Thursday, August 28, 2014

Prelude to the Fight: Mbatona's Movements and Volkmann's Responses (The Battle of Uitkomst Part VII)

Probable Movements of Mbatona (in yellow) on detail of 1904 German War Map: Blatt Otavi
The actual battle of Uitkomst may have lasted just ten minutes or so (Rohrbach 1908)*, but the sequence of events leading up to it requires further explanation. This step is necessary in order to make sense of what the leaders of the antagonists were trying to achieve, the fight itself, and its repercussions. 

This post deals with the confusion and uncertainty at the outbreak of the Herero uprising in the Grootfontein District, the evidence for the movements and actions taken by Mbatona (Batona) and his war band in particular, and the moves taken by Oberlt. Richard Volkmann to counter them.  It begins with the first reports of unrest on January 12th and ends on January 18th when Volkmann headed from Grootfontein toward Uitkomst with a mixed force, largely volunteers and Boers, to confront Mbatona.

On January 12th, 1904, Waldemar Grünwald fled in terror from his farm "Omambonde" (underlined in yellow as "Omaombonde", above) bringing the first word that the "Omurambahereros"  had risen up in the Grootfontein District (Rohrbach 1909, Rust 1905). Grünwald's farm was isolated far in the south on a tributary of the Omuramba-Omatako, and subsequent war damage claims indicate that it was one of the most heavily plundered in the area.

The word "Omuramba" refers to a seasonally dry riverbed, and the greatest of these - the Omuramba-Omatako - was a major demarkation line between the Omaheke and Kalahari "sandfeld" to the East and White settlements to the West.  In the dry season the Omuramba-Omatako was a significant transportation corridor running SW to NE deep into the interior of the continent, and a place where water could often be found  near the surface as well as at a number of excavated waterholes. There were Herero settlements along the Omuramba-Omatako as well, below the demarkation line that separated the Grootfontein District from Hereroland, and Rohrbach says that Mbatona himself lived at a place called Osondema (circled in yellow at the bottom of the above map). 

This was the rainy season, however, and according to Rohrbach the preceding two weeks had seen a significant rainfall that turned the riverbanks to quicksand and wagon tracks to mire.  The Herero, on foot and on horseback, could still travel with ease through the dense thornveld of the District and use the Omuramba network, but wagons could not.  When Oberlt. Volkmann rode South with just six riders to investigate what had happened at Omambonde, he was unable to reach the farm and his wagon became buried to the axles in mud.  By then the Herero band had moved on, either using the braided network of oxwagon tracks or making their way North through the thornveld.  Volkmann and his patrol did not encounter them, though they may have passed each other on parallel tracks through the bush. One can only speculate what would have happened to this small German force if it had run into Mbatona's much larger, well armed war band at this time.

 Mbatona also seems to have deliberately avoided the farms to the East on  his route northward, most of which belonged to Boer settlers whom he wished to keep nonbelligerent.  Interestingly, the one eastern farm that was attacked and plundered at this time was the German farm Okajongeama that belonged to the Steinfurth brothers.  The elder Steinfurth was killed in his house.  Possibly it was another group of Hereros who raided Okajongeama, or perhaps Mbatona and at least part of his war band used an ox wagon track that was East of the one used by Volkmann's initial patrol toward Omambonde. In any event, the nearby Boer farms were not raided at this time.

Batona's Movements Underscored in Yellow on a mid to later 20th century Grootfontein Farm Map
Grünwald initially fled to Gunuchas, the farm of another German settler named Hart Schmiedel. We know a bit more about Schmiedel because he was subsequently wounded in the fight at Uitkomst.  Analysis of German telegraphs from the war period, later compilations of casualty lists and the names of farm owners reveal that he was originally from Mittweida in Saxony.  He had come to German Southwest Africa as a one year volunteer (einjährig-freiwilliger) in the Schutztruppe.  He left the Troop in 1903 but was still a reservist with the rank of Gefreiter (the lowest grade of non-commissioned officer).  Altogether he and another German settler named Hendrick Niewenhuizen who farmed at nearby Kududamm just to the North of Gunuchas,  lost 20 Cattle (Large Stock) and 106 sheep/goats (small stock) to the advancing Herero (Rust 1905).  Along with Grünwald  these men escaped with their lives before Mbatona arrived.

 Mbatona's force seems to have been making for the Otavi Mountains, raiding cattle and livestock from the German farms they encountered on the way.  By the time of the Battle of Uitkomst on January 18th, though, the Hereros were no longer encumbered with captured livestock, for no mention of any is made in the German accounts of the fight (though several horses were taken).  Possibly the raided livestock was herded back to the Omuramba-Omatako to avoid recapture.

Period postcard of the German farm Urupupa, now part of the larger Rietfontein Dairy
Keeping the Boers nonbelligerent was clearly part of Mbatona's strategy.  According to Rust, one of the adult members of the Grobler family (among the Boers who farmed at Uitkomst) sent word to Volkmann that he had been told by the Herero leader to take his children out of school so they would not be caught up in the fighting around Grootfontein.  Grobler was also told to let all the Boers in the District know that they would not be harmed by Mbatona's force  if they stayed out of the fight and relocated with their families to the Boer leader Jean M. Lombard's Farm "Strydfontein". 

