Sud-West Afrika reinforced the Berlin attitude. The Herero were to be totally subjected, or destroyed as a race. "Jungle frenzy" had seized both Berlin and the colony, and the smell of blood drove the "civilized" German nation relentlessly toward affecting a "final solution." Colonel Leutwin could only make plans, against his instincts, to wage a war of annihilation against the Herero.

Berlin reinforced its position by sending to Southwest Africa 1576 officers and men, ten pieces of artillery, six machineguns and 1000 horses. After these arrived between February and March, Leutwin had a combined force of approximately 2500 Schutztruppen and Imperial German troops, 700 reservists, 400 colonists and 350 allied Witbooi and Baster warriors. The entire German nation stood pitted against 10,000 Herero warriors of whom only a third were armed.

In spite of the growing strength of the German army that the Herero were incapable of stopping due to the inaccessibility of the port of Swakopmund and the railroad, the Herero actually continued to maintain the initiative in the highlands. The kaptiens decided when and where the battles would be fought. The kaptiens became more resourceful, the warriors became more efficient and the stocks of ammunition and herds grew. The Herero people's resolution to die fighting grew from their confidence and determination to remain free.


Under pressure from Berlin to initiate hostilities, Leutwin divided his new military resources at Windhoek into three columns in February, 1905. The East Section under Major Glasenapp consisted of the VII and IX FK, the I and IV marine infantry companies with seven mixed guns an two machineguns. It was assigned to join forces with the garrison at Gobabis and close the eastern frontier to prevent the Hereros from escaping into Bechuanaland. The West Section under Major Estorff consisted of the elite IV and II FK, the III marine infantry company, four field guns, a mountain howitzer and two machineguns. It was assigned to establish communications along the railroad line from Omaruru to Outjo. Colonel Leutwin commanded the Main Section that consisted of the I, V and VI FK, the I Field Battery (four 5.7mm guns), III Field Battery (four 5.7mm guns) and the II Gebirgs Batterie (three mountain guns). This column was to secure the railroad and defeat the Herero main force. If the plan worked, as it had always had for Europeans before, the small groups of Herero warrior would not be able to combine and would be destroyed piece-meal.

Leutwin could not know that the Herero had retreated into the Onjati Hills leaving behind only three small groups. One group was in the south along the railroad. Another was in the west of the Waterberg Mountains while the third was located in the east near Gobabis. Maharero had relinquished the initiative and intended to fight a guerrilla war of "cat and mouse."

Objectively, looking at Maharero's situation at the time, it appears that he had solid reasons for releasing the initiative and switching to a defensive position. His warriors had captured thousands of cattle and he wanted to preserve his line of retreat into Bechuanaland. More importantly, he wanted to draw the Germans away from their railroad lines of supply and communication that provided depots for transport and supply.


Although the German East Section was made up of newly arrived units and not all of the units were ready to move, Major Glasenapp began his advance upon Gobabis on February 15. The Germans were almost immediately ambushed by small groups of Tjetjo Hereros who forced Glasenapp to halt his advance to consolidate his straggled column. After accomplishing this unmolested, Glasenapp continued after the Herero who were known to be moving to the north.

Averaging only 20 miles a day, the column reached Kehoro on February 25. The horses and men were exhaused, but Glasenapp continued the advance to Gobabis where he hoped to relieve the garrison located there. As late as March 1 he could not find the Herero suspected in the north, so he began sending patrols to the south and west while the rest of the column rested at Onjatu.

Near Owikokorero an elderly Herero woman was encountered who disclosed where she had seen a herd of cattle nearby. Anxious for action, Glasenapp disregarded the poor condition of his men and animals and the obvious possibility of an ambush. He immediately ordered his column to capture the herd hoping to force a confrontation with the Herero who would have been with it.

The herd was captured on March 13, but suddenly erupted in The Battle of Owikokorero. The battle began as an ambush of the German forward units and captured cattle. Glasenapp moved the main part of his column to the support of the forward units and as this reinforcement crossed into the open it ran into a second ambush from the heavy bush surrounding the open space. The Germans dismounted and formed a skirmish line hoping to allow the forward units to retreat out of the first ambush. Glasenapp ordered the artillery and machineguns forward, but discovered that these were ineffective against the elusive, hidden warriors.

While the forward and main column companies struggled against their hidden foes, Glasenapp heard gunfire erupting from the rear of the column. Lt. Fischel, commanding the I Marine Kompanie with the column's precious 22 supply wagons, was being attacked by the Herero. Lt. Fischel laagered the wagons and fought from behind them against what was claimed to be Herero massed attacks.

Glasenapp gathered the men that he had available and some artillery into a relief force. This kampfgruppe counterattacked allegedly catching the Herero massed in the open. According to German sources, the artillery accomplished terrible execution upon the defenseless Herero warriors.

Whatever happened, suddenly only an eerie silence fell upon the field. Glasenapp had the chance to evaluate his situation. Out of 230 men in action, he had lost 26 killed and five wounded. Significantly, ten of the casualties were officers out of four companies. This is a heavy officer casualty loss that must have had a considerable impact on the combat effectiveness of the column.

