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Gustave Freensen:

In The German South African Army, 1903-1904

[Tappan Introduction]

From the general scramble of the Powers for territory in Africa, Germany emerged with an extensive tract in the Southwest. She has made vigorous efforts to develop it as a colony, spending much blood and money in her attempts to subdue the natives and turn the country into a promising field for German emigration. This story is by a soldier in the German army telling of his experiences in the campaign against the natives in 1903-04.

WE were to surround the enemy in an arc to the north and corner them, just as one runs in a circle and corners a colt so that it runs back where the boy is waiting with a halter in his hand. We were to make forced marches with fewer and lighter wagons, which meant smaller and lighter rations, and with less and lighter clothing. We were about three hundred men,---marines, sailors, and the home guards, who were leading us.

The troop of old Africans again went on ahead, officers and common soldiers, all mounted. Then came the old major with one officer; then we foot-soldiers in a long, thin line veiled in dust. Here and there in our line were the thirty great Cape wagons loaded with the light field-pieces and each drawn by from ten to twenty-four long-horned oxen, which were driven, with much shouting, by Negroes. On both sides of the way was more or less dense, grayish green thorn-bush, the wood of which is as hard as bone, and which grows to the height of a man, and sometimes twice that height, and has curved thorns as long as one's finger. In such wise and through such country we now traveled day after day and week after week. And day by day and week by week our progress became more painful. For soon came the time when we began to suffer from hunger and want, when the oxen began to fall from exhaustion, and when some of the clumsily rumbling wagons were full of the distress of the wounded or very sick.

When the sun mounted high over us, almost to the zenith, and the sand was scorching, and eyes and throats were burning, the van would halt at a clearing where there ought to have been water, but the water was not always there. Then suffering terribly from thirst, we had to dig holes to see if we could find a little water slowly filtering through. Often it was salt or milky from lime, or smelled vile; and oftener we didn't find even this miserable, loathsome water, and we had to go on again thirsty, far into the night. If we did find water, we would make a barricade of thorn-bush around us. Then each mess division would get its meager supply of food; a little meat from a freshly killed ox which had fallen exhausted, a little flour, and a little rice. The meat or flour we stirred up in a kettle with the bad water, and set it over the fire, calling it meat soup, or bouillon with rice, or pancakes, which they called " Plinsen." The cooking utensils were cleaned with sand. After that we lay for an hour in the shade of the wagons or of a canvas that had been set up, and then started on again.

Weary and indifferent, we marched on till evening and often into the night, and I don't know that in those weeks we ever sang. The moonlight lay wonderfully pale, like bright spider webs, over the broad, bushy land and the unfamiliar stars gleamed strangely confused and restless. The gun-straps pressed on our shoulders, our feet stumbled in the uneven track, and our thoughts were slow and dull. When we had reached water in the night and had had dealt out to us one or two, or, if it was more plenty, even three cook-pan covers full of the miserable stuff, we were too tired to cook properly. We stirred up together a little of whatever we got and ate it half cooked. We had orders to bring the water to the boiling-point before we took it; but I have seen the officers, and for that matter even the physicians themselves, dnnk it just as it was. We were too tired and apathetic.

So it went on every day for four weeks. The country was always flat and bushy. We didn't see a single house and we didn't meet a human being. It was bad that we couldn't take provisions enough with us. If we had been able to, many more would have seen their homes again. We didn't notice it ourselves, but the doctors and officers probably saw that we were gradually getting shabby and weak. If we had even had time and inclination to cook properly, it would have been better; but the water was often so repulsive that it was no pleasure, and we had to use it so sparingly that our utensils got foul. I rubbed them with sand and I rubbed them with grass, but they did not get clean. And it was bad that we had only thin Khaki uniforms. In the morning we marched up to our knees in wet grass, at noon in hot sand, and all day through thorny brush, so that the r lower part of our trousers fringed out and soon hung in shreds. When, as sometimes happened, a thunderstorm or a shower came up and then night came on, we were horribly cold. There were some very cold nights.

