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The Battle of Waterberg

Avatar of inke inke - 14. août 2015 - Discover Namibia

Schutztruppe Camp at the Waterberg Mountain. Source: National Archives of Namibia

Hereros and Germans had been at war for seven months in the former colony of German South West Africa on 11 August 1904. Led by paramount chief Samuel Maharero the main force of the Hereros was concentrated at the southeastern flank of Waterberg Mountain, accompanied by women, children and old people as well as cattle and goats. There were several springs and waterholes and there was grazing for the livestock. Present-day agricultural experts estimate that up to 15,000 people and their animals could live on that side of the Waterberg for several weeks. Based on this number, historians believe that the Herero force was up to 3000 men strong.  

German general Lothar von Trotha, who succeeded Theodor Leutwein as commander of the Schutztruppe (colonial troops) in July 1904, had a force of 2500 men at his disposal (Tröndle 2012). He planned to encircle the Hereros and inflict a crushing defeat.  On his instruction a large prison camp was set up at Okahandja.

But apparently he overestimated the military clout of his troops and greatly underestimated the firepower of the Hereros. Armed with muzzle-loaders and breech-loaders, they knew the area like the back of their hands, were used to fighting in the bush and were well rested. In places that provided strategic advantages they engaged the German columns as they advanced from several directions. One of the units lost its way, and the effect of the 30 cannons and 14 machine guns remained mediocre in the dense bush. Finally the Hereros stopped firing, probably because they ran out of ammunition. The losses on the German side were 26 dead and 60 wounded. The Hereros’ losses are unknown.

Escape into death

Samuel Maharero and his followers decided after the battle of Hamakari to flee through the Kalahari into the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland (Botswana). Taking a large a part of their livestock with them they escaped eastward through a gap between the German lines. The Schutztruppe’s supplies were low and the soldiers and their horses were exhausted. Pursuit was taken up only two days later but soon had to be given up. This was a military failure for General von Trotha.

But the trek of the Hereros through the bush savannah of the Kalahari turned into a catastrophe. The waterholes did not have nearly enough water for so many people. Some historians believe that the Herero settlement area east of the Waterberg had good rains during the rainy season that year but that hardly any rain had fallen further east. It is not known how many people died on the way. According to figures from the British Protectorate only some 1400 Hereros made it across the border. 

Von Trotha ordered his troops to occupy the waterholes on the western fringe of the Kalahari and on 2 October he issued his infamous shoot-to-kill order, declaring that: “Any Herero found within the German borders with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer admit women or children, I will send them back to their people or have them shot at.” The order was suspended several weeks later following the outrage it caused in Germany and other countries and von Trotha was called back to Germany.  

Thousands of Hereros managed to survive in the bush in small groups. Farms were repeatedly raided despite extensive Schutztruppe patrols. This finally led newly appointed governor Friedrich von Lindequist to promise the Hereros on 1 December 1905 that anyone reporting to the authorities would be treated fairly and given food and clothes. At the same time he asked the missionaries to help because many Hereros still trusted them. As a result of his appeal more than 12,000 Hereros were taken in and disarmed at the missionaries’ four collection camps up to October 1906.  

Thousands die in concentration camps

From the collection points the Hereros were sent to concentration camps in Windhoek, Swakopmund and Lüderitz, modelled on the camps set up by the British during the Boer War, and were used for hard labour on projects such as railway construction work. Von Lindequist did not keep his promise: provisions were bad and thousands of prisoners died of illness or exhaustion. Almost 7700 deaths, some 30 percent of the number of prisoners, were registered from October 1904 until March 1907. 

The situation only began to improve a little after Major Ludwig von Estorff published an indignant report on the conditions in the camp on Shark Island off Lüderitz. All prisoners were released on 27 January 1908, the birthday of Emperor Wilhelm II.

The result of the conflict was gruesome. From a population of between 60,000 and 80,000 before the war the number of Hereros dwindled to no more than 19,423 as recorded in the 1911 census. Taking the refugees in Bechuanaland and elsewhere outside the German domain into consideration the total number was thought to be 20,000 to 25,000. This means that between 35,000 and 60,000 Hereros died as a result of the war. This was more than half of their people, perhaps even as much as 75 percent.

The survivors found themselves in a world where they were no longer at home. The land on which they had lived before the war had been confiscated and was sold to German settlers. Hereros were not allowed to keep livestock. All that was left was for them to work on farms and in towns or live in one of the reservations. 

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