Glasenapp claimed to have been attacked by 1000 Herero and to have killed 42, but this claim was never verified. Some historians offer a different situation where fewer than 100 Herero ambushed the German column and suffered only ten killed. Regardless of the actual reality of the claims, Glasenapp retreated to Onjatu and built a temporary fort. The East Section was out of the action, at least for the moment, after only one battle.


After leaving Windhoek on February 15, Major von Estorff moved his West Section column out of Okahanjia on February 20. Near Otjihihamaparerero, the column became involved in a brief skirmish with a group of Omaruru Herero who were retreating upon the Herero main force. The German press exclaimed a great victory had been accomplished.

In reality, the Germans lost two killed and seven wounded in a ten hour battle claiming fifty Herero killed. The German public had a much needed victory, but the Western Herero had escaped to join Samuel Maharero. The hollow publicity incident only resulted in an extension of the length of the ordeal.


Having deployed the bulk of his available mobile units in the East and West Sections, Leutwin was forced to await reinforcements from Europe. As these began to arrive, he began to launch patrols to clear the Herero from the area south of the Swakopmund-Windhoek railroad. The aggressiveness of the patrols resulted in only a single skirmish at Klein Barmen on March 10. This skirmish resulted in six German and ten Herero casualties. Months of inactivity and indecisive ambushes and skirmishes began to demoralize the German soldiers in the field. Regardless of the situation, the Herero warrior always declined a decisive battle and always fled before they had suffered heavy casualties.

Leutwin, however, was not concerned about the morale of the German troops under his command. He correctly guessed that the Okhandja Herero were near the traditional Onjati Hills and that the Tjetjo Herero were moving west to meet them. His only miscalculations were that the Omaruru Hereros would continue moving east after their defeat by Estorff and that a significant number of Herero were moving south.

Under considerable pressure from Berlin, Leutwin decided to attack with 800 newly arrived German soldiers and 160 Hottentot and Basters before the Herero could escape from their stronghold. On April 7, the Main Section left Okahanja toward Mount Onganjira without incident. On April 8, the Herero under Samuel Maherero staged an elaborate ambush.

Tying down the German advance units in an ambush, the Herero charged the German extended left flank. Only the timely arrival of the artillery and machineguns saved the entire column as the Herero attempted twice to overcome firepower with courage. The Battle of Onganjira resulted in 20 German casualties and an estimated 100 Herero killed. The battle forced Leutwin to consolidate and it was two days before the column could move again.

On April 13, Leutwin's column was ambushed again by the Herero, who were hidden in the bush, as they approached a waterhole. Like Glasenapp, Leutwin had no opportunity to use his artillery or machineguns. It was also obvious that to charge into the bush would be suicidal. He could not remain stationary in the open, so he ordered his entire column to withdraw to Okahanja. The Battle of Owiumbo resulted in 25 German casualties and an estimated ten Herero casualties.


Colonel Leutwin had received 1200 European German reinforcements by the end of April. However, he could not bring himself to attack into the bush again. The East Section had suffered severe casualties.

Glasenapp had fallen into another ambush ten days earlier that had resulted in 32 killed and 17 wounded at Okaharui. To complicate Glasenapp's combat casualties, typhus was spreading among his troops. Between enemy actions and disease the East Section had been reduced from 534 men to 151 in less than one month of active campaigning. The East Section was dissolved on May 6.

The West Section was out of communication and the Main Section was demoralized. The German officers and men could not fathom how to fight an enemy who appeared and disappeared without regard to physical objectives. In six battles and skirmishes, the Herero still held the strategic initiative, deciding where and how the armed situations would be resolved. The Herero were inflicting more casualties than they were receiving.

On the Herero side, Samuel Maharero had moved his people and captured cattle to the better pasture area near the Waterberg Mountain in April. The Herero had reason to believe that they might win a peace, if not the war. The Herero warriors had destroyed most of the German farms and captured a great wealth of cattle and other herds. The warriors had also captured much in German uniforms and weapons. All this added to the strength of their numbers of armed men.

It is difficult to determine Maharero's plans, if he had any. Most of the Herero tribes had reached the highlands safely where they were far from the Ovati railroad and in good pastures. The tribes were protected at that time by 2500 armed warriors with a very high morale. The raids on the farms had been very successful and the German army had been chastised. The raids on the farms had been very successful and the German army had been chastised. It might be possible that the German soldiers might be hesitant to risk their lives fighting through the Herero defenses forcing the German government to abandon the colony. Abandoning any thought of escaping to Bechuanaland, perhaps Maharero believed his people's sentiments as the women chanted, "Who owns Hereroland? We own Hereroland."

The African sun shone brightly on the Herero during the months of April through June, but storm clouds were gathering in Berlin. The Foreign Office in Berlin replaced Major Theodor Leutwin with Lieutenant General Lothar von Trotha as the commander of the schultztruppe. Leutwin would remain as governor. Berlin also increased the number of soldiers in South West Africa to almost 20,000 men.


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