Thus it had to come about that we soon became very weak, even though we did not notice it ourselves. I used to think sometimes with surprise, "There was so much talk and squabbling among us on shipboard, and so many jokes among us! Where are they, and why don't we sing? How pale and yellow and thin Behrens has grown! How sunken and feverish our under-officer's eyes look! What awfully thin beards we young men have!" There were many among us not yet twenty.

Once we came upon a great covered wagon left deserted on the road. A farmer or a trader had wanted to escape and had packed his most valuable possessions in the wagon, harnessed his oxen to it, and driven the rest of his flocks before it. He had come as far as this. His bones lay eaten by beasts, his goods were stolen, and round about the wagon were strewn the only things which the enemy couldn't use, his letters and books. We buried the bones in the bush, tied a cross together with string and set it on the grave, and took some letters and remnants of books, read them, and threw them away.

Another day we discovered, hidden in the bush, on a hill by the way, many deserted huts of the enemy. They were like great beehives made of a skeleton of branches and twigs plastered over with cow-dung. Although we were so tired, we took the time to set fire to these, and afterwards stood on a rise in our road and looked back. The glow dyed the evening sky for a great distance. Besides this I don't know that anything special happened to us. We marched continually along the sandy road in a cloud of dust, on both sides of us brush that from time to time was thinner, or that yielded to make a majestic clearing.

Our horsemen, the old Africans and the officers, rode often an hour in advance of us and tried to spy out the enemy. When they came back the news would often spread through the ranks or at night from fire to fire: "We are close to the enemy now; tomorrow or the day after we shall meet them." Then we rejoiced and each man sat and looked over his gun and examined his cartridge-belt. But a new day came and still another, and we grow weaker and more exhausted, and we saw nothing of the enemy. So it went on for four weeks, further and further. It was bad that we never had our clothes off and could never wash ourselves, and seldom, and then not thoroughly, even our faces and hands; but what was worse, we could never get enough to eat any more. They had given to me the task of getting the rations for our mess. I brought less and less to the cooking-hole; a little rice, a little flour, a little canned meat, and a little coffee. There was no more sugar, and one day I came back from the wagon with no salt. Then I baked pancakes made of dirty water and flour. The water we drank with our food tasted disgustingly of Glaubersalz; often it was as yellow as pea soup and smelled vile. The nights were cold.

I cannot say that we were cast down. We did n't grumble, either. We perceived that it could n't go any other way and that the officers endured all that we did. We were very quiet and sober, though. We held ourselves together with the thought: "We shall soon now come upon the enemy and beat them and finish up the campaign, and then, oh! then, we shall go back to the capital and get new clothes and have a bath. We'll spring into the water, and we 'll get a new handkerchief, a really clean, red-checked one, and a great lot of good meat and a handful of white salt, and a great, great mug of clean, crystal-clear water---how it will glisten! And we'll have a long, long drink and hold out the empty mug, and again the water will pour into it, and we'll drink and drink. And then after a few days we'll travel back to the coast and we'll start for home! What shan't we have to tell about this monkey-land!"

Our boots fell apart; our trousers were nothing but shreds and rags at the bottom; our jackets got full of great holes from the thorns and were horribly greasy because we wiped everything off on them; our hands were full of inflamed places because we often had to seize the thorns with them.

Our lieutenant often talked to us. "Keep up your courage," he would say; "we shall have a fight and throw the rascals back to the west into the jaws of the main division. And in July we'll be at home again." I marveled at him, that he, though not much older than we, and suffering all the hardships that we did, was always uniformly calm, while we were often good-for-nothing and got angry and grumbled. It was n't because he had learned more than we; I think it came from the fact that he was at heart a cultivated man; that is, he had his soul and mind in control so that he could value justly, and could make allowance for the things about him. His will would have it so, and it came to pass. And I have noticed that will power is worth ten times more than mere knowing. We never said a word of how much we thought of him and watched him. He was a small man and rode a strong East Prussian horse, and always wore his felt hat a little over the left ear with the brim tilted up on the left side.

