Battlefield Location and Terrain Features: The central feature of the battlefield was an oxwagon road running SW to NE between the farm Uitkomst (near the foot of the Otavi Mountains), and Grootfontein. The terrain here is relatively flat with grayish brown soils sloping very gently East and Southeast. There has been heavy "bush encroachment" in the region since the battle in 1904, and my strongest memories of the landscape from when I was last there in the 1990s was of sand or gravel roads stretching out through a sea of thorn.
There is no sketch map of the Battle of Uitkomst in the Generalstab history, nor in any other German account that I have found. The maps, below, are conjectural and based on my own research and interpretation of contemporary German sources. Most of these agree that the Boer farm Uitkomst was located some 18 km West of Grootfontein, but a review of actual farm maps, including an original 1910 German Colonial 1:400,000 map for Grootfontein, confirms that it was situated to the southwest along the wagon road to Otavi.
|Conjectural Battle of Uitkomst General Location and Terrain|
Several accounts of the battle describe the transition from dense thornveld to open savannah between Uitkomst and Grootfontein. J. Conrad Rust notes that it took the Boer families from Uitkomst and their escorts 3 hours to reach the open grass savannah (freie Grassavanne) after they left the farm early that morning with their livestock and slow moving ox wagons. These savannah lands extended from the point where Rohrbach says Volkmann's force first saw the Herero (on the road 3.2 km from Uitkomst) to a distance of hour's ride (6.4 km) from Grootfontein. That open grassland description may well be a relative term, with enough patches of acacia thorn and high grass during the rainy season to obscure the view and allowing Volkmann to achieve surprise when he charged the Hereros on the road. It is not clear whether Volkmann was to the left or right of the road when he made first contact, though the direction of the battle evolved in a westerly direction.
|Conjectural 1st positions of Herero and German/Boer forces at Uitkomst|
Sequence of Events: An analysis of the German source material reveals several discernible episodes in the the Battle of Uitkomst, some of which according to Rohrbach's firsthand recollections unfolded somewhat differently than the summary report provided in secondary sources such as the Generalstab history or Leutewein's memoir. The three main combat phases also illustrate the tactics and fighting styles of one or more of the three combatant groups: Boers, Hereros and Germans.
The battle began with Oberleutnant Volkmann's mixed column of soldiers, reservists, war volunteers and Boers charging on horseback and surprising Mbatona's Herero forces that were out in the open and moving up the road toward them from Uitkomst. The Hereros immediately dispersed and withdrew back into cover. Any Herero casualties at this stage would have been stragglers on foot. Volkmann's force dismounted after entering the thorns. I refer to this phase at Volkmann's Charge and describe how it reflects the Boer way of war.
Having rallied and reconcealed in the dense thornveld, the Herero now opened a sharp but ineffective
and Volkmann returned fire at a distance of about 100 meters. I refer to this phase as Herero Reconcealment and Schnellfeuer and discuss how it demonstrates Herero tactics and use of cover that would become all too familiar to their German adversaries as the war progressed.
Realizing that little was being accomplished, Volkmann remounted and personally lead his still dismounted force forward to engage the center of the Herero position, pierced their line and engaging the two divided wings. It was during this phase that the Germans sustained most if not all of their casualties, and the Hereros most of theirs. I refer to this phase as Volkmann Pierces the Herero Center and Engages in Close Combat and discuss what it reveals about German officer leadership and combat styles during this conflict.
Following this episode, the Hereros broke contact and withdrew westward towards the Otavi Mountains. They did so initially in good order, but then were put to flight. I maintain, based based on Rohrbach's account of where casualties were found, that the Hereros lost their senior commanders as they began to withdraw, which caused them to lose morale. Because of the dense cover and his own casualties, Volkmann did not pursue and was unable to follow up the rout. I discuss this final phase under the heading: The Hereros Break Contact and Lose their Command Leadership, followed by an examination of the overall casualties taken on both sides.
Volkmann's Charge (The Boer Way of War):
I characterize Volkmann's charge as typical of the Boer way of war rather than the German, because while it had the impetuosity and aggression of the German fighting style, it culminated with the riders dismounting without entering close combat, then firing from cover at some distance from their concealed enemies. Participant Rohrbach says that the Boers were the first to dismount and fight on foot at the end of the charge, and offers his own observations on Boer tactics and its limitations in achieving a conclusive victory.