This was a curious request, because the first school in the District was located at Strydfontein, quite close to Grootfontein itself and just a few kilometers to the North and West of the settlement, and is probably where Grobler's children were staying already.  Most of the  Boer farms in the District were clustered within 20-30km of Grootfontein, while the Germans tended to farm in more isolated parts of the District.  If Mbatona wanted the Boers to congregate near Grootfontein and stay out of the fight, it makes sense that he would have avoided traveling through their farmsteads and would have given such instructions to Grobler while he was in the mountains near Uitkomst and looking for fresh German targets. 

It does not make sense thatMbatona had plans to attack Grootfontein itself, however. 
Herero tactics were consistent throughout this early stage of the conflict.  Large German strongholds were avoided and not directly assaulted.  The emphasis was on cattle raiding, attacks on remote German farmsteads, and on traders to whom the Herero were deeply indebted.  Contrary to what the 1906 Prussian Generalstab history of the German-Herero War asserts, the evidence does not suggest that Mbatona intended to attack the fort and well fortified settlement of Grootfontein "from two directions" in coordination with another Herero force of similar size that was operating further down the Omuramba-Omatako near the isolated military post at Otjituo.  That other Herero warband overran Otjituo and killed three of its four defenders at the same time that Volkmann and Mbatona fought at Uitkomst, but little else is recorded about who lead them or what they may have done afterward. They reportedly seized a great deal of rifle ammunition but they did not proceed to attack Grootfontein with it. 

Family of Willem F and Anna M Joubert of the farm Uitkomst, with the fort at Grootfontein behind them
Oberlt. Volkmann took steps to bring in the German settlers from the outlying farms and to win the support of the Boer population. On January 16th there was a great council in Grootfontein at which Volkmann asked for the Boers to augment his protection force as war volunteers (Rohrbach 1909). Their families and livestock would be given protection in Grootfontein so that the men would be able to join with Volkmann in defeating the Herero. Rohrbach does not describe the outcome of the meeting, but subsequent events indicate that either Volkmann made his case, or the Boers were never inclined to watch from the sidelines.  In any case, their loyalty proved to be firmly with the Germans.

Volkmann continued to receive reports of the Herero movements from both white and black informants (the later either loyal farm workers or from the Bushman and Bergdamara population of the District).  On January 17th he learned that Mbatona was in the mountains near Uitkomst with between 170 and 180 men, partially mounted and well armed with at least 60 rifles (Rust 1905, Rohrbach 1908, 1909).

Sources differ as to the precise number of men who rode out on the 17th to help escort the Joubert, Grobler and Poolman families (the latter an English settler), together with their livestock, back from Uitkomst to the protection Grootfontein.  It likely included very few members of the Schutztruppe, and was instead made up of from anywhere between a dozen and twenty men from the German Reserves or landwehr and war volunteers from the German and Boer population.  Rust gives the most complete account of this patrol and its activities once it reached Uitkomst that evening and the following dawn:

"Auf Umwegen gelangten obige Freiwillige nachts zu dem Joubert'schen hause, luden in fieberhafter Tätigkeit alles Bewegliche auf 3 Wagon, trieben vor Tagesgrauen ungefähr 500 Stück Großvieh zusammen und zogen dann mit undendlichen Mühen durch den Busch nach Grootfontein zu.  Als sie die drei Fahrstunden vor den Orte liegende Fläche erreicht hatten, ritten sie voran, da die Feinde ihnen nicht gefolgt waren und für die Wagon keine Gefahr mehr vorhanden var.   Bald begegnete ihnen Oberleutnant Volkmann der mit 10 Mann hilfe bringen wollte.  Sie ließen nun die Wagon nach Grootfontein weiter fahren, kehrten aber selbst um, die Herero anzugreisen. (Rust 1905: pg 18)

which I have roughly translated as follows:

"The volunteers came at night by a roundabout way to Joubert’s home,  loaded with feverish activity everything movable into 3 wagons, driving before the gray light of dawn approximately 500 head of large stock together and then covered with infinite pains through the bush to Grootfontein.  When they had driven for three hours they reached the flat and rode ahead, because the enemy did not follow them and no danger existed for the wagons.  Soon they met Oberleutnant Volkmann, who wanted to bring 10 men to help.  Now they let the wagons continue to Grootfontein, but turned themselves around to attack the Herero."

Even with such a wealth of cattle within his grasp, Mbatona did not pursue the Boers from Uitkomst and their escorts.  They were not his objective when he moved out on the morning of January 18th with his men, a mounted escort preceding the rest of his dismounted force.  Just where he was planning to go next may never be known, for before he had proceeded  very far East on the road from Uitkomst he was surprised and attacked by Oberleutnant Volkmann.  We will consider contemporary evidence that provides an order of battle of this fight in the next post in this series.

* for a bibliography of the sources referenced here and others relevant to the battle of Uitkomst, please read the preceding post in this series.

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