The old major came sometimes and addressed us. While doing so he looked at each man as closely as though he wanted to find out if he were having any sort of trouble. We all felt that he was a wise and wide-awake man and that he had a gentle, sympathetic heart. We felt, therefore, safe under him, and we knew it could not be any different from what it was or he would have changed it; and we would run like so many rabbits if we could do any little service for him. When any one had run that way, we used to jeer at him and say: "Are you trying to burst yourself, man?" But when the turn came to any one else he would run just the same.

Sometimes when we were all sitting about our fire-holes, I would take myself off over to the old Africans, who always had their fire by one of the wagons which Sergeant Hansen conducted. Then Hansen would motion to me, for he liked me since I had talked to him in the courtyard of the fort. They always sat by themselves, not entirely out of pride, but also because they were mostly from five to twenty years older than we were. Some of them had been already ten years or more in the country.

I used to sit down quietly with them and listen with great eagerness to their talk. Sometimes they talked of the wild fifteen years' struggles in the colony, in all or part of which they had shared, and of the fighting in the last three months. They recalled the scene of many a brave deed, and named many a valiant man, dead or living. I was surprised that so many hard undertakings, of which I had never heard or read so much as a word, had been carried through by Germans, and that already so much German blood had been lavishly spilled in this hot, barren land. They touched, too, upon the causes of the uprising; and one of the older men, who had been long in the country, said: "Children, how should it be otherwise? They were ranchmen and proprietors, and we were there to make them landless workingmen; and they rose up in revolt. They acted in just the same way that North Germany did in 18I3. This is their struggle for independence." "But the cruelty?" said some one else, and the first speaker replied indifferently: "Do you suppose that if our whole people should rise in revolt against foreign oppressors it would take place without cruelty? And are we not cruel toward them?" They discussed, too, what the Germans really wanted here. They thought we ought to make that point clear. "The matter stood this way: there were missionaries here who said: "You are our dear brothers in the Lord and we want to bring you these benefits; namely, Faith, Love, and Hope.' And there were soldiers, farmers, and traders, and they said: "We want to take your cattle and your land gradually away from you and make you slaves without legal rights.' Those two things didn't go side by side. It is a ridiculous and crazy project. Either it is right to colonize, that is, to deprive others of their rights, to rob and to make slaves, or it is just and right to Christianize, that is, to proclaim and live up to brotherly love. One must clearly desire the one and despise the other; one must wish to rule or to love, to be for or against Jesus. The missionaries used to preach to them, "You are our brothers,' and that turned their heads. They are not our brothers, but our slaves, whom we must treat humanely but strictly. These ought to be our brothers? They may become that after a century or two. They must first learn what we ourselves have discovered,---to stem water and to make wells, to dig and to plant corn, to build houses and to weave clothing. After that they may well become our brothers. One doesn't take anyone into a partnership till he has paid up his share."

One old freight-carrier, who mixed many English and Dutch words in his speech, said it would be better if the colony were sold to the English. "The Germans are probably useful as soldiers and farmers," he said, "but they understand nothing about the government of colonies. They want this and they want that." A younger man, who had been in the country only three years, said, in answer: "There'll have to be a thousand or two German graves in this country before that happens, and perhaps they'll be dug this year." Over these conversations it got to be late at night; the fires still glowed a little, and in the uncertain light I saw the faces that had become browned and weather-beaten from the burning of the African sun.

In these hard, hot days of marching and cold, moonlight nights, when we were advancing painfully, but still not without courage, one week after another, through the wild, bushy land,---there was not a house, not a ditch, not a tree, not a boundary in the burning sun by day or the pale moonlight of the clear nights; when I was plodding along, hungry and dirty and weary by the sandy, uneven wagon track, my gun on my shoulder; when I lay in the noon hour in the shadow of the great Cape wagons, and in the bitter cold nights, hungry and restless, in a thin blanket on the bare earth, and the strange stars shone in the beautiful blue heavens,---then, I believe, even then, in those painful weeks, I learned to love that wonderful, endless country....