"Mir ist der Kampf heute sehr lehrreich gewesen für die Beurteilung der Buren. Das heranjagen an den Feind zu Pferde, dann Abspringen und Schießen ist ihre alte Taktik, die vir von ihnen angenommen haben, aber wären sie nicht in Volkmanns hand unter sester deutsch-militärischer Führung Gefechts-disziplin gewesen, so hätte sich sehr wahrscheinlich eine Große Schießerei, aus beiden Seiten ohne ernsthaste Resultate, hinter sast undurchsichtiger Deckung entwickeit; wenig oder gar keine Verluste und nicht entsernt ein solcher Schlag für die Hereros, wie er jetzt gefallen ist. (Rohrbach 1909: 82)
"To me the fight today has been very instructive for assessing the Boers. The 'zoomhunt' after the enemies on horseback, then springing off and shooting is their old tactic, which we have adopted from them, but were they not under tight German military leadership and battle discipline under Volkmann’s hand, there would very likely have developed a great shootout from both sides without serious results, behind almost opaque cover; little or no loss and not such a distant blow for the Hereros as has now fallen." [my translation]
Indeed, for most of the ensuing conflict with the Hereros, the Germans fought Boer fashion as mounted infantry. Volkmann may have intended to overrun the Herero column, and his charge was certainly recorded that way in the Generalstab history, but it resulted not in close combat but with the column dismounting and engaing in a sharp firefight from cover against a concealed enemy - classic Boer tactics.
Rohrbach describes the charge itself as having been launched very suddenly once Volkmann recognized the enemy was before them, without even time for the Germans and Boers to display into combat formation from column into line.
"Mit einem Male fliegen vorne die Gewehre aus dem rechts am Sattel hängenden Gewehrschuh, und die Spitze, wo Volkmann und ein Bur reiten, setzt sich sausende karriere - wir andern nach...die ganze kavalcade verschiebt sich in wenigen Augenblicken nach der Schnelligkeit der Pferde von vorne nach hinten und umgekehrt, aber in kaum zwei Minuten sind die Hereros gestellt." - (Rohrback 1909:80)
"All of a sudden forward flew the rifles from their gun shoes hanging at the right side of the saddle, and the advance guard [Spitze], where Volkmann and one boer rode, set off in a whipping career – we others followed...From the rapidity of the horses it looked as if the whole cavalcade moved from back to front and vice versa in a few blinks of an eye, but in less than two minutes we found the Hereros." [my translation]
|Volkmann's charge direction and Herero dispersal directions general and conjectural|
The distance between the German/Boer column and the advancing Herero was not close when Volkmann charged. A galloping horse can travel a mile in two minutes, though Volkmann was probably closer than that when he launched his attack. He may have felt that the element of surprise would be lost if the Herero came closer, which suggests that Volkmann's mounted force was not in particularly good cover. Quite possibly they were out in the savannah grasslands where there were scattered acacia thorns rather than the dense thornveld from which the Herero force had just emerged.
The German accounts suggest varying distances between the combatants when Volkmann began his charge, but are in general agreement about the distance between them once Volkmann dismounted and the Hereros rallied under cover of the thorns. Rust says: "Volkmann struck a sharp gallop, which brought them from 50 to 60 steps to the enemy." The Generalstab history says Volkmann was 100 meters from the Hereros when they made contact, but this seems in error given the length of time (less than 2 minutes) that participant Rohrbach estimates it took the galloping column to reach the Hereros on the road. This 100 meter figure may to may refer to the distance between the two forces after Volkmann charged, as the same figure is given by Rohrbach for that distance once the riders dismounted.
Herero Reconcealment and Schnellfeuer (The Herero Way of War): The Herero reaction was immediate. The Generalstab history describes them fleeing for cover, with those on horseback escaping while some on foot were ridden down. This may have happened to a small number of stragglers, but the Herero on the whole did not flee in panic, and even the official history notes they soon rallied and returned a rapid fire from concealment.
Rohrbach recalls; "Im Augenblick, als sie uns erblickten, machten die Schwarzen Kehrt, um Deckung in Busch zu gewinnen; kaum steckten sie drin, so waren auf wir heran. Die Biuren sprangen ab, das Feuer-gefecht began gleich von beiden Seiten mit hestigkeit, aber wahrscheinlich wäre nicht sehrt viel dabei herausgekommen, denn wenn auch die Entfernung zwischen uns nur ca. 100 Meter betrug, so saßen doch beide Teile so in Deckung gegen Sicht, daß man sich nur schwer erblicken konnte; die Hereros waren dabei entschieden besser placiert. (Rohrbach 1909:80)"
"The moment they saw us, the [enemy] turned around and gained the cover of the bush. Just as soon as they went in, we rushed after them. The Boers leaped from the saddle, the fire fight began on equal sides with vehemence, but probably not very much came of it, for while the distance between us was about 100 meters, even so both sides were so covered from view that one could only see with difficulty; the Hereros were decided better placed. [translation mine]."
Rohrbach recalls dismounting the moment the Hereros returned fire; "Als die ersten schusse knallten, waren auch wir von den pferden (Rohrbach 1908:242)." Like the Boers, the Herero fighters were adept at fighting from concealed positions and making use of natural cover. They neutralized the advantage over charging cavalry against troops in the open by reconcealing in the dense thornfeld from which they had only just emerged. The Generalstab history says that the Hereros rallied when they reached a bush clearing (buschlichtung), which is contradicted by Rohrbach's participant description of being fired upon from dense cover.
