Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Twas the Weihnachten before Uitkomst: What a Forgotten Photograph May Reveal (The Battle of Uitkomst Part IX)

Photo by Paul Rohrbach in his "Drei afrikanische Weihnachten" published in St. Niclas, Illustrierte Deutsche, Eine Deutsche Weihnachtsgabe 1912, pg 48.
Paul Rohrbach, the Settlement Commissioner for German Southwest Africa, happened to be touring the Grootfontein District in the weeks leading up to the outbreak of hostilities with the Herero.  His diary and several of his other written accounts have been indispensable to my research on Battle of Uitkomst, in which he served as a war volunteer.  Rohrbach was a prolific writer who possessed great enthusiasm for the colonial effort,  and I keep finding more of his work - always in German and sometimes in the most unexpected publications - that has bearing on my research.

The above photograph appeared in, of all places, St. Niclas: Eine Deutsche Weihnachtsgabe: a Christmas book for children published in 1912.  Princeton University has the only library copy in the United States and Google Books has helpfully scanned it.  The image was included at the very beginning of an submission by Rohrbach entitled "Drei africanishe Weihnachten" [Three African Christmas's] and right below the heading: "1. Grootfontein 1903". 

I believe that Rohrbach's photograph shows most of the Schutztruppen who were at the Grootfontein garrison at Christmas in December, 1903.  I believe that some of these same men in the image fought at Uitkomst, and that one of them is almost certainly Oberlt. Richard Volkmann.  The image is too pixelated from scanning to be absolutely positive about the others, but there are hints that suggest the identities of one or two more.  As such, it is an extremely significant piece of documentation for this otherwise obscure colonial skirmish in a forgotten corner of Africa.

The evidence that supports my conclusions is as follows:

The terrain in the background is the southeastern flank of the Otavi Mountains as viewed from Grootfontein.  I recognize the profile of the mountain in the far left, which happens to be just to the north of the farm Uitkomst (18km distant), from my time spent living in the Grootfontein area in 1991.

The man seated at the far left must be Oberlt. Richard Volkmann.  He has the body type,
nose and facial hair that correspond to four other photographic portraits of Volkmann, including this one (at right) taken after his promotion in 1905 to Hauptmann's rank.  Not only that, but a very close examination of his right shoulder board indicates an Oberleutnant's single pip.  Aside from the district veterinarian, Dr. Wilhelm T. Hoerauf (Hörauf); Volkmann was the only officer at Grootfontein.   Even in an informal portrait with his men, his position at the table and orientation directly toward the camera further reenforce a command presence.

Volkmann and some of the other men in this image wear the 1896 khaki (feldrock) uniform and the feldmutz cap rather than the classic cocked Südwester.  The man immediately to Volkmann's left might be veterinarian Hoerauf.  His position next to Volkmann would make sense if they are seated by rank.  The man to his left could be Sanitäts-Feldwebel [Medical Sergeant] Ragnitz, who also served as the District postal officer. His collar looks as if it were the dark blue cloth of the medical branch. 

It will require further study of a better resolution image of this photograph to pursue the identities of these two men further, as well as to confirm other details such as whether the man with the blonde beard and
Südwester standing on the right has the "swallows nests" of a musician on his shoulders.  The only word I have been able to decipher that appears on either of the two signs in the image is Zelt [tent] on the tent pole sign.  Nonetheless, it seems very likely that some of the enlisted men in this image, representing a large percentage of the available Schutztruppen garrisoned at Grootfontein at this time, are the same soldiers who fought at Uitkomst barely three weeks after this picture was taken.

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