BEFORE midnight we advanced toward the enemy. It was said that our division would come upon them about morning. The Witt-boys rode on ahead as spies. Then came our company. One part was detached to ride at the side of the road in the bush; the other part was to keep on riding in the road. I was in the third platoon. Behind me in compact array came the artillery. We marched as quietly as possible, but still there were all sorts of noises: snorting of horses, jolting of wheels, an impatient, angry shout, or a blow with a whip. I was very cold in the saddle, and, in order not to have stiff fingers later, when I had to shoot, I laid the reins over my cartridge-belt and put my hands in my pockets.

At last morning broke, and delicate, rosy stripes of light soon shot up toward the zenith. The colors grew rapidly deeper, brighter, and stronger. The red was glorious in its fullness and the blue beautiful in its purity. The light mounted and extended itself, ascending like a new world a thousand times more beautiful than the old one. Then came the sun, big and clear, looking like a great, placid, wide-open eye. Although like a good soldier I had all my thoughts fixed on what was before me, on the enemy, and the bad hours I should probably meet with, yet I saw the splendor of the sky.

Near me rode a fellow from Hamburg, a fresh, quiet boy. He said once to me: "You see, one has to have experienced something, or how shall one become a serious, capable man? That's why I came here." He was to enter his father's business later. He was riding just as I was, his reins over his cartridge-belt and his hands in his pockets; he was frowning this morning, and kept a sharp lookout before him. Diagonally behind me rode the former officer. About this time of day according to the predictions of our scouts, we ought to reach the enemy, but they were not to be seen. Then I thought, as did many others, that again there would be no fighting, and I was annoyed. Shortly after this, however, we heard the thunder of cannon coming from our right.

It got to be eight o'clock, and nine. The bush was so dense that the parties sent into it could not advance. They came out and marched together along the road. The sun was steadily mounting; it was getting to be a hot day. It began to be warm riding, and the horses were growing tired. A little thin lieutenant with a drawn face and sharp eyes rode up alongside of me and said, in a suppressed voice: "We aren't a mile and a half from the water-holes." Several times in the last few days he had made dangerous excursions into this region, and he knew every bush.

Then the first shot fell ahead. With a quick swing we were out of our saddles and had thrown the reins over our horses' necks. Those who were to hold the horses seized them. Our company was only ninety strong, and, as we left ten with the horses, only eighty men went into the thick bush. The enemy were firing vigorously and letting out short, wild cries. I saw one of our men wounded. He stooped and examined a wound in his leg. Still, I saw nothing of the enemy. Then just for a second I saw a piece of an arm in a grayish brown cord coat, and I shot at it. Then I lay down to spy out another target. Lively firing was being exchanged. When one of us thought he had hit his mark, he would announce it with a loud voice: "That one won't get up again! I got him in the middle of the breast!" The third man at my right, who was lying by a bush in front of me, twitched convulsively. A derisive voice on the other side shouted: "Had enough, Dutchman?" My comrade said, in a quiet voice: "I have a bullet in my shoulder," and he crawled back on all fours.

I could hear through all our own shooting that we were getting fired upon from the left. This fire now became heavier. They were coming nearer. In close ranks they came, creeping and shouting and screaming. Two of my neighbors were not shouting any more. We crawled back once or twice our length. The enemy shouted: "Look out, Dutchman, look out!" and laughed wildly. Others shouted: "Hurrah! hurrah!" The bush was swarming with men. I thought they would now break loose upon us in a wild storm and that it would be all up with us. On account of our wounded men I was fearfully anxious lest we should have to retreat. I was firmly resolved if the command should come, to shout loudly: "Take along the wounded!" But when I had just decided on this plan, a subordinate officer came up with several men and cheered us on with the words, "Hold your position! I am sending aid!" Soon afterwards I heard something slipping and grating behind me, and a quiet, soft voice said: "Move a little to the side." The nozzle of a machine gun was pushed forward near my face, and immediately began to crackle away. The grape shot hissed furiously into the bushes, rattling and whizzing. How good it sounded! How surely and quietly I shot! "Did I hit? Did you see? Shoot, man, there! there!" Cannon, too, upon a slope behind us were now thundering over our heads. Then it grew a little more quiet on the other side, and the command of "Forward, double quick!" reached us. We sprang up and plunged forward, but a horrible volley of grape shot was poured against us and threw us back again.