The Generalstab history speaks of Schnellfeuer or rapid fire that the sixty or so Hereros armed with Martini Henrys or German rifles brought to bear on Volkmann's dismounted force. Such fast and heavy shooting was a Herero tactic frequently described by Germans who experienced it during the war, and while it might not have been especially accurate, as suppressing fire it sometimes forced an enemy to hold in place rather than advance and engage in close combat. This could have been the effect of Schnellfeurer at Uitkomst, and is probably what both the Hereros and the Boers(themselves excellent markmen) expected, but Volkmann had other ideas.
Volkmann Pierces the Herero Center and Engages in Close Combat (The German Way of War):
|Volkmann (on horseback) leads his dismounted force to engage in close combat with the Herero center|
Rohrbach, on the other hand, says that Volkmann remounted and then personally lead his (probably still dismounted) men forward because firing at distance at their concealed enemy was not having much effect. Rust says that Volkmann was excellent and showed great personal courage and intrepidity. The Lieutenant had already demonstrated that he was an aggressive commander, willing without hesitation to surprise the enemy out in the open with a charge on horseback without even delaying to assume a combat formation by changing from column into line. Here he realized that the only way to prevail was to engage Mbatona's center in close combat, and that he needed to inspire his mixed force, including war volunteers with little or no prior military experience, and Boers who had a very different way of war. By riding forward, his personal courage motivated his dismounted men to follow, even in the face of heavy fire from an unseen foe, and even though it meant they were likely to take casualties.
There are other examples from the German-Herero war where German officers displayed great personal courage and inspired their men to follow their example. Hauptmann Victor Franke of the 2nd Feldkompanie did so two weeks after Uitkomst at Omaruru, wearing a white tropical uniform, no less. Franke's men, though, were all veteran soldiers and all had the feared Schutztruppe bayonet that made them so feared and effective in melee. Volkmann had just a handful of regular Schutztruppen augmented by reservists who may have been armed with bayonets, but the Boers and civilian volunteers like Rohrbach most likely were not. Possibly as many as one in four of his men would have been detailed as horse-holders, reducing the number of men who could follow their leader into close combat to as few as sixteen.
Volkmann's gambit enabled his men to pierce and pass through the Herero center and then fire on the divided left and right wings of Mbatona's force. There was a brief period of intense fighting at close range and while Volkmann himself was unscathed, the Germans and boers took casualties, but so did the Hereros.
The Hereros Break Contact and Lose their Command Leadership: The Hereros started to break contact in the face of the German advance. Their losses were mounting, and the fight was no longer on terms favorable to their tactics or prior experience attacking small farmsteads with few defenders. Some may have disengaged on their own, while others may have been ordered to fall back by their commanders, including Mbatona and the unnamed Herero war captain from Okahandja with the white ostrich feather in his hat. Possibly some of their leaders were hit during this decisive part of the engagement - certainly several of them had fallen by the time the withdrawal became precipitous. Rohrbach gives several reasons why Volkmann did not try to pursue them after they broke contact and headed off in the direction of the Otavi mountains to the West, including the impenetrable bush, the clear evidence that they had killed and wounded many of the enemy, and the uncertain number of their own losses.
Casualties: Rust's history given the most detail about the casualties in Volkmann's force, though some of the telegrams sent back to Germany the following month provide other interesting details about the men who were shot. Aside from Volkmann, Rohrbach and the boer Osthuizen who rode with the German Spitze, the other names of confirmed participants on the German side come from the list of casualties.
Unteroffizier Stadler had his leg shattered by gunfire and bled to death later that evening. Gefreiter d. Reserve Hart Schmiedel, the farmer from Gunuchas, was grazed by a bullet and shot in the hand. Two landwehrmen were also wounded. Hermann Nitzsche, identified as a carpenter, was shot twice in the abdomen and according to Rust was with the horses when it happened. Seven horses were also killed. Wilhelm Halberstadt, a mason or builder who had recently come to Grootfontein from Windhoek, was also wounded. Finally, one of the Boers named Duplessis was shot through the lung. The men were brought back to Grootfontein and cared for by Sanitäts-Feldwebel Ragnitz. If Volkmann's force began with about 20 men, the short but fierce fighting at Uitkomst cause it 25% casualties and the loss of at least a third of their mounts.
The Herero losses were comparable in proportion to their total number, but the impact was greater. The Generalstab history says that "seven great men" and numerous fighters were killed, while Leutwein says that "Batona" and six Herero leaders were slain. Rust says that both "Batonna" and the Schlachten-General from Okahandja were among the fallen, with 20 more fighters killed and bloodspoor indicating numerous wounded. Rohrbach describes the Herero casualties with slight variations in his later published accounts. His 1908 article"Bei Utikomst" in Deutsche Deiter in Südwest says there were 23 Herero fighters slain "on the battlefield" and that later six or seven more were found dead in the bush, including Mbatona, the "fechtgeneral" with the white feather, and a third leader, Kamaihamagoani of Waterberg. This seems to indicate that these Herero commanders were killed during the retreat. Several horses were also captures, and many rifles and ammunition. If the Herero lost 23 fighters, they may well have lost a third of their firearms as well.
We will discuss the aftermath of the battle, and the fate of some of its participants, in the next post in this series on the Battle of Uitkomst.