In front of me an under-officer had got a ball in the body, and blood was streaming from the wound. He was crouching and trying to stem the flow of blood with a handkerchief, and was calling for help. He was a light-complexioned, fine-looking man. Just then the former officer, the one who was under the official ban, came up from the side, seized the wounded man by the shoulders, and dragged him back, while balls were falling around him and the barrel of his gun was hit so that it flew rattling to one side. He then quietly lay down in his place again. On the other side, in the bush, they were shouting in wild zeal and shrieking for very rage.

We did not advance. I don't know how long we lay there firing. It was probably hours. I wondered once why no officer was to be seen with us, and I forgot it again. Sweat ran like water over my entire body. Not merely my tongue, but my throat, my whole body, cried out for a swallow of cool water. At one side a hospital aid was trying to bind a rubber bandage around the bleeding leg of a wounded man who begged him in South German dialect: "Take me back a little, can you?" Then the aid dragged him back panting. The fire from the other side was getting weaker. A voice commanded us: "Fire more slowly." From the other side we heard it jeeringly mimicked: "Fire more slowly." A wounded man cried aloud for water. We lay and waited, our guns pointed. Word passed from mouth to mouth: "The captain is dead; the first lieutenant, too---all the officers---and almost all the under-officers." Propping my gun in position, I took my field flask with my left hand and swallowed the little draught I had saved up for the greatest emergency. As I set the flask aside, I thought that perhaps it would be my last drink, and I thought of my parents. I believed that the enemy would get breath and then make another assault.

But that did not happen. A lieutenant who belonged to the staff came stooping along our ranks. When he was behind me, he knelt there, touched my boot lightly, and said: "Go to the general and report that according to my reckoning we are about half a mile distant from the last water-holes."

I got cautiously up on my knees, and then ducking down ran back to the road. Near an ant-hill, which was certainly three yards high, a surgeon and a hospital aid were endeavoring to save a man from bleeding to death; but I believe they came too late, for he lay like death on his dark red blanket. Then I saw the balloon not far in front of me and I ran across the clearing to it. The long rows of oxen, standing in harness in front of their wagons, raised their open mouths and bellowed hoarsely, for they scented the water-holes and panted for water. The soldiers at the wagons and horses called to me with dry voices: "Get ahead, you fellows up forward! Are we coming to water soon? Are we going on?" They looked at me with deep, dry eyes. Those who held the horses had a great deal of trouble with the thirsty creatures, which were standing crowded together, swarmed over and tortured by insects. The sun scorched down. A thick, horribly dry, dust-filled air lay over the whole camp.

The surgeons in white cloaks stood in front of the hospital wagon around a table on which some one was lying. I wondered how many were lying in the shade of the wagon; five or six of them were dead, among them our captain. A wounded officer, I think it was a lieutenant, was giving water with his well hand to the severely wounded; his other arm was bleeding badly.

At the general's wagon a man was standing by the heliograph. The general was near by with officers and orderlies around him, all of them on foot. I reported and heard some one say: "The animals can't hold out any longer and the men are simply dying of thirst." The next moment, just as I had turned to run to the front, there came from behind from two or three directions wild shouting and volleys from the bush. The outposts, who were lying and kneeling on the ground all around, moved in immediately. The voice of an officer rang out sharp and clear: "Disperse and charge in knots." I ran, and saw as I ran that a hailstorm of bullets was riddling the hospital wagon, that the doctors were seizing their guns, and that one of them was wounded. I even heard one say: "We'll take off our white cloaks, though." Then I lay down by a bush and shot at the enemy, who with wild shouts continued their onset through the bushes. Secretaries, orderlies, drivers, guard, and officers all rushed forward, lay down near one another, and protected their skins. The artillery turned while firing and shot away over us. Excited by my run and the sudden attack, I began a violent, rapid fire. A voice near me said: "Shoot more calmly." I did fire more calmly, thinking, "Who said that? " and as I seized my cartridge-belt and looked to the side, there lay the general two men from me, shooting coolly as becomes an old soldier. The enemy were pressing on in close ranks through the bush, shouting and firing. But we lay quietly and shot well. Then it got more quiet. The officers stood up and returned to the center of the camp again. Immediately after that came the order that the whole camp should advance two hundred yards. In running by I saw them lifting the dead and wounded into wagons. Then I ran forward again to my place in the line of defense.

Now as I lay there I felt how very parched I was. Begging and complaining and teasing for water went through the ranks. From behind we heard the hoarse lowing of the thirsty oxen. I believe that at this time, four in the afternoon there was not a drop of water in the whole camp except for the wounded.

Then everything was moved to the front,---soldiers, artillery, and machine guns. A terrific fire rattled against the enemy, who were growing weary. Then word passed from man to man: "We are going to charge." Now the battle-cry told. I shall never forget it. With fierce yells, with distorted faces, with dry and burning eyes, we sprang to our feet and hurled ourselves forward. The enemy leaped, fired, and dispersed with loud out-cries. We ran without interference, shouting, cursing, and shooting, to the good-sized clearing where the ardently desired water-holes were, and across it to the farther edge, where the bush began again.

The entire camp---the heavy wagons with their long teams of oxen; the hundreds of horses; the hospital wagons with the surgeons, the dead and the wounded; the headquarters, everything---followed in a rush and encamped in the clearing. But we lay around it at the edge of the bush to keep back the enemy, who now here and now there would break through the thick bushes in wild, loudly shouting parties. Behind us our men were now climbing down with army kettles into the water-holes, which were ten yards deep, and were filling buckets let down on reins and were beginning to water man and beast. When about ten animals had had a little, the hole was empty. There were about ten or twelve holes at this place.

The sun went down. Some of us slipped out, cut brush with our side-arms, and made a stockade in front of us. The artillerymen set up the cannon and machine guns behind us and knelt near them. Some of the soldiers were detailed to creep from man to man and give each a little water. In the camp further back of us, the restlessly crowding animals were being watered in the dark. By the hospital wagons nurses were going about, lanterns in their hands, bending over each patient. Meanwhile the enemy kept up their firing, which continually flashed out of the dark bush all around the camp. Not until about midnight did it become more quiet. We passed a little zwieback from hand to hand. Then complete darkness settled upon us and the shooting at last ceased.

What plan had the enemy in mind? Here we lay in the dark night, four hundred men, worn out, and half dead with thirst; and in front of us and all around us a savage, furious people numbering sixty thousand. We knew and heard nothing of the other German divisions. Perhaps they had been slaughtered and the sixty thousand were now collecting themselves to fall upon us. Through the quiet night we heard in the distance the lowingof enormous herds of thirsty cattle and a dull confused sound like the movement of a whole people. In the east there was a gigantic glow of fire. I lay stretched at full length with my gun ready, and cheered my utterly exhausted comrades to keep awake.

Thus morning gradually came on. Then some scouts went out cautiously and we learned to our great amazement that the enemy had withdrawn, and indeed in wild flight. We should have liked to follow them up, but we had no news yet from the other divisions. Moreover, both men and beasts had reached the limit of their strength. So we rested on that day, ate a little poor food, and cleansed and repaired our guns and other equipment; for we looked like people who had battered and bruised and soiled themselves in an attack of frenzy. The madness still showed in our frowning brows and in our even our dead lay in the midst of us in the shade of a tree.

We had a great deal of trouble to keep our animals from dying. We could not give them anywhere near enough water to satisfy them, and we could not give them any fodder at all, because the entire region had been eaten as bare by the enemy's cattle as if rats and mice had gnawed it clean. The men and the animals had even grubbed into the earth in search of roots. It was a miserable day. The sun glared down, and an odor of old manure filled the whole land to suffocation.

At noon there came at last some news from the other divisions. Two reported that they had beaten the enemy, the third that it had saved itself with great difficulty and distress. The enemy had fled to the east with their whole enormous mass,---women, children, and herds.

Toward evening we buried our dead under the tree.


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. III: Egypt, Africa, and Arabia, pp. 465-484.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

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